By Jerran Jackson and Lareesa Jackson
“Eighty and six years I have served Him, and never has He done me wrong. How can I ever blaspheme my King who saved me?”1
Around AD 150, Polycarp of Smyrna gave this bold testimony of his faith before he was executed. The official who judged Polycarp’s case tried to convince the old man to swear by Caesar to avoid being burned at the stake. Polycarp could simply have said the words. He could have escaped persecution and a gruesome death. However, Polycarp would not. The reason was faithfulness—Christ had been faithful to Polycarp, and he wanted to be faithful to Christ.
Jesus warned, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Paul echoed, “When we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted” (1 Thessalonians 3:4).
Opposition to your faith will come. How would you like to respond? You can fear it. You can retreat from it. You can give in to it. Or, like Polycarp, you can stand with Christ.
Down through the centuries, believers have responded with holy boldness.2 They have seen opposition as an opportunity to witness about Jesus. While the apostle Paul was in Ephesus, he faced resistance to the gospel, and he responded with enthusiastic evangelism. He wrote, “A great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me (1 Corinthians 16:9).
Opposition and opportunity stood together for Paul, and they often still do. Here are some accounts of Jesus followers from the past whose examples may inspire you toward holy boldness.
Justin Martyr acquired the title “Martyr” because of his witness to the truth. Writing from Rome in about AD 155, Justin publicly defended the moral and spiritual value of Christianity to his pagan culture. He let it be known he was devoted to Christ, not to the empire’s gods. His faith was viewed as rebellion and was punishable by death.
With full knowledge of the consequences, Justin wrote, “It is necessary for the friend of the truth, beyond his own existence, even if death is threatened, to say and to do what is right.”3 Later, when Justin was put on trial and required to sacrifice to the Roman gods, he said he would not leave reverence for irreverence.
Rusticus, the prefect, had Justin and his friends flogged and beheaded. They accepted this fate, because they were pursuing a higher goal than staying alive. They had prepared themselves to remain faithful to Christ.
Your faithfulness may not result in a death sentence, but you will be judged by people because of your commitment to Christ. The temptation will be to shrink back, to remain silent, or to distance yourself from Jesus for a while. You need to face this temptation before it hits.
This was a key to the strength of these early Christians. They foresaw the challenge, anticipated the test, and prepared their spirits. You may not know what form opposition to your faithfulness will take. It might be a government official; it might be another Christian. You may not know what the issue will be: abortion, a tradition in your church, immigration, or an interpretation of Scripture. Nevertheless, you can be sure that your faith and practice as a Christian will be tested.
How do you want to respond?
You can think now about how you want to represent Christ. You can look to the example set by other people of faith, and to how Jesus himself responded when he was challenged. The early Christians prepared themselves for what might come. Then when opposition arose, these believers were ready to “be faithful, even to the point of death” (Revelation 2:10). When they were condemned, their common response was, “Thanks be to God,” because they had won a victory.
Stand on God’s Word
Not every anti-Christian pressure came in the form of death threats. Early in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine sent a message to Athanasius, the young leader of the churches in Egypt and Libya. Constantine told Athanasius to accept everyone who wanted to be part of the church.
Athanasius knew this meant accepting people as Christians who believed Jesus was created, not eternal, and not fully God. Athanasius had studied this issue carefully. He knew what the Bible said, and he knew the implications of just getting along with people in power.
Athanasius saw that the emperor was trying to take control of the church. He told Constantine there could be no communion between the church and those who were fighting against Christ. This began a tug-of-war between Athanasius, a young church leader, and the emperor, who was a hundred times more powerful than our president.
In the following years, Athanasius spent more time in exile than he did in his home. Still, he stood firm on Scripture. Athanasius held tenaciously to God’s Word and continued to preach the divinity of Christ despite imperial pressure to conform.
Another believer who boldly proclaimed Scripture was Jan Hus, who lived in the 14th century. He became a preacher, but he increasingly realized that church practices and teachings were not in line with Scripture. He began speaking out against the sale of indulgences. These were supposedly for the forgiveness of sins, but actually were for the pope’s Crusade expenses.
Hus condemned the Crusades and taught that followers of Christ did not have the right to bear the sword in the name of the church. He also spoke out against the belief that the church is made up of priests and bishops with the pope as the head. Instead, Hus taught that Christ is the head of the church and the body is made up of all who accept the gift of salvation.
These declarations angered the political and religious leaders. They attacked Hus and demanded that he recant his beliefs. He responded, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”4
Hus was willing to be disproved if the church leaders would show him his error through Scripture, not simply by the weight of their authority. They could not. This humble defiance earned Hus a death sentence; he was to be burned at the stake.
Before the fires were lit, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.”⁵
Follow the Lord
You may not foresee what questions will test you; the issues may not have surfaced yet. This was the case with Martin Luther. This year celebrates five centuries since Luther proposed a discussion that led to a theological, political, and spiritual revolution. Luther had no intention of upsetting the applecart; he just wanted to remove a few rotten apples.
Like Hus, Luther wanted to get rid of the idea that people could purchase forgiveness. As he contradicted this practice, Luther found it was only the tip of the iceberg. The Roman Catholic Church was following a whole host of unbiblical beliefs and practices.
Luther found himself on a journey that included opposition by government leaders, opposition by church leaders, death threats, being tried and condemned by the emperor, being kidnapped, translating the Bible, leading a movement, watching it fail, enduring depression, getting married, counseling kings, and searching for more truth. Throughout, Luther attempted to follow Jesus.
No one does this perfectly, but going where God leads is part of holy boldness.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, William Carey, Søren Kierkegaard, and many others traveled this same path. Carey saw a world in need and listened to Christ’s call to evangelize the nations. Following the Lord, Carey blazed a trail by promoting world missions and by becoming a missionary to India.
Church leaders opposed him. Government-run trading companies opposed him. Native people opposed him. Nevertheless, Carey followed the Lord and ignited the modern missionary movement.
Kierkegaard found lifeless churches and empty-hearted church members. Faith was merely accepting logical propositions. The church was simply a tool of the culture. The Holy Spirit was completely absent and unwelcome in Christendom.
Kierkegaard, along with men like Philipp Jakob Spener, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards preached, taught, and lived a Christianity in which the Holy Spirit was active. These people endured opposition from church leaders and church members who preferred the status quo. Following the Lord meant doing things differently, and many church regulars clashed with them.
Not everything these men believed and taught was biblical, but they boldly sought the holiness of Christ’s body and endured opposition because of it. Yet God’s Spirit spread from these men’s efforts and sparked revival.
Also in the 19th century, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone met with ridicule and vitriol for trying to restore New Testament Christianity. Their rejection of human creeds and divisive denominational practices pitted these men against every known Christian group.
Campbell, Stone, and others attempted to follow the Lord without man-made traditions. This journey led them to some radical conclusions about how to interpret Scripture, how people come into God’s kingdom, and how the church is organized. They endured attacks, yet they held tightly to the Lord and his Word. They determined to trust Jesus and the apostles over church leaders.
The examples of these believers give us guidance on how to face opposition. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus warned (John 16:33). Those who expect pressure can anticipate and prepare for it.
Learning about the devotion of followers of Jesus down through history can encourage you. A regular practice of prayer can strengthen you. Your own Scripture reading and careful study will help you stand on God’s Word rather than drift with the cultural tide. Jesus promised, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11, 12).
Before you face opposition, though, you can prepare to remain faithful to the Lord. You can pursue a holy boldness that is willing to trust Jesus even when you are under pressure.
1“Letter to the Smyrnaeans on the Martyrdom of Polycarp,” The Apostolic Fathers, section 9, author’s translation.
2Many women also have demonstrated holy boldness throughout the centuries. See “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas,” trans. R. E. Wallis, accessed January 6, 2017, www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.vi.vi.i.html. See also Eusebius’s Book 8 in Paul L. Maier, Eusebius, The Church History: A New Translation with Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999), 289–315.
3Justin Martyr, First Apology, section 2, author’s translation.
4Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000), Kindle Edition, 371.
5Galli and Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 371.
Jerran Jackson and Lareesa Jackson are a father-daughter writing team who love to talk with people about what God is doing in our world and in our lives. Jerran serves as minister with Clarksburg (Indiana) Christian Church.