Fear of God: Persecution

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying… (Luk 12:1a)

To interpret words and phrases in Scripture correctly we should view them in the context in which they are written. In the first part of our study the opening text was our Lord's words from Luk 12:4–5. In this final part we are going to look at those words in their context. We'll start at the beginning of the chapter.


V1a tells us that a crowd of many thousands had gathered to hear Jesus. Think about that. Why had so many come to hear him? I believe they'd come because the Holy Spirit had drawn them to him.

Reading those words reminds me of some of the accounts I've read of the Wesleyan revival, a spiritual revival that swept through the UK in the mid-eighteenth century.

Sometimes Wesley and Whitefield, two of the leading preachers, preached to small groups, as Jesus did; other times they preached in the open air to vast crowds, as Jesus did. Sometimes the crowds numbered many thousands.

On one occasion George Whitefield preached to a crowd of ten thousand at Kingswood in Bristol. He wrote in his journal that the Lord enabled him to preach for an hour with such power, and so loudly, that all could hear him.

Ten thousand people could hear one man preaching without a public address system. I'm sure it must have been the same for Jesus when he preached to large crowds, because the same Holy Spirit who empowered John Wesley and George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, had empowered their Lord in the first century.


A crowd of many thousands had gathered to hear Jesus, but before he addressed them he spoke to his disciples:

'Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.' (Luk 12:1b)

With only two exceptions yeast, in the Bible, is used to symbolize sin, because sin can spread through a group of people as they follow each other's example, as yeast spreads through a batch of dough.

Isaiah said:

'We all, like sheep, have gone astray.' (Isa 53:6)

Sheep tend to follow each other. If one goes astray, they can all go astray. That is why Paul told the church at Corinth to expel the immoral brother from among them (1Co 5:1,6,13).

Israel was told to eat bread made without yeast at the Passover meal on the night they left Egypt (Exo 12:8) because yeast represented the sin God wanted them to remove from their lives. Likewise Jesus warned his disciples to be on their guard against the yeast (sin) of the Pharisees, which was hypocrisy.

Jesus criticized the leaders of Israel for their hypocrisy more than anything else.

'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!' (Mat 23:13a)

Jesus repeated those words over and over again in Mat 23. Suffice to say that our Lord detests hypocrisy and told his disciples to guard themselves against it. Hypocrisy is advocating moral standards that we don't live up to ourselves.

The Pharisees and teachers of the Law preached righteousness but didn't practise it (Mat 23:1–3). Jesus said they were like whitewashed tombs which looked beautiful on the outside but inside were full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean (Mat 23:27–8).

That is a warning to Christians, but especially to church leaders (Jam 3:1). If we instruct others how to live we must ensure our own lives reflect our teaching otherwise we, too, will be hypocrites.

Everything hidden will be exposed

'There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.' (Luk 12:2–3)

Those words are not only true generally—that the sins of all mankind will one day be disclosed—they are especially true in respect to hypocrisy. On that day everything that has been hidden by hypocrisy will be made known. A Christian can pretend to be a moral person, but have secret sins. One day those sins will be uncovered and laid bare:

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb 4:13)


'I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed [lit after he has killed], has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.' (Luk 12:4–6)

Jesus was speaking about persecution and martyrdom. Christians who suffer for their faith can feel that God has forsaken or forgotten them, but that is not so. He will never forsake us (Heb 13:5–6), providing we don't forsake him (2Ch 15:1–2).

When Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah he was afraid and ran for his life (1Ki 19:1–3a). Elijah had sunk to a spiritual low; he was a shadow of the man who had stood against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah at Mount Carmel (1Ki 18:16–40). But God hadn't forgotten him; he knew exactly where he was.

Elijah fled to the desert, travelled for forty days and nights until he reached the mountain of God and went into a cave. And the word of the Lord came to him: 'What are you doing here, Elijah (1Ki 19:3b–9)?' God sees everything and knows where we are (Psa 139:7–10). Even if we feel he has left us, he hasn't, and he never will (Mat 28:20b).

'Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.' (Luk 12:7a)

God knows things about us that we don't know ourselves. Do we know how many hairs we have on our head? God knows. He knows everything about us, and he cares for us (1Pe 5:7).

'Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.' (Luk 12:7b)

Don't be afraid of those who persecute you. If God doesn't forget the sparrows, then he won't forget you. Did God send his Son to die for sparrows? No, he sent him to die for us because he loves us so much. We are worth far more to God than sparrows.

Pro 29:25 says that if we fear people it will prove to be a snare to us (Hebrew noose, snare, trap). We mustn't fear people, we must only fear God.

Acknowledging Jesus Christ

'I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.' (Luk 12:8–9)

Or as Jesus said on another occasion:

'Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.' (Mat 10:32–3)

We are more likely to disown our Lord when faced with persecution, but Jesus made it clear that if we deny knowledge of him at any time he will deny knowledge of us. I don't have to emphasize the seriousness of that truth. Because of that many Christians have gone to their deaths rather than disown the Lord.

I recently learned of a Christian who had been beheaded in Afghanistan because he refused to renounce his faith. When I heard that news I imagined myself in those circumstances. 'Don't fear those who can only kill your body,' said Jesus… 'fear God!'

Blasphemy against the Spirit

'And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.' (Luk 12:10)

Jesus may have been referring to those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit under the stress of persecution, but blasphemy against the Spirit, under any circumstances, is unforgivable.


'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.' (Luk 12:11–2)

If we are brought before courts or authorities because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we are not to worry about what we should say, because the Holy Spirit will give us the words when we need them. That shows that our Lord will be with us if, and when, we are persecuted.

Going back to martyrdom: what would we have done if, like our brother in Afghanistan, we'd been told to disown Jesus Christ or die? I think that the grace of God would be given to us at that time. If the Holy Spirit will teach us what to say when we need to speak, I believe he will also enable us to say it, even in the face of death.

You probably don't think you could die for your faith because, in the natural, you couldn't (I certainly couldn't). But when the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit comes upon us we could, because it wouldn't be us anymore, it would be God empowering us.

Peter disowned the Lord three times on the eve of his crucifixion and went outside and wept bitterly (Mat 26:69–75); he didn't want to deny the one he loved. He had told the Lord that if all the others fell away he never would (Mat 26:33), but when he was tested, he failed.

Why did he fail? He failed because he was relying on his own strength. The Holy Spirit wasn't given to the disciples (they weren't born again) until after our Lord's crucifixion (Joh 7:39;20:19–22). That was separate to the baptism of the Spirit, which took place later (Act 1:4–5;2:1–4).

Jesus allowed Peter to see how weak he was in his natural self. He later died for his faith, as Jesus had predicted (Joh 21:18–9), but only after he'd been clothed with power from on high (Luk 24:49).

Perfect in weakness

Paul said that he would gladly boast about his weaknesses so that Christ's power would rest on him, because when he was weak, then he was strong (2Co 12:9b–10). The Lord told Paul that his grace was sufficient for him, for his power is made perfect in weakness (2Co 12:9a).

It's impossible to live the life God wants us to live in our own strength or power. What we cannot do in our natural selves, God does through us so that the glory goes to him. God is glorified by using weak vessels.

Not every Christian will have to die for their faith, but it's happened in the past, it's happening now, and it will happen in the future (Rev 13:7–10). The important thing to remember is that if we are persecuted for our faith we must only fear God and not man.

Michael Graham
January 2005
Revised January 2021

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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