In their basic physical sense , the verbs translated as "persecute" in the Bible mean “chase” or “pursue,” and that fits the context quite naturally. As Pharaoh “pursued” (LXX, dioko; Heb. radaph) Israel into the wilderness, for example, so the dragon chases the woman back to her place in the wilderness (Revelation 12).
There is an overtone of “persecution,” especially when we consider the historical referent of the vision of Revelation 12. The dragon’s pursuit of the woman is a post-ascension, post-Pentecost assault on the mother of Jesus, Israel. It is most specifically a reference to the persecution of the church by Herod. Herod the Great is the historical agent of the dragon’s initial assault on the child, and another Herod attacks the church by killing James (Acts 12). Stephen’s martyrdom is also in view, a Satanic assault on the “mother,” the Jewish church, that led to a dispersal and flight from Jerusalem.
Even here, the literal physical force of the word is not lost. The specific form that persecution takes is pursuit, and Saul, like his namesake from the tribe of Benjamin, is the great persecutor/pursuer in this regard. He not only makes life difficult for Christians but literally chases them from city to city (Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6; cf. Matthew 23:34). Taking the physical connotations of the word into account stretches out the significance of “persecution” and opens up fresh angles on the biblical teaching concerning it.
We may start with the role that “pursuit” plays in the curses of the covenant in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. So long as Israel is faithful, she will “pursue” her enemies, five Israelites scattering a hundred (Leviticus 26:7-8). If Israel should turn from Yahweh, however, the direction and proportions will be reversed: Israel will flee when no one is pursuing, a proportion of 0 to a thousand (Leviticus 26:17, 36-37). The curses themselves will pursue Israel until they are destroyed (Deuteronomy 28:45). Whatever the direction, pursuit and flight go together. For Israel to be pursued, and for Israel to flee, are considered curses. When Yahweh is blessing, Israel does not need to flee because her pursuers will be undone (as at the exodus).
With the rise of the kingdom, though, comes a notion of the pursuit or persecution of the righteous. Saul “pursues” (radaph) David (1 Samuel 23:25, 28; 24:14; 25:29; etc.). Throughout the Psalms, David complains about enemies pursuing Him, and calls on Yahweh for deliverance (7:5; 31:15; 34:14; 35:3; 119:157, 161; 142:6; 143:3). He frequently protests his innocence, as does Job when his friends begin to pursue him and Jeremiah in the face of his persecutors. Still, being pursued, being forced to flee, is a curse from which David seeks a way of escape.
It is a remarkable innovation, then, when Jesus instructs His disciples to “rejoice” and “be glad” when they are pursued (Matthew 5:10-12). It is not an accident that pursuit/persecution arises with the announcement of the kingdom. A new David has arrived, so of course the pursuit of the righteous will begin again. But the response has shifted, and it has shifted because of the earlier link between pursuit and righteousness. It is because David and the prophets have been persecuted that persecution becomes an occasion for rejoicing. Instead of being a sign of covenant curse, it has become a sign of covenant inclusion, the mark of those who follow the persecuted, pursued son of David (cf. John 15:20).
Jesus’ practical instructions to His persecuted disciples are somewhat less innovative, but still alarming. Instead of standing ground, Jesus instructs His disciples to act the part of David when he was pursued by Saul: “whenever they pursue you in one city, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23). This is not wholly different from the practice of David, who fled from Saul, and asked Yahweh to intervene to save. The disciples flee from city to city, knowing that the Son of Man will come to judge before they run out of cities to flee to (Matthew 10:23).
Still, what was once the “way” of cursing has become the “way” of blessing, as the church’s enemies push disciples into the “way” of Jesus. And so disciples rejoice, because their enemies inadvertently give them a share in the sufferings of Christ.
Saul becomes the great exemplar of this shift. As he repeatedly mentions, he pursued the way (Acts 22:4), pursued Christ Himself, pursued Him to the death (Acts 22:7-8; 26:11, 14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6; dioko is used eight times in Acts, seven of them references to Paul’s persecution of the church). It was not enough to kill Jesus once; Saul wanted to kill him twice, to pin his body to the tree. In this, Saul was following the way of the fathers, who “pursued” all the prophets (Acts 7:5).
Saul’s transfiguration into Saul was a change from persecutor into persecuted, pursuer to pursued, from hunter into prey (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:12; 2 Corinthians 4:9). He changes from one of those who persecuted David to one of David’s ambassadors; he shifts from being one who pursues to one who flees. Leaving the way of the fathers meant leaving the way of pursuit, and entering the Way of Jesus – a Way he was already “pursuing” when his name was Saul.
In the old Israel, pursuit of enemies was the mark of blessing; flight was a sign of being under judgment. For the new Israel of Jesus, this has been turned around. Not the pursuers but the pursued inherit the kingdom, and wait for great rewards from heaven (Matthew 5:12). Flight, not pursuit, has become the mark of the Father’s blessing.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.
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