The lions roared as the crowds yelled and screamed. Eager for the executions to be finished so the games could begin, the masses laughed and jeered as the great cats tore apart their victims, traitors to the empire who dared to believe there was a higher power than Caesar, religious zealots who refused to deny their God even in the face of death. The ragged edges of limbs lay dripping blood on the sand while the wretches from whom they had been ripped cried out in agony until the lions attacked again.
More than a century earlier, the first Christian martyr was killed in a much more personal way. Stephen stood his ground, asking God to forgive his attackers as they hurled stones at him, bruising, piercing and battering him until he finally died. Those who stoned Stephen placed their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, whose presence legitimized their mob violence, a man who agreed so much with their visceral rage at the Jesus-follower that Saul obtained authorization to arrest and imprison other Jesus-followers. Those imprisoned would likely be convicted of blasphemy and killed like Stephen.
Where was Jesus when his followers were persecuted, mistreated and murdered? Where was the Savior who had healed the sick, raised the dead, and commanded the forces of nature? Where was the man who had inspired such devotion by being crucified himself and then rising from the dead?
In Acts chapter 9, Jesus finally confronts Saul about persecuting his followers. How does he identify himself? "I am Jesus the one you are persecuting." (Acts 9:5, NIV)
Every time Jesus' followers were persecuted, every time they were stoned, crucified or thrown to the lions, he was there with them, experiencing every hurt they experienced, identifying with them, standing with them in their pain. When a Christian is persecuted, Jesus himself takes on their hurts and pains. Never does a believer face persecution or hardship without Jesus at his side. Never does Jesus allow his people to suffer alone. Like the big brother stepping up to his younger sibling's bully, Jesus declares, "When you mess with my people, you mess with me."
If we are to be like Jesus, shouldn't we stand with his followers who are being persecuted? Shouldn't we identify with them, encourage them, and do what we can to end their mistreatment? Jesus gave us the example to follow. Are we strong enough to follow him?