Just before Jesus ascended to heaven He said to His disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
When the Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost the witnessing began; and soon the high priest declared “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28). But then the juvenile church stuttered to a halt, comfortable to bunker up in the Holy City.
Yet God, while the church stalled, through providence – “the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation which he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it” (Erickson 1988:387) – laboured.
400 years earlier Alexander the Great enforced a common language across his whole empire; the Gospel would be understood by all who heard it. The Romans built an intricate network of roads and sea routes; the Gospel’s movement would remain unfettered. Unprecedented peace prevailed across the whole Empire; the Gospel would be unhindered by war or strife.
Whilst the soil was prepared one undertaking still remained: the Jerusalem church was to take God’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins into the world. And so according to providence Stephen was stoned; and “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…” (Acts 8:1).
“Why were Christians persecuted?” We must answer: because God so orchestrated the events and circumstances which accomplished His providential will.
Because someone ought to wonder: Is God in some way calpable for the violence, mayhem and sin involved in persecution? The answer is no. That God uses providence to achieve His own purposes in no why negates the consequences humans incur for their own sin nor in any way makes God the originator of sin.