Remembering the persecuted church on Easter

Patricia Holbrook

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Patricia Holbrook

The dim alleys of ancient Rome hide an even greater darkness within. Nero, the mad emperor, set fire to the city, pointing his deranged finger at the followers of Jesus Christ. Feeling threatened by the widespread growth of the early church throughout the Roman empire, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty plotted to fight fire with fire, so to speak, hoping to extinguish Christianity for good.

The Apostle Luke enters the city on a mission. He is there to find the underground church, bring news from believers in Ephesus, and ultimately visit the apostle Paul, who had been sentenced to death and was waiting for his execution in a Roman dungeon. As Luke enters the gates at night, he walks through a well-lit street, brightened by numerous bodies of Christians, displayed as candles on each side. From a distance, a horrific cry pierces his heart — the last moments of a fellow believer, dying for the Name that changed the course of history forever.

The scene greets the audience in the beginning of the new movie “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” which opened in theaters March 23. Last week, I joined representatives of both religious and secular media outlets at the red carpet premiere of the movie in Dallas, where we had the opportunity to interview directors, producers, screenwriters and cast.

The script is beautifully and creatively written, well pleasing to anyone who studied first-century Rome and the life of the early church. James Faulkner is impeccable in his representation of the Apostle Paul. Jim Caviezel, the man who pierced our hearts portraying Jesus in the internationally acclaimed 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of Christ” portrays Luke, the physician-turned-disciple who never walked beside Jesus, and yet is responsible for writing almost one third of the New Testament. And Caviezel does not disappoint. In his first role in a faith-based movie since Mel Gibson’s movie, the actor comes back to the screen with the same devotion that captured the world in 2004.

I was able to sit down for a one-on-one interview with the actor during the premiere, where we talked about his role as Jesus in 2004, and now as one of his apostles. I had previously watched several interviews, where he gave testimonies of how his life and Christian faith were impacted by his role as Jesus.

When discussing the new movie, Caviezel talked about the horrific persecution that Christians have faced throughout history — an oppression that the church still suffers today, in many parts of the world. He pointed out that many Christians nowadays do not like to talk about the cross and suffering. He said, “How do I know that? Because they come to me and say, ‘I don’t want to see your movies. They are too violent.’ And so I tell them, ‘OK, then I will pray that no one ever comes to you and says, ‘Deny Jesus or die.’ Because this is happening right now.’”

Caviezel is right. According to an article published by Christianity Today in January 2018, approximately 215 million Christians now experience “high, very high, or extreme levels of persecution.” On top of the list is Kim Jung-un’s country, ranking as the No. 1 spot on the list for 16 years in a row.

It’s hard for us to imagine it. We live in a country founded on the principles of religious freedom; therefore, even the harshest form of religious hatred or intolerance in America pales in comparison to what happens across the world. But it should not surprise us: Jesus himself warned his disciples that they would be hated because of his name. And yet, his true followers know that the message of unconditional love and forgiveness that puzzled the crowd gathered around his cross, and shook the Roman empire to its core, still challenges us today: “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they are doing.”

This Sunday, as believers across the world gather to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, may we remember to pray for the saints who, through the ages, paid and still pay the ultimate price to carry the gospel throughout the world.

You can watch my interview with Jim Caviziel on my website: www.soaringwithHim.com. Visit www.paulmovie.com for a theater near you.