The Blessing of Persecution


A recent Open Doors article stated: “While the year 2014 will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era, current conditions suggest the worst is yet to come… Africa saw the most rapid growth of persecution, while the Middle East saw targeted attacks, resulting in a mass exodus of Christians…. Christians throughout the world risk imprisonment, torture, rape, and even death as result of their faith…. Violence has increased dramatically in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria, but Christians in other countries are experiencing persecution in their personal lives through family, community, and national spheres of life.”

Within two months after this article was released, we would hear major news stories that the terrorist group ISIS beheaded 21 Christians in Egypt and that the terrorist cell group Boko Haram is currently ravaging the church in Nigeria. Persecution against the church is a very real and relevant issue today, just as it was to the awestruck crowd listening to Jesus’ audacious teaching.

Here’s how Jesus understood persecution: blessed (Joyfully approved) are those who are persecuted. He goes on to personalize it in verse 11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you… on my account.” As citizens of the kingdom of God, we expect persecution as a normal part of our everyday lives and embrace it as the Lord’s favor.

1 Peter 4:12-14 says: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed [at Christ’s return]. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Writing to Timothy, Paul said, “…all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted….” Do you desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus? Then expect persecution.

Recognize When It’s Happening

The Greek word for “persecute” carries the idea that the persecutor pursues with malicious intent. Persecution includes reviling, social exclusion, hatred, beatings, insults, murder, slander, lies. One article I read recently says, “Persecution is more about the presence of Jesus than the tactics used to silence his followers.” Since as Christians we are united with Christ, we are targets of the opposition railed against him. In John 15, Jesus says, “…you are not of this world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. These things they do to you on account of my name.”

Do not confuse what happens in the culture wars with persecution. We will face much opposition in a fallen, sinful world. Just because you are a Christian and happen to experience some form of opposition, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being persecuted. That’s not what Jesus has in mind here. He says we are persecuted on his account for righteousness sake. This assumes the persecutor knows we are connected to Jesus and we live noticeably and discernibly different from the world, imitating Jesus’ righteousness. All persecution is based on a hatred of the sovereign reign of Jesus in people’s lives.

Own Up to the Requirement of Persecution

It is the expected condition of life for us, his followers. It will happen when we live authentic Christian lives. As we saw in 1 Timothy 3:12 (above), it is a necessary consequence as we follow Jesus. And this week, as we celebrate that his way led to the cross, we see that his way will do the same for us as well.

In the context of this passage, it’s when we live out the Beatitudes and explicitly connect these growing characteristics to our relationship with Jesus, and are opposed for it, that we experience persecution. We, as God’s people, are persecuted when we are opposed for imitating Jesus’ righteousness in a way that publicly testifies to the coming of his kingdom over and against the unrighteousness of this world. Persecution ultimately is against him.

The Christian faith is a public faith. It’s meant to be lived out in the open, for all the world to see and to hear about! We are to live lives that proclaim loudly the glories of Christ’s righteousness. And the Christian faith is by its very nature a confrontational faith.

Paul says in Romans 12:18, we are to live as peaceably as possible with everyone. But the reality is the gospel message we are called to proclaim publicly in this world divides because it proclaims Jesus’ authority over every man. It lovingly confronts each person as a sinner, and although it offers the most wonderful news of forgiveness and freedom in Christ, it divides because “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19-20). When we tell people about Jesus, we will be persecuted. When we lovingly confront the darkness of the world, we will be persecuted.

Glimpse the Unique Reward of Persecution

The kingdom of heaven is yours when you endure turmoil and heartache for Jesus’ sake. You currently have an inheritance in heaven. As we are persecuted, we can know we are in the spiritual line of Isaiah, Elijah, and John the Baptist, who were persecuted for Christ’s sake. Jesus ushered us into the eternal family of God.

In verse 12 we see our reward will be great in heaven. Our hope in the consummate return of Christ sets us against every other allegiance in this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who understood persecution at the hands of the Nazis, wrote: “Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ… It is a joy and token of his grace.”

We find joy as we follow Christ and take up our cross. So there is joy in our present reward; in the assurance of our future, eternal reward; and in our inheritance with the saints.

This leads to several questions:
1. Are you living out the Beatitudes in such a way that it invites persecution?
2. Does your poverty of spirit cause a family member to scoff at you for being “weak” and “helpless”?
3. Has an acute sense of your sin and the evil of our world ever led to an acute sadness and mourning, which has led others to dismiss you or ridicule you for being too sensitive or too “negative”?
4. Has a calm, resolute meekness in the face of an injustice committed against you caused someone close to you to resent you for not taking the matter into your own hands?
5. Has a Holy Spirit-borne burden for the evil of abortion, or the American attempt to redefine marriage, or even the indoctrination of the American school system led to other others to despise you and call you evil for holding such a view?
6. Has your mercy extended towards someone who has wronged you, or someone close to you, caused someone to demand their own form of justice and treat you as an enemy?
7. Have you ever been demeaned or insulted because of a refusal to accept an invitation to a questionable party, laugh at a crude joke, or join in an illicit activity?
8. Or have you ever tried to lovingly and sincerely maintain peace with someone who is railing at you for your faith, hope, and love only to have them spit in your face, resent you, or write you off altogether? “Rejoice and be glad [oh blessedly favored one], for your reward is great in heaven!”
9. Are you opening up your mouth enough to experience persecution?

Jesus calls us to proclaim his name in a lost and dying world. We will not be liked in this world. We will be rejected. But as we are faithful, God will save his people. We will experience persecution, but the reward will be seeing people come to faith and sharing eternity with them. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

1 Comment

Bob, this is incredibly helpful. I especially appreciate the difference you made between real persecution and what sometimes FEELS like persecution when it's normal life in a fallen world. The line "The Kingdom of heaven is yours when you endure turmoil and heartache for Jesus' sake." That hits right where I am. Thank you!

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