Persecute – to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict. Specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.
Persecution is NOT the same as punishment. When we do evil, good people punish us. When we do good, evil people persecute us.
We don't know what it means to be arrested, beaten, and tortured because of our faith in Jesus. In fact, the only persecution most of us have experienced involved someone closing the door in our face or "un-friending" us on Facebook. But that could all change very quickly. With proposed RFID tags for all citizens, tax records showing who gives money to their church, and universal background checks recording who has a gun. The parts are already assembled for the day when Christians will no longer be allowed to roam free.
The down side to living in a land without present persecution is the curse of "nominal Christianity". As long as being a Christian is still culturally acceptable and comfortable, counterfeit Christians hang with the crowd. But fair-weathered fans of Jesus fade when the flames of persecution rise; only true followers remain.
While most Christians here in America have enjoyed relative peace from those in power for the last 200+ years, this has NOT been the case for our faith family throughout the rest of the world. In a recent podcast I heard the writings of a Roman official to tracked practitioners of what he called a "pernicious superstition" and recorded how he tried to get them to recant. While they were beating you they encouraged you to either worship Caesar or curse the name of Jesus. When persecution comes there are no more nominal Christians, only true believers will endure.
In two millennia of Christian history, about 70 million faithful have given their lives for the faith, and of these, 45.5 million -- fully 65% -- were in the last century, according to "The New Persecuted" ("I Nuovi Perseguitati"). More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. 171,000 Christians were martyred in 2005 alone [Int. Journal of Missionary Research]. It is estimated that currently over 200 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide.
In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus concludes his list of the Christian's character by saying, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt. 5:10-12 NKJV).
In these three verses Jesus provides four points regarding persecution. First, we see…
- Reasons behind Persecution ("for righteousness sake…
for My sake")
There are essentially two reasons for persecution:
- The Life We Live – Our Difference
When Jesus saved us, He began a purification process called sanctification. Our lives are now lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We strive to live our lives under His leadership for His glory. Paul summarized this situation in Romans 12:1&2, "And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect" (NLT).
If you are no longer "copying the behavior and customs of this world", then you will stick out like a sore thumb in society. A night and day difference in your belief leads to a night and day difference in your behavior. There is now a contrast in your conduct compared to the culture around you.
Ephesians 5:8-11 says, "For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them" (NLT).
As you live your new life in Christ you will be different. You will think different, speak different, work different, spend different, watch different, listen different, and act different. This "difference" will set you a part from a wicked world and set you up by a wicked world for persecution.
"Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12 NLT).
- The Lord We Love – Our Devotion
Jesus plainly told His disciples in John 15:18-25, "If the world hates you, remember that it hated Me first. 19 The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. 20 Do you remember what I told you? 'A slave is not greater than the master.' Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. 21 They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me. 22 They would not be guilty if I had not come and spoken to them. But now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Anyone who hates me also hates my Father. 24 If I hadn't done such miraculous signs among them that no one else could do, they would not be guilty. But as it is, they have seen everything I did, yet they still hate me and my Father. 25 This fulfills what is written in their Scriptures[a]: 'They hated me without cause' (NLT).
To be partakers of the glory of Christ is to also be partakers of His suffering. Jesus Christ was the sinless epitome of perfect love in the flesh; yet, He was lied about, mistreated, tortured, and crucified just three short years after His public ministry. If the world persecuted Jesus, the world will also persecute you. Guilt by association.
- Rejoicing in Persecution ("rejoice and be exceedingly glad")
Jesus, says in verse 12 that we should "rejoice and be exceedingly glad" when they revile, persecute, and say all kinds of evil things against us falsely for His sake.
Two questions come to mind when I read that statement by our Lord, "Why?" and "How?"
Why would anyone, in his right mind, rejoice and be EXCEEDINGLY glad when they were being persecuted? The answer comes from those who have experienced such persecution and lived to tell about their experience. In Acts 5:22-42 we read how Peter and the other apostles were arresting for preaching about Jesus. The High priest and the Sadducees were confused about the apostles' miraculous escape from prison (angel stuff) and intimidated by the large crowds that followed them, so they decided to have them beaten (probably flogged with 39 lashes) and then let them go with a stern warning. How did the apostles respond to such persecution? Verse 41 of Acts 5 tells us, "So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name" (NKJV).
The apostle Paul, who had a resume stacked with suffering (a persecution "Pro"), valued suffering for his Savior above all the stuff and stature he had accrued his entire life. He wrote in Phil. 3: 7-8, "I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (NLT). Then in verse 10-11, Paul reveals why even suffering can be considered among his supreme desires, "I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead" (NLT)!
Why can we rejoice in the midst of persecution and the suffering that accompanies it? Because, in that moment we relate with the One who suffered for us. We are never more like our Lord than when we endure unjust treatment. We are never more like Jesus than when we suffer for His Name.
As an angry mob rushed young Stephen in Acts 7:55 he looked to heaven and saw Jesus, His Lord standing to welcome him home. And as the stones of death were flying through the air he cried, "Lord, receive my spirit"; and He did.
Have you ever felt like you really knew someone, but then you go through a similar life experience as them and it dawns on you that you didn't really know them before, but you do now? It's because you joined them in the fellowship of their sufferings. Stephen was more intimately connected to his Savior at his death than he was in his life. Paul walked closer to His Lord in chains than he did while free. The disciples were even bolder for their Lord after suffering for His Name's sake.
O.k., we can understand "Why" we are supposed to rejoice in the midst of persecution, but "How?" I mean how, when you're in torturous pain, are you able to genuinely rejoice? That doesn't sound natural… Well, that's just it; it's not natural. It's Supernatural.
Only the Holy Spirit of God can give us the strength we need to heed the words of Jesus. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are: love, JOY, PEACE, LONGSUFFERING, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, & self-control (Gal. 5:22).
On the day of Pentecost the disciples received the Holy Spirit, which gave them power to witnesses for Christ. Luke wrote that Stephen on the day of his death was "full of the Holy Spirit". It's that same Holy Spirit that gives every believer exactly what he needs when he needs it. Our ability to rejoice in the midst of persecution comes from our strong and sovereign God, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6KJV)
- Records of Persecution ("the prophets who were before you")
We also rejoice in our persecution because of the faithful men and women who have endured before us. Jesus, reminds us of the prophets. In James 5:10 we are told, "Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience" (KJV).
John Phillips has a wonderful reminder for us all,
"Hardly any of the prophets were welcomed by their contemporaries. The two who did have instant and spectacular results were Jonah and Nahum, both of whom prophesied regarding Nineveh. In the one case, instantaneous repentance resulted; in the other case, instantaneous and spectacular ruin occurred. For the most part, the prophets were highly unpopular preachers to the consciences of their countrymen. Hosea was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Amos was doubtless popular enough in Israel – as long as he denounced the surrounding nations – but the high priest of the calf cult threatened him at once when he denounced Israel. Micah was the first prophet to threaten Jerusalem with destruction. He must have been about as popular as a skunk at a Sunday school picnic! Habakkuk was called upon to utter woe after woe against his countrymen. Haggai saw success, but his contemporary and colleague Zechariah was murdered. Isaiah, after a distinguished career, was sawn in half in a hollow tree by Manasseh. And as for Jeremiah, he wept his way through life. John the Baptist was murdered, and so was Jesus" (Exploring the Epistle of James, 178-179).
Jesus was a realist. He knew that His program would be unpopular. He knew it would lead to His own death and to bitter hostility toward His followers. The Lord certainly did not envision His program bringing about a gradual evolution of love, joy, peace, and goodness that would sweep over all nations throughout the centuries until society was at last perfected. That postmillennialist view is simply not supported by the facts of history or the forecast of Scripture. The Lord spoke of hostility, hatred, and bitter persecution for His people. We should not be surprised when it happens; we should expect it. When it comes, it's important to remember that it is a part of God's sovereign plan and that we have not, do not, and will not suffer alone.
- Rewards for Persecution ("Blessed…the kingdom of heaven…
great is your reward in heaven")
The thing that ultimately makes suffering persecution bearable is knowing the blessed reward that awaits us. If there's anything that Jesus reiterated time and again it's this, "My kingdom is not of this world"
Our physical existence on this planet is "but a vapor" (James 4:14), here for a moment. But the spiritual kingdom to which we belong as believers in Christ is ETERNAL. That's why Jesus said in Matthew 10:28,
"Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (NLT)
We are eternal beings who are eternally saved from death AND the second death. HEAVEN awaits the believer. Death is simply a dark door that opens into eternal JOY, PEACE, & PLEASURE in the PRESENCE OF OUR LORD! No dictator, torturer, or executioner can hold us back from heaven!
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?" Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them.