“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10 (NASB)
As I studied this verse, I found that it has many layers and more than one way that it can be applied. From the context, I believe Jesus was using the example of the Old Testament prophets (Matthew 5:12; Luke 11:49-51) to encourage His disciples to face the trials He was preparing them for. Fast-forward a short time, and Jesus has fulfilled the words of those prophets by dying on a cross and rising again, paying the penalty for sin (Isaiah 53:10-12). In Acts chapter 5, the disciples have been publicly defying the Jewish rulers by preaching the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As a result, they are arrested and threatened before being beaten and released. In verse 41, we see a very strange thing – they are rejoicing (Rejoicing!) for being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. Jesus told them that they would be persecuted and hated by all for following Him. History tells us that all of the Apostles would suffer gruesome deaths and yet they continued to boldly share the Gospel, persevering through ridicule, betrayal, and beatings. Why would anyone continue to face such hardship when they could just stay quiet, live a comfortable life, and wait to see Christ?
In one of the strangest encounters in the Bible, Jesus confronts one of His sworn enemies on the road to Damascus. He shows him how he will suffer persecution and death for faithfully preaching the Gospel (Acts 9:15-16). Once he recovers from coming face to face with the Creator God, the man we know as the Apostle Paul immediately starts down a path of some of the worst sustained persecution and suffering ever recorded (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). This drastic switch in behavior needs an explanation. In his own words, he writes, “But whatever things were gain to me, these things I have counted as loss because of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them mere rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8 NASB). The result of his perseverance was the introduction of the Gospel to an entire continent. According to “Foxes Book of Martyrs,” Paul was later beheaded at the order of Nero, Emperor of Rome.
Christians have been, and still are, hated just as Jesus said they would be. This treatment by the world should not be surprising (1 John 4:13). God’s chosen people have been a hated target from the beginning, many times by those whose fake religiosity is exposed and threatened by the light of true righteousness (Genesis 4:3-4; Acts 7:52). Should this hatred and threat of persecution or even death cause us to shrink back and hide? Absolutely not! If we are truly a regenerated child of God we will not be able to hide, at least not for very long (Jonah 1:3; Matthew 5:14-15).
There are many astonishing examples throughout Christian history of people who chose not to hide, not to back down in the face of persecution, and not to lose faith. Through the power of the Spirit and the grace of God they demonstrated with their lives that Christ is more valuable than anything the world has to offer:
- Abel, the second man ever born, was murdered by Cain his older brother because God approved of him and not of Cain (1 John 3:10-12).
- The Old Testament prophets called “blessed” by Jesus: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel murdered by their own people (one sawn in two) for publicly condemning unrighteousness and calling for repentance.
- First-century believers in Rome, singing praises to God as they were led into the Colosseum to be killed as macabre entertainment.
- Japanese families in the 1500s were crucified head-down on the beach and allowed to drown as the tide rose because they refused to recant their belief in Christ.
- Oregon Community College students in 2015 lined up and shot in the head for answering “yes” when asked if they were Christians.
Under threat of torture and death, these amazing Christians refused to compromise or deny their Savior and were summarily executed, some in the most excruciating ways possible. After they had suffered for a short time, they were introduced to their Heavenly Father and it was all worth it (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:22-23).
Do you and I have what it takes to be called blessed by our Savior? Would we persevere to the end if our Disneyland life were turned upside down by the threat of persecution or death? What if you were the sixth student standing against the wall and the first five were already lying crumpled on the floor? What if you were on the beach watching your family being nailed to crosses and the soldiers were walking toward you? Would you stay focused on your Savior (Hebrews 11:27; Acts 7:55)? Could you endure to the end and gain your life? Could I? Jesus said that anyone who denies Him before men, He will deny before His Father (Matthew 10:33). That is a serious consequence, infinitely more serious than an entire lifetime of suffering and persecution. Will we value Him above our own fleeting life and gain what is truly valuable (Hebrews 10:29; Philippians 3:8)? Will we be the example an unbelieving world needs to see (Colossians 1:24) so that they may understand the price Christ paid for their souls?
Not all Christians are subjected to persecution or martyrdom. Some live quiet lives in holiness and humility (Micah 6:8), walking with the Lord until He takes them home. Other believers boldly challenge the world with fiery sermons, calls for repentance, and unrestrained passion only slowed by time and old age. However, there is another type. It is one that Jesus calls blessed. It is one who discovers that God has found them worthy to suffer and they rejoice at the opportunity to glorify their Savior with their blood. They persevere through the power of the Spirit knowing that God is faithful to sustain them through whatever may come and carry them home to His Kingdom in which they share.
I pray, “Lord, please count me worthy of bearing my cross. Allow me to see beyond the vapor of this life, to gain a tangible understanding of what is truly important. Strengthen me to unashamedly proclaim Your name like a banner; may my life reflect the faith and hope You have given. Help me to make war on my sin; purify for Yourself this unworthy sinner. When my day comes, if it be Your will, let me endure with joy the pain and suffering You have appointed as my share. Glorify Yourself through my death that others may find life.”