The Bible teaches us that in this world, suffering, hardships, trials and persecutions are not the worst thing that can happen to a child of God. To the contrary, the Scriptures repeatedly urge Christians to look upon such situations with a positive attitude.
For instance, we read, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2),” and “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him, for the Lord disciplines the one He loves (Hebrews 12:5b-6a; ESV).”
Elsewhere, concluding the Beatitudes, Jesus had this to say about persecution, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10).” Jesus, having finished the Beatitudes makes a point of emphasizing this last blessing, telling His listeners, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12; ESV)”
If you are planning on starting a new religion, as Jesus was with the church and the Gospel, many in the world would think that you might not want to focus on how much your followers are going to have to suffer in order to find salvation. But that is exactly what Jesus was doing.
It is interesting that persecution, for the sake of righteousness, was included by the Lord in His Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are essentially a poem describing the child of God who is going to find salvation and a place in the Lord’s Kingdom. The book-end blessings in verses 3 and 10, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” illustrate that all that comes between is part of a greater whole. Each aspect, or characteristic, of the Beatitudes is a characteristic God expects of His people, and in this list persecution stands out starkly, because it is the only characteristic which requires other people to treat you a certain way. But within the context of the Beatitudes, Jesus is essentially teaching, if you are not being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, you may be following His doctrines wrong.
Elsewhere in the Scriptures, this interpretation is confirmed by the apostle Paul, who “encouraged” Timothy with this reminder: “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).”
Jesus points out to us that when suffering persecution for the sake of righteousness is nothing new, “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And indeed, one of the constant themes of the Bible, from beginning to end, is the persecution of God’s people by those who reject the righteousness of God. This persecution starts in Genesis 3, with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and continues all the way through the Old Testament and into the New Testament. Prophet after prophet in the Old Testament suffered rejection and hardship in their service to God including Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, Elisha, Daniel, and even Moses. As we read the history of the early church in the book of Acts, it shows us the early Christians, including the apostles of Christ, suffering hardships, indignities and even death for the sake of the message of Christ.
Curiously, it was during these times of persecution when the church grew the most rapidly. That seems counter-intuitive to think that people would want to be a part of a group which was being executed for their faith, but the willingness of Christians to suffer and die for what they believed was a testimony to the perceived value of the reward those Christians believed in.
The message of Christ, preached in its purity, is not always going to be popular to the masses at large. More often than not, Jesus taught, His message was going to be rejected by the majority, sometimes violently so, for even so they rejected He, Himself (cf. Matthew 10:24, 25; John 15:19). When Jesus blessed those who were persecuted in like manner with the prophets, we should remember that august company includes the Lord also. And so, still today, when Christians suffer for the sake of the Gospel, and the doctrines therein, rather than despairing, we should remember that such a situation, rather than being undesirable, or unwanted, is exactly what Christ taught His followers to expect, as they sought to gain the Kingdom of Heaven.
If you would like to learn more about the Kingdom, and how to be a part of it, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.