Suffering often surprises Christians—but it shouldn’t. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Among the seeming paradoxes of the Beatitudes, this one may be the most contradictory to human logic. Persecution and happiness do not seem compatible. Yet, the Lord warned His disciples that, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). He said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (verse 20). And, He told them, “all these things they will do unto you for My name’s sake because they do not know Him who sent Me” (verse 21).
So, exactly how can it be a blessing to be persecuted?
1. Persecution is a blessing because righteousness triggers it.
People are persecuted for many reasons. Sometimes it is because of their ethnicity, race or national origin. Other times persecution comes because of particular bigotry or bias. Some are even treated unjustly just because they are different. But Jesus said the kind of persecution that is blessed by God is that which happens because of Him.
Jesus promised blessing to those who are “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10). The righteous person is the one who is doing what he should, living in a way pleasing to God. He is one who has been made righteous by the gift of God through faith in Christ, and is living right with God and others.
If someone is being persecuted because they are righteous, that is a good testimony. Jesus taught that persecution for righteousness sake was common for the Christian. Paul sent Timothy to the Thessalonians, “to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith so that no one would be disturbed by these destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3). Paul wrote, “we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass as you know” (verse 4).
Righteousness brings persecution because it can make others look bad by comparison. Jesus said “men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Remember that Jesus was called a glutton, drunkard, and friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). His enemies accused Him, a man who did nothing but good deeds, of being demon possessed (John 8:48).
2. Persecution is a blessing because Christ is seen through it.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” The Christian’s identification with Christ was and is the source of persecution. Intolerance and accusations came against those who were most like Jesus in lifestyle, deeds and words—and that is a good thing. Paul told Timothy, “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Note: It is not just good deeds, but living godly in Christ Jesus that triggers persecution.
Persecution among early believers in the first church came upon followers of Christ, who openly avowed Him and identified with Him. Enemies could not reach Jesus to persecute Him, so they reached out to believers who followed Him and lived like Him.
The apostle Peter clearly identifies reasons for persecution in the early church. If a Christian suffered for wrongdoing, that was considered retribution, not persecution. However, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1Peter 4:14-16).
In all reality, the more Christians are like Jesus, the more they will be persecuted. But, this persecution opens a door of testimony: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; (1Peter 3:14-15).
3. Persecution is a blessing because God will reward it.
Jesus promised: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Our reaction to persecution should be unrestrained gladness because it brings rewards in heaven later, and identification with Bible heroes now.
John Chrysostom, a fourth century preacher and dynamic man of God, offended Emperor Arcadius by preaching Christ to him. The preacher was summoned before the emperor and was threatened with banishment if he didn’t stop his strong, uncompromising preaching. Chrysostom responded: “Sir, you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” The emperor responded: “Then I will slay you,” but the preacher said, “Nay, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.” Infuriated, the emperor said, “Your treasures will be confiscated” to which the preacher answered: “Sir, that cannot be either, my treasures are in heaven where none can break through and steal.” Finally, frustrated, the emperor yelled, “Then I will drive you from men and you shall have no friends left.” The great preacher said: “That you cannot do either, for I have a friend in heaven who has said ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” In exasperation, John Chrysostom was banished to Armenia, then to an Island in the Black Sea, but died on the way. The things he valued most—no emperor could take from him.
As you face persecution for Christ, may you also “rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matthew 5:12).