Blessed Are the Persecuted
In recent years American Christians have become more mindful of persecution.
The Persecution of Christians throughout the World
News reports tell of intense tribulation among our brothers and sisters in Christ as ISIS, Boko Haram, and other groups hostile to Christianity spread their influence.
OpenDoors has ranked the 50 nations most hostile to Christians in an annually revised report. OpenDoors reports that, worldwide, hundreds of churches and other Christian property are destroyed monthly, and hundreds of Christians lose their lives for their faith each month.
In more than 40 nations around the world today Christians are being persecuted for their faith. In some of these nations it is illegal to own a Bible, to share your faith Christ, change your faith or teach your children about Jesus. Those who boldly follow Christ—in spite of government edict or radical opposition—can face harassment, arrest, torture and even death. Yet Christians continue to meet for worship and to witness for Christ, and the church in restricted nations is growing.
The Persecution of Christians within the United States
Meanwhile, Christians in the United States also experience persecution. The victims of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 were targeted specifically because they professed a belief in Christ. More subtle forms of persecution target Christians because of their biblically grounded moral beliefs, which the ascendant culture of diversity-inclusion has labeled as religiously motivated bigotry. Employees at major corporations now must undergo Orwellian indoctrination in order to keep their jobs, entrepreneurial florists and photographers must cater to same-sex weddings or else pay fines, and public officials must solemnize those same weddings or else serve time in jail.
In 2010, the Hausvater Project warned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that if the federal district court ruling against California’s marriage protection amendment (Proposition 8) was affirmed by the appellate court, the result would be a “chilling effect” upon religious free speech:
The district court insinuated that Prop. 8 Supporters acted merely or primarily out of “bigotry” or “animus.” The judge frequently quoted expert witnesses’ references to “stigma,” “prejudice,” “stereotypes,” and “discrimination.” ER34–171 (passim). Beyond doubt, some homosexual individuals and couples have been targeted with hatred, and beyond doubt, hatred toward them is wrong. The remedy the district court provided, however, cannot forge a lasting peace. Rather, it alienates Prop. 8 Supporters from the public square. The district court failed to exhibit a capacity to contemplate a moderate middle ground in which a person may have reasonable objections to homosexuality while still desiring to act compassionately toward gays and lesbians. Instead, the judge labeled the convictions of Prop. 8 Supporters as categorically unacceptable to the social sciences, to the law, and to civic respectability. If such dicta vindictiva do not deter Free Speech, then it never snows in Minnesota. …
If the district court’s caricature of Prop. 8 Supporters were to be sustained in this court’s ruling, then it would seem to follow that parochial schools maintaining the Prop. 8 definition of marriage thereby endanger the children whom parents have entrusted to their care. Far from furthering a state interest, such religious organizations would be in opposition to a state interest, at least insofar as one accepts the district court’s own identifications of the state’s interest and the religious groups’ motivations. This is not small potatoes. The targeted groups include church bodies that operate substantial networks of parochial schools—notably the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. ER137–38.
Moreover, many families choose to homeschool precisely to preserve for the next generation a set of values including, inter alia, both the identification of homosexual acts as sinful and an emphasis upon God’s forgiveness in Christ for this and any other sin. Kunzman, at 36 and passim. The animus in the district court’s ruling, if this court fails to check it, not only would have a chilling effect upon the First Amendment liberties of those schools and homes, but also would set in motion an incremental logic, the terminus of which can stop nothing short of the abolition of parochial schools and homeschooling. Nor does such an extrapolation introduce any new ideas; as the next section demonstrates, advocates for same-sex marriage already have rehearsed these plans most deliberatively. …
Indeed, in the years since that legal controversy—now “settled” by the Obergefell ruling that has nationalized same-sex marriage—fathers and mothers increasingly have expressed their fears to me concerning the erosion of religious liberty protections for their homes and their congregations. Pastors have told me that they foresee prison sentences for those who continue to preach God’s Word faithfully, right here in the United States. Almost universally, Christian parents expect that their children and grandchildren will experience greater persecution than they have—not just in the Islamic Middle East, but also in polytheistic America, where the regnant diversity-inclusors refuse to tolerate a monotheistic profession of absolute truth.
The U.S. State Department annually identifies policies and incidents related to religious persecution throughout the world, with many of these situations involving Christians being targeted specifically. Might there come a day when Christians from other nations are warned not to travel to the United States for the same reason? To this question no one can answer with certainty, but God has revealed enough to prepare His people for any possible scenario. Quite early in His ministry Jesus made a startling statement on the matter: “Blessed are those who are persecuted.”
“Blessed Are the Those Who Are Persecuted”?
Although acts of persecution are not themselves blessings, people who endure such acts for Christ’s sake are blessed. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said (Matthew 5:10–12):
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.
The Book of Acts records the occasional persecution of Christians by particular sects of Jews and isolated groups of Gentiles in the middle of the first century A.D. Secular history records the systematic persecution of Christians by Roman authorities, beginning mid century and continuing until 312 A.D., when Christianity became a legal religion under Constantine’s Decree at Milan.
Acts 4 summarizes the first recorded instance of Christians suffering persecution. The temple guard in Jerusalem detained Peter and John for questioning shortly after Pentecost, A.D. 30. Realizing that the people had witnessed these apostles perform an undeniable miracle in Jesus’ name, the Sanhedrin feared to detain them any longer. Instead, they chose to release them—but first they imposed a gag order: the Sanhedrin “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).
How did the Church respond? Did Christ’s followers cower away in fear? Did they adopt the politically convenient formula of silence? No. The Christ-trusters instead prayed. “‘Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word.’ … And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29,31).
In the very next chapter, the apostles were imprisoned for violating the gag order. Teaching about Jesus at Solomon’s Porch, they brought many people to faith. Then the high priest apprehended and interrogated them: “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name?” (Acts 5:28) To this charge Peter voiced his famous reply, which ever since has served as the foundational principle for Godly political resistance: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29). The Sanhedrin sentenced the apostles to a beating, reiterated the gag order, and then released them.
How did the Church respond? Did Christ’s followers cower away in fear? Did they adopt the politically convenient formula of silence? No. The Christ-trusters instead rejoiced! “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41–42).
In the two preceding examples, God blessed the apostles with boldness and joy amid persecution. It was just as Jesus had said, “Blessed (i.e., happy) are those who are persecuted … for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad (literally, “jump for joy”).” As counterintuitive as it may seem to rejoice amid persecution, the next major event in the early church was even more surprising. Saul, the leader of the persecution movement, who had orders to travel as far as Damascus in order to apprehend and silence the Christians, himself became not only a believer in Christ but the leading apostle to the Gentiles and the author of roughly half the New Testament!
In becoming an apostle, Paul entered into the same pattern that Peter and John already had experienced:
- persecution for Christ’s sake
- boldness in prayer and preaching
- joy in the Spirit
At Pisidian Antioch, Paul proclaimed “the baptism of repentence” (Acts 13:24), the “glad tidings [gospel]” (v. 32), and the “forgiveness of sins … through this Man [Jesus]” (v. 38). While some Jews believed and invited him and Barnabas to preach again the following Sabbath, others “were filled with envy; and, contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul [persecution]” (v. 45). “Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold … ” (v. 46), and summarized how the apostles had “spoken,” and the Gentiles had “heard” and then “believed” (vv. 46–48; notice the parallel to Romans 10:14–15!). “But the Jews … raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region” (v. 50). “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (v. 52).
“The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoined their minds against the brethren [persecution]” (Acts 14:2). “Therefore … ” the apostles were discouraged and gave up? No. “Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldy in the Lord [boldness]” (v. 3). After a “violent attempt [persecution]” was made on their lives (v. 5), the apostles fled to Lystra and Derbe for safety.
Did the persecuted apostles keep quiet about God’s Word in their flight to safety? No. “They were preaching the gospel there [boldness]” (v. 7). “Then the Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead [persecution]” (v. 19).
The next day, Paul and Barnabas went to Derbe (v. 20). “When they had preached the gospel to that city [boldness] and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch [boldness], strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations [persecution] enter the kingdom of God” (vv. 21–22). Moreover, the apostles “appointed elders [boldness]” to serve in the newly established and intensely persecuted congregations (v. 23).
After returning to Jerusalem, Paul embarked on a second missionary journey, this time going beyond Asia Minor into Macedonia and Greece. In Philippi, the earlier pattern of persucution-boldness-joy resumed. “Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. … They threw them in prison … into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks [persecution]” (Acts 16:23–24). “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God [boldness] and the prisoners were listening to them [cf. Romans 10:14–15 and Acts 13:46–48]” (v. 25). Sometime later, Paul wrote to encourage the persecuted converts in Philippi: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy” (Philippians 1:3–4). It was to this persecuted church that Paul wrote his famous encouragement: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! [joy—and in case the reader missed it the first time, or doubts the meaning, Paul repeats it for emphasis]” (4:4).
Next Paul preached for three Sabbaths in Thessalonica, “reason[ing] with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ’ [boldness]” (Acts 17:2–3). “But the Jews who were not persuaded … took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar … crying out, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.’ [persecution]” (vv. 5,6). The situation apparently became so dangerous that “the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Barea” (v. 10). However, Paul continued to minister to the Thessalonians, writing them an epistle of encouragement from Athens, which he visited shortly after Barea. The triad of persecution-boldness-joy again structures the message:
- “You became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction [persecution], with joy of the Holy Spirit, … from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth [boldness], not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6,8)
- “But even after we had suffered before and were spitefully treated [persecution] at Philippi, as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in much conflict.” (1 Thessalonians 2:2)
- “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
- “Rejoice always, pray [recall the connection to boldness in the Book of Acts] without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17)
The same pattern also occurs in other cities and in other epistles. See, for example, Ephesians 6:18–22: “praying ... for me [boldness] ... that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains [persecution]. ... I have sent [Tychicus] to you ... that he may comfort your hearts [joy].”
Yes, Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Christ’s Sake
The New Testament knows of no evangelism without persecution, in response to which God provides both boldness and joy—boldness to evangelize and joy for both one’s own salvation and also for the salvation of others who are converted amidst persecution. Sometimes the most menacing of the persecutors are themselves converted and then called into the ministry of evangelism. The stoning of Stephen under Saul’s watch and the missionary journeys and epistles of Saul-become-St. Paul were woven of the same salvation-history cloth concerning which “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Characteristically, God triumphs for His people despite initial appearances to the contrary.
As God’s apostles in the home, Christian parents who evangelize their children no doubt will experience persecution from others; as God’s apostles to the congregation, Christian pastors may expect the same. It’s not a question of which nation you live in, but of whose Name has been attached to you by Holy Baptism. As Jesus noted in John 15:18–19:
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Persecution may seem overwhelming at times, but those who have learned to have hope on Good Friday will not fail to see Easter Sunday. “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” said Jesus. “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” (Matthew 5:10–12).
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Mankato, Minnesota, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.