Persecution and Privilege

“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 this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

“So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and preaching the good news of Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42).

All of the apostles suffered some form of persecution; all except St. John died as martyrs. Paintings by Stefan Lochner (1410-1451). Collage © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When we think of being considered worthy, we expect rewards, privileges, or titles. In the corporate business world, if a person is considered worthy, he or she receives a cash bonus, a promotion, a new title, or some other reward.

Usually, in the church, if we consider somebody worthy, they might at least get a shout-out from the pastor at the beginning of the sermon. “More worthy” church members might become ordained ministers or lay leaders of a ministry.

When did the apostles think they were counted worthy? When they were flogged. Acts 5 recounts an incident when the apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin—the Jewish religious high council—and threatened with execution for preaching the gospel. They had refused to stop talking about Jesus after previous threats. Because they insisted on preaching about Christ, the apostles were in conflict with the Sanhedrin. Obedience to Christ meant opposition to earthly authorities. Persecution would be proof that they were following Christ. “Indeed, all who want to live in a godly way in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

While modern preachers often boast about how many countries they have preached in, how many churches they planted, or how many people have responded to their altar calls, the apostle Paul listed his “accomplishments” in terms of the sufferings he endured:

“Are they servants of Christ?—I am speaking as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent adrift at sea. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

This does not sound like the kind of compensation and benefits package a church might list when advertising for a new pastor. However, it is what the early Christians knew they were signing up for when they answered the call to follow Jesus.

Christ urges His followers to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We have a choice: We can seek either God’s kingdom or earthly rewards and privileges. Seeking God’s kingdom will put us at odds with the world. Persecution is a natural outgrowth of that conflict.

Perhaps Jesus had to give a double beatitude about persecution. It is normal to avoid persecution, pain, or conflict. We will be tempted to compromise our values or remain silent in the face of cultural groupthink. When our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers speak against biblical morality and faith, we may want to be silent and hide our light. That will protect us from persecution, but it will also prevent us from preaching the gospel and leading others to saving faith in Christ.

So, this is why the disciples considered persecution a privilege. They rejoiced “that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” They had chosen to seek to inherit the kingdom of God and invite others to join in that blessing rather than turn their backs on Jesus.

As I shared previously, “I have long believed that American Christianity is an anomaly. Jesus promised His disciples that they would have hardship in this world. True Christianity would never be popular, because it goes against the spirit of the world and the devil….” The choice is before us: Will we choose to please God and seek His kingdom, or will we try to be popular with the world?

Our God, in whom we trust: Strengthen us not to regard overmuch who is for us or who is against us, but to see to it that we be with you in everything we do. Amen. [From The Book of Common Prayer (2019) (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019; based on a quote from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.]

How can we diligently please God rather than men and remain faithful to Christ when facing rejection and persecution? Share your thoughts below.

Copyright © 2023 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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