Persecution and Character Development

Some people are persecuted because of their wrong-doing and others stir up resentment and opposition by their extreme or rigid ideas. But some people are persecuted because they have done what is right. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?

In Matthew 5:10, Jesus gives the last of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount when He says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the previous beatitudes, Jesus has been describing the development of Christian character, but in this last beatitude He instead describes what would develop in the world once a person becomes Christlike. And it is indeed a strange reception that is accorded them. You might think, when you first read the gospel story, that a person with the character described by Jesus, one that is gentle, who loves righteousness, and is merciful, pure in heart and is a peacemaker, would be welcomed everywhere by everyone. But Jesus said that it would be just the opposite.

He declared that if you climbed this ladder of spiritual growth, it would lead to opposition and persecution; that a genuine Christian character would stir up enmity and hatred on the part of those in the world who do not have these virtues. The Bible gives abundant evidence that such is the case.

The apostle Peter says, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world” (1 Peter 5:8, 9). So the development of a genuine Christian character would engender enmity, persecution, and hatred as Jesus predicted.

Character development produced by the experience of a person who has followed these first seven beatitudes arouses the enemy of all righteousness. He is especially incensed when those who climb this ladder reach the blessed realm of purity of heart, with a vision of God that qualifies them to become peacemakers to other alienated and troubled souls. This makes the prince of strife and confusion furiously angry with these ambassadors of peace, and he makes war upon them. His fiercest anger and his most relentless persecutions will be manifested against the remnant church just before Christ returns.

Revelation 12:12 says, “… rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” Then verse 17 says, “And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest [or the remnant] of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

The reason that genuine Christians are persecuted, as seen in 1 Peter 1:1, is because they are strangers and pilgrims in the earth. Paul, in describing the faithful people of God in past ages, said, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Genuine Christians are not citizens of this world. They are living in a land which Satan, the great adversary, claims as his, as its prince and ruler. The devil is called in the Bible the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4 KJV). “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:8).

Sin is the breaking of God’s law (1 John 3:4). As long as you live in sin, the devil will give you comparative rest because you are part of his kingdom. But when you choose to renounce the kingdom of Satan and follow Jesus Christ, obedient to the laws of heaven, the devil is very angry because he has lost you as one of his subjects. That results in his satanic wrath and persecution, and from that, no real Christian can escape. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He also said in John 15:20, “ ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”

You have to remember that you must forsake all sin if you are going to be a peacemaker, because it is sin that disturbs our peace. When you decide to forsake your life of sin and follow Jesus Christ, and you receive the Holy Spirit, then you begin to live a new life. You have transferred your citizenship to heaven by choosing to follow Jesus Christ and acknowledging Him as your Lord and Saviour.

This persecution foretold by Jesus was not limited just to the disciples to whom He was speaking or to others at some other certain time. Paul says, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Just as Christ loves righteousness and hates lawlessness (Hebrews 1:9), Satan loves lawlessness and hates righteousness. And in this rebellious world we live in, vital holiness will provoke hatred and opposition because holiness is a disturbing element. The light of truth always exposes the darkness of error. It sweeps away the black mantel that covers the sins of the ungodly and it makes manifest the necessity of change, the need for reform. This revelation may be welcomed by some, but it is resented by those who want to cling to their sins.

To Nicodemus Jesus said, “He who believes in Him [that is, in Christ] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:18–20). That is the very same problem the Christian has faced in all ages; the same problem that Jesus Himself faced. Those who are not willing to forsake their lawless deeds begin to war against the truth and its advocates and hatred against truth and godliness is manifested by persecuting those who are sanctified by the truth.

If it is true that all who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution, why is there comparatively little persecution in Christendom in the western world at the present time? The book of Acts and the epistles of Paul tell us that in the time of the apostles, the church of God suffered great persecution. Some of the epistles of Paul were actually written from a Roman prison. After the time of the apostles in the second and third centuries, there was persecution of the Christians by the pagan Roman Empire that lasted for more than 200 years.

Again, during that long period of history known as the Dark Ages, persecution raised its ugly head and millions of Christians were martyred in many parts of the world. In the 16th century during the Reformation and again during the revivals in the time of John Wesley, there was persecution of the church. Persecution has appeared whenever there has been a revival of primitive godliness. And the reason that there is so little persecution in the modern church today is because vital godliness is lacking.

Notice what Jesus says to the church that would live in the last epochal period of Christian history: “ ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit [spew] you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing”—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments [raiment], that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me’ ” (Revelation 3:15–20).

Do you understand what has happened? The church has compromised with the world and conformed to worldly standards so that there is very little vital godliness in the church. Christianity has become popular with the world and therefore awakens no opposition. A church that has lost its first love, that has become lukewarm in its affection for both God and man, could hardly be expected to arouse the hatred of the enemy. He is so very well satisfied with the present spiritual condition of the church because he knows that few of its members have climbed the beatitude ladder.

But when there is a development of primitive godliness, a revival of the faith and power of the apostolic church, there will be a revival of persecution. The enemy will become aroused as soon as the church begins to awaken from its slumbering condition. However, we must always remember that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10).

This persecution is not because of a person’s own wrong-doing or the natural consequence of their own course of conduct. There are many today who think themselves martyrs, and are anxious for persecution, and will follow a course that brings persecution upon themselves. They are not happy unless they are creating resentment and stirring up opposition; this is especially true of certain extremists and fanatics. Jesus is talking about the persecution that results from a person being personally righteous.

When Jesus was here on earth, He said that He was rejected and persecuted because He was not of the world, because He was different from the world. His godly life was a rebuke to sinners, and it made them angry. They hated and persecuted Him because He was righteous, and it exposed their unrighteousness. He was insulted, maligned, reproached, and finally murdered, not because they could find evil in Him, but because they could not. In fact, at His trial, Pontius Pilate said three times, “I find no fault in Him at all” (John 18:38).

Jesus says that His followers would receive the same treatment for the same reasons. Being like Christ they would be different from the world, and somehow, difference will always awaken opposition. The life of a genuine Christian, his very presence, is a reproof and rebuke to those who are selfish and proud. This makes them feel uncomfortable and arouses in them enmity and resentment. This last beatitude is the only one that Jesus enlarges upon. And He emphasizes its importance with this statement found in Matthew 5:11 and 12, literal translation: “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all manner 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 which were before you.” Jesus explains in these verses what He means by persecution for righteousness’ sake. He enumerates some of the forms in which the persecution would come and He emphasizes the greatness of the reward.

Sometimes when someone is persecuted, we tend to sympathize with them. We might be inclined to pity ourselves if we are being persecuted and ill-treated by others. But Jesus offers His congratulations to those who are persecuted. He declares that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake should rejoice. This is true, because it is an evidence that they actually are the children of God, and thereby have become a menace to Satan and his kingdom.

So persecution is often evidence that a person is climbing the ladder of spiritual growth, traveling the highway of holiness that leads to the Holy City, the celestial city of God. Jesus assures us if we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, that we have the kingdom of heaven and should rejoice. He also tells us that we can rejoice because of the company that we are in. All those who have gone before you—the prophets, the apostles and many other godly Christians—were persecuted and the brunt of Satan’s attacks.

All of the prophets were opposed and persecuted and many suffered martyrdom because they were holy men of God acting as His spokesmen (2 Peter 1:19–21). It is the fate of prophets and sages to be rejected because the world will not bear rebuke. When we study the life of the apostles, we find that all except one of the 11 apostles died for their faith and that one, John the Beloved, suffered banishment to the Isle of Patmos. Many millions of Christians were persecuted and martyred during the pagan Roman persecutions. And many millions more, during the Dark Ages. If you are persecuted, remember Jesus says that you are in the company of the best people that have ever lived. To join the company of the persecuted, therefore, is cause not for sorrow, but for rejoicing.

Another cause for rejoicing is that persecution is one of the best of all purifiers and character developers. When we study Christian history, we find many times that the church has always been in its purest and most godly state while passing through persecution, and at such times, had its greatest power. Why? Because godliness awakens opposition and Christian character develops faster and becomes more vigorous under the strain and opposition of being persecuted. Godliness always precedes persecution, and persecution then performs an important part of burning out the dross and perfecting Christian character. The two blend together. Persecution increases with the increase of godliness. If you want to be ready to meet Jesus Christ when He returns to this world, you must be willing to follow Him through evil report as well as good report.

Revelation describes those who are ready to meet Jesus when He comes. John was asked, “ ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ And I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ ” (Revelation 7:13, 14).

If you want to be ready to meet Jesus when He returns, you must be ready to go through, by His grace, the great tribulation. The Bible is very clear that before Jesus comes again, there will be a time of trouble in this world such as has never been since there was a nation. And we are rapidly approaching right now that time described in Daniel 12:1. Now is the time for us to prepare to go through the great tribulation and to be ready to meet the Lord when He returns.

Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at:, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.