Some people are persecuted because of their wrong-doing and others, because they have stirred up resentment and opposition by their extreme or rigid ideas. However, others are persecuted because they have done what is right, which sounds strange.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10 KJV). Before saying this, Jesus described the development of Christian character and then what would develop in the world and the attitude toward those who acquired this Christian character. Indeed, it is a strange reception that is accorded them.
When you first read the gospel story you might think that it would seem that such a character as Jesus had described—a person who is gentle, loves righteousness, is merciful, is pure in heart and who is a peacemaker—would be welcomed everywhere and that they would be congratulated on who they are. But Jesus said that it would be just the opposite. He declared that if you progressed up this beatitude 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 other people in the world that did not have these virtues.
The Bible gives plentiful record that such is the case. Notice what the apostle Peter said about it in I Peter 5:8, 9: “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.”
Jesus predicted that the development of a genuine Christian character would lead up to enmity, hatred and persecution. The character development produced by the experience of a person who has followed these first seven beatitudes arouses the enemy of all righteousness and He begins to persecute. He is especially incensed when those who climb this ladder that Jesus has described reach the blessed realm of purity of heart, with a vision of God so that they are qualified 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; that is, the last of the church that exists just before Christ returns.
In Revelation 12:12 it 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.” “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” (verse 17).
The apostle Peter says in I Peter 1:1 that the reason genuine Christians are persecuted is because they are strangers and pilgrims in the earth. Notice what the apostle Paul said in Hebrews 11:13 describing the faithful people of God in past ages: “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.” They are living in a land which Satan, the great adversary, claims as his and over which he claims to be the prince and ruler. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 the devil is called the god of this world. His enemies are those who have renounced allegiance to him and his kingdom. His subjects are those who sin. “He who sins is of the devil” (I John 3:8, first part) for the devil has sinned from the beginning.
On this account, “… the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (verse 8, last part). Sin is breaking God’s law (I 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, follow Jesus Christ, and become obedient to the laws of heaven, forsaking your life of sin, you become his enemy. He is angry because he has lost you as one of his subjects.
When you transfer your citizenship to heaven by choosing to follow Jesus Christ and acknowledge Him as your Lord and Saviour, it will result in being subjected to his satanic wrath and persecution from which no real Christian can escape. Jesus said to His disciples, “… in the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He also said, “… the servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20 KJV).
The persecution that Jesus foretold was not limited to only the disciples to whom He was speaking. Neither was it limited to the Christians of the 1st century or to any certain time period. Rather, notice what the apostle Paul says about it in 2 Timothy 3:12: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Just as Christ loves righteousness and hates lawlessness (Hebrews 1:9), Satan loves lawlessness and hates righteousness. In this rebellious world in which we live, 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 a change, the need for a reform. This revelation may be welcomed by some, but it is resented by those who cling to their sins and do not want to change.
The apostle John wrote, “He who believes in Him (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 that are not willing to forsake their lawless deeds begin to war against the truth and its advocates. So, hatred against truth and godliness is manifested by persecuting those that possess these things and are sanctified by the truth.
Now a question could be asked, If what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:12 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? This lack of persecution is especially true in the western world.
In the time of the apostles, the church of God suffered persecution, as recorded in the book of Acts and also in the epistles of Paul. Some of the epistles of Paul were actually written from a Roman prison. After the time of the apostles in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there was persecution of the Christians by the pagan Roman Empire that lasted for 200 years or more.
Again, during that long period of history often called the Dark Ages, persecution raised its ugly head and millions of Christians were martyred in many parts of the world. Again, in the period of the Reformation of the 16th century, 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. The reason that there is so little persecution in the modern church today is because vital godliness is lacking.
Speaking to the church that would live in the last epochal period of Christian history Jesus says, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit 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, 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).
Notice what has happened. The church has compromised with the world and become lukewarm, conforming to worldly standards. Because there is so little vital godliness in the church, Christianity has become popular with the world and it awakens no opposition. A church that has lost its first love, so that it is 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.
Whenever there is a stir in the church and there is a development of primitive godliness, there will be a stir in the camp of the enemy. Let there be a revival of the faith and power of the apostolic church and there will be a revival of persecution. The enemy will become aroused as soon as the church begins to awake from its slumbering condition. But, of course, we must always remember, Jesus said, “Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” We are not talking about people that are persecuted because of their wrong-doing, because of the natural consequence of their own course of conduct. There are many today who think of themselves as martyrs. They are anxious for persecution, and they 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. But that is not the persecution Jesus is talking about. He is talking about the persecution that results from a person being personally righteous.
Jesus declared when He was here that He was rejected and persecuted because He was not of the world and therefore 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 any evil in Him, but because they could not. In fact, at His trial, you recall, Pontius Pilate said three times that he found no fault in Him at all (John 18:38; 19:4, 6).
Jesus was crucified, not because they could find something wrong with Him, but because they could not. And Jesus said 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 always awakens opposition. The genuine Christian, his very presence, his very life, is a reproof, a rebuke, to those who are selfish, to those who are proud, and they feel uncomfortable. An unselfish life offends them and arouses in them enmity and resentment. This last beatitude is the only one that Jesus enlarges upon. He emphasizes its importance with this statement in Matthew 5:11, 12 KJV: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
In these verses, Jesus explains what He means by persecution for righteousness’ sake. He enumerates some of the forms in which the persecution would come—reviling, saying evil against you—and He emphasizes the greatness of the reward. Sometimes when somebody is persecuted, we might be inclined to pity them or to sympathize with them, going through persecution. We might be inclined to pity ourselves if we are being persecuted and ill-treated by others, but Jesus offers His congratulations to those that are persecuted. He declares that “those that are persecuted for righteousness sake” should rejoice. This is true, first of all, because it is an evidence that we actually are the children of God, and we have become, thereby, a menace to Satan and his kingdom. The enemy never persecutes the lukewarm and the ungodly, but he tries rather to afflict those that live godly in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:12).
So, persecution is an evidence that the person being persecuted is climbing up the ladder of spiritual growth, that he is traveling the highway of holiness that leads to the Holy City, the celestial city of God. And Jesus assures us, if we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, that we have the kingdom of heaven, and that we can rejoice. Not only that, but He also tells us that there is another reason we can rejoice and that is because of the good company we are in. Jesus said, those that went before you, the prophets, they were persecuted as well (Matthew 5:12). The brunt of Satan’s attack has always been against God’s spokesmen, against His prophets.
Many of the prophets suffered martyrdom and all of them were opposed and persecuted because they were holy men of God acting as His spokesmen (2 Peter 1:19–21). It was the fate of prophets and sages to be rejected. The reason, of course, is because the world will not bear rebukes. When we study the life of the apostles, we find that all except one of the eleven apostles died for their faith, and that one 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 what we call the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. So, Jesus said, if you are persecuted, remember 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 developer of character.
When we study Christian history, we find over and over again that the church has always been in its purest and most godly state while passing through persecution, and therefore at such times the church had its greatest power. Why? Because godliness awakens opposition and Christian character develops faster and becomes more vigorous under the strain, under the opposition of being persecuted. Because godliness always precedes the persecution and the 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 and vice versa. 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.
The book of Revelation describes those who live in the final generation and are ready to meet Jesus before He comes. In Revelation 7:13, as John provided details of a vision, he wrote, “Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ ” John answers, “Sir, you know” (verse 14, first part). The elder tells him: “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” (verse 14, last part).
If you want to be ready to meet Jesus when He returns, you must be ready, by His grace, to go through 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 (Daniel 12:1). We are rapidly approaching that time. Now is the time for you and for me to prepare to go through it and to be ready to meet the Lord when He returns.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.