“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:10
I firmly believe that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be “persecuted” in the world today. While I agree that there is a concentrated effort by some to reshape the moral landscape into a more secularized image in the name of humanism and to remove the name of God from the square of public discourse, I must admit that it falls far short of a biblical definition of persecution. So much so that we have allowed the culture of victimization that we have distorted the meaning of persecution as it was described in Scripture to the point that every little thing that doesn’t go our way is an example of persecution.
Yes, there are certain legal cases that are being brought to bear in order to try to force Christian believers to violate their Biblically informed conscience, but I wonder at times is that conscience being selectively exercised in order to put on a front of self-righteousness disguised as godliness. While we may experience legal difficulties, it pales in comparison to the persecution of our Biblical forefathers and others in some parts of the world today. For example, in 2015, 21 Coptic Christians were kidnapped and summarily beheaded on the beach expressly for the refusal to denounce their faith and turn to Islam. It was three years before their bodies were given a proper burial after the video-taped execution.
According to the foremost experts on global Christian persecution, Open Doors International, the United States is not even in the top 50 countries responsible for persecution of Christians. In fact, of the top 50 countries identified for the systematic persecution of Christians, all but one (Colombia) of them are in Africa or Asia, including the Middle East.
In the Roman Empire, Nero would systematically crucify Christians and use their bodies as torches for his nightly feasts, thus giving birth to the term “Roman candle”. Christian persecution in the Roman Empire reached its height, however, under the reign of Emperor Diocletian, who would summarily have Christians executed in the Circus Maximus (see picture above) on charges of treason for the crime of refusing to worship the emperor as a god.
In the United States, we still enjoy a Constitutionally protected freedom to worship our God in whatever manner we choose, even if that worship is not in accordance with Biblical truth. However, there have been efforts to restrict Christian expression in the public square. There has even been efforts by certain local governments to influence Christian doctrine from the pulpit. But it is still a far cry from imprisonment and execution.
The Greek word for persecution in this verse is “dediogmenoi heneken dikaiosunes”, which is translated as “ones having been chased on account of justice”. Persecution can take on many forms, but the fullest meaning is a description of “mob justice”. The Jews of Jesus’ day understood what this meant at the hands of their Roman oppressors who were known to systematically take over countries and annex them into the Empire. Their history is rife with examples going back to the Babylonian captivity and event Egyptian slavery prior to the Exodus of Moses. Jesus Himself would even know persecution intimately as He was tried, beaten, mocked, and crucified for daring to speak the truth and challenging the authority of the Pharisees.
Saul would persecute Christians in the early church in the book of Acts, with the full approval of the Sanhedran and the Roman government, two levels of citizen that he enjoyed and used to his full advantage. That is until Jesus blinded Him and knocked Him off his literal high horse, at which point he used those same advantages to spread the truth of the gospel, resulting in his own eventual beheading in Rome under the reign of Nero.
Of the twelve apostles, all but one experienced death by martyrdom. The lone survivor, John, would be boiled alive in oil, but miraculously escaped and was exiled to the island of Patmos where he lived out his remaining days after receiving his final Revelation from Christ. Fox’s Book of Martyrs gives hundreds of examples of Christian leaders and early church fathers who were martyred for their faith, sometimes in gory detail. Tertullian would go on to say that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” While there are various translations of what he said, the intent of the message is clear – that the church grew because faithful believers gave their lives for the truth of the gospel.
Martyrdom should never be a goal for our faith, but I must ask: if your life is put on the line for your faith, will it hold true? Can you honestly say that you would be willing to die for the truth of the gospel if it ever came to it? The fact of the matter, it is happening around the world today. Maybe not so much in America…yet. But don’t be so naive to think that it may not eventually come. Empires rise and fall. Constitutions are rewritten. Countries live and nations die.
But our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He will remain faithful, even through our trials and sufferings. His kingdom is eternal and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. This He has promised and this He will continue to prove true, for we are citizens of His kingdom eternally.