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TO BE OR NOT TO BE: Wrestling with Scripture #20

 

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10). If you’ve hung with me all the way through the Beatitudes, persecution probably seems like a thankless destination for our Christian walk.  And if the “these and these only” interpreters are right, anyone who doesn’t experience some form of persecution in this life might need to question if they are truly destined for eternal life.


Jesus expands and personalizes the nobility of suffering in verses 11-13 where He switches from the third person to the more intimate second. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”


The words translated “persecuted” in both the Old and New Testaments convey the idea of being chased or pursued with hostile intent. It’s not simply a passive resentment—or even an open rejection or ridicule. It’s an active, deliberate—possibly passionate—mistreatment. Although American Christians know very little about persecution, in many parts of the world, believers are routinely imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their allegiance to Christ.


And even here, where we have a constitutional right to practice religion without government interference, we shouldn’t be surprised when persecution comes. And come it will. The Apostle Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Paul could make such a broad and definitive statement because he knew that the thoughts and ideals of those who love Jesus would always create tension and conflict with the values and mindset of the world.


It’s why Scripture says if the world hates us, we should remember it hated Jesus first. We shouldn’t take persecution personally. It’s Jesus who the unbelieving world despises and God’s Word they hate. Although no one wants to be disliked or abused, if it comes down to a choice, Christians need to side with Christ and the truth of Scripture over all other considerations.


Some of you might remember Rachel Scott, the courageous teen executed during the Columbine school tragedy for refusing to renounce her faith. Although Jesus is clear about His expectations, “…whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven,” (Matt 10:33), most of us can only hope we would have Rachel’s strength in a similar scenario.


It might help to consider the shepherd boy David who faced a mighty giant with a slingshot and a few stones. Was his daring the result of youthful bravado, faith beyond his years, or a kind of tested confidence born of years of practice? I’d suggest all three. As a young boy charged to guard his father’s flocks in remote areas, David reported to Saul that he’d already successfully confronted lions and bears which had attacked the sheep. David defeated Goliath with skills he’d practiced in his daily life. Confident of his abilities and armed with a history of trust and reliance on God, young David’s faith rose to the challenge while that of the seasoned warriors around him crumbled.


Alarming trends in the U.S. might well affect the practice of Christianity in our lifetimes. If America continues to follow in the political footsteps of our neighbors to the North, churches may soon be prohibited from preaching on certain sections of Scripture. I can foresee a day when, if we attend or support Bible-believing churches, we could risk fines, property confiscation, or imprisonment under expanded hate crime laws.


The Bible does warn about the threat of increased persecution as the days grow darker. In the words of Mark 4:17, “When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word, they quickly fall away.” To be like David and stand firm in the face of persecution and physical threats, we need to be prepared—girded with courage, strengthened by faith, and filled with a confident trust in God, based on a lifetime of finding Him faithful and true to His Word. To that end, 1 Thes 3:3 teaches us to strengthen and encourage one another with the Gospel “so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for.”


As if guaranteed persecution isn’t daunting enough, we’re also told to rejoice in the face of it—clearly an impossibility without the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit. If we see all of life in spiritual terms, persecution becomes the badge of honor that links all mistreated Christians to Jesus, our suffering servant. Isaiah 40:8 reminds us to take a long view of trials by pointing out the fleeting nature of our earthly lives—“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the Word of our God will stand forever”—compared to the eternal nature of our spiritual ones.


Paul clearly had this reality in mind when he penned 2 Cor 4: 17: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison …”  Jesus promises us the Kingdom if we overcome in the face of persecution, and this truth is repeated in 1 John 5:4-5. “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”


And yet, we know that Christians aren’t always victorious in this life. We experience heartache and suffering just like the rest of the world. The difference should be in our response. We know that we are not alone in our struggles, for Jesus both warns and promises this in John 16:33. “In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”


Like Rachel Scott, let’s be bold overcomers in the face of persecution—not just for the amazing blessings guaranteed to us if we do—but because our awesome God and Savior deserves nothing less.

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