Today is International Day or Prayer for the persecuted church, so I want to skip ahead in our Scripture to verse 11. We are, as you know, working our way through the beatitudes, that series of sayings by Jesus about who is blessed.
You are probably like me. You are used to saying and thinking how blessed you are to live in a country where you are free to worship, where you are not arrested for possession of a Bible, where if you get baptised people don’t come around to kill you.
Jesus says something different in Matthew 5:11. He says we aren’t the ones who are blessed. He says the people who are persecuted because they follow him are the ones who are blessed. We need to keep this in mind when we pray for persecuted Christians.
When we read about the first Christians, they lived with this attitude. Please turn with me to Acts 5:41 and let’s read about their joy and gratitude for persecution, “The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus.”
How often are we tempted to complain about the small discomforts we suffer as disciples, when we should be giving thanks for them.
The first Christians knew that in order to bring life to others, they must die; to see others experience peace with God, they would have to suffer the violence of the world; to bring the love of God to a dying world, they would have to face the hatred of those whom they were seeking to reach. It is in this context that the biblical authors described spiritual warfare; not freedom over bad habits or psychological problems, but the brutal reality of witnessing to the faithfulness of God in the face of suffering, sacrifice and death. It was only in this context that the purposes of God would be accomplished.
This is also the reality of persecution today. We continue the task of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, knowing that he goes with us and that we do not suffer alone. In all of our afflictions, God is afflicted. Just as Jesus demanded of Saul of Tarsus, so he asks of today’s persecutors, “Why are you persecuting me?”
The knowledge that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love (Romans 8:35), that the Spirit prays for us when we can only groan in agony (Romans 8:26,27) and gives us his words in the face of our accusers (Matthew 10: 19,20) provides the help that the disciples of Jesus require to remain faithful witnesses. God has provided all that is necessary for the disciple to stand firm.
Yes, there may be fear, but by God’s grace it need not control us. Yes, there may be terrible suffering, but suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to the child of God; the worst thing is disobedience to the Father.
As we witness the testimonies of courageous persecuted brothers and sisters in person or through reports, it is worthwhile to reflect on the words of Peter, “God is pleased with you when you do what you know is right and patiently endure unfair treatment.” (1 Peter 2:19) The word used here for ‘pleased’ is charis and it means grace.
As we read accounts of people who have suffered for the sake of Jesus, we might be justified in saying that, from the world’s perspective, those who endure persecution are heroic. But it seems that Peter is telling us that from God’s perspective they are recipients of grace. Peter stresses that to endure suffering is evidence that God is at work in one’s life. There is no glory for the sufferer. No hero worship. No merit for those who are able to endure hardship, no boasting of one’s achievements. It is evidence of God’s grace. It is all a work of God, from beginning to end.
At the end of his letter, where he wants to encourage us, Peter says: “In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation.”
Defeat may seem imminent in the midst of persecution. The disciple needs to be reminded that so is victory. The victory is not, however, as some might suppose, the punishment and destruction of the wicked; the victory is salvation.
God has determined to save the world by the foolishness of the cross of Christ, and by the foolishness of the crosses of his children whom he has chosen and called for this very purpose.
Let me share with you a few facts about persecution and the church today:
In China, the Protestant church had maybe 1,260,000 members in 1949. Today the church has grown to at least 81 million members (registered and unregistered). The Catholic Church has grown from 3 million to over 12 million during the same 50 year period.
In Africa, the rate of church growth has been staggering, skyrocketing from an estimated 10 million Christians in 1900 to 360 million in 2000.
Sudan has the fastest growing church in the Muslim world, despite facing some of the most horrendous persecution known to man in recent years.
In Ethiopia in 1960, evangelicals numbered 200,000 and made up 0.8% of the population. In 40 years, by 2000, the church had grown to nearly 12 million, making up 20% of the population. This took place despite great persecution during the communist era of 1974–1991.
India has ten churches with more than 10,000 members and 30 that have more than 3,000 members. In 1999, one church leader reported baptising 2,231 in a single day. Some Indian denominations are planting a new church every day.
Among the Hmong people of northern Vietnam, there were no evangelical Christians in 1989. In 11 years, by 2000, they numbered over 175,000. The church is brutally oppressed by Vietnamese authorities.
One of the main reasons for the persecution of Christians worldwide has been the church’s rapid growth. It is truer to say that church growth causes persecution than that persecution causes church growth. In some countries, such as Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, persecution has actually caused the church to significantly shrink in size over the past 100 years.
Jesus is quite specific in Matthew 5:11 about what kind of suffering brings blessing.
It isn’t self-denial and fasting. It isn’t when people treat you badly because you are obnoxious. It isn’t because you are paranoid and think everyone is out to get you. This blessing only comes when you suffer because you are faithfully following Jesus, living out your faith in love.
This is real persecution as a direct result of living the Christian way. And Jesus says if we follow him it is what we should expect. This is why so often when we ask persecuted Christians how to pray for them, they don’t ask us to pray for the persecution to be removed. They ask for enough faith so they can endure it to the end.
The first Christians were persecuted and accused falsely of incest, because they called each other brother and sister; cannibalism, because they drank the blood and ate the body of Jesus; atheism, because they didn’t believe in any of the Roman gods; treason, because they wouldn’t worship Caesar; irreligion, because they had neither altars nor temples nor priests; and destroying social order, because they refused to make any distinction between people based on rank or outward appearance, wealth or education, or age or sex.
Just as Jesus told his followers on that peaceful hillside in Galilee, they would pay a high price for being his disciples. They had the most awful painful deaths.
And if you are willing to really follow Jesus, not just play at following him, then you too can expect to suffer as a result of false accusations. Are you ready for this? Let’s pray that we are ready when it comes. That we do live lives worthy of persecution. That our persecuted brothers and sisters will stand firm in their faith. This is our calling. We are called to join the fellowship of the suffering. We are invited to walk together, arm in arm, on the way of hardship and trial.