Though all of Jesus’ teaching in the “Sermon on the Mount,” is relevant to the twenty-first century church, I found His words regarding persecution to be especially timely. In chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus tells His disciples, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10 LEB). While militant persecution of Christians is still relatively rare in the West, the same cannot be said of much of the rest of the world (e.g. Africa, Asia and the Middle East). According to one Christian organization that monitors persecution, last year “will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era,” with conditions suggesting that it will only continue to get worse. Roughly 100 million Christians are persecuted worldwide, with Islamic extremism being the main cause in the majority of countries.
So what do we make of Jesus’ words that “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness”? I have three thoughts. The first is that as Christians who are actively following Christ, we can expect persecution to come our way. The Lord tells His disciples that just as He was hated and persecuted by the world, they also will be hated and persecuted (Jn. 15:18-20). As followers of Christ, we have no reason to expect freedom from the abuse and mistreatment He faced, “A slave is not greater than his master” (Jn. 15:20 LEB). Secondly, I wonder if one reason that we (in the West) often do not face persecution like Christians in other parts of the world is because we look too much like the world. Perhaps we are not willing to be reviled on account of Christ (Mt. 5:11). Perhaps the ethos of relativism so prevalent in secular culture has crept in and muted our voice so that we are no longer willing to be heard for or live out what we claim to believe. Perhaps rather than being salt and light we are tasteless and opaque. Yes we need to be informed and engaged with the world so that we can minister to it, yet our hunger for righteousness should separate us from the world and will lead to insult and ostracism.
Finally, Christ tells his disciples that they will be “blessed” when they are persecuted on account of Him. I’m not exactly sure what this blessing encompasses, but surely part of it has to do with the conviction that we belong to Christ and that He has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). I pray that my brothers and sisters in Christ in places like N. Korea and Iraq and Eritrea know that blessing to the depths of their soul.