This week at my women's study we will be looking at Jesus' teaching that if you are persecuted, you are blessed. Having just returned from a formerly communist country, Romania, this subject of persecution has been greatly on my mind, but probably not how you would think.
Persecution historically has been unable to extinguish the church. As a matter of fact, in most places it strengthened the church and caused revival. How can that be? When your life is on the line, why would people choose to die? The believers who gave their lives for Christ understood that to live is Christ and to die is gain. In A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir, Collin Hanson and John Woodbridge say this:
This confirms Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, as He explains that the citizens of His kingdom come completely broken over their sin, with mourning and sorrow - they recognize their beggarly state. Understanding what they have been saved from produces a willingness to lay their life down for the Savior and whether it's revival or not, persecution becomes validation of their loyalty to Christ.
Fast forward to today - there is still physical persecution in the world. Christians are losing their livelihoods or lives for the sake of Christ. Men, women and children are beaten for the cause of Christ, they have had their hands cut off, they are thrown out of their families, their homes and businesses are burned and in many cases their lives are taken from them. They are ridiculed and mocked, considered weak and rejected. And yet the church survives.
But this is not the persecution seen in many places today. In Romania, the persecution of the church mainly comes from within the church. Churches within the same denomination are vile and wicked toward each other - spreading lies and gossip to destroy other believers. The ridicule and mocking still accompany the threats, and lines are quickly drawn for believers to choose with whom they align. From music to clothing, preaching styles to head coverings, leadership organization to women's roles - the legalism is weighty on the shoulders of the believers and the controversy is not simply difference of opinions but all out hatred against brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sadly, this is the type of persecution experienced today in America. While the nation as a whole is testing the waters of freedom of religion, currently the in-fighting within the body of Christ is the main source of harassment in the church. Churches have become social engagements, seeking membership more than discipleship - straying from the call to preach the Word, deal with sin and love one another. Sin has separated family members as well as church members, all who are covered by the blood of Christ.
As I have prepared for this lesson on persecution, I couldn't help but wonder if the in-fighting in the church was included in the persecution Jesus was teaching about. So this morning, I was reading through the passage again and this phrase stuck out to me:
"Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you..."
Insults and false, evil gossip are exactly what is flowing through the churches today, and Jesus' reference to the rejection of the prophets who were rejected by whom? The people they were called to preach to - the chosen children of God - these words confirmed in my heart that Jesus included persecution within the church in His teaching. He knew exactly what was going to happen and He gave words of comfort to hold on to in times of struggle.
The key is the three words, "because of Me." If we want to embrace and rejoice in our persecutions, we have to be sure that it is because of Jesus that we are being harassed and rejected, even within the church. We have to check our motives and what we stand on - are we being mocked and ridiculed because of our love for Jesus, or because of our own sinful tendencies? This is a high mark that forces us to examine ourselves before crying "foul!" before the Lord.
Father, forgive our petty differences. Forgive our in-fighting. Forgive our selfish, sinful attack on other believers. May we love each other in the name of Your Son. May we be unified in Your Word. The fields are massive and the workers need to quit fighting and join ranks for the glory of Your name. May our church be a beacon of light to a dying world, rather than the object of harassment or the source of persecution of other children of God. Strengthen Your church in Your Word and give endurance to those who are experiencing the false, evil gossip within the church. Specifically strengthen our brothers and sisters in Romania who are battling to establish the biblical model of church within a nation crushed by communism and legalism. We love You, Lord - You are our God. There is none like You.