by Dieter Reinstorf
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:10.
When Jesus spoke this beatitude, none of His disciple knew what would happen to Him a few years later. Despite never lifting a hand in anger, being merciful and gentle, Jesus was captured in the garden of Gethsemane. He was ridiculed and condemned by the religious leaders of Israel. He was flogged and sentenced to death on the cross by the Roman authorities. He died the most gruesome death ever invented by humankind.
The reason for this horrendous deed is difficult to explain. An indication of what was transpiring is however provided by the evangelist John, who talks about the “light” that shone in the darkness of this world (John 1:50). Light exposes what happens in the darkness. When this light is encountered, there are usually one of two reactions: either you fall on the ground, like Simon Peter did when he encountered Jesus at the Sea and Galilee, and say: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8); or you hate Him. Many may not even be able to explain this hatred. But it is there because darkness has been exposed.
As a result of the darkness in this world, Jesus suffered and died. But He was blessed by God who raised Him from the dead three days later. Death, the wages of sin, had been conquered. There is life and eternal life for all who trust the Lord.
In this beatitude Jesus already prepares His followers for what they can expect in discipleship. They can expect much of the same. As they live a godly life in Christ, they should not expect a “thank you.” On the contrary, the new life in Christ will raise suspicion. At best it will lead the followers of Christ to be hassled and spoken evil of. At worst, they will be persecuted. But those who are persecuted are called “blessed” by Jesus. In fact, Jesus encourages them to “rejoice and be glad,” because their reward will be “great” in heaven (Matthew 5:12).
Christians in the Western World have experienced few physical persecutions. However, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), 900,000 Christians were martyred in the last decade. That is approximately one every six minutes—roughly the time it takes you to read this meditation. You are requested to make a special prayer for these Christian martyrs on Good Friday this year. Pray that God may sustain them in their faith and continue to promote His kingdom.
God’s blessing is not always immediately apparent. However, history testifies that persecution, horrendous as it may be, and church growth often go hand in hand. Initially church membership may decline, but the testimony of faith in difficult times has always increased receptiveness for the Gospel. This is confirmed by a Sri Lankan pastor who noted that during colonial times the Church often had a seat at the table of the politicians. It was not only tolerated but recognized. During this whole time, he writes, there were almost no persecutions and almost no conversions. When, however, under a militant Hindu government, Christians were imprisoned, there was a flood of conversions. Another pastor wrote: In six months in prison, I have been more blessed by the presence and mercy of God, than in six years of preaching in my congregation. The world persecutes, but God blesses.
Nowhere, however, does Scripture promote persecution as something that should be sought. Instead, the apostle Paul encourages us to pray for kings and all those in authority “that we may live peaceful and quite lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). So, as you pray for the martyrs, also give thanks to God for the peace He has provided elsewhere and that we may continue to boldly proclaim the crucified Lord as our Savior.
Prayer: Gracious, heavenly Father, we give you thanks that You send Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, into this world. He suffered at the hands of mankind and died on the cross of Calvary. But through His death came the victory over sin. Having paid the wages of our sin, we are reconciled with You through Christ. We realize that many Christians throughout the world continue to suffer as they mirror the light of Your salvation to a lost world. Keep them in their faith and give them a special measure of Your Holy Spirit, that Your continued presence may sustain them. With all those who can worship You in peace, we give You sincere thanks. Let our testimony of You not wane as we joyfully confess Your Son, the crucified and risen Lord, as our Savior. As the sun rises on Easter morning, let the sun of Your Gospel shine brightly over the whole world. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Dieter Reinstorf is Bishop of the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa and represents the Africa World Region on the International Lutheran Council’s Board of Directors.