What Are the Benefits of Being Persecuted for Righteousness?

What Are the Benefits of Being Persecuted for Righteousness? June 30, 2019
“Nero’s Torches” (Christian Candlesticks); Henryk Siemiradzki (1876). “According to Tacitus, Nero used Christians as human torches.” {{PD-US-expired-abroad}} 

The title of this post may seem like an odd question to ask given how seemingly averse many Americans today are to anything taxing, like suffering. Speaking of “taxing,” consider how tax averse many of us who are Americans are to the point of avoiding taxes, even evading taxes in some cases! So, why be taxed–as in being persecuted–for one’s faith? The answer is that there are great benefits in experiencing persecution (regardless of what we think of being taxed monetarily by the government). And, by the way, as St. Peter reminds us, if we suffer for righteousness sake, we will be blessed, and it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (which would include tax evasion). Here’s what 1st Peter 3 has to say on the subject:

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil (1 Peter 3:13-17; ESV).

You can rest assured that the remainder of this post will not discuss how to avoid or evade taxes, but it will address how not to avoid being taxed–as in persecuted for the faith–at all costs as Christians. So, again, what are the benefits of being persecuted for righteousness?

There are four particular benefits I have in mind (though there are likely many more), as I reflect on Matthew chapter 5:10-12, which serves as the conclusion of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12; ESV).

The first benefit I have in mind, as I reflect on these verses, is that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10; ESV). You may be asking: what does righteousness look like or entail? My answer: everything included in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7, beginning with the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-10. The kingdom of heaven does not belong to those who persecute Jesus and his disciples, but to Jesus and his disciples, who live in accordance with Jesus’ kingdom vision recorded in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount.

The second benefit I have in mind, as I reflect on Matthew 5:10-12, is that a great heavenly reward belongs to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: “For your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12; ESV). The passage does not tell us what the reward is, but it is certainly bound up with inheriting the heavenly kingdom through Jesus. No doubt, the entire Sermon on the Mount exemplifies the characteristic traits of the kingdom of heaven. Certainly, personal and social righteousness permeates the entire kingdom, as does the presence of Jesus and his Father in the Spirit. What greater inheritance and reward can there be than to participate in this reality of heavenly righteousness here on earth now and forever?

The third benefit I have in mind, as I reflect on Matthew 5:10-12, is that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake belong to an honored hall of faith: “For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12; ESV; see also Hebrews 11). How striking it is that Jesus tells his followers that they are in good company–the company of the righteous prophets of old–who were persecuted by false prophets, godless rulers, and rebellious people. As we are told in Hebrews 11:38, the world was not worthy of the saints of old who belong to the hallowed hall of faith. The same could be said of Jesus’ disciples, who are the salt and light of the world: the world is not worthy of them either, even though they are critically important to the well-being of the world as its salt and light (See Matthew 5:13-16).

The fourth benefit I have in mind is last, but certainly not least. Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake belong to Jesus–“on my account” (Matthew 5:11; ESV). Perhaps even more striking than the point that the disciples are in good company with the saints of old is that they and the saints of old were/are persecuted on account of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. This claim to Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law finds confirmation in the very verse following the present discussion of persecution for righteousness and salt and light: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17; ESV). Those who are persecuted for righteousness are in exceptionally good company, as they belong to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.

I have spoken of the benefits of being persecuted for righteousness. Now, as we near the conclusion of this post, I will consider the cost of choosing to evade being persecuted for righteousness. Many of you have heard Patrick Henry’s protest that was part and parcel of the American colonies’ determination to go to war against Britain in the 1700’s: “no taxation without representation.” As Christians consider the prospects of spiritual warfare today, and what’s at stake, let’s consider the following claim: “No participation without persecution.” There is no participation with Christ if we do not suffer for him. Unlike many who confess Christ in the U.S. today, the Apostle Paul writes from a prison cell in Rome: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11; ESV). While the New Testament chronicles occasions where disciples like Peter avoid or evade being identified with Christ, they are not permanent evasions, but momentary or short-term lapses. The overarching trajectory is to identify with Jesus in bad times as well as good times, as in the case of Paul, who makes clear here in Philippians 3:10 that to know Christ involves not simply knowing him and the power of his resurrection, but sharing in his sufferings. For Paul, if one constantly avoids or evades persecution, one does not experience participation or sharing in Jesus’ fullness of life.

This point brings us back to the earlier mention of salt and light. In my book Beatitudes, Not Platitudes: Jesus’ Invitation to the Good Life, I reference New Testament scholar Paul Minear’s important exposition of Jesus’ allusion to salt in the context of suffering for the faith. According to Minear, salt was an essential component in the temple liturgy/worship in ancient times. The priests salted the sacrifices. According to Jesus, persecution/suffering/sacrifice is a key characteristic trait of his followers. Jesus’ disciples’ saltiness and suffering for their faith were indissolubly one. When disciples avoid suffering for the gospel, they lose out on the gospel’s power, that is, saltiness (Paul Minear, “The Salt of the Earth,” in Interpretation 51 {January 1997}: pages 34 and 36).

May we not lose out on the power of the gospel by evading being taxed with persecution for the faith. May we not lose out on the benefits of being persecuted for the faith, especially experiencing the fullness of Jesus’ presence. In conclusion, I would ask that you watch this video of Keith Green referencing being persecuted for righteousness in Matthew 5:10 followed by his song, “I Can’t Believe It.” Keith Green, who passed away in a tragic plane crash many years ago, still speaks today. His words and song reveal to us the reality that the martyred missionary Jim Elliot claimed decades earlier: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Like Green, and like Elliot, may we realize that participating in Jesus’ life  makes persecution not only unavoidable, but also endurable, even honorable. As Acts 5:41 highlights, after being persecuted for the name of Jesus, the Apostles departed, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41; ESV). The Apostles and apostolic community could believe and accept the persecution. What they couldn’t believe is that Jesus had given everything for them. He who has given everything for us is worthy of our very lives.

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