Are you prepared to suffer for Christ? For most of us in the west, the answer is no. For the majority of the Christians in the rest of the world, the answer is yes. “Christianity was born in a world of totalitarianism … it was not strange to be persecuted. What is strange historically, is that we are not” (John Piper). For the first 300 years, Christians had no legal protection in the Roman Empire. To become a follower of Jesus meant risking everything.
In his book “Killing Christians: Living the Faith Where It’s Not Safe to Believe,” Tom Doyle says Christians in the Middle East ask new converts two questions:
Are you ready to suffer for Christ?
Are you ready to die for Christ?
He goes on to say that those questions are not hypothetical. A Muslim who becomes a follower of Jesus risks losing everything, including his own life. The same is true for Hindus in India who set out on the “Jesus Road.”
There is no doubt that persecution is on the increase all over the world. The most recent report from Open Doors, a ministry serving the persecuted church worldwide, says that 2016 was the worst year yet for persecution. North Korea sits at the top of that list as the most dangerous place on earth to be a Christian. Reports have filtered out of torture, imprisonment, rape, and murder of anyone who is suspected of being a follower of Christ.
Why does God allow these things to happen to our brothers and sisters?
It helps to remember that Jesus predicted it. In the final Beatitude in Matthew 5:11-12, He even promised a blessing to those who are persecuted, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Of all the beatitudes, this one would surely be the least popular. By definition, persecution involves pain and suffering and who wants that? Most of us would rather have the blessing that comes to the merciful than the blessing that comes to the persecuted. Few healthy people freely choose the path of persecution.
The key to understanding this principle lies in the word “righteousness.” Take the first part of that word, right. The word “right” means “straight.” When your life is straight by God’s standards, it is righteous.
We live in a crooked world filled with people whose lives are made crooked because of sin. What happens when you put a straight stick next to a pile of crooked sticks? The straightness of the straight stick exposes the crookedness of the crooked stick. You don’t have to say anything in that case, the difference is obvious for all to see.
This beatitude might be translated, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because their lives are straight.” Persecution is a sign your life is straight in the eyes of the world. There is a sense in which persecution separates the real from the fake. God uses persecution to show the world what a real Christian looks like.
You may remember the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Libya in February 2015. They were marched out in orange jumpsuits, each one standing in front of a man dressed in black. One by one their throats were slit, all of it captured on video and shared with the world by the terrorists. Many of the men died with the name of Jesus on their lips. No one recanted. A few months later Tom Doyle visited the Christian villages south of Cairo where most of the men came from. It was not easy to get there and not entirely safe to go there. He met with the families of the men who had been beheaded. That very day we interviewed him on American Family Radio. When we asked him what the families had said, he replied they spoke of their deep pride in their men. They repeated the Scripture promises of heaven. Then they said of the martyred men, “They were like lions. Did you see how brave they were? They walked without fear.”
They were like lions!
Like lions who follow the Lamb who is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
The Christian life is hard.
Sometimes it is very hard indeed.
That’s why 1 Peter 4:17 says, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
In the vast Roman Empire of the first century, the cult of Caesar-worship helped unify the many nations Rome ruled. The word Caesar in Greek is kaisar, and those who worshiped Caesar were called kaisarianos. As the gospel began to spread, the followers of Jesus were given a nickname by the Romans and Greeks. They were called christianos, Christ-followers. It was a derisive term, an insult. The early believers would not say, “Caesar is Lord.” They would rather die than say those words. This is why the early church was persecuted. Thus the lines were drawn very early:
Caesar or Christ!
What if it comes down to this—Caesar or Christ? What will you do? What if they threaten you because of your faith? Peter’s answer is clear: “Let him not be ashamed.”
I think for Peter this was very personal. I think he remembered that dark night when Jesus was arrested. While he warmed himself around the fire, a young girl said to him, “Weren’t you one of his disciples?” And he denied the Lord with an oath. Three times he denied Christ. Then the rooster crowed. Peter knew all about the sense of shame because he never forgot the night he denied the Lord. The word “ashamed” means “to dishonor.” Don’t do anything to dishonor the name of the Lord. Instead, praise God that you are counted worthy to suffer for His name. If Jesus lays His cross on your back, don’t be ashamed to carry it.
We don’t have the full answer as to why some believers suffer severe persecution and others don’t, but we can be certain that our God knows what he is doing. Persecution is terrible, but unfaithfulness to God is far worse.
Never be surprised by hard times.
Never be ashamed of Jesus.
May God give us the courage to stand strong for Jesus, no matter what.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is a co-host on AFR radio program Todays Issues. He is the founder and president of Keep Believing Ministry. He has also been in the ministry for more than 30 years serving as an apologist, pastor, and author of several books.