When disciples are persecuted for their faith, they are to rejoice for being accounted “worthy” to suffer for Jesus.
In the experience of the church, the outbreak of persecution is always a possibility, and believers often face hostility from employers, neighbors, and even family members. So, how should they react when the possibility becomes a sudden reality? Fortunately, both Jesus and his apostles left us with clear instructions and examples.
In his ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ Jesus declared the “blessedness” of the disciple who is persecuted for his sake:
- “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and exult, for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” – (Matthew 5:10-12).
Not only so, but the persecuted disciple is to “rejoice and exult” because his suffering for the gospel means his reward will be great. The parallel passage in Luke adds that the disciple should “leap for joy!” when harassed and prosecuted – (“Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for in the same manner did their fathers unto the prophets” – Luke 6:22-23).
This is counterintuitive, something contrary to human wisdom. No normal person enjoys suffering, isolation, or deprivation, nor do they seek it out. And Jesus does not summon us to rejoice because we enjoy pain. No, we are to rejoice because our endurance of suffering for his sake results in great reward in the kingdom of God.
Shortly after Pentecost, we find Peter and the apostles doing the very thing that Jesus had admonished his followers to do. Having been hauled before the Sanhedrin threatened and beaten, they “departed from the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored on behalf of the name” – (Acts 5:41).
By “name” the passage means the name of Jesus, for the council had “charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” The Greek verb used to describe what they endured is quite specific (atimazô) – the intent of the Sanhedrin was to “dishonor” the apostles, presumably in the eyes of the larger Jewish community, and a significant act of contempt by the council in that Honor-Shame culture.
Moreover, they rejoiced that they had been “counted worthy” to suffer for Jesus. This was not some random act or just another arbitrary and unjust action on the part of a corrupt governing body. In the grand scheme of things, Peter and his companions had been selected for a very high honor that is granted to few others.
Therefore, they went their way “rejoicing.” This rendering represents a Greek participle in the progressive present tense, meaning this was not a one-time outburst of joy, but something that they continued to do as they journeyed home. And this is borne out by the paragraph’s conclusion. Despite the threats of the Sanhedrin, the apostles “ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus as the Messiah.”
In Philippi, Paul and Silas were cast into prison and bound in chains for preaching the gospel. Yet rather than become despondent or curse their jailers, they were heard “praying and singing hymns to God” – (Acts 16:23-25).
In Thessalonica, the church received the gospel in “much tribulation” and harassment from their countrymen, yet these new believers welcomed Paul’s message despite the hostility it generated. In that very way, they became “imitators” of him and an inspiration to other Christians in the region – (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).
But suffering for the kingdom’s sake is not some rare thing reserved for only the chosen few, nor is it an aberration. As Paul wrote years later to Timothy, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” – (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
A this-age mindset sees suffering for the gospel as a curse. Only the eye of faith can perceive that it produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come.” The Christian hope is forward-looking.
Final rewards and everlasting life are received in the future. Suffering is not pleasant, but it “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” – (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).
If anything, to suffer “unjustly” is a sign of divine approval, evidence that one is a true disciple. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God’s approval.”
To be rejected because of your faith is what it means to follow the Lord who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow” – (1 Peter 2:19-20).
We are not to “be frightened in anything by our opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence” of their destruction but also of “our salvation.” God has graced us to suffer for His kingdom, and that understanding must govern how we respond to our persecutors – (Philippians 1:28-29).
We respond instinctively to personal and corporate attacks with anger and hostility. Human society conditions us to see self-defense and retaliation as necessary and even morally justified reactions to threats and assaults.
Nevertheless, Jesus prohibited his disciples from engaging in retaliation. Revenge may be the “way the world works,” but his disciples are called to something vastly different.
When we are persecuted, we are to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is precisely by showing mercy to our enemy that we emulate God and become “perfect” like Him – (Matthew 5:44-48).
Likewise, Paul exhorted Christians in Rome to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.” They are to “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but believers must “not avenge” themselves. Instead, they are to leave justice in the hands of the God who will “repay” if, how, and when He sees fit – (Romans 12:14-21).
Peter also taught us to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates our “approval by God,” which, logically, means that our unwillingness to endure persecution, and our determination to avenge ourselves, are signs of His disapproval.
And Peter points to Jesus as the ultimate example of how we are to respond to hostility – For to “this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example” – (1 Peter 2:19-23).
We are summoned to “run with patience the race that is set before us,” and all while looking to Jesus as our forerunner and example, “who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
No, Jesus did not enjoy his sufferings, but he looked beyond them to the exaltation and glories he would receive for faithfully enduring the path God had chosen for him. And that is why the cross became a source of joy for him rather than an emblem of shame and dishonor. And we are called and especially privileged to walk the same path.