Matthew 5:10-12 says the following: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NRSV).
One can ask various questions about this passage. Are Christians in America truly persecuted, since this is the land of the free? When are we legitimately persecuted for our beliefs, and when do we bring unnecessary persecution on ourselves (e.g., by being obnoxious)?
I’m not really going to touch on those questions today, as good as they may be. My intention when I write about my daily quiet time is not to offer an encyclopedic explanation of a given passage, but rather to discuss what was important to me in my time with God. And it is different at different times, since I am different at different times.
The main question that entered my mind is another query that Christians often raise about this passage: Would I (James Pate) be willing to suffer and die for Christ? Suppose I lived in an Islamic country, where people have to choose between renouncing Jesus Christ and death. Would I renounce the name of Christ to save my own skin? If I lived in Communist China, would I embrace the inconvenience that comes with being a member of a church? Is Jesus worth all of that?
I first became a Christian in my sophomore year of high school. If you would have asked me at that time if I were willing to die for Christ, I would have given you an unequivocal “yes.” I discussed this with one Christian classmate of mine, and she told me that, in her youth group, the leader asked its members what they would do if someone burst into the meeting, pointed a gun at them, and told them to renounce Jesus Christ. And this was long before that horrible incident at Columbine.
In my early Christian days, I read books such as Ellen G. White’s The Great Controversy and the famous Fox’s Book of Martyrs, books that were mainly about the Catholic persecution of the Protestants. I said to myself, “Suppose I were them? Would I die for my faith? I believe that I would. Looks like I’m a real Christian, after all!”
But if you asked me that question today, I’m not sure what I would answer. In order to die for Jesus Christ, I need to love Jesus Christ. And my feelings about him and Christianity are rather mixed. I like the idea that he died for me, since that demonstrates a lot of love on his part. But, in the Gospels, he seems to attach so many conditions onto salvation that I wonder if I can ever be secure. I can’t hate? I can’t lust? Granted, these are thoughts that are not exactly healthy, but I’m only human. And God will forgive me only if I forgive others? What is forgiveness? Does it mean I have to be friends with my enemies? After all, when God forgave me, he became my friend. Will he keep being my friend only if I feel good about people I don’t like?
And it was much harder for Christians in New Testament times, let me tell you. In America, there are lots of Christians, so becoming a Christian usually doesn’t lead to being kicked out of one’s family or community. In New Testament times, however, faith in Christ divided Jewish families. The Roman authorities persecuted Christians. I once read that Christians in the Roman empire were like Communists in 1950’s America, in terms of society’s perception of them: they were that stigmatized.
Suppose someone pointed a gun at my head and said, “Renounce Jesus or die.” On the one hand, I can see myself saying, “Go ahead. Pull the trigger!” That’s not so much because I love Jesus as I should, but more because this life can be pretty hard. Plus, if I die as a martyr, maybe I’ll enter the good afterlife and avoid the bad one (h-e-double hockey sticks). But, then again, I Corinthians 13 says that martyrdom doesn’t count if a person lacks love, so oh well. Nobody’s perfect, even though Jesus tells us to be (Matthew 5:48).
On the other hand, I have such resentment against Christianity that I can envision myself saying to myself, “Christianity is not worth dying over.” Add to that my doubts. There are times when I wonder why I should believe that Christianity is true while all other religions are false. I mean, what proof do we actually have? Sure, Christianity has merit because it can help someone become a better person, but so can other belief systems. Is belief in Christ important, or is just being a good person enough? If I cannot even be sure that Christianity is true, then why should I die for it?
My thoughts in my last paragraph scared me when I was doing my daily quiet time, for I felt like I was entering dangerous territory. But they are important because they lead me to a crucial question: Is Christ worth it, and, if so, why?
I have three musings on this:
1. Polycarp was the Christian bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the John the apostle. He became a martyr in the second century C.E. When the Romans asked him to renounce Christ, he replied, “Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9:12).
That reminds me of certain passages from the Hebrew Bible. “You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense” (Isaiah 43:23). “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3).
For Polycarp, Second Isaiah, and Micah, following God is not a burden, for God is not a slavemaster. I can add some New Testament passages to that effect.
Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I John 5:3: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Unfortunately, I do view God’s commandments as burdensome, for I find loving others to be extremely difficult. If God were to ask me, “How have I wearied you?” I can come up with a list. But, at the same time, these texts do provide me with a certain degree of comfort, for they tell me that things are not supposed to be this way. God is not a slavemaster. His commands are not a burden. So maybe I’m seeing the situation all wrong.
2. I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting this last Wednesday, and it was a good meeting. All sorts of people were in the same room, offering each other their strength, hope, and wisdom. They talked about how AA has helped them get their lives back together, as they learned to love others, have good relationships, be responsible, and depend on God amidst life’s difficulties. At the end of the meeting, everyone joined hands for the Lord’s prayer. They were blacks, whites, and Asians, well-dressed professionals and people who were probably homeless. Yet they were drawn together by a common spiritual bond.
These people had a deep sense of gratitude to God and to AA. And that may be how Christians are to view Jesus. Jesus is someone who has changed people’s lives for the better. As a gentle teacher and Savior, he has taken them from their old, self-centered lives into lives of hope, love, and purpose. In the first century and thereafter, he brought together diverse kinds of people–rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, slave, and free–into a divine family of brothers and sisters. Is Jesus worth persecution and death? When we consider his values, and compare them to the self-centered immorality of most of society, then the answer is “yes.” Many early Christians died for their belief that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t, and they were right to do so. Jesus is a just, loving, and merciful king, while Caesar was a brutal dictator. To testify with one’s life that this is true is a worthwhile endeavor.
3. But not every Christian feels this way about Jesus, and so Jesus is not above using warnings to influence our behavior. Matthew 10:28-33 is an example of such:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
Jesus warns Christians that he can cast them into hell. That is incentive enough to die for him if one must choose between Jesus and this temporal life. Of course, Jesus doesn’t want us to see God as a big ogre, since he assures us that we are of more value to him than many sparrows. But he does not hesitate to give us warnings.
So is Jesus worthy of persecution and death? Well, there’s a possibility that he may be the Son of God, so I don’t want to take the chance of crossing him!