Blessed Are the Persecuted

Article
10.28.2014

I recently read this quote from a famous televangelist: “Chase God, and his blessings will chase you.”

I actually think he’s right. The only thing is, I’m not sure I agree with the televangelist’s concept of blessing. This evangelist has multiple homes, a private jet, a fleet of cars, and tax-free cash on hand. These are the blessings he says will chase you if you chase God.

Blessings will chase you if you chase God, but the Bible promises the “blessings” of persecution will chase after you.

NOT WHAT WE EXPECT

How do you know when you are blessed?

NFL players who get paid 6 million bucks a year to catch passes are “blessed,” right? And beautiful actresses who make 4 million dollars a movie? Safe neighborhoods, swimming pools out back, nice green spaces, steady healthcare—these are blessings to most Americans.

Christians, of course, know better. We would say we are blessed when we have peaceful, thriving marriages and families.

But what about Abera Ongeremu? Is he blessed? Ongeremu is a Christian and an evangelist of a different sort, a traveling evangelist. He was visiting at a church in Olenkomi, Ethiopia, when members of the Orthodox Church there stormed the evangelical church building in which he was staying.[1] They ordered him to burn his Bible. He replied that he would not burn the Word of life—so they decided to burn him. They tied his hands, poured diesel all over the room, started the fire, and locked the doors. Ongeremu was certain this was his day to die, but his persecutors weren’t satisfied that their diabolical scheme was a sufficient outpouring of torture. Thus, they dragged him back out of the burning church and beat him until he fell unconscious on the ground. Ongeremu did not die that day.

Would we call Ongeremu blessed or cursed? Jesus would call him blessed: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10).

I doubt that we mean for anything like this to happen when we say to someone, “God bless you.” Quite the opposite! We hope God will show favor through the job, the award, the promotion, the house, the admission to the school, even the world’s favor.

In the New Testament, however, persecution is a blessing. “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11). Blessedness in the Bible is something more and different from what we had imagined.

GOD’S PRESENCE AND INVINCIBILITY

In fact, blessedness is directly related to relationship with Christ, not to material prosperity. The Lord does not say “rejoice and be glad” when you move into a big house. Instead, he warns that it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 19:24). He also tells us to “rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted, for our reward in heaven is great (Matt. 5:12).

To be blessed means that Christ is present with you (Matt. 28:20). And such divine presence makes one invincible. When we are made alive in Christ, we cannot be threatened with death or any of death’s allies because death only promises to bring us nearer into the presence of Christ. To be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).

In Christ, we will never be defeated, like Ongeremu. In Christ, we can value life and death properly, like Moses who forewent the passing pleasures of Egypt to attain the eternal promises of God.

THE TELEVANGELIST WAS RIGHT!

If blessings chase after those who chase after God, as the televangelist said, then what will a truly blessed life look like? It just might mean that danger and suffering will chase after you. Jesus promised this: “But I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19); “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22).

Paul made the same promise: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

So the televangelist was right! Blessings will pursue the one who chases God, but the blessings will be biblical, not material. And one of the blessings may be persecution (Matt. 5:10-12; 1 Pet. 4:14).

THOUGH HE DIES, HE LIVES

True blessings might make our lives less like the televangelist jet-setter and more like Abera Ongeremu or Alphonso Argento. In the fall of 1895, Argento made his way from his native Sicily to London, where he underwent extensive training for China Inland Mission. In his initial interview with China Inland Mission, the Mission warned about the dangers of preaching the gospel in China. His reply: “I am not afraid even to die for Christ and the gospel. I was led to take this step after having known Christ’s promise, ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”[2]

Jesus promised persecution; Argento expected it from the beginning. Jesus also promised eternal life; Argento trusted that, too.

Eventually Argento arrived in China. The country was growing more and more unstable, as many nationalists were growing violently intolerant of Christian missionaries. In July of 1900, the Boxer Rebellion was underway, and the mission station in Henan Province—where Argento was serving—was attacked. Argento was beaten, thrown on a pile of wood, and burned. But he did not die that day. With the help of others, he escaped momentarily.

Then he was stopped and beaten again. This final beating rendered him unconscious. But still, he did not die. More taunting and ridicule from the locals would follow. They told him, “Your God cannot save you. Jesus is dead; he is not in this world. He cannot give you real help. Our god of war is much stronger; he protects us, and he has sent the Boxers to pull down your house and kill you.”

Argento succumbed to his injuries 17 years later and died. But today in the Guangshan area where Argento served, God has raised an army of believers which numbers more than 120,000. Argento, an Italian grain of wheat, suffered and died in China. But, dying, this grain of wheat brought forth much fruit. Everything turned out just as Jesus promised. And Argento never lost the blessing of eternal life. Though he died, he lives (see John 11:26).

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[1] Hattaway, Paul. China’s Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007) 326. This story is adapted from Hattaway’s book, which can be found here.

[2] Reported by World Watch Monitor, “Christians in Ethiopian Town Hit by Unexpected Attack Published: April 15, 2010 by Simba Tian, accessed [on-line] https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2010/04-April/17341/ (August 21, 2014).

By:
Greg Cochran

Greg Cochran is the Director of the Bachelor of Applied Theology program at California Baptist University in Riverside, California.