Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Happy are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”—Matthew 5:10.

FOR this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37) When Jesus said those words, he was before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. Jesus was there neither of his own choice nor at the invitation of Pilate. Rather, he was there because the Jewish religious leaders falsely accused him of being a wrongdoer deserving of death.—John 18:29-31.

2 Jesus knew full well that Pilate had the authority to release him or to put him to death. (John 19:10) But that did not hold him back from speaking boldly to Pilate about the Kingdom. Though Jesus’ life was in danger, he seized the opportunity to bear witness to the highest governmental authority of the region. Despite that witness, Jesus was condemned and executed, dying an agonizing martyr’s death on a torture stake.—Matthew 27:24-26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:24, 25; John 19:13-16.

Witness or Martyr?

3 To many people today, a martyr is more or less the equivalent of a fanatic, an extremist. Those who are willing to die for their belief, especially religious belief, often come under suspicion of being terrorists or at least of being a menace to society. However, the word martyr comes from a Greek term (mar′tys) that in Bible times meant “witness,” a person who gives testimony, perhaps at a court hearing, to the truth of what he believes. It was only later that the expression came to mean “one who gives his life for bearing witness,” or even bearing witness by giving one’s life.

4 Jesus was a martyr primarily in the earlier sense of the word. As he told Pilate, he came to “bear witness to the truth.” His witnessing elicited very different reactions from people. Some among the common folk were deeply moved by what they heard and saw, and they put faith in Jesus. (John 2:23; 8:30) The crowds in general and the religious leaders in particular also reacted strongly—but negatively. Jesus pointed out to his unbelieving relatives: “The world has no reason to hate you, but it hates me, because I bear witness concerning it that its works are wicked.” (John 7:7) For bearing witness to the truth, Jesus incurred the wrath of the nation’s leaders, which led to his death. Indeed, he was “the faithful and true witness (mar′tys).”—Revelation 3:14.

“You Will Be Objects of Hatred”

5 Not only did Jesus himself suffer fierce persecution but he also forewarned his followers that the same would happen to them. Early in his ministry, Jesus told his listeners in his Sermon on the Mount: “Happy are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them. Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you and lyingly say every sort of wicked thing against you for my sake. Rejoice and leap for joy, since your reward is great in the heavens.”—Matthew 5:10-12.

6 Later, when sending out the 12 apostles, Jesus told them: “Be on your guard against men; for they will deliver you up to local courts, and they will scourge you in their synagogues. Why, you will be haled before governors and kings for my sake, for a witness to them and the nations.” But religious authorities would not be the only ones to persecute the disciples. Jesus also said: “Brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise up against parents and will have them put to death. And you will be objects of hatred by all people on account of my name; but he that has endured to the end is the one that will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17, 18, 21, 22) The history of the first-century Christians is a testimony to the truthfulness of those words.

A Record of Faithful Endurance

7 Soon after Jesus’ death, Stephen became the first Christian to die for bearing witness to the truth. He was “full of graciousness and power [and] was performing great portents and signs among the people.” His religious enemies “could not hold their own against the wisdom and the spirit with which he was speaking.” (Acts 6:8, 10) Consumed with jealousy, they dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, where he faced his false accusers and gave a powerful witness. In the end, however, Stephen’s enemies murdered this faithful witness.—Acts 7:59, 60.

8 Following the murder of Stephen, “great persecution arose against the congregation that was in Jerusalem; all except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1) Did persecution put a stop to Christian witnessing? On the contrary, the account tells us that “those who had been scattered went through the land declaring the good news of the word.” (Acts 8:4) They must have felt as the apostle Peter did when he stated earlier: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) In spite of the persecution, those faithful and courageous disciples stuck with the work of bearing witness to the truth, even though they knew that this would lead to more hardship.—Acts 11:19-21.

9 Indeed, there was no letup as far as hardship was concerned. First, we learn that Saul—the man who approvingly witnessed the stoning of Stephen—“still breathing threat and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, in order that he might bring bound to Jerusalem any whom he found who belonged to The Way, both men and women.” (Acts 9:1, 2) Then, in about the year 44 C.E., “Herod the king applied his hands to mistreating some of those of the congregation. He did away with James the brother of John by the sword.”—Acts 12:1, 2.

10 The rest of the book of Acts contains an indelible record of the trials, imprisonment, and persecution endured by faithful ones like Paul, the former persecutor turned apostle, who likely suffered martyrdom at the hands of Roman Emperor Nero about 65 C.E. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27; 2 Timothy 4:6-8) Finally, in the book of Revelation, written toward the close of the first century, we find that the aged apostle John is imprisoned on the penal island of Patmos “for speaking about God and bearing witness to Jesus.” Revelation also contains a reference to “Antipas, my witness, the faithful one, who was killed” in Pergamum.—Revelation 1:9; 2:13.

11 All of this proved true Jesus’ words to his disciples: “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) The faithful early Christians were prepared to face the supreme test, death—by torture, by being thrown to wild beasts, or in any other manner—in order to carry out the commission from the Lord Jesus Christ: “You will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.”—Acts 1:8.

12 Should anyone think that such cruel treatment of Jesus’ followers happened only in the past, he would be sorely mistaken. Paul, who as we have seen endured his share of hardship, wrote: “All those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12) Regarding persecution, Peter said: “In fact, to this course you were called, because even Christ suffered for you, leaving you a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (1 Peter 2:21) Down to these “last days” of this system of things, Jehovah’s people continue to be objects of hatred and hostility. (2 Timothy 3:1) In every corner of the earth, under dictatorial regimes and in democratic lands, Jehovah’s Witnesses have at one time or another suffered persecution, both individually and collectively.

Why Hated and Persecuted?

13 Even though most of us today enjoy relative freedom to preach and to meet together peacefully, we must take to heart the Bible’s reminder that “the scene of this world is changing.” (1 Corinthians 7:31) Things can change so swiftly that unless we are prepared mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we can easily stumble. What, then, can we do to protect ourselves? A powerful line of defense is to keep clearly in mind why peace-loving and law-abiding Christians are hated and persecuted.

14 The apostle Peter commented on this matter in his first letter, which he wrote about 62-64 C.E., when Christians throughout the Roman Empire were undergoing trials and persecution. He said: “Beloved ones, do not be puzzled at the burning among you, which is happening to you for a trial, as though a strange thing were befalling you.” To explain what he had in mind, Peter continued: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters. But if he suffers as a Christian, let him not feel shame, but let him keep on glorifying God in this name.” Peter pointed out that they were suffering, not for committing any misdeeds, but for being who they were. Had they been wallowing in “the same low sink of debauchery” as the people around them, they would have been welcomed and embraced by them. As it was, they suffered because they endeavored to live up to their role as followers of Christ. The situation is the same for true Christians today.—1 Peter 4:4, 12, 15, 16.

15 In many parts of the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses are publicly praised for the unity and cooperation they display at their conventions and building projects, for their honesty and diligence, for their exemplary moral conduct and family life, and even for their wholesome appearance and demeanor.* On the other hand, their work is under ban or restriction in no less than 28 lands as of this writing, and many of the Witnesses suffer physical abuse and loss on account of their faith. Why such evident contradiction? And why does God allow it?

16 First and foremost, we should keep in mind the words of Proverbs 27:11: “Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, that I may make a reply to him that is taunting me.” Yes, it is because of the age-old issue of universal sovereignty. In spite of the mountain of testimony provided by all those who have proved their integrity to Jehovah throughout the centuries, Satan has not stopped taunting Jehovah as he did in the days of the righteous man Job. (Job 1:9-11; 2:4, 5) No doubt, Satan has become even more frantic in his last-ditch effort to prove his claim, now that God’s Kingdom is firmly established, with loyal subjects and representatives around the earth. Will these remain faithful to God regardless of what adversity and hardship may come upon them? This is a question that each servant of Jehovah must answer personally.—Revelation 12:12, 17.

17 In telling his disciples about events that would take place during “the conclusion of the system of things,” Jesus indicated another reason why Jehovah permits persecution to come upon his servants. He told them: “You [will be] haled before kings and governors for the sake of my name. It will turn out to you for a witness.” (Matthew 24:3, 9; Luke 21:12, 13) Jesus himself bore witness before Herod and Pontius Pilate. The apostle Paul too was “haled before kings and governors.” Directed by the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul sought to give a witness to the most powerful ruler of the day when he declared: “I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 23:11; 25:8-12) Likewise today, challenging situations have often resulted in a fine witness being given both to officials and to the public.*

18 Finally, coping with trials and tribulations can benefit us personally. In what way? The disciple James reminded his fellow Christians: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you meet with various trials, knowing as you do that this tested quality of your faith works out endurance.” Yes, persecution can refine our faith and strengthen our endurance. Thus, we do not dread it, nor do we seek unscriptural means to evade or end it. Rather, we heed James’ admonition: “Let endurance have its work complete, that you may be complete and sound in all respects, not lacking in anything.”—James 1:2-4.

19 Even though God’s Word helps us to understand why God’s faithful servants are persecuted and why Jehovah permits it, that does not necessarily make persecution easy to bear. What can fortify us to withstand it? What can we do when we are faced with persecution? We will consider these important matters in the next article.

[Footnotes]

See The Watchtower of December 15, 1995, pages 27-9; April 15, 1994, pages 16-17; and Awake! of December 22, 1993, pages 6-13.

Can You Explain?

• Primarily in what sense was Jesus a martyr?

• What effect did persecution have on first-century Christians?

• As explained by Peter, why were early Christians persecuted?

• For what reasons does Jehovah allow persecution to come upon his servants?

[Study Questions]

 1. Why was Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and what did Jesus say?

 2. What action did Jesus take, leading to what outcome?

 3. What did the word “martyr” mean in Bible times, but what does it mean today?

 4. Primarily in what sense was Jesus a martyr?

 5. Early in his ministry, what did Jesus say about persecution?

 6. What warning did Jesus give when sending out the 12 apostles?

 7. What led to Stephen’s becoming a martyr?

 8. How did the disciples in Jerusalem react to the persecution that came upon them after Stephen’s death?

 9. What persecution continued to come upon Jesus’ followers?

10. What record of persecution do we find in Acts and Revelation?

11. How did the course of the early Christians prove Jesus’ words true with regard to persecution?

12. Why is persecution of Christians not just a matter of history?

13. What should modern-day servants of Jehovah bear in mind as far as persecution is concerned?

14. What did Peter point to as the reason why Christians were persecuted?

15. What contradiction is seen in the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses today?

16. What is the foremost reason that God permits his people to suffer persecution?

17. What did Jesus mean by the words “it will turn out to you for a witness”?

18, 19. (a) How will coping with trials benefit us? (b) What questions will be considered in the next article?

[Pictures on page 10, 11]

The first-century Christians suffered, not for any misdeeds, but for being who they were

PAUL

JOHN

ANTIPAS

JAMES

STEPHEN