Some complain that Christians are now a persecuted group in America. They cite the apparent increase in support of certain sins. They mention the removal of Bibles and prayer from schools; although neither has been banned except as a mandatory practice. They bring up the removal of Jewish scriptures (the Ten Commandments) or nativity scenes from government buildings. They object to the term “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” None of these things, in and of themselves or collectively, really constitutes persecution. But even if Christians are mildly persecuted in America (as opposed to being beaten, imprisoned, or killed as in other countries), that may not be a necessarily bad thing.
Jesus had a different view of persecution than we generally hold. He thought of it as an occasion for rejoicing.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt 5:10-12)
On another occasion the Jewish leaders threatened to kill Jesus because he had performed a miracle on the Sabbath. After defending his actions, he told his disciples, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” (Jn 15:20) It seems that Jesus is saying that if we are not persecuted we may be doing something wrong. If we are following him, we will be persecuted; if we are not persecuted, we may not be noticeably following him.
In another sense, though, persecution may be beneficial. A lack of persecution can lead to complacency. The message of the prophet Haggai was, “wake up and rebuild the Temple.” The people who had stayed in Jerusalem when others were carried off to Babylon had become complacent. It took Haggai, Nehemiah, and the high priest Joshua the son of Josedech to start building, and only then did the surrounding people start persecuting them.
One can look earlier in Israel’s history. After years in Egypt the people became slaves. They could have buckled under this persecution but they did not.
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. (Ex 1:11-12)
This same pattern held true for the first-century church. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Stephen was executed. Then things changed, ultimately for the better.
And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. (Acts 8:1, 4)
Had this persecution not arisen, the church would not have spread outside Jerusalem. It is even possible that God caused, or at least allowed, this persecution for that purpose. Just as the confusion of languages at Babel caused men to disperse, so persecution can cause people to spread and increase the population of the church.