How do we know when we are blessed? On first blush, we might respond that we know we are blessed when we have peace with God and peace with our wives and families. Many of us would think we are blessed when we have plenty of money. We think of NFL players making $6 million a year as the ones who are blessed.
But what about Abera Ongeremu, is he blessed? Ongeremu—a traveling evangelist—was visiting at a church in Olenkomi, Ethiopia, when members of the Orthodox Church there stormed the evangelical church building where he was staying. 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 the persecutors weren’t satisfied that this was a sufficient manner in which this evangelical Christian ought to die. Instead, they dragged him back out and beat him until he fell unconscious on the ground. He did not die that day (you can read his story here).
The question is whether we would call Ongeremu blessed, or cursed. According to the Scriptures, Jesus calls this man blessed:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10).
I doubt that we mean for anything like this to happen to people when we say “God bless you” to folks. Indeed, when we seek the Lord’s favor and ask His blessing for ourselves, we are not at all hoping to be treated by the world the way Ongeremu was treated. Quite the opposite, in fact, we are usually hoping that the blessing will cause the world to look on us with favor (thus giving us the job, the contract, the admission to the school, etc.).
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” (Matthew 5:11). As we contemplate persecution (and the persecuted) we realize that blessedness is something more than (and something strangely different from) what we had imagined. Blessedness is directly related to relationship with Christ—not to material prosperity. The Lord does not say “rejoice and be glad” when you become rich. Instead, He warns that it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 19:24). But Jesus does tell us when we are persecuted that we should “rejoice and be glad” for our reward in heaven is great. This is, in fact, the way it has always been for the people of faith (Matthew 5:12).
To be blessed in Christ means to be invincible. It means to be in right relationship to the Living God. When we are made alive in Christ, no death will be a final threat to us (Hebrews 2:14-15). We cannot be threatened with death because death only promises to bring us 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, too, are blessed like Ongeremu and can never be defeated.