“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matt. 5:10-12
Imagine that tonight when you go home you find your home on fire. As the reality that everything you own is now being reduced to ash sets in, you realize that there is something in the house that is so valuable and so precious that you must go in after it. What would it be? What would you risk your life for? You run through the burning doorway into the smoke and heat for…what? You see, what you are willing to risk your life and suffer for reveals what you believe to be most valuable. I doubt many of you would run in to grab your favorite pair of socks, but maybe you would run in if one of your family members was trapped inside. In our minds the value of a person is infinitely higher than the value of your socks, so we’ll put ourselves in harms way. Again, what we are willing to suffer for reveals what we truly love most.
In our final beatitude we see Jesus conclude his succinct description of what the defining characteristics of a Christian disciple looks like, ending with “persecution for righteousness’ sake”. Since this is our final week in the beatitudes, let’s review quickly Christ’s description of those in His Kingdom: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted for His name’s sake.
What does it mean to be “persecuted”, Why are we “persecuted”, How do we walk through “persecution”?
The term “persecution” is not a word you probably use that often, though you may be familiar with it. “Persecution” is an act of hostility or violence against someone because of their identity. So, for example, African-Americans for the majority of our country’s history have been persecuted through slavery and the absence of civil rights because of their race. Or what is currently happening in the middle-east, where Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims are suffering under a genocidal persecution from ISIS. It was about a year ago when Al Shaabab, a Somalian terrorist cell, attacked a Kenyan college and systematically killed 150 Christians.
When we hear stories like that it seems almost impossible to even believe. In America, experiencing violence or death because of our Christian convictions almost never happens.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t experience persecution here in America. We certainly do not experience what our brothers and sisters are experiencing in the Middle-East, or China, or India. But there is more to persecution than just physical violence or intimidation. Christ tells us, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” (Matt. 5:11). The persecution Christ speaks of here includes people attacking you with words (revile…utter). This is the predominant form of persecution that you will face in your day-to-day life here in North Platte, Nebraska. What could this look like? This could be people mocking you, making fun of you, gossiping about you, spreading lies about you, out and out criticizing you, or excluding you from social circles.
If that is what persecution is, then the important question we must ask is why we are experiencing that persecution. If experiencing persecution looks like people attacking us, picking on us, or just opposing us – then does that mean that every time we are picked on or opposed that we are experiencing the persecution that Jesus is talking about here? No, it does not. You could be picked on or hated, but it have nothing to do with Jesus – you may just be really obnoxious, contentious, or rude.
Jesus explains that we are blessed if we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and on his account. Jesus is saying that when we live for Christ and His Kingdom, when we seek to love God and obey Him, there will be those in this world who hate you for it. Why? Later, in Jesus’ final words to His disciples he explains,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. ’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” (John 15:18-20).
So Jesus’ answer for why the world is persecuting us? Because we follow Jesus, and they persecuted Jesus, so we shouldn’t expect anything different. But why did the world persecute Jesus?
“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father,” (John 15:22-24).
The world hated Jesus because He spoke the truth, truth about sin, judgment, and Him being the only way to the Father. Here’s one example, in John 8 Jesus says, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” (John 8:24). That conversation eventually ends with the people picking up rocks to stone Jesus with (8:59).
Friends, we have to ask ourselves: when was the last time we told someone something like John 8:24? When was the last time you waded into a conversation you knew might be uncomfortable, but did it anyways because you wanted to tell the truth about Jesus? Now obviously, it is never our goal to be persecuted. We are not trying to be difficult or pick a fight, as if that was the end goal. Our goal is not to be offensive, our goal is to testify to Christ – which at times can be offensive. But even in our testifying to what we know to be offensive, we want to do so in the most respectful way possible – look at Peter’s wisdom,
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness ‘sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Pet. 3:14-15).
We speak truth with gentleness and respect, but not out of fear of man, but from honoring Christ. But do you notice what Peter is assuming in this passage? He is assuming that your life is so radically different than the world around you that people are actually coming up to you and asking “for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Maybe no one is coming up and asking you because your life looks you are hoping in the same thing that they are hoping in – there’s nothing supernatural or unique about your life, so why ask? Remember what Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world… the world hates you,” (John 15:19). Friend, does the world love you as its own? Do you want it to? I think Jesus’ parallel teaching on the beatitudes in Luke 6 makes this even more explicit,
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets…But woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets,” (Luke 6:22-23, 26).
I think this beatitude may be one of the most difficult teachings of Christ for our generation, because honestly, in our heart of hearts, what we want most is simply to be liked. We want to play the popularity game and win, and have enough Jesus in our life so we feel good about ourselves, but not enough that we jeopardize our social status. God have mercy on us. And again, our goal is never to simply be offensive as an end in itself. Romans 12:18 tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We should always exude gentleness, respect, and love – but we will always testify to the truth of Jesus, no matter what. So if they are snickering at you for reading your Bible at school, calling you a homophobe and intolerant because you believe what the Bible says about sexuality, or just stop hanging out with you because you are taking Jesus so seriously – you walk that path gladly.
Which naturally brings us to our last question: How do you find that kind of courage? Where do you get that kind of joy that Jesus talks about? How do you have the freedom from fear or discouragement that Peter talks about?
You look to the reward. Jesus twice reminds us that our joy that is present in our persecution comes from the knowledge that there is a great reward awaiting us in heaven, the inheritance of the very kingdom of heaven. When you look at the story of the early Church in the book of Acts, it is just mind blowing how the apostles of Christ are able to endure radical persecution, but do so with joy. Like in Acts 5 when the apostles are all arrested for the second time, commanded not to preach Christ any longer, and then seriously beaten and “they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name,” (Acts 5:41). How do they do that? They looked forward to the reward. Here’s how the apostle Paul explains,
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal,” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Do you see what Paul is saying there? Your present suffering is not only “light and momentary” in comparison with the reward that is to come, but it is also “preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”. Your suffering, your exclusion, your humiliation, your pain, your loneliness for Jesus’ sake is not pointless! It is doing something! The heavy hammer of suffering is driving the pillars of glorious joy deeper into eternity for you.
So do not look to things that are seen, but look to what is unseen for your hope and joy. What is that? That is the kingdom of God, an eternity ruling and reigning with King Jesus over the New Creation. Listen to this description of what is to come, “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever,” (Rev. 22:3-5).
This world feels so permanent, feels so long, that we can begin to feel like this is home. We focus on doing good in school and sports, so one day we can get into college, so one day we can get a job, so we can make a lot of money, so we can have a family, so we can get a house, go on vacations, send our kids to college, retire, and die in a nursing home. That starts to feel like real life to us and we can lose sight of reality. Oh friends, do not buy into this cheap counterfeit of life – this world is passing away. In 80, maybe 90 years, everyone in this room will be dead, and we will walk into eternity. We are just in the prelude of the epic novel of God’s story. Don’t live like this life is all there is. Don’t settle for the safe, cheap kiddie-pool sized dream that our world is selling you when there is an ocean of God awaiting you. It is not safe, and it will probably swallow you whole – but in it, you will find what your soul is longing for most.
A Life That Looks to What is Unseen
In the 1800’s, two British missionaries landed on a small set of islands East of Australia, hoping to witness to the aboriginal tribes living on the islands. Within minutes of landing on the shore they were killed and eaten by cannibals. 19 years later, John G. Paton, with his new wife, planned on traveling to these very islands to reach out to these same aboriginal tribes. A respected elder, outraged that he would do something so foolish, exploded, “You will be eaten by cannibals!” To which Paton replied, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer. (p. 56, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebredes) I want that kind of courage and resolve for you.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also,
The body they may kill,
God’s Truth abideth still
His Kingdom is forever.
(Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”)