Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:10-12
In the beatitudes Jesus says a Christian’s pilgrimage is much like climbing up one side of a mountain and then descending the other side. One begins with a sense of his own abject spiritual poverty before God. Then he learns to care, to grieve over sin. Next he is meek, filled with humility. Finally, the Christian reaches the peak of the mountain he has hungered and thirsted to attain. And he is satisfied.
But God will not allow us to sit upon the heights savoring our relationship with Him alone. He directs us down the other side of the mountain. Hence the next four beatitudes deal specifically with our relationship with people. The first step down is mercy. As I have myself received mercy, I am urged to offer mercy to others. Next my motives are called into question. Are they pure? Downward I climb to be a peacemaker, to be a nurturer. And finally I come all the way down among sinful humanity to where I am persecuted. The thanks I get for my trouble to be merciful, pure, and a peacemaker is to be misunderstood, slandered, rejected, imprisoned, and perhaps slain.
The eighth beatitude is the odd one in that it is not a description of some positive character trait found in a Christian. It is rather the Christian life: suffering at the hands of people.
Ah, but one must marvel at the sheer honesty of Jesus Christ. Today, many preachers tell us that if we believe in Jesus our sins will not only be forgiven, but we’ll become a king’s kid– prosperous, never sick, always loved and appreciated. But this is not what Jesus told the twelve at their ordination. Quite the opposite! Our Lord said we’d be “reviled,” “persecuted,” and victimized by people “uttering all kinds of evil against” us.
This is not exactly a popular message to preach. But Jesus is honest. He tells us up front what to expect. And that is that the Christian life is not only hard, it is unpopular and will likely get you in at least as much trouble as it will get you out of in this life! So all through our life with Christ, we must remember that God is not so much interested in making us comfortable as he is in making us holy.
With this in mind, let’s take the last step off the mountain down into the eighth beatitude and see what is there for us.
What is Persecution?
In the Greek persecution means “to pursue,” “to press toward.” Hence, persecution means pressure. Three words or phrases in the text aptly describe it: “revile,” “persecute,” and “utter all kinds of evil against you.” What Jesus is saying is this: “If you live with the character of these beatitudes forming in your person you can reasonably expect society to put you under pressure.
Persecution takes various forms. It can be verbal: “all kinds of evil uttered against you!”
Early Christians were slandered by outsiders who believed they were cannibals and given to sexual orgies. Since they met in secret, ate the Lord’s supper as Christ’s body and blood, and were so affectionate with one another, it is easy to see how such talk got started.
Still today Christians are victimized by the lies and slander of the human tongue. Just look how believers are portrayed in mass media as ignorant, intolerant, easily led, no fun, hypocritical, and having a low view of women.
Persecution can surpass mere talk. It can be economic. A certain early Christian stonemason was offered a contract to build a pagan temple. He needed the work. But there was a conflict between his faith and his business interests. He laid the problem before his pastor and concluded with the remark, “What can I do? I must live!” “Must you?” asked the pastor.
It is the same today with Christian doctors and nurses called upon to perform abortions, Christian grocers pressed to stay open on the Lord’s Day, a quick market clerk asked to sell pornography, or a waitress asked to dress in a suggestive manner and serve plenty of alcoholic beverages to lusty clients.
Sometimes a Christian must say no and suffer the economic consequences.
Persecution can also take the form of social pressure.
In the ancient world, most parties were held in pagan temples. An invitation might read, “I invite you to dine with me at the table of our lord Serapis.” A lamb was killed with a small portion burned to their god. A part was given to the priests. Then the rest was eaten at a dinner party. The whole affair began with a prayer to idols and a cup of wine poured out to Serapis.
Christians could not participate in such affairs. So all too often their social life dried up and they became lonely and ostracized.
Family pain is yet another form persecution takes. Often a man became a Christian but his wife did not. So a religious division developed in the household. Thus values, holidays, and worship became a source of contention.
How often I have watched young men and women at college convert to Christ, spend a year growing up, and go home over the summer to mildly religious parents who scorn their newfound faith.
Persecution can also become political in nature. When the Christian church was young, the Roman Empire was experiencing disunity. The emperors tried to use religion, specifically emperor worship, to unify the nation. It became law that each citizen must pledge his first allegiance to the state. The image of Caesar was set up in each town and once a year each person must stand before it, burn a pinch of incense and bow down saying, “Caesar is lord!” Having done so he was given a certificate allowing him to buy and sell as a loyal Roman citizen.
For Christians such an act was a defilement. Only Jesus is Lord. So they went without the certificate and were thus considered outlaws. Many were hunted down and killed. Others were thrown to the lions as sport in the arena. Others were wrapped in oily rags and used as human torches in Nero’s palace gardens.
And it is very possible that we shall see such terror rear its ugly head again in our generation.
What, then is persecution? It is pressure brought to bear on Christians that is meant to hinder or destroy. It can be verbal, social, economic, even political.
Where Does Persecution Originate?
Some persecution comes from outside the church.
In 286 A.D. Emperor Maximan of Rome ordered the army to take part in a pagan sacrifice and then assist in purging Christianity from Gaul. A certain legion of over 600,000 soldiers, all Christians, refused. The emperor ordered a decimation. Every tenth man was killed– over 60,000 men! The rest of the army stood by Jesus. A second decimation was ordered. The rest of the army stood firm in the faith. So Emperor Maximan ordered the entire legion slaughtered.
Persecution almost invariably arises from people who have something to lose. In this case it was an egomaniacal emperor who refused to allow any God but himself.
But persecution does not just come from outside the church. Often as not, it originates inside the church. Jesus’ worst tormentors were religious Pharisees. And if you study church history there is a corrupt and bloody side to it that is most depressing. As it usually happens, the church slides into corruption and ineffectiveness. A reformer steps forward. There is a response of jealousy, anger, and a panic attempt to maintain one’s own position. Then the persecution starts.
During the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer set out to cleanse the church in Great Britain by calling her back to the Bible. He was arrested and tortured, and eventually recanted. For his signature on a document denouncing his reform efforts, he was given his freedom. He shortly came to his senses, reannounced his reforms, and was rearrested and burned at the stake. As he faced death he said, “Now I come to that which troubles my life more than anything that I ever did or said in my whole life, and that is that through fear of death I signed with my hand what I do not believe in my heart. When I come to the fire, this hand shall be the first to burn.” Thomas Cranmer went to the stake smiling. When the fire leaped up, he held his right hand in the flame until it was burned away.
Let’s face it: whether persecution comes from inside the church or outside, it is Satan who inspires it. For the devil has hated Jesus, his words, and his people from the start. And he’d like nothing more than to destroy it.
Why Does Persecution Come?
This eighth beatitude is often grossly misunderstood. It doesn’t say, “Blessed are the persecuted.” It says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” You see, this beatitude gives Christians no license to be dumb, to go “asking for it,” to be immature, to be ill-tempered and rude, or even to do something wrong.
Too often Christians call persecution down on their own heads. Because of self-righteous and objectionable behavior we deserve the pain we receive! I well recall a group of high school students who sat proudly in the center of the school cafeteria and both prayed and read Scripture loudly. You can imagine the rest of the students’ reaction… Persecution!
This beatitude says we’re blessed when we so become like Jesus that persons take offense at us. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20).
Never forget that people tried to stone Christ, to throw him over a cliff. He was rejected in his hometown, a murderer was chosen over him, a friend betrayed him, and he was executed on a cross. All this and Jesus said we could expect more of the same. He said, “You will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9). He even said there’d come a day when people kill Christians and think they’ve done God a favor!
So our persecution should never be because we are immature or guilty of wrongdoing, but because we are like Jesus, the result of a clash between two irreconcilable kingdoms, two different value systems. And we become a threat to the sinful way things are.
How Do We Respond?
So far we’ve asked of persecution: What is it? Where does it come from? Why does it come? Now, we must inquire: How do I respond to persecution?
None of us wants to be hurt, rejected, tormented, misunderstood, or jailed. When we are, what’s our reaction?
Some opt for avoidance, wallowing in the fear of involvement. I like the cartoon that has a Roman Christian being led out to the lions in the arena. “Okay,” he says to the guards, “I’ll admit to being a Christian. But I never served on any boards or anything like that.”
Shame is another response. “I must be a bad person if this is happening to me.”
Then there is anger at God. “I deserve better than this. What sort of father are you if you can’t take any better care of your children?”
I could go on chronicling pity, depression, and all manner of retaliation. But the text says our response should be to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” In the Greek it means “to leap up exceedingly high for joy!”
“For so men persecuted the prophets before you,” Jesus said. In the early church, to suffer for Christ was considered a privilege, a badge of honor which men like David, Noah, Gideon, Elijah, Stephen, Paul and Jesus wore.
Polycarp, the 86-year-old leader of the early Turkish church, was arrested for being a Christian. He was given the choice to worship Caesar and live, or profess Jesus and die. “Eighty and six years have I served Christ and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” So he was burned at the stake. His last prayer? “I thank Thee that Thou has graciously thought me worthy of this hour.”
Jesus said we could also rejoice because “great is your reward in heaven.” This world is not all there is. For there is an afterlife, a heaven, a paradise with Christ. One may take my life, my car, my job, my loved ones, my reputation, my money, but no one can rob me of Jesus and my reward. “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
Another reason we can rejoice in our persecution is that by our struggles we can make things better for those who follow. There is a World War II soldiers’ cemetery in England. The gate sign reads, “Remember all you who pass by, we gave our tomorrows for your todays.” Certainly there are sacrifices, hurts, and forfeitures any Christian worth his salt must offer up to Christ these days. But why? Why? The answer is: we do it for our children and our grandchildren.
Yet another cause to leap for joy in our trials and tribulations is because of how such pressure forms our character. In 1 Peter 1:7 our persecutions are described as trial by fire. But in Malachi 3:2 God says he is Lord of the refiner’s fire. I have ventured to Israel and seen the street vendors who take silver coins, melt them in their small fire pots and refine them into jewelry. Every few minutes the silversmith will look into his pot and take a spoon and skim the impurities off the top. He knows his silver is pure when he can see his face in the molten silver.
Likewise God uses pain, the furnace of affliction, to refine us. How does he know when we are done? When he can see himself in us.
Stand Tall and Straight
The eighth beatitude is the longest of them all, and the only one with a commentary attached. This one is simply so hard it has to be explained.
Notice that the eighth beatitude is uttered in the third person to people in general. But the commentary is uttered in the second person. It is specifically directed to the disciples, as it is now to you and to me so directed.
Strange to go from peacemaking to persecution. But Jesus is saying if we live like him the world will certainly recoil in hostility simply because our life is a public rebuke to sin.
Over the last 96 years there have been so many martyrs. In fact, more Christians have been killed in the last 96 years than in all the former 1,900 years put together. And it is predicted by church experts that the next four years will see more persecution than ever before.
Steel yourselves. Settle it in your minds beforehand. You will suffer for the faith.
Peter wrote, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is coming upon you as if something strange is happening to you…” (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus has warned us beforehand.
Those who’ve survived years of torture in prisoner of war camps say the worst pain doesn’t come from beatings, starvation, or brainwashing. The torture that breaks a man quickest is a prison cell so small that a man must crouch; he cannot rise to his full height.
Jesus is telling the church to stand up tall and straight! For such are the times that would pressure us to stoop.
Jesus, you are God the Lord of me. Help me to stand up tall and straight for you this hour. Amen.