Pastor Scott L. Harris
May 31, 1992; August 23, 1998
Blessed are Those Persecuted for Righteousness Sake
A HISTORY OF PERSECUTION
Those who would live righteously for God have always been persecuted by those who would not. From the beginning of history it has been so. Righteous Abel gave a worthy sacrifice to the Lord and it pleased the Lord. Wicked Cain made an unworthy sacrifice to the Lord which was not accepted. The result was that Cain, in a jealous rage, lashed out and murdered his brother Abel. Every righteous man or woman mentioned in the Bible has suffered at the hands of the unrighteous. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, all the prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, Jesus Himself and all the apostles. It seems that righteousness is a magnet for persecution. The persecution against the righteous has continued from the Apostolic period even to the present day with many still losing their lives because they love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why? And how could Jesus say what He says in the text we will be studying this morning about persecution for righteousness being a blessing? Turn to Matthew 5 as we continue in our study of the Sermon on the Mount and finish our series on the Beatitudes. Remember that the whole thrust of Jesus’ message in the sermon was to explain the nature of true righteousness as opposed to the religious righteousness, the self-righteousness, of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus begins the sermon with a series of statements concerning the blessings that would be received by those who had certain characteristics. As we have already seen from our study, these are not characteristics that anyone can work up for themselves in order to become righteous, but they are the marks that demonstrate that a person has already been made righteous by the working of the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew 5:10-12 Jesus concludes this series of statements about blessing (the Beatitudes) with a declaration that “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
These are not two Beatitudes, but one Beatitude stated twice with verses 11 & 12 expanding on verse 10. It is also the only Beatitudes that is not a distinctive positive description of a righteous person. Instead, it is a statement telling what will result from living righteously along with a statement of blessing. It is also by far the most difficult of the beatitudes both to understand and to live out. This one, even more so than all the others, will draw the line and divide between those who are truly righteous and those that are not, between those that are truly Christians and are saved, and those that feign Christianity, but are not actually converted and saved.
If we are to understand how this beatitude divides the true and the false, then we must understand the persecution that Jesus is talking about, for there are many that are persecuted that claim this as fitting them, but they are sadly mistaken. Many believe they are being persecuted because they are righteous, when in reality they are only getting what they deserve.
PERSECUTION THAT IS DESERVED
In 1 Peter, the Apostle is preparing those early believers scattered throughout Asia Minor for the persecution they were already experiencing and that which was to come in the future. He says several interesting things to them about making sure they suffer for the correct reason and not because of their own folly.
In 1 Peter 2:12 for example, Peter says, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe [them,] glorify God in the day of visitation. In other words, make sure that when they speak evil against you that it really is slander by continuing to live righteously so that they might give glory to God when He comes. He adds in verse 20, “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer [for it] you patiently endure it, this [finds] favor with God.” If you sin and are harshly treated, then you have only received what you deserve.
Peter goes on in 1 Peter 3:17 to say, “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” You gain nothing in suffering if you suffer because you have done wrong. Drop down to 1 Peter 4:12 – 12 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God.”
Too often too many people want to look at their suffering as a mark of their spirituality when in reality the persecution they are undergoing is deserved because of their own sinfulness. They may or may not actually commit murder, but they hate certain people and 1 John 3:15 tells us that “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer . . .”. They steal from people in the name of God which is the worst form of thievery. Proclaiming they are collecting money to do God’s will, they use what you give to consume it on their own lusts. Consider the scandals of the many “TV evangelists” who claimed to be giving everything of themselves to the Lord’s work, but in fact lived in mansions and surrounded themselves with all the luxuries of this world. They are evil doers promoting and exalting themselves rather than being humble servants glorifying Jesus Christ. They stick their noses where they do not belong in an effort to control other people and make them conform to their own image rather than being truly spiritual people and helping others conform to the image of Christ (Galatians 6:1-4).
Let me give you some more concrete examples: There are those that are out telling others about Jesus Christ that are persecuted, not because of the message they bring, but because they are obnoxious. Examine all the Scripture and show me where God commends someone for being obnoxious in telling the gospel? The only offense we are to every bring is Jesus Christ Himself which is the offense of condemnation that comes when someone sees the holiness of Christ and becomes repulsed by their own sinfulness.
If we become offensive ourselves in sharing the gospel, then we are obstructing the message of His love. This kind of offense is done by all sorts of people, from well meaning folks who lack proper manners and social grace, to people who are self-righteous and have a “holier-than-thou” attitude, to those who are so obnoxious that they assault people with the Gospel rather than passionately proclaim it.
I remember a fellow that button-holed Diane at a shopping mall. He demanded to know if she was saved or not and then demanded she pray out loud with him in the middle of the mall for all the unsaved walking around. When she balked at doing so, he accused her of all sorts of things. I called the fellow on the phone later, but got nowhere with him. He was a law unto himself and thought himself very spiritual because he was “suffering” for the cause of Christ. The truth was he was rebuked because he was obnoxious and he brought dishonor to the name of Christ. He did not have the blessing Jesus was talking about.
There are also those that have gone beyond being “fools for Christ’s sake,” which is a proper thing to be (1 Corinthians 4:10), to being freaks led by their own thoughts and desires. These people are also obnoxious, not only in their attempts at evangelism, but also in trying to make others conform to their own ideas of what holiness means. They stick their noses where they do not belong and ask questions that should not be asked. It can be the “brother” that flaunts his freedom in Christ and causes a weaker brother to stumble and fall into sin (Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 8:10), or it can be the weaker brother that goes around asking questions he has no business asking (1 Corinthians 10:15-17) and like a snoop tries to find out what a stronger brother is doing and then judge him by his own weak conscience (Romans 14:3,4). Either way, the hostility and ostracism they incur is not for the sake of righteousness, but because of their own selfishness and sinfulness.
There are also those that are persecuted for a cause, rather than for righteousness. The Jehovah Witnesses make a big deal out of the suffering they have endured at the hands of others by saying it is because of what they do for God. The reality is that they have suffered for a the cause of their man made religion and not for Christ, whom they do not even know. Even Christians have to be very careful lest they be swept into a political movement and suffer for some political cause rather than for what is truly righteousness’ sake. That can be a fine distinction sometimes, but it needs to be made. A case in point is an organization I used to receive letters from called, the “Christian Anti-Communism Crusade.” Their focus is so much on the cause of being against Communism that political rhetoric has replaced the Gospel they should be proclaiming. There is not justification for being rude to those whom Christ has died for. Remember, the blessing Jesus is talking about here is only for suffering for righteousness sake, not for any other cause be it personal, religious or political.
What does it mean then to be persecuted for righteousness sake?
PERSECUTION THAT IS UNDESERVED
THE NATURE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
The nature of righteousness is that it provokes the unrighteous. It always comes at the hands of those what are not living according to God’s standards, but take warning here, some of the greatest persecutions against the righteous have actually come from those proclaiming to be the “church,” but in reality they are only man’s organization of the Christian religion. It can even come from fellow believers who have gotten their eyes off of Christ and onto their own traditions.
But that should not surprise us, for much of what goes on under the name of Christianity is really no different than what Judaism had degenerated into at the time of Christ. They had exchanged the law of God for their own system of rules and regulations that they could manipulate. Much of so called “Christianity” in our own time has also exchanged the Gospel of Jesus Christ (i.e. that man is sinful and under the wrath of God facing impending judgement, but God loved man so much that He Himself became a man in Jesus Christ, lived a sinless life, then died on a cross to pay the penalty of our sin as our substitute. He then rose from the grave on the third day proving He has power over death and that He is who He claimed to be, and He offers eternal life to all who will put their trust in Him), for a system of religious works by which you earn your way to heaven. It was the Jewish religious leaders that lead the persecution against Jesus and had Him crucified. The so called “church” has often followed that same path.
It has been those who profess to be part of the church that have persecuted the truly righteous ever since the 4th century when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire. The Dark Ages were dark because the truth of the Gospel was suppressed by a man made system of religion. Every group that arose to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, such as the Cathari and the Waldensians, would be persecuted by the Roman Catholic church. That is the also the reason for the persecution of men such as John Wycliffe in England (1324-1384), Jon Hus in Bohemia (1369-1415), Jerome of Prag (d. 1416) and Savonarola in Florence (1452-1498). Each of these were condemned as heretics by Rome and were martyred (except Wycliffe who already died, but his bones were dug up and burned). They were only the beginning of those who would die during the 16th and 17th centuries as martyrs of the reformation period. Foxes Book of Martyrs gives account after account of those what were burned at the stake because they would not submit to the Church of Rome and deny that salvation came by grace through faith.
True righteousness is becoming like Jesus in character. Jesus says that the blessing comes to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (vs 10) and in vs. 11 “on account of Me.” In being truly righteous we become a reflection of Christ to all around us. The more we do that, the more righteous we are living, the more the unrighteous world cannot stand us. Jesus said in John 15:18-21, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”
The more we are like Jesus, the more the world will hate us because it hates Him. To live for Christ is to live in opposition to the devil and his world system (Ephesians 6). To live for Christ then is to be confrontational by our very existence because our personal holiness is an affront to a sinful world. You do not even have the say anything and you will provoke the unrighteous because you are not like them. The world loves its own, but it hates those who are not (John 15:19). Paul said it plainly to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12, “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Our text this morning points out several ways that persecution comes. Verse 11, “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me.” The “when” here can mean “whenever” and carries the idea that personal insults, physical abuse, or slander could come at anytime and anyplace. It does not mean that the mistreatment will be constant, (not even Jesus was constantly harassed), but that oppression will come to all who are righteous.
The insults may be verbal and to your face, or actions of contempt. It means to revile, reproach, complain against (literally to “cast in one’s teeth”). It may range from being looked down upon by people who think we are foolish to those that hate us deeply. I remember working for the L. A. County Agriculture Department and being turned down for a full time position, which would have given job security, benefits, good pay, good promotions in the future, because I wanted to complete seminary and could not guarantee them I would make a lifelong career there. The supervisor of our whole division came out to talk with me and told me I was foolish to turn the offer down. I could still work in a church, like he did (active in a Episcopalian church doing drama) and even take classes at night. But he looked down on me for placing God’s call on my life first.
But insults can certainly be a lot stronger than that. Consider the insults hurled at the Apostle Paul so often. Some looked down on His physical appearance and said he could not speak well and that he was foolish (2 Corinthians 11). In Philippians, Paul even says there were those who were preaching the gospel “out of selfish ambition . . . thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment” (Philippians 1;17). Consider what happened to Jesus after he was arrested and was put on trial. He was spat upon, hit and taunted with those that hit Him saying, “Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit you?” (Matthew 26:67,68). The soldiers put a royal robe on Him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews.” They would then hit Him in the face.
If you live righteously, the world will consider you a fool and often will treat you as such. You will be called names, you will be taunted and mocked, and you will be the butt of jokes. You will have insults cast against you.
Persecution does not always mean death, but it may well end up there. When Jesus called upon His followers to take up their crosses and follow Him (Luke 9:23), they knew fully well what that meant, and it did not mean get a nice piece of jewelry to wear around your neck. It meant being willing and ready to die. And die they did. Tradition holds that all of the apostles died as martyrs except John who was exiled to the Island of Patmos until he did die. James was executed by Herod (Acts 12:2). Tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down while Andrew was crucified on an “X” shaped cross (St. Andrew’s Cross). Paul had his head cut off. After the apostles, their disciples also died. Polycarp, a disciple of John, before being burned alive in a Roman Arena said, “86 years I have served Him (Christ) and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king?” The early Christians were often martyrs dying in the arenas as sport for the ungodly people watching. Killed by sword and spear, by gladiators, eaten alive by lions, children wrapped in sheepskins and then wild dogs turned lose on them, while others were covered with pitch and burned as torches in Nero’s garden?
The same thing continues today. Christian scholars have claimed that there have been more Christian martyrs in this century than all previous centuries combined. How many believers have died at the hands of atheistic Communism? How many at the hands of totalitarian despots? How many at the hands of those entrapped in other religions – paganism, animism, idolatry, eastern mysticism, Hinduism, and Islam?
Other persecution may not be so physical, but it is just as real. Six years ago the Continental Orchestra and Singers were kicked out of the park across the street from the White House because they were singing songs about Christ. It did not matter that they had all the appropriate permits. They were breaking the artificial rule of freedom from religion that has arisen in the last few decades as the idea of separation of Church and State continues to be perverted. You have freedom of speech until you talk about righteousness, then you are censored. Cal Thomas’ book, Book Burning, is an eye opener here about who and what is censored by the media. People also lose their jobs because they are righteous. Terri Lambertsen and her co-worker, John W. Kennedy, both lost their jobs at an Iowa newspaper because they held pro-life views. Forest Mims lost a job with Scientific American because he believes in a Creator God. Phillip Bishop, an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama was forbidden to teach “optional classes where a ‘Christian perspective’ of an academic topic is delivered.”
Consider also the lesser known cases of people you know or you yourself that are held back in company advancement because you will not participate in unethical things your company does. Or consider students that are graded down because they write a paper reflecting God’s moral standards. There is also the personal ostracism from co-workers, “friends” and neighbors because you will not participate in their dirty jokes, crude behavior, gossip, parties, or other immoral behavior.
Persecution also comes in the form of slander which is saying evil things against you falsely. I could spend a long time telling how the media slanders morality in general and Christianity in particular, but I think we are well aware of that. We are also well aware of how others will lie behind our backs to get themselves ahead at our expense. How even righteous things that we do can be distorted and perverted into horrible lies. But the same has occurred from the beginning. The early Christians were accused not only of burning Rome, but also of cannibalism, and of having sexual orgies because they celebrated the “body and blood” of Christ and had “love feasts.” Sometimes the slander seems like just a case of misunderstanding, but other times it is an obvious and malicious twisting of the truth. Even Jesus was called a “glutton and drunkard” (Matthew 11:19). And again beware, for it is not uncommon for the worst slander to arise from those who you thought were your friends. Yet in the midst of all this we are to rejoice. But how?
REJOICING IN THE MIDST OF PERSECUTION
First, we must remember our reward (Matthew 5:10). We gain the kingdom of heaven. Notice here that the beatitudes start and end with the same blessing, the Kingdom of Heaven. We are persecuted because we demonstrate all the characteristics of true righteousness: poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart and peacemaking. (See previous sermons –Blessed are the Peacemakers) And as we have said all along, these characteristics can only be true of those in whom the Holy Spirit has regenerated the heart. These are the truly saved. These are true Christians. As we become more like Jesus the world will react to us the same way it reacted to Him. Remember what Jesus said in John 15:20 “. . .A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”
It is also a joy to know that in the midst of the turmoil that comes with persecution, you will have a great reward in heaven (vs. 12). You are laying up gold, silver and precious stones (1 Corinthians 3) that bring glory to god and sow your life is counting for eternity. You are fulfilling the purpose of your existence.
Consider also your association with the great prophets of the past. All the great prophets suffered persecution. Hebrews 11 points out many of these great men of God as examples for us. Moses, who chose “rather to endure the ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11: 25,26). Those in Hebrews 11:36-38 are described as having “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated 38 ([men] of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”
The world is not worthy of these great men of faith, but the believer is to be worthy of them. To be persecuted verifies that we belong to the line of the righteous. That is why there is a cause for a rejoicing as described by Jesus, an exceeding joy. This is literally a skip and jump up with excitement kind of joy. The joy is not that you are persecuted, that is a cause for grief both personally and in mourning over the persecutors sin, but it is a source of joy to know that you are walking in righteousness.
Our assurance of salvation does not come from some decision we made in the past, for that would be trust in a decision and salvation comes by trusting Jesus Christ alone. Assurance of salvation comes from 3 sources: 1) The promise of God’s Word; 2) The inner witness of the Holy Spirit and 3) a changed life. Our assurance that the decision we made in the past and that the prayer of confession and repentance we prayed was true is a life of righteousness, and true righteousness will result in persecution.
The truly righteous have the characteristics described in the beatitudes. He or she is unlike anyone else in the world. They seek to live life controlled and dominated by Jesus Christ, and their focus is on things eternal, heaven and the world to come, not on this world which is passing away. So it is that when persecution comes because of their righteousness, they rejoice exceedingly.
John Chrysotom was a godly man that became the foremost preacher in Constantinople. His preaching, however, was uncompromising and soon offended the corrupt Empress Eudoxia and other church officials. Chrysotom was threatened with banishment by Emperor Arcadius if he did not cease his uncompromising preaching. His response was, “Sire, you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” He was then threatened with death, and he responded, “Nay, but you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.” He was threatened that all his treasures would be taken away. Chrysotom replied, “Sire, that cannot be either. My treasures are in heaven, where none can break through and steal.” Finally the Emperor threatened, “Then I will drive you from man, and you will have no friends left!” Chrysotom answered, “That you can not do either, for I have a Friend in heaven who has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” Chrysotom was banished and died soon after, but none of the threats or the eventual reality of his banishment and death could take away what he valued most. He could rejoice even in the midst of persecution. Can you say the same thing?
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