Pastor Scott L. Harris
June 7, 1992; August 30, 1998
Persecuted, but Joyful
Turn with me again to Matthew 5:10-12. We are going to be continuing our study of this text.
Paul tell us in 2 Timothy 3:12 that “indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Last week we pointed out that this has been true throughout history beginning when Cain murdered Abel and continuing in the current time as men and women are still dying for the their faith in Jesus Christ. (See: Blessed are The Persecuted). In our text this morning Jesus says, “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.”
When we truly live for God in righteousness we will be persecuted by those that do not, but Jesus says here that there is a blessing in that. But as I said last week, the blessing is only there if the persecution is for the sake of righteousness. Many people want to claim this blessing when in reality the persecution they are under is caused by their own evildoing as it says in 1 Peter 3:17. Pride, arrogance, obnoxiousness, rude and offensive words and behavior bring on a natural consequence of other people reacting negatively toward you. There is no blessing for persecution that comes for those reasons, only for persecution that comes for righteousness sake.
Remember that Jesus is not making an isolated pronouncement here. This “Beatitude” does not stand by itself but fits with in the context of the whole message of the Sermon on the Mount and in particular this section we call the Beatitudes. It is a statement made within the midst of a sermon on true righteousness, and it is the conclusion of a series of proclamations about the blessings that those who are truly righteous will receive. The characteristics described within the beatitudes are descriptions of what the truly righteous are like, or at least they are becoming like the qualities described.
In this particular Beatitude we are looking at the final conclusion on what a truly righteous person is like. It is the most decisive of Beatitudes because it, more than any of the others, will divide between those truly living for God and those playing a game. You cannot respond in the manner Jesus describes here in verse 12 of being joyful in the midst of persecution unless your life is characterized by righteousness of the heart. This beatitude is not describing a characteristic, but rather the reaction of the world against those that are righteous. It is the poor in spirit, the mournful and the meek that hunger and thirst after righteousness. That hunger and thirsting bring about the characteristics of being merciful, pure in heart and a peacemaker. The striving of such a person is for things eternal which this world cannot touch. These are those that Jesus describes as laying up treasures in heaven rather than on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal (Mattthew 6:20). Those that manage an outward facade of being good will have it melt away when the heat of persecution comes upon them. Their heart will be revealed and it will expose their true goal in life. They will say that God is not fair, He is not good, that He has let them down. They will then turn their backs on the Lord, deny Him, and do what ever is needed to escape the persecution.
The story is told of a group of believers in communist Russia that would meet in secret. Anyone who has ever read “The Persecutor” by Sergei Kourdakov knows of the terrible persecution that Christians in that nation have suffered at the hands of atheistic Communism. I do not remember all the details, but the story went something like this: One evening while this group of Christians was meeting, several Soviet Soldiers broke in with their guns drawn. At gun point the people were made to put their hands up and form into a line. The soldiers then gave them an option, anyone who did not want to die could deny Christ and they would be allowed to leave. One left, then another and another. The soldiers raised their guns and asked if any others would escape with their lives, and another left weeping. The soldiers watched this last one go, and then closed the door. The group of believers left were softly saying prayers awaiting their fate when the soldiers put down their weapons and said, We are Christians too and have been longing to have fellowship with other believers, but we wanted to make sure that only true believers were here when we revealed ourselves.
Persecution divides between those that are truly controlled by the Holy Spirit and hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and those that are in reality only playing a game.
The Nature of Righteousness
The very nature of righteousness is such that it provokes the unrighteous. Persecution comes at the hands of those that are not living according to God’s standards. Those that are poor in spirit receive the disdain of the proud and haughty. Their humility reveals the arrogance of the unrighteous. (See: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit). The mournful point out the reality of a sin sick world that is to be grieved over. But the world wants a party, not a funeral. It wants to laugh and forget its misery. The mournful person reminds them of what they do not want to think about. (See: Blessed are Those Who Mourn). The meek are given over to seeking glory for God and not themselves. They are self effacing and humble (because they are already poor in spirit), but they are diligent and trying to do God’s will. (See: Blessed are the Meek). That singleness of purpose can raise the ire of natural man because it does not allow for his self-centeredness.
Those hungering and thirsting after righteousness are treated with both rejection and jealousy. (See: Hungering for Righteousness). They have the peace that the world wants but cannot have, so there is jealousy. In addition, just like a group of immature teenagers, they will turn on the person that will not join in with them. A refusal to join in with the world’s sinfulness results in the world’s rejection of you. I had a co-worker when I was employed by the Agriculture Department that was in the habit of going to a certain bar after work for a beer. He had a group of friends there and he enjoyed getting together with them. This fellow had a medical problem and went to the doctor and was told that he should not drink any more because it aggravated his medical problem. My co-worker followed the advice and quit drinking, but he still wanted to see his friends at the bar, so he would go and order a 7UP. He told me it was not long before his former drinking buddies did not want him coming anymore because they did not want him around if he was not going to drink. The did not want him sober while the were getting drunk. It was “do what we do or we do not want you.”
Righteousness is also revealed in mercy, but the world sees mercy as weakness to either scorn or exploit. (See: Blessed are the Merciful). The pure in heart are also rejected because those who are sinful do not want such a person around them. They are said to be “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good,” when in reality the problem is that those who are not pure in heart are so earthly minded they are no heavenly good. (See: Blessed are the Pure in Heart). Then there are the Biblical peacemakers who are not appeasers, willing to do anything to avoid conflict, but they seek after reconciliation and do not back away from conflict in order to achieve it. (See: Blessed are the Peacemakers).
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, then the more the unrighteous world cannot stand us. Remember what Jesus said in John 15:18-21, “If the world hates you, you know that it has 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, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 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. 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 can remain quiet and you will still 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.”
The Nature of the Persecution
Last week I pointed out from verses 11 and 12 that persecution of the righteous will come in the form of insults, persecution and slander, “saying all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me”.
Insult here literally means to “cast in one’s teeth.’ It may be verbal reproaches or actions of contempt. It can range from being called all sorts of names to your face to being purposely ignored by others. Those who live righteously will also be slandered. All manner of things will be said about them falsely because of their association with Jesus Christ. That can range from office rumors to having people testify against you in court.
Persecution is harassment and physical abuse. It can range from being treated unfairly, like not enjoying the same rights of speech at a public school as others, to having cruel things done to you or your possessions, like having your tires slashed because you have Christian bumper stickers. You could be thrown in jail for witnessing to others in a public setting. When John MacArthur graduated from Seminary he traveled around the country as a representative of the seminary. He was thrown into jail in the South for preaching the Gospel, partly because he was willing to go to “black” churches. One of the monthly newsletters I get usually has at least one report of someone being arrested for doing public evangelism. Persecution can also result in death as it did for Ivan (Vana) Vasilevich and so many other millions in the former Soviet Union.
Now at this point in this sermon, some of you may be thinking, “This sure sounds a lot like last week’s sermon. Why is he spending so much time on this?” I am putting emphasis on this for two reasons. First, it is true, and I fear that too many Christians are more concerned about their personal comfort than the honor of God and the glory of Christ. We do all we can to avoid the insults, slander and persecution, often at the expense of our Christian testimony.
Too many are like the “Christian” fellow who was very nervous about starting a new job. When he got home his wife asked how things went and he said, “Great, they didn’t even find out I was a Christian.” The Christian life is not a “secret service.” It is a life lived in word and deed that will identify us as belonging to Jesus Christ.
So my first reason for going over all this material again is to challenge you. All those who live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. If you are not, or have not yet experienced some sort of persecution for righteousness sake, then please examine yourself to see why. Are you responding out of fear and hiding? Certainly in this world we will have tribulations, for Jesus said we would, but He also said, “to take courage, for [He] has overcome the world” (John 16:33). Are you ashamed of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ? Then you put yourself in a perilous position. 1 Peter 4:16 says, but if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. Jesus said in Matthew 10:32,33, “Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. 33 “But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.
My second reason for going over this passage again is that I strongly believe that unless there is a revival in this nation in the near future, many of us in this room will see first hand the sort of persecution that we have only read about occurring in other times and other places. We will experience for ourselves persecution that includes being beaten up, having our possessions confiscated, being thrown in jail and even losing our lives for the cause of Christ.
I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I do not predict the future. Neither am I an alarmist, but I do want to warn you of what may be coming our way so that you are prepared. Consider where the United States will be in just 20 years. The generation that fought WW II will be a memory. The “baby boom” generation they raised grew up in churches, but rejected it either outright or as a significant influence in their lives when they became adults. This is the generation of Bill Clinton that has been flexing its political muscle. They will then be the retired crowd, but still have some power. The generation that they raised will be in power. A generation raised in what is called the “post-modern era.” There is tolerance for all religions as paths that lead to God, except for Biblical Christianity because of its claims that Jesus Christ is the only way. It is a generation of people raised to not think deeply for themselves, but they are steeped in hedonistic philosophy of doing what is right in their own eyes. A large percentage are raised in shattered or dysfunctional families. In times past, it was in the families that moral values were solidified into the children, but now a great many parents no longer control the atmosphere of the home and have lost the will to do so. This is a generation raised without respect for authority and without a reference point of absolute truth.
Consider just a few of the moral markers demonstrating how quickly our society has already descended. This continued descent means that it can quickly become a nation in which active severe persecution of Christians can be a reality. Most public schools do not allow the posting of the Ten Commandments, and the behavior of the students demonstrates they do not know what they are. Prayer was banned from public schools in the 60’s, but you can take a class in Yoga, a Hindu religious practice disguising itself as physical exercise. The sexual revolution of the 60’s has removed all stigma from fornication. It is considered normal to be sexually active before marriage. On many high school campuses it is considered a slur to be called a “virgin.” Those who get pregnant can get an abortion, which is now considered a right. Well over 30 million children have died as a result. 37% of high schoolers have shoplifted in the past year. 65% of high schoolers admit to cheating on exams. Juvenile violent crime arrest rates rose 137% from 1965 to 1990 (430.6 per 100,000). That does not even take into account the more recent rash of children who have been murdering their playmates. The number of people who believe that homosexuality is acceptable has increased to 44%. Divorce rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 17.4 million in 1994. Today’s newlyweds stay together an average of only 7.2 years. Nearly 2/3 of adults believe that ethics “vary by situation” or that there is no “unchanging ethical standard of right and wrong.” Break that down to age category and 79% of those 18-34 believe this. These things do not bode well for Christians in America in the years to come.
Last week I mentioned several specific examples demonstrating that the degree of persecution has been rising against those who believe what the Bible teaches or reflect God’s moral standards: Terri Lambertsen and John Kennedy who both lost their jobs at the Fairfield [Iowa] Ledger because they were involved in the pro-life movement; science writer Forest Mims had the offer of writing a column for Scientific American revoked because he believes in creation instead of evolution; and Dr. Dean Kenyon, who had taught Biology 101 at San Francisco State University from 1977 to 1993 was told he was no longer qualified to teach the course. Why? Because he believed that God had a role in creation. How many other teachers have experienced the same pressures. Professors can talk about almost anything they want at a university except Biblical Christianity in a positive manner. Then there are the cases that come up every year where students are told they cannot bring or read their Bibles at school, and not talk about Jesus (or anything else in the Bible) as the subject for a report.
If you are a politician, woe to you if you speak out about issues of morality, for you will be severely criticized in the press. Consider the media’s attacks on Trent Lott after he said on a radio talk show that he personally thought homosexuality was a sin. Greenbay Packer Reggie White told the Wisconsin Legislature that homosexuality was a sin. The result: the Wisconsin Legislature publicly rebuked him; Sports Illustrated for Kids reprimanded him for his “dumb comments” (why is a kids magazine reporting on such a topic?); columnist Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution called his statement vicious and ignorant; Nike chairman Philip Knight kept their contract with White, but said “he’s just crazy“; CBS withdrew their offer for White to be an on-air football commentator. Tim Wilkins, a sales supervisor for the Raleigh news & Observer was the subject of a feature article in that same paper. In that article Wilkins discussed his conversion to Christianity and abandonment of the gay lifestyle and his belief that homosexuality is immoral and that gays and lesbians can change as he himself had done. He was fired less than a month after the article ran.
Then there are the constant attacks against specific people because they are Christians and against Christianity in general. This has become so common that it is a slur to call someone a Christian especially when combined with other terms, i.e. “the Christian right,” etc. (when was the last time you heard about the “Christian left?”). TV and movies generally portray Christian characters, and especially pastors, as ignorant hypocrites often being the villains in the plots. Presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal raised the attack to a higher level this past Spring when he became the first White House official in history to attack evangelical Christians overtly. He attacked Hickman Ewing, who is an aide to Kenneth Starr, as a “religious fanatic” because he is an evangelical Christian.
There is much, much more that could be said on this subject, but I think you get the point that it will not take much for the current harassment, slander and insults against Christians here in the United States to turn into outright severe persecution. I do not say this to scare you, but to increase your awareness and cause you to think deeply about what you are living for.
Rejoicing in the Midst of Persecution
Jesus says here in Matthew 5:10-12 that to undergo such persecution for righteousness sake; to be insulted, slandered and abused on account of Him, should be considered a blessing, something to make you rejoice and be glad. That can only be true if what you value is your reward in heaven and being associated with the prophets of old who were persecuted in the same way.
The bottom line of this Beatitude is that it separates the true from the false, because it is impossible to find joy in the midst of persecution unless what you are being persecuted for is more valuable to you than what you are suffering. Or to put it another way, only those that regard life in Jesus Christ as more valuable than physical life itself will find joy in suffering for His name’s sake. Only the truly righteous as described in these Beatitudes will willingly suffer for righteousness sake and rejoice in the midst of the persecutions. Those who fear pain; those who value their comfort; those who value their lives will not suffer willingly and they will complain and become bitter when they do.
In Acts 5:41 we find the response of the apostles after they had been flogged for proclaiming Jesus to the people, “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for [His] name.”
The apostles understood what they lived for and what they suffered for, the glory of God, and they counted that as more important than their physical well being and indeed, life itself. They viewed life from eternity’s perspective and valued the rewards promised to them. What rewards? Matthew 5:10 says it would be “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:12 says their “reward in heaven would be great.” In Mark 10:29,30 Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.” You do not give up anything in this world that you do not gain more in the family of God even though it comes at the price of persecution, but the eternal reward of eternal life is worth it. James 1:12 adds an additional reward, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which [the Lord] has promised to those who love Him.” Jesus said in Luke 21:13 that the persecutions will bring with them opportunity for your testimony.
1 Peter 4:12-16 says, “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; 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. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. Suffering for Christ’s name brings glory to God and demonstrates that the “Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
Certainly persecution will not be easy, but if we have the right perspective, we can endure it with joy. Consider what Paul says 2Corinthians 4:7-5:4 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; [we are] afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore also we speak; knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things [are] for your sakes, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this [house] we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
2 Timothy 3:12 states it plainly. “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” If you do not desire to live godly in Christ Jesus, then you are not a Christian and you live under the condemnation of the Holy and Just God who created you. If you live in righteousness, you will be persecuted. The only questions are when and how you will respond? Are you prepared? Are you going to get prepared? The only way you can be prepared is to live in true righteousness as described in the Beatitudes and put Jesus Christ first in every area in your life. This church exists to help you do just that. You can start to get prepared by repenting of every area in which you want your will more than God’s will and for every place you find your character does not match that described in the Beatitudes. Ask God to change your heart that you might live for Him, and then step out in faith and obey His commands.
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