We come this morning to the last of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is in fact, a double blessing, for he continues: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely 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.” At the very outset of his ministry, and continually throughout it, Jesus told his disciples that they would suffer and be persecuted for their faith and because of him. He never sugarcoated what he was asking people to be and to do. He made it very clear that, as Paul would later write, Anyone who desires to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12).
In fact, let’s paint the picture the way Jesus does and the writers of the NT do. There is more said in the Gospels and the rest of the NT concerning persecution and suffering than there is about heaven, judgment, the second coming, even baptism.
What an odd beginning –an incredibly strange way to call people to follow you – “Follow me and be persecuted and hated.” And yet he called, and people came – not disregarding, but accepting the consequences of their faith. Do you suppose that if Jesus were to come today with the same message, would we be willing to follow – if he were to promise us persecution and suffering and death as a consequence of following him?
There is a fascinating thing to note in studying the language of the NT – that by the end of the first century, the word for “witness” had become virtually synonymous with “martyr.” In fact, the Greek word for “witness” - martus is the word from which we get our English word “martyr.” The word originally meant a witness – one who testifies to what he has seen, heard or knows. But as the world began to hear the message of Jesus Christ – the testimony of men and women concerning his death, burial and resurrection – the consequences began to be more and more severe until it became inevitable that one’s witness for Christ was followed by one’s death for Christ.
Only a few minutes before his ascension into heaven in Acts 1, Jesus said to his disciples that they would “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And as we look at the lives of the apostles, that was exactly what they set out to do. In Acts 4:33, we read that, “with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.”
We see this dramatically demonstrated in Acts 7 as Stephen is arrested and gives his testimony to the cross of Jesus Christ, and then he is stoned by the mob. In Acts 22, Paul describes his own participation in this first martyrdom: And when the blood of your witness, Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him. Was it because of some crime that Stephen died? No! It was because of the words he spoke that day – words concerning Jesus, words concerning their sin. And they picked up the rocks and crushed the life from his body.
As we come nearer to the end of the first century, Jesus speaks to the church in Pergamum in the book of Revelation. “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives.” To testify was more than words at a trial. The consequences of one’s witness, one’s testimony became synonymous, really, inseparable from death. Let’s close our brief word study with a passage from Rev. 17, in which John describes his vision of Satan’s attempt to destroy the church: “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” A Christian who testified to his faith and to his Lord, could expect at the very least scorn from the world, and at the very worst, death.
Secular history tells us that of those eleven apostles who heard those words of Jesus on that hillside in Galilee, “You shall be my witnesses…” that ten of them died a martyr’s death, and that only John lived to die of old age, and even that death was in exile on the island of Patmos. Include Paul, and none of those twelve escaped the wrath and persecution of a world that scorned and hated their message.
Jesus had been brutally honest with them concerning what awaited them. He made it clear that opposition would come, not only from the world under the control of Satan, but from the most unexpected sources.
In John 16:2, Jesus told them, “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” It was a fact of religion then, it’s a fact of religion today. That those who are really righteous are despised the most by those who are merely religious. That sounds strange and yet I believe history and experience will bear me out. The ones who have opposed true faith and absolute commitment the fiercest have been the ones who themselves are religious to an extent, but unwilling to go any further. They find themselves comfortable in their tradition, in their mediocrity, but when their traditions are shown for what they are and their mediocrity no longer looks so inviting – they will do all they can to remain who and what they are and discredit that which convicts them. How many have been stoned, nailed to a cross, burned at the stake through the centuries by those who did it in the name of God?
Perhaps the most discouraging place in which to find opposition is within your own home. But in Mt. 10:34, Jesus said, “do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The very nature of the message and the demands of commitment bring families to choose loyalties between God and the world. And again in Luke 21, Jesus has some words of warning and courage for his disciples: “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me.” (Lk 21:16-17)
Let’s not make any mistake, though, in understanding where persecution arises, and from where it flows. Wherever persecution arises, Satan has planted the seed in the heart of people. He owns this world’s heart, and any challenges to that ownership will be fought with the fiercest of battles.
Now before we go any further, we must stop and ask a couple of questions that will help us understand this matter of Christians and persecution.
First, I look around me and see a lot of people being mistreated, and some of them happen to be Christians. Is that what this verse is talking about? Let’s be truthful, a lot of people who are mistreated aren’t being persecuted for their faith. In fact, much of the time they seem to bring it upon themselves.
I know plenty of people who are persecuted, not because of righteousness, but because of obnoxiousness. They act so rudely, and so unbecomingly, and are so difficult to get along with that they invite people to hate them and mistreat them. There have been countless people throughout history who have set as their goal to be persecuted, thinking somehow that persecution set them above and gave them an exemption into heaven. Don’t ever think Christ commends you for bringing shame and persecution to his name because of your own immature behavior.
And just as unfortunate is the persecution that one gets because of self-righteousness. Now there’s a fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness. One goes out of its way to make a show of itself, and many people receive persecution because of their over-zealousness.
This beatitude isn’t promising a blanket blessing on everyone who is persecuted for any reason. There is nothing particularly noble about being persecuted – the blessing comes through the reasons for and the results of that persecution.
Our second question: Why in the world would a Christian, of all people, be persecuted? I was under the impression that Christians ought to be the kindest, the most generous, the most merciful, the most honest – have the noblest of qualities. Why then would anyone want to persecute someone like that?
Let me put it this way first: The Christian will never be persecuted because of his goodness and nobility and self-sacrificing. Those are qualities the world loves and rewards. Everybody loves a good neighbor, one who’s always thoughtful and kind. We love to see a noble spirit as a man rushes into a burning house to save somebody’s child. And of all the people on the face of the earth, if you are a Christian you ought to be outstanding in your goodness and kindness and generosity. But goodness won’t bring persecution, because the world isn’t threatened by goodness. We look at the good man, the noble man and we admire him because we know at our very best we can be like him.
Jesus himself was the best man who ever lived – he was kind and loving and generous toward all men. But Jesus was nailed to the cross, not because of his goodness, but because of his righteousness. If he had been just a good man, the world would have loved him, the Pharisees would have honored him. But because he was righteous, they despised him, they plotted against him, and they crucified him.
Persecution comes, not because of goodness, but because of righteousness. And perhaps that’s the reason many of us look in our own lives and wonder that there is no persecution. We find it easy to be good, but quite another to be righteous.
We have talked about true righteousness before in regard to the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” We said then that righteousness really must be the consuming purpose of our lives.
It is not a portfolio of good habits that we have attained, because even at our very best, we still fall short of God’s demands for our lives. Righteousness is not something that is humanly attainable.
Righteousness, in its purest, its most simple form is to be “right with God.” And the only way to be right with God is to have been reconciled to him through the blood of his son, Jesus Christ. Our righteousness was purchased on the cross.
Being obedient to the gospel brings us into a right relationship with God, but unless our lives begin to demonstrate the characteristics of a changed life, there is little satisfaction, either for us, or for God.
Righteousness must be lived to be of any effect. And the righteous life is the one that takes on those qualities that Jesus has talked about here in the beatitudes – poverty of spirit, mourning over sin, meekness, hungering and thirsting, mercy, a pure heart, and peacemaking. It is not just an easygoing kind of passiveness toward life, but an intense pursuit of becoming like Jesus – taking on the nature of God. And while the world will never persecute a good man, it will rush headlong to ostracize the man who begins to take on those kind of qualities. Because while we can all at our best be like the good and noble man, none of us, without Christ can take on those qualities, and it galls the man of the world.
Paul will describe the kind of effect we have on the people around us: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the stench of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 2:14-16)
As we live out righteous lives, to those who are seeking God we are hope and encouragement. To the person who is fleeing God and rejecting his rule, we are a convicting reminder of who they are running from. And our presence brings anger.
More than anger though, it brings a kind of fear, because in becoming like Jesus, we become a light in the world, and the light exposes the world for what it really is. We are all familiar with that golden verse in the Bible, John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life...” Many of us even know vs. 17 – “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him...” They are words of comfort and strength, but Jesus wasn’t speaking here to comfort, but to challenge and convict, and when we come to verse 19, Jesus tells us plainly what happens to the man whose life takes on new ownership. He is transformed from death to life, and the effect of the change is not only on himself, but on the people around him who see it – “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20).
Peter tells us what kind of effect that dramatic change in the Christian’s life has on her former companions – For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3-4). Anytime you bring a person face to face with their sin, you risk both their fear and their hatred.
Noah is one of those great men of faith in the Bible that demands our attention. In Gen. 6, we are told that, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” The Hebrew writer adds a fascinating note when he talks about Noah in ch. 11– By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Heb. 11:7). Noah, by his life and his obedience condemned the world. It wasn’t a snobby, “I know something you don’t know, and you’re going to get yours.” Noah didn’t take joy in condemning the world, and his condemnation wasn’t so much with his preaching as with his living.
So what is our message this morning? That you should go out and seek persecution for your life? No. But what you need to seek is righteousness before God. And when your life takes on that righteousness, then you can take courage when you experience the confirmation that you have appeared on Satan’s radar screen by the inevitable persecution he throws at you.
And the message of this beatitude is that you are blessed, not because of the persecution, in and of itself, but because that persecution tells you that you are on the right track. Jesus said some striking things in the gospel of John, but perhaps the most challenging for us this morning are his words in John 15 – “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world. That is why the world hates you.”
Do you want confirmation of your ownership by Christ? How well do you fit into the world? The Christian is a changed person – he has been taken out of this world – she is a peculiar person, with different priorities, attitudes, morals, master. Why is it then, if God has called us to be different, that we try so hard to fit in with the crowd?
Your life must stand as a stark contrast to the world. Your life and priorities should stand as an unforgettable, unmistakable condemnation of what this world through Satan is all about.
And Jesus says, when persecution comes, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” Does persecution and suffering take away joy? Does it diminish life? The answer Jesus gives is “No!” The answer Paul gives is “No!” The answer Peter gives is “No!” In fact, consider yourself blessed to be counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. What a paradoxical message – joy and suffering in the same breath. It seems beyond our understanding that the two could ever go together. And yet Jesus closes the eighth beatitude as he did the first – with a promise – “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”