This morning we continue our study in the gospel of Matthew. We’ve been looking at the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sermon by Jesus on record. This morning we finish the introductory section known as the Beatitudes. It’s a list of eight specific behaviors that are specially blessed by God. Read them with me again if you will:
Matthew 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. 2 Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
We’ve taken a look at each of these behaviors over the past weeks. We’ve considered what it means to be meek, to mourn, to make peace. And we’ve said that each of these behaviors will be present in the life of a growing, maturing, Christian. We’ve seen many times that this is not a personality profile, we don’t read through this list and find which ones sound most like us. This is a comprehensive list of behaviors that God is working to produce in every one of us. So, if you struggle to be merciful, God wants to work on that. If you struggle to be pure of heart, God wants to work on that. This is a description of what we’re all headed toward if we will allow Him to direct our lives.
But the other side of that is, all of the blessings listed here are for each of us a well. If you are in Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours. If you have been born again, you will see God, you will obtain mercy, you will be comforted and inherit the earth. All the behaviors are being developed in you, but all the blessings are for you as well.
And that’s what makes this final one so troubling.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When we read that, when we hear that, we often don’t really let it sink in. Or, we think it’s for someone else. It’s hard to believe that all of the good behaviors we have looked at could possibly lead to this. And yet, they do.
And to make sure we don’t miss it, Jesus circles back around and provides some amplifying remarks. He gives us more instruction on this final ‘blessing’ than on any of the others. He says:
11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Friends, this is some really troubling stuff here. How are we supposed to take this? How are we supposed to interpret and apply this?
Sometimes we read this and we think of ‘others.’ We think of Christians persecuted for their faith in places like Iran, Iraq, or Syria or in North Korea, China, or India. And we should do that. We should be aware of the suffering of others. There is a ministry by the name of Open Doors that tracks Christian persecution around the world and releases an annual report.
In 2016, they found approximately 215 million Christians experienced high, very high, or extreme persecution, most often due to Islamic extremism. ISIS conducted a campaign of systematic genocide in the territories it captured attempting to wipe out entire communities of Arab Christians. In March 2016 John Kerry, then the Secretary of State actually stated, “The fact is that [ISIS] kills Christians because they are Christians.” It was the first time the US government had recognized events as genocide in over a decade.
But it’s not just ISIS, the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing 70 Christians celebrating Easter in Pakistan last year and members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM killed seven missionaries in Burkina Faso.
Meanwhile, Russia passed a law prohibiting evangelism from occurring outside of churches; India effectively shut down the operation of Compassion International which was providing economic support for 145,000 children; and China declared the central government should reassert it’s control over religious groups – all of this in the name of various forms of nationalism that see Christianity as a threat.
This is what we think of when we hear:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,”
And, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.”
We think of Christians arrested, murdered, martyred for their faith. And we should think of these things, we are told in
Heb 13:3 Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also.
We need to know about these issues, think about, pray about, learn about these issues. And some of you need to advocate for these issues, or take action on these issues.
But what I really want to talk about this morning is the very troublesome fact that this blessing, like all the others, is not just addressed to those Christians who are suffering in other places, it is also addressed to you and to me.
And the truth is, we resist it. We don’t want it to be true. We don’t want to accept the fact that we may actually be persecuted for our faith. We want a comfortable, upper middle-class religion with some respectability in the community and workplace and the admiration and approval of our faith and morals.
Once upon a time you had that in Western Civilization. There was a time when the church dominated the culture. There was a time when you were expected to go to church on Sunday, it was what people did – even the stores were closed, and it was expected that Christian ethics and morals were going to be esteemed.
In many places, that has all changed. Now, if people find out you’re a Christian, they may think you’re an idiot. You’re backwards. You’re behind the times. You’re on the wrong side of history and you’re full of hate and judgment. If you want to make fun of a religious character in the movies or in a TV show, who do you pick? The Muslim? The Sikh? The Hindu? No, the Christian.
Friends, this is the world we live in. And before you start dreaming of the past when we were a “Christian” nation, let me remind you: the past is what produced the present. So, maybe it wasn’t all it seemed to be. Maybe back in the day when we had prayer in school and the Ten Commandments on the walls, maybe everyone didn’t really believe in them.
Maybe you had churches full of people who didn’t really want to be there and were just going through the motions – learning how to fake being ‘good’ while their hearts were never changed and their souls were never really saved and they finally woke up to it all said, “enough!” let me out of here and started down the path that has led us to today where the desires and preferences of the individual are the defining values of our culture and one of the things people desire most is not to be told what they can and cannot do.
Which is why they resist God, resist the church, and look down on you – they see you as someone who tells them no. No, they can’t do whatever they want, live however they want. And they hate that because they enjoy what they’re doing.
You might be surprised to learn what the word persecute really means. I was surprised when I dug into this week. Most people think it refers to physical assault, to being physically beaten, perhaps to being killed. If I were to ask, “What actions constitute persecution?” These are probably the kind of answers you would give. But the word actually means: to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away.
In other words, the idea behind persecution is: go away, you’re not one of us; you’re different and we don’t want you around.
And this is why we resist the idea that persecution could ever be something for us, something we’re called to accept or endure. Because, I’m a good person, and people should like me. They should know me. They should know who I am, what I’ve done, what I’m doing. They should know that I deserve to be treated a certain way. They should be impressed. They should want me around, and want to include me.
But they don’t. And they’re not going to – as long as the people around you prefer themselves to God, they’re not going to like you when you look like, sound like, and act like Jesus. Jesus tried to be really, really, clear about that.
Later in Matthew’s gospel He will tell his disciples:
Matt 10:25 It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!
Mark tells us that He told them on another occasion:
Mark 13:13 And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas
Acts 14:21 … returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
Peter tells us
1 Peter 2:21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps
Paul puts it rather bluntly and says:
2 Tim 3:12 Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
The testimony of Scripture is very clear on this point: suffering is normal for Christians. After all, have you seen what happened to our Christ? Jesus is the ultimate example of being persecuted for righteousness sake. He, who had done no wrong, suffered the injustice and the persecution of man and the wrath of God to make a way for us.
So, what are we to make of all this? What are we supposed to do about all these promises of persecution, this expectation of opposition? Well, first, we must recognize that the blessing is promised to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The blessing is promised:
“when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.”
There is no blessing for suffering any other form of violence. We will talk about this later in the chapter when we talk about turning the other cheek, but for now let me say, in my thinking, there is a difference between a victim and martyr. If someone wants to break into your home at night, I believe you have every right to use force to protect your home and your family and your belongings. The invaders aren’t there because you hold to the historic tenants of the Christian faith; they’ve come because you have stuff.
If a predator or criminal threatens your family, friends or the innocent or vulnerable, stand up to them, oppose them – that’s what shepherds do, they protect the flock. They’re not persecuting you for Christ’s sake, they’re sin-filled, broken-people who are bent on harming others or fulfilling selfish desires. It’s OK to resist that. And I’m glad that some of you have given your lives over to that kind of resistance.
What we’re talking about is being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. If that happens, if you they harass you, mock you, exclude you, threaten you, mistreat, arrest, or beat you for righteousness sake, for attempting to follow and honor Jesus in your life, then rejoice for the kingdom of Heaven is yours.
We have this wrong notion of the Christian, as this delicate flower of a person, who never offends, is always quiet and gentle and easy to get along with. But, we forget Christ was offensive to some people and if we truly follow Him and truly represent Him, if we truly embrace Him some people will reject us. There will be awkward moments. There will uncomfortable responses. Truth will come out and it will divide, even inside families.
But take notice of this as well: what is the source of persecution? Does this say demons will haunt you? Monsters of the dark will oppress and oppose you? Some flaming and scaly beast will chase you down? No. Those things are certainly real, the Bible is quite clear that there are angels and demons, there is more going on in this world that we can see with our natural eyes, but most often the persecution will come from the lips and hands and hearts of other human beings.
Now, isn’t that interesting? People ask, “why do bad things happen? Or, why didn’t God stop this or that disaster from happening? Why didn’t God stop a man from entering a church in Texas and killing 26 people?
Look: I believe He could have. But He didn’t. Why? Because, most of the time, He still allows human beings to do what human beings want to do, and this one particular human being wanted to hurt a lot of others. But notice this: it was the human being who did the hurting. Another bipedal hominid. Another “highly evolved” creature according to the secular humanist. It is, most often, human beings that harm other human beings.
I would practically guarantee that every man, woman and child in this room has a story, or many stories, of how they have been mistreated, abused, degraded, rejected, struck, insulted, or harmed by another human being and if we are honest, we can testify that we have hurt others too – emotionally, verbally, or physically we have done damage to another person created in the image of God.
Meanwhile, Jesus is telling us that the greatest commandment – the thing we ought to be most fixated on when it comes to a religious ethic, is to love – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christians are to be known for their love – and that does not mean they’re mushy, soft, or emotional, it means they demonstrate selfless sacrifice and concern for others, prefer others, they work for the good of others.
Christians should never, ever, advance their faith by the sword or the barrel of the gun. But compare that to the forces that oppose Christ and His followers. They are willing to use bullets and bombs and fragments of glass and metal to serve their ‘god’ or their cause.
And before you go putting a purple bumper sticker on your car telling all the terrible religious people to “coexist” let me point out that even those with more socially sophisticated and “progressive” viewpoints still use power to bring about submission.
I’m fascinated by the way people design “progressive” laws or policies that demand submission. They insist: you MUST accept my viewpoint, accommodate my preference, align with my perspective and even champion it, OR ELSE. They will sue you, fine you, arrest you, shut your business down. There is always an attempt to put teeth into the policy – to cause harm or force submission from those who don’t agree. And those who seek to advance their agenda in such ways show that they are not motivated by love, they’re not motivated by lofty ideals, they love power and they’re willing to use it for their own gain, so don’t stand in their way.
Well, what have we’ve seen so far? That persecution should be expected, it comes “for righteousness’ sake,” and it comes from other human beings. What else can we learn?
Well, let’s turn to the positive side. When you are mistreated for the sake of Christ it confirms that you belong to the kingdom of Heaven, it is proof of your citizenship, so:
Matt 5:12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This is an odd thing to do, unless you truly understand what is coming your way. But you need to see this. God doesn’t make mistakes. Jesus is telling you: when you are persecuted for His name’s sake – when you are left out, when you are put down, when you feel like you’re suffering because of your obedience to Him, whether you suffer a dent in your reputation or loss of life or limb – rejoice and be EXCEEDINGLY glad. Not just glad – EXCEEDINGLY glad.
Now, why does it say that? Is this really God’s answer? Is this all He’s got?
Yes! And that needs to speak to us no matter how much or how little persecution you’re experiencing or what form it takes. Even if everything in your life is going along gloriously, you still need to stop and chew on this. How can Jesus tell someone who is suffering – rejoice, be glad, no be EXCEEDINGLY glad because great is your reward in heaven?
Do you believe that? Do you really believe that whatever you’re missing, or losing, or enduring on this earth isn’t even worth comparing to what lies ahead?
We need to meditate on what the prophet Isaiah said:
Isaiah 64:4 “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Friends, this is the prescription for enduring persecution according to a loving, all-knowing God. He says don’t worry about this moment, think of all that lies ahead.
Christian, the Bible tells you:
2 Corinthians 4:16 … do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory
To what extent are you motivated by the promise of what lies ahead? Today, we only know a fraction of what we will know then. We experience only the slightest portion of what lies ahead. The day is coming when we will know God the way He knows us. The Bible says, we will know Him as we are known (1 Cor 13:12).
I stood in the cemetery on Wednesday morning, at the head of a casket about to be lowered into the ground. I could look down into the hole and see the concrete liner that this beautiful wooden casket would be set inside. It was right there – the final resting place for the earthly body of a human being – already enclosed in wood, soon to be surrounded by concrete, and then to be covered with earth and grass.
Tell me: is that all there is to this life? Or is there more? The individual we buried that day was a man of rank, a man of recognition, but none of it matters now. What matters is what lies ahead and Jesus is telling us here in the Beatitudes, here in the Sermon on the Mount, that what lies ahead is worth it all.
Do you believe that? Do you trust that God knows what you really need and has prepared it for you? If so, will you give Christ His witness on this earth?
Will you show what it looks like to live in righteousness? Are you willing to suffer inconvenience, ridicule, mockery, or even physical suffering for the sake of Christ who promises you can rejoice and be exceedingly glad for all that He has made available to you, all that He has laid up for you, by laying His own life down…for you?
These are heavy things to think about this morning, but things we need to understand clearly, reminders that we live in a world gone wrong, a world gone astray, a world that is not just wandering, but at times actively running away from God and His guidance and direction on how to live.
Most people around you are headed away from God – at various speeds and in various directions. If you’re headed toward Him that means you’re driving the wrong way down the middle of the Beltway – there’s bound to be some scrapes and collisions here and there – you’re going to run into some people, and they’re going to run into you. But you’re headed toward the right destination – just keep going. Keep your eyes on Christ, rejoice, and be exceeding glad for what comes next.