Blessed are those who are Persecuted… – (part 9 of 9) – Matthew 5:10-12; I Peter 3:13-17


We have been working our way through the challenging statements of Jesus called the Beatitudes.  These statements of Jesus summarize what it means that we are citizens in the kingdom of God. They open our hearts to the Lord, not just rules kept, but motives, feelings and attitudes.  In his commentary called The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott beautifully summarizes what we have been striving to understand.  I would like to read these paragraphs to you. (p. 54)

“The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple.  We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it.  This makes him or her meek and gentle in all their relationships, since honesty compels them to allow others to think of them what before God they confesses themselves to be.  Yet they are far from acquiescing in their sinfulness, for they hunger and thirst after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness.

We see the disciple next with others, out in the human community.  His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world’s pain.  On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin.  He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as peacemaker.  Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified.

Such is the man or woman who is ‘blessed’, that is, who has the approval of God and finds self-fulfillment as a human being.

We dealt with blessed are the peacemakers in our series in Advent.  This morning we reflect on the last and longest of Jesus statements:  “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  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.”

I suspect when we hear about persecution against Christians our first thoughts are about something that happens in other parts of the world.  I read a rather dramatic account of persecution in a book by Philip Yancy called What Good is God?  He was talking about how under Mao the Communist government in China was dedicated to eradicate Christianity and many people suffered greatly.  Yancy wrote:

“For several decades no one knew how the Chinese church was faring, especially in the light of leaked reports of social turmoil.  Had Madame Mao succeeded in her vow to destroy Christianity?   When China finally began to crack open its borders, some of the missionaries returned to visit, astonished to find that the church had exploded in size.  Aikman estimates the number of Christians in China today may exceed 80 million…. No one knows for sure because so many of them meet in unregistered (and illegal) house churches of 20 or 30 members.  This is the largest religious revival in history by far…”

Revival and growth under this kind of duress amazes us.  It is hard for us to imagine being publicly persecuted when we are living with a Bill of Rights in our constitution guaranteeing our freedom of speech and religion.  We are here together this morning without threat.  This week in the CRC prayer requests we were asked to pray for Calvin College students from Jos, Nigeria, where there is increasing violence which often aimed at Christians.



This is the sort of thing we would expect to talk about his morning, and that would be more comfortable.  But we have not avoided facing the other beatitudes head on and very personally, so what does this beatitude mean for us?  We immediately sense that Jesus is offering words of comfort to his followers and the early church who would face persecution because of him.  We hear Jesus telling people who are already suffering persecution, “Don’t be discouraged;” and to those who have yet to face persecution, “Don’t be surprised.”  There is a tone of inevitability here that makes us wonder.  Should we be experiencing more opposition?  Is there something wrong with us if we don’t?

First of all we need to read this beatitude very carefully.  People are blessed and should rejoice when they are opposed and suffer for righteousness and because of Jesus.  We immediately see that all suffering that Christians do is not necessarily a part of this blessing.  Some Christians suffered in the devastating stock market downturn and the resulting pain of lost funds and lost jobs in our economy over the last 2+ year.  They were really Christians and they were really suffering, but these two weren’t necessarily connected.  Even though God may have his purposes, often the things we suffer aren’t directly related to our personal actions.  For example, the doctor diagnoses you with a serious illness, or your company downsizes and you get laid off from your job.  There are some blessings in life that are simply a matter of common grace – everybody experiences them whether they deserve them or not.  The converse is also true: there are some troubles that are also universally experienced.  When Hurricane Katrina caused such devastation in New Orleans and the levees gave way – Christians and non-Christians alike suffered.  Jesus is referring here to personal and targeted suffering because of righteous behavior.  We have also all known Christians who were obnoxious in the way they dealt with other people, or condescending and judgmental, or less than compassionate and thus deserved every bit of rejection they received.  That kind of suffering is also not what Jesus is talking about.

So what is persecution because of righteousness and abuse because of Jesus? As I have tried to understand what this means for people like us three related perspectives emerge from scripture that I want to share with you.

What is the righteousness or the following Jesus that may draw fire and opposition?  The first perspective is a very familiar passage from Micah 6:8.  What are we supposed to be doing?  What does it look like for a Christian to live for Christ?  This righteousness isn’t so mysterious.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah reminds us to look back at what we’ve already studied in this series.  Our position as Christ-followers is to hunger and thirst for righteousness – – seeking to be people who treat all people with respect and fairness and justice whether in our families, our church, or with anyone else we meet.  It is about seeking justice for people, even those we disagree with.  If we do this we will get opposition from people who cherish their prejudices and need others to blame for their own lives.  In the same way, following the example of God, loving mercy – giving to those in need who have no claim on us — but giving just because we see and are moved by their need, may not be popular in an economy built more and more on greed.  We’ve discussed being poor in spirit and meek, cherishing our place as God’s people without the narcissism of needing to think it is all about us and that we are the center of the universe. Micah 6:8 directs us.

A second perspective comes from the passage we read in 1 Peter 3.  This passage deals with Christian civility.  We will look at it in more depth later.  Essentially Peter is telling us how to live in a indifferent or hostile environment.  Here is the formula:

  1. Be eager to do good (like being merciful).  If you suffer for it, you know you are blessed by God.  Peter emphasizes that it is better to suffer for doing good than to deserve suffering for doing evil.
  2. In your heart set Christ apart as Lord.
  3. Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you with gentleness and respect.  Notice how we give qa reason for the hope that is in us: with gentleness and respect.

Peter is saying that if we have to suffer for Christ, make it worthwhile and suffer for doing good.

Our third perspective focuses on Peter’s 2nd point.  “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”  JESUS IS LORD!  This belief and life-defining statement drew all sorts of persecution for the early Christians.

Jesus is Lord – not Caesar!  This statement and belief often caused people to lose their homes, jobs, and families.  Some were enslaved, others thrown to the lions, and still others were crucified.  In the Roman emperor Nero’s time the Apian Way into Rome was lined with crosses for miles.  Still the church grew.  Jesus is Lord.

Will that draw insults and slander and painful rejection today?  Over the years I have known more than one person who lost his/her job because they would not compromise their integrity.  I’ve known more than one person who lost friends because they would not compromise their values.  Jesus is Lord – and that will draw some response from people in a materialistic secular society that is motivated by greed and power without concern for justice or people’s well-being.  Jesus is Lord – the Jesus of the beatitudes, the Jesus of the gospel is Lord – not some other Jesus who has been created by nationalism and civil religion that wraps him in the flag and worships moralistic patriotism whose creed is “my country right or wrong.”  The principalities and power of greed, nationalism, racial superiority, and entitlement are not Lord.  Jesus is Lord!  He is the Jesus we are called to follow, the Jesus of the beatitudes.  If we follow the Jesus of the Gospel we may well find opposition – some of it in our own community or family, or in our own church.  Rejoice and be glad, says Jesus when this happens because you know me and love me.  Do not be afraid.  You are in the line of the prophets, and God is keeping a record to reward his own.

We sense that all of this has been difficult because it is radical and counter-cultural:

  • Jesus says, blessed are the poor in spirit; our culture says, blessed are the proud, the arrogant, the achievers.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who mourn, our culture says, blessed are those who are self-fulfilled and self-sufficient, caring only for themselves.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who are meek, our culture says, blessed are the powerful, proud and self-serving.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and our culture says, blessed are those who are unrestrained to do their own thing no matter who gets hurt.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who are merciful, our culture says, blessed are the manipulators who use people without awareness or concern for their needs or their pain.
  • Jesus says, blessed are the pure in heart, our culture says, blessed are the uninhibited, impure, lewd, and cynical.
  • Jesus says, blessed are the peacemakers, our culture says, blessed are the strong and controlling.
  • Jesus says blessed the persecuted for righteousness and for his sake, and our culture says, blessed are the expedient and the aggressive – people who have to win at all costs.

We are truly to be a part of a kingdom of God that is above the culture we are surrounded by.  The wonder is that God is building his kingdom in and among us.  It is an eternal kingdom.  It is a kingdom of light and beauty and joy.  It is a kingdom of grace, forgiveness, inclusion and acceptance.  It is a kingdom that touches and heals the deepest needs of people.  At the same time Jesus is clear that we are not to try to sanctify that which is not his and of him.  Before our prayer of confession and the song of assurance I would like to read a statement from Jesus that occurs later in the Sermon on the Mount.   Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”

We would like you now to reflect with us on this whole series of messages on the Beatitudes with a responsive prayer of confession and a song of assurance.  Please join us.

 God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the kingdom of heaven is given to them.  But we have been proud in spirit, inflated with pride in our own self-sufficiency.  We have forgotten how needy we are.

 God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. But we have not mourned over our sins, instead we have insulated ourselves from those around us, from their pain, needs, loneliness, and suffering.  We have even hardened ourselves so that we are unaware that our own lives cause grief to the Lord.

 God blesses those who are gentle and lowly, for the whole earth will be their inheritance. But we have valued toughness over gentleness.  We have too often chosen to be concerned with ourselves rather than with our brothers and sisters and neighbors.  Like the prodigal son, we want to satisfy ourselves rather than our Father.

 God blesses those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will receive it in full. But we have hungered after the pleasures, prestige, and possessions of this temporal world.  Like Esau, we have despised our birthright by choosing to satisfy our immediate desires.

 God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  But we have often presided as harsh judges over the lives of others.  We have been quick to place blame on anything or anyone but ourselves.  We have avoided obligations to care for or to help people in need.

 God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.  But we have defiled our hearts with idols of our own choosing, doubting that God will keep his Word and his promises.  We continually compromise the truth by trying to find meaning and security in our jobs, our friends, our pleasures, our projects—but not in God.

 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. But we are often at war with one another.  In a thousand little ways we demand to be catered to.  We seldom esteem others as more important than ourselves.  We often create strife by demanding our way rather than by walking in God’s Spirit.

 God blesses those who are persecuted because they live for God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  But we have too often retreated from the disapproval of others.  We’ve sought to please the world rather than risking the disapproval of those who need the Messiah.  We regard rejection for righteousness as a burden to be borne, rather thanan honor to be humbly received.  Lord, please show us your mercy. Lord, have mercy upon us in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.