Monday, February 16, 2015

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness - Matthew 5:10-12


All of us who are in this room are in the position of the Christians to whom the author of Hebrews was writing: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4).  And yet, I know that the suffering that I have experienced as a disciple of Jesus Christ has been marginal compared to even these believers.  For they had “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.  For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (10:32-35).  These guys had suffered ridicule, the loss of their possessions, and prison for the sake of Christ.  We have had it incredibly easy here in the US for so long that we don’t realize just how normal it is to suffer in these ways for Christ.

According to Joe Carter, Christians are the most persecuted group in the world.  Almost 200 Christians die every month for their faith.  There are at least 60 countries in the world where Christians are being persecuted.  In 41 of these countries, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists.[1]  We’ve all seen the horrific persecution currently being experienced by believers in Syria and Iraq.

What you probably don’t know is that even in the New World, where people fled from religious persecution, that even here people were persecuted for their faith.  One reason the Baptists were so emphatic in their support of the 10 amendments to the US Constitution was because they had often been on the short end of the stick as regards discrimination and persecution by the authorities.  In 1655, Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist, was publically whipped, receiving thirty stripes with a three-corded whip by the authorities in Massachusetts.  Why?  Because he was a Baptist and had preached the gospel to an elderly person in that state without its permission.  According to Sylvester Hassell, the whipping was so severe that “he could take no rest for some weeks except as he lay on his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any other part of his body to touch the bed.”[2]

Though we live in a country with a First Amendment, we need to realize that this can happen again.  We are all aware that our culture is increasingly ridding itself of any vestige of its Christian beginnings.  George Washington could once speak of Jesus Christ as the “divine author of our religion” – here, the referent of “our” was the people of the United States.  But no one would seriously speak this way anymore.  One thing this means is that persecution against Christians – which just a few years ago was unthinkable in this country – is now an increasingly real possibility. 

Now there a two ways to face this reality.  We can react wrongly by becoming depressed like Elijah when Jezebel threatened to kill him, and get into a martyr complex.  We can become like Eeyore and have a “woe is me” attitude.  But it is clear that this is not the kind of person our Lord is describing.  Rather, those who are persecuted are commanded to “rejoice and be exceeding glad.”  In other words, if we are the kind of person who is referred to in the Beatitudes, we are neither going to go looking for trouble nor are we going to become bitter and despairing.  Rather, we are going to have the attitude of the apostles, who, after they were beaten for their testimony to Christ, left “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

How do you get this way?  We who have been made soft through the luxuries of the West especially need to think through this.  And though I really do believe that God is able to give sufficient grace to his people even in the midst of suffering – 1 Cor. 10:13 applies here – yet that does not mean that we should neglect the means God has given his people to withstand opposition to them on account of their faith in Christ. 

In fact, grace for our trials does not mean that the believer will necessarily take advantage of that grace.  Peter had Jesus praying for him, and yet he denied Christ three times.  He had not used the means of grace at hand.  He had slept when he should have been praying.  The weakness of his flesh overcame the willingness of his spirit.  In the same way, if we are spiritually asleep we will be less likely to give a strong accounting of ourselves when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  The Puritan Thomas Watson tells the story that Julius Caesar “cashiered” a soldier who waited until just before a battle to sharpen his sword.  “It is dangerous as well as imprudent to have all to seek when the trial comes, as if a soldier should have his weapons to get when the enemy is in the field. . . . Let us prepare for persecution.  A wise pilot in a calm will prepare for a storm.”[3]

Now it may very well be that none of us will ever be called upon to give our lives for Christ.  But we need to be the kind of person who is willing and able to do so if called upon.  You don’t want an army made up of men who are out of shape and without courage.  Even in times of peace, the military needs to prepare soldiers who are willing to give their lives on the field of battle.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  It reminds me of an observation that an Egyptian military officer made after Egypt’s defeat as the hands of the tiny nation of Israel in the Six Days War in 1967.  His comment was that the reason the Egyptian army was defeated was because they were trained to parade but not to fight.  Does that describe us?  Can we parade as Christians in the sunshine of calm and peace but be unable to “stand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:10)? 

Very well then, how do you prepare?  I think the best way is to really absorb the truth that our Lord presents before us in these verses.

Before we do so, however, we need to settle a few matters.  First of all, what is the persecution our Lord is referring to here?  Our Lord’s words make it very evident that persecution can come in a variety of forms.  It doesn’t just refer to that which makes men and women martyrs.  That is included, of course, but it is wider than that.  It includes that which not only causes pain to our bodies, but also that which causes pain to our names and reputations on account of our allegiance to Jesus.  It happens when we are reviled, and slandered, when men “say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (ver. 11).  We must not think that persecution comes to us only when we are put on the rack.  No, it has innumerable shapes and forms, and persecution can and does happen to believers everywhere in all times, no matter how peaceful the state where they live.

On the other hand, we must be careful that we do not make everything that causes us discomfort into persecution.  Christ is not talking about persecution in general, but persecution that comes to people because of their relationship to Jesus.  Christians aren’t the only ones who are persecuted.  It is possible to be persecuted for a political cause, but that is not what our Lord is talking about here.  This is persecution for the sake of his name, for the sake of righteousness.  

Furthermore, we have to be clear that the persecution that our Lord is speaking about is not that which Christians bring upon themselves for being stupid.  There are some Christians, who, in the name of boldness for the gospel fail to apply the words of our Lord to his disciples to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  I know some Christians who in their stand against the evils of our age are neither wise nor harmless.  Or they don’t seem to take seriously our Lord’s words even here in this Sermon on the Mount to cast not pearls before swine and to give not that which is holy to the dogs (Mt 7:6).  As one pastor put it, Paul didn’t parade down the streets of Rome with placards screaming, “Caesar is not Lord!”  His approach was a bit wiser than that, without at all compromising the truth.

There are also some people who seem to always be looking for a cause to be martyred over.  They are in a very real sense looking for persecution.  That is not the kind of person our Lord is speaking of.  After all, in another context, Jesus tells his disciples, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Mt 10:23).  In other words, it’s okay to try to avoid persecution.  Persecution is not something that should be sought after.  It’s not something that is good in itself.  Though we shouldn’t avoid it if our Lord’s honor or truth is at stake, neither are we warranted by this text or any other to seek it out.

The persecution that our Lord speaks of is that which comes to his followers not because they are hard to get along with, or because they are unwise in their application of the gospel to their lives, but it is that which comes to them simply because of the name of Christ.  If they are slandered, it is slander that is falsely levelled against them because of the enmity the world has against Jesus.  If it involves imprisonment, or the giving of our lives, it is not because of sin on our part, but because of our testimony to righteousness.  As Peter puts it, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.  Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). 

We are now in a position to answer our earlier question: How do we prepare ourselves to be the kind of person who can suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake?

First, as disciples of Christ we need to expect persecution as a matter of course.  What is our Lord doing in these Beatitudes?  He is describing the follower of Jesus.  The implication of this Beatitude is that his disciples can expect to be persecuted (cf. John 15:18-20).  “In this world you shall have tribulation,” said our Lord to his disciples (John 16:33).  The apostles told the early churches that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  Paul told Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).  Peter told his audience, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12).

Our Lord, in putting this before his disciples, is asking them to count the cost.  If you would be his disciple, you must be willing to suffer.  If you would have a crown, you must first be willing to take the cross.  This is part of the job description.  If you would endure, you must know and embrace this reality.

No one knew this better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I cannot help but wonder if his writing the book The Cost of Discipleship was a spiritual and mental preparation for his role in opposing the evils of the Third Reich.  In April 1945, a few weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Gestapo for his role in opposing the Nazi regime, and in particular for his role in one of the many assassination attempts upon the Fuhrer’s life.  For Bonhoeffer, there was never a choice in opposing Hitler and his thugs; it was a part of his allegiance to Jesus Christ.  And I listen to men like him when he speaks of the cost of discipleship because for him it was not an academic exercise.  It was real.  He wrote, “Discipleship is being bound to the suffering Christ.  That is why Christian suffering is not disconcerting.  Instead, it is nothing but grace and joy.”[4]

Second, you become like this by cultivating a pure conscience and purity of heart before the Lord.  I think there are several reasons why this Beatitude comes last.  It comes last because it not only describes the kind of person who suffers for righteousness, as if this is the inevitable result of being this kind of person, but also because this is the only kind of person  who can endure persecution. 

Think about it: what are some of the things that would cause us to chafe under persecution?  What might make you and me bitter against God because of it?  One thing that might make us bitter is thinking that we deserve better.  But this is not the way a person thinks who is poor in spirit and meek.  Or what might cause me melt against the withering assaults of sin?  If my heart is not pure and I have weakened my conscience through sin, then when faced with the choice of denying Christ through sin or embracing Christ through suffering, I will be much more likely to choose sin over suffering.  Not the pure in heart.  Not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

I cannot help but think that eighty-six years of following Jesus strengthened Polycarp to resist any temptation to deny Christ.  “Eighty and six years have I served my Lord, and he has done me no wrong.  How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?  Bring forth what thou wilt.”  It was this that enabled Paul as he stood before his persecutors.  Before the Jewish council, he said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1).  And then before Felix, “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).

Brethren, it is not only the doctrine of grace but the power of grace that will enable you to endure suffering.  So don’t live in such a way that will weaken the power of grace in your life.  Keep your conscience clean.  Walk in the Spirit, and don’t live in such a way that would grieve the Spirit.  “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Third, you get this way by embracing the promise of future, eternal reward.  This is the burden of what our Lord says.  The emphasis is on this; it shows just how important this is to grasp.  In verse 10, it lies in the words, “Blessed . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  In verse 11, you see it in how our Lord switches from the third person to the second person and looks his disciples in the eye and emphatically says, “Blessed are you. . . .”  In verse 12, you see it in the words, “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”

Moses endured the sufferings with the people of God because “he had respect unto the recompense of reward” (Heb. 11:26).  The implication of this text is that if he hadn’t been looking to the future reward, he would not have endured. 

Consider who is speaking here.  It is Jesus, who was born so that he might die a horrible and ignominious death.  But he was also the one who came from glory.  He stood between glory and suffering, having a perfect view of the former and a lifetime of suffering to prepare him for the latter.  He had a true perspective.  And as he looked toward his suffering, he tells his disciples who will also endure the same that the worst the Christian can endure in this life is so little compared to the glory in the age to come that the Christian should be able to look at it rejoice and be exceeding glad.  With Jesus we can for the joy set before us despise the shame (Heb. 12:3). 

Consider what is promised the follower of Jesus.  The glory to come is of such a nature that all the sufferings of this life are nothing in comparison.  “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).  Paul describes the sufferings he endured as “our light affliction, which is but for a moment” (2 Cor. 4:17).  Everlasting happiness and joy will swallow up all our persecutions into nothingness, a faint remembrance. 

But as it was with our Lord, the path to glory is the way of suffering.  “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).  As Watson put it, “The cross is a golden ladder by which we climb up to heaven.”[5]  There is no other way than by this way.  We cannot have two heavens, one here and one to come. 

Suffering is no reason to think that God is displeased with you.  On the contrary, “so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”  We suffer “according to God’s will” (1 Pet. 4:19).  Suffering is for the saints a gateway to eternal delight.

The language of reward has bothered many people.  “Great is your reward in heaven.”  But let us not cancel out our Lord’s words here out of a concern for grace.  The reward is real and it is great.  It is a genuine reward because it is given in response to their sufferings.  This does not mean that the reward is given because we merit it.  Again, to quote Watson, “Alas, what proportion is there between a drop of blood and a weight of glory?”[6]  The reward is itself given of grace. 

Somehow, in a way that I don’t fully understand, our sufferings now are preparing us for the glory to come.  Not just sufferings from persecution, but these sufferings are definitely included.  Paul said of his own sufferings, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).  There is therefore a real correspondence between our suffering now and the glory to come.  So it is a proper reward in that sense.  And yet, all the faith it takes to endure suffering is itself a gift of God so that we cannot boast even in this.  It is a great and it is a gracious reward.

Conclusion.

In a moment, we are going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, a ceremonial meal that cannot but remind us that suffering is the path to grace and glory.  Our Lord suffered by spilling his blood so that we might have the forgiveness of sins and an eternal inheritance.  But this Supper also reminds us that we participate in Christ not only by participating in the rewards of his suffering but also by participating in his sufferings.  Paul talks about the “fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).  We don’t participate in his suffering by expiating our own sin or the sins of others.  Rather, we share in Christ’s sufferings because we are so united to him that our sufferings become his.  And as our High Priest who is able to sympathize with us in all our sufferings, we are able to bring every trial to him knowing that he will sympathize with us and give us grace to help in time of need.  May our faith be encouraged this morning as we take of his flesh and blood so that we will become the kind of person who rejoices with exceeding joy even in the midst of suffering and persecution.




[1] http://erlc.com/article/5-facts-about-christian-persecution
[2] Sylvester and C. B. Hassell, History of the Church of God (Old School Hymnal: Ellenwood, 1983), page 523.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Banner of Truth: London, 1971), page 272.
[4] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4: Discipleship (Fortress: Minneapolis, 2003), page 89.
[5] Watson, p. 295.
[6] Ibid, p. 295.

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