************ Sermon on Matthew 5:10-12 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on September 26, 1999
"Blessed are the Persecuted"
I Persecution -- to be expected
Topic: SufferingThese things are not pleasant to think about, but – and that's the message of today's text – these are the things a Christian has to be prepared for, if he or she stands with Christ. So let me ask you, Are you one of the blessed persecuted?
The penalties which early Christians had to suffer were terrible beyond description. All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the tenderest parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to increase the agony.
According to the Bible, persecution is the norm, it is to be expected. In fact, if persecution is not our experience, we either live in most unusual circumstances – and must thank God for those circumstances – or something is wanting/lacking in our Christian faith and practice. In fact, I can say that persecution is proof that we are a Christian. Perhaps you have heard the following caption before:
If it is against the law to be a Christian, would there be enough proof to convict you?So again I ask, are you one of the blessed persecuted?
Persecution is to be expected. That this is the clear teaching of the Bible is obvious from the words of Jesus:
(John 15:18-20) "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. (19) If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (20) Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also."The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
(2 Tim 3:12) In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted ...
We are being given today a further description of who or what is a Christian. We are told that they are the persecuted ones: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Christians are the persecuted ones. That is the Bible's teaching. And we see this persecution throughout the Bible. For instance, Abel was persecuted by his brother Cain. Moses was persecuted by Pharaoh. David was persecuted by Saul. The prophets Elijah and Jeremiah were persecuted by king and people alike. In the New Testament we think of Stephen, the first martyr. We think of Paul, who suffered every imaginable kind of mistreatment possible. We think of Peter whose life was ended hanging upside down upon a cross. And, of course, look at the Lord; He, in all His utter, absolute perfection, so gentle and so kind, was terribly persecuted.
We can go from the Bible and take a quick glance at the history of the church. Polycarp, Justin Martyr, John Huss, the Covenanters, they were all persecuted. And what happened in the past continues to happen today.
Despite the spread of political freedom around the world, religious liberty is not enjoyed by all Christians. Fellow believers in some countries are still facing persecution and prosecution. A recent report by the U.S. State Department says Christian persecution has been reported in 74 different countries. More than 25,000 Christians worldwide are imprisoned for their faith in Christ.
This past week's mail brought me a booklet from The Bible League (HOLD UP BOOKLET). Listen to excerpts taken from the booklet:
CHINA – Zhang Daojun, a house church leader, knows all too well what Chinese Christians are going through. He lives with the possibility that the police could kill him. Once he was sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment for his Christian activities. The police strapped Zhang to a metal chair and shot electric currents through his body.
EGYPT – In a small church in rural Egypt, a group of teenagers gathers to worship God. They eagerly listen to their pastor. Suddenly the pastor stops in the middle of his sermon. He trembles, unable to speak. Before he can give a warning, several men dressed in black open fire. Machine gun bullets rip through the group of teens, piercing their bodies. A radical Islamic group is attacking these Christians, as part of their plan to drive Christianity out of Egypt.
Twenty-One pages of stuff like this. People being persecuted simply because they believe in Jesus.
B Christians are the persecuted ones. That's the message of the Bible. It is surprising to find out who it is that does the persecuting. You will find as you go through the Scriptures, and as you study the history of the church, that persecution is not done just by the world. Some of the worst persecution has been done by the church itself. Consider our Lord. His persecutors where the Pharisees and scribes and other religious leaders of Israel. The first Christians, too, were persecuted most bitterly of all by the Jews. In the Middle Ages and at the time of the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church horribly persecuted those who tried to teach and live the pure truth of God's Word. The Anabaptists of the 16th century were persecuted not only by the Roman Catholics but by the Protestants and Lutherans as well. The Puritan Fathers were similarly mistreated by the religious leaders of their day. So many times, I'm afraid, persecution comes not from the outside but from within. Many converts to the Christian faith say they get much more opposition from fellow believers than from unbelievers. Formal Christianity is often the greatest enemy of the pure faith.
C We are all familiar with the different forms persecution may take. It may be violence. It may mean being arrested and thrown into prison or concentration camp. It can take the form of men actually being shot, or murdered in some other way. It may take the form of a man losing his job. It may exhibit itself by sneering and jeering and laughter. It may take the form of a vicious whispering and rumor campaign. It may involve double taxation and/or confiscation of property. It may come in the form of repressive rules and regulations about worship, education, and evangelism. There is no end to the ways in which the persecuted may suffer.
But whatever the form, in this world and in this life Christians can expect to be persecuted. We in this country with our freedoms must praise and thank God that we are largely spared such travails. But if we were to be persecuted as they are in other countries, would you be one of the blessed persecuted? If it was against the law to be a Christian, would there be enough proof to convict you?
II Persecution -- why
A "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Many people think anyone who is persecuted, regardless of the reason why, is to be counted as "blessed," as happy many, many times over. But notice, in our text, why the persecuted are being persecuted. The blessed persecuted Jesus speaks of are persecuted "because of righteousness."
Let me use a few negatives to tell you what our text does NOT mean. Jesus does not say, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because they create offense, because they are difficult people to get along with, because they lack in wisdom and are really foolish and even dumb in what they do." There is no need to elaborate on this because we all know Christians who bring suffering upon themselves.
Let me use another negative. Jesus does not say, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are fanatics." Fanaticism can so easily lead to persecution. Think of how most Americans responded when Muslim extremists blew up the World Trade Center in New York City – it caused a rash of persecution against all Muslims nationwide. Think of how we were all revolted when a black man was beaten by skinheads, chained behind a pickup truck and dragged until he was beheaded – it caused a backlash against anyone who even dressed like a skinhead. God spare us from all fanatics, whether they be Muslim, Hindu, New Age, or Christian. Fanatics damage any cause and in the church they bring shame upon the name of Christ. Remember what Jesus said?
(Mt 10:16) Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. (KJV)
Another negative. Jesus does not say, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because they do wrong." You should remember the wise words of Peter:
(1 Pet 4:15) If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.
Finally, we have to realize that in our text Jesus does not mean suffering for a cause or for religious-political reasons. I think of the sufferings of the Bosnian Serbs. There is no doubt that they have been persecuted most cruelly by those opposed to them. However, they have not experienced persecution because they are Christian – in fact, they are mostly Muslim.
B "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The blessed persecuted are persecuted "because of righteousness" for which they hunger and thirst. They are persecuted "because of me" says Jesus in verse 11.
What does this mean? The persecuted ones blessed by the Lord live their whole life for Christ and not for themselves. They say with Paul,
(Gal 2:20) I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.His or her life is dominated by the Lord Jesus, and by considerations of what is pleasing to Him. The controlling motive of his or her every thought, act, and deed is "Christ's sake." Maybe you have seen bracelets with the initials "WWJD" – they stand for, "What Would Jesus Do?" In line with this, the blessed persecuted strive to be like Christ in all their ways.
On account of this, the blessed persecuted are different. They are different from the man or woman of the world. The man or woman of the world lives for self, or for pleasure, or for money, or even for some noble cause. But the blessed persecuted live for Christ. They seek first the kingdom and its righteousness. And because of that difference they are persecuted. Persecution is simply the clash between two incompatible value-systems. You see, there can be no harmony between living for self and living for Jesus. There is no connection between living for pleasure and seeking first the kingdom. There is no fellowship between love for money and hungering for righteousness. There is no communion between pursuit of political goals and being a temple of the living God.
So let me ask again, if it was against the law to be a Christian, would there be enough proof to convict you? Would you be one of the blessed persecuted who pursue righteousness and life with Christ?
III Persecution -- response
A In the Bible what matters is not the how, the where, or the when of persecution. What really matters is the way in which the Christian faces these things. Our Lord tells us here what He expects of us in the midst of the trials He allows our way.
How is the Christian to respond to persecution? We can first speak negatively. The Christian must not retaliate; he or she must not seek revenge. You know what Paul says:
(Rom 12:19) Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. Now this is very difficult. When someone hurts us we want to strike back. Within all of us there is a desire to be like the Jews of Esther's day. When Haman's plot to eliminate the Jews was discovered, the Jews went on a rampage and were allowed to kill 75,000 of their enemies (Esther 9).
B How is the Christian to respond to persecution? What is to be the response of the blessed persecuted? Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad." You got to be kidding! Jesus can't be serious about this, can He?! When people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of false things about you, how can the Lord possibly expect you to be glad?
Let's make sure we properly understand what the Lord is saying here. He is not telling us to rejoice and be glad about the mere fact of persecution. For persecution itself is never something to rejoice in and is always something to regret. To me it is a source of great grief that men and women, because of sin and Satan, should treat their fellow human in such inhuman and devilish ways. Our heart, like God's, should always break over sin and its evil consequences.
C Yet, the Lord says the Christian response to persecution is to "rejoice and be glad." And He also tells us two reason why. Let's take the second reason first. "Rejoice and be glad ... for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." In being persecuted we are standing in a long and noble tradition that stretches back to Elijah, Jeremiah, Moses, and Noah. In being persecuted we stand in a tradition that includes Christ. In being persecuted we, in the words of Peter, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ Himself (1 Pt 4:13). Rejoice and be glad in persecution because you are being identified with Christ and His people. Rejoice and be glad because your persecution is proof of who and what you are: a child of God, a servant of Christ, a seeker of righteousness. That's the first reason.
But there is also a second reason. "Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven." The Christian is heavenly minded. He belongs to another realm. He knows there lies an eternal reward beyond this life. Here again we see the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. The non-Christian does everything he can not to think of the world beyond. He hates talk of death and eternity. Many unbelievers have the idea that when their life has run its course and they take their last breath, they will no longer exist. But more – much more – lies ahead!
Topic: DeathSimilarly, the believer knows that though death looks like the end, it isn't. He knows that there is more, much more, ahead.
Subtopic: Of the Righteous
Title: No Blind Alley After All
Frank W. Boreham (1871-1959) illustrates this in his book Wisps of Wildfire. "A few weeks ago, in a small boat, I was making my way up one of the most picturesque of our Australian rivers. The forestry on both banks was magnificent beyond description. A canoe glided ahead of us. Presently, the waters seemed to come to an end. We watched the canoe, and to our astonishment, it simply vanished! When we came to the point at which the canoe had so mysteriously disappeared, we beheld a sudden twist in the river artfully concealed by the tangle of bush. The blind alley was no blind alley after all!"
Those believers persecuted for Christ's sake are pronounced blessed, they are to rejoice and be glad, because there is in store for them a "crown of righteousness" (2 Tim 4:8), a prize beyond all worth. They rejoice and are glad because they know there is in store for them something too wondrous, too beautiful, too awesome to possibly describe.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Let me ask again, if it was against the law to be a Christian, would there be enough proof to convict you?
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
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