Is it not strange that Jesus puts side-by-side these last two Beatitudes? Firstly, blessed are the peacemakers, then immediately, blessed are those who are persecuted. Last week we thought about scriptures that call us to do everything possible to live at peace with everyone. Harmony, reconciliation, community, unity. And then immediately, the opposite of harmony; persecution. Peace then violence.
That is a puzzle and it is a puzzle how anyone could call persecution a blessing. Are you praying for this blessing of persecution?
The reality is that no matter how hard you try to get on with people (and we should) there will be persecution, because the values of the Christian clash with the values of the world.
This Beatitude was stated in exactly the same form as the previous seven (“Blessed are those who such-and-such because such-and-such”) but this one Jesus repeated and expanded. The first time it was “blessed are those who…”. The second time it was addressed more directly to the listening disciples. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you.”
The Beatitudes describe the characteristics of the Christian disciple. Every disciple is to be poor in spirit, to mourn over what is wrong, to be meek, to be merciful, pure in heart etc.. It would seem that being persecuted will also be a mark of every disciple.
There are quite a number of scriptures that state that persecution is inevitable.
Jesus said that following Him necessarily meant taking up a cross (Mt 16:24). That means “I am willing to be persecuted.” The cross is an instrument of torture. He told the disciples that they would be brought before magistrates, scourged in the synagogues and hated by all men because of their faithfulness to Him (Mt 10:16-22; Mk 13:9; Lk 21:17). He told them that the day would come when those who killed Christians would think they were serving God (Jn 16:2).
John 15:18, 20-21 18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.
Read 1 Peter 4:12-19
2 Tim 3:12 In fact, anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
1 Thess 3:4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.
But notice the reason for persecution. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.
Some Christians seem to delight in getting up people’s noses and being unpopular and then they point to the opposition they receive as being proof that they are God’s people fighting against an evil world. No, no, no. You are just obnoxious. There is no Beatitude that says, “Blessed are the annoying.”
Jesus is talking about people who do the right thing; who are committed to God and to God’s ways. He had previously talked about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who want to do what is right. In some ways we could say it applies to those who live out all of the previous seven Beatitudes. They are aware of their own spiritual poverty; they are grieved by wrong; they are gentle but strong; they want to do the right thing; they are merciful and sincere and want to live in peace.
Wouldn’t those people be really nice? Who can argue against mercy and sincerity and gentleness and doing the right thing? Why would they be persecuted?
Here’s why. Those people become the conscience of the world and often the world doesn’t want a conscience. Jesus was merciful, sincere, gentle, loving, etc.. Why would you kill such a good person?
John 3:19-20 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
Let me illustrate this from the early church which at various times suffered the most horrific persecutions. The Roman world was awash with sexual immorality but Christians were commanded to be sexually pure. Christians were not able to go to a heathen meal because prayers would be offered to pagan gods. They couldn’t go to public celebrations and occasions in the temple because the invitation was to dine at the table of some false god. Christians thought of slaves as their brothers and sisters and treated them as such but the whole Roman system was built on slavery and Christians seemed to be undermining it. There were many occupations that Christians couldn’t take up, again because of engagement with pagan gods. So it appeared that Christians were withdrawing from society. Then people began to think that Christians were aloof and thought themselves superior. People engaged in evil hate having a mirror held up to themselves.
Then the next step was for all sorts of false accusations to be levelled against Christians. If there was a natural disaster, Christians would be blamed because they were not worshipping the pagan gods and the gods were therefore angry. When people became Christians that sometimes split families. Jesus requires Christians to love Him before their families and so faithful Christians were accused of destroying families. There was secrecy around Christian services and non-Christians were barred from taking Communion. Secrecy produces suspicion and more accusations. The rumour spread that Christians were said to be cannibals because they talked of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. They were accused of gross immorality and orgies because they had Agape feasts (love feasts) and they greeted each other with the kiss of peace. They were accused of killing and eating children. I am not sure why, but by this stage probably people don’t need a reason. Any outlandish accusation sticks in the public mind.
But the main reason for persecution was that Christians refused to say “Caesar is Lord.” For them, Jesus and Jesus alone was Lord, and so they were seen to be a subversive and divisive element in the empire.
What had they done wrong? They were a people of love and purity and faithfulness and service. They cared for the sick and rejected. They rescued and raised abandoned babies. Yet they were tortured and killed in the most gruesome ways. Why? Because they were different in a way that shamed others.
Christians can be self-righteous and condemning of others and arrogant. Jesus wasn’t talking about them. They deserve their persecution! No, Jesus was talking about people who are merciful and sincere and peaceful but who are persecuted for being righteous. He is talking about people who are committed to Christ and committed to being Christ-like. He is talking about holiness – being different – being set apart for Jesus. In the expansion, He talked about people being persecuted because of Him; people who choose to love and obey Jesus. The Timothy passage says, “Anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” It is not about seeking persecution, or getting in people’s faces. It is simply about being godly, doing the right thing, being a good person and finding that that is unpopular.
But Jesus compared this with the persecution of the prophets. Weren’t they unpopular because they did get in people’s faces and they made the nation face up to its sin? Yes, but they were still godly people. They operated out of compassion. It was their compassion for their people, as well as their obedience to God, that made them speak out, and warn, and plead with people to repent.
Sometimes righteousness will mean confronting what is wrong but let that be out of compassion not out of a sense of superiority and arrogance. That is not Christ-like.
In our country, there is very little persecution. Is that because Christians by-and-large are little different from society? There is not that mirror of purity that provokes a sinful society. When there is persecution – strident comments in the media or whatever – it might be for one of two reasons. It might be because Christians have behaved badly and we bring criticism on ourselves. Or, it might be because Christians have behaved well and people don’t like the light revealing their darkness.
But how on earth can persecution be a blessing? Jesus said ‘Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. Christians may renounce a lot of what the world offers – may not be able to participate in a lot of short-term pleasures that the world enjoys – but theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Their reward will be infinitely better. They will receive what the world will not. That is the blessing that God gives to the righteous.
In the longer expansion, Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”
Two weeks ago, I talked to Joao, the Brazilian pastor in the Presbyterian Church in Queenstown. When he became a Christian, his very religious, Catholic father told him to leave the home and never return. I asked him how he felt about that. He said he had a joy, not because the relationship was destroyed, but because these verses came to mind. Blessed are you when you are persecuted on account of Jesus.
In Acts 5, the Apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin, interrogated, flogged, and told never again to speak in the name of Jesus. Vv.41-42 say, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the Temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
One evening I was walking in Kaikoura where I was the minister at the time, when a carload of young people went past shouting out anti-Christian insults. I had a wee surge of joy for that same reason. I had been counted worthy of being associated with Jesus and of receiving very mild persecution as a result.
The passage we read from 1 Peter contains several reasons for rejoicing when we are persecuted.
v.13 – we participate in the sufferings of Christ. Jesus suffered. We, His followers, suffer. But, if we share in His sufferings, we will be overjoyed when His glory is revealed. There is great joy ahead.
1 Peter 4:14 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
God pours out His Spirit on those who suffer for Him.
1 Peter 4:16 If you suffer as a Christian… praise God that you bear that name.
If people see you as a Christian, great! Even if they don’t like it, how wonderful to be seen as a Christian.
Peter finishes that section of his letter by saying, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Do you see that? These people are not being persecuted for doing bad; they are doing, and should continue to do, good. And God is faithful. We can trust Him.
James says, “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds because the testing of your faith produces perseverance and perseverance leads to spiritual maturity.” Trials are things to give thanks for if they lead to spiritual maturity.
Peter talks about rejoicing greatly in the midst of trials. Trials have the potential to prove our faith genuine, resulting in praise glory and honour when Jesus is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Do not go looking for persecution. That would be silly. Do not be persecuted for doing dumb things. There is no merit in that. Seek to live a godly life. Be different. If you suffer for being Christ-like, Jesus says that is a blessing because you will receive the Kingdom