One of my favorite movies—is BRAVEHEART—where Mel Gibson stars as a 13th century Scottish commoner named William Wallace. Are there any other BRAVEHEART fans present? If you’ve seen the film then you know that it’s based on the true story of how William Wallace led his country to freedom from an oppressive English rule. Fueled by his own personal loss and great sense of destiny, Wallace led a ragtag band of farmers and villagers to defeat their vicious oppressors.
The turning point in the story came at the Battle of Sterling. Wallace and his troops were vastly outnumbered. Seeing the huge well-equipped English force before them, men began to flee even before the battle began. But at that point Wallace rode onto the scene and made a passionate speech that inspired his little band of brothers to fight for what they believed in. In fact, how many of you men can complete this part of Wallace’s speech: “They may take away our lives but they can never take our: FREEDOM!” Right! This speech inspired the Scots to rally. They followed Wallace into battle, winning the first major victory in the war and turning the tide against the English.
Now—what is it that makes this story so compelling? If any of you ladies think the reasons your husbands love this movie is all the blood and the battles—I would disagree. It’s not that. Nor is it the face paint or the horses and spears and swords—as cool as all that stuff is! No—the thing that makes the story of William Wallace so compelling can be summarized in one word: COURAGE. You see, it was COURAGE that led Wallace to fight for freedom—no matter what the personal cost. And—COURAGE is always something that draws us. We always admire COURAGE. I mean, we are always moved by someone with the conviction that there is some GOOD thing worth living for—and even dying for.
I bring all this up—because as I alluded last week—it takes COURAGE to embrace the Beatitudes. It takes COURAGE to live by these “flight lessons” we’ve been studying. In fact, there are millions who would say their conviction is that living for Jesus is worth DYING for. With that in mind turn once again to the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and follow along with me as I read our text, which is found in verses 10-12.
10 – Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
11 – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
12 – Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Keep your Bibles open to Matthew 5 because before we go any further I want to point out some interesting characteristics of this particular flight lesson.
First, I want you to note that Jesus GIVES MORE SPACE to it than He does to any of the others—three very full verses instead of one short phrase. And He also PERSONALIZES this beatitude. In all the others, our Lord refers to blessed people in the third person but this one is in the 2nd person. Here in verses 11-12 He says, “blessed are YOU” instead of “blessed are THOSE.” Another thing—this is the only beatitude that includes a COMMAND to “rejoice and be glad!” And it’s also the only one with an EXPLANATION. Jesus tells us WHY we are persecuted and WHY we should RESPOND with joy and gladness. One last thing I want you to note is that this is the only beatitude that is REPEATED. Twice Jesus says that people who embrace this principle of discipleship are “blessed.” It is as if our Lord is saying, “You are DOUBLY blessed when you are persecuted.”
Now—think about that. Doesn’t that sound odd to you? Have you ever felt singly—much less doubly—BLESSED by persecution? Have you ever considered yourself especially fortunate because you were ridiculed? Did you ever think, “Yippee! Someone insulted me because of my faith!?” Well, to help us understand this seeming paradox, I want to point out three things.
(1) First, I want you to note that Jesus says persecution in the life of a Christian is a REALITY.
In other words, Jesus says it’s going to happen. He says, “Blessed are you WHEN—not IF—people persecute you….” I think this is one reason he put this in the 2nd person. In my mind Jesus personalized this beatitude as if to say, “Persecution for being a Christian is not something that you will say happened to some impersonal group—some, ‘them.’ No—it will be something that will happen to YOU.”
You should remember that in our study of the prior verses we learned about the applause that comes from Heaven when we strive to make PEACE in the midst of CONFLICT. And, it may seem out of place that Jesus would move straight from talking about peacemaking to talking about persecution. I mean, it might strike you as odd that He would go from harmony to hostility.
But you see, not all attempts at reconciliation succeed, and no matter how hard we try to make peace, there are some people who will refuse to live at peace with us. And in this beatitude Jesus refers to these “harmony-hating” people.
In essence, our Lord is saying that if you and I follow Him, there are people in this sinful, fallen world who aren’t going to approve of that lifestyle choice; they’re not going to like it. Jesus is telling us that if we live by these beatitudes that we’ve been studying all these months we can expect some people to be upset enough to give us a hard time. Let me put it this way. The REALITY is if we live according to the FIRST seven Beatitudes, we will automatically experience the “blessing” of the eighth. It’s like an algebraic equation—those “IF THEN” deals.
IF you are a person who lives out the truth of verses 3-9 THEN you are also a person who will experience the persecution of verses 10-12.
- For example, if you are “poor in spirit,” some will rebuke you and say that you are just being self-righteous.
- When you “mourn” over sin, others will be made to feel uncomfortable for embracing their own sinful actions and therefore will not want you around.
- If you are meek—well the meek usually get run over in this proud, self-centered world of ours.
- When you break out of the spiritual status quo and “hunger and thirst” for God above all else, some will label you a religious fanatic.
- Be “merciful” these days and there are people will call you gullible.
- Strive to be “pure in heart” and you will feel the rebuke of a world that thrives on lust—a world that uses sex to sell everything from cell phones to automobiles.
- Work to be a “peacemaker” and get ready for war in this world that so often embraces conflict.
We need to understand that one thing Jesus is doing here is pointing to the REALITY of the fact that if you live a Christian life you will endure persecution and hardship. He’s saying there is a COST to be paid for following Him. You see, living like Jesus makes us stand out—and this world doesn’t like people who stand out especially Christians who do so. Think of it like this. A person living out his faith is FOREIGN to the principalities and powers of this world of ours. So, Christians who soar are attacked like the antibodies in our blood stream attack a foreign body like a splinter or a bacterial cell.
In his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, Deitrich Bonhoeffer referred to this REALITY as the “extra-ordinariness” of the Christian life. He said, “With every beatitude, the gulf is widened between the disciples and the people, and their call to come forth FROM the people becomes increasingly manifest.” People don’t like people who “come forth.” They resist people who live counter-culturally. So, the fact is, if you live—REALLY live—the Christian life—if you strive to SOAR toward becoming more and more like Jesus, some form of persecution is inevitable. It is a REALITY. It’s going to happen. Persecution is as NORMAL a mark of genuine discipleship as mercy is. And the Sermon on the Mount is not the only time Jesus taught this. Our Lord repeatedly told His followers that they could expect hardship and difficulty.
In his commentary on this text William Barclay writes, “One of the outstanding qualities of Jesus was His sheer HONESTY. He never left men in any doubt as to what would happen to them if they chose to follow Him. He was clear that He had come ‘not to make life easy, but to make men great.’” The fact is Jesus did NOT teach a PROSPERITY gospel, but rather a PERSECUTION gospel. He said it so often and so plainly that I could “barrage” you with Scriptural support. In fact, that’s what I’m about to do so get ready. Listen to these, the words of Jesus:
John 15:20 – “If the world persecuted Me, they WILL persecute you also.”
Luke 9:23 – “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross DAILY and follow Me.”
Luke 14:27 – “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.”
John 16:33 – “In this world YOU WILL HAVE TROUBLE.”
Matthew 24:9 – “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death and you will be hated by all nations because of Me.”
And then, in 2nd Timothy 3:12 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul sums it all up by saying, “EVERYONE who lives a Godly life WILL BE PERSECUTED.” Over and over and over again Jesus taught the REALITY that Christians will be face difficulty simply for being Christians. In fact, He gets very specific here in this beatitude and says, we can expect verbal insults and false accusations, and even intense persecution. And this is exactly what has happened for two thousand years now beginning with His first followers—eleven of which were martyred for their faith. Only John died an old man—while in exile for his faith on the isle of Patmos.
History also tells how early Christians were forced to follow the first disciple’s example. They were persecuted by Roman emperors like Nero—the emperor who blamed the burning of Rome on Jesus’ followers. To punish them, threw them to the lions or hung them on poles and doused them with oil before setting them on fire to illuminate the paths of his gardens.
And lest you think that kind of persecution is a thing of the past then hear this. In her book, In the Lion’s Den, author Nina Shea reports that more Christians have been martyred for their faith in this century alone—than in the previous nineteen centuries of church history combined. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia right now:
- 2.2 billion people in 79 countries live under significant restrictions of their religious freedom.
- 225 million Christians live in countries where it is a crime to name the name of Christ and assemble to worship Him.
The really sad thing is the world pays this horrific fact almost no notice. Even most Christians, ignore the truth that around the world their brothers and sisters in the faith suffer and die for that faith. Congressman Frank Wolf, a committed Christian from Virginia, has been an outspoken advocate for international human rights for the past 30 years. After visiting hotspots for persecution and human rights abuses from around the world, he was asked if America—especially the churches in America—were failing the oppressed peoples of the world. Wolf replied:
“I meet many people [from around the world] who are baffled and concerned that the West doesn’t seem to be that interested in their plight. Three nuns from Iraq just came to my office. They said they feel abandoned. Half the Christian community in Iraq is now living in ghettos in Damascus, Lebanon, and Jordan. I was in Egypt last month. The United States has given the Egyptian government over $50 billion [since the late 1970s]. And yet the Coptic Christians have been persecuted during that time. If you’re a Coptic Christian in Egypt, you can’t get a government job, and you can’t be in the military. They wonder why the church in the West hasn’t spoken out. In China, you have roughly 30 Catholic bishops who have been arrested. You have hundreds of Protestant pastors and house church leaders being imprisoned and persecuted. The church in Sudan has suffered persecution. In southern Sudan, 2.1 million people have died—mainly Christians, but also some Muslims and some animists. I had one woman tell me, ‘The West seems more interested in the whales than in us.’”
Shame on us for slighting our brothers and sisters in the faith We need to constantly remember them in our prayers. Now, you may or may not have had to pay a price for your faith in Christ yet—but if you strive to SOAR—if you strive to BE MORE LIKE JESUS it will come. John MacArthur put it this way, “EVERY faithful believer will have some resistance and ridicule from the world, while others, for God’s own purposes, will endure extreme suffering.” And the fact is—it has come—even here in the good ole “tolerant” U. S. of A. people suffer simply because the strive to follow Jesus.
Last week Sue and I watched Jim Caviezel being interviewed. As you know he played the part of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” Caviezel said that before he accepted the role the director, Mel Gibson warned him. Gibson said the role might cost him his career. But Caviezel, a confessing Christian, wanted to honor his Lord by portraying his life and death. Caviezel responded to Gibson, “We all have a cross to carry. I have to carry my own cross. If we don’t carry our crosses, we are going to be crushed under the weight of them.” As it has turned out, Caviezel’s decision to “carry the cross of Christ” has definitely cost him career opportunities.
Following his role in The Passion of the Christ back in 2006, Caviezel’s credits have been anything but impressive. For years he was not offered parts of any significance. Things didn’t change until the fall of 2011, when he landed a role in the CBS television series Person of Interest. Caviezel said he doesn’t worry about the career price he paid with that film—a global box-office smash that led to fewer, not more, film offers for him. He said, “The awards, the hall of fame that actors get into here on Earth don’t matter to me. My reward will come in Heaven.” Caviezel also said, “Jesus is as controversial now as He has ever been. Not much has changed in 2,000 years. We have to give up our names, our reputations, and our lives to speak the truth.”
The fact is persecution for our faith is a reality. What Jesus said would happen has happened.
(2) In this beatitude Jesus also tells us the REASON we will be persecuted.
And it is important that we understand this because it IS possible to suffer “persecution” for the WRONG reasons.
- I mean, some Christians are ostracized because they are rude and obnoxious.
- Some believers are ridiculed because they are as self-righteous and holier-than-thou as the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day.
I mean, the sad fact is some Christians are persecuted not for their Christianity but for their LACK of it.
- And the, others are “persecuted” because their evangelistic methods are crude and disrespectful.
I’m reminded of Joseph Bayly’s imaginary story about Christian witnessing called The Gospel Blimp. He tells of believers in an imaginary town conceive the idea of witnessing by means of a blimp—which is to fly over the town trailing gospel signs and dropping tracts and leaflets called “bombs.” It is a silly idea and no one is ever converted by it. But for a while at least the town is tolerant. But, this tolerance changes to hostility when the promoters of the project add sound equipment to the blimp—and begin bombarding their neighbors with high volume gospel services broadcast from the air. At this point, according to Bayly’s story, the “persecution” begins.
Listen, when we SHOVE the gospel down someone’s throat, we can expect to be scorned and I think deserve to be. Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him.
- Of course, some disciples have a hard time in life simply because they live in sin—they ignore God’s loving laws and when the painful consequences come they ask,
“Why did God do this to me?” Well, their difficulty—their “persecution” isn’t God’s fault. It’s theirs. They sinned. They chose to disobey God. Peter talks about this in 1st Peter 4:15 when he says, “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.” Has anyone of you been “persecuted” for meddling?
Well, in this beatitude Jesus is not saying that people who suffer for any of these WRONG reasons are blessed. They are NOT to be congratulated. No—the kind of people He promises to bless are people who suffer for RIGHTEOUSNESS’ sake—people who live out the principles of the beatitudes—people who suffer because they identify themselves with our Lord. Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the RIGHT REASON—people who suffer because by God’s grace they are determined to live as I live.” In his commentary on this text, Warren Weirsbe warns, “We must be careful to distinguish between punishment and persecution. We are punished by good men for doing evil and persecuted by bad men for doing good.”
The persecution Jesus is talking about here is the persecution that comes as a result of our professing to be followers of Jesus Christ. When we stand up and graciously say, “I don’t believe that is right” when everyone else says it is, well, we are going to face resistance that often comes in the form of persecution and rebuke. Remember, in John 15:18, 20 Jesus said, “The world hates Me because I testify that WHAT IT DOES IS EVIL. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first.”
John Piper writes, “If you cherish chastity, your life will be an attack on people’s love of free sex. If you embrace temperance, your life will be a statement against the love of alcohol. If you pursue self-control, your life will indict excess eating. If you live simply and happily, you will show the folly of luxury. If you walk humbly with God, you will expose the evil of pride. If you are punctual and thorough in your dealings, you will lay open the inferiority of laziness and negligence. If you speak with compassion, you will throw callousness into sharp relief. If you are earnest you will make the flippant look flippant instead of clever. If you are spiritually-minded you will expose the worldly-mindedness of those around you.”
Do you understand what Jesus is saying about righteous living? As long as you go with the flow, you will have no problem. But the moment you go against the flow persecution in one form or another will come. Let me give some additional examples. If you go WITH THE FLOW and say that Christianity is but one of many pathways to God, you’ll be applauded. But the moment you say, “You can believe that if you won’t but I believe the Bible is ABSOLUTE truth. I believe it is the SOLE source of authority in life—and it teaches that Jesus Christ is the ONLY way and the ONLY truth and the only LIFE.”
Well, when you go AGAINST THE FLOW in this way you will be reviled. If you go WITH THE FLOW and preach a message that God would never pour out His wrath and consign someone to eternal damnation, you’ll be applauded. But the moment you stand up and GO THE OTHER WAY, preaching a message about the necessity of repentance and that the gate into the kingdom is narrow—and that Jesus is the only “door” you’ll be written off as a judgmental bigot.
I can’t help but think of Russell Vought—nominee for Deputy Director of the White House Budget office. I don’t know Mr. Vought. I don’t know his politics. I had never heard of him until I saw him being cross-examined in a way that ridiculed him for his Christian faith. Watch how Bernie Sanders persecutes this poor man for his Christian convictions:
I have to ask—what does being a Christian have to do with this man doing the job of supervising a budget? If he was a person who was notoriously bad at math—sure—he should not get the job. But what does his faith have to do with it?
Let me stop at this point and say—when we see things like this clip—when we see Christians enduring hardship—it is SO EASY to slip into an “Us-Them” mentality. When we are HATED—it is so easy to HATE back. But—that is just going with the flow! That’s the WORLD’S way. Remember our persecutors are victims not the enemy. They are people for whom Christ died.And He commands us to LOVE our enemies and pray for our persecutors.
To review—in this final beatitude Jesus tells us about the REALITY of persecution—and the REASON for persecution.
(3) But our Lord also tells us what our RESPONSE to persecution should be.
In verse 12 He says we are to what? “REJOICE AND BE GLAD!” And in Greek this phrase literally means, “to jump and skip with glee and excitement.” How can Jesus day this? How can He say, “When you are insulted and slandered and even forced to face death because you follow Me, REJOICE!?” Well, the fact is there are several reasons to rejoice in times of persecution.
First, the fact that we are being persecuted often shows we are soaring!
Persecution for righteous living is like a litmus test that shows we are walking down the narrow path—the go-against-the-sinful-flow path! Think of it this way. If you lived in 1862 and were opposed to slavery and found yourself fighting on the side of the guys in the navy-blue uniforms then you would know you’re on the right side. Being persecuted in a godless world is like that. It’s like a thermometer. It shows us how much we are being like Jesus.
2. We also rejoice in times of persecution, because our bold response shows the depth of our faith.
When we follow Jesus’ example—when we respond to persecution in obedience to Scriptural commands like Matthew 5:44 where our Lord says, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you—”—and Romans 12:17 &19 where it says, “If someone does evil to you, don’t pay him back with evil.” When we sing God’s praises—even in tough times—people notice!
In 2005, Chinese officials from the Public Security Bureau burst into a Sunday school room at a local church. They found 30 children inside and herded them into a van. Despite the scary situation, one child started to sing. In a few moments, the van was filled with song. Upon arrival at the police station, the children marched bravely into the interrogation room, still singing to the Lord. The Chinese officers attempted to force the children to write, “I do not believe in Jesus,” telling them that they had to write it 100 times before they would be released. Instead of obeying, the children wrote: “I believe in Jesus today. I will believe in Jesus tomorrow. I will believe in Jesus forever!” Exasperated, the officials called the children’s parents, some of whom did deny Christ. However, one widowed believer absolutely refused to deny Jesus when she came to pick up her twin sons. The officers threatened her, saying, “If you do not deny Jesus, we will not release your sons.” The widow replied, “Well, I guess you will just have to keep them, because without Jesus, there would be no way for me to take care of them!” With no avenues left open to them, the officials said, “Take your sons and go!”
I don’t know about you, but courage-filled stories like that encourage me to stand up for Jesus.
I mean, if children can sing God’s praises and refuse to obey soldiers, if that mom can be so bold, I have no excuse for not living righteously here in America. The difficulty I face is nothing in comparison. And, there’s one more reason we can rejoice and be glad in the midst of persecution.
3. We can do so because of the eternal REWARD that we know awaits us.
Look back at our text. Jesus says, that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to people who are persecuted for righteousness. In verse 12 He says that we should rejoice and be glad in tough times, “because great is your reward in Heaven!” In other words, we can respond to persecution with joy because we know it won’t last long—and our eternal reward WILL and it will more than compensate for our suffering.
Peter Kreeft writes: “Suppose God took you on a crystal ball trip into your future and you saw with indubitable certainty that despite everything—your sin, your smallness, your stupidity—you could have free for the asking your whole crazy heart’s deepest desire: Heaven, eternal joy. Would you not return fearless and singing? What can earth do to you, if you are guaranteed Heaven? To fear the worst earthly loss would be like a millionaire fearing the loss of a penny—less, a scratch on a penny.” As 2nd Corinthians 4:17 says, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
So—if you are suffering for the right reasons—count yourself fortunate because it means you’re on the right side. Be glad because God might use your boldness response to point someone to Jesus. Rejoice—because when you get to Heaven you’ll be glad you did. In fact, you won’t be there five minutes before you say, “Why didn’t I stand up more? Why didn’t I make my life count for more?! What was I afraid of!?”
Friends, the beatitudes are not easy to live—it’s not easy to SOAR—and perhaps that’s our problem. We’ve made the Christian life way too painless. So often we take the broad and painless path and because we do, we miss out.
Let us pray.