Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted

Sermon preached on Matthew 5:10-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/16/2014 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted”

We continue today our sermon series through the Sermon on the Mount. And we come to the final beatitude found in verses 10-12, dealing with the persecuted. And so today we conclude the Beatitudes section, but have really still just begun on the larger Sermon on the Mount. Well, as we look at this final beatitude, we see that the word of blessing appears twice in verses 10-12. However, both the Greek grammar, and the content, suggest that the final beatitude is most properly given in verse 10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Verses 11-12 then are an elaboration on this blessing from verse 10, still dealing with the subject of our persecution, and the heavenly blessing held out as our reward.

And so as we begin to think about this blessedness of the persecuted, remember one more time today that we’ve been seeing that these beatitudes are describing the Christian. Christians have begun to find these beatitudes at least in some sense descriptive of themselves. Those whom the Spirit has touched and worked in their lives, have begun to be described by these beatitudes. The final one is particularly sobering then; we are those who can be described in terms of being persecuted. Yes, persecution of Christians has been more or less severe in different places and at different times. Today, Christians can still find physical persecution and imprisonment. Yet, in our country there are ways Christians can still find varying kinds of persecutions. In other words, this is still something we can relate to, and identify with. Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, that “all who desire to alive a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” And Jesus acknowledges here in this passage that this was also the identity of the godly prophets in the days of old. Such is the lot of the follower of Christ. It was true back then and it is still true today. In varying ways, we will know persecution as we look to follow Jesus as his disciples. Today’s sermon and passage will explore more of what this means, and how we can be assured of the blessedness revealed in it all.

So then, to start, let’s talk about the persecution envisioned in this beatitude. What does it mean to be persecuted? In the Bible, the word for persecution is about the oppression and harassment of someone. When Jesus mentions the prophets of old, we can remember how some of them were beaten and some were killed. That’s a very physical persecution. But persecution doesn’t always come in physical ways. In John’s gospel, we see that early followers of Christ were being put out of the synagogue (i.e. John 9:22); that was a form of religious and societal ostracism. Revelation 13:7 talks in a similar way about the kind of commercial ostracism that can come, describing Christians being prevented from buying or selling in society — that also is persecution. Of course, this persecution can also take a verbal form. That’s what verse 11 specifically says; that people may revile Christians or falsely speak evil about them. In other words, the world may mock Christians, slander them, make fun of them and taunt them. This is especially a persecution that is commonly found in our society today, despite claims of tolerance by our society for people’s religious views.

Now here’s an important point when we are talking about how the persecuted are blessed: Notice that Jesus isn’t just talking about persecution in general. He doesn’t just say blessed are the persecuted, as if anyone who finds persecution for any reason is blessed. No, Jesus is talking about a specific kind of persecution. He’s talking about people who are persecuted for a specific reason. Actually, he mentions two reasons, though they are closely related. The first is addressed to those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, verse 10. The second is addressed to those who are persecuted for Christ’s sake. These are closely related reasons someone might be persecuted. Jesus is saying that people are blessed that are persecuted for these two interrelated reasons together. Let’s think about each of these two reasons.

First, what does it mean to suffer for “righteousness sake”? It means that you are someone who wants to be righteous. You hunger and thirst for it and seek it, as we said earlier in these beatitudes. You have begun to have found this in Christ, by grace through faith. It begins to change your world! It changes your priorities and your passions and how you live. Eventually the world will take note. Sometimes this will offend the world when your convictions and living contrast with their convictions or living, and it upsets them. When it does, don’t be surprised if they persecute you. Countless examples could be offered here. I’ll give just a few. Let’s say you are at a work, and your boss wants you to lie on a form, and you won’t — then you may get fired for righteousness sake. Or let’s say that in general, you miss out on promotions or advancement in this world because you won’t do what others will do to get ahead of you, like lie, steal, cheat, and bribe. But for righteousness sake, this is okay! Or let’s say you won’t participate in a gossip session with friends, so they ridicule you because of your “puritan” values. Maybe you live the way you do, you become the blunt of jokes, discrimination, or snide remarks. Today, it is so common for Christians to get labeled all sorts of various bad names: hateful, bigoted, intolerant, etc. Those are often labeled on us because we hold a biblical perspective on some moral question of our day, and the other person does not, and so they are offended. Another very common persecution comes from people who won’t work on Sunday because they are looking to prioritize the worship of God, and they either get fired, or don’t get the job in the first place. All of these are just a few examples of persecution that might come on account of righteousness.

So this is about being persecuted for righteousness sake. What then does it mean to be persecuted for Christ’s sake? Well, when Jesus talks about this, the emphasis is not on persecution that comes up because you stood up for or lived out God’s moral laws. It’s persecution that comes specifically because you are a disciple of and witness for Jesus Christ. We often talk about this kind of persecution as someone who is a martyr. We especially use that when we talk of someone who is killed for their faith, like Stephen in Acts 7. But the word martyr comes from the Greek, and in the Greek actually means simply “witness”. As we are a witness for Christ, expect persecution. Why? Because the unbelieving world hates Christ. It’s our connection with Christ as his witness and disciple that such persecution comes. Jesus says in John 15:18, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you.” He goes on there to say, “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” And so think about it. If you tell people the gospel, that they are sinners condemned to hell unless they repent and believe in Christ and become his disciple, that can make people mad! Particularly if you confront them with sin that they don’t want to acknowledge as sin; or if you challenge their very way of life. These things are offensive to people. These things offended people during Jesus’ ministry. These things offended people before Jesus’ birth, when the prophets preached Christ to the people. These things still offend people after that when the apostles preached Christ to the people. And they still offend people when we preach Christ to them. They may persecute you for it. But that’s what we are talking about today.

So then to clarify, Jesus describes the blessedness for those experiencing this kind of persecution: persecution for righteousness sake, and persecution for Christ’s sake. This means that there are plenty of other kinds of persecutions that Jesus is not talking about here. For example, in 1 Peter 4, Peter acknowledges the common reality of Christians being persecuted in this life. But Peter then warns us to make sure we aren’t being persecuted for unrighteousness. Peter says, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, thief, or evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.” Think about that. If you are a murderer, and you are arrested and found guilty, don’t think of yourself as some martyr approved by God in that evil. Or if you are a busybody and put yourself in everyone’s affairs, and people persecute you because of it, don’t think that to be a good thing. Christians can heap upon themselves unnecessary persecutions that have nothing to do with righteousness or their Christian faith. Too often we might think they are, but they are not. Martin Lloyd Jones wrote a list of such things. He said Jesus wasn’t saying blessed are you if you are persecuted because you have an objectionable attitude, or are being difficult, or you are foolish in how you share your testimony, or for mere politics, etc. We have to really examine persecutions that come our way, and ask if they are really received for righteousness or Christ’s sake, or for some other bad reason. It’s not a blessed thing to be persecuted for a bad reason. If that’s the case, then flee that bad thing. That’s not persecution you should want to have.

This then is part of our identity as Christians. Those who follow Christ and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, will find opposition in this world. Such opposition sometimes expresses that opposition through persecution. A Christians has begun to follow Christ, and so we should not be surprised when we find this to be the case. Yet, Jesus says that even if we are persecuted like this, know that you are blessed and have great reward. So, notice then the blessing held out here. It says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I hope this sounds familiar to you. I hope you recognize that this was the first blessing held out. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Why the repeat blessing? Well, it seems to tie these beatitudes together. The first and the last beatitude have the same blessing about the kingdom. This should remind you of the kingdom focus of this sermon. And it should help us to see that these beatitudes are meant to be understood together. It’s not like you just express one of these qualities in your life, and disregard the others. They all come together. And we’ve attempted to see the progression of them in how Jesus ordered them. This comes out when we see the first and the last. The Christian experience begins when someone is brought by God to that point of being poor in Spirit. Such a person mourns over their sin and meekly looks to receive salvation in Christ by faith. At that initial point of conversion, Jesus assures them that they now belong to his kingdom. And yet the Christian life is not just about that initial point of conversion. It’s also about growing as a disciple. Hungering more and more to grow in righteousness. It’s about beginning to bear fruit, even by expressing mercy and peacemaking toward others because you’ve experienced that in Christ. And as a Christian grows as a disciple, they also grow as a witness for Christ. The logical trajectory of all of this is one that undoubtedly will lead to various persecutions of them by the world. But here at the other end of the Christian life, Jesus again reminds us, that we belong to his kingdom. Our membership in his heavenly kingdom is one that we enter into at the start of Christian walk. But it’s one we continue in throughout our Christian walk. This final beatitude helps us then to see this, and to tie together all the beatitudes into one interconnected snapshot of what the Christian’s life looks like.

But just as Jesus commented twice on the nature of this persecution, he also comments twice on the nature of this blessing held out. Not only does he mention again that theirs is the kingdom of heaven reference, but he also describes this is in similar language of having a reward in heaven. If you are a Christian, you will find these beatitudes descriptive of you, at least in part. And as a Christian, should you find yourself persecuted for being a Christian, you should be encouraged that this is a sort of a sign that you belong to Christ and his kingdom. If so, that means you have a reward waiting for you in heaven.

What then is this reward in heaven? There are many things we could say about it. First, we could point out that it’s in heaven, not in earth. In other words, the reward ultimately looks to something beyond this life. So then, we could mention about this reward that it is gain, and far better that the rewards of this life, as Paul describes elsewhere. We could be reminded of 1 Peter that talks about an inheritance we have currently kept safe in heaven for us. Or as Jesus talks about later in this sermon, about the heavenly treasure that we are storing up, that no one can take from us, and that will not be subject to decay or ruin. We could remember how Jesus said he goes up to heaven, in part, to prepare a place for us. We could remember how we see this even more gloriously after Christ’s return, when that heavenly abode comes down out of heaven, and sets itself up on a new earth, and is called the New Jerusalem. We could mention again how Revelation describes that place as having all the best of this world, without any of the bad things. And even better yet, it is the place where we will dwell with God, forever. Of course, that is ultimately what our reward is all about. It’s about being with God, in relationship, and fellowship, forever. Of course, we could add to this notion, that idea of degree of rewards. The Bible hints at places that there are different degrees of rewards for Christians, just as there are different degrees of punishment for those not saved by Christ. What all that will entail, it’s hard to say. But eternal life and heaven will still be eternal life and heaven for each saved, regardless of whatever degree of reward a Christian receives. There will not be any Christian with pains or sorrows, curse, etc, anymore. And even these degree of rewards are surely a function of God’s grace in our life, bearing fruit in us.

So, yes, we should pursue these rewards. That’s in view even here in this passage and sermon. But the point for today, is to recognize that Christians, when they are persecuted in this life, should see the blessing reflected beyond that. True Christian persecution means you are being persecuted for being a Christian. And if you are a Christian, then you have a great heavenly reward in store. So, we can rejoice and be glad when such persecution comes, because it only serves to further confirm that we are in fact Christians.

So today we have thought a little bit about the persecution in general, and the blessedness mentioned. I’d like to turn now to our third point for today and see how this comes to focus in Christ. And as we’ve seen with the other beatitudes, Christ himself has lived out this quality of being persecuted for the right reason. In that he is an example, but more than example. For it is in his ability to live out this quality, we find our ability and strength to live it out as well. So then, when it comes to persecution and suffering, Christ knows this full well. This is at the heart of his identity and mission as the Messiah. Isaiah describes this work of the Messiah by referring to him as a suffering servant. And as Jesus came, he came in the line of the prophets who were either beaten or killed, and he came as the greatest prophet, and was both beaten and killed. It’s like what 1 Peter 2:21-25 says about Jesus. Christ first suffered persecution, and he suffered it for us. In doing so, Peter says that he bore our sins on the cross.

And so what I love about that 1 Peter 2:21-25 passage, is that Jesus’ suffering is presented there as our example to follow. But it also presented as what it especially is — our atonement. Jesus death is an example of being persecuted for some real good thing. But it’s the real good thing that makes the persecution all worth it. If Jesus’ suffered all that he did and died in vain, then it would hardly be an example to commend to us. But Jesus’ death was of utmost significance. There, at Calvary, he paid the price you and I couldn’t paid. There he laid down his life for his sheep. There he who knew no sin, became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. There he was the best expression of God’s love for us his elect, sending Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins through his death. That’s why Jesus endured the shame and suffered through all the persecution. For the joy set before him, of redeeming his chosen ones.

That then speaks to us. What Christ has done, makes sense of it all. We understand why Christ died then. Why he endured such persecution. For us then to receive the benefits of that death, he calls us to put our faith in him. He calls us to be fully united to him in faith. By doing that, we become united with him in his death, and in his resurrection. We also become united to him in his suffering. It’s part of what we’ve been called to do — to partake as well in Christ’s sufferings, 1 Peter 4:13. This is all part of our union with Christ. And so, again, the persecution we receive comes to us because people hate Christ. And so they will hate us. And so this is at the heart of our identity — Christian. But this is also why we will as Christians have strength to endure these sufferings. Because of our union with Christ. Christ was persecuted and overcame. In Christ, we overcome persecution. He is in us by his Spirit. We’ve seen throughout these beatitudes the necessity of the Holy Spirit at work in us, in order for us to shine forth these qualities. That is true here.

And so Christ in us is what’s at the heart of all this. And just as Christ’s persecutions were not in vain, neither will ours be. We’ve already mentioned a lot of this. As mentioned, it signals to us the reward we have in heaven. As mentioned, it’s an expression and realization of our unity with Christ. But we can also remember some of the other things Scripture tells us that are benefits of such persecution. Like in James and 1 Peter 1, we learn that persecutions can can test and grow our faith. In other words, we see in Scripture, that God can use such persecutions as a refining fire to grow us in righteousness. Or how this persecution can be used to advance the gospel – what an important thing that is — our persecution can be instrumental in people coming to know the Lord! For example, in the book of Acts, the persecution of Stephen caused the church to spread out beyond Judea to witness for Christ. Or, Paul speaks highly in 2 Corinthians of the persecution that has attended his ministry, and yet God has used it to show his strength through Paul’s weaknesses. And in Revelation 12:11, it speaks of us overcoming Satan and advancing the gospel in part by the Christian’s willingness to even die for Christ. And so our persecutions for these and other reasons are not in vain. And Christ and his power is with us in it all.

So then, Saints of God, I lead us with a final exhortation then for today. So far I’ve made the point that these beatitudes are blessings first, not commands. Yes, they imply commands, but they are especially descriptive and meant to encourage. And yet there is an explicit command in this final part of the beatitudes, in verse 12. Two commands actually. They are this: Rejoice and be exceedingly glad. In the Greek, those are explicitly verbs of command. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad. When? Over what? When you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and for Christ’s sake. Because of all that we talked about today, the Christian from the eyes of faith can rejoice in persecution. This does not mean that persecution is fun. It does not mean we seek to go get persecuted. But it doesn’t mean that we try to avoid it at any cost, which is surely a problem for the church in America today. But rather as we seek first Christ and his kingdom and his righteousness, and find persecution in that, rejoice. Be glad. For all the blessing and reward and good that we talked about today. This is God’s perspective in it all. It’s what we’ve been seeing in all these beatitudes. The world looks at the Christian with scoffing and disdain. God looks at the Christian and sees someone who is blessed. Amen.

Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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