Facing Persecution

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12)

This morning we get down to the last two verses in the Beatitudes, verses 11 and 12. For all that has been said, there is so much more that could be said. I love that about the Bible. It is rich and gives wisdom and understanding to those who desire it, and yet we cannot ever say that we have learned all there is to learn from any particular passage. It keeps teaching us, God keeps teaching us by His Spirit as we read and study it. 

And so as we near the end of this series of messages from Matthew 5:1-12, we cannot say we have exhausted what is in it, but I hope we can say, “God has taught me a great deal about who I am in Christ and how I can live for Him by His grace, in His power and in His strength.”

One thing that I hope we have all seen in this is that the Christian person is different than the non-Christian. God’s ways are so contrary to the natural person’s ways that he or she should be recognized as different. A Christian who lives according to the Beatitudes will stand in contrast to and at odds with most of the world. I think any of us can stand back and say, “Well, I’m not sure I am that different than the lost people around me.” That is a confession that many of us may make. But if we are to be objective and look honestly at the Beatitudes, I think we can all agree that the person who is living like that, they will be different. My hope is we will be that person. That God will so work in our lives that we will be ones described as fitting Matthew 5:1-12.

We were not created and saved to swim in the main stream. Christ did not come and die for you or for me so that we can walk in the broad way with the majority of people around us. God did not send His only Son and pour out His wrath on His only Son so that we can fit in with the crowd. 

Christians can often times be described not just by how they act or go about their daily lives, but they can also be described by how they react to people around them. Our reactions to others say a great deal about what we believe and in whom we are trusting. Verses 11 and 12 help us with that. They describe not only a promise of blessing but also how we choose to respond to other people. When people treat us badly, we are given an opportunity to respond, and that response will say something about who we are, and what we believe about God.

He called us to be different, to stand out, to be like His Son who stood faithfully while being persecuted for standing in righteousness and in agreement with His Father. As we think about these things – our new nature, our new calling, who we are now in Christ – I want us to do so within the context of three general truths. These three truths will help us, I think, to better take in verses 11 and 12. These truths are found in verses 11 and 12, but they are also found in all the Beatitudes, and really in all of the New Testament. They are important and they are applicable to verses 11 and 12, as I hope we will see. So for this week, I want to give you these general truths, and then next time we will get into more detail in verses 11 and 12. So three broad principles today, and then more detail two weeks from today, Lord willing.

The first principle is this: as Christians we are not like everyone else. This is a very general truth, and should be an obvious truth, but I think it is worth mentioning. We may try to be like everyone else in a variety of ways – dress the same, go to the same movies, tell the same jokes, work in the same places, drive the same kind of cars, speak the same language. Some of those things are okay, I’m not saying in all cases, in all these things we have to be different, but at our core, in our heart, we are not the same.

The Beatitudes are not in the Bible as a way of describing everyone in the world, they are there to describe Christians. And as Christians who are to desire to live God’s way in a world not bent toward God, we will be different. We need to be good, okay, with being different for the sake of Christ. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 10…

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)

The point that Jesus is making is that His coming would result in a sword of division. Meaning some will receive Christ and become His, while others will not and will remain in their sins, in their natural state apart from Christ. These sides will stand in great contrast to each other and in some cases the contrast, the division between Christ-followers and non-Christians, will take place among family members. And so in that sense there will not be peace, there will be division. It will be like a shepherd with two flocks, which are divided into two flocks.

Now, when Jesus says He did not come to bring peace, we may ask, “But aren’t we to be peacemakers? We talked a few weeks ago about being peacemakers, aren’t we called to that?” Well, yes we are. But is that in contrast to Jesus saying He did not come to bring peace but division? Not exactly. There will be division, yes. And that is part of the point of Matthew 5:10-11. There will be division, and with this division there will come persecution. But even in the division, even in the persecution, we can still, we should still be peacemakers. In other words, yes we are distinct and different than the non-Christians and our distinctions will lead in some cases to our being the recipients of persecution, but let those who persecute move away from us, but let us move toward them doing all that we should to strive for peace. This would be loving our enemies, right? They are our mission field, they are the ones we are to go after with the gospel. Speaking the truth, yes, but speaking it in love. Going out of our way to reach out to those who may hate us, who may persecute us. But all the while knowing that there is a division.

We are different. If we were not different there would be no persecution. What is the difference? How are we different? We are being conformed into the image of Christ – Romans 8:29. We look more and more like Christ. And as He was persecuted, so will we be persecuted. As a reminder of this weighty truth…

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)

We are fundamentally different. Aren’t we?

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

We were like everyone else in the world, but now we have new and different goals, we have been changed. We read of the change that has taken place…

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

We were changed and are being changed. Now instead of living lifestyles listed in 1 Corinthians, we are now living to glorify God, desiring to honor Him. That is where we are to be now, a new direction in life! It is living like Jesus describes in Luke…

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

All of these passages speak of what? Of change! We are the ones who have changed, and this change will bring on persecution by those who have not experienced the same change. So the point regarding reasons behind persecution is that as Christians we are not like everyone else.

The second point I would like to make is that our lives, the Christian life, is to be lived for Christ’s sake. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” 

Why are Christians persecuted? Because they are living for Jesus Christ. Our persecution will take place, simply put, because of our relationship to and our desire to live for Jesus Christ. It is our close association with Him that will lead to persecution.

I had a friend growing up that always seemed to end up right at the center of trouble. He lived down the street from me. We were best friends, we went to school together, church together, played sports together, friends from kindergarten through high school. Now I know this may just sound like an excuse, blame-shifting like it’s all someone else’s fault, but really, I got in a lot of trouble just by being close to this guy. I remember in fifth grade my teacher sent home my report card and it had a not-so-good grade in the column that had to do with behavior. I think it said “needs improvement.” And my teacher requested a conference with my mom. So my mom went and asked, “What is the problem?” My teacher said, “Do you know a kid named ______?” and said my friend’s name. Of course my mom did know him, she knew him very well, and so she understood. My close association with my friend often times landed me in trouble. But I was also a willing participant, I could have distanced myself from him but chose not to. 

Our associations can get us into trouble. In the case of the Christian life, our association with Jesus Christ can get us, or I should say will get us persecuted in some ways. Paul testified of his close association with Jesus and that close association being at the root of his suffering.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Colossians 1:24)

This suffering was first affirmed by Jesus to Ananias regarding Paul back in Acts…

“For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16)

The unusual or interesting thing about persecution, and suffering through persecution, is that it is for the sake of Jesus’ name. We are not our own, we have been bought with a price, so now what do we do? We are to glorify God with these bodies, with ourselves. That is to live for Him, to be so closely associated with Him that we will receive persecution that He would receive if He were still on this earth. I think that is Paul’s point when he said he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s affliction.” I think he is saying if Christ were still here there would continue to be more persecution of Him on this earth, but He is gone, physically so, and we are here representing Him, so what persecution remains, we get. Persecution comes to us because of our close association with Him, because the Christian life is to be lived for Christ’s sake.

The third point I’d like to make regarding persecution is this: our life today should be greatly influenced by our thoughts of heaven and the life to come. Jesus said regarding persecution…

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven (Matthew 5:12)

This can be a real challenge for us, to rejoice over a future promise while enduring serious troubles today. That can be really hard. We can be so now-focused. And I think that is understandable, I mean, we are after all living in the now. It can be especially hard thinking ahead if we are hurting today. We will most likely just want today to improve without much thought of what will happen years down the road. And yet, we are encouraged over and over again to develop and maintain a heavenly focus. I don’t think that comes naturally, it has to be cultivated.

Paul in Philippians 3:19 talks about those who are enemies of Christ, and he says they “set their minds on earthly things.” Their minds are set on what is here and now. But he contrasts that with how we should think when he says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” The solution to being earthly minded is to be heavenly minded. To think about, meditate on, be excited and thrilled over what is to come.

One of my favorite things that I have said to my kids throughout the years when they ask for money when doing chores or household projects. “Dad, what will you pay me if I do, whatever?” I like to say, “Your reward will be great in heaven.” That has saved me a ton of money over the last twenty-five years or so! You should try that.

But really, we have so much to look forward to, and actively looking forward to it will ease our minds when under pressure, will bring joy to our hearts when hurting, will help encourage our souls when facing persecution. 

When Jesus wanted to encourage his closest friends who would soon endure a severe temporary pain because of His separation from them, do you remember how He did that in John 14? He did it by helping them to focus on the future, on a future event that would shatter any amount of temporary suffering, a future event that would dwarf current day problems for them or for us. Here is what He said, familiar words… 

1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

He is talking about a reunion in the heavenlies. A great reunion. And this is why Peter could say with such confidence in 1 Peter…

10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:10)

And this will be fully fulfilled as we leave this life and enter the next. Our reward in heaven will be great!

Think about, or you may want to read later, Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11 speaks of the heroes of the faith. What was their secret, how did they endure severe trial, suffering, and persecution? How did they? By faith they set their minds on what was to come. 

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)

If our focus is simply here and now living, we will likely not hold up well in persecution. Justice, full relief, these are not necessarily things for today. But there will be a day when all is made right and heaven will be our home.

The non-Christian may desperately avoid thinking of the future after this life, but for us, for us…wow! That is a place on which to set our minds. Setting our minds on heaven, our reward of heaven, can not only help us endure persecution, but will help us to even rejoice as we endure.

With our changing world, the greater influences of evil around us, I think we should expect greater persecution than we have yet experienced. But as we do, we don’t face it alone and it is not without purpose. We are in fact in good company, for the prophets before us were persecuted, and our Lord was as well.

We are not like everyone else. Our lives are to be lived for Christ’s sake. And our lives today should be greatly influenced by thoughts of our heavenly home.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)