Persecution, Joy, and Reward

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)

If you have been with us for the last several weeks, then you know these are the last two verses from what we call the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes being the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus. So these were the opening words from Jesus’ first public sermon that kicked off His three year ministry, a ministry which ended not in fame and fortune on the earth but in torture and death. 

What He begins here – His public ministry – with words of hope and grace will end for Him in persecution, reviling, people speaking evil of Him falsely, leading to such disdain toward Him that the only proper ending that will appease the people would be His death. This sermon marks the beginning of all of that which was to come.

So we can pick up our Bibles and we can see the beginning of His earthly ministry, His words, His actions, His grace, His truth, and we can follow all that to what was to come, that is His cruel death. And so knowing this, reading of His life, seeing what He endured, and mixing that with the many passages that instruct us regarding the Christian life and how we are not just to see and admire Him, but we are to be like Him, if we understand that we are to be like Him, be conformed into more of who He is, follow Him in His likeness, then knowing what His ministry entailed and the grief dished out to Him, we should not be surprised nor disheartened that He would give us these words in Matthew 5:11-12. I mean, if we are going to be like Him, to represent Him, and if we do that faithfully, then shouldn’t we also expect some degree of what He received while He was here? That is, persecution. If we are to expect and will receive some type of persecution because we are followers of Christ, then we should also expect that God would give us some instruction on how to think about this persecution when it comes our way. If God will allow us to receive persecution on His account, then wouldn’t He instruct us on how we can endure, how to respond to it, how to live under it? That is what Jesus does here.

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)

I am so thankful that God gives us such instruction so we don’t have to sit around and wonder and guess and debate things such as this, about how to think of persecution and how to respond to it.

Two weeks ago we looked at these same two verses from a very broad perspective. We talked about three statements regarding persecution. Do you remember them? Here were our reminders regarding persecution of any kind for the Christian: 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.

So as we start I want to mention a lingering question that I have been considering over the last few weeks regarding persecution that we might receive for the sake of Christ. Here is the question I have: “Does persecution begin with our willingness to receive persecution?” Or to say it another way, “Can we avoid persecution due to our unwillingness to receive it?” Here is what I am getting at. As Christians we can walk in the open with our faith, walk in the open in our life with Christ. We can be a light that shines in the darkness, a light on a hill shining in a dark world. We can stand in courts of public opinion and speak truth from God’s Word as Paul did. We can speak truth as John the Baptist did to Herod concerning his sinful relationship with his brother’s wife. Remember what that got him? He was beheaded. We can be like Stephen and speak truth openly while being aware of the stoning to come for a sermon delivered about Christ. Or we can do none of this, we can remain silent, we can overlook, say nothing, go with the flow of popular talk and opinion. And if we don’t stand for Christ, with Christ, won’t we effectively avoid persecution? But if that is our aim in this life, then is the next life with Christ really ours?

I wonder if we don’t at times live this Christian life on a tight rope. We walk the rope with just the right balance. We speak of Christ in places where we will be affirmed for doing so, and in places where Christ is not revered or His ways are being rejected we calibrate our balancing act accordingly by tucking away the truths we know deep within our minds, only to pull them back out when it is to our advantage to do so. “I’ll look good in this setting speaking of Jesus, so here you go. But over here I may be rejected or despised, so I’ll hold my tongue.” I think we are good at keeping up this balance for our benefit. We all engage in it on some level, but that is not what we are called to do. We need to repent of it, we need to say and do what is pleasing to God in every setting He puts us in, even if we know it might be hard. I’m not saying we go out and pick fights with everyone. I’m saying that we speak words of grace in a loving way to those who don’t understand and who need a savior. Someone did that for you and for me. 

32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32-33)

Jesus is simply saying that if you belong to Him then you should live like you do, use words that indicate you do no matter who you are with or where you may be. And if we do this, we can expect some persecution. It’s like we are saying, “I am willing to receive persecution for the sake of my Savior.”

If we are totally unwilling to do so, if that is where we are, then we ought to seriously consider whether or not we even belong to Him. I mean really, if we don’t desire to live for Him and to make Him known at all, then why would we even profess to be His?

and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)

So I think on this matter of persecution it is wise to ask, are we willing to receive it? Or will our lives be spent trying to avoid it at all costs? I would suggest that one way is to live for Him, which means Christ will acknowledge us before His Father, and the other is to not live for Him, which in that case Jesus says He will not acknowledge us before His Father. And so some might say, “Well that is pretty strong, that is a little dogmatic!” I agree, I very much agree, and that is why I am glad to say those aren’t my thoughts, they are what God has said to us. I am the messenger, not the author of such things.

So I ask, are you willing to be persecuted by your friends, neighbors, strangers for speaking truth in love, for living the Christian life openly wherever you go, for loving others enough to be truthful with them about God? I’m not saying we have to run into every fight, simply that we don’t have to run away.

23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. (2 Corinthians 11:23-24)

Paul wasn’t running away from truth, hiding who he was when he was being persecuted. If he had run away from truth, he wouldn’t have been persecuted.

21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. (John 15:21-24)

Jesus was not silent concerning truth. Jesus’ words and actions put sinners on display as being sinners. People around Him became aware of who they really were and their need of a Savior, someone outside of themselves. This was good news because God was providing a Savior, but this good news was not received as good news by those who loved their sin. And so His faithful preaching of what could set them free became as a rod of persecution for Christ.

How about a more modern day example? Someone who stood for Christ with a willingness to receive persecution? Richard Wurmbrand, a man I have mentioned to you before. As you will see, Richard, with a little prodding from his loving wife, stood for Christ and willingly received persecution for the sake of His Savior.

Richard was an evangelical preacher in Romania when the communists came in, took the country, and attempted to control all the churches there. God put this man, and many like him, in this place at this time for His glory. In the process of taking over churches there was a large meeting, a congress of all Christian bodies held in the parliament building. There were over four thousand ministers there from all denominations. This group, by the way, chose Joseph Stalin as their honorary president of the congress. The aim of this meeting was to convince all the clergy to acknowledge that communism and Christianity were one and the same. It was a redefining of what Christianity really was.

There were benefits of agreeing to this declaration that communism and Christianity were one and the same, mostly the benefit of peace with the new government and no persecution from the government. That was the benefit, an easy life. So one by one the pastors would stand and give words of praise toward communism and assure the new government that the church would be loyal to its cause. As all this was taking place, and as Richard and his wife sat listening, here is what Richard tells us…

“My wife and I were present at this congress. My wife sat near me and told me; ‘Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ! They are spitting in His face.’ I said to my wife, ‘If I do so, you lose your husband.’ She said, ‘I don’t wish to have a coward as a husband.’”

Richard stood, and he spoke of Christ and the true church in the middle of this group of charlatans. And by standing and speaking for Christ at this time, his life was forever changed. Eventually he spent three years in solitary confinement, only seeing communist guards, and spent five additional years in a mass cell to be tortured. His wife lived as a slave laborer for three years as well.

I wouldn’t say that Richard was out looking for a fight, but he couldn’t be silent as His Lord was being, as his wife said, “spat upon.”

Jesus tells us…

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Okay, you may be saying, “This is tough, this is hard, can you give me something to be happy about today?” Well, yes I can. With truth we need balance, and Jesus gives us great balance. Yes, things may be hard, but God has that covered, and we can not just endure, but endure well, with hope and even happiness and joy! And we see all that here. 

At the beginning of verse 11 it says, “Blessed are you…” This means, “Happy are you,” or, “Happy in Christ are you.” Then it speaks of persecution for the sake of Christ. This is God-given happiness. We have talked a great deal about that already, so I’m not going to revisit that too much here. But we can be, should be always happy in Christ.

And then also in these verses we read of joy, or rejoicing, and of hope of reward in our future heavenly home. So, persecution? Yes, but how about also happiness, joy, and future reward in heaven. With these the scale tips greatly to the positive! The Bible tells us hard things, but never without hope, never without joy that can be ours in the Lord! Jesus says, “In this, rejoice!”

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:12)

“Rejoice” here means to be really glad. “Rejoice and be glad,” this is an expression of even visible joy. We have recently been through the book of Philippians together, and in that book we saw time and time again this command to be joyful. And each time we saw it we were reminded that joy is not based on circumstances, but is based on what is true for us in Christ. This joy is based on what is ours and cannot be taken away, even through persecution. Christians’ joy is on a rock solid foundation of our position in Christ and our future with Him. If joy were based on circumstances then persecution would never be an occasion for joy. But it is, and I want to give you some reasons why. Jesus says here it is because heaven is our home, and there we will receive rewards.

It is interesting though that it is often through persecution where we find assurance of this very truth. For example, remember when Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seeds? Jesus tells of one who lays seed. Some seed falls on the path and the birds come and eat the seed, other seed falls on rocky ground, other seed fell among thorns and got choked out, and then some seed fell on good soil and grain was produced. Each of these, He explains later, is a picture of the gospel being preached and how it is received or not received. We will not get into all of its meaning today, but I do want to show you Jesus’ explanation of the seed that fell on the rocky soil. He explains this portion of the parable, and here is what he says…

20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20-21)

What is Jesus saying? He is saying there will be those who get that the message of the gospel is good news. I mean, who doesn’t want paradise for eternity? So with joy they say, “I want that.” But there is a genuineness problem. When persecution comes, as Jesus says it will, and they must stand for Christ, for what they believe, they refuse. They don’t think it is worth it, they turn and run, they hide what they said they professed. Because of the price of persecution they turn away. You have probably seen that, and it is sad to see. The non-Christian, no matter how sincere they may appear, will not live in a willingness to be persecuted for the sake of Christ.

Now here is the opposite and the cause for joy for the true believer. For the true Christian, persecution and our willingness to persevere under it proves our faith and our relationship with God. Instead of being a negative, it becomes a positive, it reinforces in our own hearts that we belong to Him!

6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

It is not persecution in itself that is cause for joy, it is the truth behind it, the truth that we belong to God through Christ!

And lastly, with persecution comes great reward. God promises rewards in heaven. I can’t even begin to describe them. We do know that we will receive a crown, and we will lay it at our Savior’s feet as the One who is all-deserving. Some believe that other rewards will be in the form of ways that we are more able to glorify Christ in heaven, that some will have a greater capacity for that than others.

It is hard for me to think of rewards in heaven. I honestly don’t get that very well. I mean, isn’t getting there enough? Isn’t the free gift of Christ in us and a place in heaven enough? But we are told that we should be about laying up treasures in heaven. I think they won’t be so much about us getting, but us being able to give to others, a greater capacity to give for God’s glory. 

My capacity to love others on this earth is so weak. I wonder if a reward in heaven may be like a greater capacity to love Christ and to love others? Whatever all that entails, it will be marvelous and glorifying to God.

Persecution, enduring persecution for the sake of our Savior, will be rewarded, and that will be way beyond anything we could ever receive here. We will find that the price was very small, that is to endure persecution here, compared to the weight of glory that is to come.

17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

Praise God for His good gifts to us that will span all of eternity. He is a gracious God! As we stand for Christ in truth, we can expect some persecution, and in persecution our faith will be strengthened even as we face it with joy and gladness. It is amazing! This is what God does in us!

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)