Righteousness and 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)

We are nearing the end of our study through the Beatitudes, getting close to finishing up, and I hope it has been as helpful for you as it has been for me! I appreciate and yet struggle with the way Jesus, with such few words, uses His words to lay our hearts open, lay them bear before Him, and how he gets right to the heart of Christian living. It is like what we read in Hebrews 4…

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

I hope we have all felt, so to speak, the piercing into our lives of God’s Word as He works in us, as He actively works in us to move us more to Christlikeness. It is throughout the study of this book, and the working of the Spirit that we are changed. And as we have studied the Beatitudes I hope we have all recognized areas where we can change.

Jesus continues to move us forward, continues to draw out our hearts and press upon us what it is like to be a part of His kingdom. In verse 10 we see the word “blessed,” or “happiness in Christ” used in conjunction with “persecution.” Blessed are those, or truly happy in Christ are those who are persecuted. Happiness does not come a a result of persecution. We don’t go out to look for some persecution when we are sad, so that we can then be happy, but those who are persecuted for righteousness are the happy in Christ.

There are people, oddly enough, who sort of in a strange way like persecution. I have met people like that. They seem to like mixing it up with people, maybe saying intentionally inflammatory words, even if it brings discomfort to themselves. Maybe it is the attention they like, or maybe it makes them feel important, or maybe they think they are doing something hard to win God’s favor. There are those who may really go out and hope for some persecution. Maybe they get in the headlines or it makes for a good fundraising letter. I don’t think Christ is preaching that we need to go out and hunt down some persecution so we can be persecuted and therefore be happy. Some seem to like a good fight and even thrive on being what looks like a victim. That is not His point. The point is righteousness. And if we are going after righteousness in Christ, living for Him in this world that is at odds with His righteousness, we will be persecuted. And the persecution that comes to us as a result of righteous living cannot rob us of our life in Christ, His love for us, and our future with Him! Persecution cannot rob us of true, in Christ, stable, joyful, at-peace happiness! If to avoid persecution we give up on righteousness, then we have missed the mark here. If we are persecuted because of righteousness we are on the right track with Christ. 

These beatitudes are so much about expecting the unexpected. In the beatitude we covered last week Jesus blesses the peacemakers, though peace does not always come. He does not say, “Blessed are you when you make peace or you broker peace successfully.” No, it is just, “Blessed is the one who loves peace, who is concerned for peace and goes about his or her daily life as a peacemaker, whether it happens or not, whether peace is actually achieved or not.”

We may wrongly assume that everyone wants peace, but really many would rather have war. And in this case the peacemaker becomes a target and may be persecuted for trying to effect peace. For instance, in marriage I have found that some really don’t want peace. Sometimes a husband or a wife have really become good at fighting, become habitually comfortable with it, and peace is no longer on their agenda. When this happens the spouse who learns that God says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and then begins to engage in some radical Romans 12 behavioral changes toward their spouse, instead of bringing peace they can become one who is persecuted for acting righteously. When this happens, we are faced with, “Okay, God does not command the results in relationships.” We cannot unilaterally change anyone. He simply says, “Blessed are you if you are a peacemaker…Blessed are you if you are persecuted for righteousness,” not, “Blessed are you if your spouse responds positively to your peacemaking and your righteousness.”

This right thinking here really takes great pressure off of each of us, because we can obey, we can do what is pleasing to God, we can attain to happiness even if no one around us seems to be cooperating with our efforts. We can expect that, because Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are you if you are persecuted for righteousness.”

We live in a time where, I believe, we will more and more have opportunity for greater persecution if we stand for righteousness. Our challenge, I think, in this time that we live, will be to figure out how to stand firmly in righteousness while being a peacemaker, while actively living out 1 Corinthians 13, while speaking not just truth but speaking the truth in love. The balance might be tough for us if we’re facing persecution. The Scripture is the key to balance, this will be our challenge. But we can do it in Christ, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. 

In this matter of persecution, my thinking can be crazy at times. Sometimes I think, you know, if I just act peaceably, if I just live in righteousness, which includes being over-the-top loving to others, even non-believers, then their response to that will have to be positive. I mean really, if I am even telling them, sharing with them how God came in Christ to bring them peace, to free them from sin, to pour out His blessing on them, to give them not just a lifetime of blessing but an incredible, unbelievable future, forever showered in His grace and kindness, surely with that no one will oppose me. I mean, we have the good news, we have the gospel, and it is free! How can we possibly be persecuted if we are bringing this incredibly good news to people? It is what they need, right? We are delivering a message of peace with God, and if we do that well, can’t we avoid persecution? We have the “pearl of great price,” and we know others can have it too – “Here it is, believe!”

Years ago, my family and I went to an outlet mall to pass out some gospel tracts to strangers. Before heading over there we stopped at a local fast food restaurant and told them what we planned to do, and they gave us a big stack of coupons for free chicken sandwiches. So with that, our plan was to hand out this coupon for a free sandwich along with a gospel tract. It went really well as far as being received. No one got mad at us, we were not persecuted in any way. In fact, no one even refused the offer for a free sandwich and they all left with smiles on their faces. We just walked up and said, “Hey, want a free chicken sandwich? The answer was always yes, so we gave them the coupon along with a tract and a brief explanation of what the tract was about, and they were on their way…to get that free sandwich. I mean, we became popular around there, instant friends with all those people. A free chicken sandwich and you see a big smile! But offer, in Christ, offer a future of bliss, a loving savior, peace with God, and often times you can be met with disdain, no matter how you say it. A chicken sandwich and we are good, eternity in heaven with Christ as opposed to burning in hell and people want to fight. People don’t like the message.

I mean, do you ever struggle with this, like, “I’m just bringing you good news! Why the fight? Why the persecution?” Well, it is spiritual. 

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:18-25)

All men are born into depravity, enemies of God and of righteousness. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit to awaken a person to spiritual truth, it takes the power of God. We cannot do that. And so our message of righteousness is counter to what a natural man wants to hear, and what he will respond to apart from enlightening by the Holy Spirit. Our words alone cannot bring peace and keep persecution away. 

Remember Jesus, remember His ministry. Remember His words of grace, His message of salvation. Remember His good deeds of healing, restoring, miraculous deeds. Remember how He reached out to others in loving kindness. Remember why He came: to rescue sinners. And remember what He received while He was here: persecution! Jesus said that we should expect a path similar to His. We will face opposition.

24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matthew 10:24-25)

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18-20)

Being of the world in this sense means being in a state of living in the flesh apart from God, being of the world is being against God. Jesus was not of this world and so those that are of this world are naturally opposed to Him. People will oppose us, oppose our views if we are standing with the truth of God’s Word. Let’s not be surprised by this truth nor discouraged.

If acceptance at all costs in this world is our goal, then we are not standing in the righteousness of Christ. Now, if we build walls around ourselves and attempt to create a sterile environment for us or our children, then we may live in a small world of acceptance and agreement, but that is not our place either. That’s not why God has us here. How do we reach the lost, preach the Word, shine our lights before men who need light if we do that? Jesus didn’t just huddle with His disciples all the time, He walked among sinners, He faced and endured persecution. Part of the price He paid for living among the lost and reaching out to them was persecution. Again, this is not to say suffering is pleasant.

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

Suffering is not fun, it is unpleasant. It is important for us to see too that Jesus did not say that all who suffer will be blessed. Jesus says those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are the blessed. Much of our suffering is not for righteousness’ sake. Much of our suffering is from disobedience, careless living, poor choices in life. Jesus is saying blessed are those who are living according to His kingdom ways. I think we sometimes get these things confused. For instance, one may think they are doing what is pleasing to God and righteous because they loudly, boldly spoke truth to someone. Maybe they really forcefully got their point across to another, and maybe this caused hard and hurtful conflict. This person upon relating their story to another may say something like, “Well, Jesus said blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Maybe they weren’t really acting in a righteous way. Maybe they were trying to win an argument, shut down another person, vindicate themselves, or whatever. Maybe their words were not mixed with grace for building up the other person according to Ephesians 4:29, maybe it was all truth and no love. If so, the persecution they received may be due to their sin, not due to righteous living and intent at all.

We can speak the truth in love and still be persecuted, Jesus did, and when we are it is for righteousness’ sake that we are persecuted, as was Jesus our Lord. I’m speaking about what Mark read a few minutes ago, a great truth, great reminder of seeing and evaluating why we are being persecuted. Is it a worthy reason, is it for Christ, for the gospel?

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1 Peter 4:12-16)

The persecuted, the righteous in Christ, will inherit the kingdom of God. There is a reward, a great reward: it is God’s Kingdom where Christ rules in perfection!

I think for us, in the time in which we have lived and in the near future in which many of us will live, Lord willing, our challenge may be to adjust to a world that is more and more anti-Christ. Many of us have grown up in a time where maybe the gospel and Christianity have not been totally accepted, but have at least been tolerated pretty well. There had been enough Christian influence around us that open disdain for Christianity was tempered in large part. I think we are rapidly moving into an new era. An era where our Christian, Biblical views will not be so well tolerated. This will bring all kinds of challenges to those who desire to live in a manner worthy of our calling in Christ. All sorts of questions are being asked like, how do we live as a minority in a place that is more and more openly opposed to our views of God and the Bible? How do we disagree and do it lovingly? How do we reach out to a culture that may really hate us? How do we reach out to those who may believe we are the problem standing in the way of their happiness? How do we guard against becoming sinfully angry and bitter toward those to whom we should be evangelizing? How do we keep an eternal perspective instead of simply trying to reform a culture that we had loved, but seems to be disappearing before our eyes?

For many who have read Matthew 5:10 throughout the centuries, they read it as those who had always known severe persecution as Christians. Their granddads talked about it, their dads talked about it, they knew they too would be severely persecuted, maybe beaten, jailed, maybe even martyred for their faith. That was normal. But for us I think that change is coming. Less, far less tolerance for our Christian views exist now than ten or twenty years ago. But this is not a time for us to be fearful or depressed. It is a time to recommit our lives to Christ and His righteousness, not cower in fear. It is a time for us to fully embrace this truth that “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness.” I mean really so! God is as much in control now as He was when we may have thought times were more gentle toward our views. It is not like God has changed or His position in this universe has changed. He is working His plan in and around us. 

I want to leave you with two thoughts regarding persecution that we may endure.

First, we can find great comfort in the omniscience of God. God knows all things that have been, that are happening now, and that will occur in the future. This means that He knows all that we face or will ever face. That is at least one point that Jesus makes in Matthew 6 when He says, “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” He is referring there to God knowing all of our needs. He is never unaware of anything going on in your life or mine. Never. Nothing gets past Him, it can’t. He sees it, knows it before it happens. He is the ultimate watchman. Another point from Matthew 6 is that God gives us what we need. This would include what we need during times and seasons of persecution. So God is present and He knows our every need.

Secondly, He has the power to stop things, to start things, to rearrange things. All things obey His commands. If we are facing persecution, He could stop it. If we face persecution, He allowed it. It has a point, there is a reason: it is for His glory.

Do you remember the account from Mark 5? This is where Jesus cast demons into a herd of pigs and they go over the cliff and drown. How did Jesus do that? He spoke words and a legion of demons entered the pigs. A legion in the Roman army was 6,000 men. I don’t know exactly how many demons this was, but it’s a bunch! Christ spoke them into those pigs, with hardly any effort. That is power. Jesus can do that. God spoke the world into being in six days and all that is in it. God has the power to effect anything if it is His will. 

And so if God knows what we face, and if God does not change it, then it is His will and we can, by His power, endure it. With hope, with faith – this is a walk of faith – and that persecution changes nothing about our eternal state and place in God’s family! And in it we can boldly say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ!”

Some will, no doubt, see persecution and alter their script concerning the gospel, concerning Biblical truth. We are not called to be like that. We are called to hold to the truth. God has described the church as the pillar and support of truth. Some will complain when more severe persecution comes, “Where is God in this?” We will say, “He is here.” Some will question, “Can God do anything?” We will know, “Yes, He can and He will according to His will.” We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. We can live and face persecution for righteousness’ sake, because God has got it all taken care of, and He has us, and He says…

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10)