Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, one time prayed a prayer that many of us have perhaps prayed at one time or another: “Lord, make me like You.” But Blackaby shared that when he prayed those words, God directed him in his Bible to Isaiah 53 – the famous chapter that predicted that Jesus would be the Suffering Servant who would bear our sins in His body. And he said it was as if God’s Spirit was saying to him: “Do you really want to be like Me? – ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’; ‘despised and rejected by men’?”
That is a good question – and a question that every one of us needs to face. For the last couple of months, we have been studying the Beatitudes of Matthew under the theme: “The Disciple’s Character” We have seen that God’s goal for each of us as His children is for these eight character qualities of Christ to be are built into our lives. But if you succeed in adopting these Beatitudes into your character, and become “conformed to the image of Christ, then the Bible says, the result is that you WILL be persecuted. That is why Jesus includes this Beatitude here at the very end of the list.
And this IS the FINAL Beatitude. There are only eight. Some have speculated that there might be NINE – that :10 is one Beatitude, and that :11-12 form another – but these are really the same. Verse 10 is the quality – that of persecution – and verses 11-12 just expand on that same quality of persecution a little. But to me, it is very obviously the same basic quality: that of persecution, that is described here. So understanding that, let’s look at this final beatitude for a few minutes as we bring our study of “The Disciple’s Character” to a close.
I. WHAT PERSECUTION IS NOT:
This verse is NOT a blanket promise of blessing for ALL who have been or are being persecuted. If you read the text carefully, this verse is very specific in its promise of blessing: it is a promise of blessing for those who are persecuted “FOR the sake of righteousness.” This is an important provision. There are many who 1) are persecuted for their own stupidity or other poor decisions, or 2) who are persecuted for other reasons. Jesus does not promise blessings for all these here. The blessing He promises here is for those who are persecuted FOR righteousness; for His sake.
I Peter 2:20 says: “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?” He goes on later to say (4:15-16) “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian he is not to be ashamed …”. Peter is emphasizing the same thing there: God does not promise to bless you for difficulties which you have brought upon yourself by your own sin or stupidity! It is persecution for righteousness that God blesses!
Unfortunately, much of the so-called “persecution” that some of us receive is not really for Jesus’ sake, or because of our righteousness. Several years ago, a young man wrote in to a Christian radio station, telling how he was being “persecuted” for being a Christian. He said: “Well, I was just driving down the street in my car, playing my Christian music REALLY loud, to be a witness to everyone around. When I pulled up to the stoplight, there was an older man in the car next to me, and he just looked over at me with an ugly look on his face. But I didn’t care; I knew I was just being persecuted for loving Jesus.” And he said he played his Christian music really loud in his home too, to be a “witness” to his parents – but they just got mad at him for loving Jesus!
Well I think most of us would agree that that young man wasn’t being persecuted for loving Jesus, or being like Jesus, or serving Jesus! That older man frowned on him because the music in his car was too loud! And his parents probably didn’t care whether it was Christian music or rock music or country music – they got on to him because his music was too LOUD — not because of what the lyrics were! That wasn’t “persecution for righteousness”; it was what he deserved for his own insensitivity to other people around him — and God never promises to bless us if we do stupid things to people around us.
It is often that way with us: if you are spending hours on the job talking about the Bible instead of doing your job, and you get in trouble for it; you are not being persecuted for righteousness — you are being reprimanded for being a faithless employee! Your employer is not persecuting you for talking about Jesus; he doesn’t care if you are talking about Jesus or the Democratic Party – he just wants you to stop talking and work! That is not persecution for righteousness. And we could go on and on with examples like that. It’s like that meme that’s been going around Facebook: “Everything happens for a reason — sometimes the reason is that you’re stupid and make bad choices”!
Listen: Jesus is VERY clear here: to qualify for the blessing of this verse, the accusation that is made against you must either be 1) FALSE, or it must 2) BECAUSE OF JESUS: “falsely”, and “on account of Me.” If the accusation they make against you is TRUE – and you really have sinned or done something stupid – there is no blessing from the Lord for that. That is just your own sin or stupidity! And if your persecution is not “on account of” Jesus, it does not qualify either. If they persecute you because you are an American, or a Republican, or a vegetarian, or whatever, there is no blessing from the Lord for that. It must be “on account of Me” – because you are like Jesus or speaking for Him. The scripture is very specific here. Anything less is not promised a blessing from Him.
This is an important point, and we need to use discretion regarding it. Too many times, the “headline” people want you to believe is “persecution for Christ” — but when you really investigate what’s beneath the headline, you find out they were not being persecuted for the Lord, but for their own stupidity or for something else instead.
I remember one time hearing about how a house church in a neighborhood was being “persecuted” by the local authorities, who didn’t want a church to meet in their house. Everyone was up in arms. But it turned out the city was not opposed to them worshipping Christ in their home; the problem was there was an ordinance against having so many cars trying to park at your house in a neighborhood when there was no parking lot – and it was clogging up the whole neighborhood. They weren’t being persecuted for worshipping; they were cited because they violated the parking ordinance. It didn’t matter if they were a church of the Lord Jesus, or a mosque of Allah, it was the parking the city was against, not Christ.
Listen: Jesus makes it clear here that God is not going to bless you for breaking the law, or being stubborn or stupid. The promise of this Beatitude is only for when you are persecuted for living for Him — and there is a big difference!
II. PERSECUTION IS SUFFERING FOR THE JESUS THEY SEE IN YOU
Now, we have seen over the last number of weeks that God’s goal in everything that happens in your life is to mold you into the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). When that happens, there is going to be a response from the world to the Jesus they see in you. It IS going to happen. That is why Jesus added this last Beatitude to the list. This one is not a “quality” you have, per se, as much as it is the reaction you are going to get from the world if you are really becoming like Jesus. If you are poor in spirit, mourning over sin, pure in heart, peacemaker – all of these character qualities – then this WILL happen to you:
–John 15:20 “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
–John 16:33 “In the world you have tribulation”
–I Peter 4:12 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you … as though some strange thing were happening to you.”
–II Timothy 3:12 “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Jesus makes it clear: if you are really following Him, and becoming like Him, then you WILL be persecuted.
Jesus’ original disciples experienced that: the same group of religious leaders who persecuted Jesus turned around and began persecuting them as His followers. Jesus had told them that this would happen. It just makes sense: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” And it will be true for us too: if you are really becoming like Jesus, the same world order that rejected and persecuted Jesus will reject and persecute YOU as you become like Him.
Mark 1 tells us that when Jesus went up to the synagogue in Capernaum to teach, that a man with an unclean spirit cried out: “What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who You are: the Holy One of God!” The demon in that man responded to the Jesus who came to that synagogue.
In the same way, the evil powers of this world, and those who are controlled by them, will respond to the Jesus who is in you, through His Holy Spirit, and the Jesus who is being formed in you as you become like Him in your character.
A number of years ago, Cheryl & I were not participating in a certain situation because of our Christian convictions, and one of our relatives got really mad, and called Cheryl & I “holier than thou”. I had to shake my head, because although we were standing on our convictions in that situation, we had actually gone out of our way NOT to project an attitude of judgment, or to act “holier than thou” in any way in that situation. The truth is, that person was convicted, because they knew they were doing things that weren’t right, and they felt guilty about it – and so they lashed out at us. These kinds of things WILL happen if you are becoming like Christ in your character. The world will respond to you negatively.
Now, if that is true, then what does the way the world is responding to you, say about how much like Christ you are becoming? Has anyone called you “holier than thou”, or a “bigot” or a “religious nut” — or do you just “fit right in” with everyone around you? Now, let me make it clear: we shouldn’t TRY to get attention for ourselves by being persecuted — and I say that because there is a kind of person who enjoys drawing attention to themselves this way; and the Bible never encourages that. I Timothy 2 says that we are to TRY to live “a tranquil life in all godliness and dignity” – that should be our goal — but make no mistake, if you are becoming like Christ, people around you will respond to the Jesus they see in you. What does the response of the world around you say about how much like Christ you are becoming in your character? If “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”, and we are not being persecuted, what does that mean — except that evidently we are not “living godly in Christ Jesus”, right? It ought to call every one of us to prayer and self-evaluation: judging by people’s reaction to me, how much of the character of Christ are they seeing in me?
III. PERSECUTION IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Now, let me say too – although the world will respond negatively to the Christ they see in you, we have lived most of our lives in a nation that has been as sympathetic to Christianity as any nation in history. We have not experienced the persecution that many throughout history have. I do not hold any pretense of having endured much persecution in my lifetime. I have had a few doors slammed in my face on visitation; I have been cursed at a few times, and called some names; I have had people make fun of me, etc., but I have experienced nothing like what people in other times and places have endured — and what many in some countries are going through right now.
I got just a little taste of it when we were in Varanasi, India on a mission trip several years ago. I was standing and sharing a message with a little house church which had gathered in a hotel meeting room. The walls were glass, and you could see into the hotel lobby. Right in the middle of my message, the missionary who was translating, in a very calm voice, said to me: “Shawn, you can keep talking, but put your Bible down, and sit down.” I was caught totally off guard; I said, “What?” And she repeated what she said – and then she added: “We are being watched!” I looked over through the glass wall, and sure enough, there was a man standing just outside the room, his face covered with a cloth, watching me. I could tell that the church members began to move around nervously. Later they told me that this man was a member of the RSS — the radical Hindu extremists who have killed and persecuted Christians. In another place where I preached, they whisked our group into a taxi immediately after the service, and said, “You need to leave NOW! Do not stop and talk to anyone. There may be some RSS on their way here.” I’ll be honest; it sent chills up my spine. I thought: so THIS is what it is like to be the persecuted minority, to preach the gospel where it is not free to be preached.
We don’t really know that here. We live in a land where we have enjoyed the freedom of religion all of our lives. What we have to understand is that what we have experienced these last few generations in our country is not “normal”; it is a blessed exception in world history. Every Sunday when we gather in freedom we should give thanks for the freedom to worship without fear. Believers all through history have not had that freedom:
— When Jesus told His disciples to expect persecution, He told them here in :12, “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” This wasn’t anything new. They have always done this to God’s people.
— The early church experienced the same persecution that Jesus did; in fact as you may know, all of the apostles (except for John, who was tortured) were killed for their faith.
— A number of years later, the Roman Empire demanded that Christians offer sacrifices to the emperor and proclaim “kurios kaiseros” – “Caesar is Lord” and thousands of Christians refused, going to their death proclaiming “Christos Kurios” – “Christ is Lord!”
— I am reading a biography right now about William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for daring the translate the Bible into the English language.
— In the early 1900’s, Muslim soldiers went throughout Turkey, questioning men, women, and children at bayonet point: “Mohammed or Christ?” and over 1 million Armenians went to their deaths, quoting from their confession of faith: “Christ, only Christ.”
— And most of us have heard about the persecution that going on in other countries in our world today: ISIS is murdering and beheading Christians in Iraq and Syria; our mission partners in India tell us that the persecution of the RSS is increasing there; a native Baptist lady in Namibia decided to start a Bible study under a tree in her village, and was threatened that her home would be burned, and her well poisoned, and her children killed.
In many places in the world, persecution of Christians is understood to be commonplace. After experiencing persecution as a missionary, Nick Ripken wrote a book on Christian persecution. He told about how he was listening to some Eastern European pastors tell stories of persecution, and he told them that they needed to write these stories down in a book. One of the pastors he was talking to took him outside, and said to him, do you see that sunrise? Ripken said he did. The pastor said, you are not going to take a picture of it, are you, because it is just commonplace; it happens every day. Then he said: those stories of our persecution are ordinary here. We don’t think they are anything to write about. They happen here every day.
Throughout much of the world, and for much of history, followers of Christ have routinely been persecuted. And we can’t think it will never happen here again either. In July of 2003, a pastor (Ake Green) stood in a small church in a small town in Sweden and preached in a message that the Bible teaches that practicing homosexuality is a sin. That pastor was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in prison for violating the Swedish hate crime laws against inciting hatred against gays! Similar reports are coming out of Canada because of their hate crimes laws – and those very kinds of laws are now being considered in the United States!
Listen, there may come a time when it is a crime in our country to speak and teach what the Bible says about homosexuality – or any other topic. It will be a sad day if that happens, but we also have to be prepared for it, and understand that IF we face arrest or persecution for teaching the Bible, we will not be the first people in history to have suffered that way. It has been so all through history. We have enjoyed a brief “day of sunshine” here in America from the stormy history of persecution in the world. We need to be prepared to face persecution if and when it comes. I am trying to prepare myself for the fact that one day I may face prison for preaching the Bible. I don’t want to be shocked by it if it comes. We should know that comes with the territory.
Young people, you need to hear this word. For the last few generations here in America, it has been easy to be a “sit on the fence”, half-committed, “cultural Christian”, and no one cared. But the time is coming and now is, when that will no longer be true. You are going to have to choose whom you are really going to serve. The days of calling yourself a Christian in America and suffering no consequences for it are about over. If you are going to really be a Christian in this next generation, you are going to have to mean it — and you need to be ready to suffer for it, because it is going to happen. And when it comes, as Peter wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which has come upon you.” For most of the history of the world, this has been the “normal” experience of Christianity. And it is soon going to be that way for us too.
But even if that doesn’t come for some time yet – and I pray that it won’t – there will still be a response by the world around you to what they see of Jesus Christ in you. The question is: is the world seeing Christ in you? Is the reason you are not being persecuted because you live in such a friendly town? Or are you not being persecuted because the truth is, you are not really living for Christ?
— You aren’t having any doors slammed in your face because you aren’t knocking on any doors!
— You aren’t being rejected when you witness because you never witness!
— No one has to threaten you, like the woman in Africa, about not teaching the Bible to little children, because you aren’t teaching anyone anyway.
— No one is calling you “holier than thou” because the truth is, you are NOT holy; you fit right in with the compromised world around you!
It isn’t taking persecution to keep many of us for living for Christ; we just aren’t living for Christ anyway. Some of us today need to admit: I am not being persecuted because the truth is, my character is just not much like Jesus Christ.
I read recently where some people were tortured for their faith in Christ, and under torture they recanted their faith, and some of them kept silent about their witness. You know what, you can look down on those people if you want, but I am not going to judge them. All I know is, it has taken a lot less than torture to keep a bunch of us silent for Christ! What happened to us: did someone raise an eyebrow — or were you afraid that someone “might” think badly of you?
The time has come for some of us to decide if we are going to live for Christ, or for the good opinions of people around us. In light of this last Beatitude, we need to consider words of the old hymn:
Am I a soldier of the cross? A foll’wer of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flow’ry beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?
Sure, I must fight if I would reign; increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy word.
— as we bow our heads together, would you ask God to continue to build the character of Christ that we see in these Beatitudes into your life — and would you ask Him for grace to persevere even when people react negatively to you because of it?
— some of us need to ask God for forgiveness for not really living for Him, or standing up for Him, or witnessing for Him, when we’ve had the opportunity. It is not an unforgivable sin; He forgave Peter when he denied him, and used him. But confess that sin to God, and ask Him to fill you with His Spirit, and make you a bold witness for Him this week.
— Some of us need to take a stand for Jesus as your Lord & Savior for the very first time, and follow through by being baptized
— We should also spend some time in prayer for persecuted Christians all over the world … as well as others who are on our hearts today … the altar is open for that.
— Let’s let the words of this hymn challenge our hearts as we sing: “Am I a soldier of the cross?”