Many of you recognize the name of Henry Blackaby, the author of the Experiencing God study. He wrote that one time he prayed: “Lord, make me like You.” That sounds like a good prayer to pray, right? But he said right after he prayed that, God directed him in his Bible to Isaiah 53 – that famous chapter that predicts how Jesus would be the Suffering Servant who would bear our sins in His body. And he said God’s Spirit impressed on him: “Do you really want to be like Me? – ‘a man of sorrows,” “acquainted with grief”; “despised and rejected by men’?”
That is a good question – and a question that every one of us needs to take seriously. For the last 7 weeks, we’ve been studying the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, which together give us a picture of the character of Christ that God wants to build into each of our lives. But Jesus shows us here in this last Beatitude, that if you succeed in becoming like Him, you WILL have the greatest treasure: the Kingdom of Heaven will be yours — but you will also likely have to suffer here on earth, before you get there. Let’s look at this final word Jesus gives us, about His goal for us of becoming like Him:
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I. WHAT PERSECUTION IS NOT:
This verse is NOT a blanket promise that God will bless everybody who ever thinks they’ve ever been persecuted for something. If you read the text carefully, Jesus is very specific in His promise of blessing: it is for those who are persecuted “FOR the sake of righteousness.” That is an important condition. There are many people who are persecuted, yes, but in truth the reason they are persecuted is for their own poor decisions, their own bad attitude, or for some reason besides being a follower of Christ. Jesus does not promise blessings for everyone who has ever been persecuted for anything! The blessing He promises here is specifically “for the sake of righteousness”, and then in :11 He says, “falsely,” and “on account of Me.” Those are some important qualifications to keep in mind.
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 emphasizes the same thing that Jesus does here in Matthew 5: God does not promise to bless you for the difficulties you bring upon yourself by your own sin or stupidity! It is only persecution for righteousness, for Jesus’ sake, that God blesses!
Unfortunately, much of the so-called “persecution” that some of us get is not really because we are so much like Jesus, but because we are stubborn or insensitive to others.
Several years ago, a young man wrote to a Christian radio station, about the “persecution” he said he was experiencing for being a Christian. He said: “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 “persecuted” him for loving Jesus too!
Well I think most of us would agree, that young man wasn’t being persecuted for loving Jesus, right?. That older man in the car, and the young man’s parents were getting on to him because his music was too LOUD — not because it was about Jesus!! And there’s a big difference. Jesus doesn’t promise a blessing when people get mad at you for playing loud music! That wasn’t “persecution for righteousness”; it was the treatment he deserved for his insensitivity to people around him.
A lot of what people want to call “persecution” is for things just like that. It’s not really “Christian persecution.” It’s not for “righteousness” sake, and it’s not because they’re like Jesus. For example, if you’re spending hours at work talking about the Bible instead of doing your job, and you get in trouble for it by your boss; you’re not being persecuted for righteousness — you’re being reprimanded for being a bad employee! Your employer’s not persecuting you for talking about Jesus; he doesn’t care if you are talking about Jesus or the Coronavirus or the Communist Party – he just wants you to stop talking and get your work done! That is not persecution for righteousness. And we could go on and on with examples like that.
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 2) BECAUSE OF JESUS: “falsely”, and “on account of Me,” :11 says. If the accusation they make against you is TRUE – and you really have sinned or done something wrong – there is no blessing from the Lord for that. That is just the consequence of your own actions. 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. The scripture is very specific here: It must be “for righteousness,” ‘falsely,” “on account of Me” to get a blessing from Him.
We really need to get this point. Too many times, people want you to believe that their “persecution” is for Christ — because that makes you more sympathetic to them — but often times when you really investigate the truth of what happened, you find out they weren’t being persecuted for the Lord, but for their own foolishness or insensitivity or something else instead.
I remember one time hearing a “Christian news report” about how a house church in a neighborhood was being “persecuted” by the local authorities, who didn’t want people meeting for church in a home. Everyone was up in arms about this “violation’ of the “freedom of religion.” But it turned out the city was not opposed to these people worshipping Christ in their home; the problem was there was an ordinance against having too many cars parking in a neighborhood when there was no parking lot — there were so many cars parking for the worship in their home that it clogged up the whole neighborhood for blocks and blocks around! So they weren’t really being persecuted for worshipping Jesus; they were cited because they violated the city parking ordinance and they were being a nuisance to all their neighbors (which isn’t a good witness, by the way!). It didn’t matter if they were a church of the Lord Jesus, or a mosque of Allah, or an AMWAY meeting — it was the parking situation the city was against, not their Christian faith. That was NOT “Christian persecution.”
So we need to be very careful about what we call “persecution.” Jesus makes it clear here that God is not going to bless you for breaking the law, or being stubborn or insensitive to others. The promise of this Beatitude only applies when you persecuted for being like Jesus or proclaiming His word — and that is an important condition!
II. WHAT PERSECUTION IS: SUFFERING FOR THE JESUS THEY SEE IN YOU
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 be a response from the world to the Jesus that they see in you. It IS going to happen. That is why Jesus added this last Beatitude to the list. As I mentioned last week, this last Beatitude is not so much a “quality” you have, per se, as much as it is the REACTION you’ll get from the world for being like Jesus in the first 7 Beatitudes! If you are poor in spirit, mourning over sin, pure in heart, peacemaker – all of these character qualities of Jesus – then this last Beatitude is how the world will respond 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 Himself, then turned around and began persecuting His followers. Jesus had told them that this would happen. It just makes sense: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” And that same thing will be true for us too: if you are really like Jesus, then the same sinful, demonic world order that rejected and persecuted Him will reject and persecute YOU too as you become more 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 the people who are controlled by them, will respond to the Jesus who is in you, and persecute you for it. There are numerous examples of this happening, all through history:
In 1899 there was a drought in China, which led to a crop failure. The Chinese “Boxers” were a radical group that blamed the drought and the crop failure on the Christian missionaries. They called the missionaries “foreign devils,” and accused them of “drinking blood” (the Lord’s Supper!), and of “bribing” their people to become Christians because they cared about them and gave them rice to eat during the famine. So the “Boxers” rose up and killed dozens of Christian missionaries, and thousands of Chinese Christian followers — and many more driven out of their homes These missionaries were just doing was just what we’ve been talking about, they “saw the needs’ in the people for food; they “felt compassion for them,” and “did something about it,” by giving them rice to eat. But these Boxers hated the Jesus they saw in them, and persecuted them for it.
And of course, it’s not just in so-called “pagan” countries where that happens. In England in 1768, 6 students were thrown out of college in Oxford, for having the audacity to have Bible study and prayer and singing praises to God in their private homes, instead of only in the “sanctioned” formal church services (which had become compromised and were turning away from God.) So these “modern Pharisees” at Oxford persecuted the Jesus they saw in these young men, and threw them out of school, because they had a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and were seeking God for themselves in His word & worship.
My sister serves in an Asian nation which cannot be names, and recently a “Mr. S”, a University student was saved through their work. But this young man’s family was extremely angry with his decision to follow Christ, and they basically “hauled him up” to a family conference, where they made his explain his new faith (a great opportunity!) But they continued to be estranged from him, and cut him off from financial support for his education because of his commitment to Christ.
That is what genuine persecution is: it is the world and the devil, responding with anger and oppression, to the Jesus they see in a genuine Christian person.
Now, let me make it clear: we should never SEEK to be persecuted — and I say that because there is a kind of person who enjoys getting attention and who deliberately tries to get into controversial situations, to bring what they call “persecution” on themselves. The Bible never encourages that. I Timothy 2:2 says that our GOAL is to live “a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” – that’s what we should be striving for — we should do everything we can to live peaceful and quiet lives. But make no mistake, if you are becoming like Christ, evil people around you will respond to the Jesus they see in you, and they will persecute you.
But this should cause us to do some soul-searching, right? Because if persecution is the world responding to the Jesus they see in you — what does the persecution you are getting (or that you are NOT getting!) say about how much of Jesus people are seeing in you? When’s the last time someone did something to you; or said something to you — or even looked at you in a bad way — because of the Jesus they saw or heard from you?
Jesus said “Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.“ (Luke 6:26) That ought to get us thinking: if everyone speaks well of you — that’s how the FALSE prophets were treated! If you are living for Jesus, SOMEBODY ought to be opposing you! Now, let me re-emphasize: we are never to TRY to antagonize people, or bring on persecution. But if NO ONE, EVER says anything about you; and “all men only speak well of you” like Jesus says here — we may need to do a spiritual checkup: Are we very much like Jesus? Are we sharing His word like we should? Because if you are really becoming Christlike, and sharing His word, you WILL be persecuted for the Jesus they see in you.
III. PERSECUTION IN OUR DAY? (is coming!)
Now, let me say too – although the world will respond negatively to the Christ they see in us, we have lived most of our lives in a country that has been as sympathetic to Christianity as any nation in history. We have not experienced the persecution that many in the world have, because we have lived in, if not a “Christian nation,” per se, a nation that was founded of Christian principles and which has been generally supportive of Christianity. As a result, many of us have not experienced the persecution that we would have, if we lived our same Christian life in another country. But persecution IS going on other countries right now.
There is a pastor in India by the name of Sanjay Charan. He is one of the finest men I know. He has worked in conjunction with our Southern Baptist International Mission Board, and I have served with him on several mission trips to Delhi, India. One Sunday I had just finished preaching at a church in East Delhi, and we were about to start talking with some of the members afterwards, when suddenly the local workers gathered our team up and said, “Don’t talk to anyone else; get in the car and leave now!” It turned out, that some Hindu extremists had heard we were there preaching, and were on their way to cause trouble — so they got our group into the car immediately and whisked us out of there. I’ll be honest; it sent chills up my spine. I thought: so THIS is what it is like to to preach the gospel as a persecuted minority!
I’ve talked with my friend Sanjay several times this last year, and he and some of his ministry partners have been experiencing more and more persecution for their faith. The RSS, a radical Hindu group, is becoming more and more bold in attacking Christians in India. Some of Sanjay’s pastor/missionaries have been beaten — and even killed this year. I am thankful to that we as a church have adopted Sanjay Charan and his work in India into our budget this year — that is the $200 per month you might see in our budget for India Missions — that is where that is going. Sanjay is training pastors to spread the gospel in India. It is very difficult if not impossible any more for us to get into India to share the gospel – but we can support HIM as HE trains his men there to take the gospel out. I hope to have an opportunity soon for every member who would like to do it, to give $10 per month to help support one of Sanjay’s pastor-trainees that he is sending out to start new churches. I don’t know of a better thing in the world that you could do with $10! But they are being persecuted there in India, right now, and it is increasing. I hope you will begin to pray for them, and support them as God leads you. (If you even want to give today, just write “India” in the memo line and we’ll get it to Sanjay’s pastors.)
But we haven’t really had that here, have we? We’ve lived all our lives in a land where thank God we have enjoyed freedom of religion. We haven’t had to worry about how who might be trailing us as we leave church. But we need to understand that what we’ve experienced these last few generations in America is not “normal”; it’s been a blessed exception in world history. And as you know, that may be changing.
For the last several years, the moral and spiritual climate of America has been deteriorating. The number of people professing to believe in God (though still high) has been dropping. The number of folks in our nation who attend church regularly has been dropping. And beliefs and practices have radically changed. Just as recently as 1996, our government passed “The Defense of Marriage Act,” which stated that for purposes of Federal Law marriage was only between a man and a woman. Two-thirds of the Democrat Congress voted for it, and President Clinton, a Democrat president, signed it into law in September of 1996. President Obama, when he was running for President in 2008, at least “claimed” that he believed marriage to be between a man and woman only, as that was the prevailing view of our country at that time. But public opinion has drastically changed in ONE decade: now a majority of the American people support what they call “gay marriage,” and a Republican-dominated Supreme Court voted to codify same-sex marriage in the Oberkfell decision in 2015, which totally nullified the Defense of Marriage Act. And now, anyone who holds to the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, is shamed and persecuted in the press and public opinion, when that’s the position the Bible has stated clearly for over 2000 years, and was the LAW of the United States until only 6 years ago!
Times are changing quickly, and they are changing for the worse. And if you believe in the word of God, and you hold to faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord & Savior, you had better get ready, because our days of being “at ease in Zion” and comfortably living out our Christian days here in America are about over.
The U.S. Congress just this week passed what they called the “Equality Act”, which grants total equality to people whatever their sexual preference — and many believe that if this is ratified by the Senate and the President, that they will try to force even Christian schools and churches to accept these perverted moral practices, and make it criminal if you don’t.
Don’t think it can’t happen. In July of 2003, pastor Ake Green in a small church in a little town in Sweden mentioned in a sermon 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! The same thing has since happened in Canada — and now those same kinds of “hate crime” laws are gathering support right here in America as well!
The time may well come when it is a crime in our country just to preach what the Bible clearly teaches about homosexuality – or any other topic. It will be a sad day if that happens, but we also need to be prepared for it. AND we need to understand that IF we face arrest or persecution for teaching God’s word, we will not be the first people ever 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 throughout the world. And it may well be that our time is coming. We need to be prepared to face persecution if and when it comes. As a pastor I need to be prepared that one day I could face prison for preaching God’s word. I shouldn’t be shocked if that comes. It has happened, and IS happening, right now, all over the world. It’s as common as the sunrise.
Former Baptist missionary Nik Ripken, writes in his book, “The Insanity of God,” how he was listening to some Eastern European pastors tell stories of persecution, and he told them, “Why haven’t you written all this down; this would make a great book!” One of the pastors was talking to him outside, and said to him, do you see that sunrise? Ripken said “yes.” The pastor said, you aren’t taking a picture of it, are you, because it’s just a commonplace sunrise; it happens every day. Then he said: those stories of our persecution; we don’t think they’re anything to write down, because they are commonplace. They happen here every day — it’s just like the rising of the sun.
Folks, the time may be coming when persecution for Christ and Biblical beliefs will be as common here in America, as the rising of the sun. I pray it doesn’t happen — but honestly it looks very much like we’re headed that way.
But you know what, the first thing we all have to decide — is which side are you really on? That’s the famous question Joshua asked Israel that day, wasn’t it? “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) Are you going to serve public opinion, that changes every 10 years? Are you going to be a slave to all your friends’ opinions and just do what they all think? Or are you going to “follow the money” and give in to whatever’s the most profitable? Or will you choose follow Christ, and hold to His word? You can’t sit in the middle any more; you’re gonna have to choose.
See, for the last few generations here in America, it’s been real easy to just kind of “sit on the fence”, as a half-committed, “cultural Christian”; you go to church, say you believe in God, but you can live like everyone else, and no one cared. But the time is coming and now is, when that is no longer be true. You are going to have to choose who you are really going to serve. You are going to have to choose what you really believe. 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 America this next generation, you are going to have to have the courage to mean it — and you need to be ready to suffer for it, because that is what is going to happen. And when it happens, as Peter wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which has come upon you.” For most of the history of the world, persecution has been the “normal” experience of Christianity. It’s been as normal as the sunrise.
Jesus said in Luke 9, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny Himself, and take up His cross daily, and follow Me.” And He added: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory …”. (Luke 9:23, 26).
Are you following Christ and becoming like Him? Are you holding to His word? If you are, Jesus said you have the greatest reward: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven”! You have a kingdom of glory and pleasure for all eternity that nothing in this world can compare to. But to get all that, Jesus said you’ve got to stand with Me now.
I read where some people were recently tortured for their faith in Christ, and under torture they took back their faith, and promised to keep silent about Jesus. You know, you can look down on those people if you want to, but I’m not going to judge them. Because the truth is, it’s taken a lot less than torture to keep most of us silent for Christ, hasn’t it? Why didn’t we speak up? Why didn’t we say something about Jesus? What was going to happen? Was somebody going to maybe make fun of us — raise an eyebrow against us? We’ve got to ask ourselves: what are we doing? What are we letting hold us back?
The time has come for some of us to decide: which side are you on? Are you going to serve the opinions of all the people around you — or are you going to serve Christ and live for Him? Looking at this last Beatitude Jesus gave us, I think we need to consider the words of the great 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 of these Beatitudes into your life — and would you ask Him for grace to persevere in it even when people react negatively to you for 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’s not an unforgivable sin; Jesus forgave Peter when he denied him, and He still used him. But confess your sin to God, and ask Him to fill you with His Spirit, and make you a bolder witness for Him this week.
— Some of you need to say: “I am going to take a stand for Jesus Christ as my Lord & Savior today.” I’ve never done it before, but today I am giving my life to HIM — and I’m going to follow through by being baptized. I am not going to be ashamed of Him.
— I think it would be appropriate to spend some time in prayer for my friend Sanjay in India, and other persecuted Christians all over the world … or prepare a check to help him train pastors there.
— However you need to respond, Let’s let the words of this hymn challenge our hearts as we sing: “Am I a soldier of the cross?”