This message was in conjunction with the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (see www.idop.org).
With the Kingdom comes…persecution?
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Matt. 5:10
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The key phrase…”because of me”.
Context: This command is from the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5-7). In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a new and better Moses. Moses was seen as the Lawgiver in the Hebrew Bible (received the Law on Mount Sinai). What we find in the Sermon on the Mount, is that often, Jesus quotes one of the commandments or one of the other rules from the Torah (or Law, like 5.21, 27, 31, 38) and he expounds on it, revealing the Spirit that God gave the command in. He wanted to deal with our sinfulness (both external and internal).
The people who heard this message would have been on the bottom rung of society’s status ladder. And here Jesus flips the entire social order based on his message and one’s reception of it. (The poor [in spirit], the meek/humble, the mourners, the persecuted…)
Blessed? On one level this word refers simply to being “happy”. But in this context, it refers to the happiness of those who participate in the kingdom announced by Jesus. This is a deep inner joy of those who have long awaited the salvation promised by God and who now begin to experience its fulfillment.
Righteousness – a right relationship with God. That comes when one is rightly aligned with Jesus. We repent (change our agenda to match the King’s agenda), we are born of the Spirit and we begin a life of submission, obedience and allegiance to Jesus the King.
Righteousness here points to the character of the recipients of the kingdom. Those who display their loyalty to God will become the reason for their suffering. And they are to see their selves as blessed.
Their confidence in Jesus and what they hear and observe should produce a confidence in the future that can and should produce joy in the present in spite of their painful circumstances.
The result of righteousness is…persecution? Insults? People saying evil and untrue things about me? What kind of reward is that?
In another place, Jesus even expands on these “rewards”. “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.”
Ahh, reward in heaven. Eyes on the final reward.
They kept their focus on the final reward. I don’t think you can properly understand the book of Revelation without keeping the issue of persecution in your minds. There is a constant call from Jesus to “the one who is victorious” or “to the one who overcomes…” Revelation shows what the scene in heaven looks like, a portrait of praising the lamb who was slain (who also has experienced what they’ve experienced). This same lamb is the one “who sits on the throne” and to him be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever (Rev. 5:13)! There is even a scene where those who have been killed for their faithfulness to Jesus are shown to be serving Jesus day and night in his temple and experiencing his presence. Rev. 7:16-17. Earlier, these martyrs were asking how long until God would avenge their blood? They were told to wait until the full number of their brothers and sisters who were to be killed first (Rev. 6.9-11). Then, God would pour out his wrath on the wicked and judge the evil ones and avenge those who were killed for their testimony. This book was to assure those people who were suffering that Jesus was on his throne now and that he saw it all and was waiting, but that he would act.
Aligning with Jesus opens us up to the possibility of persecution. Jesus never promised us an easy life when we decided to follow him. In fact, his call to be a disciple is come and die.
He warns the disciples on several occasions:
Matt. 10.17 – Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. (But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it…)
John 16.2 – They will put you out of the synagogues, in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God (Paul).
John 15. 18-21 - “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’
How different is this message from those who share “the gospel” or the plan of salvation with you and do not share these verses as well?
We see this played out in the life of the early church.
In the book of Acts, some of the early apostles are first arrested and then beaten because of their message (Acts 4.18; 5.40; 18.17; 21.30-32). One early follower was stoned (Acts 7.58-50). Some were brought before governing authorities (Acts 18.12-16; 24.2-9).
One of Jesus’ first twelve was executed (James the Greater, Acts 12.1-2). Paul was persecuted because he freed a slave girl from demonic presence and men who were making money off of her were angry (Acts 16.22-23). Paul and Silas were illegally beaten and imprisoned even though they should have been offered due process due to their privilege of Roman citizenship.
We see this played out throughout the rest of the NT. The readers of the book of Hebrews had experienced some type of persecution that included the confiscation of property (Heb. 10.32-34).
1 Peter is written at a time when his readers were experiencing persecution. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you…” (1 Peter 4.12, he goes on to connect the suffering of these believers to participating in the sufferings of Jesus).
Persecution is the backdrop of the book of Revelation with references to martyrdom throughout (6.9-11; 16.6; 17.6; 18.24; 19.2).
Jesus’ half brother, James was killed in the temple in Jerusalem according to early church historian Eusebius. Tradition states that he was thrown off the top of a wall around the temple, stoned and then clubbed to death.
Tradition of Paul and Peter’s martyrdom: Paul beheaded and Peter crucified upside down.
Roman historian Tacitus tells of the fire that burnt down % of Rome and Nero shifted the blame away from himself to Christians and began to torment them. Tacitus tells of the event where Nero had Christians dipped in pitch and set on fire to serve as torches in his garden at night. (Annals 15.44).
This movement spread in spite of brief, but at times intense, periods of persecution. Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Decius and Diocletian. These are some of the emperors who enacted state sponsored persecution over the first 300 years of the church’s life.
How God works it for good.
The early church actually seemed to value their experiences of persecution. After being flogged for preaching about Jesus, the disciples rejoice because they feel that they have actually been counted worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus. They are connecting what happens to them is what had happened to Jesus. Jesus predicted this. It is coming true and they’re rejoicing.
Think about that on one level. Jesus the king suffers and dies and yet he appears alive to them. He reveals that he is the true king. And all of the things that he predicted that would happen to them begin happening to them. Things like the appearance and power of the Spirit, healings, signs and wonders and…beatings!
After being stoned by a mob and left for dead, Paul reflects and tells his fellow believers “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22). Later on in one of his letters, he would write the chilling words of 2 Tim 3.12 - In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…
How does God let this happen to citizens of the Kingdom?
Jesus won our victory by becoming a sin offering and by letting the forces of evil do their worst to him and he overcomes them through his resurrection. We are to follow in his footsteps as we seek to be conformed to his image. We must experience the same things that he experienced.
Hebrews 5.8 states that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering.
There are several places in the writings of Paul that discuss sharing in Jesus’ suffering. Two places connect our sharing in his suffering to sharing with his glory (Rom. 5.3; 8.17). And one verse Paul seems to assume that if we want to know the power of his resurrection then we’ll want to share in his sufferings as well (Phil. 3.10).
It seems as if God used persecution to spread the message of Jesus in the early days of the church (as he may today as well).
In Acts 8.1-4 we see the result of the outbreak of full-scale persecution of the church:
“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
We can’t expect to follow Jesus into glory if we don’t follow him through the garden. That doesn’t mean that we should actively pursue persecution. Jesus cried out in the garden the night before his crucifixion, “Father, is there another way?” But when he receive his answer, he set forth boldly and looked toward the glory that he would receive by being obedient, he looked toward the gift of the Spirit he would bestow upon the church by his obedience and he looked toward the glory we all would share when he comes to complete his kingdom.
We may never experience that suffering. But we need to be aware that it is a possible part of following Jesus. We know that there are believers around the world who do not have the freedom to express their faith like we do here. How can we identify with them? When asked how we can help the persecuted church around the world, the first response is always, “Pray for us.”
Hebrews 13.3 - Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.