Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Persecution
No one enjoys being picked on. Some of us remember a time when we were scrawny, awkward, or just plain unpopular. We hated those days. We became targets for the bullies of life. As a result the last beatitude is one that is very difficult to embrace.
We are told that those who are persecuted for being a Christian will be blessed. In fact Jesus implies that we should view persecution as a natural course. Listen to Jesus and the apostles,
20 Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. (John 15:20)
12 Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. 13 Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. (1 Peter 4:12)
12 Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12)
28 Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. 29 For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. (Philippians 1:28,29)
The point seems to be this: when we apply the other Beatitudes to our life; when we live truly like a Christ-follower, we will become a target to the rest of the world. And to this reality Jesus said,
10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way. 
Why Should we Anticipate Persecution?
It would be helpful to point out two things. First, Jesus is not saying that persecution is good. It is not! It is barbaric. There is nothing wonderful about persecution itself. We are not Happy about the persecution.
Second, we need to listen carefully to the words. These words are directed to a particular kind of persecution. This is a persecution for doing what is right; it is a persecution of those who are truly following Christ. There is a certain behavior here that is the focus of the blessing. It is given to those who have given their heart and their lives to the Lord.
Pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,
It does not say, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are objectionable.” It does not say, “Blessed are those who are having a hard time in their Christian life because they are difficult.’ It does not say, “Blessed are those who are being persecuted as Christians because they are seriously lacking in wisdom and are really foolish and unwise in what they regard as being their testimony.” . . .we are slow to realize the difference between prejudice and principle; and we are so slow to understand the difference between being offensive, in a natural sense, because of our particular make-up and temperament and causing offence because we are righteous. (Sermon on the Mount p.130)
Unfortunately there are many people who claim this promise when the reason they are being persecuted is because they are offensive and abusive themselves! The most blatant example of this is the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka KS.
This is the church that made national news by burning a pile of Korans on their property. Lately they have been protesting at the funerals of soldiers because they believe these funerals are God’s punishment for the rise of homosexuality in our country. They protest using hateful signs claiming they are preaching the doctrines of grace to everyone.
These folks are being persecuted because they are mean and hateful. They are actually doing harm to the message of the gospel because this is the picture people have of Christians who oppose gay marriage. They are doing more harm than good and I can’t imagine God is pleased with what they are doing.
If you are persecuted because you are offensive, abusive, unloving, or obnoxious . .the reason you are being persecuted is because you ASKED for it. You cannot ignore the other beatitudes and then hide behind the 8th beatitude. This is a package deal!
Jesus is saying: “If you are living by the first 7 beatitudes you face a good chance that the society is going to hate you.” But why?
Why does society hate a practicing Christ follower? First, though it is not an explanation, people hated Jesus and the world has not changed near as much as people think it has. In addition to Jesus, Abel, Joseph, Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, David, Jeremiah and all the apostles were persecuted.
Second we will be hated because we serve as light in the darkness. The next section of the Sermon on the Mount will exhort us to be light in the world. However, there is a problem with being light in the darkness . . . the darkness doesn’t like it!
When we live the way God has called us to live we expose (by contrast) the sinful and empty lives of those around us. People don’t like their sin exposed. People seem happiest when they can go along in life in the belief that everything is going just fine and they are as good (or better) as the people around them.
Third, the message of grace, though wonderful to those who receive it, is offensive to others. The message of the Gospel goes against the message of society.
- Popular Culture says people are basically good; the Gospel says, “there is no one who does good, not even one.”
- Society says “You earn your way to Heaven by doing good deeds”, The gospel says there is nothing you can do to bring about your own salvation. We have to depend on the work of Jesus.
- Society says, “Many roads lead to Heaven” but the Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me”.
- Society says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere”. And the Bible says the most important law is this: “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, all you mind, all your soul” Loving anything else is idolatry.
- Society says you only live once in life so you should get what you can before it is over. The Bible says, “It is appointed to men once to die and then to face Judgment”.
- Society Says: “You have to look out for number 1!” The Bible says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” Philippians 2:3-4 There is a disagreement as to who “Number 1” is.
- Society says, “Don’t get mad, get even!” Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. (Matthew 5:39-40)
Christians are swimming against the stream of the world. We are different.
Do you remember what happened back in school (and it sadly carries over into adulthood) when someone different came into the group? Often those people are treated shamefully, simply because they are “not like the others”. I don’t know why we do that. Do we somehow feel threatened? Or are we just plain mean?
Persecution for our faith could take many different forms. As we know, some Christians are killed around the world simply because of their refusal to deny Christ. There is an increasing number of people being singled out in our own country who are murdered because of their faith. Others are passed over for promotions on the job because of their Christian beliefs. Some are “downsized” because of their faith, not their job performance. Some are fired from teaching positions because they believe the Bible over popular theories. Some are picketed or sued because they will not embrace the values of the world around us. Persecution for righteousness sake can come in many forms.
How to Respond to Persecution
The Bible then seems to concede that persecution in some form is a byproduct of living for Jesus. So here is what Jesus says to those who are persecuted,
11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.
This does not come naturally. I tend to want to respond to hostility with hostility. I would at least have a few well-chosen words to share with people.
Lloyd-Jones points out that there are some ways we are NOT to respond.
- Must not retaliate. Jesus says this in the Sermon on the Mount and if we learn anything from Jesus and some of the great martyrs of the faith retaliation is not part of a faithful response.
- Must not feel resentment. We understand why we are being persecuted and we were warned that it was coming. We have nothing to resent. It is not really us that is being persecuted it is what is seen of Jesus IN us.
- We must not be depressed by the persecution. As we see, we are told the exact opposite response should be given. God sees our situation. He gives us strength for the hard times if we will but trust Him.
Jesus says we should be glad and happy when we are persecuted for righteousness sake, but why?
As I said earlier the Lord is not telling us to rejoice at the act of persecution; the lying, the mocking, or the evil things spoken about and against you. These things are evil. We should mourn the wickedness of men. People who bully other people are not to be celebrated.
However, we do rejoice over godly persecution because it means people see the character of Jesus in us. If we are being persecuted because we are the followers of Jesus it says something wonderful about us: We are reflecting our Savior through our lives.
Second, we rejoice because there is great reward for faithful followers. In the Book of Revelation we are told that special honor is given to those who die in the Great Tribulation.
The Bible talks a great deal about rewards. We are told we will have a great inheritance, that we will be co-heirs with Christ, and that martyrs will receive special honor. But what, we ask, are these rewards?
The first answer to that question is one parents say to their children when they want to know what they are getting for Christmas: “If I told you now, it would spoil the surprise!”
Do we really need to know what the reward is? What we do know is that it will be given by the One who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Knowing who is giving the gift should be enough to excite us.
I have an idea of what that reward will be. We find a clue, I think in Revelation 7. We are introduced to the martyrs who are now dressed in white. And this is what we read,
Then he said to me, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.
15 “That is why they stand in front of God’s throne
and serve him day and night in his Temple.
And he who sits on the throne
will give them shelter.
16 They will never again be hungry or thirsty;
they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun.
17 For the Lamb on the throne
will be their Shepherd.
He will lead them to springs of life-giving water.
And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14-17)
It’s that last part that seems to me to be an incredible reward: shelter, never hungry or thirsty, and having the Lord wipe away all our tears. How could it be better than that? Perhaps in only one way: if it also includes our Lord and Savior looking us in the eyes and saying, Well Done, my good and faithful servant.” We know how great it is to hear a well done from a friend or family member. As a child there was nothing that meant more than hearing your parent say, “Well done, I am proud of you.” If we could hear those words from Jesus . . . I don’t believe there could be a greater reward than this.
A story is told about Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, a Hasidic leader during the early days of Russian communism. The rabbi spent much time in jail, persecuted for his faith. One morning in 1927, as he prayed in a Leningrad synagogue, secret police rushed in and arrested him. They took him to a police station and worked him over, demanding that he give up his religious activities. He refused. The interrogator brandished a gun in his face and said, “This little toy has made many a man change his mind.” Rabbi Schneerson answered, “This little toy can intimidate only that kind of man who has many gods and but one world. Because I have only one God and two worlds, I am not impressed by this little toy.” (Philip Yancey! Grace Notes Feb 1)
This passage is not telling us to go out and seek persecution. It tells us to expect it and to not shrink from it, but we don’t need to seek it.
The passage does raise a difficult question: If those who resemble Jesus are going to be persecuted, and if we are not being persecuted, then it begs the question: Are we living in a way that resembles Jesus? Are we merely being treated mercifully for a period or do people not see Jesus in us?
Christians have avoided persecution for many centuries by simply conforming to the world around them. When we are like the rest of the world there is no reason to persecute us. We are then swimming in the same direction. There is no longer anything strange about us.
Here is the question that haunts me: If we have conformed to the world, are we really true believers at all?
Is this what has happened to us? Have we so blended with the world around us that we no longer show a significant difference from the world? Could it be that God is sending persecution our way to get us to pick a side? Are we lukewarm so that we can simply continue to straddle the fence?
Our challenge is to live our lives as closely to Jesus as possible. Though living like Christ may make us a target. It also will give us a platform to be used by God. And when God is using us . . . whew! Anything can happen. You never know, it just might change the world.