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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
 www.bethelurc.org
 
Preached At:Lynwood United Reformed Church
 Lynwood, IL
 www.lynwoodurc.org
 
Title:Persecution: An Unexpected Blessing
Text:Matthew 5:10-12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Persecution
 
Preached:2004-03-28
Added:2004-07-13
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

John 15: 18-25;
Matthew 5. 10-12
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the past several weeks we've been unpacking the meaning and significance of the beatitudes for our Christian life. The point has been made on several occasions, that these beatitudes are presented in very deliberate fashion. We begin at the bottom with a poor and lowly spirit, then we gradually built upward from there, with each subsequent beatitude being predicated on the one that has come before.

So in a sense, congregation, we can say that with each passing beatitude, we are making our way up the mountain, climbing higher and higher. We are growing in the grace and knowledge and righteousness of our Lord. We're discovering what it takes for us to be truly happy, truly blessed, and truly fulfilled, and we confess that such happiness and blessedness, such fulfillment cannot be enjoyed outside of a saving relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now this morning, as we reach the final beatitude, as we arrive at the crest, the summit of this mountain of sanctified living, we ought to have well within our sights the apex of the Christian life and experience. That which is the culmination of all the godly virtues of the Christian life ought to be coming into clear view.

But what do we see? Do we reach some final state of spiritual bliss? Do we attain inner peace or a state of enlightenment or superior knowledge as, is promised by so many false religions in the world? No, not exactly.

So what is the blessed state promised to those who live a godly, obedient, and faithful life? Believe it or not, it's persecution. Jesus says, that is what we can expect when we live a godly life. Persecution is the crowning feature of the happy life of a Christian. Jesus teaches us that genuine godliness generates hostility, antagonism and enmity within this world.


That's what we learn from this final beatitude. We learn that

Christ Promises Blessedness for Persecuted Believers.

1) The Reality of Persecution;
2) The Response to Persecution;
3) The Reward for Persecution.

1) The Reality of Persecution

Congregation, it was Jesus Himself who made the reality of persecution absolutely clear to His disciples. Earlier, in John 15, we read, No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (vs. 20). If the world hates you, keep in mind that is hated me first ( vs. 18).

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy of this same reality in II Tim. 3:12, In fact everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. The Apostle Paul relayed this same expectation to the believers in Thessalonica, saying that they were destined for certain trials, in fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted.

Why is this so? Why is persecution a reality for us Christians? Jesus already revealed the answer. It's because the world sees Christ in us. The Devil himself sees Christ alive within us-in our hearts and minds and actions, and so we can only expect the world to react to us the same way it did when Jesus was a man and walked the earth. The sinful people of this world hate Jesus Christ, and they will hate us, because we are in Christ, and He, by His Spirit, is in us.

So to live a life for Christ, to live a Christ-like life, to live a holy and righteous and pure life, to live a life free from the bondage to sin and the lusts of this world, is to live a life that is in direct opposition to Satan and to his evil and sinful system. So it makes sense, then, that Christ's likeness in us, will produce the same results as Christ's likeness did in the Apostle's; and in the lives of the saints in the early church, and in the lives of believers throughout history.

God's Word basically tells us that righteousness (by its very nature) is confrontational. It's not that 'righteousness' goes out and picks a fight with the world. It's more that the sight of righteousness offends the world. The sight of righteousness doesn't just put the world on the defensive; rather, it puts the world on the war path.

It's not like any of us have to intentionally go out into the world and get into people's faces to make ourselves a target of the world. If we live our lives in faith, if we abide by our calling to live our lives here in reverent fear, we can rest assured that confrontation will come to us. We will be found out for who we are, and we too will be persecuted for righteousness sake.

Consider Abel. Boys and girls, you know the story of Cain and Abel. The Bible tells us that Abel offered a more pleasing sacrifice to God. But it does not say that Abel flaunted that in his brother's face. It doesn't say that Abel rebuked his brother for the poor sacrifice that he offered. Yet, we know that Cain killed his brother, for no other reason than that Abel was a righteous man, who did the righteous thing. In fact, Hebrews 12: 4 says that by faith Abel was commended as a righteous man. Abel was the first example of someone persecuted for righteousness sake.

The Bible is full of instances where God's people were persecuted for righteousness sake. Hebrews 11 commends Moses, for he was raised in Pharaoh's own household, yet when grew up he refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. Instead, he chose to be mistreated along with the people of God, rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.

There's Joseph, Daniel and his 3 friends, there's Esther and Mordecai. That's just a few examples from the Old Testament. In the New Testament we think of John the Baptist, Jesus Himself, the Apostle Paul, Stephen, Peter, and many more.

The point is, wherever righteousness is clearly evident and visible, there will be persecution. That's the reality of life in Christ. This is not to say that persecution will be constant. Jesus was not under constant persecution. There were times in his life and ministry when he knew peace and even popularity with the people.

But faithful living brings with it the reality that eventually we will receive ridicule and face opposition from people in the world. What form does persecution take? Jesus (interestingly enough) freely expounds upon this particular beatitude, saying in verse 11 that it can take the form of verbal abuse: like scoffing, mocking, or insults; or persecution can take the form of physical abuse: like stoning, whipping, beating, or torture; and persecution can take the form of character abuse: like someone bringing false accusation against us, or lies and slander.

Now, don't think for a moment that it's mere coincidence that Jesus chose to expand upon this particular beatitude. Jesus was not one to waste words or needlessly repeat himself. I suggest that Jesus expanded upon this beatitude, because persecution is a frightening reality for all of us, but also because Jesus was making an allusion to his own sufferings He would endure.

First off, notice how he makes this personal to the people. In vv. 11-12, Jesus changes the way he addresses the crowd. In vs. 10, he says Blessed are 'those' who are persecuted, which can be taken as 'someone other than us'. That's what happens to Christians over there in Communist China where Christianity is outlawed. That's what happened to a Baptist missionary in the Middle East just two weeks ago. He was shot and killed because of his faith.

First off, notice how he makes this personal to the people. In vv. 11-12, Jesus changes the way he addresses the crowd. In vs. 10, he says Blessed are 'those' who are persecuted, which can be taken as 'someone other than us'. That's what happens to Christians over there in Communist China where Christianity is outlawed. That's what happened to a Baptist missionary in the Middle East just two weeks ago. He was shot and killed because of his faith.

So Jesus was making His followers aware that they would suffer, but a case could be made that He was also making the people aware that He would suffer. Look at verse 11. Is there anything particularly significant about the three forms of persecution Jesus mentions--Verbal abuse, physical abuse, and character abuse? Is that not an exact summary of the suffering and persecution that Jesus endured at the hands of His captors?

Character Abuse: The Bible tells us that false witnesses were brought in to testify against Jesus. Matt. 26. 59-60: the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.

Verbal Abuse: Matt. 27. 39ff (Jesus on the cross): Those who passed by hurled their insults at him, shaking their heads & saying, 'You who are going to destroy the temple & build it in thee days, save yourself. Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God!'

Physical Abuse: Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus admitted to being the Son of God, so they accused him of blasphemy, and Matt. 26. 67 states: they spit in His face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, 'Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you.

After that Jesus was brought to Pilate where Roman soldiers crowned him with a crown of thorns, beat him upon his head with wooden rods, and scourged with vicious Roman whips which laid open the flesh. Finally, he was led to Golgatha and hung upon a cross until death.

So you see, when Jesus spoke about persecution, He was not talking theoretically. He knew that suffering and persecution was real. He knew what suffering lay before Him. He also knew that His Father would give Him the strength to endure all that the world would bring against Him.

Jesus knew that even though persecution was a reality, in the end, there was victory! That same comfort is ours beloved, even as we were destined to face insults, and beatings, and false accusation-we know that because of the persecution which Christ endured for our sins, we can stand strong and endure even to death itself, the world can bring no accusation against us, nor can the world ever take that victory from us.

2) The Response to Persecution

But now, congregation, an important question is raised, and it is this: How are we to respond to this reality? What is our Response to Persecution? That is our second point this morning. For many Christians, the prospect of persecution arouses within us great fear. We fear for our life, for our own well-being, for the well-being and future of our family, our children.

That's natural. That's not necessarily a sinful response, unless it leads us as a church to do everything we can to escape persecution, to avoid it at any and all costs by hiding by burying our head in the sand, by disappearing from the world's view altogether, closing ourselves off from the world by living in a closed community.

Now, it's certainly appropriate for Christians to flee from those who are persecuting them. There's nothing here that says Christians need to go out and look for persecution or eagerly invite it into our lives. But by looking ahead to verses 13-16, we see that the church's option of running and hiding is altogether ruled out.

When our Christian forebears in the Netherlands were being persecuted, they came to this continent for safety and religious freedom. They were not unfaithful in leaving their homelands. They did not seek to disappear from the world, or hide their identity in the new world. No. They established churches in the communities in which they lived. They let their light shine.

Another possible and popular response to persecution is to blend-in with the world. Some of us Christians are so afraid of persecution that, to avoid the pain, embarrassment, and ridicule, we acclimate ourselves to the world's ways, we adapt to the world's way of doing things. We avoid being singled out as a righteous person, by living like, talking like, acting like, looking like, and thinking like the world.

We avoid persecution when we adopt the world's standards, when we keep quiet about the Gospel, when we shy away from telling our neighbors that apart from true faith in Jesus Christ there is no salvation, or we're content to simply go along with the world's agenda in our nation's politics, and fail to let our voice be heard on important issues.

We can avoid persecution by simply laughing at the world's jokes, by enjoying most of the filth that passes for entertainment today, or by merely smiling when our God or our Christ is mocked or when His name is taken in vain. We can avoid temptation when we are too ashamed or afraid to speak up for the cause of Christ.

Again, that is actually a very popular response among Christians, but sadly, it's one in which we wind up hiding our faces from Christ, denying His righteousness within us, and we fail to let out light shine before men. That is not the response Christ calls us to.

Rather, as verse 12 makes clear, our response to persecution is to be one of rejoicing! Rejoice and be glad. That word rejoice is spoken as an imperative. In other words, it is a command, not a suggestion. When we are faced with persecution, we are commanded by Christ to rejoice and be exceedingly glad. Christ gives us two reasons why we must rejoice.

The first is tied to our reward in heaven, which we will talk about momentarily. But the second reason has to do with those who've endured persecution before. Rejoice, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We can rejoice, because we know that we have joined the rank and file of those who've stood in opposition to the world. As we read about the prophets from Hebrews 11: 36-38, some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, ; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins destitute and mistreated-the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts, in caves, in mountains, and in holes in the ground.

Perhaps someone here might be saying to himself, why would I ever rejoice over that, much less willingly succumb to it. If that is what it means to be a Christian, if that is what it takes to bear the name of Christ, then someone stop the bus, I want to get off. I am not so eager to join the heroes of the faith, if it means following them in their suffering and death.

Certainly, beloved, the sentiments of fear, doubt, worry and dread over persecution linger in every believer's heart. I have no doubt that the believers of the early church persecuted under Emperor Nero were extremely fearful at the prospect of being covered in pitch (tar) and hung up high on poles to be used as a human torches to light the road.

I have no doubt that Christians in Rome were terrified at the prospect of being torn to pieces by ferocious lions on the floor of the Roman Coliseum. I'm sure that the Reformers like John Huss who was tied to a stake and burned alive experienced fear and terror. It's not like we Christians are given super human power to stare death in the face and smile.

Death is our last enemy, and having to endure pain and suffering is never a pleasant thought. Yet, the command Christ gives us helps to steel us for the final battle, and for each battle which leads up to that. We can rejoice, because we know that our suffering is not naught. We rejoice, because we know that we are suffering for Christ, for His sake, for His name.

Remember how Peter and John were flogged (whipped), because they refused to cease teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus? Acts 5. 40 says that after receiving their flogging at the hand of the Sanhedrin, they rejoiced exceedingly (the same word found in Matt. 5.12), because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name!

You see, we can rejoice when we are persecuted, because we know that it is certifiable proof that others have seen Christ in us. One commentator wrote that persecution is one of the surest and most tangible evidences of salvation. Our assurance that we belong to Christ, the assurance that His righteousness dwells in us, (and is evident to others), that assurance is not found in a decision we made for Christ somewhere in the past. No, that assurance is found in the life of righteousness we live every day, every moment. It is found in the life of righteousness that results in suffering for the sake of Christ.

The Bible says that many people claim to know Christ. Many claim to preach in Christ's Name, and heal in His Name, and cast out demons. Yet many of those people will be denied entrance to heaven because the lacked true faith. But no one who suffers for righteousness sake will be denied. That is the ultimate test, the ultimate proof of our faith and trust in the Lord.

3) The Reward for Persecution:

Congregation, that brings us right to the third and final point of this passage: the reward for persecution. This is the other reason that we can respond to persecution with rejoicing, because we have our minds, hearts, and souls set on the reward that awaits us in heaven.

After all, just listen to what Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit says to us in II Corinthians 4. 17. Here's the context: He has just chronicled how he and his fellow apostles are hard pressed on every side; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Then he says of all these adversities, Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all! So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen, is eternal.

Paul's ability to keep his perspective, to keep his eyes fixed on the treasure and reward of eternal life, gave him the strength to face and endure hardship and suffering. This echoes what he wrote in Romans 8: 18, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us!

We can endure earthly suffering and persecution, because for us, it is only temporary. Jesus Christ saw to that, by His own suffering and death and resurrection. He assured us that our lives are already hidden with Him in glory-no one can ever take from us our treasure.

The story is told of John Chrysostom, a 4th century church leader who so fearlessly preached against sin that he offended the emperor. So the emperor threatened him with banishment. But Chrysostom said, Sir you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father's house.

Then he was told he would be killed. To which he responded, Nay, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God. Next he was told, Then your treasures will be confiscated. To which John replied, Sire, that cannot be either. My treasures are in heaven, where none cam break through and steal.

The final desperate warning was made: Then I will drive you from man, and you will have no friends left! Chrysostom replied, That you cannot do either, for I have Friend in heaven who has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you. Chrysostom was eventually banished and his earthly pilgrimage ended soon thereafter. But his death did not disprove his claims nor call into question his confidence. The things he valued highly, the emperor could not take from him!

That is the eternal perspective we need. We have to prioritize our life accordingly. When we are faced with the prospect of being imprisoned for our faith, or losing our possessions because of our faith, or losing our employment, or our status in the company; or when we face the prospect of losing popularity with friends, or of being 'on the outs' with our old buddies who still like to get high, or drunk, or get into other trouble.

Then we merely have to call to mind what God's Word says about our lives being hidden in Christ Jesus, and the eternal reward he promises us--and then ask ourselves, 'What am I living for anyway'? 'Where does my treasure lie'? 'What am I so afraid of'? 'Will I let these momentary troubles take my heart and eyes off the reward God has in store for me for all eternity'? 'Am I willing to trade in my eternal reward just to get along easier in this life'?

What if Christ had taken that approach to His sufferings? What if Jesus decided that it would be a lot easier to blend in with the world and not be so righteous and confrontational? Where would our treasure be then? Without the righteousness of Jesus Christ, there would have been so suffering and persecution, no satisfaction for our sin, and we, as well as all men would be lost in our sin, and most miserable.

But Jesus Christ, for the glory set before Him, let His righteousness shine forth. And He was crucified because of it, so that our sins might be paid for in full, and that our lives might be securely hidden with Him in glory. So the lives that we live here on earth, these bodies of flesh and bone, they are expendable. They are not to be valued or treasured above all else.

We are called to 'offer our backs to stripes, our tongues to knives, our mouths to gags, and our whole bodies to the fire, rather than deny the truth of God's Word--rather than deny our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Beloved, Christ Promises Blessedness for Persecuted Believers. He has told us that Persecution is a reality for us, He has told us what our Response to Persecution should be; and He has told us about our Reward for Persecution. In His grace, He has given us all we need to endure, to persevere, to be faithful to the very end.

And we have the blessed promise of knowing that the end of this life, is but the beginning of our eternal reward. I close with these words from Revelation 6: 9-11, which testifies to the fact that persecution has an end times perspective:

"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been, was completed."

Just a little while longer beloved, just a few more martyrs for the cause of Christ, and then He will return. Are you ready and willing to give your life, if need be, for Christ? Are you ready to rejoice at the sight of your sufferings? Are you Christ-like enough to be persecuted? Then rejoice, for great is your reward in heaven. Amen.



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2004, Pastor Keith Davis

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