This morning we’re coming to the last of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are part of the sermon that Jesus preached in his famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began by pronouncing blessing on surprising categories of people, people we normally don’t think of as blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the spiritually hungry, and so on. Many of these Beatitudes jar us, but we’ve come to see their beauty and even welcome the upside-down nature of the kingdom of heaven that is breaking into this world through the ministry of Jesus Christ.
But today we come to the least favorite Beatitude of all. It’s a Beatitude that, if we’re honest, we don’t like to think about very long. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus said:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This past week I read that Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani faces imminent execution for charges of abandoning Islam and refusing to recant his Christian faith. The 34-year-old husband and father of two may now be executed at any moment without warning, according to a new and apparently final trial court verdict. Nadarkhani is now approaching 900 days separated from his wife, his two sons, and his church. And Jesus is saying that he is blessed?
Charlene and I once attended a meeting at our son’s school. The room was packed with parents. The topic was a contentious issue in which Christians are out of step with society. I wasn’t threatened with prison or overtly persecuted, but you could feel the tension in the room against anyone who would hold a view on the matter that was out of step with the prevailing view. I went home that night rattled, and I wouldn’t even call that persecution. Are we really blessed when this happens?
So I have some questions about this Beatitude, and you may too. My two main questions are this: What does Jesus mean? And how does this work? So let’s follow these questions and try to see if we can come up with some answers that make sense, before we consider how this can show up in our lives today.
So the first question is this: What does Jesus mean?
What does Jesus mean when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?
We should first look at what Jesus doesn’t mean.
Does anyone here have a bucket list? A bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. People have created lists with all kinds of goals: to own a Ferrari, to visit exotic locations, to parachute, and more. I read one person’s bucket list which included this unusual goal: “To fight off a bear,” followed by this comment, “That might end my bucket list for sure right there.”
So here’s what Jesus isn’t saying. He isn’t saying that we should add “experience persecution” to our bucket list. This is not a command from Jesus to go out and look for persecution. So rest easy: I will not be telling you to go out tomorrow and try to look for ways to be persecuted at work and at school. I won’t be telling you that unless your neighbors hate you, you’re obviously doing something wrong. That’s what he’s not saying.
But don’t get too comfortable, because this Beatitude hints at something that Jesus says repeatedly elsewhere: We may not aim to experience persecution, but those who are part of his kingdom will experience it. So don’t look for it, don’t aim to experience it, but know that it’s coming. Jesus said, for instance:
You will be hated by all for my name’s sake… (Matthew 10:22)
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The Apostle Paul later wrote:
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake… (Philippians 1:29)
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… (2 Timothy 3:12)
Jesus’ kingdom has arrived and is breaking into history here and now. As his kingdom breaks into this world, there is a clash of two kingdoms. And as those two kingdoms clash, members of Christ’s kingdom will inevitably get caught up in the clash.
We just finished watching The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy again. If you’ve ever watched the movies or read the books, you’ll remember that there is a clash of kingdoms between the dark lord Sauron and the hobbits and everyone else. There are some pretty spectacular battles as these rival kingdoms clash. At one point, Sam asks, “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” For Frodo and Sam to understand what’s happening to them, they have to understand the bigger picture, and that picture includes a clash of kingdoms.
The same thing applies to us. If you have come under the kingship of Jesus, you’ve fallen into a larger story. And that story is the story of a clash of kingdoms. So Jesus isn’t saying that we should go looking for persecution, but he says that we will experience it as citizens of his inbreaking kingdom.
In fact, Jesus gives us the reasons we’ll be persecuted. It will be for righteousness’ sake. But he also says that people will say false things about us. When persecuted, they probably won’t say, “I’m persecuting you because you are such a good, righteous person.” Early Christians were charged with being immoral, atheists, and enemies of the state. They were charged with being immoral because they kept talking about loving their brothers and sisters. They were charged with being atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods. They were charged with being enemies of the state because they said that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. None of the charges were true. When persecuted, the charge will always be something else. You won’t be charged with being righteous, but you may be accused of being intolerant or disloyal or not a team player.
This is actually an important part of what it means to be on mission. If you’re not on mission, you probably won’t be persecuted. You’re not persecuted for retreating from the world; you’re only persecuted as you engage it. Sri Lankan missionary Ajith Fernando said this a couple of years ago:
The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism?…Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and bear fruit.
This message is especially relevant for us as we think about God’s call to join him on mission. That mission entails suffering. The suffering may not be as severe as it is in other parts of the world, but it will happen. We may face rejection and hatred as we tell others about Jesus. We may be fired because we refuse to follow dishonest practices that are routine at work. We may face hostility because people think we’re intolerant. The more we are on mission, the more likely it is that we’ll experience persecution.
Jesus isn’t saying that we should go looking for persecution, but he is saying that we will experience it. And when we do, he’s saying that we can consider ourselves blessed. I love how N.T. Wright puts it: it’s a “summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future, because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus is saying we can live in line with his kingdom even when it leads to a clash with rival kingdoms, and we can consider ourselves blessed even when persecuted. That’s what he is saying: we can be blessed even when persecuted. That’s what it means.
This leads to my second question: How does this work?
I get the idea of what Jesus is saying. My real question is how this works. How is it possible to face suffering and persecution and to know that I’m blessed even as I’m persecuted? How is it possible to rejoice when people are persecuting me on his account?
Jesus tells us how. He says that we’re to think about two things.
First, think about what we have coming to us. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a marathon. One thing strikes me as I look at runners who are in the middle of a marathon: they don’t look happy. I’ve never seen a runner at the 20-mile mark of a marathon smiling. They just don’t look very happy. If you ask me, I probably look a lot happier on the sidelines sipping my Starbucks and eating a brownie. If you ask them why they are putting up with the obvious pain and the strenuous effort they’ll tell you: it’s because of what’s coming at the end. They’re going to experience something at the finish line that I never will. They will receive a medal. They’ll have their picture taken as they cross the finish line. And they’ll hear the applause that I’ll never hear as I don’t run.
That’s kind of the image that Jesus gives us. Why would anyone choose a life that could lead to being persecuted? Why would we put up with that when we could be kicking back now? It’s not because it looks fun. It’s because of payoff that’s coming at the finish line. You see, a runners aren’t smiling at the 20-mile mark, but they are at the finish line. The hope of what’s coming is what keeps them going.
The only way to find blessing even under persecution is to remember there’s something even more valuable than a persecution-free life. When we’re captivated by what we gain, we’ll know that we’re blessed even when we’re persecuted.
Let’s put it another way. A few years ago the first iPad came out. I thought I’d wait until it came to Canada but I gave up and drove to Buffalo to buy one. Three, actually, but that’s a longer story. I got my iPad home and absolutely loved it. If somebody said, “Would you give up your iPad?” I’d answer, “Absolutely not!” But then something happened. The second generation iPad came out. Suddenly I was willing to give up my iPad because something better than the iPad generation one came out. On March 7 this will be repeated again, because the rumor is that a third-generation iPad is coming out. I’m only willing to trade what I value when something of even greater value comes along.
That’s what Jesus is saying. There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t value comfort. If I came and asked you, “Are you willing to give up a persecution-free life?” not many of us would say, “Sure!” The only way to be willing to suffer is if we value something even more than we value our comfort. But when we give something up for the kingdom, we give nothing up at all.
It’s like if you had a million dollars in the bank, but you needed a 61¢ stamp, but you were too cheap to buy the stamp. That would be ridiculous. In this passage, it’s as if Jesus is comparing the persecution and suffering to the 61¢, but the payoff as enormous. You can’t compare the million dollars to the price of a stamp.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a leading physician in England who became a pastor. When we became a pastor he took a 90% cut in pay and took a big step down. Someone once asked him about the sacrifice he made to become a pastor. Lloyd-Jones said, “I gave up nothing; I received everything.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” Jesus tells us that we can rejoice when we’re suffering as we think about what we have coming to us.
Elisabeth Elliott, whose husband was martyred, said:
We have proved beyond any doubt that He means what He says–His grace is sufficient, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We pray that if any, anywhere, are fearing that the cost of discipleship is too great, that they may be given to glimpse that treasure in heaven promised to all who forsake.
So think about what you have coming to you. But there’s more. Jesus says to think of one more thing when we suffer:
Second, think of the company you’re keeping. Jesus says in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
At first glance, this sounds ridiculous. Jesus is saying that when we suffer, we should rejoice because we’re joining a long line of people who have suffered for the kingdom too. You too can be like them. Take the prophet Jeremiah. He was called the weeping prophet. He was shunned, rejected, imprisoned, beaten, and persecuted for fifty years. When he complained to God one time, God told him it would get worse. Tradition says that he was eventually stoned to death in Egypt. Jeremiah once said:
Why did I come out from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
Jesus says that when you’re persecuted, you can rejoice, because you’re joining a long line-up that includes people like Jeremiah. Jesus says we should rejoice because of this. How does this possibly work?
But I saw a picture recently that helped me understand it. Here it is:
Deck Hands Needed
Permanent Crew Space Available
Opportunity of a Lifetime
Who would sign up for this? I think I would. It reminded me of the quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton, from the advertisement he used when recruiting men for his expedition to Antarctica in 1914:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.
When you suffer, you are joining a long and growing list of people who have risked everything for Jesus. It’s a privilege for us to be counted in their number. We can join some of those that the writer to the Hebrews talks about:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:32-38)
We get to join the company of all those who have suffered for his name, including the 150,000 Christians who are martyred for their faith every year. We get to join people like the Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, and be counted in that number.
Listen to how this has worked itself out in practice. Listen to how people through history have been able to rejoice when experiencing persecution because they remembered the rewards and the company they were keeping.
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:41)
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:22-24)
Listen to some examples from history.
When a woman was taken out into the arena to be killed by the beasts, she said, “This is my day of coronation.”
In December 1666, Hugh MacHale was given four days to live and then marched back to the prison. On the way back to the prison he saw a friend and said, “Good news; wonderful good news! I am within four days of enjoying the sight of Jesus, my Savior!”
James Guthrie woke up in the condemned cell on the morning of his execution. His servant was weeping, and he said, “Stop that at once. This is the day that the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Listen to two example from recent history. Before he died a missionary named Jim Elliott said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Missionary Karen Watson went to Iraq and knew she might die. That’s why she left a letter with her pastor before going to Iraq. She went to provide humanitarian relief in the name of Jesus—but she was gunned down in the country she came to serve. The letter began, “You’re only reading this if I died.” It included gracious words to family and friends, and this simple summary of following Christ: “To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward.”
Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor, wrote to his congregation and said, “[The true believer] does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ’s suffering because the believer knows he will rejoice in [Christ’s] glory.”
All of these rejoiced as they suffered because they remembered their reward and the company they keep.
But I’ve left the best example for last this morning. That example is the one who spoke these words: Jesus. In fact, Jesus is the embodiment of all the Beatitudes. Jesus chose to leave his place of safety. He chose the path of suffering. He “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). When we see what Jesus did for us, we will know that it’s more than worth it to suffer for his sake.
I don’t wish suffering on anyone. I certainly don’t wish it for myself. But it is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, especially as we live on mission. It’s worth it because of what we’re going to receive, and because of the company we’re keeping when we suffer. And it’s worth it because Jesus was willing to suffer for us so that we could be part of his kingdom, a kingdom that will never end.