Part 14 Persecuted for all the right reasons. Part One.
I have a friend with whom I talk by phone every week. At least we try to, but occasionally the busyness of life, church (he is a pastor too) and other commitments will cause us to cancel our weekly talk. On these occasions, he will e-mail me and say “Sorry, no call this week, OBE.” OBE is his acronym for “overcome by events.”
We have been studying the Beatitudes together in these blog posts since July 2016. But OBE, I haven’t written a weekly post since just before Christmas. I have thought about the need to finish this study nearly every week, but OBE, I haven’t. So now, I intend to do something about it. Let’s look together at the eighth and final Beatitude from Jesus, found in Matthew 5, vss. 10 and 11 where He says: “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 last “blessed are” or Beatitude, a word that means ‘favored by God’ is as surprising as the others. Those who are blessed by God are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. They will inherit the kingdom of heaven. This is not what we would normally expect. It is not the popular or powerful; it is the oppressed and outcasts of society who, as they diligently follow Christ and are persecuted for it, who will be blessed. Jesus says that persecution is as much a mark of the Christian as is purity of heart, being merciful, or being a peacemaker. The Apostle Paul explains this to Timothy in his letter of encouragement: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12, ESV).
Most of us will not be particularly thrilled about this news. Reviled is a term that means to be insulted. Persecute is a term that describes what happens when reviling turns to action. Living life when people are speaking evil about us to stir up hatred against us is not an appealing prospect, but Jesus says that when that happens to us, we are blessed and ought to rejoice and be glad in it. How can we do this?
The only way we can is if we have a different view of life. When we understand and believe that this world and all that is in it is not our home, but instead, we look forward to the promise that we will see God and live forever in His kingdom, then we are strengthened to face what may come because our motivation is different. Being on of God’s children, our hearts are set on eternity, not the things of this world. We are seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness, not the rewards of this world which are passing away. We look to the things unseen which are more real than the things seen in this world. It’s a completely different motivation that drives us, and because it is, we can stand in the face of persecution in this world that rejects God.
When our hearts are set on eternity, the persecution in this world we may face doesn’t much matter. As Luther writes in his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we can let “goods and kindred go” because “God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.” So, with this perspective, let’s look more closely at Jesus’ words.
Why are the disciples of Christ persecuted? Let’s begin by understanding what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying that we are blessed by suffering for the sake of unrighteousness. Christians can suffer for poor decisions, either before or after being saved that can result in self-inflicted suffering. A sinful habit, a DUI arrest, an indictment or conviction of a felony crime, a damaged or lost relationship; all of the consequences of these or other poor decisions can continue to haunt a Christians for many years. That is not the kind of suffering that Jesus is speaking about in verse 10. There is no virtue in suffering as a murderer or as a gossip and meddler. While Christians are forgiven, the consequences of poor decisions can continue to cause suffering.
What Jesus is saying is that the suffering that is ‘blessed’ and rewarded is that which comes from and is endured for the sake of true righteousness.
Jesus is also not saying that blessings come to those who are persecuted for their self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is when we act prideful, when we display a judgmental attitude toward others, or lack tact or sensitivity in what we say. People will push back against those who act in like that and the suffering that results is not the suffering that is ‘blessed.’ In the same way as self-righteousness, non-righteousness in the form on non-conformity is also not blessed. When people reject the societal standards of morality and civility and imagine they are taking a stand for individual expression or freedom to be who they want to be, they are acting in non-righteous ways. When the eyebrows are raised against the way they speak, dress or act, it’s not persecution for righteousness, it’s persecution for being uncivil. Jesus says that is not what God blesses.
So, if these are not the forms of ‘righteousness’ that Jesus says God will bless, what are those things that are righteous that can cause the persecution that leads to God’s blessing? We’ll save that answer for next week.