Saturday, August 15, 2009

Blessed are the Persecuted?

Ever noticed how often what we say, even as Christians and what Jesus said are often so at odds. This is especially true as we consider the topic of persecution.

Isn't it ironic that whereas the early Christians expressed gratitude for the privilege of suffering for Christ, we often thank God for the privilege of not suffering for Him? We say that we are blessed for living in a country where we are not being persecuted. Yet, we fail to reconcile this with that Jesus said in Matthew 5 when He declared that blessed are those who are persecuted. It is the persecuted who gain the kingdom of heaven.

These latter words appear, of course, in Jesus' teaching of the disciples in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. He begins his teaching by listing characteristics that will be developed in His disciples - characteristics that society sees as weaknesses but which He says are signs of God's blessing, traits that people should be congratulated for possessing. When a man or woman accepts the demands of God's kingdom, having bowed before Jesus Christ and acknowledged Him as Lord, these characteristics begin to be developed. All true followers of Jesus possess them to a certain degree, and the call of Christ is to embrace them even deeper.

There is a call to exhibit these characteristics in the rest of the "sermon," but the Beatitudes are addressed to those who already are these things in some way. Jesus is speaking to those who have surrendered all by deciding to follow Him. In a sense one could say that these characteristics are the fruits of true repentance. All Christians are to be like these, not just mature or exceptional ones. These traits draw a line between those who are in the kingdom and those who are not.

Unfortunately, the Beatitudes are so familiar to many of us that I suspect they have lost their intended impact for many of us. We do not feel the sting that the early listeners must have felt when Jesus calls "blessed" those whom the world calls unfortunate or even cursed. He congratulates those whom the world would pity. He encourages attitudes and conduct that the world would discourage-the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Now, conceivably, we might be able to see positive aspects to each of these first seven attitudes. But in verse 10, Jesus calls "blessed" those whom I would suspect almost no one would consider blessed - those who suffer for doing what is right.
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. (Matthew 5:10-12)

In order to gain Jesus' perspective on the blessedness of persecution, it is essential that we understand what He is teaching in this central passage. Five principles regarding persecution stand out from this passage:

1. The most basic, but not to be overlooked, principle is that this suffering is "on my account." It is for Christ's cause. Men and women suffer in His service, for the fulfillment of His purposes in the world, because of their allegiance to His priorities and standards. Ultimately, God's people do not suffer for their faith; they suffer for Him.

2. Jesus directs their attention to the fate of the prophets, God's messengers in past generations. He means to instruct the disciples that they, like Him, are in the line of the prophets, in that they are God's messengers to the world of their time. They have been chosen specifically for this purpose - to be sent to preach God's message given to them by Jesus, just as He was. After Jesus was killed, they would take His place and continue His ministry. In Matthew 16, Jesus will shock them with the assertion that in order to accomplish the purposes of God, it was necessary for Him and for all who follow after Him to take up crosses. Suffering, sacrifice, and rejection are the norm for those who truly serve as God's messengers. Christ's cross will provide the means of salvation; the disciple's cross will provide the means by which this salvation is taken to the world. Christ's cross is for propitiation; the disciple's cross is for propagation. Both crosses are needed if the message of the kingdom is to be taken into a world in rebellion to its Creator.

3. The disciples are not only to stoically accept the evil done to them by others, but they are to rejoice and be glad. Later in verses 39,44,45, they are instructed to love those who persecute them. As witnesses, their role was to bring the persecutors to God and to salvation. The persecuted are to be in service to those who cause them the suffering. Just as the Father gives light and rain to those who revile Him and refuse to love Him, so are His children to bring blessings to those who curse them, seeking the good for those who seek only to do them harm.

4. There are tremendous past, present, and future promises that the persecuted can lay hold of. In verse 10, persecuted disciples are assured that they are possessors of the kingdom of heaven, just as the "poor in spirit" were (verse 3). The parallel between the two is not accidental. The "poor in spirit" are those to whom the message of the gospel has been preached by the Servant of God (see Isaiah 61:1).

In turn, like the Servant, they have been rejected and despised because they have taken up the Servant's mission: to proclaim the gospel to all nations. They have therefore become possessors of the kingdom of heaven, partakers in a sovereignty ruled by God. This kingdom is already partially present, experienced in part by those who, by faith, have submitted to God's kingly rule over their lives. Its final culmination is still in the future and it is that which the disciples anticipate. In the present, however, they experience ridicule, persecution, and slander (verse 11), as they actively seek to bring others into the kingdom. The additional promise of verse 12 differs from those in the preceding Beatitudes in that it is much more complex. The promise to the persecuted in verse 12 is declared in two causal clauses. The first looks forward to the reward in heaven; the second looks back to the pattern of suffering experienced by the prophets in God's redemptive plan. Disciples are assured that that they will be rewarded in heaven for their service for God. There is hope of better things because of the coming kingdom of God. They are also assured, as we noted earlier, that suffering for the sake of the kingdom is not unusual; indeed, it is the experience of all of God's messengers. The persecuted stand in good company and can be assured that God is present in their ministry. Because of these future and past promises, they can rejoice in the present (verse 12).

5. Persecution will be inevitable. The language used here depicts a situation where persecution is the expected norm for those who choose to follow Him. Jesus wants His disciples to understand right from the start that the path of Christ is not always an easy one. It is the right path, however, even though the world will sometimes move beyond ridicule, misunderstanding, and denunciation to violent rejection - seeking not only to silence the message of the gospel, but to remove the very presence of the messenger.


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