#8: Blessed are the Persecuted…” Matthew 5:10-12 & John 15:18-20a, 16:1-3 (NIV)

Well, we have finally reached the conclusion of the Beatitudes of Jesus! Throughout our study of these sayings of Jesus, we have imagined that the “door that leads to blessedness” is secured with eight locks. In the first seven beatitudes of Jesus, we discover keys that fit the locks, and yet even then the door remains secured. The final lock is the most difficult to open. This morning at last we have within our reach that eighth and final key that can open the door to the blessed life.

The first seven beatitudes actually represent attributes of the Christian character: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. These together make up the ideal of the Christian life we all strive to achieve. Now, in the eighth beatitude, Jesus tells us what we can expect from the world if we live as “beatitude people,” successful in living-out the other seven.

You’d think the world would rejoice to have such wonderful, upright, noble people in it. If you are able to live according to these teachings of Jesus, surely everyone will like and respect you, right? WRONG! No, the exact opposite is true: When you live by these rules of heaven (these “beatitudes”), the world will NOT love you – it will hate you! That’s what our first scripture lesson from John makes clear!

Jesus can never be accused of false advertising! He doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t sugar-coat it. He tells it like it is: “If you live by my beatitudes,” Jesus tell us, “persecution IS going to come your way. You can count on it!”

And just in case we didn’t get this point, in Matthew, chapter ten, Jesus says this to his followers: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… Brother will betray brother to death… and you will be hated by all because of my name… Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Let there be no mistake about it: Over and over, Jesus makes it very clear. Following him means following a crucified Savior with stripes on his back and nail holes in his hands and feet. And those who would choose to follow him must be prepared to take up their own cross as well. That is the price of living the Christ-like life. Paul, who was no stranger to persecution himself, summarized it well when he wrote to Timothy: (2 Tim. 3:12) “All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

You and I are fortunate, indeed, to have grown up in a country and a time in history when persecution has not been a big issue. But it was a huge issue for the first generations of believers. They knew that accepting Christ would mean hardship, torture, and maybe even death.

Even under the best of circumstances, it wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the ancient world. It impacted all areas of life: their professional life (should Christians do business with non-Christians?); in their social life (what should you as a Christian do when you’re are invited to attend a feast offered at one of the pagan temples), and their home life (many homes were divided, one member was a believer, the rest not – often the Christian was disowned, cut off from the family forever). You and I today can identify somewhat with those early Christians. Christians in the business world today have very hard decisions to make about what is ethical and moral; Non-believing friends tempt us to compromise our beliefs so that we might “fit in” with the crowd; Even our homes can become battle-grounds for our faith.

But that wasn’t the worst of it for the first Christians: Those “persecutions” were mild compared to what many believers suffered. Thousands were tortured and killed for one reason, and one reason only: These followers of Jesus refused to renounce their faith in Christ.

Rome controlled all the known world, and ruled over diverse and far-flung peoples. And they used the pagan Roman religion as a tool to try to impose some form of unity on the empire – sort of a “common denominator” or a glue to hold the empire together. In the time of the Early Church, Caesar himself was considered a god. Once per year, everyone in the empire was required to make a sacrificial offering to the emperor and to say the words, “Caesar is lord.” Of course, Christians refused, because for them, only Jesus is Lord. Therefore the government accused them of treason for putting loyalty to Christ above loyalty to Caesar. The Romans executed Christians by the thousands, in horribly gruesome ways – too gruesome to describe here.

But persecution isn’t something that stopped centuries ago – That certainly isn’t news to anyone one here this morning. As we see on our TV screens over and over, there are many Christians around the world today, and even right here in America, who are still suffering persecution – even death – for their faith. We all have seared in our memories the horrific pictures of our Christian brothers and sisters suffering at the hands of ISIS – the Islamic State – as ISIS resorts to barbarism as they slaughter Christians.

Fortunately, you and I do not suffer severe persecution for our faith. In fact, for the most part you’d be hard-pressed to find real persecution in America – the recent complaints raised by some believers in the US are trivial by comparison. We complain that people say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, and we call it persecution. Some people force monuments to the Ten Commandment from court house grounds, and we say it’s persecution. It is no longer possible to offer prayer at football games or city council meetings, and we scream persecution. Trivial stuff, by comparison.

For most of us, “persecution” only means name-calling and ridicule, being the brunt of bad jokes, maybe losing a client or a friend, – and from time to time, some minor discrimination.

Now, I’m not saying that being a Christian in America is easy, or that it isn’t getting more and more challenging. But, we should thank God every day that we are blessed to live in such a country as the United States of America, where we have the right of freedom of religion!

Sadly, the truth is that the rates of persecution against followers of Christ are on the rise all around the world, and even right here at home.

One website reports that today the world is more anti-Christian than at any period since the first century. In fact, it is estimated that every five minutes, one Christian dies for his or her faith! That means that in this hour of worship, 12 Christians around the world will be martyred for their faith in Jesus.

I’m afraid that a time is coming when our faith will be put the test and we will be given the opportunity to take a stand for Christ – and pay a price for our faith. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. If it happens, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Jesus DID tell us that persecution is part of discipleship, and he has never been wrong before.

So, in this beatitude, Jesus tells us to expect persecution. But he also tells us that persecution is a good thing! “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad!”

Rejoice and be glad? In the midst of persecution! Does that make sense? How can persecution ever be a good thing?

Scripture reminds us that God can make anything, even the worst experiences of our lives, into “good things.” In Romans, Paul puts it like this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). He can take any situation, no matter how tragic, and use it for his glory and purposes.

As I see it, there are four ways persecution can be a “good thing” – can have a positive effect:

1) First of all, persecution takes our eyes off the world, and focuses on eternity.

In the early church, there are countless stories of people of faith who, when faced with persecution and even death, did so without hesitation or fear. It’s as if they knew that they were part of God’s larger plan; that by dying for Christ, they were not losing, but winning, sharing the ultimate victory of God.

As Paul wrote in Romans (8:35-37): “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

When you or I face persecution (even in small ways) and feel discouraged, we need to remember that we are children of God, and that no matter what happens to us, we are eternally in his care. So long as we focus on the face of Christ, we can withstand anything the world throws at us. As the song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” So, first of all, persecution is “good” because it helps us to focus on God’s Eternal Promises.

2) Secondly, persecution separates the true believers from the superficial ones.

I sometime get catalogues geared for younger men (believe it or not, I used to be one), with people wearing trendy clothes and jewelry, including lots of crosses. Many people, both men and women, wear a cross as an ornament, a decoration, what younger people than I now refer to a “bling.” Most people have no clue that to wear a cross means that we would be willing to die, rather than disgrace or deny Christ. I’m sure that most people who wear a cross as decoration wouldn’t do so if they really knew that this is what it meant.

Nothing separates the authentic Christian from the nominal Christian more quickly than persecution. It is the proof of the pudding, the litmus test of loyalty to Christ.

Polycarp, an early bishop of Smyrna, faced the choice of making a sacrifice to Caesar, or to die. This is what he said: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me.” Palycarp was burned at the stake.

The Apostle Peter, who would one day face martyrdom himself, gave encouragement to those facing persecution when he wrote this in his first letter, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold, that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” So, persecution is good because it proves to the world our faithfulness to God.

3) Persecution also strengthens the faith of those who endure the persecution.

Persecution is designed by Satan to weaken us and tear us down, but the opposite is the result – the more the persecution, the stronger the faith.

In the early part of the 20th century, Christian missionaries fanned out all over China planting the seed of the gospel, but saw little result. In 1949, when the communists began to oppress the Christians, and expelled all the missionaries, there were only 700,000 Christians in all of China. The Christian faith has been persecuted now in China for 70 years, but today, that 700,000 has grown to around 108 MILLION followers of Jesus, and growing! We have also seen the same thing happen in Communist Cuba – after decades of suppression of the Christian faith, the church in Cuba is booming.

You see, the Church has always blossomed in times of persecution! Tertullian, one of the leaders of early Christianity, expressed it well when he wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

I’m no athlete (I know that must come as a surprise to you!), but even I know that a lifetime of training is required to be prepared to be strong, skilled, and victorious! Well, just as a world-class athlete must suffer through rigorous physical training to have a strong body, so the suffering of the Christian through persecution can serve to strengthen her or his faith. It’s like the old saying puts it, “No pain, no gain!”

Paul expressed this truth this way, in Romans (5:3-5): “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”

So, look upon times of persecution in your life as the training-ground of your faith, that you will grow stronger so you can finish the race, and win the prize.

So, we’ve seen that persecution can be “good” when it 1) focuses our attention on eternity, 2) proves the genuineness of our faith, and 3) makes us stronger.

4) Finally, our persecution serves as inspiration to others.

In the Book of Acts, we find the story of the birth and development of the Early Church. You might recall that one of the deacons was named Stephen. Stephen wouldn’t stop preaching in the name of Jesus, and so an angry crowd stoned him to death, while Saul stood by and gave his blessing. It wasn’t too long after, that Saul became the Apostle Paul when he was blinded by God on the Road to Damascus. The greatest persecutor of the church became its greatest proponent. And I believe that Paul’s miraculous transformation began that day he witnessed the noble way Stephen died for his faith. You could even argue that Stephen’s persecution inspired Paul’s conversion.

The same holds true for you and me. When we suffer persecution, our experience can become a witness to help strengthen the faith of others.

None of us will ever forget the video several years ago of that line of 21 Christian young men in orange jump-suits, kneeling on that Libyan beach, with the row of ISIS executioners waiting to lop off their head with swords. Those terrorists intended this broadcasted execution as a way to discredit the faith of those young men, and to demoralize all of us around the world who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

And, it’s true that ISIS did succeed in ending the lives of those Christian martyrs. But in their dying, those young men actually declared victory for Christ, even over death. Before they lost their lives, the video shows that they shouted out, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and “Yeshua” (the Hebrew name of Jesus). Far from demoralizing and defeating the Christian church, the courage and faith of these brave followers of Jesus has inspired every Christian around the world to a deeper and mor profound commitment to Jesus!

Jesus tells us: If we are serious about living out our Christian faith, we can expect to experience some type of persecution. Pray that in our case, it might be mild – that it will not require of us so great a sacrifice.

But should severe persecution come, may God grant us the grace to have a spirit of rejoicing, counting it a privilege to prove our loyalty to Christ. As Paul writes in Philippians (1:29): “And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”

But it will be worth it, because God has promised a reward to all who are true to him. We are “heirs with God, and joint heirs with Christ” – Paul writes is Romans (8:17), “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” And the Book of Revelation (2:10) counsels, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Those who are persecuted for their faith are indeed ‘Blessed” – why? – because they have been prepared for their heavenly reward.

Billy Graham once told of the experience of a friend of his who suffered like the character Job in the Old Testament – he lost his job, his fortune, his wife, and his home. But he held on tenaciously to his faith because it was the only thing he had left. One day, as he was walking somewhere, he stopped by a huge church to watch some men doing stonework. One of them was chiseling a large block of stone. “What are you going to do with that?” the man asked. The workman said, “See that little opening away up there near the spire? Well, I’m shaping this down here so it will fit in up there.”

Why is there persecution? “To shape us down here, so we will fit in up there.”

My friends, that is what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”