Pastor David B. Curtis


Blessed Are The Persecuted

Matthew 5:10-12

Delivered 08/18/2002

Matthew 5:10-12 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The word "persecution"appears three times in this section, which means that Jesus was putting great emphasis on it. The Greek word translated "persecuted" in these verses comes from dioko, which means: "to pursue" or "chase away." Over time it came to mean "to harass" or "treat in an evil manner." In effect Christ was saying, "Blessed are the harassed." In the New Testament, it is used of "inflicting suffering on people who hold beliefs that the establishment frowns on, and it is this kind of persecution of which Jesus speaks here.

The Greek text contains a perfect passive participle. Jesus' words could be translated, "Blessed are they who have been willing and continue to be willing to allow themselves to be persecuted." The perfect tense indicates an ongoing attitude; the passive voice speaks of being willing to accept whatever comes as a result of living out the Beatitudes.

Let me ask you a very important question, "Are Jesus' words about persecution even relevant today?" Has modern society become so tolerant that talk of persecution is outdated? It is my opinion that Jesus' words are just as relevant today as they were when he spoke them. I believe this is true because:

Persecution Is Part of Christianity

Because you live in the United States, you may think that the idea of persecution of Christians is not very relevant today. We are not experiencing any physical persecution here. But if we can look beyond the borders of the United States of America, we will see that things are different. Nina Shea's book, In the Lion's Den, gives evidence that more Christians around the world have been martyred for their faith in the past century alone than in the combined previous nineteen centuries of the church's history. In many countries today it is a crime to be a Christian.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2.2 billion people lived in 79 countries under significant restrictions on their religious freedom in 1980. 60% of all Christians live in these countries. And 16% (224 million) of all Christians live in countries where there is severe state interference and harassment.

So from a global standpoint, the words of Jesus are very relevant, and indeed very precious, for millions of our brothers and sisters who live under the pressure of constant surveillance. I want you to understand this morning that:

Christians have always been persecuted.

As the mighty Roman Empire flourished and included a territory that ranged from Britain to the Euphrates and Germany to north Africa, the crucial question was how to keep it amalgamated. At first the worship of the goddess Roma, the spirit of Rome, was the unifying source. As time went on, the person who incarnated that spirit of Rome was the Emperor. He became regarded as a god and divine honors were paid to him. This was a voluntary thing at first. Then in time this Emperor­worship became compulsory. It was this compulsory Emperor-worship that caused great persecutions of thousands of Christians. Once a year a man had to go and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, "Caesar is Lord." And that is precisely what the Christian refused to do. For them Jesus Christ was the Lord, and to no man would they give that title which belonged to Christ.

The early Christians refused to go along with it. They refused to conform and were confronted with a choice, "Caesar or Christ?" They chose Christ. They refused to compromise. The result was that no matter how outstanding a citizen the Christian was, he was automatically outlawed and branded a disloyal citizen. Their only "crime was Christ."

Professor William Barclay, who cannot be accused of orthodoxy, but is a good historian writes:

Still further, the penalties which a Christian had to suffer were terrible beyond description. All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the tenderest parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to enlighten the agony.

These were the conditions for early Christians, and in many parts of the world, believers are suffering just as much. Today in China millions of members of house churches are considered outlaws and criminals. Why? Because their churches are not registered with the atheistic government. It appears that anywhere from eleven million to one hundred million Chinese Christians belong to these underground churches. Many are arrested, imprisoned, and sent to the laogai, the Chinese word for "reform through hard labor camps" (Nina Shea, The Lion's Den , [Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997], 58). Many Christians in China are engaged in this "reform," which produces cheap products for the Americans. Chinese religious persecution intensified in 1996.

In the Moslem country of Sudan, Christians are given several options: They can either convert to Islam, flee, be killed, be raped, or be taken as slaves. As a result, there are many slaves in the country who were Christians. Even many children of Christians are taken and sold for fifteen dollars to serve in people's homes.

So the persecution of Christians is not just ancient history, but, rather, very current history. The life of Christians in China, Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, and Laos is extremely hard. In fact, in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, citizens of the United States who are living in Saudi Arabia cannot even worship Jesus Christ freely. It is against the law. But our own State Department is silent about these things. Why? Because to us trade is more important than truth. Aren't we all happy when the economy is good?

Why Are Christians Persecuted?

Verses 10-11 don't specifically identify those who are persecuted, but the natural flow of the Beatitudes shows it's the same people who are blessed in verses 3-9. Those who live out the Beatitudes will be persecuted - the more a person lives for Christ, the more likely the world will react negatively. To whatever degree a person fulfills the first seven Beatitudes, he is likely to experience the eighth.

The world can't stand those who are poor in spirit because it glories in pride and self-promotion. It can't stand those who mourn over sin because it doesn't want to think about sin's implications. Unsaved people are proud--they don't value meekness. They can't stand those who know they are undeserving and seek a salvation that can only be received as a gift. The world teaches we have a right to everything, because we have earned or deserve it. Unbelievers know little about mercy, nothing about purity, and have never learned how to make the peace with God that brings peace among men. The characteristics described in the Beatitudes flagrantly counter the world system.

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Please note that the reason for the persecution is because of righteousness. Do you think this is referring to positional righteousness (our standing before God) or practical righteousness (how we live)? You will not be persecuted for your position unless you manifest your position by how you live. This is clearly talking about practical righteousness.

The way this Beatitude is stated in verse 11 emphasizes its personal nature. Up to this point, Jesus has spoken in the third person, "Blessed are those . . . , for they . . . ." But now He zeros in personally and says, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake" (v.11). The last phrase of that verse, "for My sake", and the phrase in verse 10, "for righteousness sake", are referring to the same thing. When you are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, you are being persecuted on account of Jesus Christ. These statements narrow the issue down to the real cause of the persecution -- identification with Jesus Christ. When you take your stand for Him, men will revile you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you.

Jesus Christ was the object of severe persecution, because He clearly manifested the righteousness of God everywhere He went. The Apostle Paul underwent tremendous trials and persecutions because of the same thing - everywhere he went he declared the righteousness of God and salvation through Christ. At the end of his second letter to the Corinthians, he says he has made Jesus Christ known in every place, both by the way he lived and by what he said. Such actions antagonized people everywhere he went and resulted in his persecution. As a result, Paul can list the places where he was stoned, beaten, and imprisoned. His life was patterned after the life of Jesus Christ which resulted in his suffering persecution everywhere he went

Jesus gives the basis for this kind of persecution in John 15:

John 15:18-19 (NKJV) "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 19 "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

The cause of persecution in this case is hatred. Believers have been chosen out of the world by Jesus Christ, and they belong to Him. Because the world hated Jesus Christ, it hates believers now, because they are no longer part of the world. Jesus continued in John:

John 15:20 (NKJV) "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 keep yours also.

Do not overlook how close the identification with Jesus Christ is. Just as individuals rejected the character and teaching of Christ, so they will reject your character and teaching if you are manifesting the character of Christ.

In his last letter, written shortly before his own execution for his testimony of Christ, Paul said to Timothy:

2 Timothy 3:10 (NKJV) But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance,

Paul was patterning his life after the way Jesus Christ taught and lived, he manifested God's character. Paul continued to describe his life as he spoke of:

2 Timothy 3:11 (NKJV) persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me.

Now notice the factual statement in the following verse:

2 Timothy 3:12 (NKJV) Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.

Paul is saying the same thing Jesus said in the Beatitudes: Those who manifest the character of God will be persecuted as a reaction against that character. Such will be the reaction against righteousness. That is the kind of persecution both Jesus and Paul are addressing.

How could Paul make such a sweeping statement? "... all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.." He makes it on the basis of a deep conviction about the nature of Christianity and the nature of the sinfulness of man. He is convinced that there is such a tension between the message and way of life of Christians on the one hand and the mindset and way of life of the world on the other that conflict is inevitable.

This conviction is rooted in the nature of fallen man and the nature of the new creation in Christ. Therefore, it does not go out of date. It is still true today. Sooner or later a God-centered, committed Christian will be mistreated for the things he believes or the life he lives.

Galatians 4:29 (NKJV) But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.

Nothing has changed - those born of the Spirit will be persecuted. The Apostle Paul was not especially popular in his day. It seems that there is something tremendously wrong with the celebrity status Christianity has today.

So these words of Jesus about persecution are relevant for today not only because millions of Christians around the world are being persecuted for their faith this very day, but also because, to one degree or another, all of you who are serious about putting God first in your work and home and school and leisure will bump into some form of opposition sooner or later. And none of us knows when our freedoms may cease or when we may be called by God to go to a dangerous place or take a stand here that will cause many to dislike us.

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Many believers suffer persecution that is not for righteousness. Some suffer persecution because they are obnoxious. Others suffer persecution because they perform poorly on their jobs. Still others suffer persecution because they have no tact and are lacking even common sense courtesy. All of these things may result in persecution, but this persecution has nothing to do with what Jesus is addressing in this Beatitude. Rather, this persecution is the result of God's character being seen in the life of the believer.

So a life devoted to righteousness or godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against. If you cherish moral purity, your life will be an attack on people's love for free sex. If you walk humbly with your God, you will expose the evil of pride. And if you are spiritually minded, you will expose the worldly-mindedness of those around you.

When you desire to be godly in all your affairs and relationships - when you follow the righteousness of Jesus in his strength and for his glory - there are two possible responses people can have who stay around you. These are described in:

John 3:20-21 (NKJV) "For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 "But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."

One possible response is: hating the light and not accepting it. The other possible response is: doing the truth and coming to it and freely admitting that all good in us is accomplished by God. The two options are persecution or conversion. We see these same two options in:

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:16 (NKJV) "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

But, we ask, what about all the unbelievers in my life who are neither converted nor persecuting - who are just civil, or even polite? There are at least two possible explanations. One is that your light is under a bushel. You are not living righteously and confronting sin. You don't let your distinctive values show. The other is that you are letting them show and the people around you are moving toward one or the other of these two polls: persecution or conversion. Neither of these must happen immediately. There are all kinds of factors that can hinder expressions of persecution. We see these often in the gospels when the Pharisees were angered but were hindered by expediency from expressing their anger in outright persecution. Neither persecution nor conversion will always happen immediately. In fact many people are torn inside themselves; partly hating the claims of Christianity in your life, partly attracted by them.

Matthew 5:11 (NKJV) "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.

Notice that persecution involves "reviling" and "saying all kinds of evil against you falsely". Much of this persecution centers on what people say about us.

The Greek word translated "revile" is oneidizo, which means: "to cast in one's teeth." It is also used in:

Matthew 27:44 (NKJV) Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.

The criminals crucified with Christ mocked and scorned Him. To revile someone means: "to abuse him with vicious and mocking words". Christians will be insulted and mocked. That's what happened to Jesus.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to handle is when people "say all manner of evil against you falsely" (v. 11). It's hard when people accuse you of something you've never said or done; you end up trying to defend yourself for something that never happened.

According to this passage, a significant part of the persecution is what people say about us. Do not miss the point of these verses. Verbal slander is a key part of the persecution that believers will undergo. Therefore, we should not think that we will be excluded from persecution since we have the freedom to preach the Word and study the Bible together.

The world hated Jesus because he was light, righteousness, and holiness. They hated him because he revealed the wickedness of the people of the world. They hated him because he exposed their evil by his life and by his preaching.

We must always keep in mind that sinners are enemies of God. In fact, sin at its heart is enmity against the true God. So if God is hated by the world, then Jesus will also be hated, because Jesus is God - very God and very man. And if Jesus is hated by the world, all his followers will also be hated by the world. We read about this in:

1 John 3:12-13 (NKJV) not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous. 13 Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you.

True Disciples, in other words, will be hated and persecuted. First, because they preach and declare that the Bible is the truth, the only truth, and nothing but the truth. If you preach that, I guarantee that you will be persecuted. No one will persecute you if you preach multiculturalism or multi-religious ideas. But the moment you preach the absolute infallibility of God's word, the Bible, you will be persecuted.

Second, when you preach the biblical doctrine that all people are sinners and God's wrath abides upon them, you will be persecuted. If you also preach that Jesus Christ is the only Savior - very God and very man - you will be persecuted. Now, you will not experience persecution if you preach that Jesus is a savior along with many other saviors. You will not be persecuted if you say that Jesus is a god or a prophet among other gods and prophets. There won't be any problem at all if you say these things. In fact, people will say you are a very nice, magnanimous person. But when you preach that Jesus alone is God and the only Savior and the only Prophet, Priest and King, you will experience trouble. And especially if you preach this in certain countries in the world today, you will be persecuted.

I guarantee that if you preach the truth of Jesus Christ's first century return, you will be persecuted. If you believe the very words of Jesus who said to first century believers:

Matthew 24:34 (NKJV) "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

Jesus here, very plainly and very clearly, tells His disciples that ALL of the things he had mentioned would come to pass in THEIR GENERATION. This includes the gospel being preached in all the world, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, and the coming of the Son of man.

Notice what Jesus told the first century believers who were in the seven churches of Asia Minor:

Revelation 22:7 (NKJV) "Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."
Revelation 22:12 (NKJV) "And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.
Revelation 22:20 (NKJV) He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming quickly." Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

If you believe these words of Jesus and accept his second coming as a spiritual coming in judgment on Israel, you will be persecuted by the vast majority of the church who hold to the traditions of the church rather than the Word of God. You don't even have to go to another country to experience persecution for preaching this biblical truth. If you start preaching these things in the United States, you will be persecuted.

How are we to respond to persecution?

Matthew 5:12 (NKJV) "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

"Rejoice and be glad" are present imperatives!: I am commanded (imperative mood) to be continually rejoicing (present tense) and being glad.

The Greek word translated "rejoice" is chairo, which means: "to be really glad." More than that, we're commanded to be "exceedingly glad." The Greek word translated "exceedingly glad" (agalliasthe) means: "to jump, skip, and shout for joy." This word does not mean just a little bit of joy. No, it means a demonstrative joy. It is the joy of the one who landed on the moon, or the joy of a mountain climber who finally reached the top of Mount Everest. Such a person truly leaps for joy! We are to be happy when faced with persecution.

If this is a command, then we must do it. And God enables us by the Spirit of glory to rejoice when we are persecuted. We are enabled, not to retaliate, but to rejoice greatly. We are enabled, not to sulk, but to sing as we read of Paul and Silas doing in the prison of Philippi at midnight. They had been beaten, stripped, flogged severely, and thrust into prison in the middle of the night. What were they doing? Praying and singing. Let me tell you, their reaction did not come from their own natures. God, by His grace, enabled them to rejoice. Instead of cursing God, they were blessing him and praising him.

Acts 5 describes how the disciples were called on to suffer:

Acts 5:40 (NKJV) And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

The disciples manifested God's character, they preached the message of Christ, and they suffered for it by receiving a flogging. Then notice their response:

Acts 5:41 (NKJV) So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.

These men were rejoicing. Jesus told us in Matthew 5:12 to rejoice! The disciples left after their beating in Acts 5 and went on their way rejoicing. Why? Because they liked to be beaten? No! Not at all. They were rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ.

Acts 5:42 (NKJV) And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

What a tremendous example! The early disciples proclaimed Christ and suffered for it, yet they kept on rejoicing.

Matthew 5:12 (NKJV) "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Notice why we are to rejoice, "...for great is your reward in heaven....". Jesus can tell us to rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted because he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that the reward of heaven will more than compensate for any suffering we must endure for His sake. Jesus is saying that heaven is a hundredfold compensation for every pain. To the degree that you believe what Jesus says about heaven, to that degree you will be able to rejoice and be glad in suffering. "Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven."

But this raises a question: In order to rejoice and be glad in the suffering of persecution, you must believe that the suffering itself enlarges your reward in heaven. If the same reward in heaven could be obtained without suffering, would we not cry out against the uselessness of suffering rather than being glad to embrace it?

I believe that the more your faith is tested through suffering, the greater will be your reward. I think this is taught in:

2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NKJV) For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

Here we find that persecutions - these lightweight, temporal troubles, which include death - also produces something else - "...working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory....". He says that affliction "prepares" or "brings about" an eternal weight of glory. As Charles Hodge says, "Afflictions are the cause of eternal glory. Not the meritorious cause, but still the procuring cause. God has seen fit to reveal his purpose not only to reward with exceeding joy the afflictions of his people, but to make those afflictions the means of working out that joy". (Commentary on Second Corinthians, p. 104)

In other words, Rejoice and be glad in the midst of suffering for righteousness and for Jesus, because that very suffering will receive a very great compensation and a very great reward. And the greater the suffering your faith endures, the greater the reward you will receive in heaven. So rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven!

Jesus wills for his disciples to desire the reward of heaven more than we desire the reward of the world. Jesus wills for us to have our treasure in heaven, not on earth (Matthew 6:19-20). Jesus wills for your heart to be so set on heaven that to leave this earth is a cause of rejoicing.

Jesus wills for us to have our hearts primarily in heaven, our hopes primarily in heaven, our longings primarily in heaven, our joy primarily in heaven. There is no other way that you can rejoice and be glad at the loss of your earthly joys. How shall we rejoice and be glad when these things are taken from us if we have not loved heaven more?

The letter of John Hooper written three weeks before he was burned at the stake in England in 1555: "You must now turn all your [thoughts] from the peril you see, and mark the felicity that followeth the peril...Beware of beholding too much the felicity or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draweth from God." (Ryle, Light from Old Times, p. 115)

On Sunday, April 8, 1945, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from a worship service he had just conducted for prisoners. Hitler's Gestapo took him to a concentration camp in Flossenburg, tried him for treason, and hanged him just a few days before the Allied Forces liberated the prison camp. As he left his prison room on the way to the gallows in 1945, he said to Payne Best, "This is the end - for me the beginning of life." (Bethge, p. 830) Ten years later the camp doctor wrote, "At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God." (H. Fisher-Hullstrung, "A Report from Flossenburg," in I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 232).

Is Matthew 5:10 -12 the testimony of your life? Are you glad, not because you are suffering, but because you are counted worthy to be identified with Jesus Christ? When your husband or wife rejects you because of the gospel, when your closest friend slanders you, when your parents ridicule you, will you come back to Matthew 5 and rejoice and be glad? You should rejoice, not because they hate you, but because you are privileged to be an instrument in the hand of God. When you are being persecuted, do not lose sight of the reward which is to come and rejoice and be glad.

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