The Blessing No One Wants
How many of you have seen The Passion of the Christ movie? As the “national conversation” continues, I hope you’re taking advantage of the opportunity to tell people why Jesus died. I’ve had a number of discussions this week about the topic with people I don’t even know. Next week we’re going to begin a new sermon series called, “Experience the Passion” as we focus on the last three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. It’s my hope that you’ll invite your friends, family members, and co-workers so that they can more fully understand how passionate the Savior is about them.
I was intrigued with the front-page story in the Pantagraph this past Thursday. At the end of the article, one person who saw the movie on opening day said this, “It deepens my faith.” Another moviegoer responded, “I felt like I need to go to church more. I will moan and groan less” (www.pantagraph.com). I was also thrilled to receive a phone call from a church member on Thursday who told me about someone from another state who prayed to receive Christ after watching the movie. I pray that many more will come to saving faith as a result.
Many people have commented about how graphic and violent the movie is. I agree, and would advise parents that those 12 and under should probably not see it. It received an “R” rating because crucifixion is an “R-rated” event. Not surprisingly, some reviewers, in typical Hollywood hypocrisy, have castigated the movie because of the violence, while embracing the gore of other films that are bereft of spiritual value. Unbelievably, Merrisa Marr from the Wall Street Journal cited some critics that have referred to it as “emotionally void” (Wall Street Journal, 2/27/04, Section B, Page 5). Having seen it, I don’t know how anyone could make a statement like that. Those who criticize the movie probably didn’t like the Book either!
The title of this film comes from the old English word “passion” which literally means, “suffering” and focuses on the final twelve hours of the Savior’s life. As Jesus contemplates His upcoming death, He says in John 12:27: “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” Simply put, Jesus came to earth to die as our sin substitute. We see this in John 12:47: “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.” And, in His final hours, He suffered horribly. In rapid sequence, the Bible says that Jesus was arrested and faced a number of illegal trials. He was punched in the face, spit upon, ridiculed, taunted, insulted, and then mocked as a king when a crown of sharp thorns was crammed down on His head.
Jesus was then led out to be scourged. This part of the movie is almost unbearable to watch. A scourge was a vicious whip and was called a cat-of-nine-tails because there were nine pieces of leather to which bits of bone were tied to rip a person’s flesh and bruise the body. Every time the whip came down on Jesus, it left nine bloody marks, often pulling out the skin as it recoiled.
In a sermon that he preached last week, Rick Warren adds, “This torture was so painful that there was a Roman law that said you could never give more than forty strikes because forty would usually kill a man from blood loss. It said, ‘If you give more than forty strikes then the person who administered the punishment will be given the same punishment.’ So they always…only gave 39 strips, just in case they miscounted. Think about this – 39 times 9. That’s nearly 400 marks on the body of Christ…His back, His stomach, His legs were one bloody pulp long before He even went to the cross” (“What the Passion of Jesus Tells Us About God,” downloaded from www.pastors.com).
When the Messiah preached His message on the mountainside at the beginning of His ministry, He knew what awaited Him, and He knew what was in store for His faithful followers. As we come to the eighth and final beatitude, many of us would like to take a pass on persecution and suffering, me included. Follow along as I read from Matthew 5:10-12: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
A pastor friend suggests that there are at least six reasons why we can’t ignore this instruction (www.calvarymemorial.com).
It’s the last beatitude and serves as a test of all the others. Persecution is as much a normal mark of discipleship as being merciful is.
It’s the longest one because it’s the hardest to embrace.
It’s the only beatitude with a command: “Rejoice and be glad.”
It’s the only one with an explanation.
It’s the only one repeated twice. The word “blessed” is used two times as though Jesus is saying, “You are doubly blessed when you are persecuted.”
It’s the only beatitude addressed directly to us. The tense changes from “blessed are those” in verse 10 to “blessed are you” in verse 11.
Last week we focused on the applause that comes from heaven when we do the hard work of making peace in the midst of conflict. It may seem out of place that Jesus would move from peacemaking to persecution, from harmony to hostility. But not all attempts at reconciliation succeed, and no matter how hard we try to make peace with some people, they refuse to live at peace with us.
Actually, if we live according to the first seven Beatitudes, we will automatically experience the eighth. It’s like an equation. If you are the person of verses 3-9, you will get the persecution of verses 10-12. If you are “poor in spirit,” some will think you are self-righteous. When you “mourn” over sin, others will feel convicted and not want you around. The “meek” person might be run over. When you break out of the spiritual status quo and “hunger and thirst” for God, some will label you a religious fanatic. Be “merciful” and people will call you gullible. Strive to be “pure in heart” and feel the tension of a world that lives on lust. And strive to be a “peacemaker” and get ready for war.
Our faith begins, develops, and matures as we live out the first seven. Our faith is then tested when we come to the last one. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the book called, “The Cost of Discipleship,” referred to the “extra-ordinariness” of the Christian life: “With every beatitude the gulf is widened between the disciples and the people, and their call to come forth from the people becomes increasingly manifest” (As quoted by John Stott, “The Message of the Sermon on the Mount,” Page 55).
What’s hard about this beatitude is that we all like to be liked. Once again, we see that following Jesus is often a paradox. He applauds us when we are in agony and sees great purpose in our persecution. As an interesting side note, those who were listening to Jesus probably had a real difficult time with this one. It was a common idea back then that all suffering, including persecution, was an indication that God was not pleased and that the one who was suffering was somehow to blame for what was happening. This is particularly evident in the Book of Job. Jesus reverses this view, and as we take a look at the blessing no one wants, I see three paradoxes related to persecution.
· Persecution is a Given
· Persecution is a Gift
· Persecution Brings Gladness
Paradox #1: Persecution is a Given
Some of us have bought into the belief that once we have Jesus in our life, everything will go great. Maybe we’ve even thought that we should be successful and financially well off. Actually, the Bible says that the exact opposite will happen for those who honor and obey Christ. Jesus never taught the “prosperity gospel,” but He did preach the “persecution gospel.” Let’s look again at Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The word “righteousness” refers to living the “straight” way, of following Jesus.
John Stott suggests that we should not be surprised if anti-Christian hostility increases, but rather be surprised if it does not. In John 15:20, Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” In John 16:33 He adds, “…In this world you will have trouble…” The Augsburg Confession defines the church as the community of those “who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake.” Speaking of their futures, in Matthew 24:9, Jesus told the disciples that they would face incredible struggles: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
While we can’t verify all the facts, church history and tradition tells us that the disciples fared no better than their leader (compiled from Fox’s “Book of Martyrs.” This book can be read online at: http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/AD/FoxsBookofMartyrs/.
James was beheaded. It is said that on his way to be martyred, his accuser was so impressed by his courage and conviction that he repented of his sin, committed himself to Christ, and was then beheaded along with James.
Phillip was scourged, thrown into prison, and then crucified.
Matthew was slain with a sword.
James the Less was stoned to death.
Matthias was stoned and then beheaded.
Andrew was crucified and then left hanging on the cross for three days.
Peter was crucified upside down at his own request because he did not feel worthy enough to be crucified in the same manner as the Lord.
Jude (Thaddeus) was crucified.
Bartholomew was beaten with clubs and then crucified.
Thomas was speared to death.
Simon the Zealot was crucified.
· John was exiled to an island called Patmos where he died as a prisoner.
2 Timothy 3:12 says, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” This is echoed in Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” When Paul wrote to the young church in Thessalonica, he reminded them that Timothy was sent to them, “so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4). Peter, after witnessing all that Jesus went through, wrote in 1 Peter 4:12: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Why is persecution so pervasive? Simply put, according to John Piper, it’s due to the nature of Christianity and the sinfulness of human beings. There is such a tension between the message and way of life of Christians and the mindset and way of the world, that conflict is inevitable.
This Beatitude tells us that there are two reasons why we will be persecuted.
1. Because of the life we live. Verse 10: “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” Some of us might feel mistreated but it may have nothing do with righteousness. Ray Pritchard writes, “If you don’t use deodorant, don’t claim persecution because no one wants to sit next to you at work. If you’re rude to your employees or disrespectful of your boss, don’t be surprised to find yourself ostracized.” Some of us believe we’re being persecuted for righteous reasons but it may be because we are self-righteous and are therefore repelling people. Chuck Swindoll writes, “There are certain reactions we can arouse simply because we adhere to some fanatical extreme that is based on personal or private opinion” (“Simple Faith,” page 35). Sooner or later, a sold-out Christ follower will be persecuted somehow.
2. Because of the Lord we love. In Verse 11 Jesus says that people will insult, persecute, and say false things, “because of me.” This helps us define the word “righteous.” To be righteous simply means being like the Lord Jesus Christ. For one reason or another, some people are so upset with Jesus that they take it out on those who love Him. Warren Wiersbe writes, “Jesus was different, and a world that thrives on conformity cannot tolerate differences.” The early Christians were confronted with a choice, “Caesar or Christ?” They chose Christ, and with that choice they were automatically outlawed and branded as disloyal citizens.
We will be persecuted because of the life we live and because of the Lord we love. According to verse 11, this harassment takes three forms. Notice the change of tense from the third person to the second. We move from “those” who are persecuted to the much more personal “you” are persecuted. God congratulates you, and applauds from heaven, when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Christ.
Verbal Insults. The word “insult” means to chide, taunt, or defame. Luke 6:22: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you, and insult you, and reject your name as evil, because of the son of man.” Biblically speaking, to be insulted speaks of misrepresentations that degrade another’s reputation and is closely related to slander. This often takes the form of verbal abuse and insulting language. As an example, the early church was accused of cannibalism as it gathered to observe the Lord’s Supper. Matthew 27:39 tells us that people “hurled insults” at Jesus, “shaking their heads” as they passed by the cross. Friend, when you are insulted for what you believe, you’re on the right track!
Physical Attack. The word, “persecute” means, “to chase away or pursue with hostile intent, to be hunted down as an animal.” The tense of the verb suggests those “who have allowed themselves to be persecuted” or “have endured it.” It can be defined as repeatedly raiding another, or as continually annoying someone. One of the most famous martyrs was Polycarp. When he was dragged before the Roman authorities and given the ultimate choice to sacrifice to Caesar or be burned to death, he replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He was then brought to the stake where he prayed his final prayer: “Oh, Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy well beloved and ever blessed Son, by whom we have received the knowledge of thee…I thank thee that thou has graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour.”
One writer described the persecutions that Christians have faced in these words: “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 into 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… 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 lengthen the agony. These things are not pleasant to think about, but these are the things a man had to be prepared for, if he took his stand with Christ” (From a sermon by Bill Prater, www.sermoncentral.com).
Intense persecution still takes place in our world today. This past Wednesday, 48 people, including women and children, attempted to take refuge in a church in Nigeria and were shot to death by militants (www.christianitytoday.com). According to an article that just appeared in Christianity Today, more than 50 house church leaders have been arrested in China, following the release of a DVD and book about the stunning growth and vibrancy of Christianity in that country. Amazingly, these believers ask not for release, but for strength. One mission agency asked believers in America to pray this way: “Please pray that they will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to withstand whatever pressure and pain inflicted on them. Pray God would empower them to witness for Jesus Christ to the authorities, other prisoners, and whomever they come into contact with. Fervently pray that this present crisis will cause the house churches of China to grow in grace and in number” (www.asiaharvest.org).
False Accusations. After verbal assaults and physical pursuit, followers of Christ will also face those who “falsely say all kinds of evil....” I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of someone saying something false and hurtful, but it doesn’t feel good. The psalmist cried out in Psalm 35:11: “False witnesses did rise up; they laid to my charge things that I knew not.” Jesus faced false charges as well, and according to 1 Peter 2:23, “He did not retaliate.” Some people like to say things behind our backs, but remember they did the same to Jesus as His enemies tried to destroy his good name.
Paradox #2: Persecution is a Gift
Most of us can agree that persecution is a given, but to say that it is a gift is a stretch for us. We are blessed when people mess with us for our faith. And, what we receive is the kingdom of heaven. No one can take this away from us. Before Stephen was stoned to death, Acts 7:55 says that he “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand...”
Hebrews 11:36-38 describes what happened to a number of the heroes of the faith: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated.” Verse 39 contains a very curious phrase: “The world was not worthy of them.” This world was not their home and in some mysterious way, they saw persecution as a gift that brought them to their heavenly home. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer left prison on the way to the gallows, he reportedly said, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
God congratulates those who face persecution and He gives the kingdom of heaven as a gift to those who absorb the anger and ambushes of others. God approves those who face the antagonism of those opposed to His Son. Persecution is the trigger that causes God to pour out His blessings on your life. I’ll never forget the martyred missionary Jim Eliot’s famous quote when he said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Paradox #3: Persecution Brings Gladness
The third paradox is really mind-boggling and is found in verse 14: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” We generally rejoice when we get good news. The phrase, “be glad” is a command and means to “leap forth with exuberant gladness, to jump with exceeding excitement.” That’s how Jesus put it in Luke 6:23: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy…” Jesus is not implying that we should be happy about persecution itself. We are to leap for joy for what it represents. Bill Prater suggests that there are four reasons why we should rejoice when persecuted (www.sermoncentral.com).
1. Persecution confirms our relationship. Someone has said that persecution is a certificate of Christian authenticity. We should rejoice that people see Jesus in us. 1 Peter 4:16: “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear his name.” Jesus thinks enough of you to let you share in some of what He went through. After the apostles were put in jail for preaching the gospel, and then having to face charges, Acts 5:41 says, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Suffering is the badge of our discipleship.
2. Persecution causes reliance. When we suffer we are more prone to do some self-examination and we are forced to lean on God in ways that we have never done before. And, when we do, we see God’s power. Paul experienced this in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
3. Persecution cultivates righteousness. One of the best ways to grow is to go through some grief. 1 Peter 5:10: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” That’s why Jesus mentions the persecution the prophets faced before us. They serve as models because their rejection was the rule, not the exception. To suffer for what is right is to be part of a great succession of godly men and women. John Piper encourages us to “go often to these great men and women of old and get inside their hearts. Put yourself on the rack with them and learn how to love heaven with them.”
4. Persecution confers a reward. Sometimes when we’re suffering, all we can do is focus on what’s to come in heaven. We can jump for joy because of what’s ahead. We may lose everything on earth, but we shall inherit everything in heaven. Towards the end of his life, the apostle Paul had every confidence that God would release him from his difficulties. Listen to what he said in 2 Timothy 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack…” But recognizing that God may have other plans, this verse concludes: “…and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.” This promise gave Rowland Taylor and Bishop Ridley and John Bradford the impulse to kiss the stakes at which they were burned. After receiving countless lashes that turned his back to jelly for Jesus, Obadiah Holmes said, “You have struck me with roses.”
Friends, the Beatitudes are not easy to live. Perhaps that’s our problem. We’ve made the Christian life way too painless. We’ve gone along and gotten along. Let me ask you a few questions: What have you done in the last month that has caused anyone to challenge your faith? When have you risked speaking out for Jesus? How have you defended the cause of Christ? Have you identified yourself as a Christ follower? Maybe you’ve not said anything against Jesus…you really haven’t said anything at all. Perhaps you’re not persecuted because people don’t see the Savior in your life.
Every Christian who puts Christ first will face flack somehow, somewhere, at some time.
· Have you been made fun of for your faith?
· Perhaps you’re just ignored because someone thinks you’re too religious.
· That promotion at work may be elusive because of your principles.
· Some of you may feel judged and condemned by fellow Christians.
· A number of you face sarcasm from a spouse that does not share your faith.
Remember, persecution is a given. It’s a gift that comes with blessings. And, it should bring us gladness because the rewards are worth the risk.
In the early days of the church, a Christian offended the king and was threatened with banishment because of his preaching. He replied, “Sire, you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” The king then said he would confiscate all his possessions. The Christian answered, “Sire, you cannot confiscate my possessions because my treasures are laid up in heaven.” The king was starting to get furious and told him that he would make him live in isolation away from all his friends. The believer stated, “Sire, you cannot remove me from my greatest friend, because He lives within me.” Finally the king shouted out, “Then I’ll have you killed!” To which the Christian calmly replied, “You can take my breath, but you can never take my life for it is hid with God in Christ” (as quoted by Coy Wylie).
Please stand as I read Romans 8:35-39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”