Summary: A sermon on the eighth Beatitude - Blessed are the persecuted.
Today we come to the last of the 8 Beatitudes. I began this investigation with a bit of trepidation two months ago, and now I feel a bit of sadness as we wrap up this study of the Beatitudes. But I trust that we will be referring back to these Beatitudes as we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, so we aren’t leaving them for good. I hope and pray that the short time we have spent on these has been a blessing for us all.
In today’s Beatitude, Jesus declares, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 5:10) Followers of Jesus have been persecuted in all kinds of times, places and manners.
If you will allow yourself, I want you to try to imagine some of the physical persecution that has been inflicted on Christians both in the past and even now in the present. Picture a man on a table as he writhes in pain until he slumps into a semi-conscious state. The brawny inflictor of the pain puts down the pliers he has been using and douses the victim with a bucket of dirty water. The Christian shakes his head and moans. They have been working on him for hours. He has broken fingers, torn muscles and burned flesh. Those in charge speak to him again, “Recant your faith. Renounce Christ and all this unpleasantness can cease. Don’t make me go any further. Believe me it only gets worse.” The man on the table has a dignity that annoys his interrogators. He has suffered well. There has been no cursing, but only mumbled prayers and a few screams when the pain grows too great. The Christian looks through his swollen eyelids and speaks from his bleeding mouth, “No, my friend. I will never recant. Do what you will do. But hear this: Jesus is Lord. One day, you too will bow down and make that confession.”
Real physical persecution is an ugly reality. If you are like me you don’t want to think about it. But let’s get something straight right at the beginning of this lesson – persecution is a blessing. That’s what Jesus said, right? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” If you are like me then you are thinking: “That’s a blessing I don’t really want!” “I’ll just pass on that one.”
I. The “What” of Persecution
But what exactly does Jesus mean when he delivers this Beatitude? What constitutes persecution? Is it only physical, or does emotional and relational trauma count? Is it something that only happened long ago or is it still something that happens here and now? Is religious persecution rare or is it common?
I think that this subject can be confusing. On the one hand, I think that we all would agree that physical agonies administered by brutal strangers with the intent of causing a recanting of faith is real persecution, but to limit it to physical persecution only is inadequate. On the other hand, we don’t want to call every spiritual hangnail a satanic plot to destroy our faith. Real persecution is cheapened by calling any inconvenience or temptation – “suffering for the cause of Christ.” Right?
So, what does Jesus mean when he delivers this final Beatitude? One thing we know for sure, is that Jesus places great importance on this Beatitude. How do we know that? Well, first of all, it is the last one. He builds to this crescedo. Second, he spends more words on this one than any other one. In fact, where one verse suffices to cover such topics as righteousness and mercy, Jesus takes 3 verses to talk about persecution. It is in the additional two verses where Jesus clarifies what he means by persecution. Had Jesus only given us verse 10, then we might think that persecution is limited to physical abuse. But verse 11 makes it clear that words can harm and that persecution often takes verbal forms. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Vs. 11) So we see, things like insults and false accusations are included in what Jesus calls persecution. People who are ridiculed, lied about and slandered are just as persecuted as those stretched on a rack or burned at the stake.
Think for a minute about the persecution that Jesus experienced during his ministry. It was not until the final night of his life that Jesus was physically harmed. But throughout his three year ministry he was persecuted through the rejection, slander and lies told about him. Persecution takes many forms.
II. The “Why” of Persecution
One question that comes to mind at this point is: Why would anyone want to persecute Jesus or his followers? Why would anyone want to hurt the kind of person characterized by these Beatitudes? It is certainly perplexing, but nonetheless it is true – people who take godliness seriously are likely to find themselves facing serious opposition.