August 21, 2014 Broadcast

Blessed Are The Persecuted

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Normally, we try to avoid persecution.  After all, nobody wants to be pushed around, harmed, or even killed for their faith.  So why did Jesus say, “Blessed are the persecuted”?  Should we seek to be persecuted in order to experience this blessing?  In this lesson, Dr. Sproul teaches us the meaning of this perplexing statement.

From the series: The Beatitudes

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Persecution and Reward

  2. article

    Perseverance in the Face of Persecution

  3. devotional

    Blessed are the Persecuted

Persecution and Reward

Our flesh may not like to hear it, but biblical Christianity does not promise to make our lives better, at least in the short term. Actually, Jesus tells us that following Him as Lord will bring us many trials and tribulations. This is His point in today’s passage. In concluding the Beatitudes, the Savior declares “blessed” those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matt. 5:10). 

Jesus does not say if you are persecuted. Attacks from unrighteous people are inevitable for the Christian, not mere possibilities. In fact, persecution is such a part and parcel of serving Jesus that we should question our allegiance to Christ if we never face persecution for His sake. Darkness hates the light (John 3:20), and evil men hate those who embody the qualities described in the Beatitudes. How many peacemakers (Matt. 5:9), those who preach the Gospel of peace through Christ, are beaten, jailed, and killed every day? Are there not many who are called “losers” or “behind the times” because in pursuing righteousness (v. 6) they refrain from sexual relations until marriage? Paradoxically, to be the objects of such hatred is not the curse that we might think it to be; it is instead the greatest blessing. As we are oppressed for doing the right thing we are assured that the kingdom of heaven is ours (v. 10). However, harassment for reasons other than righteousness does not incur God’s blessing. Persecution for righteousness’ sake is not the same as trouble we get for disrespecting unbelievers. We may also have problems if we are less than scrupulous. John Chrysostom, the great fifth-century bishop of Constantinople, warns us not to expect blessing if we “are being reviled for something evil, and what is being said is true” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 15.4).

Christ tells us we are blessed when we are reviled for His sake in Matthew 5:11, thereby expanding upon the beatitude in verse 10. He draws a parallel between Himself and “righteousness’ sake,” offering the same essential reward to those who are oppressed for doing good and to those who are persecuted for serving Him. Plainly, Jesus is equating Himself with righteousness. To imitate Jesus, therefore, is to practice righteousness (1 Cor. 11:1). 

Perseverance in the Face of Persecution

C. FitzSimons Allison

Gilbert Meilaender is a truly heroic figure. I would like to share my admiration for him with others as an encouragement to persevere in the face of persecution. Meilaender is an internationally known ethicist and one of a group of eminent students belonging to the Ramsey Colloquium, named for the Princeton scholar, Paul Ramsey. These are among the most distinguished scholars of their generation. A careful, pastorally sensitive, contemporary statement regarding the church’s teaching on homosexuality was published by this colloquium. As a result, many of them were harassed and treated with inexcusable persecution on campuses, including Oberlin, the University of Virginia, and Yale. 

Meilaender, a professor at Oberlin, seems to have received the worst treatment. In his article “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point” (1994 November edition of First Things), he describes his response to the cruel rage and paucity of responsible support with a testimony of unyielding perseverance without anger, self-righteousness, or self-pity. His demeanor and spirit were so devoid of what would be natural and human (in the negative senses of both terms) that it could be only described by one word: graceful.

I only know this man through his writings, but his graceful perseverance and faithfulness could be an example for any of us facing hostility in our own lives. Under pressure he drew on Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and the psalmists whose testimonies could lead and encourage any of us to a similar grace. In rereading his article after more than a decade, I am newly inspired by an insight he gives from Lewis.

He shows me something I had too long missed. It is the very word understand. To stand under an idea (as did Mark Studdick in Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength), with the knowledge that ideas are not mere opinions but tough, durable, and objective realities, gives one a perspective that is deeper and less self-righteous than one would have defending one’s own opinion.

Meilaender writes: “The truth I think I understand and for which I must stand up is, in reality, a truth that I stand under and to which I look up. To put the point again in the language of hymnody, in such moments I prefer ‘beneath the cross of Jesus, I long to take my stand,’ to ‘stand up, stand up for Jesus.’”

An even more important grace that comes with persecution is shown in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Isolation and suffering for what one sees as right is fraught with the temptation of self-righteousness. But in Bonheoffer’s writings and life Meilaender realized that in reading the Psalms, as Bonhoeffer did, we “pray them as our own only in him [Christ], the righteous sufferer who calls on God for vindication.” It is indeed “under the cross” that we are to take our stand.

These stands have always caused division, isolation, loss of friends, and sometimes death. Much of what and whom we have trusted is lost, and we have painfully discovered how relatively unimportant are the lesser things in which we have put our faith. Calvin taught us that our hearts are veritable “idol factories.” The refreshing thing about persecution, suffering, or unpopularity for remaining faithful to the Gospel is the chance to appreciate freedom from our idols. We can sing with more passion and gratitude: “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also…. His kingdom is forever.” 

The most subtle and unproductive of idols has to do with righteousness and its shadow, self-righteousness. I have a painful recollection of sitting in my pew halfway listening to a sermon on the book of Amos. My mind wandered to my fellow bishops in the Episcopal Church. I was comparing myself with them and coming out quite favorably when the preacher poured Amos’ plumb line of God’s justice on my pew. My heart tore. I went home and fished out my carpenter’s plumb line and hung it from the second floor over the stairs so that it greets me at the front door. After two and one-half years my wife asked when we could take it down. “When there’s no more problem of self-righteousness,” I replied. It still hangs there.

When Jesus warned us against the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt 16:6, 12), it is an enduring and ever-needed warning. The yeast of self-righteousness is always in the air, and it is always welcome by our self-centered hearts. Like the alcoholic who never says he used to be an alcoholic but only claims that he is a recovering alcoholic, so we victims of Pharisee yeast should never say we used to be self-righteous, only that we are recovering Pharisees.

Danger lies, however, in the very subtlety of recognizing one’s unworthiness. It can inhibit the very nerve of action and fight, as Hamlet observed, “and conscience doth make cowards of us all.” One can wish perhaps that Gilbert Meilaender had fought more aggressively against the wickedness and tyranny of politically correct dogma in the academic world.

The figure of John Bunyan comes to mind as one whose stand for what he saw to be just and right landed him in jail for twelve years, refusing to relinquish his call to preach the Gospel. Whatever courage we might be showing today is reduced to less than insignificance in comparison with Bunyan. 

In remaining faithful to Christ, subsequent stands can be occasions of freedom from our idols and a quality of grace we did not before possess.  

Blessed are the Persecuted

The last two beatitudes in Matthew 5 actually reveal God’s blessing on the same kind of people, and, by including elements of the first beatitude, wrap up the entire list nicely, helping us to understand one of the basic truths of the Christian life. In sum, the last two beatitudes tell us the same thing — that those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus and His righteousness receive a great blessing indeed (vv. 10–12). What is this blessing? It is the same one promised to the “poor in spirit” in verse 3, namely, the “kingdom of heaven.” Living a life of repentance and faith in Christ alone and suffering trouble for the sake of Jesus’ name go hand in hand. Both suffering and humble faith bring about the same reward, which indicates that we cannot have true faith without worldly opposition.

This idea that true faith and persecution are inseparably linked should not be all that surprising to us, for it is the experience of the church throughout the ages. Martin Luther said that there is always opposition when the gospel is preached plainly and accurately. Yet he was not the first, nor the last, to suffer for the biblical gospel. Jesus Himself did not promise that we would have an easy existence but that we would have trouble in this world. Our cause for rejoicing is the fact that He has overcome the world and will deliver an eternal reward to His people, not that we will never suffer pain for Christ’s name (John 16:33).

As we consider suffering for the sake of Jesus, it is important to remember that our Lord does not promise a blessing to every type of suffering; rather, it is suffering for the kingdom that proves the kingdom is ours (Matt. 5:10–12). Sometimes we misinterpret our suffering as enduring pain for Christ when all we are really suffering is the pain of our own bad choices and misbehavior. So we must be careful that we do not count ourselves blessed until we are sure that our pain is on account of faithful service to Jesus. But once we see that we are suffering for our Lord, we should also take care that we do not water down the gospel. All of us are prone to avoid conflict, and it is all too easy to try and make the gospel’s content less offensive to a fallen world. But if we do this, we deny our Savior and risk forfeiting our blessing (Luke 12:8–9).

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