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Sermon on the Mount: The Persecuted

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Jeremy Bacon

Jeremy is a divorced single dad who lives in Illinois with his three amazing children. He has a bachelors and masters in theology, which is not always super-useful at the retail job he's worked since 2006.

Jesus finishes off the Beatitudes with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10). Jesus will mention persecution again (Mt. 5:44), and that will give us a chance to look at why persecution in general happens. But looking at this Beatitude (and the brief coda where Jesus discusses persecution more in 5:11-12), why would “righteousness” be the thing a person gets persecuted for?

Isn’t righteousness a good thing?

We’ve already seen (in the articles on 5:6 and 5:8) that Jesus is redefining righteousness as the actual living out of the Kingdom life which comes from a transformed heart. The very next section of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:13-16) is all about the fact that living out the Kingdom life makes the followers of Jesus noticeably, visibly different. They may be different in a good way, but they are still different.

Persecution is founded on being different.

Without that difference, there’s nothing to put a target on your back. With that difference, there is. Christians live differently than the world (“on account of righteousness”–Mt. 5:10) and they acknowledge no higher Lord (“on account of me”–Mt. 5:11). In a lot of places in the world, that’s enough to get you killed.

That’s what the prophets found out (Mt. 5:12). They stood outside the mainstream and tried to remind the people that there was a difference between the kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of God. Jeremiah, for instance, sure suffered for this message (cf. Jer. 38:1-13), but he made it out alive. Uriah didn’t (Jer. 26:20-23). Tradition says that quite a few of the prophets came to a violent end. Jesus is clear: it’s part of the package. As a Nigerian woman who fled when extremists massacred her village said, “Persecution is Scripture being fulfilled.”

Sesuna, a young lady in Eritrea, started a Bible study at her school and got expelled for it. When her relatives found out, she was severely beaten by her own family. According to her, “I truly learned what it was like to be an evangelical believer that day.”

Survey the people in your church. Ask them what it means to be an evangelical. That’s not going to be their answer.

But Sesuna has Scripture on her side. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). By our lives, we proclaim that the kingdoms of this world are not the Kingdom of God. As Paul puts it,

“We are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Cor. 2:15-16)

Since we are the aroma of death to those who are perishing, it’s no surprise that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:2). If we never experience a negative reaction from the world, something is wrong.

This may have helped give rise to the current “cult of victimization” among some Christians.

Persecution must be found (or fabricated) to legitimize them. Some of this persecution is imaginary. Unfortunately, the rest often isn’t persecution for righteousness. It’s just persecution for being a jerk (cf. 1 Pet. 2:20; 4:15).

It’s easy to see that there’s something off with this hyperventilation about being victimized. It fails at the very first command in the Sermon on the Mount. The first imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount are, in the face of persecution, to “rejoice and be glad” (5:11).

No one is saying this is easy. During his two years in a Turkish prison, Andrew Brunson felt convicted that he was disobeying Jesus in this area. Entirely despite his feelings, he began a discipline of rejoicing. That is the attitude of someone trying to live out the Christian life. Because of persecution, we have reason to find joy.

First of all, we can rejoice because persecution means we’re in good company.

Jesus points out the fellowship the persecuted have with the prophets. Christians ever since have looked to the fellowship they have with Him. I don’t want to minimize the pain of those Americans who have paid for their faith. I want them to see it for what it is: a chance to walk with Jesus. They can either squander the experience in anger and resentment, or they can take the opportunity to grow closer to Him. As Peter says, “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).

It’s not just the world actively rejecting the persecuted. The persecuted are actively rejecting it.

The persecuted and the poor in spirit frame the Beatitudes. The two have a lot in common. In fact, they often emotionally overlap. But there’s a difference. The poor of spirit are ripe for the Kingdom because the world failed them. The persecuted are ripe for the Kingdom because the world is actively rejecting them. Jesus includes them in the Beatitudes to communicate that, despite appearances, rejection by the world is not rejection by Him. It is, in fact, sharing with Him.

Second, Jesus says the main reason to rejoice is because “great is your reward in heaven” (Mt. 5:11).

This introduces one of the major themes of the Sermon on the Mount. There is an eternal Kingdom of Heaven which is breaking in. There is also a kingdom of this world which is doomed to pass away. Which are you investing in?

You see, in the grand scheme of human experience, there are lots of things people get persecuted for: race, nationality, class, whatever. Being persecuted for Christ has particular merit because it is usually a choice. Persecution stories are full of people who are given a chance to renounce Christ and walk away unscathed. The ones who refuse have made the calculation. They grasped the bankruptcy of this world compared to the value of the Kingdom. Jim Elliot said,

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Then he was murdered by the Auca Indians he was trying to reach for Christ. He chose the Kingdom over the world.

The persecuted have seen the incomparable and eternal joy of the Kingdom. After that, the darkness here just makes the light there look even better.

Voice of the Martyrs recently told the story of an Egyptian business owner. This man was solidly middle-class for his community. He gave his life to Christ, so his brothers staged a home invasion. They restrained him in his own house and gave him three choices: He could renounce Christ, they could kill him on the spot, or he could leave with nothing. He faced the choice, as clearly as one possibly could.

And this respected businessman walked out his front door in his underwear.

He

left

everything.

It’s not just the world actively rejecting the persecuted. The persecuted are actively rejecting it.

Unlike us comfortable Americans, they no longer get to pretend that they can have the Kingdom and the world. They are no longer trying to organize their lives around comfort and risk avoidance. The choice is put to them starkly–the world, or the Kingdom?

And they choose the Kingdom.

“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released. . . Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning, they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. . . . They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”

“They were foreigners and strangers on earth. . . . If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:13-16, 35-38).

The world was not worthy of them.