Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Matthew 5:10-12 (text)
March 11, 2018 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Most non-Christians say that we Christians have it good in America. We still meet in churches every Lord’s Day without fear of violence. We can still proclaim the Christian gospel. We can tell anyone, anywhere that we are Christians. Those who are from other religions can convert to Christianity legally. Most of our leaders call themselves Christians, even if they are not. Unlike many Christians in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, we are not ostracized by our families, thrown into prison, tortured, raped or beheaded, or our homes and churches burned.1
However, these good things that American Christians enjoy are merely a façade to the increasing intolerance against them. Bakers, photographers, a wedding chapel and a pizzeria have been shut down by gay couples, and an inn, a farm and a flower shop fined by the state by refusing to accommodate same-sex couples. A county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage. A Christian counselor was fired after refusing to counsel a gay couple. University professors and staff have lost their jobs and students have been suspended for stating their Christian beliefs in public.2
Christians are called hateful homophobes, bigots, religious fanatics, and even racists. In our opposition to homosexuality, abortion rights, premarital sex, and women ministers, and our support for the Ten Commandments, and “In God We Trust,” we have been called obsolete, backwards, out of touch, and intolerant. These are but a few of the hundreds of examples of harassment that Christians have suffered in our nation.
In our text, Jesus lists different forms of persecution Christians suffer. In other countries, it is outright violence and murder. In the West, violence takes the form of Islamic terrorism. But persecution in the West also includes reviling, slander, and false accusations.
This persecution, while not physical, are not figments of the imagination of Christians. And in some ways, legalized persecution is more dangerous than physical persecution because it is a subtle way of silencing our freedoms of speech and religion. It is also forcing Christians to compromise with the anti-Christian culture. An underground house church leader in the Middle East warned American Christians, “Persecution is easier to understand when it’s physical: torture, death, imprisonment . . . American persecution is like an advanced stage of cancer; it eats away at you, yet you cannot feel it. This is the worst kind of persecution.” And a Syrian church leader also warned, “It wasn’t only ISIS who laid waste to the church; our cultural compromises with the government and our divisions against each other brewed for a long time. We are Damascus, the seat of Christianity; what happened to us can happen to you. Be careful.”
So we must not take for granted the freedoms we enjoy in our nation as Christians. Let us praise and thank God for this. But we must also not discount the persecution increasingly squeezing us into submission to the anti-Christian culture. In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “persecution” often means “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute.” Most of the use of this word refers to violence against Christians, such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder (Matt 10:21-23; Luke 11:49; Acts 7:52; 9:4; 22:4, 7; 26:11, 14; Gal 1:13). And the Greek verb translated “to revile” means “to reproach, revile, mock, heap insults upon as a way of shaming.”
So why are God’s people, both in the Old and New Testaments, persecuted? Our text gives us three reasons.
For Righteousness’ Sake
The first is in verse 10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The goal of true Christians is to live a holy and righteous life. Having been saved by Christ who lived in perfect obedience to God’s Word, they imitate the life of Christ. But to live a righteous life in this world is to invite the hostility of the wicked world. Righteousness is offensive to the world. John 3:19 says that Christ came into a world darkened by sin, but “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”
Paul details in Romans 1:29-32 what the unbelieving, wicked world promotes:
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Again in 2 Timothy 3:1–5:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
This is what we see all around us here in our community, in our state, in our nation, and throughout the world. Notice that this wickedness can be summarized as disobedience against the Ten Commandments. No wonder that unbelieving people are made uncomfortable, offended by, and even hate us when we mention the Ten Commandments. It is a guide for Christian living in the kingdom of God.
So when we teach and practice righteousness, we invite the ridicule, insult and persecution of the unbelieving world. And we see this all throughout the Bible. Right after the creation account, Cain murdered his brother Abel because he was jealous that God was pleased with Abel’s offering, but not with his own offering. So John warns us in 1 John 3:12–13, “And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” The writer of Hebrews also commends Abel for his “righteous” offering (Heb 11:4).
Why does the world hate God’s people? Before Cain murdered Abel, God placed Adam and Eve in paradise, the Garden of Eden, where they were tested by God. They were commanded to abstain from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But Satan deceived them, and they sinned. God then cursed Satan, saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). God’s judgment against Adam and all mankind after him is that there will be warfare between the godly and the ungodly, between believers and unbelievers. And this war will never end until our Lord returns from heaven on the last day.
So we see this war all throughout the Scriptures. Noah and Abraham were hated by the world. The Pharaoh of Egypt tried to kill Moses. God’s people Israel was in constant warfare against its pagan neighbors. When Jesus was born, Herod tried to kill him. And all throughout the 2,000 years of church history, Christians were always persecuted by unbelievers. This hatred is all under the instigation and direction of Satan, because he knows what God had decreed that the Seed of the woman, Jesus, will come and crush his head. The devil will never stop his deceit and murder to stop the fulfillment of God’s curse against him in Genesis 3:15.
Therefore, wherever the righteousness of God’s people is visible, there will be persecution. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” So John exhorts us, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
For Christ’s Sake
The second reason why Christians are persecuted is in verse 11, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” It is because the world is offended and hates our Lord Jesus Christ. And he warns us that just as he was persecuted to death, so we are to expect the same treatment.
This is what he means when he says, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Jesus is our Leader, and Satan’s plan was to kill our Leader before he crushes his head. He failed, so what plan is he executing now? He persecutes Christians, so the number of Christians will dwindle. So when the unbelieving world persecutes Christians, they are actually persecuting Christ. They hate Christ, because he is the “smell of death” to them (2 Cor 2:16). They know that eternal death will be their judgment for not believing in him, so they try to get rid of the “smell of death” by persecuting those who will be given eternal life.
This is why whenever we mention the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to our unbelieving family and friends, the reaction is usually apathy, but in some cases, ridicule, disdain and even hate. They are offended by Jesus. They are offended by the word “sin.” When they hear us say, “Jesus is the only] way, and the only truth, and the only life,” they protest, “How intolerant!” How self-righteous!” “How judgmental!” Are you saying that only you will go to heaven?” This is not surprising because Jesus himself had been called all kinds of evil names: “from the devil,” “a Samaritan,” “blasphemer,” a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners. And these accusations led to his death on the cross. Persecution then is a blessing when, like Christ, we are persecuted because we are called Christians and we live as Christians.
For the Church’s Sake
Lastly, we are persecuted because we belong to God’s people. Because we are members of the kingdom of heaven, the visible church on earth. Jesus says in verse 12, “they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In the Old Testament, unbelieving Israelites murdered the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah and persecuted Jeremiah. The evil Queen Jezebel murdered God’s prophets.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they persecuted and murdered prophets and wise men sent by God to warn his people (Matt 23:34). Almost all of Jesus’ 12 Apostles were persecuted and murdered, because they preached Christ in the synagogues and churches. John writes in Revelation 2-3 about the persecution that the seven churches in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) will suffer. Some abandoned their faith because of persecution or false teachings. But others remained faithful with patient endurance through tribulation.
Persecution and harassment of churches is what we see today. Performing same-sex marriages is not far from being mandated on all churches, on pain of costly lawsuits. Preaching the true gospel of Christ is not far from being called a hate crime. And in many parts of the world, churches are being burned, and their members murdered.
Dear Friends: How are we to respond when persecution comes? First, Jesus warns all Christians to be prepared to be persecuted. Expect it. Do not be surprised when it comes. The harassment, ridicule, lawsuits and fines will increase. Do not say that we are not persecuted, because our nation is a free nation, because persecution is real. Do not expect our nation’s leaders, even the Supreme Court, to defend our freedoms of speech and religions. The pressure from the unbelieving culture is too great to overcome, so they will swim with the tide.
Second, do not seek to avoid persecution by compromising with the unbelieving world. Too many Christians and church leaders have surrendered their beliefs and practices to the unbelieving world.
Third, entrust the judgment of the enemies of Christ and his church to the holy and just God. They will be judged exactly according to their evil works. Later in Matthew 5:44, Jesus commands, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In Romans 12:19, Paul cites Deuteronomy 32:35,“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Not only are we to avoid revenge, but we are to do good to them. Paul repeats Jesus’ teaching in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
Fourth and last, take heart! Jesus’ words are not all doom and gloom. For he says in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven!” Our reward will surely not come in this age, but it will surely be ours in heaven. Like the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, those who endure and conquer persecution will be rewarded with an eternal dwelling-place in heaven with Christ.
Therefore, when we are persecuted and are suffering, let us remember these words:
2 Corinthians 12:10: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
James 1:2: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”
1 Peter 4:13: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”