WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
Living the way Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount requires characteristics different from the normal make-up of mankind. Jesus does not say we may be persecuted for being objectionable or difficult. Nor does He say we may be persecuted because we are fanatical or standing up for certain political principles or being noble. People have made great sacrifices, given up careers, wealth, even their lives, and they may be thought of as heroes and are praised by the world. But Christianity is more than that! These things may not be wrong if we have that inclination, but they do not equal righteousness.
Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18-20). Also, 2 Timothy 3:12 reads, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” Practicing righteousness means being like Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in the religious world, the meaning of righteousness often involves what can be done in the power of the flesh. But I strongly believe the righteousness He is talking about has more to do with matters of the heart.
From the days of the early church, through the Dark Ages and the Reformation, and unfortunately in all too many countries today, Christians have known terrible persecution. This is not because they have been difficult or overzealous, but only because they sought to live righteous lives. Some of the most grievous persecutions have been at the hands of an established religion. Those who persecuted Jesus, the early church, the Reformers, the Puritans, and other followers of Jesus through the ages often thought they were serving God. Formal Christianity has often been a great enemy of the pure faith.
WHY THE RIGHTEOUS ARE PERSECUTED
We might ask, why are the righteous persecuted while often the good and noble are not? There is something about the righteousness of Christ that convicts others. Christians don’t have to condemn others; just the righteous way they live is enough to make some feel uneasy. Therefore, they try to find fault. Being persecuted for righteousness really puts to the test our idea of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). We usually think the perfect Christian is the popular person who is easy to get along with. But the real Christian is probably not going to be praised by everybody.
True righteousness is developing and living the Christ life, represented by the characteristics Jesus gives us in the Beatitudes: to be poor in spirit regarding all natural abilities; to mourn for the sins we see in ourselves and in the world; to be meek in our relationships with others; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be merciful, which is to have pity for others and do something about it; to be pure in heart, honestly and without hypocrisy; to be a peacemaker. The message of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are becoming like Him. It also means we are becoming salt and light in a dark world. Because light exposes darkness and darkness hates the light, it brings persecution.
REJOICE AND BE GLAD WHEN PERSECUTED
Jesus continues by saying, “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” (Matthew 5:11-12). If the previous statement about persecution seemed challenging, this one is even more so. There are three principles that the Lord makes here in regard to the Christian.
One: The Christian is unlike everyone who is not a Christian. There is a light in the Christian’s character that penetrates the spiritual darkness of a non-Christian’s heart. Therefore, non-Christians tend to retaliate. They criticize, scorn, talk angrily about, speak evil of, abuse physically—socially—in the workplace and maybe even in the church.
Two: The Christian’s life is reflective of Jesus Christ, and our concern is to do everything for His sake. Jesus says it is because we are living for Him that we are no longer like those of the world who live for themselves. This is why Christians are persecuted!
Three: Our life is to be controlled by thoughts of Heaven. The Old Testament saints were looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. Nothing that happened to them took their focus off the reward that was to come. How contrary this is to the motives that are in the world, always tempting us with an escape from reality with its pleasures and entertainment, especially avoiding thinking about death and the world to come.
HOW CHRISTIANS ARE TO FACE PERSECUTION
There are many ways in which a Christian may suffer persecution, and the Bible tells us how we are to face it. One, the Christian is not to retaliate, even though our natural instinct is self-preservation and/or revenge. Two, we are not to feel resentment. This is very difficult, but judgment is to be left up to God. Three, we should not allow persecution to dishearten or oppress us.
I have sometimes experienced persecution because of my commitment to Christ. At first I did not have victory! I had to learn that this can only come through the power of the Holy Spirit living in me. Praise the Lord, He did provide that power, the heavy burden in my heart was lifted, and the fruit of the Spirit reigned once again in my heart.
It is difficult to relate to the subject of physical persecution unless one has personally experienced it. For example, have you ever wondered how the early Christians could sing while being fed to the lions? I remember reading the book The Hiding Place, about Corrie ten Boom’s life. She asked her father if they could stand up under the persecution at the hands of the Germans. He responded by asking, “Corrie, when do you need a ticket to get on the train?” The answer, of course, is not until you are boarding the train. He was trying to help her understand that it is the same with the Lord. We won’t need the Lord’s strength, and He doesn’t provide it, until it is needed.
Why would Jesus say we are to rejoice and be glad? One reason is because it is proof of what and who we are. It identifies us with the prophets, God’s chosen servants, who are now with Him. Another reason is that it means our lives have become more like His. We are being treated as Jesus was, which again is proof that we belong to Him. We can also rejoice because Jesus says our reward in Heaven will be great. He is telling us that our ultimate destiny is fixed. If the world persecutes us, it just reminds us that we do not belong to it. We belong to another Kingdom, which is another good reason to rejoice!
After speaking about how we are to react to persecution, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Having concluded our examination of God’s special calling for America and the fundamentals of how He expects us to live in a world that does not know Him, we are ready to examine the nature of Satan’s attack against us, and how we should respond.
WATCH FOR PART 1 of “A Spiritual War Zone” on July 19th, 2010.Tags: let your light shine before men, persecution, righteousness, sacrifice, salt and light, Sermon on the Mount