A PRIMER ON PERSECUTION
Persecution will come to you … but you can still smile when it does
Text: Matthew 5:10-12
On more than one occasion, I have been surprised to see how something in our Sunday Bible Class connected directly with something in the church service, and vice versa. We don’t make formal plans to have our Bible Class subjects coincide with our Sunday morning worship focus. The Sunday Bible Class covers a biblical subject or biblical book for a set number of weeks. Our weekly service is guided by a lectionary, a previously determined set of Scripture readings focused around the life of Jesus and the seasons of the Church Year. We usually do not try to match up the two, but I’ve noticed numerous times that something we talk about in Bible Class matches up directly with something we talk about in the Sunday sermon.
Today is one of those occasions. Today’s Bible Class is the third of seven sessions studying the theology of the cross—which is both the title of a book and, more importantly, a concept taught throughout the Bible. The theology of the cross is the biblical teaching that Christians will face various trials, hardship, struggles, and persecution because they follow God’s Word and believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Even though the phrase, “the theology of the cross,” isn’t used in today’s Gospel, the concept is clearly taught. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount will several clear statements about the persecution that Christians will endure for their faith—which is just another way to talk about the theology of the cross. The last three verses of today’s Gospel serve as a sort of primer on persecution. Jesus teaches Christians that persecution will come to you, but you can still smile when it does.
Today’s Gospel was the opening section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, sometimes called the “Beatitudes.” The Beatitudes were descriptions of those who are blessed by God. At the end of the list, Jesus brings up the matter of persecution. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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.”
Jesus describes people who are “persecuted because of righteousness.” This is not simply a case of someone who suffers in spite of doing something good. The righteousness Jesus has in mind is Christian righteousness, the Christian life that is fueled and driven by Jesus’ righteousness lived for us. Jesus clarifies that point in the next verse when he says that persecution will come “because of [him].” Jesus emphasizes that this is not optional. Notice how he changed his words to speak directly to his disciples: “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (verse 10) becomes “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (verse 11). Jesus does not say “if” or “maybe” or “someone else.” If you follow him, you will experience persecution for your faith.
Even if Jesus hadn’t told us this, we probably could have figured out that persecution will come, because history teaches that God’s people inevitably endure persecution of one sort or another! Jesus reminds us of that history lesson when he says, “In the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Consider just a few Old Testament examples. Elijah fled for his life from the wicked king and queen of Israel, and for a time he was convinced that he was the only believer in God who remained in Israel. Jeremiah received death threats and was even thrown into a cistern because the people of Judah didn’t like his message. According to church tradition, the prophet Isaiah was martyred by being sawn in half. History tells us that the world doesn’t have a lot of love for Christ or the people who follow him.
Martin Luther once lectured on these words from Matthew’s Gospel, and he echoes exactly what Jesus has to say here. “You have two ways before you—either to heaven and eternal life or to hell, either with Christ or with the world. But this you must know: if you live in order to have a good time here without persecution, then you will not get to heaven with Christ, and vice versa. In short, you must either surrender Christ and heaven or make up your mind that you are willing to suffer every kind of persecution and torture in the world. Briefly, anyone who wants to have Christ must put in jeopardy his body, life, goods, reputation, and popularity in the world. He dare not let himself be scared off by contempt, ingratitude, or persecution.”
We studied chapter three of The Theology of the Cross in our Bible study this morning. At the start of the chapter, the author noted how past generations always assumed that life was going to be difficult. A hard life was a way of life. My, how those assumptions have changed! Today, especially in our nation, we assume the opposite: Life should be relatively easy. With a little hard work and determination, we should have no trouble achieving any goal and obtaining whatever we want.
Sadly, that kind of thinking is often applied to our faith in Christ. Our sinful nature wants an easy Christianity—“Christianity Lite.” We love generic preaching that doesn’t hit too close to home; point out the sins of others, but don’t point out my sins or make me feel too uncomfortable. We don’t want a church experience that requires anything more than 60 minutes out of us each week—and God forbid we have to endure two full hours on the same day! And we especially don’t want to endure strange looks and sour comments from people who would probably find us to be strange if they actually found out that we are believing Christians! Oh, no, that kind of Christianity would be asking too much!
Our Lord and his apostles faced death for their confession of faith. Luther was declared an outlaw for upholding the gospel. In some parts of the world today, Christians are suppressed and even tortured for what they believe. And we expect an easy, light Christianity? No, Jesus said that persecution will come. To avoid it or to hide our identity as a Christian is tantamount to denying Christ, and the consequences will not be pretty. Jesus said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
In light of that sober reality, we ought to thank and praise God that his Son, Jesus, did not take our sinful nature’s approach to persecution and suffering. In order to be our Savior from sin and death, Jesus did not flee persecution, but embraced it. The holy Son of God endured the shame of this sinful world by descending into it at his birth. Jesus did not shun sinful humankind, but at his baptism, he identified with sinners like you and me. Jesus did not run from the persecution of his enemies, but he embraced it all the way to the cross, where he laid down his life to pay for our sin and proved his payment was complete by his resurrection. Jesus knew that persecution would come, and in love for lost souls like you and me, he endured his suffering and persecution to redeem us from hell and make us right again with God.
“Blessed” is not exactly the word we would select to describe the persecuted Christian. We would probably opt for words like “unfortunate,” “regrettable,” or even “cursed” to describe persecution or the person who has to endure it. But Jesus says, “Blessed.” “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps now Jesus’ word choice becomes clearer. The person who is persecuted for his faith can still smile when persecution comes, because he already possesses the keys to eternal life in heaven. The troubles of this world cannot trump the glories that await believers in the next world.
We should look carefully at Jesus’ words so that we don’t read more into them than what he is actually teaching us. Jesus does not say that dealing with persecution earns heaven. He says that the person who deals with persecution for his faith is already blessed because he already has heaven. That point is true even when Jesus says in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” The word “reward” throws us off at first glance. But think of it this way: Your birthday comes around, and you receive presents from family and friends. I suppose we could loosely call those presents, “rewards” for reaching another birthday. But who did the work on your birthday? You mother did—not you! And yet year after year, you receive the “reward” for being born! That’s the kind of “reward” Jesus is talking about here. Christians can keep smiling through persecution, because they have a heavenly reward waiting for them that Jesus earned for them through his death and resurrection.
We heard Luther’s comments earlier, reminding us that persecution is reality for Christians. Here’s another quote from Luther about these verses, reminding us that we can still smile and rejoice through persecution. “Therefore I say it again: Anyone who wants to be a Christian should learn to expect such persecution from poisonous, evil, slanderous tongues, especially when they cannot do anything with their fists. He should let the whole world sharpen its tongue on him, aim at him, sting and bite. Meanwhile he should regard all this with defiant contempt and laughter in God’s name, letting them rage in the name of their god, the devil, and being firmly persuaded, as we have said above, that our cause is the right cause and is God’s own cause.”
Luther penned similar comments in poetry—specifically, the last stanza of his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” Luther wrote, “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife. Let these all be gone! They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth!” Persecution could wipe out every earthly blessing we claim as our own, but persecution cannot take away the eternal joy God has prepared for us. That’s why we can keep a smile on our face in times of persecution, because we possess something that nothing or no one can take away from God’s children. We have the reward of heaven! We have sins washed away in the blood of Jesus! We have eternal freedom from suffering and persecution in our heavenly future! We have glory and joy coming that is greater than anything this decaying world has to offer! We have fellowship with God confirmed by his Word and sealed by his Sacraments—perfect fellowship and joy with God that trumps any temporary pleasures we have in this life.
Jesus’ words about persecution sound nothing like some of the popular preachers of our time. Contrary to the popular, Americanized versions of Christianity you can find in our world, Jesus says that there will be an earthly cost for the heavenly treasures we possess by faith. But with his strength and his promises, we don’t have to run the other way when hardship comes. With the strength of the Sacraments and the promises in his Word, we can stand up, face persecution with a smile, and say, “Bring it!” Amen.