Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Matthew #16: Blessed Are the Persecuted Ones

Scripture Text: Matthew 5:10-12

Introductory Comments

This week, while so many in our country were enjoying Thanksgiving and shopping, great blessings of liberty granted by to us as undeserved gifts from God, I spent some time in preparation for this sermon looking through news stories posted at a website of the organization “The Voice of the Martyrs” (at www.persecution.org). Before I share them, I want to let you know that these difficult stories are not something we are used to hearing. But I think we need to hear them, because Christians globally are part of the same body. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” When a member of the body of Christ is persecuted, we ought to know about it.
Kenya - Last Saturday, Nov. 5, suspected extremists sympathetic to al-Shabab threw a grenade into a church elder’s home outside Garissa, Kenya, killing 8-year-old Winnie Mwenda Mutinda and 25-year-old John Kikavu. Three others in the house were seriously injured. The church’s pastor, Ibrahim Makunyi Kamwaro, told Compass Direct News that the three injured Christians are now in stable condition after undergoing treatment. … Despite the threats and attack, the church continued its worship service the next day.1

Burma - A young Christian in Myanmar was forced to choose between faith and family recently when her relatives demanded that she recant her faith. On Sept. 19, 2011, 21-year-old Ying was preparing to leave for classes at an underground seminary when her relatives locked her in the house. They threatened to disown her, beat her and withdraw support — including food — if she continued to attend seminary or church. In addition, they threatened to send her to a remote village with no known Christians if she did not recant her faith. Instead of giving in to their demands, Ying ran away from home and left her family behind2

Nigeria – Muslim extremists carried out new attacks on villages in Nigeria’s Plateau state in September, killing more than 100 Christians, including entire families, according to Compass Direct News.3

China – In another example of the ongoing crackdown against house churches in China, house church pastor Shi Enhao was sentenced to two years in a labor camp last month. Pastor Shi, who serves as deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, was charged with “illegal meetings and illegal organizing of venues for religious meetings.” The charges stem from the fact that Pastor Shi’s house church of several thousand meets in different sites around Suqian city.4
The website has page after page of news alerts and updates from across the globe. Some of the stories are much more violent that the sample I’ve chosen. You may also remember, from an earlier sermon, my mention of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who still, as far as we know, continues to languish in an Iranian prison cell under a death sentence, separated from his family, for the crime following Christ. The much-lauded, so-called “Arab Spring” in places like Egypt and Libya has, tragically, often brought more rather than less persecution upon disciples of our Lord Jesus.

This week, my wife Sara lent me her copy of a novel entitled Safely Home by Randy Alcorn, strongly encouraging me to read it. The novel is about the extreme persecution of Christians in China. While a work of fiction, the novel nonetheless includes accounts of actual persecutions in that country – persecutions that are never known about or reported because of media lockdowns in that country, and because of our country’s willingness to turn a blind eye to these things for the sake of tapping into the explosive economic growth in that country – growth that is, among other things, supported through the deployment of prisoners as slave laborers.

It is interesting to me, then, that on this first Sunday of Advent God would, in his providence, give us this text from Matthew for the sermon. Traditionally, the first Sunday in Advent is devoted, not to the first, but to the second coming of our Lord Jesus, the final Advent when he will come in final judgment, bringing eternal punishment for those who reject him and eternal vindication for those millions of Christians who, because they do not enjoy the religious liberties like those of our own country, suffer intensive persecution for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ, Lord and King of all the nations.

One Beatitude? Or Two?

Our text is frequently counted as two separate beatitudes, but many scholars believe verse 11 to be a flushing out of the beatitude in verse 10. And as I have read and prepared for this sermon, I lean toward this interpretation. Why? The two verses are very similar. Both speak of persecution. Both speak of blessing and reward for suffering persecution. It seems clear, however, that verse 11 answers three questions about verse 10: First, what is the persecution Jesus is speaking about? Second, what is the “righteousness” which incites the persecution? Third, who are the ones being persecuted?

What Kind of Persecution?

In verse 10, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The blessing is limited in scope to those who are persecuted. What kind of persecution is this? The answer, I believe, is given 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.”

To be persecuted is to be reviled by others, which means being criticized in a deeply angry, insulting way. These persecuted ones are people against whom all kinds of evil are charged, falsely. One of the earliest examples of persecution in the ancient church was the false charge that Christians engaged in ritual cannibalism. This was probably the result of misunderstanding what was happening at the Lord’s Supper and references to the body and blood of Jesus. Christians were also accused of atheism, which may seem very strange, but the source of the charge was the Christian refusal to worship the state-sanctioned gods of the Roman Empire. Any such refusal was considered to be a declaration that the gods did not exist, when in fact Christians were worshiping the only God in existence. Many suspected that ancient Christians were immoral libertines, engaging in incest and orgies. We live today in an almost 180-degree environment, where orthodox Christian are now maligned for holding to old-fashion, fuddy-duddy sexual ethics, which happen to be biblical, while false idol of sexual libertinism is now celebrated by the world.

What Is the Righteousness that Incites the Persecution?

Persecution will come, says Jesus, for “righteousness’ sake.” What is this righteousness that incites persecution? What kinds of pursuits are righteous? We can only know of righteousness through God’s revealed will for us in the Scriptures. Christians need to be lovers of God’s Word, but they need to know that adhering to the Word as truth will bring persecution. We guard ourselves against false piety and false interpretation by consulting the Word with other faithful, orthodox believers.5

But something deeper can be said to answer this question from verse 11. In verse 10, those who are persecuted are persecuted for “righteousness’ sake.” I think Jesus tells us what this means in verse 11. There, he makes things very personal.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
The “those” in verse 10 are called “you” in verse 11. The “you” in verse 11 is explicitly the disciples, and in this reading today that includes all of you who are disciples of Christ. You will be reviled, persecuted, and evilly slandered because of your relationship to Him, Jesus. Jesus says this persecution will come “on my account.” This is really why I think there is a linkage between verses 10 and 11. We know from the bible that no one, including Christians possesses any righteousness in themselves. Paul, in Romans 3:10, quotes the psalmist when he writes
as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.
So what is the righteousness that is pursued and, as a result of being pursued, brings persecution? It is the righteousness that is Jesus Christ. Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 1:30:
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Christ is our righteousness. Christ is our righteousness because we do not have any righteousness of our own. This is the essence of the gospel. If you acknowledge before God your sin, confess it, and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and your only hope of righteousness, you are saved. The reason you are saved is that by faith in Jesus, His righteousness is imputed to you, it is credited to your account and you are totally free from condemnation for sin.

But it is this very relationship to Jesus as Lord that will invite persecution. The implications are huge: Persecution is a marker of being a disciple. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you will be persecuted for it. Why? Because if you are a follower of Jesus, and not just a fan, everything else in life takes second place. If Jesus is the object of your love and affection and loyalty, that means your nation isn’t, and that will invite persecution. If Jesus is your first love, that means your families are not, and that will invite persecution (remember the daughter who ran away from her home?). If Jesus is your love, then his Word, his commandments and expectations will always come first, and not those of the world, and that will invite persecution. If Jesus is your highest treasure, that means other gods and religions and spiritualities are not, and that will invite persecution. This has always been the case.

Bruner remarks that "Christians are only supposed to get into trouble for the right reasons."6 Jesus is the right reason.

My Desire for Our Church

One of the reasons I opened with the stories of persecution is that I wanted to awaken in you a desire to stand with those who are persecuted. This is the responsibility, I think, of those who enjoy a much greater degree of freedom to worship than many millions of our brothers and sisters. I desire us to be a people who, while not persecuted, have the passion for Christ of the persecuted, the compassion of the persecuted, the drive of the persecuted, the perseverance of faith of the persecuted, the risky lives of the persecuted, the audacity of the persecuted. My hope is that God will use the promise of this blessing in this message to set all of us free from our complacency and our need to live in constant comfort and with approval from others to live for the approval of the only One in the universe whose approval actually matters, Jesus Christ.

I want to remind you of the promise of Jesus of the great rewards that await those who are faithful amid persecution. The rewards for those women and men are amazing. We ought to rejoice that God has created such people, people whose faithfulness to Christ has ignited gospel revival. May we also receive such grace.

Our Response for Those Persecuted

What can we who do not routinely experience extreme persecution to do in solidarity with persecuted brothers and sisters do? There are several things.

First, we should always remember persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ in our prayers. We should pray for their safety, for the perseverance of their faith, for their families, that beatings and torture will not weaken but actually strengthen their faith, and for the continued spread of the good news of the gospel.

Second, in many countries there is a shocking shortage of bibles. One of the paramount pleas of the persecuted, underground churches is for copies of God’s living Word. We have so many bibles sitting on shelves here in the United States. Perhaps someone could organize a drive to get bibles to brothers and sisters who are starving for God’s Word.

Third, and this is from our text, we ought to rejoice! We need to sing God’s praises for his power and might in creating such faith in the hearts of the persecuted. As we look over the lists of those who are martyred for the faith, even as the tears may flow, sing praises to God for faith and for faith’s reward, the eternal inheritance of the kingdom of God for those who are in Christ Jesus.

And on this first Sunday in Advent, let’s us pray that the second coming of our Lord might come soon. The writer of Hebrews had this to say to his listeners:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners [we are those partners today] with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,
“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back,my soul has no pleasure in him.”
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:32-39 ESV)
Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12 ESV)
Rejoice and be glad, brothers and sisters. Lord Jesus, come soon! Amen.

5Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. 181.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
November 27, 2011
First Sunday in Advent
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew