|“‘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.'”
Robert Schuller wrote a commentary on them. He calls them the “Be Happy Attitudes”. And my point is, they’re not physical traits. They’re not inborn parts of our personality. They are attitudes that we choose. And the point is, happiness is a choice. You and I can apply each and every one of these if we choose, too.
Today, we’re going to look at the last beatitude, and it may be the toughest of all. It addresses the myth that in order to be happy, I must be liked by everyone. Jesus explodes that myth and at the same time, he’s very honest about the consequences of following him. He says, folks, if you follow me, there are going to be a lot of people who don’t like that decision. And if you really are committed to being characterized by these first seven beatitudes, you’re going to sail some turbulent waters.
Look at verse 10 in Matthew 5. “‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'” Wow! Jesus makes a statement there that is so shocking that he repeats it. Look at verse 11, “‘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.'”
I find this last beatitude tremendously interesting for a number of reasons. Number one, Jesus gives more space to it than any other. Number two, this is the only one that he personalizes. He doesn’t make this generic, “‘Blessed are they,'” “‘Blessed is he.'” Look what he says, “‘Blessed are you when men persecute you,'” “‘Blessed are you when men insult you.'” And this one is fascinating because in the other seven, Jesus addresses the character of the Christian, but in this one he addresses the character of the world and how it will treat the Christian life that is characterized by the seven beatitudes we’ve studied up until this point.
What Jesus basically says is, happy and healthy are those who can handle rejection. Happy and healthy are those who can withstand any attacks on their faith. Now in a few moments, we’re going to look at how you respond to persecution, how you respond to harassment in our world. But first let’s consider the reality of persecution.
Notice Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men insult you and when they persecute you. He doesn’t say, if, he says, when. It’s a given. It’s a reality. Folks, as this world gets more and more secular, it is becoming more and more hostile to Christianity. Would you agree with that? Yes, I see it, we all see it. But you say, “Gary, we’re not being persecuted, I mean not like Paul and Peter and James, not like those folks in Hebrews 11.” When you get to the end of Hebrews 11, it said some of them were beaten, some were stoned, some were even sawed into. That’s not happening to us. You’re right, even in the secular nature of our current culture, we are not, in this country, suffering overt persecution. What you may not know is that hundreds of people worldwide are dying for the cause of Christ, especially in radical Muslim countries. But worldwide, people are dying for the name of Christ.
But this beatitude is not just about physical martyrdom. Look at verse 11 again, read it carefully, “‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.'” Do you see there, Jesus specifies three things that the world loves to do to Christians in any generation.
The first one is they just love to insult us. People try to dishonor, to discredit you, you know say derogatory things about you. Second, they like to persecute us. Now that means mistreatment. And that mistreatment may be physical, it may be psychological, it may be emotional, it may be social isolation. And then the third thing, if the insulting doesn’t work, and the mistreatment doesn’t work, then the last option is, they’ll tell lies. They’ll just make up stuff about us. You know the world loves to find fault with Christians. Let me ask you a question, if a preacher in this town were to run off with some woman in parts unknown, or an elder were to embezzle $10,000 out of the church treasury; do you think that would make the paper if reporters find out about it? You could bet your life it would make the papers. If a bartender down the street did either of those two things, would it be in the paper? No.
The world loves to find fault with Christians. And if you walk with integrity, and if you walk blamelessly, they’ll just make stuff up. That’s what they did with Jesus. Do you realize they called Jesus a glutton and a drunk? Remember? They called him an illegitimate son. The rumor on the street was he was an illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. LIES! But they made those things up to persecute Him.
Folks, there is a reality of persecution and harassment for the person who is faithful to Christ. What’s the reason for it. Why are we persecuted? Why are we harassed, and for goodness sakes, why on earth should we be happy about it? Well, the first thing I want you to notice are the reasons for persecution that are not covered by this wonderful promise. Jesus does not say, “Happy are those who are persecuted for being irritated.” Or, “Happy are those who are persecuted for being obnoxious.”
There are some people in this world who set themselves up for emotional martyrdom by being irritating, stubborn, loud, nosy, no wonder they’re put down. They’re just obnoxious. Jesus did not say, “Happy are those who are persecuted for being a jerk.” That’s not the beatitudes. Neither did he make the promise to those who are harassed for self-righteousness. Now let’s face it. I think over life, all of us have run into the guy or to the gal who come off as some kind of Holy Joe, and very smug, and when they talk to you, they give you that condescending look and they’re offensive in sharing their faith. I mean they’re first words are turn or burn, you know. And they look at it like, I’ve got all the answers about the Bible, and you’re an idiot. You don’t know anything. God DOES NOT commend that kind of faith. People like that will go out into the world and they’ll come back spurned and they’ll say something like, “Oh, I’m being persecuted for my faith.” No, you’re being persecuted for being a Pharisee. And even Jesus persecuted Pharisees. Self-righteousness is not commended here. No, that’s not what Jesus is talking about.
In this last beatitude, our Lord is talking about the right reason for being harassed….it’s for being like Him. He said, “Blessed are you if you’re persecuted because of following me.” Look at John 15:20, our Lord said, “‘No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.'” There is a right reason for being harassed, and the bottom line is for being like Jesus.
I’m sure you’ve noticed as I have that our world tends to be merciless on Christians, particularly the media. Constantly putting down, attacking, making fun of, when is the last time you’ve seen a Christian portrayed positively in a television drama, or a television sitcom? Frankly, if they had their way, it’s almost like Christianity does not exist. Everybody spends all their time in a bar or some other place. But remember, the world crucified Jesus, and it would still do it to Him today.
Our sin-conquered world is uncomfortable around goodness. And if you and I are really going to be the light of the world, you will, and I mean now without any self-righteousness, without any obnoxiousness, if you’re the light of the world, you will reveal darkness in other people’s lives. And when bright light pierces darkness, in that darkness there is a natural re-coil. That’s just the way it is.
I hope by now you have discovered this basic law of life, surely you have. The more positive you are, the more negative people will hate you. Have you learned that? The more positive you are, the more negative people will hate you.
Look at II Timothy 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” circle the word “will”. See it, if you’re a team and you want to be persecuted, just humbly say if there are a group of kids at school and all of a sudden one of them starts talking about sex and starts bragging about some things he or she may or may not have done, just humbly say, “I’m a Christian, and and I’ll tell you I’m just committed to being a virgin until I’m married.” You just say that and see what happens. Or in business, if there is a group around the coffee pot talking about what they are going to go out and do that night and they want you to come along. And you’re not smart-alecky about it, you say, “No, you guys know about my faith, and I just don’t think that would please the Lord.” What kind of snide remarks do you think are going to come as you walk away?
Some of you are here this morning and you were persecuted before you came because you’ve got a spouse or family member who ridicules you for getting up and making your way to worship your God this morning. Do you know what Jesus said? He said, “I’ll never ask you to go where I’ve not been. The world hated me before it ever hated you.”
Now you say, “Wait a minute, Gary, I don’t really need this message this morning. Nobody hassles me about living for Christ.” What does that tell you? What does that tell you? It tells you one or two things. You are either insulated and isolated from the world like some type of Tibetan monk, or you are no different than anybody else. Paul said in II Timothy 3:12, all who live godly lives will be persecuted. You will be harassed. It’s a given, and the given is because we’re like Jesus.
How do we respond to that kind of harassment? How do we respond to persecution? Jesus said, “Happy are you if you’re persecuted for my sake.” Now frankly, that sounds bizarre even to a mature believer, but it’s true. I’m genuinely happy when I’m harassed, if, IF NOW, I follow biblical principles for dealing with it. I’ve got five…these are not comprehensive, but they sure are a good start.
Number one is this, remember the source.
Remember the source of the persecution. Look at Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world…” Folks, the enemy is who? The enemy is the devil, right? Now when somebody comes up and persecutes me at school or at work or on the street or in daily life, when they persecute me, they’re not the enemy, they’re just a pawn. They’re just people like you and me, the difference is, they have been deceived by Satan. And they’re just tools in the hands of the devil, he’s the enemy.
Let me ask you a question here, those of you who are parents out there. If I wanted to hurt you, how could I most hurt you? That’s a terrible question, but just imagine that. I know I could do some things directly to you, but if I were as low and conniving and despicable as a human being could be, the way that I could hurt you the most is to hurt your kids, isn’t that right? I’ve had people try to persecute me and most of the time it’s no big deal. But if they get on the kids, and all of a sudden we turn into wolverines, don’t we? Listen, the devil cannot get at God, so he does what in his mind is the next best thing, he attacks His (God’s) children. Revelation 12:10 says, “Satan is the accuser of the brethren. He is the enemy.” Remember that when you are persecuted.
The second thing you do is refuse to retaliate.
Remember, the person doing the persecuting, they’re just a tool of Satan. I don’t need to retaliate, it would just intensify it. Look at Romans 12, two verses there, beginning at verse 19, Paul says, “Do not take revenge my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘it is mine to avenge; I will repay says the Lord.'” And then drop down two verses later to verse 21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Jesus said in Matthew 5, you turn the other cheek when you are insulted. You don’t retaliate. Now the natural state is to do what? “Hey, I’m going to get even. I’m going to get that guy back.” God says, “Wrong!” God says you never get ahead by trying to get even. You never get ahead by trying to get even. And besides, if you try to retaliate, if you try to get revenge, all you do is end up playing into the persecutor’s hands.
When I was a child, I hate to admit this, but I am the second oldest of nine, and I had three younger sisters, and on rare occasions, I would tease my younger sisters. Quit imagining stuff here, just on RARE occasions, I would tease my sisters. Do you know what I learned when I did that? I learned that once they started to react, I was in control. Once I got them, and they began to squeal, I had them right where I wanted them, you know. I was in control. See, that’s not what you do Christians, you don’t retaliate, you respond, positively, in a way they wouldn’t expect.
Look at Matthew 5:44. Here’s what Jesus said, “‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'” Have you got somebody giving you a hard time, harassing you, you don’t yell back at them, you don’t slap them, you don’t manipulate them, you just go home and pray for them. Now is that easy? No. Is that unusual? Yes. Is that what Jesus said do? Yes. Hear me, if you do it, you’ll find happiness. If you try to get even, you let them control you by their persecution, you will get more and more and more miserable. But if you can pray for them, you’ll start loving them. And there is not a thing that they can do to you to keep you in misery.
Now people I will admit to you that this is the height of Christian maturity. This is the reason it’s the last beatitude. If Jesus had started with this one, everybody would have read that and said, “Well, that’s crazy,” closed the book and walked on. Only when I have grown those first seven beatitudes in my life, can I really have the maturity to where I say, “Man, if people can persecute me, I can even be happy through that.”
Following this chain of beatitudes, you learn one of the greatest principles of life, you can control your reaction. There are a lot of things in life you can’t control, you can’t control what happens to you, you can’t control what people say about you. You can’t control the hassles you might receive, but you can control how you respond.
And now the third principle, and this is the one people really stumble over, they don’t understand—Rejoice over it. Rejoice over it.
Remember who the real enemy is, refuse to retaliate, and now rejoice over it. Say what? Rejoice over the persecution? You say, Gary, isn’t that being a masochist? You know saying, “Hurt me, hurt me, come on please, hurt me.” No, Jesus is not saying, rejoice in the pain, but he says, when people put you down for your faith, not for being obnoxious or haughty, but if people put you down for being like Jesus, don’t complain, celebrate.
I’ve given you three great reasons from the Bible that we can do that. I hope you learn these well, because this is the key.
Number one, I can rejoice over persecution because when I’m harassed for my faith, it means the Spirit of Christ can be seen in my life.
When I’m harassed for my faith, IT MEANS THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST CAN BE SEEN IN MY LIFE. If it couldn’t be, nobody would be hassling us. Look at I Peter 4:14, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
Do you see what Peter said? He said when people put you down for being a Christian, it just means they see Jesus in you. It means that God’s Spirit is bearing its fruit in your life. It means the light of Christ is shining brightly enough in you that people are noticing. It means that you’re not a Lady Clairol Christian. Do you know what a Lady Clairol Christian is? You know, “Only God knows for sure.”
That’s funny, but I want to tell you the truth, we need more persecuted Christians. That’s a bold statement, but we need a lot more persecuted Christians. And we need fewer secret agent Christians and believers. We need audio/visual Christians that you can see and you can hear. We need show and tell Christians. They show it in the way they live and they tell it in their talk. And it takes both. If you don’t show it, you’re a hypocrite. If you don’t tell it, you’re not an ambassador.
One of the cop-outs I hear all the time is, “Well, my life is my witness to other people.” Have you ever thought about how arrogant a statement that is? I never say a word about Jesus, but my life is a testimony to people about Christ. You know that is saying that you’re so good that people just come in your presence and bow down and say, “I repent. I repent because here is somebody so Christ-like.” Has anybody ever done that in your life? Maybe your life is not quite the witness you think it is. Maybe we need to show and to tell. Even Jesus had to tell them, didn’t he? Even Jesus had to tell them! Speak a good word for Jesus. If I am persecuted and harassed, it shows that I’m walking the talk, and the Spirit of God is on me.
The second reason I can rejoice when I’m persecuted is I’m in good company.
Look at Matthew 5:12, our original beatitude paragraph. Jesus said, “‘Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'” Hebrews 11 is that great chapter of faith, the stories of the heroes and the heroines who went on before us. And you know one of the things that I read about Able, Noah, and Moses, and David, and Joshua, and all those listed, there was not a one of them who did not suffer for their faith. And the verse that follows that chapter, Hebrews 12:1, Paul says, “Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders…and run the race with perseverance…”
I don’t know how you like to picture that, but every time I see one of those big white cumulus clouds, I like to pretend that’s my cloud of witnesses. I like to pretend that Moses and Abraham and Joseph are sitting on top of that cloud, and they’re looking down at me, and they’re cheering me on. They’re saying, “Come on, Gary, come on buddy, you can make it through life. You can be faithful, we did.”
Listen to Acts 5:41, it says, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” If I am persecuted, it’s a badge of honor. Again, not for self-righteousness, not for obnoxiousness, counted WORTHY to follow the footsteps of my Lord. He suffered for me.
And the third reason I have for rejoicing even in persecution is: It’s only temporary.
It’s only temporary. In II Corinthians 4:17, Paul said, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Would you agree with me when I say that nobody I ever knew anything about was persecuted like Paul. The man was beaten and beaten, he was stoned two different times. He was imprisoned we know of four times, he was shipwrecked, he was maligned, he was finally beheaded. But he rejoiced through all that because he kept an eternal perspective. In fact, he was the one who wrote these words, he said, “Our light and momentary troubles…” Think about that. This guy has been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, he says, “…light and momentary…” If his were light and momentary, what are ours, ridiculous and ludicrous? I mean what would we call ours?
I love the story of the fellow who was asked what his favorite verse in the Bible was, and he looked back and he said, “And it came to pass…” Somebody says, “What do you mean? Why is that your favorite verse?” He said, “Because anytime I get harassed, anytime I have a difficult time, I know it didn’t come to stay, it came to pass.” And it does, it always passes. Rejoice, not over the hurt, not over the embarrassment, but because it confirms your moving toward your goal of being like Jesus.
Remember my reward. Our beatitude Matthew 5:12 says, “‘Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven.'” I circled the word, “great”, not little, not average, but great is your reward in heaven. Did you know that Scripture teaches that there are degrees of reward in heaven? It does, you really can’t deny it, all the way through. You say, “Gary, do you understand all that?” No, I really don’t. I’ll have to get there before I really understand it. But we’re told right here that there are special honors, special glory for those who experience persecution. Great is your reward if you are persecuted for my sake.
Look at Romans 8:17, wonderful verse, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” look at the last part of the verse, “if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” We share His sufferings, we share His glory.
Matthew 19:29, Jesus said, “‘Whatever you give us for the Lord’s sake will be given back to you a hundred-fold.” Do you know what a hundred-fold is? That’s 10,000 percent interest. Anybody got a mutual fund doing that well? Ten thousand percent interest.
And finally, remain faithful. I don’t know what else to say. After looking at all we’ve looked at, just remain faithful. I Peter 4:19, Peter said, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” I like those two words, commit and continue. Commit and continue, that’s what we do as long as God let’s us live.
I want to ask you a couple of tough questions as we close, and I’m not picking on you, I’m picking on me. I’m asking them to me before I ever ask them to you. What is your faith costing you? That’s a pretty hard question to answer. We’ve got it so easy in America, and we thank God for that blessing, but we pay a price for it. I’m not so sure but what apathy and complacency aren’t the worst of all sins. What’s your faith costing you?
The second question I would ask, at what cost would you stay faithful to Christ? I could have told you stories today about missionaries who had guns put to their heads or to their children’s heads in places like China years ago, and demanded that they renounce the name of Jesus so their family would be shot. And those families most of the time were shot.
At what cost would you be faithful? You know persecution is really out of our vocabulary. We just talk about convenience. I heard one preacher get up and say to people, “I thank you for braving the rain to be here today.” I tell you our folks on our cloud of witnesses like David and Samson are going, “Braving the RAIN?” “Braving the RAIN? Leaving your warm house and walking 20 feet with an umbrella and coming into an air-conditioned/heated auditorium? Braving the RAIN?” You don’t brave rain, it’s just minor inconvenience.
I really, folks, think we all need to kind of re-grip who we’re called to be, and the commitment we’re called to have. Because if you don’t, you won’t be happy. See we’re all going to die one of these days, and the only way you’ll be happy is if you die for something, not just die. That’s really what the beatitudes are all about. The capstone is you will be happy if you are committed. You will be happy if your heart is singular and pure and devoted. And nobody can take that away from you, even people who would persecute you.
(5:10-12) Persecuted: to endure suffering for Christ; to be mocked, ridiculed, criticized, ostracized; to be treated with hostility; to be martyred. Note several significant points.
1. There are three major kinds of persecution mentioned by Christ in this passage:
· Being reviled: verbally abused, insulted, scolded, mocked (cruel mockings, Hebrews 11:36).
· Persecuted: hurt, ostracized, attacked, tortured, martyred, and treated hostily.
· Having all manner of evil spoken against: slandered, cursed, and lied about (cp. Psalm 35:11; Acts 17:6-7; cp. “hard speeches,” that is, harsh, defiant words, Jude 15).
2. Who are the persecuted?
a. The person who lives and speaks for righteousness and is reacted against.
b. The person who lives and speaks for Christ and is reviled, persecuted, and spoken against.
3. Persecution is a paradox. It reveals that the true nature of the world is evil. Think about it: the person who lives and speaks for righteousness is opposed and persecuted. The person who cares and works for the true love, justice, and salvation of the world is actually fought against. How deceived is the world and its humanity, to rush onward in madness for nothing but to return to dust, to seek life only for some seventy years (if nothing happens before then)!
4. Believers are forewarned, they shall suffer persecution.
a. Believers shall suffer persecution because they are not of this world. They are called out of the world. They are in the world, but they are not of the world. They are separated from the behavior of the world. Therefore, the world reacts against them.
5. Persecutions can erupt from the most devilish imaginations of men (see Deeper Study #1—1 Peter 4:12 for a description of some of the sufferings of God’s dear people).
6. What is to be the believer’s attitude toward persecution?
a. It is not to be retaliation, pride, spiritual superiority.
b. It is to be joy and gladness (Matthew 5:12; 2 Cor. 12:10; 1 Peter 4:12-13).
7. The persecuted are promised great rewards.
a. The Kingdom of Heaven—now.
· They experience a special honor (Acts 5:41).
· They experience a special consolation (2 Cor. 1:5).
· They are given a very special closeness, a glow of the Lord’s presence (see note—§1 Peter 4:14).
They become a greater witness for Christ (2 Cor. 1:4-6)
“If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19).
b. They shall suffer persecution because believers strip away the world’s cloak of sin. They live and demonstrate a life of righteousness. They do not compromise with the world and its sinful behavior. They live pure and godly lives, having nothing to do with the sinful pleasures of a corruptible world. Such living exposes the sins of people.
“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you….If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin” (John 15:18, 22).
“Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
c. They shall suffer persecution because the world does not know God nor Christ. The ungodly of the world want no God other than themselves and their own imaginations. They want to do just what they want—to fulfill their own desires, not what God wishes and demands. However, the godly believer dedicates his life to God, to His worship and service. The ungodly want no part of God; therefore, they oppose those who talk about God and man’s duty to honor and worship God.
“But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me” (John 15:21).
“And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:3).
d. They shall suffer persecution because the world is deceived in its concept and belief of God. The world conceives God to be the One who fulfills their earthly desires and lusts (John 16:2-3). Man’s idea of God is that of a Supreme Grandfather. They think that God protects, provides, and gives no matter what a person’s behavior is, just so the behavior is not too far out, that God will accept and work all things out in the final analysis. However, the true believer teaches against this. God is love, but He is also just and demands righteousness. The world rebels against this concept of God.
“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:2-3).
“Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).
“These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not know the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them. And these things I said not unto you at the beginning, because I was with you” (John 16:1-4).
“That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto” (1 Thes. 3:3).
“For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).
“Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
“Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you” (1 John 3:13).
“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified” (1 Peter 4:12-14).
It is hard for us to realize what the first Christians had to suffer. Every department of their life was disrupted.
(i) Their Christianity might well disrupt their work. Suppose a man was a stone-mason. That seems a harmless enough occupation. But suppose his firm received a contract to build a temple to one of the heathen gods, what was that man to do? Suppose a man was a tailor, and suppose his firm was asked to produce robes for the heathen priests, what was that man to do? In a situation such as that in which the early Christians found themselves there was hardly any job in which a man might not find a conflict between his business interests and his loyalty to Jesus Christ.
The Church was in no doubt where a man’s duty lay. More than a hundred years after this a man came to Tertullian with this very problem. He told of his business difficulties. He ended by saying, “What can I do? I must live!” “Must you?” said Tertullian. If it came to a choice between a loyalty and a living, the real Christian never hesitated to choose loyalty.
(ii) Their Christianity would certainly disrupt their social life. In the ancient world most feasts were held in the temple of some god. In very few sacrifices was the whole animal burned upon the altar. It might be that only a few hairs from the forehead of the beast were burned as a symbolic sacrifice. Part of the meat went to the priests as their perquisite; and part of the meat was returned to the worshipper. With his share he made a feast for his friends and his relations. One of the gods most commonly worshipped was Serapis. And when the invitations to the feast went out, they would read:
“I invite you to dine with me at the table of our Lord Serapis.”
Could a Christian share in a feast held in the temple of a heathen god? Even an ordinary meal in an ordinary house began with a libation, a cup of wine, poured out in honor of the gods. It was like grace before meat. Could a Christian become a sharer in a heathen act of worship like that? Again the Christian answer was clear. The Christian must cut himself off from his fellows rather than by his presence give approval to such a thing. A man had to be prepared to be lonely in order to be a Christian.
(iii) Worst of all, their Christianity was liable to disrupt their home life. It happened again and again that one member of a family became a Christian while the others did not. A wife might become a Christian while her husband did not. A son or a daughter might become a Christian while the rest of the family did not. Immediately there was a split in the family. Often the door was shut for ever in the face of the one who had accepted Christ.
Christianity often came to send, not peace, but a sword which divided families in two. It was literally true that a man might have to love Christ more than he loved father or mother, wife, or brother or sister. Christianity often involved in those days a choice between a man’s nearest and dearest and Jesus Christ.
Still further, the penalties which a Christian had to suffer were terrible beyond description. All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the tenderest parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to lengthen the agony. These things are not pleasant to think about, but these are the things a man had to be prepared for, if he took his stand with Christ.
We may well ask why the Romans persecuted the Christians. It seems an extraordinary thing that anyone living a Christian life should seem a fit victim for persecution and death. There were two reasons.
(i) There were certain slanders which were spread abroad about the Christians, slanders for which the Jews were in no small measure responsible.
(a) The Christians were accused of cannibalism. The words of the Last Supper—“This is my body.”: “this cup is the New Testament in my blood”—were taken and twisted into a story that the Christians sacrificed a child and ate the flesh.
(b) The Christians were accused of immoral practices, and their meetings were said to be orgies of lust. The Christian weekly meeting was called the Agape, the Love Feast; and the name was grossly misinterpreted. Christians greeted each other with the kiss of peace; and the kiss of peace became a ground on which to build the slanderous accusations.
(c) The Christians were accused of being incendiaries. It is true that they spoke of the coming end of the world, and they clothed their message in the apocalyptic pictures of the end of the world in flames. Their slanderers took these words and twisted them into threats of political and revolutionary incendiarism.
(d) The Christians were accused of tampering with family relationships. Christianity did in fact split families as we have seen; and so Christianity was represented as something which divided man and wife, and disrupted the home. There were slanders enough waiting to be invented by malicious-minded men.
(ii) But the great ground of persecution was in fact political. Let us think of the situation. The Roman Empire included almost the whole known world, from Britain to the Euphrates, and from Germany to North Africa. How could that vast amalgam of peoples be somehow welded into one? Where could a unifying principle be found? At first it was found in the worship of the goddess Roma, the spirit of Rome. This was a worship which the provincial peoples were happy to give, for Rome had brought them peace and good government, and civil order and justice. The roads were cleared of brigands and the seas of pirates; the despots and tyrants had been banished by impartial Roman justice. The provincial was very willing to sacrifice to the spirit of the Empire which had done so much for him.
But this worship of Roma took a further step. There was one man who personified the Empire, one man in whom Roma might be felt to be incarnated, and that was the Emperor; and so the Emperor came to be regarded as a god, and divine honors came to be paid to him, and temples were raised to his divinity. The Roman government did not begin this worship; at first, in fact, it did all it could to discourage it. Claudius, the Emperor, said that he deprecated divine honors being paid to any human being. But as the years went on the Roman government saw in this Emperor-worship the one thing which could unify the vast Empire of Rome; here was the one center on which they all could come together. So, in the end, the worship of the Emperor became, not voluntary, but compulsory. Once a year a man had to go and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord.” And that is precisely what the Christians refused to do. For them Jesus Christ was the Lord, and to no man would they give that title which belonged to Christ.
It can be seen at once that Caesar-worship was far more a test of political loyalty than anything else. In actual fact when a man had burned his pinch of incense he received a certificate, a libellus, to say that he had done so, and then he could go and worship any god he liked, so long as his worship did not interfere with public order and decency. The Christians refused to conform. Confronted with the choice, “Caesar or Christ?” they uncompromisingly chose Christ. They utterly refused to compromise. The result was that, however good a man, however fine a citizen a Christian was, he was automatically an outlaw. In the vast Empire Rome could not afford pockets of disloyalty, and that is exactly what every Christian congregation appeared to the Roman authorities to be. A poet has spoken of “The panting, huddled flock whose crime was Christ.”
The only crime of the Christian was that he set Christ above Caesar; and for that supreme loyalty the Christians died in their thousands, and faced torture for the sake of the lonely supremacy of Jesus Christ.
THE BLISS OF THE BLOOD-STAINED WAY
When we see how persecution arose, we are in a position to see the real glory of the martyr’s way. It may seem an extraordinary thing to talk about the bliss of the persecuted; but for him who had eyes to see beyond the immediate present, and a mind to understand the greatness of the issues involved, there must have been a glory in that blood-stained way.
(i) To have to suffer persecution was an opportunity to show one’s loyalty to Jesus Christ. One of the most famous of all the martyrs was Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna. The mob dragged him to the tribunal of the Roman magistrate. He was given the inevitable choice—sacrifice to the godhead of Caesar or die. “Eighty and six years,” came the immortal reply, “have I served Christ, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” So they brought him to the stake, and he prayed his last prayer: “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy well-beloved and ever-blessed son, by whom we have received the knowledge of thee…I thank thee that thou hast graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour.” Here was the supreme opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Jesus Christ.
In the First World War Rupert Brooke, the poet, was one of those who died too young. Before he went out to the battle he wrote: “Now God be thanked who has matched us with his hour.”
There are so many of us who have never in our lives made anything like a real sacrifice for Jesus Christ. The moment when Christianity seems likely to cost us something is the moment when it is open to us to demonstrate our loyalty to Jesus Christ in a way that all the world can see.
(ii) To have to suffer persecution is, as Jesus himself said, the way to walk the same road as the prophets, and the saints, and the martyrs have walked. To suffer for the right is to gain a share in a great succession. The man who has to suffer something for his faith can throw back his head and say, “Brothers, we are treading where saints have trod.”
(iii) To have to suffer persecution is to share in the great occasion. There is always something thrilling in even being present on the great occasion, in being there when something memorable and crucial is happening. There is an even greater thrill in having a share, however, small, in the actual action. That is the feeling about which Shakespeare wrote so unforgettably in Henry the Fifth in the words he put into Henry’s mouth before the battle of Agincourt: “He that shall live this day and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his friends, And say, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Crispian;” Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’ And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here , And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
When a man is called on to suffer something for his Christianity that is always a crucial moment; it is the great occasion; it is the clash between the world and Christ; it is a moment in the drama of eternity. To have a share in such a moment is not a penalty but a glory. “Rejoice at such a moment,” says Jesus, “and be glad.” The word for be glad is from the verb agalliasthai which has been derived from two Greek words which mean to leap exceedingly. It is the joy which leaps for joy. As it has been put, it is the joy of the climber who has reached the summit, and who leaps for joy that the mountain path is conquered.
(iv) To suffer persecution is to make things easier for those who are to follow. Today we enjoy the blessing of liberty because men in the past were willing to buy it for us at the cost of blood, and sweat, and tears. They made it easier for us, and by a steadfast and immovable witness for Christ we may make it easier for others who are still to come.
In the great Boulder Dam scheme in America men lost their lives in that project which was to turn a dust-bowl into fertile land. When the scheme was completed, the names of those who had died were put on a tablet and the tablet was put into the great wall of the dam, and on it there was the inscription: “These died that the desert might rejoice and blossom as the rose.”
The man who fights his battle for Christ will always make things easier for those who follow after. For them there will be one less struggle to be encountered on the way.
(v) Still further, no man ever suffers persecution alone; if a man is called upon to bear material loss, the failure of friends, slander, loneliness, even the death of love, for his principles, he will not be left alone. Christ will be nearer to him than at any other time.
The old story in Daniel tells how Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the furnace heated seven times hot because of their refusal to move from their loyalty to God. The courtiers watched. “Did we not cast three men, bound, into the fire?” they asked. The reply was that it was indeed so. Then came the astonished answer, “but I see four men, loose, walking in the midst of the fire and they are not hurt; and the appearnace of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:19-25).
When a man has to suffer something for his faith, that is the way to the closest possible companionship with Christ.
There remains only one question to ask—why is this persecution so inevitable? It is inevitable because the Church, when it really is the Church, is bound to be the conscience of the nation and the conscience of society. Where there is good the Church must praise; where there is evil the Church must condemn—and inevitably men will try to silence the troublesome voice of conscience. It is not the duty of the individual Christian habitually to find fault, to criticize, to condemn, but it may well be that his every action is a silent condemnation of the unchristian lives of others, and he will not escape their hatred.
It is not likely that death awaits us because of our loyalty to the Christian faith. But insult awaits the man who insists on Christian honor. Mockery awaits the man who practices Christian love and Christian forgiveness. Actual persecution may well await the Christian in industry who insists on doing an honest days’ work. Christ still needs his witnesses; he needs those who are prepared, not so much to die for him, as to live for him. The Christian struggle and the Christian glory still exist.