The Greatest Sermon in History Part 4
Hang On for Heaven
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
February 1, 2004

 

Main Passage: Matthew 5:1-12 (NLT)

 

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been going through the Beatitudes. There are eight of them in all; we’ve already looked at the first seven. And we’ve saved the eighth one for today. So here are at the final Beatitude, the one that Jesus spend more time on than all the others, and the one that is probably the most confusing for us to understand.

This is what He said…

 

Beatitude #8

“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.”
~ Matthew 5:10-12 (NIV)


We’re supposed to be happy when we’re persecuted? We’re supposed to be glad about being punished? And not just punished, but punished for doing right! Hey, I can handle it when I’m punished for doing wrong. Believe me, my parents had punish me a lot for doing the wrong thing. And even then I understood it, I can tell you I never enjoyed it. But punished for doing right? And being glad about it? That’s not just confusing, it’s plain weird.

But Jesus didn’t say, “You’re blessed if you’re persecuted for being an idiot.” And He didn’t say, “You’re blessed if you’re persecuted for committing a crime.” He said, “You’re blessed if you’re persecuted because of righteousness… for doing the right thing… for living in a right relationship with God.”

“Thanks for the wonderful job you’ve done, now off with your head.” Doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean, surely no one could ever be punished for doing right!

Doesn’t make sense? Try this. Take your pen, and in the blank space in your message notes I want you to try some math.

Write down your shoe size. (If it’s a half size, round it down, not up.)
Multiply that by 2.
Now add 5. So far, so good?
Now multiply by 50 and add 1754 and subtract the year of your birth.
The last two digits should be how old you are or how old you will turn this year.

[Note: this works for the year 2004. For 2005, change 1754 to 1755, etc.]

Anybody understand that? Probably not. But just because it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it’s not true. You can be punished for doing right.

A few years ago, Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum finished a 10-year long survey. Over that time, they had asked 35,000 people to name the people they admired most in history. Top five answers are on the board…

1. Winston Churchill
2. Joan of Arc
3. Jesus Christ
4. John F. Kennedy
5. Robin Hood

These are people that we respect and admire. Surely that proves that the people who do good are honoured. Yeah, sure. Churchill was voted out of office, Joan of Arc burned at the stake, Jesus Christ crucified, JFK assassinated, and Robin Hood hunted as a criminal. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the good are not always rewarded for doing good.

And if society could persecute and eventually murder the God-Man, Jesus Christ, then it seems clear that the very same society could persecute any who choose to follow Him and call themselves by His name.

Jesus knew this. That’s why He said,

Matthew 5:10 (NIV)
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In fact, He expanded on this in John 15 when He told His disciples…

John 15:18-20 (NLT)
“When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you. The world would love you if you belonged to it, but you don't. I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you. Do you remember what I told you? `A servant is not greater than the master.' Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you!”

 

Why Would People Persecute Believers?

 

A. They Feel Threatened – You challenge their way of life

A wild animal will attack you when it feels threatened. And if someone feels threatened by you and your faith, then it is quite possible that they will attack you.

Let me give you an example. Look at the domination of sexuality in our society. What has free sex given us?

PARTICIPATION
(unwanted pregnancies, STDs, abortions, suicide, depression, rape…)

Society would tell you that we have a condom problem with a condom solution. That’s according to the value system of the world. But the value system of Heaven would tell you that we have a moral problem and that it has a spiritual solution. But if you state that view in public, you may be seen as strict and legalistic, living the dark ages, and as some unenlightened baboon who needs a good dose of reality.

The value system of the world and the value system of Heaven are always in conflict.

I remember having coffee with someone a year or so ago, and he couldn’t get over the fact that I don’t cheat on my taxes. I don’t lie about my income, I don’t hide money, I don’t cut corners… I’m as honest and legal as I can be. If there’s a legitimate break I can claim, then I’ll do that. I don’t want to pay more than I’m supposed to. But I don’t try to cheat the government.

The guy I was with tried to convince me that there’s nothing wrong with cheating on your taxes. As far as he was concerned, the government deserves it. They cheat you, you should cheat them. And he couldn’t get over the fact that I don’t.

I’m sure he thought I was either lying or that I’m incredibly naďve. You know what else? I think he may have felt a little threatened by that. He may have felt like I was looking down on him. He may have felt a little exposed. He may have recognized that there could be some thought process or some action in his life that wasn’t exactly moral.

I think we’ve all felt like that at some time or other. We’ve recognized that we don’t quite measure up, and our natural instinct is to defend ourselves. We justify our actions, and if that means tearing in to the person who makes us confront our weakness or our sinfulness, so be it.

 

B. They Feel Superior – You challenge their opinions

As a pastor, I face this fairly often. People don’t always say it out loud, but when they find out that I’m a believer and that I’m a pastor, they lump me in with the Jimmy Swaggarts, the Jim Bakers, the Jim Joneses and the David Koreshes of the world. Or they blame me for the Crusades… a time in Church history when a lot of things were done in the name of Christ with which Christ had nothing to do. (By the way, that’s a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain… using it inappropriately and using the authority of His name when it doesn’t apply.)

So people judge me based on other Christian leaders who have fallen or based on embarrassing times in Church history. But that doesn’t just happen to pastors. People will form an opinion about you based on what they’ve seen of believers in the media (and if they’re in the media, they’re usually a kook) or they will form an opinion based on other believers they’ve know who were perhaps less-than-ideal examples of what it means to live for Jesus. We talked about this at the seminar yesterday… perhaps they’ve known one other “Christian” in their life time and that “Christian” was a hypocrite or self-righteous and judgmental. If that’s the exposure a person has to one Christian, they may figure that we’re all the same. We’re all a bunch of hypocrites.

 

C. They Feel Insulted – You challenge their morality

Part of the message of Christianity is, “You’re not good enough. You’re not good enough to make it on your own. You’re not good enough to earn you way into Heaven. You’re not good enough to please God.” It’s an offensive message. And for a lot of people, it’s not what they want to hear.

 

D. They Feel Abused – You challenge their past

When Shera and I were living in Bedford, we had a guy who started to come to the church that we later found out was one of the victims of sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland. He had been severely scarred by the Church, and it took him years before he’d darkened the doorstep of a church again. Until finally he had neighbours who attended our church who took the time to build a relationship with him and restore some credibility.

It’s a sad reality that there are several people in our society who have been sexually or physically abused by the church. And there are several others who have been abused emotionally or mentally or even spiritually. I know of some people who grew up in such strict, rigid Christian homes that they want nothing to do with that kind of legalism. That’s what the church has become to them.

Bill Maher is someone I see on TV all the time, and I’ve never heard him say anything good about the Church. In fact, he spends a lot of time tearing it down. And in doing so he’ll usually refer to religious wars throughout history and his own childhood growing up in Church. And as a result of his experiences as a child, he has no use for the Church today.

There are all kinds of people who have been hurt by the Church, and as a result don’t want anything to do with it. Maybe they blame God for some tragedy in their lives. And if you represent God, then they’re going to direct their anger and their hatred toward you. You will be persecuted because of your relationship with Jesus.

 

One of the largest displays of persecution in recent years was seen on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden and the rest of al Qaida attacked what they perceived to be a Christian society. Here at Sunrise we support a missionary by the name of JM (name removed for security reasons). He’s a missionary to the Karis people, but I can’t tell you exactly where he is because it could endanger him. Right now in Sri Lanka, Christians are being forced out of the country or are being slaughtered.

Take a look at this map. This map was compiled in 2000 by the Center for Religious Freedom, which is a part of Freedom House in Washington (www.freedomhouse.org/religion), an organization co-founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in 1941. This map shows the level of religious freedom around the world. The countries in blue are where you’ll find a relatively free society when it comes to religion. As you might expect, we live in one of those countries. Next, you have the yellow countries, which indicate countries which are partly free but which do suffer from some religious discrimination and oppression. And then you have the red countries, where there is virtually no freedom of religion whatsoever.

Christians in these countries face the threat of beatings, imprisonment, rape, and even execution. And they say Christianity is for the weak. Yeah, right.

In comparison, I feel like a wimp complaining about any persecution I face. But the truth is, there is persecution even here. What are some examples?

PARTICIPATION
(banning school prayer, “holiday” trees, marginalized by society, dismissed as intellectual morons…)

You’ll face persecution to one degree or another by society, and you’ll also face it from individuals. Some people will insult you, slander you, cheat you, take advantage of you, discriminate against you and dismiss you and your message as irrelevant. And yes, even in Canada there are people who are beat up because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

What do you do when that happens?

 

When You Are Persecuted…

 

1. Stand Firm

Don’t give in to the pressure. Don’t downplay the importance of Christ in your life just because someone doesn’t like it. Don’t adopt World values just because people get uncomfortable with Kingdom values.

This week I read a little bit about the first century Church. In the generation following Christ’s death and resurrection, believers literally feared for their lives. You see, each year the people under Roman rule had to pay tribute to the Emperor by offering a pinch of incense and saying, “Caesar is Lord.” The problem was that the early Christians refused to do that because of their firmly held belief that only Jesus is Lord. And so their lives became very cheap. These Christians were often burnt at a stake, wrapped in animal skins and thrown to wild dogs, tortured on racks… They had to suffer in ways that we would find hard to imagine today.

I’m sure these words of Jesus resounded loud and clear for them.

Matthew 5:11 (NIV)
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Jesus knew that there were people in the crowd that very day who, because of their faith, would be beaten, imprisoned, flogged, beheaded, crucified, boiled in oil, fed to lions, exiled, hanged, torn apart by wild animals, and tortured. (Not necessarily in that order.) Yet through all of this He encourages them to endure it… to stand firm.

I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, “Mean people need Prozac.” That may be true. They also need to see that your faith is real enough that you’re not going to abandon it when things get tough.

 

2. Be glad about it

Why? Why should we be glad about it? What reason is there to rejoice when you’re being persecuted. Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Enjoy it.” I think you need to be a bit demented to enjoy persecution. And He didn’t say that we should go out of our way to find ways to be persecuted. But He did say, “When you are persecuted… when your relationship with Me results in you being discriminated against or punished in some way… then there’s a silver lining. You have reasons to celebrate even in spite of what you’re going through.” What are those reasons? Let me give you three…

Three Reasons to Celebrate:

a. It guarantees you a reward in Heaven

It’s the old philosophy of “No pain, no gain.” You may have to endure some pain for the moment, but in the end it will be well worth it. Jesus said, “…great is your reward in heaven.”

1 Peter 3:14-15 (NLT)
But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don't be afraid and don't worry. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life.

About two weeks ago, Shera and I drove to Fredericton for a puppetry conference she was going to there. And one of the things I’ve started to do when driving over the Bridge is listen ot the Confederation Bridge Radio. I know, pretty sad. But I like to catch up on the weather forecast, they give you some trivia, and they always have a “Smile for Today.” And I liked this one…

“Pain and suffering are like gas… this too shall pass.”

Well, there’s some good Biblical teaching in there. Whatever you have to go through right now for the sake of Christ, you will be rewarded for it in Heaven.

 

b. It puts you in good company

Jesus said, “…for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Many of the heroes of the faith had to endure persecution:
Abel – Genesis 4:3-8
David – 1 Samuel 18:9-11
Jeremiah – Jeremiah 20:10
Daniel – Daniel 6
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego – Daniel 3
Moses – Exodus 5:21; 14:11; 16:2; 17:2
Samuel – 1 Samuel 8:5
Elijah – 1 Kings 18:17; 19:2
Nehemiah – Nehemiah 4:1-3
Amos – Amos 7:10-13
Stephen – Acts 7
Paul – 2 Corinthians 11:24-28
Etc.

They were all persecuted because of their faith. And if you are persecuted because of your faith, then that puts you right in their company.

 

c. It identifies you with Jesus

We talked about this verse earlier. Jesus said…

John 15:20 (NLT)
Do you remember what I told you? `A servant is not greater than the master.' Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you.

 

3. Pray for your persecutors

In another part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says…

Matthew 5:44 (NIV)
“…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

We’re going to be dealing with that verse in future weeks. So for now, let’s just recognize that an important part of dealing with being treated unfairly is to pray for the person who is treated us that way. Don’t pray against them, pray for them.

 

Persecution is not fun. (That may be the most obvious statement I’ve ever made.) But the truth is, even when you and I face times of persecution and discrimination and punishment and ridicule and abuse because of our faith, there is an upside. One day, not too far away, all this will be done and we can spend eternity with our God in Heaven.

 

 

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