Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Conclusion of the Beatitudes

Today we complete our tour through the Beatitudes in a message that builds right from yesterday's.  I say that because being persecuted for righteousness is being persecuted for Jesus.  We have no righteousness of our own and so whatever righteousness we have is from the Lord.  So with that, here is today's text.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:11-12 NKJV
I think this is more of an exposition on the previous beatitude than a separate one.  It expounds on just what we are persecuted for and what our response should be.  Once again, it makes no sense from earthly eyes.  We are happy when we are reviled?  We are to be happy when we are persecuted?  We are to be happy when people say all kinds of evil against us?  Yes, we are.  Not only are we to be happy, but Jesus tells us to rejoice and be exceedingly glad.  Jesus also gives us the reason in that our reward in Heaven will be great.  He also adds that we are in good company as they persecuted all the prophets that came before us. 

Real persecution is not something we truly experience in America.  Sure it is there, but the persecution we fear is the kind our brothers and sisters would pray for in other nations.  We deal with ridicule.  We deal with broken friendships or family relationships.  We may have a harder time finding a job or a harder time maintaining a job when we are asked to compromise our principals.  Much of today's entertainment and art slanders Christ and Christians and some of it can be hurtful or damaging.  In certain situations we do face imprisonment or violence, but very few Christians put themselves in that kind of situation.  In other nations, persecution is of the likes that we can not even imagine.  Men are beaten, killed, mutilated, imprisoned, blacklisted from ever having a job, literally shunned by family and friends, and more.  Women and children face the same along with rape and forced slavery.  I warn my American brothers that the world can change in an instant and that persecution you read about in magazines and books can show up right at your door.  Either way, we will all face persecution of some way or another and today I want to address how we should respond to persecution when it comes.

First of all, we must never retaliate for persecution.  I know the temptation is to react in kind, but that is not what we are called to do.  We are called to be meek and not aggressive.  We are called to be peacemakers, not war mongers.  You see, when we retaliate for persecution, we are allowing ourselves to be brought down to their level.  If they call us names and we call names back, how are we any better?  Are we to come to God as an insolent child with the tired old line of "He started it!"  We are to be above name-calling.  We are especially to be above violence.  One may think you will be seen as weak or cowardly if you do not retaliate, but nothing can be further from the truth.  It takes the strength of God in you to not retaliate in the flesh.  The strength of your flesh will not reach any souls, but the strength of God working through your spirit certainly will.   If you want to be a living testimony to the power of God in your life, then refrain from retaliation.  Church history is filled with the witness of those who accepted persecution with the grace of Jesus Christ.  That witness has led many to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior and continues to be an encouragement to us today.  Look at what God says through Paul
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Romans 12:14 NKJV
We will also see more of this in the Sermon on the Mount as we continue our study.  We must not retaliate for persecution. 

Not only are we to not retaliate for it, but we are also not to flee it.  When Daniel was commanded not to pray as he always did, did he change his habits or pray in hiding so as not to be punished?  No, he prayed as he always prayed and trusted God to get him through any earthly consequences.  Did Jesus flee from the guards who came to arrest him?  Did Stephen go to his stoning kicking and screaming trying to get away?  Of course none of those are true as they all faced the persecution they were called to face.  We can not fear the persecution to come nor can we run and hide or change our behavior or message to avoid it.  That is a failure in our faith in God.  It is also a failure of our focus.  Look at the promise Jesus gives: "...for great is your reward in heaven."  Fearing or running from persecution is a failure to look ahead to that glorious promise.  Instead, we are looking at our temporal circumstances and not the reward to follow.  If we truly believe in that glorious eternity and the reward to come and if we truly keep our eyes focused on our future to come, whatever happens in the present will be nothing but, as Paul (who knew persecution beyond what we can imagine) says, "momentary light afflictions." 

In the spirit of the reward to come, we must also not let persecution embitter us.  In fact, Jesus tells us to do quite the opposite.  We are to rejoice and be exceedingly glad.  We are to be glad that we have a great reward to come.  We are to be glad that people are seeing God in us.  We are to be glad that God is counting us worthy to suffer for His name.  We are to be glad that through our witness other souls can be saved.  We are to be glad because that persecution is a sign that we are one of His.  We are to be glad because we see the Word of God coming to life in our own lives.  Rejoice and be glad because the very ability to do so in the midst of persecution is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit working in your heart.  Rejoice and be glad because great will be our reward in heaven.  In other words, God will do better for us for all of eternity than what momentary bad anyone else can do to us. 

And, finally, we should be encouraged by persecution.  Jesus tells us that facing persecution for His name puts us in pretty good company.  We read the words of the prophets today and we read them (rightfully) as God's word.  We hear the heroic stories of prophets like Elijah and Elisha and take many encouraging lessons from their lives.  During their own ministries, though, that was not the case.  Elijah, Elisha, Daniel, Jeremiah, and all the other prophets were not so well accepted in their own time.  In fact, Jonah preaching in sinful Nineveh seems to have had a better effect that any prophet in Israel or Judah.  Prophets were routinely maligned, rejected, abused, persecuted, and many were killed.  Not only that, but those crimes were committed by God's own people.  When we face persecution, we should be encouraged that we share in that fellowship of suffering with all those called of God who came before us.  All those who suffered for God are now enjoying their eternal reward for that suffering and I can guarantee that they will tell you that it was all well worth it.  How do I know?  For that answer, let us look to the greatest example of all.  Jesus, our Lord, was persecuted.  He was run out of his home town where they wanted to kill Him.  He was ultimately rejected by His own chosen people and was handed over to the Romans to be humiliated, tortured, and killed.  Jesus now retaken His place at the right hand of God awaiting us, His bride.  Just like our Lord, though we may suffer for a little while now, we will ultimately take our place in glory with our Lord. 

Before I close, I just want to take a moment to sum up the Beatitudes.  While they may be a progression of becoming a man of God, they are also a description of a man of God.  All of the Beatitudes apply to us equally at all times.  This is not some description of a super Christian, but of every Christian.  We are all called to recognize our poverty of Spirit before God.  We are all to mourn for not just the sin in our own lives, but of the sin of the world and the hurt and damage it causes.  We are all called to be meek, having a humble spirit before God and the world around us.  We are call called to hunger and thirst desperately to be filled with the righteousness of God.  We are all called to be merciful, showing the same grace, forgiveness, and understanding to others that Jesus has shown to us.  We are all called to be pure of heart, allowing the sanctification of the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  We are all called to be peacemakers, to be the ambassadors of God sharing His good news with all the world.  We are all called to live and stand for righteousness and face with the courage of God the persecution that is to come.  And, finally, we are all called to suffer persecution for the name of Jesus knowing that as they rejected Him they will reject us.  The Beatitudes are entirely unnatural to the man of flesh and the ability to live any of them at any level are a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit of God in our hearts.  Being that man of God will convict the world of their unrighteousness and as they come to terms with God we will face the same rejection and persecution experienced by those prophets and saints of old and especially that of our Lord.  Take heart, though, because being this man of God is a blessed person to be as ours is the Kingdom of God, our comfort comes from the Lord, we will inherit the earth in the kingdom to come, we will be filled with the righteousness of God, we have obtained the mercy and grace of God, and we are children of the Living God.  Just as we are called to be the Beatitudes at all times, we are to enjoy the rewards of God at all times. We live in the constant hope of those promises to come in the next life and in constant joy for the promises that are being fulfilled in this life.  Blessed is the man or woman of God. 
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NKJV

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