Beatitudes: Blessed are those who are persecuted

The Beatitudes: Those Who Are Persecuted
A Message on Matthew 5:10-12
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 27, 2022
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 5:10-11 (NRSV)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

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Today we conclude our sermon series on the Beatitudes by looking at the last one: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now remember that Jesus gives us the beatitudes as part of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus goes to the top of a mountain and begins to teach his disciples.

As part of those teachings, he gives what are known as beatitudes, so named because of the Latin name for the beginning of each teaching that starts as “blessed.” The word can also mean “happy” or even “rich.”

Let’s review all eight beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

And then we get to the one we are exploring today: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This one, the last one, breaks the pattern. All the other beatitudes follow the simple format of “Blessed are,” followed by “for…” But with the eighth one, we get an additional paragraph that we know as verse 11: “Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Now some scholars believe that verse 11 is a beatitude in itself, but I don’t ascribe to that. I think it is a continuation of the “persecuted” beatitude, and I believe that because of the language. The words “revile,” “persecution,” and “utter all kinds of evil against you” are forms of persecution if you ask me.

So why is this one different from the others? I believe it is because Jesus is wanting to emphasize the importance of this beatitude. And this beatitude about being persecuted is very important.

If you look at the beatitudes they seem to become more impactful as they go from beginning to end. And unlike many of the Old Testament laws, which give a rule and then a punishment if that rule is violated, the beatitudes are more positive, more encouraging, more about giving hope during the tough times and choosing to do the right thing even when it’s the tougher thing to do.

The beatitudes are more about love than condemnation.

The one we are focusing on today, about persecution, does that as well.

So what is persecution? Well, it’s when people are mistreated by other people, often with hostility and even physical violence.

A good example is Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in World War II. Hitler persecuted the Jewish people horribly, sending millions to their death just because of their religion.

And in our country we remember those who were persecuted by the color of their skin. The Civil Rights movement sought to correct that by protecting the rights of people regardless of their skin color.

We may mistakenly think that persecution is something that happened in the past and that it is not something that happens in the modern world. But we would be wrong.

I think part of the challenge of being Christian in the United States is that we develop a very narrow world view in which we assume that other parts of the world work the same way our country does. But that is not true. Not at all.

There are many places in the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We don’t hear about it much, but that is very much the truth.

There are web sites that have information about things like this. Christianity Today has an annual ranking of the countries in the world that are the most dangerous for Christians. And that data is not very encouraging.

According to their statistics, 1,000 more Christians were killed because of their faith last year than in 2020. One thousand more were detained than the year before. Six hundred more churches were either attacked or destroyed than the previous year.

Those aren’t totals, folks. Those are just the increases.

Based on data from September 2020 to October 2021 compiled by a group named Open Doors, Afghanistan overtook North Korea in the list of countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. Here is the list.

  1. Afghanistan
  2. North Korea
  3. Somalia
  4. Libya
  5. Yemen
  6. Eritrea
  7. Nigeria
  8. Pakistan
  9. Iran
  10. India

Here is the list of places where Christians face the most violence:

  1. Nigeria
  2. Pakistan
  3. India
  4. Central African Republic
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. Mozambique
  7. Cameroon
  8. Afghanistan
  9. Mali
  10. South Sudan

And here’s a list of the countries where the most Christians were martyred last year with the estimated number of Christians killed:

  1. Nigeria: 4,650
  2. Pakistan: 620
  3. Name withheld: 100*
  4. Burkina Faso 100*
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo: 100*
  6. Mozambique: 100*
  7. Central African Republic: 29
  8. Cameroon: 27
  9. Tanzania: 25
  10. Indonesia: 15
    *estimated

Source: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/january/christian-persecution-2022-countries-killed-world-list.html

So as you can see, there are places in the world where Christians are being persecuted.

We have a church member here who really knows about persecution, because she is from one of those Countries. Okwa Inyamuwa is from Nigeria and is a student at the Baptist seminary here in Jacksonville. I had a good conversation with her about this, and she says that it is true that Christians are indeed being persecuted in Nigeria, especially in the northern part of the country. There are kidnappings, killings, attacks on churches during services, and even job descrimination based on being a Christian.

I asked her if she was planning to go back to Nigeria after her studies, and she said she is willing to go wherever the Lord leads her. And if the Lord leads her to Nigeria or some other dangerous place, she will be obedient and go. Wow.

Here’s the ironic thing: In many of the areas of the world where Christians are being persecuted, like Nigeria, the church is growing.

One of those places we heard about this past week as the news covered Russia invading the country of Ukraine. Lord, in your mercy…

Do you know what the major religion is in Ukraine? It’s Christianity. Statistics show 71 percent of the people living in Ukraine are Christian. That’s pretty impressive. To put that in perspective, here in the US 65 percent claim to be Christian. Yeah. Ukraine has a higher percentage of Christians than the United States.

But unlike the US, the percentage of believers in Ukraine has been increasing. In 2000, the percentage of believers was 57.8 percent. Today it is 71 percent.

And now the Christians living in Ukraine fear that if Russia takes over their country, they will be persecuted. I pray they are wrong, but I fear they may be right.

And in the midst of this, we read the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the rest of the beatitudes, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Such thinking seems to fly in the face of logic. It seems contrary to wisdom.

But is it? Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it.

In 2 Timothy 3:12 the Apostle Paul writes, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Notice that it doesn’t say “might be persecuted” or “perhaps may be persecuted.” No. “…all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Here is John 15:18, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”

And listen to these words that Peter, the rock of the church, wrote in 1 Peter 4:12-14, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”

And once again the words of Paul, from 2 Corinthians 12:10: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Being a Christian doesn’t work like a vaccination designed to protect us and keep bad things from happening to us. If anything it is just the opposite. Being a Christian is about making hard choices to do the right thing even if–and especially when–it hurts. It is putting the needs of others before our own, it is about sacrifice, it is about fulfilling the oath we make when we join the church to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

When we live our lives as Christ, when we become the hands and feet of Jesus to our world, we will get ridiculed. We will get picked on. We will be persecuted.

But there are positive things about it as well, even though it’s hard to believe. One positive is knowing that what we are doing really matters. It may not seem to if we evaluate it based on what the world says is important, but it does matter to Jesus.

In John 14:27 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

As Christians we are to respond to a higher calling. We are to do the righteous things, the right things. Because we have free will we can choose to do the right things or not. The easier path is to not. Choosing to live as Christ is always the more difficult path, and in choosing Jesus we will be persecuted.

But even so we will be blessed. We will be blessed so that we can be a blessing to others, knowing that no matter how horribly we are persecuted in this world, we have the hope, the promise, that something better is coming. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection our lives are not limited by this world or by the seeming finality of death. We are a resurrection people. This world is not our home, we’re only passing through.

So my challenge to you this week is to live your life like Jesus, knowing that in doing so you will be persecuted. It goes with the territory. But you will also be blessed, blessed by the grace of God that is given to us through the love of Jesus Christ.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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