Jesus introduced his monumental Sermon on the Mount with a series of shocking statements, commonly called beatitudes. It is strange even to the point of being weird that these beatitudes which strike our ears as being revolutionarily radical are all about a very common subject: happiness and how to get it. The word translated "blessed" in many versions of scripture is actually an ordinary word for happiness.
To compound the mystery, Jesus not only gave us a most peculiar set of directions for happiness, he went on to say that they were the route into the kingdom of heaven. This highway of happiness leading to the kingdom of heaven is certainly not the kind of road we would normally have expected to take. If it were not for the clear markings on the map, I doubt we would ever have found it. It takes us through poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. Jesus lets us know from the beginning that the kingdom is costly. If there were any doubt about that, Jesus clears it up with the final beatitude: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Don't misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Christian disciples don't seek persecution. Persecution seeks them simply because they are what they are. Look again at these strange beatitudes and see in them the description of Christians in hostile contrast to their environment. Those who are poor in spirit offend others who are complacently self-sufficient. Those who mourn irritate those who are callous and indifferent. Those who are meek aggravate others who are proud. Those who are spiritually hungry nettle others who are physically lustful. Those who offer mercy rile those who demand justice. Those who have pure hearts unmask others with painted hypocrisy. Those who are peacemakers anger others who are warmongers. If people truly live by the first seven beatitudes, they must expect the eighth to come uninvited: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake."
According to World Mission Digest, there have been some 100 million martyrs in the so-called modern 20th Century. More people have been martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ in the 20th Century than in all the previous nineteen centuries combined. In 1960, over 70% of all evangelicals lived in North America and Western Europe. In 1990, 70% of all evangelicals lived outside the West in the Two-thirds World under non-democratic regimes, and the numbers continue to grow at a staggering rate. The main reason for the rise in persecution, especially over the past several years, has been the exponential growth of evangelicals in places such as Latin America, sub-Sahara Africa, and Asia.
Jesus never promised his disciples a life of ease, but rather a life of self-denial and blood-stained crosses. "If any want to become my followers," he warned, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). John, the disciple who would not refer to himself by name but only as "the disciple that Jesus loved," warned us in his first epistle, "Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you" (1 John 3:13). Later, he encourages the church of Smyrna to be "faithful unto death" so as to receive the crown of life (Revelation 2:10). No one begins to live until he or she has something worth dying for.
What do you treasure that is worth more than life itself? When Michelangelo was doing a dangerous job, someone warned him, "It may cost your life." The great artist's response was, "What else is life for?" We're all aware that our days keep on getting used up. It takes somebody like Michelangelo to figure out what we ought to figure out for ourselves that life, which is going to be used up anyway, can be used up purposefully and redemptively. We all have to die, but we don't have to die stupidly.
Newspapers reported a Coast Guard rescue boat set out from Puget Sound to rescue the passengers on a ship caught in a violent storm. The rescue boat capsized killing four of the courageous sailors. They lost their lives trying to save others. When a worried Coast Guard sailor said, "We may never get back," his captain replied, "We don't have to come back; we do have to go out."
The hardest part of most hard decisions is not knowing what to do. The hardest part is deciding to pay the price. That's why the symbol of Christian faith is a cross, a reminder that Jesus paid the price. The goodness of Socrates led to the easy death of hemlock, while the goodness of Jesus led to the cross.
"Must Jesus bear the cross alone
The writer of Hebrews said of early believers: "They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented of whom the world was not worthy" (Hebrews 11:37). John Clarke was the first pastor of the First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, the second Baptist Church in America. In 1651 he and his assistant, Obadiah Holmes, were invited by William Witter to a prayer meeting at his home in Lynn, Massachusetts. They were arrested for preaching in a private residence and transferred to a court in Boston where they were tried and condemned. The normal punishment was banishment, but Clarke and Holmes were already outsiders. So a fine was levied. Clarke's fine was paid by an unknown donor. Obadiah Holmes refused the offer. After spending several weeks in jail, he received thirty lashes. Throughout the public whipping Holmes preached to the crowd. They couldn't shut that preacher's mouth. Afterward he said, "You have struck me as with roses." Obadiah Holmes was so badly injured he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks. He had to eat reclining on his elbows and knees. His back remained a mass of scars the rest of his life. Obadiah Holmes published nothing, held no political office, offered no new system of thought, founded no town or church, amassed no fortune, acquired no zealous following. His simple, uncompromising faith led eventually to the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom for you and me.
The Greek word for witness is the root of the English word, martyr. In the early days of the church to witness meant to risk your life. It was costly then. But times have changed. For most of us today discipleship is cheap. Except in certain totalitarian societies, persecution is rare. The absence of persecution today may be proof that the world has grown Christian, or it may be evidence that Christians have grown worldly. Which do you think it is? The trouble with Christians nowadays is that nobody wants to kill them anymore. If the church is the body of Christ, as Paul claims, shouldn't it have some wounds?
Some of you have paid the price of discipleship too. If you young people are disciples of Jesus at school, it may cost you your friends. That hurts at a time of life when you want all the friends you can get. If you adults are disciples of Jesus at work, it may cost you your job. That hurts when you need to support your family.
Samuel Johnson said, "It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust."
It is important, however, to note that only those who are persecuted for righteousness sake will be blessed. Those who suffer because they are obnoxious score no points with God. As Paul warned Timothy, "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth" (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Those who suffer because they are contentious or foolish deserve the consequences of their offensive behavior (1 Peter 2:20). Blessed is the one who can make a point without making an enemy. Twice blessed is the one for whom Truth is more important than the consequences.
Persecution for righteousness sake is part of the cost of business for disciples, but it is a cost that becomes a blessing. Notice that the pronoun Jesus uses changes from the pattern of the preceding beatitudes. Seven times Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit those who mourn" et. al. But now he personalizes the beatitude by saying, "Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad " Rejoice and be glad??? Why? Certainly not because there are cruel people in the world who abuse you. For that you ought to grieve.
Jesus gives you two good reasons to "rejoice and be glad" when persecution comes your way. First, it shows who you are. "For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." To be persecuted puts you in good company. You are in the company of Elijah who fled from Queen Jezebel until he met God in the still small voice on Mt. Sinai and then returned to face single-handedly 450 prophets of Baal. You are in the company of Jeremiah whose message of surrender to the heathen Babylonians engendered such hatred by his fellow Israelites that they threw him into a deep pit. You are in the company of Esther who entered the court of King Xerxes saying, "If I perish I perish." You are in the company of Obadiah Holmes who preached while he was being flogged. James exhorts you to take as your example of patient suffering, the prophets who spoke in God's name. He notes that we consider them to be actually "happy" in their steadfastness (James 5:10-11).
Former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Peter Marshall, said: "It is a fact of Christian experience that life is a series of troughs and peaks. In His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, God relies on the troughs more than the peaks. And some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else."
Persecution is a compliment. By it your persecutors show that they take you seriously. If you were ineffectual, the world wouldn't persecute you; it would ignore you. George Bernard Shaw wrote: "The finest compliment the world can pay an author is to burn his books, because the world shows that it regards his books as so dynamic and explosive that they can not be allowed to continue to affect the minds of men."
The world doesn't bother to persecute weak, anemic, alibiing, compromising, uncommitted "Christians." Why? Because they aren't anything anyway. Persecution shows who you are.
Universal acceptance and praise, on the other hand, can be true marks of false prophecy. In Luke's account of the beatitudes Jesus says, "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26). Public acclaim is as dangerous as it is desired.
Persecution is a blessing not only because it shows who you are, but also because it shows where you are going. By it the world is saying to the Christian, "You're not with us. You don't belong to us." They're right! You belong to another realm. You are traveling against the flow of this world's traffic to another destination. Jesus said, "Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven." You are able to keep an eye on heaven while walking through hell on earth. The scriptures make it clear that if you share Christ's suffering, you will also share his glory (Romans 8:17). If you bear the cross, you will wear the crown (2 Timothy 2:12). That's the Martyr's Mirth, the blessed cost of discipleship.