Friday, 15 January 2010

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

The final beatitude is a final paradox – those who are persecuted are blessed. This seems so counter-intuitive – and yet Jesus promises that God’s face is shining on those who are persecuted.

Taking the beatitudes progressively, then those who recognise their guilty standing before God and trust in Christ to redeem them, those who mourn over their sins, those who conform themselves to God’s will, who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they have none themselves, who are merciful to others, who are given a pure heart by faith, who are peacemakers, then these are the people who will be persecuted. It is easy to see why, for all these attributes are opposed to the worldview, of self-seeking, prideful living.

Peace with God, reconciliation with God, transfers a person from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Peace with God brings a new enemy – the world. In his final speech to his disciples, Jesus said “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20). Paul confirms the teaching of his Lord, saying “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

The history of the early church confirms this teaching, and the experience of the church today in countries all around the world confirms this teaching. Even here in the West persecution of Christians is increasing as the uniqueness and exclusive nature of Christ is incompatible with the tolerant, all-inclusive worldview. The church needs to ensure that in the face of such opposition it does not compromise the Biblical view of Christ to escape this persecution.

For Jesus promises that those who are persecuted are blessed. The apostle Paul suffered many persecutions in his ministry, yet he could proclaim “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Cor 1:3-5). As our sufferings for the sake of the gospel increase, so too will our experience of the comfort and compassion of Christ. The experience of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, demonstrates this, for as he was about to be stoned, “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56). This vision must have given Stephen great comfort in his final moments.

Not only are those who are persecuted blessed, but the kingdom of heaven is theirs. “And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years”.(Rev 20:4). This passage seems to be suggesting that those who are persecuted will reign with Christ in his millennial Kingdom. What a reward this is! No matter how bad things in this life may seem, we need to maintain an eternal perspective. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:17-18). Even in the midst of great persecution, we can have hope that all is seen by God, all will be rewarded, and that one day persecuted believers will be in the New Jerusalem, where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). What hope is this!

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