Matthew 5:1-12        Blessed are the Persecuted


“On March 5th 2009, two Iranian Christian women, Miss Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad (30), and Miss Maryam Rustampoor (27), were arrested by the Iranian security forces. Their only crime is that they are committed Christians who follow the teachings of Jesus.  They are being unfairly labelled as ‘anti-government activists’, because of the hostility of the government towards practising Christians.

Their shared apartment was searched and personal belongings confiscated.  They were hand-cuffed and first taken to the Police and Security Station 137 in Gysha, West of Tehran for interrogation.  Later they were taken to Vozara Detention Centre.  Then they were taken to the Branch 2 of the National Security Section of the Revolutionary Court. Afterwards, several sessions of interrogation took place. Finally, on March 18th, after appearing at the Revolutionary Court, they were sent to the notorious Evin Prison where they are being held without charge.  

The families have subsequently been told on several occasions a judge is not available to discuss the case.  Both women are allowed just a one minute telephone call every day to their immediate families.  Both are unwell and in need of urgent medical attention. During their last call on March 28 Marzieh said that she was suffering from an infection and high fever.  She said ‘I am dying’… Iranian Christian leaders from around the world are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Marzieh and Maryam.”


I was due to be in Iran next weekend for a conference on Palestine. My visa application has been denied. Another application has been submitted by friends in Iran but it may be too late. It may be because I have lobbied for the release of Marzieh and Maryam and other Christians in Iran. If I am given a visa, I will ask if I may visit them in prison. Marzieh and Maryam are sadly not alone. In North Korea alone there are 50,000-70,000 Christians in prison. Open Doors works in many of the 50 countries in the world where persecution is the most severe. Have you ever wondered why it is that most of the world’s religions persecute their own who come to faith in Christ?


(See  Christian Minorities under Muslim rule + video + audio delivered at Fuller Seminary in April 2009). Blessed indeed are the persecuted.




As we saw last week in our introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summed up the Christian life in one word, "Blessed."  We saw that: Makarios (blessed) means happy, fortunate, blissful. It has to do with an inward contentedness that is not affected by circumstances. It is a sacred delight, to be blessed by God.  This is the kind of happiness God desires for His children, a state of joy and well-being that does not depend on physical, temporary circumstances. 

This blessedness which Jesus speaks of here, comes exclusively through a personal relationship to Him. We also saw that:


These Blessings seem Paradoxical

The conditions and their corresponding blessings do not seem to match. The world says, “Happy are the rich, the noble, the successful, the macho, the glamorous, the popular, the famous, the aggressive.”   If anything Jesus taught the opposite. Jesus warned that worldly material advantages may limit true happiness.  Paradoxical.


These Blessings are Pronouncements

It is important to remember that the Beatitudes are pronouncements of fact, not probabilities or possibilities. The Beatitudes are divine pronouncements of blessing.  These blessings seem paradoxical, but they are  pronouncements.


These Blessings are Progressive

These blessings are not in a random or haphazard order. Each leads to the other in logical succession. Jesus describes a radical process of reconstruction that occurs in the heart, the mind and the will.


Observe the sequence.  First we must recognise we are in need (poor in spirit). Next, we repent of our self sufficiency (mourning). Then we quit running the world our way and surrender control to God (meekness). So grateful are we for his presence that we yearn for more of him (hunger and thirst). As we grow closer to him, we become more like him.  No longer insecure we learn to forgive others (the merciful). We increasingly see things his way (the pure in heart).  We love others (the peacemakers), and we endure injustice (the persecuted).  This is no casual shift of attitude.  Its nothing less than a total demolition job of the old structure of our attitudes, and the rebuilding of our way of life on His foundation.  The challenge of God's blessing runs counter to everything the world holds dear.  Jesus promised his followers three things.  That they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy and in constant trouble. 


The Lord's Sermon on the Mount climaxes with this great and sobering truth: those who faithfully live according to the first seven beatitudes are guaranteed at some point to experience the eighth. Holy people are doubly blessed.

Those who live righteously will inevitably be persecuted for it. Godliness generates both blessing in heaven and hostility on earth. Kingdom people are therefore essentially rejected people.  The last beatitude is really two in one, a single beatitude repeated and expanded. Blessed is mentioned twice (vv. 10, 11), but the one characteristic is mentioned three times - persecuted, and only one result is promised - for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed is repeated as if to emphasise the generous blessing given by God. “Doubly–blessed are those who are persecuted,” Jesus seems to be saying. Three distinct aspects of this kingdom faithfulness are spoken of in this particular beatitude: the persecution, the promise, and the posture.


1. Persecution for Kingdom Faithfulness

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 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)


The Apostle Paul, who was once a persecutor of Christians said “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). To live for Christ is to live in opposition to Satan in his world and in his system. Christlikeness in us will produce the same results as Christlikeness did in the apostles, as it did in the rest of the early church, and as it has done so in believers throughout history, and as it does today in most countries around the world.


Righteousness is confrontational, whether verbal or merely visible, it confronts wickedness by its very contrast, just as inevitably as light contrasts with darkness.  You may have never heard of Savonarola but he was one of the greatest reformers in the history of the church.  In his powerful condemnation of personal sin and ecclesiastical corruption, the Italian preacher paved the way for the Protestant Reformation, which began a few years after his death.


 “His preaching was a voice of thunder,” writes one biographer, “and his denunciation of sin was so terrible that the people who listened to him went about the streets half–dazed, bewildered and speechless. His congregations were so often in tears that the whole building resounded with their sobs and their weeping.”


But the people and the church could not long put up with him, and for preaching uncompromisingly Savonarola was convicted of “heresy,” he was hanged, and his body was burned.  Persecution is one of the surest and most tangible evidences of salvation.   Suffering then is part of the normal Christian life. And on the basis of promises such as this, if we never experience ridicule, criticism, or rejection because of our faith, we have good reason to examine whether it is genuine or not.  “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake,” Paul says, “not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake...” (Phil. 1:29–30).  Whether Christians live in a relatively protected and tolerant society or whether they live under a godless, totalitarian regime, the world will find ways to persecute us.  The word "When" in this verse can also mean whenever.  The idea conveyed is not that we will be in a constant state of opposition, but that, whenever those things come to us because of our faith, we should not be surprised or resentful.  For whenever and however affliction comes to the child of God, our heavenly Father will be there with us to encourage and to bless. 

The way to avoid persecution is obvious and easy.


To go along with the world, to laugh at its jokes, to enjoy its entertainment, to smile when it mocks God and takes His name in vain, to be ashamed to take a stand for Christ will ensure we avoid persecution.  But Jesus does not take that kind of faithlessness lightly.   


“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26). 


The cost of discipleship is billed to believers in many different ways.  You might be expected to cut ethical corners in order to increase company profits.  To withhold truths in order to avoid litigation.  To massage figures to create favourable impressions.  But to follow His leading in your conscience may well cost your job or at least a promotion. If you refuse to listen to gossip or laugh at the crude jokes of your colleagues or neighbours you may find yourself ostracised. 


Some costs will be known in advance and some will surprise us. Some costs will be great and some will be slight.  The second–century Christian leader Tertullian was once approached by a man who said,

I have come to Christ, but I don't know what to do. I have a job that I don't think is consistent with what Scripture teaches. What can I do? I must live.”  To that Tertullian replied, “Must you?”


Loyalty to Christ is our only true choice.  To be prepared for kingdom life is to be prepared for loneliness, misunderstanding, ridicule, rejection, and unfair treatment of every sort.  In this last beatitude Jesus speaks of three specific types of affliction endured for Christ’s sake: physical persecution, verbal insult, and false accusation.


2.1 physical persecution

First, Jesus says, we can expect physical persecution. The words for persecuted in verses 10-12 has the basic meaning of chasing, driving away, or pursuing.

It has the connotation of physical abuse.  The Greek verb could be translated “allow themselves to be persecuted.”  Just as with the previous seven beatitudes, this is not a natural human quality but a sign of our trust in Christ, it is evidence of an attitude of self–sacrifice for the sake of Christ, of accepting whatever faithfulness to Christ may bring.  physical persecution.


2.2 verbal insults

Jesus promises that kingdom citizens are blessed … when insulted. The term carries the idea of suffering abusive language, of being mocked viciously. To be an obedient citizen of the kingdom is then to court verbal abuse.


2.3 false accusation

Third, faithfulness to Christ will bring some people to say all kinds of evil against us falsely. Whereas insults are abusive words said to our faces, false accusations are abusive words said behind our backs – such as on the internet.  Jesus’ critics said of Him, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax–gatherers and sinners” (Matt. 11:19). If the world said that of the sinless Christ, we should not expect better.  Slander is harder to take because it is more difficult to defend against, especially if anonymous. 


It has opportunity to spread and be believed before we have a chance to correct it.  We cannot help regretting slander, but we should not grieve about it.  We should count ourselves blessed, as our Lord assures us we shall be when the slander is on account of Me. 

Arthur Pink comments that “it is a strong proof of human depravity that men’s curses and Christ’s blessings should meet on the same persons”   We have no surer evidence of the Lord's blessing than to be cursed for His sake. Christ-likeness - provokes persecution.


When we are hated, maligned, or afflicted as Christians, the real animosity is not against us but against Christ.  When we are despised and attacked by the world, the real target is the righteousness for which we stand and which we exemplify.  That is why it is easy to escape persecution. Whether under pagan Rome, atheistic Communism, or simply a worldly boss, it is usually easy to be accepted if we will compromise our beliefs and behaviour.  The world will accept us if we are willing to put some distance between ourselves and the Lord's righteousness.  But in the closing days of His ministry Jesus repeatedly and plainly warned His disciples:

If the world hates you,” He said,  “you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you..." (John 15:18–21).


The Persecution for Kingdom Faithfulness: Physical, verbal and invisible.


2. The Promise for Kingdom Faithfulness

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 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)


Compared to what is gained, even a martyr’s price is small. Each beatitude begins with blessed and Jesus pronounces a double blessing on those who are persecuted. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


As a sequel to his book Peace Child, Don Richardson wrote Lords of the Earth. He tells the story of Stan Dale, a missionary to Irian Jaya, lndonesia, who ministered to the Yali tribe in the Snow Mountains. The Yali had one of the strictest known religions in the world. For a tribe member even to question, much less disobey, one of its tenets brought instant death. There could never be any change or modification. The Yali had many sacred spots scattered throughout their territory. If even a small child were to crawl onto one of those sacred pieces of ground, he was considered defiled and cursed.


To keep the whole village from being involved in that curse, the child would be thrown into the rushing Heluk River to drown and be washed downstream.

When Stan Dale came with his wife and four children to that cannibalistic people he was not long tolerated.

He was attacked one night and miraculously survived being shot with five arrows. After treatment in a hospital he returned to work with the Yali. He worked unsuccessfully for several years, and the resentment and hatred of the tribal priests increased. One day Stan, another missionary named Phil Masters, and a tribesman named Yemu were set upon. As Phil ran for safety, Stan and Yemu remained back, hoping somehow to dissuade the Yali from their murderous plans. As Stan confronted his attackers, they shot him with dozens of arrows. As the arrows entered his flesh he would pull them out and break them in two. Eventually he no longer had the strength to pull the arrows out, but remained standing.  With his eyes fixed on Stan, who was still standing with some fifty arrows in his body, Phil remained where he was and was himself soon surrounded by warriors. The attack had begun with hilarity, but it turned to fear and desperation when they saw that Stan did not fall. Their fear increased when it took nearly as many arrows to down Phil as it had Stan. They dismembered their bodies and scattered them about the forest in an attempt to prevent the resurrection of which they had heard the missionaries speak. 

But the back of their “unbreakable” pagan system was broken, and through the witness of the two men who were not afraid to die in order to bring the gospel to this lost and violent people, the Yali tribe and many others in the surrounding territory came to Jesus Christ. Even Stan’s fifth child, a baby at the time of this incident, was saved reading the book about his father. Stan and Phil were not rewarded in this life with the things of this life. But they seem to have been double–blessed with the comfort, strength, and joy of their indwelling Lord—and the absolute confidence that their sacrifice for Him would not be in vain.  Even if the world takes from us every possession, every freedom, every comfort, every satisfaction of physical life, it can take nothing from our spiritual life, either now or in eternity.


The Beatitudes begin and end with the promise of the kingdom of heaven. The ultimate promise of the Beatitudes is that in Christ we become kingdom citizens now and forever. No matter what the world does to us, it cannot affect our possession of Christ’s kingdom.  The Persecution, the Promise and thirdly,  


3. The Pleasure of Kingdom Faithfulness

“Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:12)


The believer’s response to persecution and affliction should not be to retreat and hide. To escape from the world is to escape responsibility. Because we belong to Christ, we are no longer of this world, but He has sent us into this world to serve just as He Himself came into this world to serve (John 17:14–18). The word translated "Be glad" means to exult, to rejoice greatly, to be overjoyed. The literal meaning is to skip and jump with happy excitement. So yes, there is indeed a place for jumping and skipping and laughing joyfully in the Christian life - but please note the context. Jesus uses the imperative mood, which makes we are commanded to rejoice and be glad.   Not to be glad when we suffer for Christ’s sake is to be untrusting and disobedient. 


The world can take away a great deal, but it cannot take away our joy and our happiness. We know that nothing the world can do to us is permanent. When people attack us for Christ’s sake, they are really attacking Him.  And their attacks can do us no more permanent damage than they can do Him.  Jesus gives two reasons for our rejoicing when we are persecuted for His sake.  First, He says, your reward in heaven is great. Our present life is no more than “a vapour that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14); but heaven is forever. Small wonder that Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures for ourselves here on earth (Matt. 6:19–20).


Second, we are to rejoice because the world persecuted the prophets who were before us in the same way that it does us. When we suffer for Christ’s sake, we are in the best possible company.  Persecution is a mark of our faithfulness as it was or is of theirs.  When we suffer for Christ’s sake we know beyond a doubt that we belong to God.  Our assurance of salvation does not come from knowing we made a decision somewhere in the past. Our assurance is found  in the life of righteousness that results in suffering for the sake of Christ.


The world cannot handle the person who hungers after righteousness.  The repentant, contrite disposition that mourns over sin is never appreciated by the callous, indifferent world. The meek and quiet spirit that takes wrong and does not strike back is regarded as a pushover.   To have a merciful spirit is a rebuke and a threat to those whose hearts are hard and cruel. Purity of heart is a painful light that exposes corruption, and peacemaking is a virtue praised by a self–seeking world in words but not in heart.

John Chrysostom, a godly leader in the fourth–century church preached so strongly against sin that he offended the unscrupulous Empress Eudoxia as well as many church officials. When summoned before Emperor Arcadius, Chrysostom was threatened with banishment if he did not cease his uncompromising preaching. His response was, “Sire, you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” “Then I will slay you,” Arcadius said. “Nay, but you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,” came the answer. “Your treasures will be confiscated” was the next threat, to which John replied, “Sire, that cannot be, either. My treasures are in heaven, where none can break through and steal.” “Then I will drive you from man, and you will have no friends left!” was the final, desperate warning. “That you cannot do, either,” answered John, “for I have a Friend in heaven who has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” Chrysostom was indeed banished, first to Armenia and then further away to Pityus on the Black Sea, to which he never arrived because he died on the way. But neither his banishment nor his death disproved or diminished his claims.  They merely fulfilled them. 


Lets pray.