The Beatitudes, Part Eight: Blessed Are Those Who Have Been Persecuted

This last beatitude is probably the most difficult one to hear. The need for humility as we recognize our spiritual helplessness is something we can wrap our mind around. We know that mourning and grief are part of being human, and we welcome God’s promise of comfort. Gentleness is a fruit of the spirit and a character trait of Christ, so we know that it’s a good thing for us to learn. A hunger and thirst for righteousness is like a hunger and thirst for God. Giving and getting mercy and forgiveness is a familiar theme through scripture. We also know that we’re supposed to become like God, who is pure and perfect, so it’s no surprise that the “pure in heart” are blessed. And God loves peace so much that it seems natural for Jesus to call peacemakers children of God. But then we come to this last one.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew 5:10, WEB

For many Christians around the world and throughout history, the idea that they’ll be persecuted for their faith is not shocking. In fact, Christianity is among the most persecuted religions in the world. Just last year, one report stated that “Christian persecution ‘at near genocide levels'” in certain countries (BBC News, 3 May 2019). More recently, the 2020 World Watch List report released by Open Doors found that “1 in 8 believers, worldwide” “experience high levels of persecution” for their faith in Jesus Christ (click here for more information).

Here in the US, though, we have not experienced anything like this. Moreover, Western Christians in the modern world seem to have a sense that we shouldn’t be persecuted; as if somehow we deserve an exemption because we live in such evolved, democratic societies. And even if we don’t feel like that, persecution is frightening. It may even make us wonder if following Jesus is worth the cost. Perhaps that’s why this is the one beatitude that Jesus immediately elaborates on.

Blessed are you when people reproach you, 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 that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:11-12, WEB

If we are persecuted (or worry we may be persecuted), this is the sort of thing we need to hear; a reassurance that we can hold tight to God and that He’ll take care of us. None of us are alone. God’s people don’t fit in with the rest of the world, and from the very earliest Bible records those who follow God faced opposition from the world. But they didn’t face it by themselves and neither will we, because God is on our side. Not only that, but we have a future goal to look forward to which is amazing enough to make whatever happens to us in this life seem like it really doesn’t matter.

Faithful and Righteous

The Hebrews 11 faith chapter comes to mind while reading about those who are persecuted and blessed. All the people listed there were faithful and righteous, and most faced persecutions of some sort. Abel was murdered. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not get along well with everyone they met, and some stole from or cheated them. Joseph was sold into slavery. Moses suffered abuse for Christ (Heb. 11:26, NET). David was hunted by Saul.

Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

Hebrews 11:35-38, WEB

I don’t much like reading this passage. The whole “sawn asunder” (v. 37, KJV) thing especially bothers me. But I think, like the people these verses are talking about did, we need to focus on this part: “That they might obtain a better resurrection.” Or, to quote a translation I recently fell in love with, “to obtain resurrection to a better life” (v. 35, NET).

The Beatitudes, Part Eight: Blessed Are Those Who Have Been Persecuted | LikeAnAnchor.com

When We Suffer, We’re Being Like Christ

Jesus promises that God has a reward for those who face persecution “for righteousness’ sake.” This isn’t a concept you hear much about in the world today, but righteousness is a key part of scripture. In a broad sense, Thayer’s dictionary defines it as the “state of him who is as he ought to be” (G1343, dikaiosune). God is righteous and He’s the one who models and defines righteousness for us. It involves obedience to God, personal integrity, “purity of life,” and “correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting” (Thayer).

Peter talks about the idea of suffering for righteousness several times in his first epistle. He says that “it is commendable” if you patiently endure suffering you don’t deserve “because of conscience toward God.” That is, after all, what Christ did (1 Pet. 2:19-25). Jesus suffered for our sins and if we suffer for following Him and doing God’s will, well, that’s better than if we were to suffer for doing wrong (1 Pet. 3:17-18).

But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you.

1 Peter 3:14-16, NET (Old Testament quotes bolded in original)

When Peter wrote this epistle, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking back to something Jesus told him and the other disciples at His last Passover here on earth. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. … they will do all these things to you for my name’s sake, because they don’t know him who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

Count The Cost

Suffering as a Christian is pretty much guaranteed. If you aren’t persecuted for righteousness’ sake, scripture makes it seem like that’s actually more unusual than if you are. That’s one reason we’re told to count the cost before following Jesus; because this life demands commitment and sacrifice (Luke 14:25-35). When Paul counted that cost, even with all the persecutions he suffered (2 Cor. 11:23-28), he concluded that nothing else mattered as much as knowing Christ and that the rewards for following Him will be so amazing the suffering seems as nothing (Rom. 8:18-30).

Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith, that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:8-11, WEB

Paul says here that he “suffered the loss of all things,” and that’s in addition to all the direct persecutions he talks about in other epistles. But when he counted the cost of following Jesus, he still came to the conclusion that it was all worth the effort. He, like those in the faith chapter, “looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11: 10, WEB). He knew the reward for following God far outweighed any downsides.

Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

The reward mentioned in this beatitude brings us full circle in our series of posts. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said at the beginning of this sermon on the mount, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:5, WEB). The New English Translation puts it a little differently: “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

When John the Baptist and then Jesus came preaching, they both said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:1-2; 4:17). Throughout Matthew’s gospel (other writers use the phrase “kingdom of God”), this emphasis on the kingdom of heaven continues. Jesus told us who would and would not enter the kingdom of heaven, taught us to pray “Let your kingdom come,” and shared analogies for what the kingdom is like (click for verse list).

One of the things Jesus said is, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21, NET). Just a little earlier in the same sermon where He makes this statement, Jesus gives us a succinct guide in the form of Beatitudes to some of the ways we can align ourselves with God. This is what righteousness is about — not being “experts in the law” but going beyond that and learning to truly be like God (Matt. 5:18-20), even to the point that the same people who hate Jesus will also hate us because we are so much like Him. Yes, that may mean we are among “those who are persecuted for righteousness,” but “the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” And I think Paul is right when he says getting into that kingdom and being with God forever is worth whatever we might have to give up or go through in this life.

Featured image credit: Magnify Studio via Lightstock

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most?

One of my Facebook friends shared a post about the ten books that have most influenced his life, which I thought was a great idea. But it took me two weeks to figure out which books I wanted to write about and by the time I hit 500+ words I thought, why not just make it a blog post? So if you are reading this and care to share your most influential books consider yourself “tagged.” I’d love to see what books have had the biggest impact on your lives either in the comments or on your own blog (there’s an article topic you don’t have to come up with on your own!). The original list was 10 but I ended up with 8, so post however many you like.What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The Bible

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.comA rather obvious first choice for a Christian blogger, but this book definitely deserves the top spot when talking about books that influenced my life. It’s still influencing everything I do and I fall more in love with this book and it’s Author every time I read it. It’s the greatest love story every told, the best handbook you’ll ever find for life, and an incredible source of hope and purpose. Since more than 50% of this blog is devoted to talking about this book I’ll stop now. You know I could (and have!) keep going on about it for several books worth of text.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.comI could have put several books by C.S. Lewis on this list, but this is the first of his non-fiction I read and it’s the one that’s been most influential (with Screwtape Letters a close second). I just love the way he writes about his faith. Not only is he firmly grounded in scripture, but he’s also a persuasive speaker to those who don’t already put their faith in the Bible. In the words of Anthony Burgess, “C.S. Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.comI started researching my personality after starting college and realizing I was even more different from “normal” people than I’d previously thought. This is one of the first books I read on the subject and it literally changed my life. Like many introverts, particularly INFJs, I always felt there was something off about the fact that I couldn’t seem to socialize the way so many other people did. This book pointed out how introvert brains are wired differently and that there are strengths in that personality. In other words, it shows that we’re not broken extroverts and introversion isn’t something to “fix.” Read more

A Closer Look At The Beatitudes

When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, He began at what we now call the Beatitudes. He says, “Blessed are” the sort of people who probably don’t feel all that blessed — those who are poor, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted, and reviled. We don’t like being poor, or in grief, or humble enough to put others first, or attacked by the people around us. It’s hard work being a peacemaker, or showing mercy, or staying pure of heart, or constantly yearning to get closer to God’s righteousness.

It’s interesting that two of the beatitudes mention righteousness: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness” and “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:6, 10, KJV). This word refers to “the condition acceptable to God” and/or “the doctrine concerning the way which man may attain a state of approval by God” (Thayer’s G1343, dikaiosune). It relates to our state of being and the way we live. In fact, when you think about it, all the beatitudes relate to something we do and/or become as we follow God.

A Closer Look At The Beatitudes | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: Temi Coker via Lightstock

We Need A Relationship

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3, KJV)

There’s more than one word that could be translated from Greek as “poor.” This one means “reduced to beggary” and “lacking anything” (Thayer’s G4434, ptochos). When we’re like that in our spirits, we’re really in a place to recognize how much we need a relationship with the Father and Jesus. We become the sort of person the Lord is talking about when He says, “to this man will I look, even to he who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2, WEB).

We Have Broken Hearts

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Matt. 5:4, KJV)

We all experience grief. The death of a parent, child, or dear friend. The loss of a hope held close to our hearts. The decay of a relationship. Betrayal from a friend. And even in the midst of that mourning, we’re blessed because God promises comfort (John 14:16-18; 2 Cor. 1:3-7). He can respond to our tears as powerfully as He did for David in the situation recorded in Psalm 6. Read more

Expecting Persecution: Responding To The World’s Hate

Last year, the persecution of Christians during the past quarter century hit a record high for the third year in a row. The World Watch List, released by Open Doors every year for the past 25 years, examines the pressures Christians face and levels of religiously motivated violence to rank the top 50 countries where “Christians face the most persecution.”click to read article, "Expecting Persecution: Responding To The World's Hate" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here in the United States, I’ve heard the Christians around me talk about being persecuted. “It’s getting bad,” they say. You might lose your business for not baking a cake or go to jail for not issuing a gay “marriage” license. You might be scared to say “I’m a Christian” because people will laugh at or ridicule you. Your kid might be told they can’t bring a Bible to school.

While that does qualify as persecution, the U.S. isn’t anywhere on this list, nor on the expanded list of countries to watch. India, on the other hand, comes in at #15. There are 64 million Christians in India and “approximately 39 million experience direct persecution.” That means about “40 incidents were reported per month, including pastors beaten, churches burned and Christians harassed.” A little closer to home, last year “23 Christian leaders in Mexico and four in Colombia were killed specifically for their faith.”

In 35 out of the 50 countries, including most of the top-ranked countries, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists. In a rising number of Asian countries, the driving force is religious and ethnic nationalism. In summary, “Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of their faith.”

Why The World Hates Us

Many U.S. Christians don’t even know about the level of persecution our brethren face overseas. And if we do, I think all too often our response is an American knee-jerk reaction that the solution is to export more of our ideas like religious freedom, tolerance, and equal justice. Those same ideals drive the indignation we feel seeing any sort of persecutions happen here in the United States.

click to read article, "Expecting Persecution: Responding To The World's Hate" | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: “Sign: Religious Persecution in Progress” by John Nakamura Remy, CC BY-SA via Flickr

As Americans, we think we deserve religious freedom. Under U.S. law, we’re right and I do believe we should continue to fight for that on a political level. But we should also realize the level of freedom we’ve enjoyed to practice our faith in the U.S. is an anomaly in world history. And while U.S. citizens should be able to count on freedom from persecution because of the Constitution, as Christians we’re never promised exemption from persecution. In fact, we’re told the opposite. Read more

Baruch Hashem

As I wrote in Monday’s post, my sister and I visited a Messianic congregation last Sabbath/Shabbat. The teaching given that day by the Rabbi centered around the Hebrew phrase “Baruch Hashem,” which translates as “bless the name” or “blessed be God.” Jewish people traditionally write the initials B”H at the top of a letter to begin their correspondence, as a way of contextualizing everything that follows as being for God’s glory. The composer Johann Sebastian Bach did something similar by starting each new piece of music with the initials JJ (Jesu Juva — Jesus help me) and ended his compositions with the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria — all glory to God).

blog post "Baruch HaShem" by marissabaker.wordpress.com

Bless The Lord

One of the songs we opened services with last week was my new favorite Christian song, Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons. Like many of the Psalms, it is about wholeheartedly singing and offering praise to God at all times, “whatever may pass and whatever lies before me.”

Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! (Ps. 103:1)

Praise the Lord, O my soul! While I live I will praise the Lord; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. (Ps. 146:1-2)

Have you made it your purpose in life to praise God? Perhaps this comes naturally for some people, but I suspect it is hard for most of us to be in a continuing mindset of praise. When things are going well it is easier to feel  like praising, but we often get so distracted by how well things are going that we forget to offer glory to God. Things going badly can serve as a reminder, but when that happens our typical response is usually to beg God for help rather than praise Him.

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9)

One of the reasons we have been chosen is the show forth God’s praises, not just when we feel like it, but all the time. Ephesians 1:5-6 tells us that we were predestined to adoption as sons “to the praise of the glory of His grace.” Verses 12-14 add that we were “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,” redeemed, and purchased “to the praise of His glory.” Praising God is one of the key reasons we were created.

Praising His Glory

When we talk about God choosing us, we often turn to 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, about how God has selected the foolish, weak, and despised people who are nothing apart from Him so “that no flesh should glory in His presence.” There’s a “but” right after this, though.

But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30-31)

We’re not told to just mope around and wallow in our insignificance. We are to be humble, yes, but there is also something we are to “glory in.” It’s not something that came from or belongs to us, though. Even if we have something which is impressive by the world’s standards, it still pales in comparison to what God gives us.

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24)

If we’re going to talk about, glory in, and be inspired by something we have, it should be our relationship with God. I recently re-read a book called Refiner’s Fire written by Sylvia Bambola. It is fiction, but set during the very real reign of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania during the 1980s. A large part of the plot centers around the horrible persecutions Christians endured under Ceausescu’s leadership.

When we sit in our comfy armchairs reading about the apostles “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name,” it seems marvelous, but rather far removed from our own experiences (Acts 5:41). Perhaps we wonder if Christians in general, or us in particular, would react like that today. We in the U.S. complain about being persecuted when public prayer is condemned — not a bit of praise to God for being counted worthy to suffer for Him. Christians in Romania gloried in sharing the love of Christ when it meant being beaten to death or incarcerated and tortured. Reading something like Refiner’s Fire kinda puts things in perspective.

Can we do this? Can we live our lives in the context of always glorifying God no matter the cost? Do we let people see God’s work in us without fearing how they will respond? Will we bless His name even if people give us weird looks, wonder at our sanity, take us to court, or perhaps worse in days to come?

Written In Our Hearts

We might not write B”H at the beginning of our correspondence any more, but God is writing something in our hearts that should result in our lives being contextualized by blessing His name.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jer. 31:33)

God is writing on us, while He is re-writing us in His image. Let’s think about this analogy for a moment. When you write on something, you change it. I write these blog posts in pen on notebooks before typing them up. Once I’ve done that, you can’t use that paper for anything else — it has been changed by the writing process and the words are there to stay. Even if I used pencil and erased it there would still be marks visible. God wants to have an even more indelible impact on us.

At one time, God wrote His laws on “tablets of stone” (Ex. 24:12). Now, He is writing on a surface far more precious with the potential to be far more enduring — our hearts. In a way, we are His letter to the world, and our whole life should be contextualized by that.

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

God’s work in us — what He is writing on us — should change the way we approach our entire lives. When people see us, they should be able to read what God has written in us, seeing His signature on all that we do.

Spiritual Persecution

In the sermon I referenced in last week’s post, the speaker briefly touched on a point that I wanted to make the subject of further study. Since I also needed a topic for today’s post, I decided to “kill two birds with one stone,” as the saying goes. This first section is going to summarize relevant parts of that sermon, then I’ll move on to my own thoughts on the subject.

In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul writes that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” There are no exceptions. However, as this speaker pointed out, we can all name Christians we know of who went through life without having to face the kind of persecutions mention at the end of Hebrews 11. His conclusion, from bringing in Ephesians 6:12, is that this verse includes persecutions from a spiritual source.

Not Against Flesh and Blood

The Armor of God passage in Ephesians talks about arming ourselves for our struggle against sin as if for war. It also gives us important information about who our enemies are and what must be done to overcome them.

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph. 6:10-13)

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry describes the kind of assault we can expect from this type of enemy, who he describes as “subtle,”an enemy who uses wiles and stratagems.”

They are spiritual enemies: Spiritual wickedness in high places, or wicked spirits, as some translate it. The devil is a spirit, a wicked spirit; and our danger is the greater from our enemies because they are unseen, and assault us ere we are aware of them. The devils are wicked spirits, and they chiefly annoy the saints with, and provoke them to, spiritual wickednesses, pride, envy, malice, etc. … They assault us in the things that belong to our souls, and labour to deface the heavenly image in our hearts; and therefore we have need to be upon our guard against them. We have need of faith in our Christian warfare, because we have spiritual enemies to grapple with, as well as of faith in our Christian work, because we have spiritual strength to fetch in. Thus you see your danger.  (Eph. 6:10-18, 1. [3])

Overcoming Through Christ

"Spiritual Persecution" marissabaker.wordpress.com
image from Stock.xchng

Seeing our danger is one step toward overcoming the adversary. We can’t fight something if we don’t recognize that is is putting us in peril. As in other areas of our lives, our focus should be on spiritual, not physical things. It is hard to be on guard spiritually if we are too focused on physical safety. Are we more worried about keeping our hearts, minds, and spirits safe than we are about protecting our lives? Perhaps this is one reason we are told, “do not worry about your life” (Matt. 6:25). To much focus on the physical distracts us from the importance of our spiritual future, the condition of our spiritual lives, and the danger from our spiritual enemy.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. (1 Pet. 5:8-9)

We must be on constant guard, steadfast in faith, and strong in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. The line right before this warning about our adversary reminds us where our true strength come from: “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7). To win a fight against a spiritual enemy and endure spiritual persecutions, we need the aid of our Spiritual Savior. When we fully submit to God, we can say along with Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).