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

The Beatitudes, Part Four: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst For Righteousness

I’m trying to remember the last time I heard someone use the word “righteous” in a positive way, outside of a sermon or a Bible-study discussion. Most of the time in the modern world, this word is paired with “self-righteous” and used as an insult. Righteousness, like many other character traits that are closely associated with God, is not really seen as a good thing in today’s society.

As with many of the traits Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes, though, God has a different view on this than the world does. he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6, all quotes from WEB translation). As we talked about in the second post of this series, “blessed” means fully satisfied by God, which is a very concrete image when we talk about feeding someone who’s hungry. 

Filled With More Than Food

This fourth Beatitude is not the only time God uses imagery of filling His people’s hunger to make a larger point about what we desire and how we relate to Him.

“Hey! Come, everyone who thirsts, to the waters! Come, he who has no money, buy, and eat! Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in richness.” (Is. 55:1-2)

God is committed to filling our needs with good things. The same word used in “they shall be filled” is used for the people who ate loaves and fishes after Jesus multiplied food for the multitudes (Matt. 14:20; 15:37). It means filled to satisfaction, even gorged, on abundant food (G5526, chortazo). But, as we have seen, He doesn’t stop at physical food and drink.

Jesus answered her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

The satisfaction that Jesus and the Father offer for our hunger and thirst goes far deeper than one meal. They are filling us with their holy spirit; with their power and presence.

Craving Righteousness

The people spoken of in this beatitude are hungry and thirsty for a specific thing: righteousness. Though its importance is overlooked or scorned at by the world, righteousness is a pivotal concept for the people of God. Later in this same sermon, Jesus says, “seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). There is a blessing in this seeking, for God promises to fill us with more than “just” righteousness.

and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Eph. 3:23-24)

When we seek for God to fill us, He responds by sharing all His character traits with us. He’s making us part of His family, and growing in righteousness is a key part of that.

If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29)

We all know that having a close relationship with God is a central part of our Christian faith, and becoming like Him is a core part of that. He does not expect us to get things right all the time, but He does expect us to keep growing and learning and trying to be like Him. To do that, we need to actively practice His character traits, including righteousness, which is defined as having integrity, virtue, and “correctness of thinking,” all while living in a way that is “acceptable to God” (G1343, dikaiosune, Thayer’s dictionary).

Hunger For God

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is essentially a hunger and thirst for God. One of His Hebrew names is Yahweh Tsidquenu — Yahweh our Righteousness (Jer. 23:6; 33:16). Along these same lines, Paul wrote that Jesus “was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). It is in Him that we can “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:11)

Jesus promised, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” When He fills our hunger and thirst for righteousness — for Him — He makes us capable of producing righteousness as well. Our Father is glorified when we bear much fruit (John 15:18), and that includes the fruits of His righteous character. As we commit to seeking Him and His righteousness, He will fill our desire to draw nearer to Him.

 

Featured image credit:  Igor Link from Pixabay

Understanding How the God Who Exercises Loving Kindness, Justice, and Righteousness Brings Us Salvation

“I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.

I quoted this scripture from Jeremiah 9:24 in last week’s post and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. God defines Himself by using these three concepts and says He delights in them. If they’re that important to Him, then they should be important to us.

I feel like we talk fairly often about the fact that God balances justice/judgement and mercy/loving kindness. But sometime we’re puzzled about how exactly that works. Back in Medieval times, theologians wondered how a God of judgement and justice could also be one of mercy. Now we ask how a God of love and mercy could also be one of judgement. I think taking God’s characteristic righteousness into account — as well as studying the Hebrew word meanings — can help answer those questions.

Shapat, justice

We in the Christian churches today often start with the New Testament when trying to understand a concept. It can be useful, though, to start with the Old Testament because that’s the foundation the New Testament writers built on. In Hebrew, words for justice, judgement, government, and ordinances are all interconnected in the root word shapat (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2443).

We tend to think of judgement/justice as a judicial concept. In Hebrew thought, though, the functions of government were’t divided as we so often do today. The primary meaning “of shapat is to exercise the process of government” in any realm or any form.

When the Bible speaks of God’s judgement or justice it’s also referencing all aspects of His government, not simply judicial laws. To quote TWOT again, “although the ancients knew full well what law … was, they did not think of themselves as ruled by laws rather than by men … The centering of the law, rulership, government in a man was deeply ingrained.” Apply that concept to God, and the notion of justice has to do with Him as the center of true law, rulership, and government. He is the source of real authority and has the absolute right to rule as He chooses.

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Seeking God’s Righteousness

I’ve been reading a book called Reclaiming Our Forgotten Heritage by Curty Landry and one of his comments about what we’re supposed to “seek first” caught my eye. This book is about how understanding the Jewish roots of Christianity can transform your faith. It’s amazing to me how much we can miss when we read the Bible in English with a Western cultural mindset. And it’s equally amazing how much it can deepen our understanding of God and His ways to dive-in to the roots of our faith.

One of the things Landry talks about is how our interpretation of words and stories in the Bible can change based on whether we approach them through a Western philosophical lens or a first-century Jewish one. An example is how we see the word “righteousness” in Matthew 6:33.

When we read “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” we in the Western world tend to think this means we have to be righteous in the sense of being a “law-abiding citizen” of heaven. But a Jewish person listening to Jesus would have thought of the Hebrew concept of tzedakah, which changes how you interpret this verse. Let’s take a look at that.

Righteousness in Hebrew

Tzedakah is about justice, righteousness, and truthfulness (Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon, entry H6666). It’s associated with God’s fairness and is also tied to acts of charity and giving. At my Messianic congregation, this word is written on the box where we put tithes and offerings because tzedakah is so closely connected with righteous giving.

In his article “God’s Kind of Righteousness,” Lois Tverberg points out that “tzedakah means more than just legal correctness – it refers to covenantal faithfulness, often resulting in rescuing those in distress and showing mercy to sinners.” It’s quite a bit different than what most of us think of when we think “righteousness,” but it’s very much in line with God’s character.

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Breastplate of Righteousness

When we’re going into spiritual warfare, we need spiritual armor. As we talked about in last week’s post on the Girdle of Truth, God is the one who gives us this armor. He doesn’t invite us to do battle and then leave us defenseless.

take up the full armor of God, in order that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. Stand therefore, girding your waist with truth, and putting on the breastplate of righteousness. (Eph. 6:13-14, LEB)

The second piece of our armor is a breastplate of righteousness. In a physical soldier’s armor, this is the part of the armor that protects the front and back of the torso. It’s keeping your spine, internal organs, and especially your heart and lungs safe.

Breastplate of Righteousness | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: Thomas Quine, CC BY via Flickr

Keeping Your Heart

For us, righteousness serves much the same protective function. In a broad sense, the word dikaiosune (G1343) means being in a “condition acceptable to God.” It also refers to “the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved by God” (Thayer’s Dictionary). Righteousness involves the condition of your heart and state of your character.

Oh that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever! (Deut. 5:29, WEB)

God has always been interested in wining His people’s hearts. That desire is at the core of Him asking us to follow Him in righteousness, which is why Jesus didn’t destroy the Law when He came. Rather, He revealed the full expression and intent behind God’s law — that we might develop His character and become like Him (Matt. 5:17-20, 48).

Armor God Wears

Speaking of becoming like God, the Breastplate of Righteousness is a piece of armor that He actually wears.

He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head. He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a mantle. (Is. 59:17, WEB)

The breastplate we’re talking about isn’t just something God gives us to wear. It’s also something that He wears Himself. This is truly armor of God what He’s sharing with us. Read more

Should You Do What You Think Is Right?

“Always let your conscience be your guide.”

“Follow your heart.”

“Trust yourself.”

Those are the kinds of self-affirming advice we often hear. The basic argument is that most of us are pretty good people and if we listen really closely to our inner guiding light, then we’ll make good decisions.

But as Christians, we’re not supposed to do what’s right in our own minds. We’re supposed to do what God thinks is right. To some, this might just seem like a subtle shift in semantics. Of course what I think is right and God thinks is right are the same thing. Aren’t they?’

Not necessarily. While the holy spirit is transforming us to “have the mind of Christ,” we’re not all the way there yet. That’s one reason why it’s so important to spend time studying scripture — to make sure we know how God thinks and line-up with Him.Should You Do What You Think Is Right? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

What God Has To Say About Your Heart

When God made the choice to destroy everyone but Noah and his family in a flood, He did so after seeing “that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil” (Gen. 6:5, WEB). Even though we are made in God’s image, every single person has sinned and we’re corrupted by the fallen world we live in. And yet even in this state, human’s tend to trust that they know what’s right. But we’re often very wrong.

Yahweh says: Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from Yahweh. … The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it? I, Yahweh, search the mind, I try the heart, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. 17:5, 9-10, WEB)

Human being can’t trust their hearts. You might get some things right, but you can’t even really know yourself unless you ask God to share His perspective on you. But that verse in Jeremiah is addressed to the person who’s heart departs from the Lord. What about once you are in relationship with God and making Him the one your trust? What does that do to your heart? Read more