In his book, Have No Fear, Dr. John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University comments, ‘The pressure to silence the public witness of Christians … is very real. Indeed, in many parts of the world the secular and religious opposition has intensified to the extent that, particularly in the West, the dominant attitude is that religion is a private business and should be kept that way. As a result, many Christians have been effectively silenced. They may well continue to go to church but their witness has long ceased because of fear and pressure’ (pp.2f).
There is nothing new in this. Eight years ago Dr. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, observed that Christians are the most persecuted religion in the world. Yet for the most part the western world remains either ignorant or silent – implying either a desire not to get involved or a disinterest in matters of justice towards Christians.
And yet, just last week three people attending church in Nice, France, were killed for their Christian association. Furthermore, if we look beyond the Western news outlets, we learn of ongoing cruelty perpetrated against God’s people by Islamist extremists in Nigeria and in the Central Africa Republic.
Many of Jesus’ early followers suffered persecution and death for their commitment to him as the Messiah. Indeed, under Nero, such were the atrocities perpetrated against God’s people that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, ‘even many in the wider Roman society took pity on them’ (Tacitus, Annals, Book 15 ). And Tacitus was no supporter of Christians.
Persecution can take many forms. There’s the more obvious form of physical hardship, torture, imprisonment, death. But there are more subtle forms – mocking and personal rejection.
Jesus anticipated the opposition and persecution his followers would experience. He not only warned them of it, but he said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
This double Beatitude forms the conclusion of Jesus’ Beatitudes or Eight Blessings. What a note on which to finish: suffering and persecution. Indeed, we might feel uneasy, for in one way they are the most searching of all. If we never experience some kind of mocking or rejection for our faith, just how much of a follower are we?
Now, it’s important to notice what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are difficult or awkward people, or because they are religious fanatics’. No. Jesus restricts the blessing to those who suffer persecution because of righteousness— people who are determined to honor Jesus.
Righteousness. It is significant that Jesus calls for a commitment to righteousness, for this is something that pleases a holy and righteous God. Martin Luther, who himself faced persecution and threat of death, observed: ‘The command to you is not to crawl into a corner or into the desert, but to run out, if that is where we have been, and to offer your hands and your feet and your whole body, and to wager everything you have and can do.’ He continues, ‘What is required is a hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end. If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.’
It is only when we can sit light to the things of this world and do all that we can, to serve the righteousness of a righteous God that we will receive the blessing of joy of which Jesus speaks. As John Stott has commented, ‘Commitment to Jesus Christ means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that we should be called upon to suffer. In fact it is a joy and a token of his grace.’
Who then are truly blessed ? In his Beatitudes Jesus is saying that he expects his followers to undergo radical changes. ‘Instead of feeling proud of your relationship with God, understand your spiritual bankruptcy,’ he says. ‘Instead of being indifferent towards unbelievers mourn for a world that rejects the reality of a transcendent, righteous God.’
‘Be prepared to walk the path of humility and service. Hunger for truth and righteousness. Show mercy. Pursue purity. Work for peace. Reckon on the reality that life won’t always be easy for you as one of my people,’ he is saying. ‘But stay with me. It will be worth every bit of it.’
Towards the end of his book, Have No Fear, one of the questions John Lennox asks is this: ‘What do you really think a Christian is? It means being a follower of Jesus as Lord, and that means being prepared to do as he says. One of those things is to go into all the world and share the message that has been shared with you’ (p.66).
You may have heard the oft-told story of Winston Churchill’s speech at his old school when he was at the height of his powers. One account reports that he pulled the proverbial cigar from his mouth and said, ‘Boys, never give up. Never, ever give up’.
Despite potential opposition, we should never give up honoring the Lord Jesus in our lives. Nor should we stop praying and using opportunities to introduce others to him.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
© John G. Mason – November 4, 2020