Summary: Like it or not, being persecuted is in Jesus' list of the characteristics of the Christian. If we follow Jesus, it's inevitable that we'll be persecuted. But the persecution proves the genuiness of our faith. And it leads to great reward.
Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount with nine Beatitudes – sayings that start ‘Blessed are’. Jesus wants us to be blessed – meaning, happy or fortunate.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents us with the key characteristics of the Christian. Some people have said they’re the blueprint of the Christian. Others have suggested that they show the Christian’s DNA.
Today, we’re looking at the eighth and ninth Beatitudes. They're very similar. They’re both about persecution – so the ninth Beatitude is probably not a separate Beatitude but an elaboration of the eighth.
We’ll take a look at them shortly but I’d first like us to notice the similarity between the first and eighth Beatitudes.
The first Beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.”
The eighth Beatitude – which is, in many ways, the last – is “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.”
In the first and last Beatitudes, the phrase at the end is the same as the phrase at the beginning. We could say that these identical phrases form book-ends to the Beatitudes. They show that the Beatitudes are a set on the subject of THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN – the kingdom which Jesus is king of.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes a person who is in the kingdom of heaven. Actually, Jesus doesn’t say ‘IN’ the kingdom of heaven. He says ‘theirs IS the kingdom of heaven’!
In the first Beatitude Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The start-point of coming into relationship with God is humility. Later on, Jesus says the same thing in a slightly different way. He tells his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
Jesus then gives six more Beatitudes. They show us a whole set of characteristics of the person who is in the kingdom of heaven.
Then we come to the eighth and ninth Beatitudes, the two we’re looking at today. They are both on the subject persecution. Persecution is one of the clearest characteristics of a Christian.
If a person is being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, then it’s clear that they're following Jesus.
In 2009 we [our family] were living in Azerbaijan. One Sunday we were hosting a Christian meeting at our home when 13 policemen raided our home. They questioned everyone. Afterwards, one young man decided to stop being a Christian. He didn’t fancy being persecuted for his faith.
There was also a woman we knew. Her husband and her brother beat her after she became a Christian. But she didn’t stop being a Christian. Her acceptance of persecution showed clearly where she stood. Jesus’ words, ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ apply to her.
So, to recap, the Beatitudes are a set of characteristics of the Christian. A person becomes a Christian at the first Beatitude – coming to God in repentance and saying, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner.’ But as the person continues as a Christian, the other characteristics become evident.
Perhaps this illustration will help.
Let’s imagine I’m walking in a wood with my son. He asks me what an oak tree is. How can he tell? I could point to a little oak tree shoot in the ground. ‘You see those leaves?’ I ask. ‘They tell you it’s an oak tree.’ I could point out some branches that someone has cut down. ‘You see the grain of the wood?’ I ask. ‘That tells you it’s an oak tree.’ Or I might point to some acorns on a tree. ‘Those acorns tell you it’s an oak tree.’
The oak tree shoot doesn’t yet have wood. THAT characteristic hasn’t appeared yet. Nor does it have acorns. THAT characteristic hasn’t appeared either.
A person who has just become a Christian might not experience persecution straight away. But as they continue in the Christian life, they will.
The fact that Jesus places persecution here in his list of characteristics in itself points to that. But Jesus makes it very clear elsewhere. He told his disciples, ‘If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours’ [John 15:20b]. People certainly DID persecute Jesus, so people WILL persecute his followers. That means us – assuming we’re following Jesus.
Paul says the same thing. He tells Timothy, ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…’ [2 Timothy 3:12]. There are no ifs or buts here. ‘ALL who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus WILL be persecuted’.
Logic also tells us that we’re bound to be persecuted. About four years ago, Pope Francis published a document – in English it has the title ‘Rejoice and Be Glad’ – in which he calls people to holiness. He wrote that living the Beatitudes means ‘going against the flow’ in a world that pushes us in the opposite direction from holiness. That’s exactly what scripture tells us. In the Bible, ‘the world’ often means the world that is in rebellion against God. Jesus is going against the flow of the world. If we follow him, we’re going to be bumped.