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Enduring Persecution for Jesus is Worth It – 3/24/24

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Enduring Persecution for Jesus is Worth It – 3/24/24


Ryan Ferguson


March 24, 2024


Matthew, Matthew 5:10-12


“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

Welcome to church. Glad you’re here. If you’re visiting North Hills, we’ve been studying the teachings of Jesus in a book from the Bible called Matthew. Jesus there teaches us what it means to live in his kingdom while we live here on earth.

Jesus concludes a section called the Beatitudes, or “the blessings,” by saying the words we read together.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

If the Bible is a marketing strategy for Christianity, it may need to work on its messaging. Great, you want to be a Christian? Here’s what you need to know: you’re fortunate, you’re blessed, you’re happy…if when you do the right thing, you’re persecuted for it. That’s the mark. That’s the standard. How in the world can these verses be true? We have to remember some of the things we’ve learned.

Jesus’s kingdom is completely upside down from how we think about “kingdom.” His kingdom is strikingly different than my kingdom, or your kingdom, or the kingdom of the south, or the kingdom of the north, or the kingdom of America, or the kingdoms of this world.

Let’s begin at the end today. Here’s where I want us to end: enduring persecution for Jesus is worth it. That’s where we want to end. Enduring persecution for the sake of Jesus is worth it.

To reach that, I want us to ask Jesus five questions about his statements. Five questions.

Question number one: Jesus, what is persecution? What are we talking about? In Jesus’ sermon, the Greek word here for persecute means pursued or pressed or chased. In modern language, it sounds a lot like stalking. You’re being purposefully chased down and pursued about something. More broadly, the word persecute means “to judge and treat harshly because of beliefs.” So, there’s a reason for the stalking. You’re stalked because of your beliefs. A perpetrator of persecution targets and pursues someone because of their beliefs. To combine those definitions, persecution is “pursuing someone’s harm because of their beliefs.” That seems to be what Jesus means by persecution.

Question number two: Jesus, what does persecution look like? In the immediate context of Jesus’s sermon, the persecution is verbal: it’s words. Matthew 5:11,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

The word revile means “to insult.” It’s verbal abuse.

For some of you— I asked my daughter, and she said they don’t say this anymore. But if you’re around my age, when I was a kid and someone made fun of you, you used this statement back at them: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Here’s the problem with that: it’s just not true.

I was thinking about being verbally insulted. When I was a junior in high school, I was in French class, and we were experiencing the culture, so our teacher brought in a French baguette and some chocolate. A girl in the class was handing it out. When she got to me, she said, “I’m going to give you the two smallest pieces. You need to lose some weight.” Thank you. Matthew, laughing is not the appropriate response. Everybody else is like, “oh,” and you’re like, “that’s great.” Oh, man. Yeah. That response of “oh boy,” those words stung. Here’s what’s ironic: that particular girl who handed that out, about 20 years later, came to this church and went through the connections class that I was teaching. I saw her and I remembered those words. So, that feeling you have of “oh,” Jesus is saying, if you feel that for following me, you’re blessed. You’re blessed.

Peter, a follower of Jesus, wrote this (Peter 4:14-16),

“If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

Jesus uses the word persecute again, that idea of harassment. Persecution is persistent verbal pestering. It keeps coming at you. It’s not a one-time event. It’s that kid in high school who will not stop teasing his classmate but pursues and presses the mocking.

“Utter all kinds of evil against you falsely”— you will have all kinds of lies said about your identity. When you’re trying to do right, you’ll be called evil. While trying to love, you’re going to be described as a hater. While trying to do justice, you’ll be described as unjust. While trying to be truthful, you’re going to be told you’re a liar. While trying to be inclusive, you’ll be described as bigoted. All kinds of lies about who you are falsely. So, the immediate context is verbal.

More broadly, the scriptural and historical context of persecution can be violent. So, it is both verbal and it’s violent. Jesus himself predicts violence to his followers. Jesus tells his best friends in Mark 13:9,

“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.”

Paul, a later follower of Jesus, experienced violence, and he wrote about it in this way: 2 Corinthians 11:23-25,

“[I have] far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.”

Persecution can be violent.

History records violence. The Roman emperors were famous for their persecution of Christians, Roman emperors like Nero. In near history, one can hear story after story told by the organization Voice of the Martyrs. Some of our very own missionaries even recently have been beaten, tortured, or exiled from their countries simply for preaching the gospel.

Jesus is talking about persecution as pursuing someone’s harm because of their beliefs, and that pursuit can be verbal and violent.

Question number three: Jesus, why does persecution happen? Why? Well, persecution is specific. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. Blessed are you when others revile you…on my account. So, “for righteousness sake,” on account of Jesus. Persecution happens for living the words and ways of Jesus. Righteousness, my definition, is “right living informed by right relationship.” You’re choosing to live a certain way and make certain decisions in your life because of who you are in a relationship with, Jesus. Jesus says we live on his account.

I don’t know that I’ve ever talked personally about someone that way before. Like, on account of ________, I live this way. So, I thought about it, and then I just considered my dad, Buzz. What do I live out on account of my dad? Here’s a couple.

I consider arriving early being on time because of my dad. I can’t tell you the number of times my dad told me growing up, “Hey, buddy, you showing up late is you telling other people your time’s more valuable than theirs.” On account of my dad, I’m typically early.

I love motorcycles because of my dad. I rode around on the back of my dad’s 1976 Honda CB 550 custom paint job, custom painted helmets, big bubble visor, big chrome sissy bar. We didn’t have a lot of money, but Friday nights dad and I would take a ride, come home, make hamburgers, put out the ironing board in front of the TV, and watch Magnum PI. It was money. Loved it. And I loved motorcycles. I still ride them.

I try to treat servers at restaurants kindly because my dad had this thing. It was such a gift. Like, “Hey, what’s your name? How are you doing today?” No matter what happened, at the end of the meal, he would lock eyes with a server and go, “Hey, I just want to let you know you did a great job. Thanks.” So, on account of my dad, I live certain ways— and you do, too. Whether it’s parents or teachers or friends, influencers, whatever it is.

On a much grander scale, that’s what Jesus is after. On account of him, you live out your life a certain way. If you’re in a right relationship with him and you love him, then you’re going to watch his ways and you’re going to listen to his words and, on a count of him, you’re going to live the same way.

We need to ask ourselves a follow-up question to this. Why does persecution happen? Why does persecution happen for living rightly in a right relationship with Jesus? What’s so offensive about living out the ways and words of Jesus? Even people outside of faith will say that Jesus was a loving teacher, so what is so offensive? I’m going to put it this way: living for righteousness sake and on account of Jesus means two things: (1) there is a right way to live and (2) there’s a right person to follow. That’s why persecution happens. That is an offensive message. There is a right and therefore a wrong way to live. Jesus defines what that is.

There is a right and wrong people to follow, and Jesus exclusively claims, “Follow me.” If we live out the words and ways of Jesus, we are continually preaching that same message. There’s a right way to live and a wrong way to live. There’s a right person to follow and wrong people to follow. Blessed are you when you’re persecuted for a right relationship with Jesus, living the way Jesus lived, on account of Jesus’s love for you. Persecution is specific: righteousness sake on account of Jesus.

Let’s clarify one thing about persecution: you are not blessed for being a Christian who is a jerk. Kent Hughes, in his commentary and in a sermon, helped me greatly with this thought. I’m going to share his story and his words at length (it’s about four paragraphs) because I can’t say it any better. He references a 1960s satire in these words. So, this is Kent Hughes describing this idea.

“The Beatitude does not say, ‘Blessed are the persecuted, period!’ Unfortunately, this is the way it is sometimes interpreted. And those who read it like this delude themselves into thinking that any time they experience conflict they are bearing the reproach of Christ.

“Joseph Bayly’s satire The Gospel Blimp humorously portrays this fallacy. Some believers in a small town, eager to share their faith, hit on the idea of a gospel blimp. The blimp was piloted back and forth across town, dragging Scripture banners and dropping tracks, called “gospel bombs,” into backyards. At first the town’s people put up with the intrusion, but their tolerance changed to hostility when the blimp’s owners installed a loudspeaker and began assaulting the people with gospel broadcasts. The locals had had enough, and the local newspaper ran an editorial:

“‘For some weeks now, our metropolis has been treated to the spectacle of a blimp with an advertising sign attached at the rear. This sign does not plug cigarettes or a bottled beverage, but the religious beliefs of a particular group in our midst. The people of our city are notably broad-minded, and they have good-naturedly submitted to this attempt to proselyte [to convert]. But last night a new refinement (some would say debasement) was introduced. We refer, of course, to the airborne sound truck, the invader of our privacy, that raucous destroyer of communal peace.’

“That night the gospel blimp was sabotaged, and of course the Christians saw it as ‘persecution.’

“Sadly, Christians are very often persecuted not for their Christianity, but for lack of it. Sometimes they are rejected simply because they have unpleasing personalities. They are rude, insensitive, thoughtless—or piously obnoxious. Some are rejected because they are discerned as proud and judgmental. Others are disliked because they are lazy and irresponsible. Incompetence mixed with piety is sure to bring rejection.”

Let’s be persecuted for righteousness sake on account of Jesus, not rejected because we’re jerks who claim the name of Jesus.

Question number four: what do I do when persecution happens? What do I do when it comes at me? Jesus looks at the crowd that’s in front of him that he’s teaching and says, rejoice and be glad. Just going to let that sink in. Let you embrace that one. Do you know what those words mean in the original language? Rejoice and be glad. It really means “rejoice and be glad.” When it happens, our response is to rejoice and be glad.

This leads us to question five: why? Why do I respond this way in persecution? Because some suffering is worth the reward. An athlete rejoices at the pain of competition because the experience or the trophy is worth it. Most mothers choose to have a child knowing that the suffering will be worth it for the joy of a child. A cancer patient endures chemotherapy because the reward of an extended life is worth it. Some suffering is worth the reward. We rejoice, we are glad in persecution because something makes it worth it. There’s got to be something.

Peter mentioned several times over the past several weeks the idea that Jesus’s kingdom is already here and yet not here. It’s this “already, not yet.” The kingdom is really here. Jesus came, has opened the door wide for us to be in a right relationship with God, and yet there’s this future kingdom coming where everything is set right. We live in that tension of “already” and “not yet” every day in multiple areas of life. I think persecution is the place in life where we feel that the most poignantly, where it’s the hardest, the “already, not yet” while being persecuted, the “not yet” part of the kingdom. Whatever is waiting for us out there is the courage to survive persecution today.

Why do I rejoice? Why am I glad? Jesus tells us in the text, Matthew 5:10,

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You have the kingdom.

I’ve taught Connections here for a very long time. A lot of you have been in church for a long time so the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is very churchy and nice and may not sound all that great. In a way, it’s generic if you’ve grown up with it. But what Jesus is saying is you get to inherit the very rule and realm of God. You get both the rule, the authority of God, and the place of God. You get to exist within both. The kingdom that Jesus seems to be talking about is this future/not yet kingdom that’s out in front of us. If the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about here is only how we exist today, then what’s the fuel? What makes it worth it? But if Jesus is talking about something greater that you’re promised, that’s coming— that’s what we hold on to in persecution. That kingdom of the future is what gives us courage.

Matthew 5:11-12,

“Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You have the kingdom, and you have a reward. Hebrews 11:6 makes an interesting statement about God:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

If you want to be near to God, the author of Hebrews looks at you and says, hey, just so you know, you want to be near to God? You got to believe that he’s real. That’s number one. That makes sense. The other key to understand about God is that he rewards those who seek him. A fundamental understanding of our God to be close to him is that he is a rewarder. Inherently within him, God, by his very nature, is a rewarder. He’s the master of positive reinforcement. He’s the pinnacle of gift-giving. God is storing up for anyone who endures persecution rewards beyond their imagination.

Then Jesus says they also persecuted the prophets. So, you have the kingdom, you have a reward, you’re also in good company. This is why you endure. You’re in good company. The prophets were also persecuted. Others believed before us and endured this same type of treatment. In the book of Hebrews, in chapter 11, the author compares two groups of people that exercise faith. The one group of people do all of these amazing miracles. They escape lions, and they put out fire, and they destroy armies. All these great feats.

Here’s the other group of people and what they do in faith:

“Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

The prophets were persecuted before you. That’s them. That’s what they went through. And Jesus tells his followers, if you’re persecuted verbally or violently for following me, living like me, doing my words and ways, you’re not alone. You’re in great company. So, if you’re persecuted for righteousness sake on account of Jesus, God promises you the kingdom of heaven, God promises your reward, and God promises you you’re in great company.

Persecution is overwhelming if our picture of today is more beautiful and powerful than our picture of tomorrow. As followers of Jesus, if this is the most beautiful thing we can imagine (what we experience right now), then we’re certainly going to give up in persecution. If the rewards we can get out of life today are the best thing that we can imagine, we’re going to give up in persecution. If we believe we’re the only ones who’ve experienced being outcast or hurt, we’re going to give up. But if our picture of the future and the company that we’re in is large, then enduring persecution for Jesus is worth it.

I have a dear friend here at church who often asks me a great question about preaching. What do I walk away with? What do I do with this? What do we actually do to live out Jesus’s words? So, I want to try to give us some practical observations and two practical responses that I hope we can take with us as we walk out the doors. Here are some practical observations about persecution and following Jesus. And they are for us as a church.

North Hills, our manner of living the words and ways of Jesus must match the manner of Jesus Himself. How we live out his words and ways matters. This is back to that idea of not being a Christian who’s a jerk because truth is tricky. You can say a true thing in a certain way and destroy somebody. You can use the truth as a weapon. You can be very unkind with truth. Jesus didn’t do that. Truth for Jesus, his manner of sharing it, was direct but kind. Focused but loving. Clear but compassionate. Always. As we live out the words and ways of Jesus in a context where we might be persecuted for it, our manner has to match his manner. Remember, Jesus ultimately demonstrated the idea of being persecuted by submitting himself and dying. He gave up his rights. He didn’t hold on to them.

Number two observation: North Hills, followers of Jesus must never be persecutors. We never exercise verbal or violent actions against anyone because of their beliefs. Quite simply, if you follow Jesus, you don’t verbally make fun of anybody else because of their beliefs. You can’t be a peacemaker and a persecutor at the same time.

Number three: North Hills, we must cultivate a vivid and imaginative and biblical view of the future. We’ve got to have something anchored in our heads, and I’m talking everybody from little on up to old. If you follow Jesus for 80 years, we’ve got to have something vivid in our head that’s so powerful that it’s worth living for. Imagine what the kingdom of heaven is actually going to be like to actually do the work. Kids are great at this. Kids are great at imagination work. You can go into elementary school, young kids, and say, “Hey, I want you to imagine what a perfect place would be like and draw it.” And the kids are going to grab the crayons and go to town. Adults, we get into the imaginative world, and I think, in general, we often feel silly. Well, buckle up. Turn on your imagination. Can you imagine what the kingdom of heaven will really be like? Where the rule and realm of God is completely perfect? When heaven descends and reunites the recreated earth into a perfect kingdom where the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man overlap in perfect harmony, and everything is right. That’s something worth living for. That’s something that will give me enough fuel that, if you want to make fun of me, okay. Whatever. Walk away. I’ve got this out in front of me. We’ve got to cultivate that type of powerful picture of the future.

Number four: North Hills, we must embrace a view of God that demands that we see him as a rewarder of his people. I would go so far as to say God rewarding his people must be as fundamental to our view of God as God judging sin because you can’t get close to him if you don’t believe that he rewards you. If God rewards us with a new heaven and earth (a new kingdom) with the ability to be in his presence, to once again walk with him. If he promises us new bodies like he gave to His Son Jesus Christ. If Jesus told his friends, hey, when I’m leaving earth, I’m going to go prepare a place for you so that when you come, you can join me there. Both God and Jesus are working on creating a brand-new future for us all. Can you imagine what that would be like? My wife Rebecca and I, we genuinely love having people into our house. I love setting up the event. I like the planning and figuring it all out and cooking. All of that. We try to be generous and make people feel loved as they leave our home, and I think we do an okay, pretty good job of it. But can you imagine how well Jesus can plan a party for his people? It’s got to be crazy, and we gotta get that into our heads: he will reward us.

Those are observations. Here are two practical responses:

One, Check your relationship. Everything I’m saying right now hinges completely on your relationship with Jesus, what you believe about Jesus. So, if you’re here and you’re new to claims about who Jesus is, and a lot of what I just said just sounds nuts, that’s okay. What really matters is, do you believe Jesus is who he claimed to be? Jesus came and told people, I’ve come to seek and to save the lost. We’re lost because there’s sin. Sin is this idea that we’re separated from a right relationship with God. There’s a gap, and Jesus’s life is stepping into that gap to say, “Believe in me. I’ll bridge the gap between you and God, and I’ll create this right relationship with God through me.” That’s the first thing we’ve got to figure out. Persecution matters nothing if there isn’t a relationship with Jesus first. So, you have to check your relationship. If you want to talk about the claims of Jesus, there will be some people up here afterward, even during singing. Or if you want to talk to me, I hang out afterward. I’d love to talk to you.

Second practical response: check your followship. I’m so sorry for that word. It’s so cheesy, but I couldn’t figure out a better word. If you’re in a right relationship with Jesus, then quite simply, the question for us is this: are we following his words in ways? Persecution doesn’t matter if you don’t know Jesus. Persecution also doesn’t matter if you’re not living out his words and ways. As someone who says, “I love Jesus,” if you say that, then you’re going to live his words and ways. There are tons of questions we could ask as a follow-up here. Do you know his words and ways? If not, get your Bible, open right about two-thirds of the way through and look for the words Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and read all about Jesus’s life and the way he told us to live and how he lived. Watch how he lives out in certain situations and then do what he does. Check your followship. Do you live out Jesus’ words in ways, in context in which you may be persecuted?

Let’s do that. Let’s take a moment to consider, in our contexts as people, what persecution might look like if we follow Jesus. Let’s start with students. And here you’re in elementary school, middle school, high school. Let’s see what happens if you do this in your life. You choose to announce in your context of school that you follow Jesus and believe everyone should. You choose to love everyone in your school, even the least unpopular of those in your school. You choose to bless other students who are unkind to you. You choose to honor the authority of the school instead of mocking them. You choose to obey the rules instead of disregarding them. You choose to share that one finds happiness not in creating your own identity but by embracing the identity one finds in following Jesus’ words and ways. You choose to answer in science class that you believe God is actually the one who spoke the world into existence. If you’re in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college, and you do any of those actions, what might happen to you? You might be made fun of. You might have really hard questions asked. You might experience some really negative responses. You might get a bad grade. Do you know what Jesus would say? Blessed. Blessed are you for being persecuted for living like me.

What about employees? You choose to do your work honestly, even when you’re pressured to fudge the numbers a little bit for the sake of bonuses. You choose to treat other employees with respect, no matter how they act. You choose to honor the boundaries of relationships and treat men and women as brothers and sisters and not objects. You choose to honor your authority rather than mock them with other employees. What might happen to you? You could be made fun of for all of that. In a weird case, you might even be fired for some of that unjustly. Do you know what Jesus would say? Blessed are you when others revile you on my account.

What about elders of a church? You choose to hold fast to God as Creator. You choose to hold fast to marriage as a man and woman. You choose to hold fast to life mattering at every stage. You choose to hold fast to God as a good creator who made each of us to be who he made us to be. You choose to hold fast that God loves all people, no matter their ethnicity, their politics, or their present beliefs. What might happen to you? You will be criticized for that. You will be criticized publicly because if you say all of that live on YouTube, it’s recorded and stays out there in a message or in a podcast or in a post. You need to prepare yourself because, more than likely, if violence follows the verbal assault, you will be among the first to absorb it. Jesus would look at you and say as an elder, rejoice and be glad. I’ve got a reward for you you can’t even imagine.

Enduring persecution for Jesus is worth it because we’re not at the end of the kingdom yet. We’re not home. Once more, the author of Hebrews says this:

“For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one [Jesus] will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:37-39).

Enduring persecution for Jesus is worth it because the coming one is bringing us a kingdom and a home. We’re not quite there yet, so God give us wisdom and courage to endure.

I have had weeks and weeks to prepare and think through this content, and I’ve just dumped about 30 minutes of words into your brain about the idea of persecution. So, what I want us to do is to take three or four minutes together and listen to a song that describes the reality that we’re not quite at the end of the kingdom, and then we’ll all respond together in singing. You may stay seated and meditate and ponder this kingdom that is coming and that it’s worth persecution.