Eight blessings (8):

The blessing of those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness




[Matthew 5:10-12]



Have you ever been tortured and hurt because you believe in Jesus?  Have you ever been harmed by the world because of your beliefs and creeds?  Last Tuesday, at a meeting of the presbytery to which our church belongs, the wife of a senior pastor spoke briefly about getting permission from the presbytery members and running for the ABC Board of Education election.  According to that senior pastor’s wife, transgender students in California public schools are now legally guaranteed the right to choose the bathroom according to their gender of choice.  California's current governor, Jerry Brown, signed the bill (AB1266), which will take effect in January 2014.  Since she clearly expresses her opposition to this, I think she is likely to encounter difficult things during the election. 


                As we live in this world, if we do not compromise with the world and try to live according to the Jesus we believe in, we will inevitably make many enemies.  We cannot deny the fact that there are people who hate us, slander us, and try to harm us when we obey the truth of the Bible we believe in.  Even though you know it will be hard, difficult, painful, and persecuted, will you continue to follow the Jesus you believe in?  Do you want to continue living a good life of faith?  Will you continue to live in obedience to the Word of God you believe in?


In today's text, Matthew 5:10-12, the Bible speaks of “heaven,” the last eighth blessing among the eight blessings Jesus taught.  At the same time, today's text is talking about the fourth and last of Jesus' four demands (commands).  The fourth and final demand is ‘Be persecuted for the sake of righteousness.’


Did you know that Christians are still being persecuted in the 21st century?  According to '2003 Mission Trends in the 20th and 21st Century' published by Missionary David Barrett and the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC), the number of Christian martyrs this year will reach 166,000.  It is said that in 2000, three years ago, the number of martyrs was 160,000.  The number of martyrs has increased by 1.24% per year for the past three years.  If this trend continues, it is predicted that by 2025, a whopping 210,000 people will be martyred.  Most of the regions where martyrs occurred are countries that persecute Christians: North Korea Saudi Arabia Vietnam Laos Turkmenistan Pakistan Bhutan Maldives Somalia etc.  Why are so many Christians persecuted and martyred?  Isn't that because of faith in Jesus Christ?  Most of the Arab Muslim countries are religious extremists, active in persecution of Christians.  Saudi Arabia is the most closed Muslim country with the most severe persecution of Christianity.  All citizens are forced by the state to become Muslims, and anyone who converts to another religion is sentenced to death.  Violence against churches and Christians by armed Islamic groups is frequent in vulnerable areas in Asia and Africa, such as Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria and Indonesia.  Remaining communist countries such as China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam and Cuba also threaten and oppress the Christian Church (Internet).  However, there are Christians who are being threatened, oppressed, and persecuted in this way, and there are Christians in this world who are not persecuted in this world, where religious freedom is guaranteed and there are no major financial difficulties.  Then, you and I, who are living in a country where religious freedom is guaranteed and economically prosperous like the United States, have been blessed by God?  Isn't it?  Suffering or persecution for faith in Jesus Christ is never a curse.  Rather, it is a blessing.  This is because, firstly, Christians who are persecuted participate in the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, and secondly, because their faith is purified through suffering and persecution, suffering is God's blessing.  Also, suffering and persecution are blessings because suffering and persecution serve as an opportunity for Christians to experience God's presence and the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit more deeply (Internet).


                In today's text, Matthew 5:10, Jesus says that blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  What does “for the sake of righteousness” mean here?  As we have already learned from Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  The word “righteousness” has three major meanings.  Among the three meanings, the first meaning, “righteousness,” “what is right,” or “justice,” is the word “righteousness” in Matthew 5:10 means.  In other words, what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:10 is that blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, what is right or justice.  Isn't it proper for us Christians to do righteousness, that is, to do what is right or justice as Jesus said?  If we, as His disciples, want to follow Jesus, then of course we must do what is right, right?  I am sure everybody knows this.  Nevertheless, we often hesitate in doing what is right (justice), and sometimes we even compromise with the world and do what we know is not right in God's sight.  As a result, we suffer.  At that time, as Christians, we should not at least think that it is unfair that we have to suffer this way.  Why?  The reason is because we have not done what is right (justice).  Therefore, when we are smitten by God for our sins, we should think that it is a natural result that we suffer.  This reminds me of 1 Peter 2:19-20: “For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?  But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.”  In addition to this verse, 1 Peter 3:17 in the Bible says this: “and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”  Don't you think that's a reasonable thing to say?  Isn't it of course better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil?  When we suffer unjustly for the sake of righteousness and suffer persecution, if we endure sorrow and pain by thinking of God, it is beautiful in the sight of God.  To understand in more detail what Jesus said in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” we have to look at the next verse, Matthew 5:11 – “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.”  This verse 11 explains verse 10 in more detail.  In other words, in verse 10, Jesus said that blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The phrase “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” here means “because of Me” (v. 11), that is, because of Jesus.  And to be persecuted because of Jesus means that we Christians are reviled and persecuted by the world for the life of faith that we believe in and follow Jesus, and falsely they say all kinds of evil against us.


In fact, if we look back on history, we can see that the Christians of the Early Church suffered a lot of persecution from the Roman emperors.  Among those Roman emperors, Emperor Nero (reigned 54-68), famous as a tyrant, blamed and slaughtered innocent Christians, and was the emperor who fiercely promoted the murder of the apostles.  And Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96), who called himself 'Dominus et Deus' and ordered the worship of the emperor, severely persecuted the disobedient saints.  Persecution continued for hundreds of years, and all Christian meetings were banned.  During the reign of Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305), four edicts were issued: (1) Destroy Christian chapels, burn Christian books, and remove from office anyone professing the faith, (2) Arrest all pastors and staff of the church and put them in prison, (3) On the day of the sacrifice, the prison doors will be opened and Christians who offer sacrifices to various gods will be released, and those who refuse will be tortured, (4) All the people of the Roman Empire will bow down to the gods and make sacrifices.  It is said that cruel torture was inflicted on Christians who did not yield to this, regardless of age or gender.  It is said that after being whipped, they were thrown into the food of bloodthirsty beasts, burned at the stake, and slaughtered in a horrific and barbaric way.  The bodies were left unattended and burned or thrown into rivers.  In the end, the Roman Empire tried to eradicate Christianity through government power (Internet).  This reminds me of Hebrews 11:33-38: “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.  Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated -- the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”  The Bible records that our fathers of faith were tortured severely in order to obtain a better resurrection, but did not want to be released.  They were not only ridiculed and whipped, but also tried in bondage and imprisonment.  They suffered privation, tribulation, abuse, and even death (martyr).  The Bible says that the world cannot bear such people of faith.


Even in the midst of tribulation and persecution, the early church members kept their faith.  And they considered that tribulation and persecution a glory, and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they were every day.  Shouldn't this be the life of our faith?  I remember the lyrics of the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” verse 1: “Faith of our fathers! living still In spite of dungeon, fire and sword; O how our hearts beat high with joy Whene'er we hear God's glorious Word: Faith of our fathers, holy faith!  We will be true to Thee till death.”  In today's text, Matthew 5:12, Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  We should rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  When we are persecuted because of Jesus, we should rejoice and be glad.  Why?  The reason is because our reward in heaven will be great.  Therefore, like Moses, the father of faith, we look to the reward (Heb. 11:26), so we should prefer to suffer with God's people in faith rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin in this world for a while (v. 25).  Through faith, we must consider the reproach we receive for Christ's sake (v. 26) and all the persecutions we receive for Christ's sake (Mt. 5:11) as greater riches than all the treasures of this world (Heb. 11:26).  Then, on the day when the Lord comes again, the Lord will allow us to enter the eighth blessing, which is the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:10).


A few weeks ago, while having a conversation with my daughter, I told her about Pastor Gi-cheol Joo who is a martyr of Korea.  At that time, I remember that the reason I even told my daughter about Pastor Joo was because she asked me this question: ‘What will you do?’  She asked me this question because I told her what my friend asked me.  When I met my friend the weekend before, he said to me, 'What would you say if a gay man came to you and asked you to officiate?'  When my daughter heard that question, she asked me, 'What will you do?'  So I told her that I would say “No,” because what the Bible teaches is that a man and a woman get married.  And I told her what I remembered, the movie about Pastor Joo that I saw when I was a child.  I told my daughter about the martyred Pastor Joo, who is a precious example of our Korean faith.  Pastor Gi-cheol Joo was born on November 25, 1897, and died on April 21, 1944, at the age of 47, for opposing Japanese shrine worship (Internet).  His fourth son, Elder Gwang-jo Joo, wrote these words from his father's martyrdom testimonies: ‘Pastor Joo did not die because of weakness, lack of strength, or ignorance.  He just died because he couldn't be dumb when he had to say it, and because he didn't want to run or dodge the way he was supposed to, and he couldn't survive this hour when he was supposed to die.  Only he who bears the cross with Jesus Christ can share glory with Jesus Christ.’  The phrase ‘He just died because he couldn't be dumb when he had to say it, and because he didn't want to run or dodge the way he was supposed to, and he couldn't survive this hour when he was supposed to die’ comes to my mind.  What comes to my mind even more is Pastor Joo's prison prayer.  Among the five prayer topics, I would like to share with you the contents of the 1st prayer, the 4th prayer, and the 5th prayer, especially in relation to today's Word (Internet): (1) First, help me to overcome the power of death.  I am on the verge of death.  Black hands trying to take my life are coming every moment.  Faced with death, I cannot but pray, 'Please help me to overcome the power of death.'  All living things groan in the face of death, and all living things tremble and mourn in the face of death.  How many people have forsaken righteousness for fear of death and have forsaken faith in order to escape death?  The Lord's disciple Peter was also afraid of death, so he denied Jesus in the court of Caiaphas and swore that he did not know even before the maidservant.  But for the sake of the Lord, it is good to die a hundred times, but what kind of life is that if I forsake the Lord and live for a hundred or a thousand years!  Oh Lord!  Please spare this life so that it will not be dishonored to the Lord.  Jesus died on the cross for me.  He had a crown of thorns on his head, his hands and feet were torn by iron nails, and he shed the last drop of blood.  Lord, you died for me, so how can I pretend to be ignorant of You because I am afraid of death?  I am ready to die.  O Lord, who died on the cross and rose from the grave on the third day, Jesus who overcame the power of death!  I also believe in the resurrection and put the power of death under Your feet.  Death, where is your sting?  I believe in the risen Jesus, and I will rise again.  A pine tree is green when it is picked before it dies, and a lily is fragrant when it falls before it withers.  John the Baptist was 33 years old, and Stephen was sprinkled with the hot blood of a young man.  Before this body also withers, it shall be sacrificed on the altar of the Lord.  (4) Fourth, let us live in righteousness and die in righteousness.  I can't, I can't.  The bride of Christ cannot lose her fidelity because of idols.  I grew up in Jesus when I was young, and I swore ten or a hundred times to dedicate myself to Jesus.  Today, when God's commandments are broken and the name of Jesus falls to the ground while eating and receiving glory in the name of Jesus, how can this body be able to escape from death?  Ah!  The name of my Lord Jesus is falling to the ground.  Pyongyang!  Pyongyang!  Courtesy to the east, my Jerusalem!  Glory departed from you.   Moranbong, weep!  Daedong River, let's cry together with me as we turn one hundred years old!  Give, give.  I give even this life to the Lord.  Does the blade wait for me?  I will go towards that blade.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”  No one will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Dear friends, Jesus is alive.  Let us die for Jesus, and live for Jesus.  (5) Fifth, I entrust my soul to the Lord.  Oh! Lord Jesus, I entrust my soul to You.  Receive my soul as I fall while holding onto the cross.  Receive my soul, in prison or in death row, when my life is cut off.  Your house is my home, and Your Kingdom is my hometown.  Wash my feet from the dirty ground so that I can walk on the golden road of heaven, and cleanse me from the troubles in the world of sin so that I can stand on the condition of glory.  I entrust my soul to you. Amen.