Lenten Devotional Day 10

March 6, 2020

To Be Like Jesus

Matthew 5:11-12 – “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Having lived my whole life in a country founded on the moral and political doctrines freedom of speech and freedom of religion, I know very little – if anything – about paying a price for following Jesus.  We do not have to search very far in history or contemporary life to find jarring examples of those who have paid with their lives for His sake. We are told, for example, from the second century Christian teachings that all the Apostle’s died as martyrs, except for St. John.  In our day, we can read of the horrific and barbaric murder Christian believers in the Middle East or enslavement of Christian boys and girls in Africa at the hands of different Muslim groups. For those who have died for their faith in and commitment to Jesus the Messiah and Savior, we can only echo the words of Hebrews 11:38 – “the world was not worthy of them.”

While this teaching is not, strictly speaking one of the eight beatitudes, Jesus offered it as a kind of capstone of the others.  He foresaw what would be at stake for His disciples. No doubt by the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written and the teaching of Jesus presented in the Sermon on the Mount the Christian communities who first received this printed account of and witness to Jesus’ life had already been experiencing persecution “on account of Him.”  These words from the Lord Himself would have been, no doubt, a great source of joy, hope, and strength.

Not only the Book of Acts describes tremendous persecution (by the Jewish leadership), but secular history of the time recounts grave abuse and torment.  The late first and early second century Roman historian Tacitus writes:

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition – repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, – where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly, first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”  {Annals}

Of note are the charges that Tacitus (who was also a Roman Senator) levels himself in this account:  enormities (outrageous, immoral acts), pernicious superstition (the Resurrection), and hating the human race.  Quite a list. It is reported, as well, that part of Nero’s response was to take these Christians who would not recant their faith and line the streets or Rome with them in order to use them, once they were set on fire still living, as lights at night, so he could ride his chariot around the streets in mockery and victory.

We stand in a lineage of Christians who have suffered grievously, and we stand in spiritual fellowship with brothers and sisters today who suffer brutality.  Yet, Jesus does not simply say those who are physically killed or tortured for His name are blessed. He says any of His disciples are blessed, “when people insult you. . . or falsely say all kinds of evil against you” because of me.  We should be, therefore, encouraged by the thought that Jesus considered (and considers) any kind of abuse and oppression one willingly embraces and endures for the sake of love for Him to be a sign of blessedness.  Furthermore, we should be inspired by – and should always seek out inspiration from the martyrs – as we stand for the convictions of faith that are rooted in and revolve around Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself points the audience to the examples of “the prophets who were before you” as motivating examples from whose lives they were to gain strength for following Him.  There is little wonder that the Book of Hebrews in chapter 11 points to and exalts the faith of the Old Testament faithful when Jesus Himself wanted us to look to the example of those who have gone before.

Today’s Western and American culture is truly post-Christian in the sense that all the competing worldviews promoted by multiculturalism and New Age spirituality have gained much support.  The worldview of Christian or biblical faith is no longer a default starting point. Those disciples of Jesus who will stand for a commitment to the morality inherent in Jesus’ own commitments and teaching now find themselves objectionable in the eyes of many.  “Problematic” is the new catch phrase of the day used by people when they realize that a Christ-centered biblically informed disciple does not fall into lock-step with the present zeitgeist (spirit of the age), whether the issue be human sexuality, moral ambiguity, or religious relativism in which Jesus is just another religious leader from the past.  Troubles can, do, and will come to those who name Him as Lord. He announces the blessedness upon even those who endure cruelty that falls short of martyrdom.

Since Jesus indicates in this beatitude that the blessing is for those faithful to Him even when the abuse is less than lethal, and since we are historically and today “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12), we are to take our place in the ancestral and family line.  As we suffer, we are not only like our brothers and sisters who have given it all for Christ, but we are, as well, being like Jesus, who “suffered outside the gate” for God’s righteousness. When we are unwilling to suffer for Him, it is a sure sign we do not really love Him, and a sure sign we do not really value the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

May our blessing be a reflection of the conviction and hope expressed by St. Paul: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”  To be persecuted and suffer is not fun, but it is a blessing when you are being persecuted and suffer for the right One.

Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Dr. Blakemore is a co-founder of the JCW Center and the Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary.