By Dr. James C. Denison
President, The Center for Informed Faith, Dallas, Texas
Topic: climbing down to God
Do you count?
We are spending $14 billion of your money to count Americans. Officials think there are 307,006,550 of us, according to this morning’s New York Times, but want to be sure. Why? When San Antonio, Florida, was miscounted at 684 in the last census (they had 842 residents), they say they lost $130,000 in public funding over the decade. There are many ways to be persecuted.
During this Lenten season we’re learning to climb down to God by living a life he can bless. Jesus has taught us to be “poor in spirit,” admitting our need of God’s strength and guidance; to “mourn” for our sins so we might be comforted; to be “meek,” yielded to God, so we might “inherit the earth”; to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” so we might be “filled”; to be “merciful” so that we “will be shown mercy”; to be “pure in heart” so we can “see God”; and to be “peacemakers” so we can be called “the sons of God.”
Today we come to Jesus’ last beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). His words can be translated literally, “Blessed are the ones who have been and now are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Our Lord knew his followers would suffer for their commitment to him. And they did.
They were “insulted”: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (v. 11). They were made the objects of gossip, slander, and ridicule.
Because they shared a meal which symbolized the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of cannibalism. Because they called this meal the “love feast” and welcomed prostitutes into their churches, they were accused of sexual perversion. Because they would not bow before a bust of the emperor and say “Caesar is Lord,” they were accused of atheism and sedition. Persecution was a daily fact of life for the first Christians.
Before he was crucified upside down, the apostle Peter wrote: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Jesus warned his disciples, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).
Commentator William Barclay: “All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the tenderest parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to lengthen the agony. These things are not pleasant to think about, but these are the things a man had to be prepared for, if he took his stand with Christ.”
Persecution has remained a fact accompanying the Christian faith across all the centuries from their day to ours. Seventy million believers have been murdered across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Jesus. More believers were martyred in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined.
Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate our commitment to Christ as Lord. Secular culture does not understand our convictions. And Satan hates us. Jesus called him “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Peter warned us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Six hundred years ago Thomas a Kempis observed, “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead, therefore cease not to prepare thyself for the battle, for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.” He is still right.
Have you paid a price recently for following Jesus? If not, why not?