Blessed are the Square Pegs
March 10, 1996
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in Heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Mark 5:10-12
It’s going to be a long time before they invite Pastor Joe Wright of Wichita’s Central Christian Church to deliver the invocation again to the Kansas State Legislature. When he prayed there not long ago, in the words of Paul Harvey, he “told God on them.” At the conclusion of his prayer, three Democrats in the State Legislature were on their feet at microphones protesting: “He can’t talk like that about us!”
What in the world could the pastor have said that stirred up such a hornet’s next of controversy? Here is the entire text of his prayer. You be the judge.
Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance.
We know your Word says, “Woe to those who call evil good”; but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values. We confess that we have ridiculed the absolute truth of your Word in the name of “moral pluralism”.
We have worshipped other gods and called it “multiculturalism”. We have endorsed perversion and called it “an alternative lifestyle”. We have exploited the poor and called it “a lottery”. We have neglected the needy and called it “self-preservation”. We have rewarded laziness and called it “welfare”.
In the name of “choice” we have killed our unborn. In the name of “right to life” we have killed abortionists.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it “building esteem”. We have abused power and called it “political savvy”. We’ve coveted our neighbors’ possessions and called it “taxes”. We’ve polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it “freedom of expression”. We’ve ridiculed the time-honored values of our fore-fathers and called it “enlightenment”.
Search us, oh God, and know our hearts today.
Try us, and show us any wicked in us.
Cleanse us from every sin, and set us free.
Guide and bless these men and women who have been sent here by the people of Kansas and have been ordained by you to govern this great state. Grant them your wisdom to rule, and may their decisions direct us to the center of your will.
I ask it in the name of your Son, the Living Savior, Jesus Christ.
I see nothing wrong with that prayer. In fact, I would recommend that every state legislature–and the United States Congress–begin every session with that prayer until the lawmakers understand its meaning.
God bless Pastor Joe Wright for having the courage of his convictions. May his tribe increase.
Alan Keyes On Abortion
It’s not always easy to stand up for what you believe, especially when the pressure is on you to compromise. Last Friday night I listened to the Republican presidential candidates’ debate from Dallas, Texas. To me, the highlight came when a reporter asked if the Republican Party should remove its pro-life plank from the platform since polls show that most voters don’t support it. Alan Keyes replied that you don’t write your platform by reading the exit polls, especially not when it comes to a moral issue like abortion. He went on to say that since our rights come from the hand of God not from the democratic process, we must continue to defend the right to life of the unborn even if it proves to be politically unpopular.
God bless Alan Keyes for having the courage to speak the truth on national television.
We Can’t Skip This Text
We come now to the eighth and final beatitude. It speaks of a blessing no one wants–the blessing that comes to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Of the beatitudes, this one would surely be the least popular. By definition, persecution involves pain and suffering, and who wants that? Most of us would rather have the blessing that comes to the merciful than the blessing that comes to the persecuted. Few healthy people freely choose the path of persecution.
Yet here it is in our text. We can’t skip it or pretend it isn’t there. In fact, there are six facts that make this beatitude impossible to ignore:
1. It is the last beatitude.
2. It is the longest beatitude (three verses).
3. It is the only beatitude with a command (“rejoice”).
4. It is the only beatitude with an explanation.
5. It is the only beatitude that is repeated by Jesus.
6. It is the only beatitude addressed directly to the reader.
All these facts are important. As the last beatitude, it comes as the logical climax to everything that has preceded it. Since it is the longest beatitude, we can hardly ignore it. The command and the explanation only emphasize its importance. The repetition and the chance from the third to the second person force us to stop and consider what these verses are saying to us individually.
Tortured For Christ
Persecution. The very word sounds harsh and ugly. It evokes images of men burned at the stake, of babies taken from their mothers, of Christians being thrown to the lions, of brave pastors tortured until they renounced their faith. We know that such things happened centuries ago. But surely no one is ever persecuted for their faith today, right?
Before you answer that question, read the column by Chuck Colson in the current issue of Christianity Today entitled “Tortured for Christ–and Ignored.” Here are some of the facts about persecution around the world:
- The Muslim government in Sudan has made it a crime to convert to Christianity–a policy enforced brutally. Thousands of children have been snatched from Christian families and many sold as slaves to buyers in Sudan, Libya, and other Islamic countries. Thousands of women have been raped, others sold as servants or concubines. There are even reports of men being crucified.
- In Ethiopia last year, government troops raided the largest evangelical church, arresting most attenders. Many died in jail, their bodies thrown out to be scavenged by animals.
- In Pakistan, Christian evangelization is outlawed by a blasphemy law that prohibits speaking against the prophet Mohammed, punishable by death. A 12-year-old child was recently sentenced to death and freed only by international pressure.
- In Egypt, both converts and ethnic Coptic Christians are being persecuted, their businesses looted, their churches burned.
- In Saudi Arabia, the government offers rewards of up to $8,000 for information about secret worship services, which are then raided to arrest believers.
- In Iran, three prominent evangelical pastors were abducted and assassinated last year. Many Christians have been arrested and tortured; others have lost their homes, jobs, and businesses.
The Most Persecuted Religion
Additional stories come from Mexico, Nigeria, and China. During my recent visit to India I met a man who converted to Christianity at the age of 50. His wife and three daughters threw him out of his house and forced him to leave his hometown in Nepal and move to a village in northern India. Today he lives alone and prays for the day when he can be reunited with his family.
Lest you think these examples are isolated, Mr. Colson goes on to quote John Hanford, aide to Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. Mr. Hanford notes that “on a worldwide basis, Christians are the most persecuted major religion in terms of direct punishment for practicing religious activities–public worship, evangelism, charity.” We know about it, he says, because the press refuses to report it.
The First Apostles
Have you ever wondered what happened to the apostles and early church leaders after the writing of the New Testament? Church history and tradition gives us the following answers:
Matthew–Slain by the sword
James the Less–Stoned to death
Matthias–Stoned, then beheaded
Andrew–Crucified, left hanging on the cross for three days
Peter–Crucified upside down
Paul–Beheaded by Nero in Rome
Bartholomew–Beaten to death with clubs
Thomas–Speared to death
Simon the Zealot–Crucified
John–Exiled to Patmos; died a prisoner
Although we can’t absolutely verify the facts in each case, it appears that none of the apostles escaped persecution. All died as a result of their faith in Jesus Christ.
This should not surprise us since Jesus warned his men that they could expect opposition from the world: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20) and “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
I. Clarifying the Issue
It’s important for us to understand precisely what this text is saying. What exactly does it mean to be persecuted? Perhaps it’s easier to say what is doesn’t mean. It’s not referring to those people who suffer because of offensive, crude behavior. People who persist in gross, unmannerly conduct will eventually suffer for it. If you don’t use deodorant, don’t claim persecution because no one wants to sit next to you at work. If you are rude to your employees or disrespectful of your boss, don’t be surprised to find yourself ostracized. That’s not the kind of persecution Jesus has in mind.
Furthermore, he’s not referring to people who suffer because they are lazy goldbricks who show up late, leave early, don’t work hard, criticize others, bend the rules, and in general don’t do a good job. In that case, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or not. If you are a lazy goldbrick, you deserve to be fired.
Straight Versus Crooked
One other point, this beatitude is not promising a blessing on those who break the law or become obnoxious in their pursuit of things they believe in. You can’t claim persecution if you are arrested for shooting an abortionist. Abortion is wrong, but so is taking a shotgun and blowing away a doctor.
In general, this beatitude does not apply to trouble you bring on yourself. It does, however, apply to those cases where you face opposition because your stand for Jesus Christ. The key to understand this principle lies in the word “righteousness.” Take the first part of that word–right. The word “right” actually means “straight.” When your life is straight by God’s standards, it is righteous.
We live in a crooked world filled with people whose lives are made crooked because of sin. What happens when you put a straight stick next to a pile of crooked sticks? The straightness of the straight stick exposes the crookedness of the crooked stick. You don’t have to say anything in that case, the difference is obvious for all to see.
This beatitude might be translated, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because their lives are straight.” Persecution is a sign your life is straight in the eyes of the world.
Crowned Or Crucified
Clarence Jordan observed that, “It is difficult to be indifferent to a wide-awake Christian.” You can hate them or love them, but you can’t ignore them. Wide-awake Christians confront others with the reality of God. You can’t be neutral in such cases. “These people must be crowned or crucified, because they are either mighty right or mighty wrong.”
Most of the time the world will choose to crucify us. Jesus identifies three particular forms the opposition will take:
1. Persecution. The word means to pursue, chase, harass and pressure. It was used for chasing down criminals.
2. Insults. The word means “to cast into the teeth,” as in “hurling an insult.” It means that Christians can expect to be made the butt of public jokes and open ridicule.
3. All kinds of evil. The phrase means that unbelievers will tell deliberate lies about us. It also means there is no limit on the kinds of slander and falsehood we will have to endure.
We live in an age where the ridicule of blacks is forbidden, where anti-Semitism is punishable by political death, but where Christian-bashing is a popular indoor sport; and films mocking Jesus Christ are considered avant-garde. (Pat Buchanan “Focus on the Family,” Christianity Today-Vol. 33, #1).
II. Paying the Price
I don’t think any of this should surprise us. In fact, I think that as our culture continues its dizzying spiral into the pit, we should expect things to get worse, not better. Since we can’t do anything to change the way the world treat us, the only question is, How should we respond?
Let me share three simple answers to that question.
1. We must commit to living a consistent Christian life.
That phrase may sound vague to you, but in this context living a consistent Christian life simply means living the sort of life Jesus describes in the beatitudes: Poor in spirit … mourning over sin … meek in the face of injustice … hungering after righteousness … merciful … pure in heart … peacemaking. These seven qualities form an indelible mark of the followers of Jesus Christ. Live like this and everyone will know you are a Christian.
They won’t all like it, but no one will be able to deny it.
When you like that, you won’t have to seek persecution, it will seek you! This final beatitude is not calling us to go out and stir up trouble. Far from it. If you just live like Jesus told us too, you’ll have all the persecution you can handle … and then some.
2. We must defend what is right and oppose what is wrong.
Ponder these words from Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation:
If I declare with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of God’s truth except that one little bit which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ no matter how boldly I may be professing Christ. For the soldier to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that single point.
Every soldier understands those words. You can’t run away from the battle. When you hear the sound of cannonfire, you’ve got to pick up your weapon and head for the front line. It’s not enough to say, “I’m a Christian” when the battle is raging elsewhere. You’ve got to stand and fight where the enemy is attacking.
When they say, “The universe came into being through blind evolution,” you have a moral obligation to respond, “No, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When they say, “Jesus was nothing more than a Galilean peasant with an amazing gift for teaching,” you’ve got to say, “No, he was the Son of God.” When they promote abortion, you’ve got to defend the right to life. When they defend homosexual marriage, you’ve got to speak up against immorality. When they attempt to justify killing the old because they’ve become a nuisance and a burden to society, you must find a way to defend the inherent value of all human life as created in God’s image. When they mock the gospel and argue that there many ways to heaven, you must kindly, loving, and gently respond that there is “no other name” than Jesus by which we may be saved.
If you don’t speak up, who will? If you don’t defend the cause of righteousness, who will speak up in your place?
A few days ago I received a letter with the following paragraph:
I’ll continue to remember you all in my prayers, especially in the rough days ahead because of Supreme Court decisions, ACLU activism, Gay Rights marches, and so on. We need to stand firm on these issues. As it says in Esther 4:14, “Who knows but you have been brought up for this very hour?”
My friend is right. We must speak out in a day of moral and spiritual confusion. Who knows but that you were sent to OPRF or Triton College or Rush Presbyterian Hospital or UIC Medical School or Loyola Medical for this very hour? Perhaps God gave you your job and put you on your block and gave you a strategic position in your company because he wants you to speak out boldly, forcefully and righteously.
3. We must respond to opposition in a godly fashion.
Jesus said, “Rejoice.” That’s hard to do when people call you “homophobic” or a “bigot” or a “narrow-minded extremist” or a “right-wing fundamentalist.” Or something much worse.
How do we rejoice in such a circumstance? Jesus explained the answer. We are to rejoice for two reasons:
1. Because we have a great reward in heaven–That’s the future
2. Because we join our righteous ancestors–That’s the past
Persecution and opposition–as painful as it may be–does have a silver lining. It gives us a new perspective on yesterday and also on tomorrow, which makes it easier to endure what happens today.
Pray, Bless, Endure
And how do you endure suffering? The New Testament offers three pieces of advice.
Pray for yourself and for those who oppose you. Bless them in the name of the Lord. And endure persecution patiently knowing that the Lord is control of even the tiniest circumstances of life.
Perhaps you’ve read the story of Pastor Martin Niemoller who opposed the Nazis during the Second War and ended up in a concentration camp. When someone commented to his father how terrible that this should happen to his son, Heinrich Niemoller replied:
Yes, it is a terrible thing to have a son in a concentration camp. There would be something more terrible for us: If God had needed a faithful martyr and our Martin had been unwilling.
Persecution is a terrible thing, but unfaithfulness is far worse.
III. Receiving the Blessing
Our text promises a blessing to believers who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Let me show you in a simple diagram how this works:
1. I am righteous
2. The world persecutes me
3. God blesses me
4. I rejoice
Now note something important. All four things happen at the same time. As I am righteous, the world persecutes me. As a result, God blesses me, which causes me to rejoice. That joy encourages me to continues my righteous lifestyle, which prompts the world to persecute and God to bless, which leads to more joy and increased desire for righteousness. On and on the process goes with righteousness, persecution, blessing and joy coming on top of each other.
How many of those things are positive and how many are negative?
Positive – Righteousness, Blessing, Rejoicing
Negative – Persecution
Three out of four are positive in every sense; only persecution is negative. Think of it this way: Persecution is the trigger that causes God to pour out his blessings on your life. And that enables you to rejoice.
If you focus only on the persecution, you’re going to miss 75% of the fun of the Christian life!
Standing in Line
Jesus ended his remarks by noting that “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” He’s speaking of a line of godly believers that stretches back through history. Think of their names: Abel … Noah … Abraham … Moses … Samuel … David … Isaiah … Jeremiah … Daniel … Peter … Paul … John. And the rest of the apostles. The list includes Jesus himself.
True believers have never been popular with the people of the world.
True believers have never been popular with the people of the world. Our righteousness intimidates them, our boldness annoys them, our refusal to participate in their sin infuriates them, and our love for God mystifies them. Because they don’t understand us, they hate us. Because they hate us, they oppose us. We seem like subversives, dangerous enemies who must be hunted down and destroyed. In the words of John Calvin, “We cannot be Christ’s soldiers on any condition but this, that the world will muchly rise up against us and pursue us even until death.”
Clash of Kingdoms
Calvin went on to acknowledge that it isn’t “fair” that Christians should be persecuted but it is a fact of life. “It is the ordinary lot of Christians to be hated by the majority of men.”
There is another way of looking at this. God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of power and military might, but a kingdom of love and goodness. It collides every day with the kingdoms men build of men, power, cruelty, and greed. Those two kingdoms are ever in conflict and can never lie down together in peace.
Therefore, we must conclude that condition of being despised and rejected of men is the natural condition of those who follow our Lord. It is just as much as a part of the gospel as being poor in spirit, meek or merciful.
What happened to the prophets, happened also to Jesus. What happened to him, happens also to us. What happens to us, will happen to our children and grandchildren. It will happen as long as the disciples of Christ and the citizens of this world inhabit the same planet together, live on the same streets, work in the same offices, attend the same schools, and shop in the same stores.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that we should not be surprised if anti-Christian rhetoric increases. We should rather be surprised if it does not.
Latimer and Ridley
I close with an episode from the days of the English Reformation (1540-1565). Two mens names Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, although raised Catholic, had converted to evangelical Christianity. Both men rejected the Mass and the doctrine of submission through the priesthood to the Pope. Latimer was known as a great preacher while Ridley helped author the Book of Common Prayer. During the Marian persecution of 1553-55, both men were arrested and condemned to be burned at the stake. As the flames were being lit, Latimer cried out to his fellow-martyr, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as shall never be put out.” Then the flames consumed them.
Thomas Cranmer watched them die in agony. At one time he had been the Archbishop of Canterbury. Later under great pressure he recanted his evangelical faith. But watching his two friends die seemed to give strength to his soul. A few months he was condemned to death. As they lit the flames, he placed his right hand into the fire to show his tormentors that he was not afraid to die.
An early church father named Tertullian made a comment that has resonated across the centuries. While the Romans were trying to stamp out Christianity, he noted that every time the church was persecuted, it seemed to grow faster. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” he said. History has proved the truth of his words. Whenever tyrants have tried to destroy the church, Christ has used the blood of his followers to water the seed of the gospel. It always springs us stronger in the end.
Persecution is the believers birthmark. It is proof that you are part of the family tree.
Let me close by asking a serious question: What have done in the last month that has caused anyone to challenge your faith? When have you risked speaking out in favor of righteousness? How have you defended the cause of Christ and the purity of the gospel?
Jesus said, “Beware when all men speak well of you.” Do you have any enemies for Jesus’ sake? If not, why not? “The greatest criticism of the church today is that no one wants to persecute it because there is nothing very much to persecute it about” (George F. MacLeod. Leadership-Vol. 2, #4).
Some of us need to consider this beatitude very carefully. It’s not that’s we’ve said anything against Jesus. We really haven’t said anything at all. We’ve gone along and gotten along. We’re whittled down the sharp edges of our faith so we’re no longer like square pegs in round holes. Some of us “fit” too snugly in the holes of the world.
“This Glory Is So Great”
One final word. Jesus promised that “Great is your reward in heaven.” How will the troubles of this life look to us once we finally get to heaven? Martin Luther offers a solid answer to that question:
When we shall live in that day, we shall look with wonder on one another and say, “Shame, that we were not of better cheer, braver, stronger, and more joyful, to trust Christ, and to endure all tribulations and crosses and persecutions, since this glory is so great.”
When we finally get to heaven, no one will ever regret having lived for Jesus while we were on the earth. We’ll only regret that we didn’t do more.