Message: Happy in Everything | Scripture: Matthew 5:10-12 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Follow along with me as I read from Matthew 5:10-12. TWoL: 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.
On May 3, in Manipur, India, the people of a legally recognized minority tribe gathered to peacefully protest the local governments effort to evict them from land that they’ve resided upon for hundreds of years because most of them are Christian. To make matters worse, this local government wasn’t only aiming to take this land from minority Christian owners, but they planned to give it and its rights to a much larger Hindu group of people that are not yet recognized legally as a tribe and who are vehemently against any form, practice, or commitment to Christianity.
And it’s during this protest on May 3 that this much larger group, despite already having the local government on its side, decided to attack the Christians, to destroy their homes, and burn their churches and seminaries. To this day, 400 churches and seminaries have been burned, thousands of Christian homes destroyed and ransacked, and over 70 Christian lives lost. And we have to be clear—these weren’t lives lost as a result of recklessness. They weren’t victims of mere circumstance. They were targeted and murdered.
In the last year, over 360 million Christians reported to live in countries where persecution is significant. Roughly 5,600 Christians have been murdered. 6,000 detained or imprisoned. 4,000 kidnapped. More than 5,000 churches and Christian facilities destroyed. And these numbers continue to climb at a drastic rate.
Now, it’s one thing for us to sit here and mourn over such tragedy—a tragedy that hits home because we profess to believe the same thing that these people dying, starving, being kidnapped, rotting in jail cells all over the world profess to believe. We would readily admit that a passage like this in Matthew 5:10-12 aptly describes their situation. And yet, even in our sympathy, it is likely true that at least some of us, in this room, are thinking that such a thing could never happen here, and that, perhaps, such a passage has no relevance to us.
And maybe we are right to an extent—there simply is so little persecution upon or around us, but if that is so, then we have to ask why. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that we’re gathering in this building today as those who confess the gospel, and who can do so without imminent threat or violence to our lives—what a gift. But we have to ask if this is because we are simply a more advanced, tolerant society, or if the social acceptance around our practiced convictions is meant to provide a commentary about the state of our faith. Are we lacking in persecution because people are being convinced and converted to the truth of our gospel, or is there an absence of persecution because we lack conviction?
We have to ask this question of ourselves because how we answer will also answer the question of what kind of Christians we are, or better yet, whether or not we are Christians at all. Christ, here in these beatitudes, is speaking about the spiritual man—who he is, what happens to him, and what results from his transformation in a world that desires to remain as it is, and we’re meant to take a look at our conviction—at this thing we claim to believe—and ask whether or not we believe conveniently—for the favour of the world, or if we believe it desperately and actually—for the favour of God. Is there a laxity in your conviction that ought to have a little more severity?
This is why I think that Matthew 5:10-12 is all too relevant for us here in the west. It’s meant to be a wake-up call as we retreat into our comforts and creaturely habits that are, perhaps, things that shouldn’t be so comfortable or habitual to us. It’s meant to stop and probe us as to whether or not we possess a conviction worthy of the world’s favour or of God’s favour because Scripture is pretty clear: we can’t have both, and my hope for us this morning is that we might be inclined with greater urgency towards the latter. That we might seek with our whole, grace-filled beings to possess a conviction worthy of God’s favour—a conviction that truly endures, that motivates, and that rewards.
That’s my desire for each of us—myself included—in what time we have together—to evaluate our convictions and to reconfigure them where we fall short of God’s standard of glory. So, would you do that with me now, as we look to our first point . . .
1) Possess a Conviction That Endures
The first great difference between someone who is blessed—someone who is secure in their happiness—and someone who is condemned to an eternity of sorrow is that no matter how the blessed person is reviled, scoffed at, uttered evil against, stripped, and beaten, he or she is able to stay the course. They do not deviate from what they believe to be the truth, and they do not compromise or capitulate to threats against that truth even when their own circumstances become unfavourable.
Now, you may say to me that this is obvious. In fact, it’s not even a rule for blessedness, it’s simply a rule for what makes a person worthy to be trusted. But, like I said, what I want to do this morning is hold up a magnifying glass not to evaluate others but to evaluate us because it’s easy to say what characterizes the blessed man. It’s easy to read these beatitudes and think of them in such a way that separates our theoretical understanding of them from our practical living. To be self-justifying based upon what we know, and not how we are.
This was, in fact, the problem of Jesus’ enemies. They knew these things. They knew what true righteousness looked like. They knew what the weightier matters of the law were, and they took that knowledge arrogantly as a sign that they were secure.
But when Jesus came as the personification of that righteousness, they hated what they saw. And when he held up a magnifying glass to their hearts, all they showed him was their wickedness. More than that, as Jesus exposed their wickedness to them, we’re told in Luke 16, as he says to them that they could not serve both God and money, how do they react? Verse 14 of Luke 16 says this, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.” They persecuted him.
Listen to what’s taking place here, church. Why do the Pharisees persecute? It’s because they love money. Now, we know money itself is not bad. We know money can do a lot of good. But it’s their attitude towards that money—the verb that is attached to money that’s the root of the problem, namely, that they loved it—they were convicted in their hearts for it more than their love for God, more than their love for righteousness, more than their love for the weightier matters of the law.
Then, in Luke 16:15, how does Jesus respond to their scoffing? He says, “You are those who justify yourselves before men.” In other words, what causes persecution? It’s that people love something other than God—something made by God—something that should not be loved because it is insufficient to protect and secure us, and when our love for that thing is exposed for the weak vessel that it is—for its lack of divine power and satisfaction—what is it that we are forced to do? We’re forced to defend it—to validate it—to justify it so that we can justify ourselves and our faith in it. And what’s the standard operating procedure for self-justification? To attack.
Think of it this way. When someone comes at your honour, what is your natural instinct? Is it to sit calmly and evaluate the truth of their critique? Your spouse, friend, parent, whomever comes at you levelling accusations that hit a nerve in you, what’s your reflexive impulse? Mine is to deflect any potential problems in my own convictions and to try and poke holes in theirs. I don’t want to be the focus of wrongdoing, so I’m going to turn it around and accuse you with the hope that you forget your accusations against me and that deflect any chance you have of making me think about my issues too deeply.
This, then, is the reason for persecution: we attack others because we place our love and conviction in something that cannot justify itself. It needs someone to justify it—to defend it, and without us—without our justification of it—there’s a real jeopardy that our position—that our conviction—will fail and falter. But a true conviction that endures does not have to be defended as if our defence is the reason why it is true. No, conviction that endures and persists through persecution—conviction that stays the course—is that which is grounded upon what is true and lovely despite us.
And we can persist in whatever defence we make for it because it isn’t something that depends upon us. It is something from outside of us that has come in and changed us—changed what we thought was worth defending, changed what we thought was worth suffering for, changed what we thought was worth dying for.
Let’s be clear, Jesus does have death in view here when he speaks about persecution. This is what they did to the prophets. This is what they did to the apostles and many of their disciples, and yet all of them endured. Why? Because they all possessed a conviction not grounded in something that needed our defence, but in something and someone that came to our defence when we were poor in spirit, mournful over our sin, and meek in our rights.
We looked at our self-justification and found ourselves wanting—hungry and thirsty for a greater, enduring justification, and what were we given? We were given satisfaction. Mercy in our meekness. Purity in our mourning over the effect of sin. And peace in our spiritual bankruptcy. We were given the righteousness of the cross—not for our own crucifixion, but so that one might be crucified in our stead—that he might suffer the effects of our war with sin, that he might be stained with our transgressions, that he might take on the burden of our wrath, that he might be starved and struck across the cheek as one without rights, given no quarter for comfort, and made the poorest man in history.
It is only a conviction in him and what he has done for us that persists despite what happens to us because it is a conviction not purchased or earned by us but a gift of infinite grace. Do you possess this conviction? Do you cling to that which requires your defence, or do you find your hope and peace in him who has come to your defence—who has not left you empty, but who has filled you with every good thing? Give up what is worthless and indefensible and submit yourself to the favour of God in his Son.
2) Possess a Conviction that Motivates
Now, I need to be very clear that the object of faith that we receive in Christ and his righteousness is not meant only to persevere us through any and every form of adversity, but it is also meant to motivate us. Notice how the verse reads, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” and then verse 11 explains to us what that means, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
In other words, the kind of persecution that Christ is speaking of here, the kind of persecution that brings happiness even in the most difficult circumstance is not when you’re persecuted for being a nuisance—that’s not suffering. You deserve that. Nor for when you’re foolish or insulting towards others. Blessedness in persecution cannot be found when you provoke others to rivalry, and you suffer for that provocation. The text does not, in any way, commend a follower of Christ who is persecuted because they are hostile.
No, blessing—happiness—belongs to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Meaning happiness belongs to those who live because of Christ—those who are not only able to endure because of his great gift but who are motivated by it. Salvation doesn’t simply provide us with reason to persevere—it gives us vision because as we see his life—the boldness of his own conviction and the extent to which he bore that conviction all the way to the cross, we are then motivated to move from mere endurance to true godliness—not only a holiness that is reserved for our private lives, but a holiness that pours out into the public.
The great struggle that we Christians are facing today is that we’ve become more concerned with the endurance part of it all. This is what COVID has revealed to us about ourselves. I don’t doubt that probably every person in this room believes the words of these verses, but statistically, we’ve become more afraid of the effects of a mild cold or flu than the thought of souls upon souls falling into the pit of hell. What COVID’s shown us is that we would rather keep our safety and health over giving ourselves wholeheartedly to others. It’s revealed how desperately selfish we are, and we’ve used it as an excuse to continue to be selfish even after coming back together.
People these days have become more entitled to themselves and their rights and freedoms more than ever, but the passage is quite clear, isn’t it? It says blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness—righteousness defined in Matthew over and over again as possessing a heart of mercy—as self-sacrificing, as rights denouncing, as self-defacing for the sake of the lost. And the thing that grounds all of it—the thing that puts what righteousness is in perspective is the cross! It’s having a relationship with Jesus that is too sweet for words, so you’re going to lay your life out on the line even when it’s scary to do. It’s knowing, as one pastor has said, that we can be merciful, pure, and peacemaking in the strength that Jesus provides for the glory that Jesus deserves.
And we have to ask ourselves, do we really think that he deserves that glory, or do we merely show up on Sundays, dress for the occasion, and sing about a glory that, on a daily basis, makes very little impact upon our lives? Is there anything in your speech and conduct that reveals Christ’s righteousness—not only in your avoidance of sin but in your active and risky proclamation of his majesty? And are you willing to conduct yourself that way even to the extent that you suffer for it?
James Montgomery Boice puts it this way, “It may be true that our country exercises a certain level of Christian influence and tolerance, which means that persecution here is not likely to reflect what it once was in history. But it may also be true that much of our Christianity has sunk to a level where it is hardly noticed. The world has become tolerant of us not because we are bold but because we have become far more tolerant and reflective in our own lives of the world. There is sometimes precious little true godly character visible.”
Here’s the thing, TCCBC, the Bible says this very clearly—that for those who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus—for those who are motivated to display his righteousness in the world—persecution will come (2 Tim 3:12). The question is, then, do you have this motivation? Is Christ the center and all-consuming treasure that you cling to or is he just your ticket to get through the door? Is he the reason why, even in the midst of antagonism, you’re still running to show your enemies more mercy, to display greater purity, and to offer them an eternal peace at any cost?
Now, perhaps you’re sitting there with your guard up—saying to yourself, “well, Stephen, it’s one thing to face persecution for the sake of Christ and his righteousness, but I’m pretty sure the Bible says nothing about going out and looking for opportunities to be persecuted.” And to that I’d say you’re absolutely correct! I’m not saying be reckless. I am saying be wise, gentle, and courteous with your words. Recognize that it is not incumbent upon you to save sinners—that work belongs to the Holy Spirit and to the efficacy of the gospel. If God’s message gets through to anyone, it will be so despite the fact that you’re the messenger he used to deliver it.
But make no mistake! This gives us no license or excuse to be lazy. In fact, think logically about Matt 5:10-12 for a moment. The only reason why someone is able to persecute you—to hurt you—is because you’ve become so close to them and so vulnerable with them that they can. They know your deepest secret. They know not only what you say you believe, but that you actually believe it and would stand for it no matter what they do to you, and the challenge that they find with your faith will inevitably beget conflict. But allow me to say to you, faith is not faith if it cannot weather adversity. You don’t need faith when it’s easy.
At the beginning of the third century in North Africa, persecution of Christians broke out in Carthage. One of the catechumens taken into custody was a woman named Perpetua. She was a noblewoman who had just given birth to a son—she had everything to lose in proclaiming her belief in Christ and in calling others to that same belief. But when the emperor discovered what she and her co-labourers were doing, she was incarcerated.
It was during her incarceration, right before she was sent out to be stripped and mauled by wild animals in front of a coliseum of people, that her father came to visit. And he begged her, “Renounce your faith for our sake, for your sake, for the sake of your nobility, and for the sake of your infant son.” And in the midst of his begging, Perpetua took her father’s head in her hands, and she directed his gaze to a water jug and said, “Father, do you see this vessel lying here to be a little water jug or something else?” He replied that it was a water jug, of course. Then, Perpetua responded, “Can it be called by any other name than what it is?” When he said, “No,” she continued, “neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.”
Brothers and sisters, hear me when I say no one—not even this woman—is worthy of God’s favour. No one except for his own Son, yet he gave up that Son so that we might be saved from sin, brought into eternal life with him, and given a happiness that cannot be stolen, even in our death. By his blood, we have been made worthy, but does your life—do your words reflect that? Does the unfailing love of Jesus pour out of you, or do you live as one who is ashamed? I pray that when we say we are Christian that we might know we mean it in every sense of the word.
3) Possess a Conviction That Rewards
Yet, I hope not to leave you on that sour note because this passage is not meant to be a warning, it’s meant to be a blessing. It’s meant to inspire and will your hearts to hope. Notice how the grammar of the passage changes from impersonal to personal. It goes from “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” to “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for the sake of Christ.” Our Lord—Jesus—Son of God—Ruler of Heaven and earth—giver of life—sustainer of breath—the majesty of God’s wisdom, he condescends himself because he desires to speak to you—you who are lowly and poor in sin. You who mourn the depths of your despair. You who possess no rights of your own. He is like the most regal prince come willingly to speak to the most destitute beggar.
He comes for you, and he says in your mourning, in those moments where you were vulnerable and where others have mocked and mistreated you for it—he says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” Notice his words—not just the shocking statement that we can be excited when we’re hated, but also in the fact that heaven isn’t the reward. Have you noticed that? Heaven is the place where you receive the reward. So often we ask people we’re evangelizing to, “do you want to get to heaven?” But to tell you the truth, when we ask that question, we shortchange the offering.
Christ doesn’t just come to offer you a place in heaven, he says, the kingdom of heaven is yours—not just the place, but everything in it—and more notably everyone in it. He gives you not only the opportunity to step inside but to possess it—to be kings and queens within it—to be seated no longer at the foot of a cross but to be placed upon a throne of God. And if that is not enough, there’s a sense in this verse that something more awaits. Something we cannot fathom because the pollution of our own sinful longings for created things on this earth veils what is truly waiting for us there. That a day is coming where we will open our eyes and behold a glory incomprehensible and indescribable—we’ll look upon God face-to-face, the prize and wonder of the universe.
But here is where we have to get serious because for those of you who have read through the Bible before, whenever a heavenly reward is discussed the only times where that reward is described with superlatives like great, or eternal weight of glory, or the reception of a hundredfold prize, or the reward of exceeding joy—they are always spoken of in the context of suffering for the gospel. People who have hungered and thirsted and have broken their backs or whose backs have been broken for them in order to ensure that they, their family, their friends, and their neighbours never hunger and thirst again.
Charles Hodge puts it this way, “Afflictions are the cause of eternal glory. Not the meritorious cause—you don’t earn glory, but still the procuring cause—the assuring cause. God has seen fit to reveal his purpose not only to reward with exceeding joy the afflictions of his people, but to make those afflictions the means of working out that joy.” James Montgomery Boice puts it even more succinctly, “persecution is evidence that the believer is united to Jesus.” Persecution is evidence that his life and all that it entails is ours.
Perhaps, again, you are sitting there, steeling yourself, asking, “if I’m not persecuted, does that mean I won’t get into heaven?” And I want you to understand, I am not saying that. But what I am saying is that we cannot be passive in our confession or in our conviction. There is no such thing as a Christian who is dragged kicking and screaming into heaven. No, I can assure you that everyone who will be there will be those who have been sprinting, like wanderers in a desert who see a feast laid out just over the horizon for them. They may become wounded on the way. But so great is their desperation and so singular is their vision and focus that even if they have to pull themselves in by the skin of their teeth, they’ll do it. Those who rejoice and are glad are never the ones who are only half-heartedly invested to receive the prize. No, rejoicing, gladness belongs only to those who have been shown the treasure and have borne the cost to claim it.
Possess a conviction worthy of the favour of God because it is those who have that conviction who will be rewarded by him—a conviction that’s been given to you as a gift not to be squandered. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.