The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” (2 Samuel 18:5) Please open your Bible at 2 Samuel 18. This is the last message in our series on the life of David—for now. Clearly, we have not reached the end of...
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. (Matthew 5:11-12)
This morning we began to look at the outcome of persecution. What does Jesus mean when he talks about “blessing” and “reward” for his people who endure persecution?
There is a fellowship with Christ found in suffering that is greater than you will find anywhere else. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the fire and the Son of God walks with them.
Peter says, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14). Here are two testimonies to this—first Samuel Rutherford,
I never knew by my nine years of preaching so much of Christ’s love as He taught me in Aberdeen by six month’s imprisonment. 
John Bunyan was imprisoned for 12 years in Bedford, England because of his preaching. It took him from his wife and his nine children, one of whom was blind.
After I had been a Christian for a long time, and had been preaching for five years, I was arrested at a meeting of good people in the country…
I have never in all my life had so much of the Word of God opened up so plainly to me before. Those Scriptures that I saw nothing particular in before have been made, in this place, to shine upon me.
Also, Jesus Christ was never more real to me than now; here I have seen and felt him indeed.
I never knew before what it really was for God to stand beside me at all times. As soon as fears have presented themselves, so have supports and encouragements.
The promise and experience of blessing in the face of mockery, ridicule, slander, and persecution is all over the Bible.
And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42)
What does that mean? If there is a reward for this act, it must mean that there is something gained for doing it that would not have been gained if you did not do it.
Then Jesus told a parable in which servants who were trusted with responsibility were rewarded, and their reward was based on their stewardship (Luke 19). One was given authority over ten cities, and another was given authority over five cities.
The story is a parable, but what is the parable teaching? It seems to be teaching that rewards are graciously given by God to his redeemed people, and that the rewards are different (not in kind, but in degree)—five cities, ten cities… what does this mean? Will we not all be the same in heaven?
What does it mean when Jesus says, “Lay up treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20)? He seems to be saying that it is possible to have more rather than less in heaven.
In other words, I could choose to have more there and less here, or I could choose to have more here and less there. Either way, what I do here makes a difference to what I have there.
Here in the eighth beatitude, Christ says to those who are persecuted, “Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven.” He seems to be saying that they should have joy because something will be theirs on account of their suffering, that would not have been theirs otherwise.
Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, has helped me more than any other on this. He says, quite clearly from the Bible, that there are degrees of reward in heaven. Listen to how Edwards puts it,
There are different degrees of happiness and glory in heaven… The glory of the saints above will be in some proportion to their eminency in holiness and good works here. Christ will reward all according to their works…
He then cites the authority over ten cities, and the cup of cold water and…
“Christ tells us that he who gives a cup of cold water to a disciple… shall in no wise lose his reward.” But this could not be true if a person should have no greater reward for doing many good works than if he did but few.
Edwards adds: “He who sows sparingly shall reap sparingly” (2 Corinthians 9:6), and “As one star differs from another star in glory, so also it will be in the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:41).
All shall be perfectly happy, every one shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others.
Edwards is not suggesting that we earn rewards in heaven like air miles on a credit card. Think of all of us like little pots. All of us will be cast into an ocean of happiness. But all pots are not the same size.
Even the best works of suffering Christians are shot through with our own fallenness and are of eternal value only because they are sanctified in Jesus Christ. But the Scriptures give us this wonderful encouragement for the hardest times…
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you. (Matthew 5:11)
Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven! (Matthew 5:12)
Our light and momentary suffering is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
Suffering is not simply to be endured. Something is coming out of it that is greater than if it had never happened.
That raises an important question:
What If I’m Not Being Persecuted?
The reward of those who are persecuted, insulted, and reviled is great! Where does that leave us who are so blessed with the gifts of freedom and the privileges that we enjoy?
In many parts of the world today, if a policeman comes to church on Sunday he is there to arrest the pastor and perhaps other members of the congregation. We have a policeman here every Sunday, and he comes for our protection!
For all the changes that are happening, we are blessed in an unprecedented way in this country that most believers in the history of the world could only have dreamed about.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT BEING PERSECUTED:
1. Be thankful for the blessings of peace and freedom
We are not to wish for persecution. We are not to seek it. We are to be thankful for the gift of freedom, and we’re to do everything in our power to protect it.
Paul says to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
A peaceful and quiet life is something to pray for and something to be thankful for. There is not a sermon to be preached on cultivating persecution! We are not to make ourselves obnoxious to attract it.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT BEING PERSECUTED:
2. Remember those who are persecuted
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)
The book of Hebrews gives us the roll of honor—suffering heroes of the Old Testament. The Hebrew Christians who received this letter had had their goods confiscated.
When Paul says, “Don’t stop meeting together,” he’s not talking about families with kids in sports on Sunday mornings. It’s easy to understand why some would be inclined to skip a Sunday. They thought the police might show up, and if they did, they would rather not be there!
Paul says don’t “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
Some members of the congregation were in prison. The pastor and a couple of board members get taken off to Cook County Jail, and on the following Sunday the congregation prays fervently for them.
But out of sight can so easily become out of mind, and after a month or a year, it becomes: “Bless the pastor and board members in prison.” Life goes on, and before you know it, the suffering believers are forgotten.
Paul says, “Don’t let that happen. Remember those who are in prison and those who are mistreated. You are members of one body. Remember them for their sake and remember them for your sake.
At the Arlington Heights campus we have a ministry called Christian Advocacy. It’s a group that meets every month to write letters to suffering believers and to advocate on their behalf. I commend this ministry to you.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT BEING PERSECUTED:
3. Make sure you are doing what is right
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. (Matthew 5:10)
We are thinking about what to do when you are not persecuted. One thing is to check—am I really living a righteous life? If there’s not much persecution, could it be that the reason is there’s not much righteousness?
Jesus talks about hiding your light under a basket. Here’s the light of Christ in a person, but you’re hiding it under a basket so no one can see it:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We can always reduce pain by withdrawing from the world. Nobody knows you’re a Christian at school. You may avoid a lot of trouble, but Jesus says the light must shine. Christ says to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” The salt must be in the meat.
Rebecca Manley Pippert wrote a book called, “Out of the Saltshaker.” That was a brilliant title. Her point was simple. It’s no use keeping the salt in the saltshaker. It has to be shaken out into the meat.
Christians can avoid a lot of trouble, but miss the opportunity for influence. The challenge for all of us is living an authentic Christian life before unbelieving and sometimes hostile people in the world.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT BEING PERSECUTED:
4. Persevere in the face of difficulty and opposition
One of the easiest ways to avoid pain, persecution, trouble, and opposition is to move on whenever it appears. Some Christians remain spiritual infants because they’ve formed the habit of always taking the easier path.
One thing that our culture offers more than any other in the world is choice! Look at the choices of toothpaste in the grocery store—unbelievable! That is mirrored in every area of life—choices of doctors, choices of churches, and choices of schools.
These are great blessings of life, but here’s the problem that comes with it: Living in a choice culture, if I experience difficulty in one place, I can easily move to another.
If things get difficult in my job, I can quit and find another one. In a culture geared to comfort and convenience, it is easy to form the habit of always choosing the easiest path.
“I’ve got to do what’s best for me and my family.” It’s a very understandable phrase. I’ve used it myself. But it often means “what’s going to be easiest for me and my family.” The problem is that what’s easiest for me and my family isn’t always what’s best.
One of the deepest impressions I have of growing up was what I saw my own father go through. I saw a spirit of tenacity in his work as a policeman. He endured unbearable things.
The same is true in the lives of my sons. They were most deeply impressed by coming through the toughest things that we have faced. Most of the difficulties were things that we could have avoided, if we had chosen an easier path. Ajith Fernando, commenting on our culture, says,
Somehow there seems to be this idea that if you are suffering you are doing something wrong.
The problem is compounded by the mobility of affluent people today. As people keep changing from job to job, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from church to church, long-term commitments are becoming a culturally rare phenomenon.
It is when you stick to your call, however hard it is, that you encounter the type of suffering that contributes to great mission.
However, people are used to moving from place to place based on convenience, on the opportunity to be more productive, and on escaping from suffering and unpleasant relationships. So they may move when they are confronted with suffering.
Persevering through inconvenience, struggling to be productive against many odds, taking on suffering, sticking to unpleasant relationships are what combine to produce great mission. 
There is a character that is formed by staying at it.
Should we try to escape persecution?
Is trying to flee from persecution sometimes the right thing to do? If so, when, and how would you know it?
These are really practical questions: What do you do when your kids experience opposition at school because they are Christians? I gave an example of difficulties one of my sons faced in high school. Should we have taken our son out of the program?
You’re working in a place where it’s really hard to be a Christian. Should you leave or should you stay? There is always an easier path and it will sometimes be right to take it, but how do you know when to stand and when to move? There are a thousand examples of this with real choices.
John Bunyan speaks about this in a book called: “Seasonable Counsels or Advice to Sufferers.” Remember, Bunyan was arrested for preaching in an open-air service at a time when no one was allowed to preach, unless they were licensed by the Church of England.
This persecution resulted from Queen Elizabeth I’s attempt to impose the Church of England on everyone. The Act of Uniformity (1662) made it illegal for Baptist, Congregational, and Free Church pastors to preach in public.
Bunyan had a choice. He didn’t have to preach in public. He could have done some other work, and still honored Christ with a less public testimony. But he insisted on preaching, and so he was arrested. Bunyan arrives at court in Bedford, and the charge is read. He says,
I offered security [or bail] to appear at the next session , but he threw me into jail because those who were ready to make up the bond for me would not agree to be bound that I would preach no more to the people. 
When the time came for the trial, the judge asked Bunyan if he would be willing to obey the law. Bunyan said: “If you let me go today, I will preach tomorrow.” That landed him in prison for the next 12 years.
You might expect that a man with courage like that, writing from his cell, would call others always to take the harder path. But when he wrote on this subject, his counsel is wonderfully tender and spiritually wise.
Bunyan begins by noting that Jesus said, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Christ does not say, “The world is going to tear you apart, so go out and let them do it.” He says, “The wolves want to tear you apart, so be as wise as serpents.” From this, Bunyan concludes…
A man is not bound by the law of the Lord, to put himself into the mouth of his enemy. Christ withdrew himself. Paul escaped the governor’s hands, by being let down in a basket over the wall of the city (2 Corinthians 11:32-33), and Christ said, “If they persecute you in one city, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23). 
There is biblical warrant for taking an easier path. The question is—how do you know when you should stand and when you should fly?
You may do this even as it is in your heart. If it is in your heart to fly, fly:
If it is in your heart to stand, stand. Anything but a denial of the truth.
He that flies has warrant to do so (Matthew 10:23); he that stands has warrant to do so. Yes, the same man may at different times fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be…
Moses fled (Exodus 2:15); Moses stood (Hebrews 11:27)
David fled (1 Samuel 19:12); David stood (1 Samuel 24:8)
Jeremiah fled (Jeremiah 37:11-12); Jeremiah stood (Jeremiah 38:17)
Christ withdrew Himself (Luke 9:10); Christ stood (John 18:1-8)
Paul fled (2 Corinthians 11:33); Paul stood (Acts 20:22-23)
There are therefore few rules in this case. The man himself is best able to judge concerning his present strength, and what weight this or that argument has upon his heart to stand or to fly… 
This is a matter of Christian liberty. Then Bunyan added this, if you choose to fly…
Do not fly out of slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God’s provident, and escape countenanced by God’s Word (Matthew 10:23).
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT BEING PERSECUTED:
5. Stretch yourself in costly obedience to Christ
There is more than one way to live a costly life. Persecution imposes cost from the outside. But if God allows us the blessing of living with unusual peace and freedom, then we can use that freedom to live a costly life.
That’s what Jesus did. He chose the path of costly obedience. He said about his life, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
If no one takes my life from me, I want at least to be able to say in the presence of Jesus that I chose to lay it down as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). I do not want to meet the Savior, who gave everything for me, having lived a life that was without cost for him.
I want to respond to these freedoms and blessings by stretching myself out, in every way possible, in costly obedience. And I want us to be that kind of church. What a tragedy—that those who’ve been blessed the most would do the least for Christ!
This is why fasting, giving, serving and risking are so important to our spiritual health. If others, who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, have their goods and their livelihoods taken by force, I can choose to release a generous proportion of mine and lay it at the feet of Jesus.
If my brothers and sisters in Christ are in prison, while I am free, I can offer every day of that freedom with all the strength God gives me to extend myself, without complaint, for the work of his kingdom.
If other Christians, who are my brothers and sisters, are exhausted with the pains of beatings and torture, I can press through the tiredness and discouragement I often feel and go on in what God has called me to do, and so can you.
Many years ago, a pastor by the name of Joseph Parker spoke about how “doubting Thomas” came to faith after the resurrection of Jesus,
Thomas said, “Unless I see the prints of the nails in his hands, I will not believe.” What Thomas said of Christ, the unbelieving world is saying about the church today: “Unless I see in your hands the prints of the nails, I will not believe.”
 Cited in Kent Hughes, “The Sermon on the Mount,” p. 70, Crossway, 2001.
 John Bunyan, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,” p. 109-111, Moody Press, 1959.
 Ajith Fernando, “Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom,” p. 22, William Carey Library, 2012.
 John Bunyan, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,” p. 109, Moody Press, 1959.
 John Bunyan, “Seasonable Counsels or Advice to Sufferers,” in “The Works of John Bunyan,” Vol. 2, p. 726, Banner of Truth, 1991.
 Ibid., p. 726.
© Colin S. Smith
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