Blessed are they which are persecuted for
righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
A strange word, and rather unseemly. Are we then to go about seeking someone to badger and bedevil us that we might be "blessed"?
Let us imagine that our pilgrimage has brought us through the very gates of Jerusalem, and it is the week of the Passover feast. Jesus of Nazareth, who spoke this Beatitude on a northerly mountain, is today preparing for His final ordeal, an ordeal of persecution. Our eighth Beatitude quite evidently is more than a simple Galilean proverb; it is a prediction of the sufferings of the Messiah. Like the seven signal flares sent up before it, the Beatitude lights the way to the Cross of Calvary.
In some ways the New Testament is a handbook for
the persecuted. It was written to give courage and fortitude to those who were about to be brainwashed. That is why reading the Bible is such an unreal experience for many Americans, and it is why in Korea today Christians are rising before the sun to pray and study. Our trouble is not with the King James Version, for that version, like the original New Testament, was written in a day of persecution the ashes of Smithfield were still hot and it carries the wild, authentic note of the early Church. Our trouble is with us: we are too accommodating about our faith. We are tolerated rather than persecuted, and our gospel is tame and stifled. The new translations show it; they are so often "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."
In the original autographs every gospel, every letter carries the message, "Stand fast in your trial. Take heart. Play the man. Be valiant in the faith." The New Testament is the manual of prescribed reading in that extracurricular course, Martyrdom 101.
So it is that our Beatitude is cast in steel. It inters forever the woebegone hope that somehow man is going to solve all his troubles so that our grandchildren will grow up "in clover." It pours scorn upon those who yearn for a life of ease. "Thou therefore endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Timothy 2:3). The Word is: be meek, aye, be merciful, but be tough.
In the New Testament two kinds of suffering are to be distinguished. There is that pain and invalidism which Jesus Christ identified as the work of Satan, and from which
He rescued and healed all who sought His path. There was also the suffering of persecution, to which He invited His followers with a kind of holy joy that even today makes the spine tingle. Jesus promised adventure and risk but never uncertainty. He said the Christian's persecution was certain; the only variable element was the way in which it would come.
Our Lord said further that our persecution would prove to be a blessing. Blessings come from God. In His will and for His purpose God deliberately metes out to His own this kind of suffering. So determined is our Lord that we shall be trained and hardened for His work, that He sends us test after test in a lifelong spiritual fitness program.
My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons (Hebrews 12:5-8).
The deeper a believer gets into God's training program, the more he realizes that God will stop at nothing to bring one of his sons or daughters to proper conditioning. It may even seem that God is reckless in the way He exposes us to the perils of the world, but He always knows what He is doing. He "will not let you be
tempted beyond what you can bear" (1 Corinthians 10:13). Furthermore, He expects us not to weep and shake our heads about our situation, but to revel in it.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete. . . (James 1:2-4).
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4).
Hannah Whitall Smith illustrates the purpose of God by proposing to describe to a stranger say a visitor from another planet the way in which a lump of clay is made into a beautiful vessel: 1
I tell him first the part of the clay in the matter; and all I can say about this is, that the clay is put into the potter's hands, and then lies passive there, submitting itself to all the turnings and overturnings of the potter's hands upon it. There is really nothing else to be said about the clay's part.
Then she traces the role that the potter plays in the process:
The potter takes the clay thus abandoned to his working, and begins to mold and fashion it according to his own will. He kneads and works it; he tears it apart and presses it together again; he wets it and then suffers it
to dry. Sometimes he works at it for hours together; sometimes he lays it aside for days, and does not touch it. And when . . . he has made it perfect pliable in his hands, he proceeds to make it into the vessel he has proposed. He turns it upon the wheel, planes it and smooths it, and dries it in the sun, bakes it in the oven, and finally turns it out of his workshop, a vessel to his honor, and fit for his use.
* * * * * * *
The Church may be entering a new era of persecution in the will of God. If so, that is good news according to our Beatitude. No one will deny that in recent years the signs have been increasing. Pressures in Germany, in Korea, in China, in parts of Africa may well be heralds of something more formidable. It is idle to speculate, but the Church of Jesus Christ would be wise in these days to take stock of its supply of courage.
What is courage? What is its anatomy? Can we reduce it to a compound of self-centered motives, such as the fear of extermination, resentment over ridicule, desire to dominate, longing for social approval, sheer bravado or the unconscious death-wish?
What makes a man behave bravely?
If we look in the New Testament we find the word "courage" mentioned only once. When Paul was being delivered to Rome as a prisoner, Luke says that some of the Christian brethren came to greet him at the Appii Forum on the outskirts of the city, "whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage" (Acts 28:15).
There were no "brethren" about to encourage the Lord Jesus Christ as He faced His accusers at the last. Maundy Thursday was not the disciples' "finest hour." They worked up an argument at the supper table. They went to sleep in the prayer meeting, and they panicked in the face of the mob. They fled from Jesus as rats deserting a sinking ship. In the language of our day it could be said that one of Christ's disciples "turned Him in," another "dummied up," and the rest "bugged out."
Yet within a few weeks these same disciples were showing a kind of valor and courage in the face of persecution that steeled them through one ordeal after another, and has continued to amaze the world for two thousand years. How was that possible? What was their secret?
There is an interesting phrase connected with all the accounts of the last Supper on that Thursday night: "When he had given thanks." Paul, you will remember, received courage as he thanked God. He took his courage not only from the brethren but from the Lord. He gave thanks for the situation in which he found himself, and courage was given. Is that what Jesus did on the night of His betrayal? It is an action so simple that the world overlooks it as "obvious," but it is loaded with power. Whenever Christians start thanking God in tight situations, look for courage to be shown.
General Harrison, who signed the Panmunjom truce for the United States and later stationed in the Canal Zone, supervised the removal of the bodies of five young American missionary martyrs who were slaughtered by the Auca Indians of the Amazon jungle early in 1956.
Bill Carle, the singer, visited the general shortly afterward, and quoted him as saying that in his military experience he had never seen courage like that displayed by the five dedicated young women who were made widows by the tragedy. What was the source of their courage? The answer is not hard to find. Lovers of Jesus Christ have always counted it a privilege to be allowed to suffer on His account.
Thus James Guthrie, on the morning of his execution in Tolbooth prison, declared after the Psalmist, This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it" (118:24). Persecution drove the Pilgrim Fathers out of Europe, and the Pilgrim Fathers in return gave us Thanksgiving Day. Their remarks on the subject of courage are worth repeating. William Bradford, one of their leaders, described the Mayflower voyage in these words: 2
All great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible . . . and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne or overcome . . . Yea, though they should loose their lives in this action, yet might they have comforte in the same . . .
Sanna M. Barlow, in her account of recent missionary activity among the Kikuyu tribesmen of Kenya, East Africa, tells how some of the African Christians
"speak of our Brother Stephen as though he, the first Christian martyr, lived only yesterday." 3 Primitive though they be, they came through the Mau Mau terrors with a faith triumphant and authentic, as they declared it an honor to have their coffee trees destroyed for the name of Jesus Christ. Geoffrey Bull proved in a Chinese prison that Christian courage stands even the test of Communist brainwashing when built upon the rock of Christ. 4 Yet in a sense such courage is not given; it is only lent by God to those whom He loves, that in time of trouble they might overcome persecution for righteousness' sake.
Whatever may be the anatomy of other kinds of courage, the Christian kind is based only upon the weakness of the human flesh and the power of the Holy Spirit.
* * * * * * *
One of the events in American history we would like to forget is the hanging of the Salem "witches." Many of the most distinguished men of the commonwealth of Massachusetts were caught up in the hysteria that swept the colony in 1692. Among those who later confessed their error in taking part in the trials, there was a well-known Boston lawyer, Judge Samuel Sewall, who walked with God in the matter.
For the rest of his life Samuel Sewall was a different man. He declared publicly that he was chiefly responsible
for the travesty, and desired "to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men." Every year he set one day aside on the anniversary of his public repentance, doing no work, eating no food, but praying and reflecting upon his "guilt contracted at Salem."
You and I have walked with Jesus together through these pages. We now stand outside the city gates at the trail's end, the Place of the Skull. We have learned many things as we walked with Him, and we shall not be quite the same again, for we know now that our own crucifixion is involved. That is what Jesus wanted. He never intended Calvary to become simply a memorial to Himself. The Shepherd's thought is for the sheep. His wish was that His disciples would reflect upon their own lives, now nailed with His to the Cross. Good Friday is recapitulated in every Christian's heart. We are the ones who stand before Pilate and witness to the truth. We are the scorned, the slapped, the flogged, the persecuted. We lift a cross to our bleeding shoulders; we wear the crown of thorns, we feel the blows of the hammer and the prick of the spear through our flesh. As He was in this life, so are we: reckoned dead to this world and its sin, that we might be alive to God through Jesus Christ.
A young man whose father had recently passed away came before the session of our Church to present himself as a candidate for communicant membership. He was duly asked his reasons therefor, and replied, "Well, the old man is dead!" Some of the elders were mystified as to what he meant, not realizing that he was speaking of his
own Christian experience; but the Scriptures upheld the young man: "Our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For . . . if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Romans 6:6-8).
King Clovis of Gaul, who was "converted" to Christianity and who had a habit of lopping off the heads of all who refused to follow his example, once boasted that if his invincible Franks had been at Golgotha, they would have risen to the defense and rescue of Jesus. How easy it is to miss the meaning of the atonement! The New Testament was not written to describe "the day Christ died," but rather to make each of us a witness to "the day I died."
It is well for us to remember today not only the persecution of our Lord, but to join with Judge Sewall in looking over the past that is our personal history. Did we take care of those spiritual matters that we promised to see to? Have we spoken that reconciling word that we intended to utter, but keep forgetting? Is there yet unfinished restitution that keeps us from burying the past as it should be buried?
Let us be very sure that our old natures are not still hanging on the Cross. Let us not seek to cling to a spark of life, but rather say with our Lord, "It is finished. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee.
I lay in dust, life's glory, dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
* * * * * * *
What is persecution?
So twisted are the values we set on things that the very word is suspect. Its meaning hangs in doubt. What may appear to the sufferer as persecution often turns out to be a mild (or not so mild) form of persecutory paranoia. At the same time what is being palmed off to one-third of the world's population as "re-education" according to Marx turns out to be the deadliest form of persecution that the Church has ever encountered.
Our Beatitude has frequently been misinterpreted and has even been used to aggravate a mental condition. Thus there are people who have taken the words of Jesus to be a confirmation of their suspicions that they are the victims of persecution. They are satisfied that the world is against them just because they have taken a stand "for righteousness' sake." For them it is "God and I" ranged against the forces of darkness; or, as in many modern cases (as with Hitler) it may be simply "My Battle."
The world knows few types more dangerous than the man deluded by a persecution complex. Once convinced that "they're out to get me," he may give himself over to retaliation that is merciless. His days and nights are then passed in the fashioning of cunning and savage plans against his "enemies." The deterioration of a personality in the grip of paranoia is a fearful thing to watch. Hatcher Hughes, in his play Hell Bent fer Heaven,
portrays a Carolina hillbilly "talking to his Lord" in the midst of a feud: 5
They wuz a time, Lord, when my proud heart said, "All o' self an' none o' Thee." Then You come a-knockin' at the door o' my sinful soul an' I whispered, "Some o' self an' some o' Thee." But that's all changed now, Lord. I'm Yourn an' You are mine. An' the burden o' my song now is, "None o' self an' all o' Thee." You can do with me what You please, Lord. If it's Your will that this blasphemer shall die, I've got a shole box of dynamite out in the store . . . I can blow up the dam while he's under that a-telephonin', an' the waters o' Your wrath'll sweep over him like they did over Pharaoh . . .
On the other hand there is a persecution that is quite real. It is found in the New Testament and its heavy hand has been felt by the Church many times since. To the Roman emperors it was simply a matter of civil administration. The little sect of Christians refused to conform, therefore it was outlawed and scattered. Ancient Rome by and large was completely bored with the claims of the early Church; like Gallio, Rome "cared for none of those things" (Acts 18:17). She swatted the Christians as one would swat a pesky fly.
In the twentieth century a new persecution of the Church has arisen, so subtle that it does not appear to a large section of the Church to be a persecution at all. The cadres and commissars behind the Iron Curtain who are assigned the task of indoctrinating the masses
away from their faith were not born yesterday. They know that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Wherever possible they have sought to avoid the stigma of direct persecution. Their purpose is not so much to root out or extirpate the faithful Christians as it is to launder their ideas. Thus those who have spent time in Communist labor camps and prisons tell how the discussion method is used to bring about "acceptable" points of view. Endless conversations are carried on, day after day, until the mind is worn to a stupor, and almost any proposition seems credible enough to elicit a convincing response. No lions, no gladiators, no libations on the altar of Diana are as terrifying to face as the dreary brainwashing of the discussion. The wheel comes full circle as Marxism is made the opium of the people.
Our day has known its share of both these types: the man who imagines he is persecuted and is not, and the man who imagines he is not persecuting, but is. And in the center is the Church of Jesus Christ, girding its loins for its latest ordeal, seeking fidelity to truth as it confronts as menacing a challenge as it has ever faced.
There is nothing imaginary about the threat! When Karl Marx was a seventeen-year-old schoolboy at a Lutheran preparatory school in western Germany, he wrote a lovely essay on John 15, "I am the Vine"; but within a few years he was prefacing his doctor's thesis with a quotation from Prometheus, "I hate all the gods!"; and today his hatred has been fanned into a flame that threatens to seep the planet. Demolition crews stand
ready, awaiting the signal to cut down the cathedrals, save where it is expedient that they should first become museums.
What is God's message to His people thus caught in the modern counter-currents of simulation and dissimulation? We are told to be calm, to be at peace, in fact, to rejoice and be glad. Whatever may come, all is well. The faith is in good hands. The Kingdom of God is nigh. In the days that lie ahead the Church's persecutions may become even more artful and diabolical, but it will survive them too. It cannot help surviving. Even if Communism should capture the wavering population of the globe, and set up its Pilate and its Caiaphas who, in the name of "freedom of religion," would condemn the Church of Jesus Christ to the Cross, it does not matter. The Church belongs at the Cross. That is the only place where it will ever find Victory and Resurrection. That is the only place where the world has ever discovered the true significance of the Gospel (Mark 15:39).
Blessed are the persecuted, for their message is authentic. Their sufferings are their credentials. "From henceforth let no man trouble me:" wrote Paul, "for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). Let there be no doubt that the God who made history will save His people in the midst of history. Their tribulations will only hasten the great Day of the Church. "God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early" (Psalm 46:5). Blessed are the persecuted, for in the fire they are purified; yet when fire comes, we must be girt and ready.
God grant that we who are His Church may be wise enough to tell the real from the false, and to stand fast in the truth.
* * * * * * *
The rock . . .
The Roman lock . . .
What is there to it?
How did he do it?
They tell me he is risen
Out of death's prison
But how can that be?
What did they see?
O terror of that daybreak hour
O rapture of the Savior's power,
O Life that broke but did not bend,
O grave that burst from end to end!
You are a temple guard in Jerusalem. You have been losing sleep for some days. There was the affair Thursday night the arrest, the questioning, and general disorder. Friday night you were assigned to guard a tomb in the garden of Joseph of Arimathaea, and you are still there. It is now early Sunday morning, and you have settled back against a nearby rock to steal forty winks. You have a dream: a mighty angel appears before you with feet widespread. He raises his arm and places a golden trumpet to his lips, and there issues forth a blast that shatters the air and causes the earth beneath you to tremble. You waken in a sweat, fearing the end of everything.
All is quiet; your comrades are drowsing. Then you peer through the gray murk at the tomb that is your responsibility. Something about it seems to be different. You rub your eyes, get up, and walk toward it, only to stop amazed at the sight of the broken seal. The stone has been rolled aside. For a moment you are shocked into rigidity. Then you shout, you summon the guard, and there ensues pandemonium!
You have been the first to witness the power of the Resurrection.
"The Gospels," says John S. Whale, "cannot explain the Resurrection; it is the Resurrection which alone explains the Gospels. The Resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith; it is the Christian faith." 6
The disciples heard Jesus Christ tell of His approaching persecution and describe it as the will of God. They heard His word concerning their own persecutions which were to follow: "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12). Somehow they never added two and two together until the two sprinters, John and Peter, stood breathless before the eerie wonder of the empty cave. It took the Resurrection to put a heartbeat into the embryo Church and bring it to life. He is not here, for He is risen!
Did it happen?
Johannes Weiss says the Resurrection appearances were an optical illusion. Many claim that the disciples only "thought they saw Jesus" and "felt He was near." Such theories do not solve our problem, however, they complicate it, for they make it more difficult than ever to interpret the power of the early Christians, or to explain how the persecuted can be blessed. Let us join the theorists for a moment and look at the Cross from their vantage point. What do we see?
We see a rubbish heap outside Jerusalem, where a mob of soldiers and onlookers is gathered, howling for blood. We see three dead men nailed to gibbets, the carrion birds beginning to circle, the hounds skulking in the background and waiting for their chance after nightfall. We see the final frustration of the Messiah, the Christ, the noblest soul the world has ever known, apparently terribly mistaken in His claims of Deity. And we find ourselves saying that there is no God, at least there is no God who can really be said to care for men. And if God does not care, then why should we care? We can turn our eyes away from the crosses and look elsewhere, but there seem to be only more crosses. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable . . . "
But now is Christ RISEN!
Risen! Not a fancy but a fact. Not a violation of natural law but the fulfillment of a supernatural law. "But God raised Him from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him" (Acts 2:24). As Leith Samuel says, Jesus Christ was
the Eternal Son, the Co-Creator and Redeemer of the universe. Death had no claim upon Him because He had never sinned. And when He covered our sins at Calvary, He also covered our death, our mortality.
The reality of Easter is founded upon the reality of the Cross. Men will continue to suggest that Easter is not really a miracle; that it is rather a kind of seasonal vitamin tablet or spiritual shot in the arm for the lifting of flagging spirits and the assuaging of cultural dislocations. Easter, however, points back to the Cross. And on the Cross we are ourselves crucified with Jesus Christ to the world; we become spiritually dead in order that He might live in us as Christus Victor, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Thus the persecuted ones find themselves keeping company with all the heroes of the faith; with Moses at the Red Sea, and David in the cave of Adullam, and Paul and Silas in the jail at Philippi, and Bull in Chungking, and Bonhoeffer in Germany, and the pastor martyrs in Korea, and the Christian Kikuyus in Kenya. But they also find themselves with the poor in spirit, with the mourners, with the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. And they find themselves with Job, stripped of everything but God, and yet blessed: ". . . dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6: 9-10).
Our Beatitudes close with the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven
and the exhortation to rejoice in gladness. Our journey has ended on a triumphant note of Resurrection joy. What we have lost, we have been given back in double measure, an Easter gift for eternity, and our cups are running over.
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might'st seekest it in My arms.
1. The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1883.
2. History of Plymouth Plantation (W.T. Davis, ed.), Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1908, page 46.
3. Light is Sown, Moody Press, Chicago, 1956.
4. When Iron Gates Yield, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1956.
5. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1924. Quoted by permission.
6. Christian Doctrine, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1942.
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