“The Joy of Persecution” (Luke 6:20-36)
Two weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, we started this series on “A Little Lenten Lukan Joy.” And you may have thought that the theme that night, “The Joy of Repentance,” was a little strange. What does joy have to do with repentance? Well, if you thought that was strange, then tonight’s message will strike you as very strange. It’s called “The Joy of Persecution.”
“‘The Joy of Persecution’? What joy can there be in being persecuted?” Well, don’t blame me for that idea. I didn’t come up with it. It’s Jesus’ idea. He’s the one who said it: “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” The joy of persecution. There it is, straight from Jesus’ mouth.
“But I still don’t get it, Pastor. What joy is there in being persecuted? What fun is that?” Well, first of all, don’t confuse “joy” with “fun.” They’re not the same thing. “Fun” is light and momentary, sweet and sugary, fluffy and frothy, kinda like cotton candy. No nutritional value. Now “fun” is OK in small doses, but it’s not something you can live on. “Joy,” however, has a bit more substance than that.
And we should not confuse “joy” with “happiness,” either. “Happiness,” as the word implies–“happiness” depends on what happens. When good things happen, you feel happy. But when bad things happen–and they do happen, even to Christians; sometimes, especially to Christians–when bad things happen, you may not feel all that happy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have joy at those times. Joy runs deeper than happiness. It’s not so circumstance-dependent. Joy, for the Christian, rests upon a more constant and abiding foundation than the ups-and-downs of your day-to-day fortunes.
Joy depends upon God’s promises. Joy depends upon Jesus. Christian joy rests upon God’s completed work in Christ. It rests on the sure and solid foundation of God’s word.
So we’re getting at it, I think. We’re coming to understand how joy is deeper than, it is greater than, it’s stronger than, mere “fun” or even “happiness.” Joy is centered in Christ and in his promises. Now with that understanding of joy, we can approach tonight’s theme of “The Joy of Persecution.”
Jesus tells his disciples: “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil.” So does that mean that whenever a Christian has people hating him or speaking ill of him, that therefore he is in a blessed condition? Not necessarily. We have to take into account “the jerk factor.” If a Christian is being a jerk, he should not be surprised if there are people who don’t like him. Or if the Christian does something wrong, immoral, unethical, or against the law, he may suffer some consequences for that. But don’t confuse that with the blessedness of being persecuted. You’re not suffering because you’re a Christian. You’re suffering because you’ve been a jerk or done something stupid. That should be fairly apparent.
But there is real persecution that Christians do suffer. Notice that I left off the last part of the sentence a moment ago, the “on account of the Son of Man” part. “Blessed are you when people hate you,” etc., “on account of the Son of Man.” That is what makes persecution Christian persecution and thus blessed persecution, something to rejoice over–it’s when you are suffering “on account of the Son of Man.”
“The Son of Man” was the title that Jesus used when referring to himself. It’s a messianic title, drawn from the Book of Daniel. So Jesus is saying, “Blessed are you when you are suffering persecution on account of me. Rejoice when you find yourself in that situation.”
That’s what the apostles did, wasn’t it, when they were persecuted on account of Christ. You heard that in the reading from Acts. The Jewish Sanhedrin had them beaten and “they charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles left, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”
You see, if you are being persecuted because you’re a Christian, that’s a sign you’re doing something right. And it’s a sign that you belong to Jesus–which is really the main thing to rejoice over. That is our joy, our all-surpassing joy–that by God’s grace we are tied to Jesus, connected to Christ. And persecution is just a reminder that we are. They hated Jesus. They’re going to hate us, too, on account of the fact that we belong to Jesus. It’s all good.
It’s all good, because Jesus is our security, our safety, our unshakeable fortress in the midst of any rage or onslaught the devil and the world may throw at us. They can hurt our bodies, they can take our fortune, they can run our name through the mud, but they cannot touch our salvation. It is this confidence that gave the martyrs and confessors of old the courage to stand fast, even under threat, even at the point of death, and even to rejoice about it.
Why is your future secure, no matter what? Because Jesus went through the wringer first, before you. He suffered the most unjust persecution ever. And he did it for you, to win your eternal salvation, so that you have nothing to fear. Your sins are all forgiven, because of Christ’s atoning blood, shed on the cross. There is no accusation of condemnation left against you. Christ rose from the dead, showing that resurrection and eternal life are what he has for all who trust in him. God has baptized you to be his child, placed his name upon you, claiming you for his own. God isn’t going to let you go. He’s made quite the investment in you. Anything that comes at you now is by permission of his fatherly hand, and he’ll give you the strength to get through it with your faith and your salvation intact. I’d say that’s something to rejoice over.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” Look at the forms this persecution can take. “When people hate you”: That’s describing how people may feel toward you. “When they exclude you”: That’s what people may do to you. When they “revile you and spurn your name as evil”: That’s what people may say against you.
And certainly we see all these forms of persecution being directed against Christians in our day. People hate us. And it doesn’t take much for that hateful feeling to rise to the surface and issue forth in words or deeds.
They exclude us. I know Christian pastors in Sweden, for example, who are excluded from consideration for higher office simply because they are faithful to God’s word. Here in America, try getting a job in higher education or in the secular media, if they know you are a committed Christian. I have read about Christians in Nigeria who have died when their churches were blown up by car bombs set off by a Muslim terrorist group. That’s persecution on account of the Son of Man.
They hate us, they exclude us, and they revile us and spurn our name as evil. Look at how Christians are made fun of and reviled in the media, in our pop culture. We are the objects of jokes and even worse. This is a form of persecution, too.
Jesus says that those who suffer in these ways, though–he says we are really blessed, and we can even rejoice and leap for joy in the face of such persecution.
It sounds strange, doesn’t it? Rejoicing over persecution? But Jesus knows what he’s saying, and God knows what he’s doing. God is not asleep at the switch. He knows what we’re going through. He will not abandon us. You have his word on it. Jesus’ blood, his death and resurrection, guarantee that you are blessed and have cause to rejoice, no matter what the suffering or persecution you go through.
So take courage. You can be bold to confess Christ. You can dare to live confidently and intentionally as a Christian. You’ll be OK. More than OK, really. You’ll be blessed. You’ll have reason to rejoice. On account of the Son of Man.