The Greatest Honour
Matthew 5:11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’.
What do you think is the highest honour on earth? Could it be being crowned a King or Queen? To be a president or prime minster? To Win the Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar, to be a Lord or Lady, or Knighted? Or is it being the richest or the most powerful in business? How about winning an Olympic medal, being a world champion, or being the first – first on the moon, first to run a marathon under two hours?
Well Jesus says, the pinnacle, the greatest honour is to be persecuted in his name – because of him. And to do it with gladness because we’ll have the ultimate honour, a place in Heaven’s hall of fame.
This month we are going to look at the final beatitude, preacher R.T Kendall puts it:
‘In the ascending level of maturity in the beatitudes, Jesus saves the best till last’.
“Blessed (or happy or congratulated) are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’’.
If you were here last month, you might be thinking you’ve heard this already when Alex spoke on verse 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
Well scholars are still unclear on whether verse 11 is a separate beatitude, or more likely an extension of verse 10, (which Alex spoke about last month) – in Hebrew literature, if something was very important it was repeated twice. Blessed are the persecuted
So, last month Alex explained that as we climb the ‘happiness mountain’, as we live out the previous seven beatitudes ‘or beautiful attitudes’ that all begin with ‘blessed are… or happy are…, and we reach the top of the peak, where we find the maturity of being Christlike is to, yes, be persecuted because of righteousness – righteousness meaning ‘having a right relationship with God’.
Such is the gravitas of this point Jesus repeats it, but there is a notable difference in the language he uses between the two verses. Verse 10 begins just like all the other beatitudes, stated in the third person ‘Blessed are those..’ but in verse 11, he takes it up a notch, he makes it direct ‘Blessed are you…’ And whereas before the persecution was coming from your righteousness – our right relationship with God, in his repeat it is ‘on my account’ or ‘because of me’. It is not merely righteousness that offends, the real stigma is Jesus himself.
The question is are we ready to wear that badge?
Throughout the beatitudes, we are called to swim against the cultural flow, to be poor in spirit, to mourn the world, to be meek, strong but gentle and kind, to thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure of heart, and to be peacemakers. These grate against the norms of culture, that to be happy you need success, money, power, not to meddle, to attain your ends by any means.
And more than ever today we are seeing the world around us swallowed into a vacuum of radicalism, polarised popularism, an indifference to traditional values of compassion and acceptance, a ‘me’ centric thinking. Millennials have been dubbed the ‘experiential generation’ – do what makes you feel good, do what makes you happy.
Lord Dannatt, head of the Army from 2006 – 2009 said:
There is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values. Once you’ve pulled the anchor up, there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing winds’.
My point is:
Jesus has called us to be counter-cultural game changes, agents for change, to change the world around us. The last four beatitudes are direct instructions about our relationship with others, with the world – to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, – and later in this chapter he says we are the ‘salt and light’ of the earth, salt being something that preserves and adds flavour. but this life Jesus calls us to lead here isn’t going to make us universally popular – we are to be the consciences of humankind – and with that will come ridicule or worse as we stand as a moral anchors, spotlights in the dark. We might lose friends, lose jobs, opportunities, but Jesus says we can wear this as a badge of honour.
Until recently I ran a small business with another person, they often suggested we run some of our work ‘off the books’ the client was a friend of theirs and didn’t want to pay 20% VAT, but this wasn’t right – my inflexibility made me unpopular.
But possibly my most life shaping experience was this:
In the nineties and noughties, Goldsmith’s Art School was the leading place in the world for art studies, it produced many recognisable names such as Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing and Mark Wallinger, I knew it was where I wanted to study, to be at the centre of the best thinking and best minds. I was invited for an interview, I showed them my portfolio of work, it was mainly experimental, conceptual performance videos with me doing strange things on camera, the panel loved it, I could sense my place at Goldsmiths being inevitable.
Then one of them asked me what I was reading at the moment – I think they were hoping I was getting to grips with Nietzsche or Hal Foster – but I honestly said, Philip Yancey’s What’s so Amazing about Grace – her face turned to anger, ‘do you believe there is a God then’ I said yes, in utmost incandescent rage, she said ‘how can you be so narrow minded, how can you pin all your hopes and belief’s on something you can’t see’. If there had been any hope of me attending the world’s best art school, it had now diminished. My faith in God was at loggerheads with the philosophy of free thinking that was so central to modern art.
Of course, this experience doesn’t compare to the horror experienced by Christians in the Middle East or around the world, but Christ doesn’t talk about the severity.
As Alex mentioned last month, this persecution should be the litmus test of following Christ, in fact if we are receiving no ‘evil words’ or ‘false lies’ then we should question our effectiveness as agents for change, agents for good, are we still salty, in our workplace, at school, in our community?
But I think we need to understand why slander, lies, persecution happens:
The Message Bible translates this verse as: ‘every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable’.
This is the power of Christ, it makes people feel uncomfortable, when we shine a light on injustice, or wrong, or we show compassion or show mercy or we aim to seek peace – we go against the grain, the values and ways of God sit almost at opposites of the values of modern culture. “Persecution is simply the clash between these two irreconcilable value systems” says John Stott.
But why do people retort with slander or lies? It is simply to try and hurt us – that is the core reason, to punish you for highlighting their weakness or for being different.
But who are they angry with – it is the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Because of me’ or ‘on my account’ says Jesus. I am the one they hate, I am the one they are angry with. We must therefore learn not to take it personally.
The reviled comments, slander, lies are not aimed at us – they are aimed at God. R.T Kendall puts it like this: ‘Men hate God by nature – His holiness, His glory, His sovereignty. Jesus mirrors the Father, so they hate Jesus. That is why they crucified Him…’
At its heart this says something about humankind, and the bigger war that rages between good and bad, between light and darkness, between the dominions of Heaven and Hell. The devil plays into people’s sinful nature, their jealousies, their insecurities, their biases and fears and stir’s people up, he brings the worst out of people.
But how should we react to these lies, ridicule, and nastiness – not by retaliating, sulking, grinning and bearing it, or less pretending we’re enjoying it with a masochistic attitude – Jesus says we should Rejoice and be glad – or as some translations put it ‘leap for joy’.
Why? Because Jesus added ‘your reward is great in heaven’ We may lose everything on earth, a friend, a job or far worse, but we shall inherit everything in heaven, not as a reward or a prize for good works, but as a certificate of Christian authenticity.
Jesus goes on, your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ – we’ll be part of a noble succession, far greater than the list of Kings, presidents, Olympic medal winners – we’ll take our place next to Daniel, Elijah, Jeremiah.
When all earthly honours fade, we can be secure in the knowledge that through suffering for being a disciple of Christ we are to receive the greatest honour of all. That when we reach heaven, God will exalt the humble and abase the proud, will call the last first and the first last and declares the meek his heirs. To conclude, a quote from John Stott:
In Brief, Jesus congratulates those whom the world most pities, and calls the world’s rejects ‘blessed’.
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 5:1–16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.