Blessed Are You When People Insult You (Matthew 5:11, 12)


I knew a man who was persecuted for his Christian faith.
 
His name was Pastor Mung. He worked with my missionary grandparents in northwestern China before the country fell to Mao’s Communists in 1948. Pastor Mung endured decades of harassment and prison. When he was well into his seventies, he planted a church in Xining, which has since grown to over 10,000 baptized members. Before he died, he left that congregation to start a satellite church at another location. It has over 1,000 members.
 
American Christians have difficulty appreciating the courage of Christians like Pastor Mung because we practice our faith without negative consequences. But around the world, many believers do not enjoy our easy life. Indeed, the twentieth century saw more Christians martyred for their faith than the previous nineteen centuries of the church combined. James and Marti Hefley have compiled some of those martyrs’ stories in their book, By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs from the Twentieth Century and Beyond.
 
Persecuted and martyred Christians teach me three things about my faith:
 
First, I am blessed. We do not reflect often enough on the blessing of living in a land with religious freedom. We can worship publicly, speak openly, pray out loud, and share our faith with whoever will give us a listen. And we can do all this without worrying about going to jail, losing our jobs, or suffering public ridicule. Many Christians—especially in Communist and Islamic countries—do not have those privileges.
 
Second, great privileges entail great responsibilities. As American Christians, we have the opportunity to affect not only the spiritual climate of our nation, but also that of the world. We can pray for Christians in other lands, send them missionaries for church planting and money for humanitarian relief. We can publicize the plight of suffering Christians and mobilize our vast resources to help them. Many American Christians do. Most—including, all too often, me—do not. What about you?
 
God may not call American Christians to bear up under the weight of persecution themselves, but he certainly expects us to share the load of those who do. He may not expect us to go to other countries as missionaries or relief workers, but he certainly expects us to send volunteers and cash. We have such great resources at our disposal. What are we using them for?
 
Third, God can accomplish his purposes in the teeth of suffering. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5.11, 12). God desires to save sinful humanity, so he sends us messengers, culminating with The Messenger, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, many reject both message, messengers, and The Messenger. Persecution was the fate of the prophets and of Christ, and such is the fate of many Christians today.
 
But God still accomplishes his purpose. We will be blessed if we strive to receive his heavenly reward.
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Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted Because of Righteousness (Matthew 5.10)


Editor’s note: This was originally written in late 2004.
 
The eyes of the world are on Ukraine.
 
On November 21, 2004 Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich squared off against opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko in a runoff election for the Ukrainian presidency. Yanukovich won, but Yuschenko’s supporters and international observers argued that the election was rife with ballot fraud and voter intimidation. Ukraine’s Supreme Court agreed and ordered a reprise of the election on December 26.
 
Attempting to steal an election was not the only crime committed. Prior to the election, someone—no doubt a Yanukovich partisan, possibly a member of Ukraine’s security establishment—poisoned Yuschenko with dioxin, a lethally toxic substance. The assassin failed to kill his mark, but Yuschenko carries the scars of the poisoning on his skin to this day. And he is undergoing therapy to repair the damage the poison did to his internal organs.
 
I mention all this because it raises an interesting question: What cause do you hold so dear to your heart that you would willingly suffer—and even die—for it? The world now knows what stuff a courageous man like Viktor Yuschenko is made of. What are you made of?
 
In Matthew 5.10, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Each element of this beatitude needs to be unpacked, beginning with the word “blessed.” That word connotes the external conditions favorable to producing the internal emotion of happiness.
 
According to the eighth beatitude, the external condition that makes a person internally happy is not persecution for righteousness, but entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is God’s authority and power to rule over his creation. Whenever he exercises that authority and power, he creates conditions of justice and peace. However, at the present time, God exercises his kingdom not by imposition, but by invitation. He invites people to enter a relationship with him voluntarily; he does not impose the relationship by force. Why? He does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9).
 
Unfortunately, at the present time, many people choose not to enter into a relationship with God. If God’s kingdom is characterized by justice and peace, then life outside God’s kingdom is characterized by injustice and war. Within such an environment, those who desire “hunger and thirst for righteousness” may find themselves being persecuted by those who don’t.
 
This divine righteousness, by the way, is not just any “good cause.” Instead, it is “God’s cause.” And it is inseparable from life in Christ. In Matthew 5.11, Jesus expands the meaning of persecution “because of righteousness” to persecution “because of me.” God’s righteousness, you see, is inseparable from life in Christ. That is why, I think, Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by arguing that only his teaching provides a bulwark against the storms of life (Matt. 7.24–27).
 
So, what cause are you willing to die for—or most importantly, to live for? The eyes of heaven are upon you.

Wild Goose Chase


 

When last we heard from Mark Batterson, he was chasing a lion down a pit on a snowy day. Now he’s chasing a wild goose. Evidently, there’s a lot of chasing going on in Mark’s neck of the hood.
 
Most of us think a wild goose chase is, as Mark puts it, “a purposeless endeavor without a defined destination.” Mark thinks otherwise. He notes that one of the Celtic Christian images of the Holy Spirit was An Geadh Glas, “the Wild Goose.” Chasing that Wild Goose is anything but a purposeless endeavor, even though we don’t know the defined destination at the outset of the chase.
 
Chasing the Wild Goose pulls you out of “inverted Christianity.” “Instead of following the Spirit,” Mark writes, “we invite the Spirit to follow us. Instead of serving God’s purposes, we want Him to serve our purposes.” Such a form of Christianity is sinful—displacing God from the center and putting our selves there instead—but it is also deadly boring. Mark deploys the image of a caged animal at the zoo to describe the life of inverted Christianity. The natural beauty, freedom, and power of biblical Christianity gets locked away behind safe, comfortable, and predictable bars. If we want to chase the Goose, we have to get out of our cages.
 
In Wild Goose Chase, Mark identifies six cages inverted Christians get locked inside: responsibility, routine, assumptions, guilt, failure, and fear. He devotes one chapter to each of the cages and uses one character from the Bible to illustrate spiritual uncaged living. Nehemiah shows us how to live a “responsibly irresponsible life,” one that is infused with God’s passion. Moses shows us how to break out of our spiritual routines. Abraham shows us how to overcome the antisupernatural assumptions that place limits on what God can do in our lives. Peter shows us how to let God’s grace overcome our guilt and lead to a life of gratitude. Paul shows us how apparent failures are actually providential opportunities to spread the gospel. And Jonathan shows us to live on offense, rather than defense. Mark also peppers each chapter with stories from lives of contemporary people who are chasing the Goose.
 
One of Mark’s greatest virtues as a writer is a Rick Warren-like ability to take a simple concept and give it practical legs. I have to confess that the genre of In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day and Wild Goose Chase is not a genre I read a lot in anymore because it has tendencies toward the formulaic and simplistic. Mark’s books are neither of those things. Don’t be fooled by his short paragraphs, self-deprecatory humor, or obsession with medial front cortex illustrations. This book, and its predecessor, challenged me a deep, personal level. And they will do the same thing for you.
 
I highly recommend this book. I gave it to my associate. My family members will be reading it. And I’ll be promoting it at my church. If you’re tired of dull, passionless, routinized Christianity, read this book! And chase the Goose!

For They Will Be Called Sons of God (Matthew 5.9)


 
About twenty years ago, one of my father’s parishioners painted a portrait of him. For several weeks, each Monday morning, she came to his office, and he posed for her sitting very still, with his legs crossed and his hands folded across his lap. Although this woman was a professional artist, the portrait didn’t look much like my dad. It was impressionistic, not realistic.
                                                                                          
And yet, she captured the essence of my dad as he rested after a long weekend of pulpit ministry. Two things stand out especially: the contemplative look on my dad’s face, which he always gets when he’s doing one thing and thinking about another, and the way his hands are folded across his lap. The portrait may not look like my dad, but it resembles him.
 
I do too. A while back, in the middle of a worship service at which I was scheduled to preach, I found myself seated on the platform waiting for my turn at the pulpit to come. I was sitting very still, with my legs crossed and my hands folded across my lap. Someone was speaking, but I wasn’t listening. My mind was elsewhere. Then I realized I had seen my dad in the exact same chair and pose Sunday after Sunday. I am my father’s son. I don’t look like him—I inherited dark hair from my mother—but I resemble him.
 
The seventh beatitude pronounces happiness on people who introduce harmony into conflicted situations: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5.9). A son of God does not look like him, but he bears a striking family resemblance. There are character traits they hold in common. Peacemaking is one of them. So is showing love. As Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven,” and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5.44–45, 47).
 
A son of God, in other words, is one who acts like him. And that introduces a problem for us. We do not act like God. We are combatants rather than peacemakers, persecutors rather than enemy-lovers. We are not perfect. So, in what sense are we God’s sons? A better question is this: Given that we are not now God’s sons, how do we become them?
 
We become God’s sons when he adopts us into his family. Paul writes, “In love, [God] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1.5). We become the sons of God through the Son of God! Christ is a peacemaker and enemy lover and morally perfect human being, so he is God’s “natural” Son, so to speak. But we are not adopted as second-class members of God’s family. Instead, we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8.17).
 
Through Christ, we become sons of the heavenly Father. And through Christ, we resemble our Father more with each passing day.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers (Matthew 5.9), Part 2


What is peace, and how do we bring it to a warring world?
 
It seems to me that there are two basic approaches to answering these questions. The first approach revolves around absence and imposition. The second centers on presence and invitation. Let me explain what I mean by using a childhood experience as an illustration.
 
When I was in kindergarten, I liked to play with wooden building blocks. They were large (about one-foot cubed) and hollow. I enjoyed making an igloo-like fort out of them during recess. Unfortunately, the schoolyard bully liked to push them over on me. When he did so, I cried because the falling blocks hurt me. (This was the early 1970s, before schools began “child proofing” their toys and playground equipment.) Obviously, a state of conflict existed between the bully and me. What would a playground peace between him and me have looked like, and how could such a state of affairs have been brought about?
 
One way would have been to fight him, or to ask the teacher to restrain him. Peace would have been imposed on us either way, and although we wouldn’t have liked each other very much as a result, conflict would have been notably absent from our relationship. This is the first approach I mentioned above, the one revolving around absence and imposition.
 
A second way would have been to ask him to become my friend. Such an invitation would bring about peace between us, defined not as the absence of conflict but as the presence of harmony and like-mindedness. This is the second approach I mentioned above, centered on presence and invitation.
 
Now, both approaches are good, but the second approach is best. Sometimes, a superior force needs to impose absence-of-conflict peace on conflicted parties. We employ “peace officers” (police) in order to protect us at home and soldiers to protect us abroad, for example. Indeed, according to the Bible, that is one of the major purposes for the existence of government. As Paul put it, the state “does not bear the sword for nothing” (Rom. 13.4).
 
But absence-of-conflict peace is merely a temporary ceasefire. It reduces the external manifestations of the conflict, but does not change the internal motivation for the conflict. A lasting, presence-of-harmony peace requires heart-change. And that, it turns out, is what Jesus came to do.
 
Ephesians 2.11–22 speaks about the conflict that separated Jews and Gentiles in the first century, a conflict sparked by religious and legal differences between the two groups. According to Paul, Christ brings peace between the two groups. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
 
The peace Christ brings about is not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony. He removes the source of hostility between them, inviting both into a new relationship with him and with one another. They are at peace with one another, in other words, because they no longer have reason to be at war with one another.
 
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5.9). Christ himself is this blessed peacemaker, the Son of God. And we are his brothers and sisters if we strive to do the same.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers (Matthew 5.9), Part 1


Since September 11, 2001, our nation has been at war. Upward of 150,000 troops are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. And they have suffered losses. In Iraq, over 4,000 servicemen have died, and far more have been injured. While it can be argued that our forces—armed and diplomatic—are making progress defeating our enemies and helping our friends, many battles lay ahead of them, and the final outcome of the war is uncertain.
 
I think of this situation when I reflect on Jesus’ seventh beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5.9). A long, honorable line of Christian theologians has interpreted this verse, alongside Matthew 5.38–48, as requiring Christians to be pacifists. But their pacifism is a minority report. The mainstream of the Christian tradition teaches that unjust aggression must be met by just and judicious counterforce. It has codified its thinking about warfare in the Just War Doctrine, which governs both when a nation can go to war and how it should prosecute that war.
 
In his book, When God Says War Is Right[1], Darrell Cole lists criteria that must be satisfied before warfare can be engaged. These are commonly known as jus ad bellum requirements. (Jus ad bellum is Latin for “justice toward war.”) Those criteria include:
 
1.                  The war must be engaged by the proper authority,
2.                  for a just case,
3.                  with the right intention,
4.                  when war has become the only way to right the wrong,
5.                  and there is a reasonable hope of success in the endeavor.
 
He also lists criteria for how warfare should be practiced. They are commonly known as jus in bello (“just in war”) criteria:
 
1.                  not consenting to intrinsically evil practices in the war’s prosecution,
2.                  granting noncombatants immunity from attack,
3.                  undertaking specific missions with proper intention,
4.                  and using means that are proportional to the ends sought.
 
Christian theologians agree agree that these principles should govern how Christians think about war in general, but they do not agree on their application in the current Iraqi war. For example, some believe that the United States had the proper authority to invade Iraq “unilaterally.” Others argue that only the Security Council of the United Nations has that authority. Indeed, it seems that you can find Christian thinkers using each of the just war criteria on both sides of the debate.
 
Why, then, do I mention these criteria? First, as Christians, our choice is not between uncritical support and unthinking criticism of our nation’s wars. We have biblical and rational benchmarks to judge whether and how our nation should go to war. Second, while a judicious use of force is sometimes necessary, it is not the only tool at our disposal. Peace is not merely the reduction of conflict, but the introduction of wholeness into a conflicted situation. A soldier can accomplish the former, but someone else is needed to accomplish the latter.
 
We will turn to that Someone tomorrow.
 


[1] Darrell Cole,When God Says War Is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2002), 77–106.

For They Will See God (Matthew 5.8)


The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to see God face to face.
 
Christian theologians call this sight of God the “beatific vision,” which the Catholic Encyclopedia defines as following: “The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven. It is called ‘vision’ to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life. And since in beholding God face to face the created intelligence finds perfect happiness, the vision is termed ‘beatific.’”
 
Notice several things about this definition. First, the beatific vision is an immediate knowledge of God rather than a mediate knowledge. In layman’s terms, the difference between the two is the difference between witnessing a traffic accident and hearing about it secondhand. The beatific vision is seeing God yourself, not hearing about him through “media,” the biblical prophets and apostles. As Paul put it, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13.12).
 
Second, the beatific vision lies in our future. Angels and souls in heaven have that vision now, but not us. For example, Jesus speaks of the guardian angels of believers who “always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18.10). While we do not now have an eyewitness view of God, we do have the secondhand reports of eyewitnesses to God (the Bible), which we use to learn the way of salvation. “That which was from the beginning,” John writes, “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1.1).
 
And third, the beatific vision is the source of our eternal happiness. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” said Jesus, “for they will see God” (Matt. 5.8). Jesus himself connected happiness (blessing) with the sight of God. So did John, who wrote of believers, “They will see his face,” and, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 22.4, 21.4). Given the eternal happiness that comes from seeing God, is it any wonder the Psalmist exhorted us to “seek [God’s] face always” (Ps. 105.4)?
 
But how do we attain the beatific vision? Jesus suggests that it belongs to those who are “pure in heart.” But as I wrote yesterday, since none of us is pure in heart, none of us will be able to see God. Instead, we turn to Jesus to lead us to God. He is, as it were, the Mediator who leads us to an immediate knowledge of God. As Paul put it, “God…made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4.6).
 
In other words, see Jesus, and you see God.

Blessed Are the Pure in Heart (Matthew 5.8)


“Purity of heart,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing.”
 
I thought of that quote while watching triathletes compete in this past summer’s Olympic games. Each competitor swam nine-tenths of a mile, biked 24.8 miles, then ran 6.2 miles. (The Ironman Triathlete is far worse: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and at 26-mile marathon.) The mental toughness needed to compete in, let alone complete, such a race is nearly impossible for a confirmed couch potato such as myself to ponder. When you factor in the years of arduous, single-minded training that had prepared the athletes for the race, their accomplishment appears all the greater.
 
In a sense, of course, these triathletes were pure of heart. They willed one thing: Victory. On training days, they chose to swim, bike, or run, not to sit lazily about watching Jerry Springer on TV. And in the race itself, they willed themselves to continue swimming, despite the salt water inadvertently gulped while swimming, despite the fatigue of biking up steep hills, despite the muscle cramps and foot blisters brought on by stride after joint-jarring stride of the race. Why? To win.
 
Purity of heart is to will one thing, to choose the best over a host of lesser goods, and to stick with that decision when it becomes painful, which it always does.
 
Spiritually speaking, purity of heart means to “seek first [God’s] and his righteousness” (Matt. 6.3). It means to pray, with Jesus, “yet not my will, but [God’s] be done”(Luke 22.42). It means, following Paul, to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,” not to mention whatever is “excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4. 8). Purity of heart, in other words, is a single-minded decision to pursue holiness, and thus to struggle against sin.
 
And what a bone-jarring struggle that is! In Romans 7.21–24, Paul writes: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul’s good desires fought his bad habits, and the battle was so pitched that it was unclear which would win. I’ve felt that battle in my own life. Perhaps you’ve felt it too.
 
Without purity of heart, we cannot see God. But, problematically, we cannot attain purity of heart on our own efforts. In this life, the war between good desires and bad habits is unwinnable, by us at least, but not by Another. “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7.25). It is only by means of his pure heart that any of us see God.

For They Will Be Shown Mercy (Matthew 5.7)


What does it mean to be merciful? And what is the connection between being merciful and being shown mercy? Both questions arise from the fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5.7). Let’s look at each in turn.
 
First, what does it mean to be merciful? As I suggested in yesterday’s devotional, mercy stands opposite meritocracy. It means giving something good when something bad is deserved.
 
In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18.21–35), the servant of the king deserved to be sold into slavery because of his great debt. (Remember, this is a first-century parable. In the twenty-first century, obviously, we have other—less odious—ways of exacting repayment of debts.) But the king forgave the debt instead. The servant received something good (debt cancellation) when he deserved something bad (enslavement). Spiritually speaking, we deserve hell because of our sins, but God gives us grace leading to heaven. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6.23).
 
The parable also suggests several actions related to mercy. First, patience. “Be patient with me,” the servant pleaded, “and I will pay back everything.” His plea turns out to be ironic. He desires the mercy of patience, but his king impatiently forgives his debt right then and there. A merciful person is always a patient person, unless he chooses to bless others with an impatient grace. Second, pity: “The servant’s master took pity on him.” A merciful person always sympathizes with the plight of another, whether that plight be poverty, addiction, or sinfulness. And third, pardon: the king “canceled the debt.” With mercy, patience and pity always lead to pardon.
 
So, what does it mean to be merciful? It means to treat others with patience, pity, and pardon—not because such treatment is deserved, but because it is what God desires and has done for us.
 
And that leads us to our second question: What is the connection between being merciful and being shown mercy? A shallow reading of the fifth beatitude suggests a cause-and-effect relationship. If you show mercy to others (cause), then God will show mercy to you (effect). In reality, however, the cause-and-effect relationship runs the other way. Because God has shown mercy to you, you should be merciful to others.
 
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant makes that point explicitly. Having been forgiven his great debt by the king, the unmerciful servant throws a colleague into debtor’s prison for a significantly smaller sum. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” the king asked, when he discovered the servant’s unmerciful behavior. God’s mercy leads to human mercy, which results in more divine mercy. Had the servant paid forward the king’s mercy, perhaps his colleague would have shown mercy to his own debtors. And so on, and so on…
 
Mercy, once released, is hard to contain. Or rather, it should be.

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