Blessed Are the Persecuted

Despite the prayers of some overzealous, first-year seminary students, most Christians do not long for suffering. They do not grab their morning cup of coffee hoping their day ends with their home on fire, their fingers broken, or their heads chopped off. We prefer peace.

Still, persecution finds us. Jesus declared persecution to be the inevitable outcome of the Christian life. He closed out the beatitudes with these words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:10). Those who mourn their sin, pursue purity, and facilitate peace receive both God’s blessings and their neighbor’s hatred.

We should not be surprised by such an outcome for Jesus experienced the same fate. Jesus loved those around him with an intentional level of perfection, sharing truth, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Despite earning the pleasure of his heavenly father, Jesus still ended his life very much nailed to a cross. He followers should expect the same fate. Jesus noted in Matthew 10:25

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

Christians will be persecuted for righteousness sake.

What is Persecution?

The term persecution conveys the military idea of total annihilation. A persecutor would be one who commands his troops to hunt down and annihilate all his opponents. Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul did this. He testifies that,

I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished (Acts 22:4-5).

Paul looked far and wide for Christians so that he could crush them out of existence through physiological manipulation and physical force (Acts 26:9-11).

Throughout church history, groups of Christians have experienced such physical persecution. The seventeen-year-old girl Margaret Wilson was drowned for her faith off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1685. Graham Staines was burned to death in his car in India in 1999. All over the world, Christians are harassed, imprisoned, and murdered for their faith.

Though countless groups and governments still pursue Christians as Paul did thousands of years ago, millions of Christians are blessed to live in nations with stable borders. They do not wake up contemplating whether they will be imprisoned because they attended church. This reality brings us back to those over eager seminary students. Do we need to pray for and seek out physical persecution to achieve the kingdom of God? Do we have to be flogged to be blessed?

Jesus says no. In Matthew 5:11, Jesus expands upon the concept of persecution with his disciples associating the term with reviling and lying. Our savior teaches that much of the persecution that we will endure will be verbal. As the famed reformer, Martin Luther, noted, persecution often consists of “bitter slander and poisonous defamation.” Even if a Christian never kneels to prepare for the executioner’s sword, he can still be certain that his good name will be assaulted by the world. To be slandered for righteousness sake is to be persecuted for Christ.

Not All Persecution is Equal

But not all slander and lies constitute biblical persecution. Once while walking in a rough part of Louisville, KY and sporting a University of Louisville jersey, I was verbally accosted by a slow-moving station wagon jammed full of kids and one loudmouth dad. Those insults brought God no glory. Similarly, the insults we receive after we post about our favorite political candidate, share our ideas on nutrition, or discuss our views on fashion do not constitute righteous persecution. God still uses those moments to shape and model our hearts, but they do not prove our membership in the kingdom of heaven (Jm 1).

Similarly, persecution associated with our sins brings God no glory. A pastor in Alabama has been excoriated on twitter and elsewhere for plagiarizing sermons. Though I believe the Alabama pastor meant well, seeking to grow the body of Christ, he still bore false and presented the intellectual property of another as his own to grow his brand. He has suffered much but not for righteousness sake. He suffered because he sinned. The twitter attacks should not lead him to rejoicing but to repentance.

To suffer for righteousness sake, one must be criticized for being like Christ. The deacon who was asked to step down because he regularly mocks people’s Instagram posts has not suffered for Jesus. The deacon who builds a ramp for a widow in the church and then is wrongfully accused of coveting the widow’s inheritance has been persecuted for righteousness sake. The woman who was fired from her job because she said such and such a political candidate deserves to be removed from office (if not shot) has not suffered for Jesus. However, the woman who is fired because she shared Jesus with a grieving coworker at lunch has suffered. And when we do suffer for loving God and others well, we should rejoice.

Rejoice in Suffering

When we find ourselves attacked for helping the poor, visiting the sick, and evangelizing the poor, we can be tempted to respond in bewilderment and anger. We should do neither. Rather we should rejoice for the displeasure of the world reveals we have attained the pleasure of God. Those who are persecuted may lose out on jobs, friends, and a host of earthly amenities. But they get so much more than the trinkets of today. The get Christ. When Stephen who shared Christ and cared for widows was executed after being falsely accused, he did not stumble into sorrow. He was raised to glory. When the stones reigned down upon his head, he got Jesus. Acts 7:25 reports, “And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Rejoice when people dislike you because you are like Jesus for you like Jesus will too be in heaven.

But we do not have to wait for heavenly vindication. Throughout history, God’s people have been persecuted. Isaiah was thrown in jail. Jeremiah was thrown into a mud pit. Daniel was tossed into a lion’s den. The prophet Uriah was hunted down and executed because he declared the message of God. As Jesus noted in his parable on the unjust tenants, the world has taken God’s servants, “and beat one, killed another, and stoned another (Matt 12:35-26).” To suffer for righteousness sake is to be on the right side of history. Instead of bemoaning their hardships, Christians should rejoice when persecution comes for they walk in the footsteps of giants.

Blessed are those who persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Who Is an Evangelical?: A Review

When my professor said, he did not understand Henry David’s Thoreau’s book, Walden, my shoulders relaxed. Moments earlier, he had criticized my paper on Walden for having failed to grasp the point of Thoreau’s recounting of ants, birds, and rainstorms. The professor of literature then went on to say, he could not help me improve my essay because Thoreau had stumped him as well. According to my literature professor, Thoreau was so unique that he defied categorization.

The same could be said of the term evangelical. Though the word remains tied to the “born again” concept, no one has been able to standardize the content, belief, or practices of those who march under the evangelical banner. According to a 2020 Lifeway study, 26% of evangelicals deny the divinity of Jesus and 42% believe all religions lead to God. Evangelicals possess a wide array of theological, sexual, and political views that often conflict with their evangelical neighbors.

In his book, Who is and Evangelical: The History of A Movement in Crisis, historian and Baylor University professor, Thomas Kidd, steps into this quagmire, seeking to define the seemingly undefinable. He writes, “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit (4).” Sadly even as the ink dries on the pages of this 2019 volume, this definition has already begun to dissolve into ill-defined gray matter. In the before mentioned 2020 Lifeway study, only 32% of self-identified evangelicals believed the Bible was true and only 49% of the respondents affirmed the need for the Holy Spirit to give new birth. The new birth, evangelical language of Whitefield and the pietist which emphasized the importance of the Holy Spirit has not aged well, making the movement which transcends both denominational and sociological definitions that much harder to define.

Who is An Evangelical?

Despite the book’s title, Kidd appears comfortable with the ameba like nature of the evangelical movement. As Kidd tracks the development of evangelicalism which begins with George Whitefield and ends with Donald Trump, he chronicles a movement that has been forever unsettled. Evangelicals embraced African Americans, Hispanics, and female converts while simultaneously advocating for slavery, segregation, and restrictive male headship. According to Kidd, the movement has been shaped by a never-ending onslaught of small and large conflicts.

But in 1951 at the behest of Billy Graham, evangelism entered a new and a defining crisis. That year Graham asked the nominal religious and non-evangelical General Dwight Eisenhower to run for president. By supporting Eisenhower and eventually Nixon, Kidd believes Graham transformed evangelism from a movement of spiritual conversion into an organization that promoted the civil religion of spiritual patriotism. From that point on, Kidd claimed white evangelicals egged on by the secular media would confuse, “political power and access to Republican leaders with the advancement of God’s kingdom (93).” This blending of faith and politics benefited the Republican party far more than it advanced the cause of Christ. But instead of abandoning the party and calling a spade a spade, Kidd reports that 81% of white evangelicals doubled down on their commitment to political power and voted for President Donald Trump. By supporting a man whose life contradicted the values of the gospel, evangelicals revealed that their movement was now more politically than spiritually minded.

At this juncture, Kidd’s thesis becomes clear. He writes not so much to define the indefinable but to call the ameba of evangelism to return to the pond of theology. Kidd laments the notion shared by some, “that political behavior is what makes an evangelical and evangelical (151).” He goes on to write, “Partisan politics have come and gone…But conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible, and God’s discernable presence are what make an evangelical and evangelical (156).” In other words, evangelicals should first and foremost be born again believers instead of political activists.

Analysis

I concur with Kidd’s overarching analysis, appreciating his ability to deal with hundreds of years of history in the span of 156 pages. But I also think the conciseness of the volume stunted the development of his argument. Though Kidd ties evangelicals to the Holy Spirit, he does not tease out how an evangelical’s understanding of the Holy Spirit shapes that soul’s understanding of scripture which in-turn shapes the evangelical’s understanding cultural engagement. I’m curious to know if Whitefield’s, Graham’s, and A.W Criswell’s accommodation to worldly norms was spawned by a spiritism that allowed them to negate the teaching of the Scriptures. In other words, did these men misstep because they were following their impression of the Word or the Spirit?

Lastly, I wish Kidd had interacted more with the works of his historical mentor George Marsden. Though Kidd locates the downfall of evangelicalism in the 1950’s, he does not intently interact with the patriotism of the World War 1 era that transformed how many conservative churches viewed politics. Since Kidd locates the start of evangelicalism in the 1700’s, he should have allocated more space to the Woodrow Wilson era.

Final Thoughts

I think at the end of the day, Kidd would agree that no one can finally say who is an evangelical. But he also believes that the message of evangelicalism can be historically defined as a “message of conversion and eternal salvation, not partisan politics (10).” Though I do not agree with all of Kidd’s analysis, I believe his attempt to return the evangelical ameba to the pond of theology is needed. May we all swim in the waters of spiritual reflection.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

The soul does not have to walk past bloated horses, screaming men, or dead children to understand the cruel nature of human conflict. The little girl that has hidden under her unicorn blanket while her parents send hateful words screaming across the living room knows the importance of peace. War whether in the macrocosm or the microcosm is horrid thing.

But despite the commitments of the United Nations to help people, “practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors,” the world remains ravaged by wars. The followers of Christ should not be surprised by the inadequacies of governments and agencies for humanity has a natural disposition for war. As soon as the news of a bad report card or of a broken antique vase hits our hearts, the booming cannon of anger forcefully sounds again. Despite humanity’s attempt to establish peace through calls for moderation, the promises of hugs, and the gains of technology, harmony remains elusive.

Jesus Calls for Peacemakers

Still, we want peace. The human heart readily identifies with Jesus’s proclamation, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (Matt. 5:9).” To find this peace, souls must first discover how one becomes a son or daughter of God. In other words to promote peace, men and women must first experience the peace God. Jesus serves as the foundation of all earthly peace.

How Does Jesus Display Peace?

As the prophet Isaiah noted, Jesus is the “Prince of Peace (Is 9:6).” When baby Jesus arrived in the manager, he brought peace to those with whom God is well pleased (Lk 2:14). This was unusually fantastic news!

At birth, no one is blessing to God. Since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit at the dawning of the human age, humanity has suffered from the effects of sin. Having declared war against God, men and women unceasingly choose evil because their natures possess an eternal bent towards selfishness and violence. This lack of righteousness in the human society ensures that war will continue to flourish both in our homes and on the international stage. No one could please God. No one could lay claim to the peace of heaven.

At this juncture, the glory of Christ becomes even more glorious. He exercises the roles of prophet, priest, and king so that God can find us pleasing. Jesus comes as an infant to pursue the salvation of the lost. The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus came preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” As the perfect prophet of God, Jesus condemned sin and then called sinners to repentance. Thankfully, his call to holiness transcended the scope of the legalist, white-collared grandmother who is always wagging her finger. Acting as the final high priest, Jesus offered his life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He made repentance possible, dying so that no one else has to sacrifice for their sins. Christ accomplished it all, trading his life for us. Thus at the moment of repentance, the sinner takes possession of Christ’s righteousness. When God sees the redeemed, he sees his son with whom he is well pleased. In Romans 5:1 Paul sums up God’s plan for peace, writing, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then as king, Jesus reigns. He continual works for the good of his children interceding for them, directing them back towards grace when they stumble into selfishness and war. Through his pursuit, salvation, and care of sinners, Jesus brings peace to earth.

Who is a peacemaker?

A peacemaker is someone promotes peace because he has experienced the peace of Christ through repentance and faith. As a new creation, Christians possess the tools needed to foster peace: confession, truth, forgiveness, and forbearance. In other words, those who experienced peace with God will in-turn become the purveyors of peace on earth.

Confession

Sin is the soil that sustains war and violence. If unconfessed sin exists in the believer’s life, she will be unable to help her neighbor. In other words, those who hope to bring others to peace while sharing intelligence and military equipment with the terrorists of pride, selfishness, and lust will harm both themselves and those they wish to help. Jesus noted, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Before the believer can help someone else, she must repent of her own sin and rest in the peace of a clear conscience. Only once the log is out of her eye can she move forward to help her husband, children, coworkers, church members, and in-laws.

Truth

After self-examination and repentance, the peacemaker should bring the word of truth to bear on the lives of others. To borrow the well-used expression, the Christian must call a spade a spade. Instead of looking the other way when she spots her friend’s husband checking into a motel with a women not her friend, she address the situation pointing to Matthew 5:27-32 and a host of other passages that condemn adultery. Similarly, Paul tells Titus to address those start fights writing , “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice have nothing more to do with him (3:10).” The peacemaker engages sin with truth for the purpose of correcting errors and erroneous behaviors. In bringing the ethic of Jesus to bear on all of life, she fosters both peace with God and peace among men.

Forgiveness

After sharing truth, the believer should extend forgiveness. The peacemaking progress often breaks down at this juncture. The human soul craves vengeance. It desires to know that the villains who called them names, stunted their careers, and destroyed their friendships have suffered through at least one night of the silent treatment. But this is not the heart of Christ. He welcomes sinners. When the prodigal son returns to his Father, the Father runs to him throwing a feast for him. Such should be Christian forgiveness. As Jesus tells his listeners in Matthew 5:44-45 “But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” The moment a person confesses their sin and asks for forgiveness, the believer should extend the hand of fellowship and bring the war to its God intended conclusion. The list of misdeeds are burned, the internal bitterness is tossed out, and the urge for vengeance is abandon. In their place now sit mercy and grace.

Forbearance

Lastly, the peacemaker forbears. He does not give up after one conversation. He does not quit and wait for those in a state of war to make the first move. He pursues his enemies and those engaged in combat. Even when they mistreat him or respond to his initial offerings for peace with a list of his past failures, he does not retreat. He keeps pursuing peace for Christ, pursing the man despite his hatred and mistreatment of The believer. The apostle John reminds us that, “In this is love not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved if God so loved us, we ought to love one another (1 Jn 4:10).” When Jesus arrived, he did not find you or me residing peaceable in a garden, musing about the origins of dreams. He found us in a state of all out rebellion, brandishing machine guns and machetes in an effort to overthrow God’s sovereign decrees. Still, Jesus loved us and pursued us to the point of death. If God cast us off because we did not respond to the first gospel plea that we heard, how many of us would reach heaven? If God can endure thousands of rejections, should we not do the same?

Final Thoughts

Often Christians fear confrontation because it threatens to create more confusion and war. If John responds to the truth of the gospel with anger know the whole church is consumed with gossip as texts go around asking church members to either side with John or the church’s elders. Though mishaps happen, this fear overlooks one important truth: God’s spirit dwells in all of his people. In Philippians 4:7, God promises that “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.” When the believing soul calls another believing soul to peace, the peacemaker do so knowing Christ is also guarding the brother at war. In other words, the call to peace will always resonate with the believer. And if the call of peace is rejected and the one at war proves to be unredeemed, the Christian should not lose heart. He has helped a confused soul understand its spiritual state. The knowledge of sin proves to be the foundation of evangelism that allows the gospel to penetrate. The Christian does not despair but rather pursues the man at war afresh seeking to lead him to peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.