Good News for the Persecuted
Acts 16:16-34; Matthew 5:10
First of all I would like to wish all the fathers and grandfathers with us today a very Happy Fathers Day! May God bless you and continue to give you wisdom and grace as you father your children and grandchildren.
Today we are ending our sermon series on the beatitudes. Pastor Leonard said we’ve saved the best for last! I don’t know, I’ve not been too enthused about this persecution beatitude. In fact last month Pastor Leonard was talking about the beatitude he was working on and was saying it wasn’t very exciting or inspiring and he asked “Can you think of worse beatitude than this one?” and I was like “Hello? Persecution?” It’s not like “blessed are the peacemakers” or “blessed are the merciful” or “blessed are the pure in heart.” The other beatitudes highlight some admirable quality and we’d like to have these qualities. But I don’t really think of persecution as being an admirable quality to have. It tends to be something we’d like to avoid if possible. To be persecuted means to be harassed or mistreated. It sounds painful and unpleasant. It involves people being evil to one another and that’s something we as Christians are supposed to be working against. So when I first started working on this sermon, it was hard to get into it. Actually I’ve been working on it for about 3 weeks and that’s unusual for me. It usually doesn’t take that long for one to come together.
I finally realized the problem I was having was the word “persecuted”. It was taking over the whole beatitude for me and it was hard for me to see what else was there. It was persecuting me! So I took it out of the verse. I just decided to ignore it for a little bit and look for what else might be there and that’s when I was able to focus on the word “righteousness”. This word refers to God’s saving acts but it also indicates a relationship. Through God’s saving acts we who trust in Christ are brought into a new relationship with God. We have a new status as righteous. It means we’ve been placed into a “right” relationship with God. We receive this as a gift from God but it places responsibilities on us. In this new status, God has some claim on our conduct. We are to live as righteous people. It’s like if I were to come into your home as a guest, you would have some claim on my conduct. If you wanted me to take my shoes off at the door, I would need to do that because it’s your house and I’m your guest. When God brings us into this new relationship of “righteous” He brings us into His household. Paul writes in Eph. 2:19 that we are “no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” So He has a say over how we live as members of His household.
So now we can go back and add in “persecution” and we see that Jesus is saying “blessed are those who are persecuted because they are in right relationship with God and are living according to the standards of conduct for the members of God’s household.” The reason for the persecution is because we are doing the right thing. Peter writes “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (3:17)…If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (4:15-16). So the beatitude started to sound a little better to me as I unpacked that word “righteous”. Being in right relationship with God, and living as members of His household are supposed to live, may invite some persecution from those who are not members of God’s household and don’t live as God wants us to live. It’s a fact of life as a Christian. Not everyone is going to like us or like what we stand for and how we live. And they will let us know. Jesus is telling us this right at the beginning of his sermon.
But then I got hung up on the word “blessed.” No matter how I tried, I couldn’t see blessing in being persecuted, even if the persecution is because of being in right relationship with God and living as He wants members of His household to live. So I decided to consult a Bible commentary and see what someone else thought about this. In NT Wright’s commentary on Matthew he translates the word “blessed” as “wonderful news” or “good news.” Jesus is announcing good news here at the beginning of his sermon. “Good news to you who are poor in spirit. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. Good news to you who mourn. You will be comforted. Good news to you who are meek. You will inherit the earth. Good news to you who hunger and thirst for righteousness. You will be filled. Good news to you who are merciful. You will be shown mercy. Good news to you who are pure in heart. You will see God. Good news to you who are peacemakers. You will be called children of God. Good news to you who are persecuted because you are in right relationship with God and are living as members of His household. Yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Good News! This announcement of Good News begins and ends with the declaration “that the kingdom of heaven is ours.”
This fits in so well with what Jesus makes clear to everyone is his purpose. In Luke chapter 4 Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown at the beginning of his ministry and declares “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach or announce or proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Now in Matthew 5 we read a further announcement of good news that the kingdom of heaven is ours. Matthew and Luke are making it very clear that Jesus is the Messiah – God’s anointed one – who has come to announce that the Kingdom of God is now here on earth as it is in heaven. And Jesus is not only announcing this, he’s also instituting the rule of God’s kingdom as he goes around forgiving sins, healing the sick, delivering those oppressed by evil, casting out demons, and preaching and teaching how to live as members of God’s household. He’s advancing the kingdom of God or the rule of God as He does this and He commissions those who are his disciples to do the same.
But as we all know, when a new rule is instituted, when a new regime takes over, the old regime will fight back. Just this week in Iraq, Sunni militants took over the city of Mosul and that country is on the brink of civil war as Shiite’s organize to fight against them. Just over a week ago, the world was remembering D-Day, when allied forces invaded France to take back the territory in Europe that Hitler had invaded and placed under Nazi rule. When one power seeks to assert itself against another power, there is a fight coming. This is why Jesus announces about persecution. As the kingdom of heaven advances, those who advance it can expect to meet opposition and persecution.
Paul and Silas experienced this in the story we heard from Acts 16. Paul and Silas are in Philippi and they’ve met with a few people there who had a habit of gathering near the river to pray together. There wasn’t a synagogue at Philippi, most likely because there weren’t enough devout Jewish men in that area to form one. But there were several women who gathered regularly and Paul and Silas met them and talked with them about Jesus and they became believers. So in verse 16 Paul and Silas are on their way to meet these new believers at the place of prayer and this slave girl who was a fortune teller starts following them around yelling that they are servants of the Most High God and are telling people the way to be saved. So we read that as Christians in 2014 and think, “what’s wrong with that?” But to the people of Philippi listening to this slave girl, they have no idea that the Most High God is Jesus and that the way to be saved is through faith that he is the Messiah who died for their sins and rose again and this salvation involves living as members of God’s household. They think she’s talking about Zeus or Jupiter and salvation is wealth, health and power. She’s distorting the message that Paul and Silas have to bring to this town.
So here we see Paul and Silas coming up against the spiritual powers of darkness that have been ruling in this girl’s life and in this town. Through this slave girl, these spiritual powers are trying to distort the announcement of the good news that the kingdom of God has come. This girl followed them around for many days, yelling like a town crier until finally Paul got so upset that he confronted the spirit in her and commanded it in the name of Jesus to come out of her. And it did because the Kingdom of God has come and now there is a new authority in place that has to be obeyed. The spiritual powers of darkness that had ruled for so long were no longer in power and the demon now had to obey the authority of Jesus Christ.
Well, once the demon left the girl she lost her powers of fortune telling and her owners were upset because they had made a lot of money off her. Luke writes that “they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.” So now the kingdom of God is coming up against the earthly authorities of government. We see this so many times in Acts where the Kingdom of God comes against the Empire of Rome. Paul and Silas are severely flogged and thrown into prison. That’s persecution. They are suffering because they are doing the things that members of God’s household do. They are proclaiming good news and advancing the rule of God by doing the very things that Jesus himself did in confronting the powers of darkness and casting them out.
Now even in the prison, they pray and worship God and the other prisoners are listening to them. Even now they are proclaiming good news. And God intervenes by bringing an earthquake that shakes the foundation of the prison, the doors fly open and everyone’s chains come loose. This is a pretty big announcement of freedom for the prisoners. Everyone’s chains are broken, not just Paul and Silas’. The theme of last week’s Pentecost service was “there is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.” We see that truth demonstrated here in this story as everyone’s chain is broken. The kingdom of God is for everyone and there is no opposing power that can stand against the power of God. Every chain is broken and every power is brought into submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
When the jailor comes and sees that all the doors are open he’s about to kill himself because he thinks all the prisoners have escaped. But Paul stops him by saying they are all there. Why would prisoners who are suffering under the empire of Rome, choose to stay when their chains have been broken? Most likely because they recognized that in this place a new authority has broken in. This is another part of the good news. The kingdom of God has come to us right where we are. We don’t have to go somewhere new to experience the kingdom of God. We don’t have to move to Jerusalem to live in the kingdom of God. We don’t have to get our lives straightened out first before we can experience the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God came into the prison and the kingdom of God comes to us wherever we are and breaks all the chains in that place and brings freedom.
The jailor at some level recognizes that there is a new authority, a new kingdom ruling here because he prostrates himself before Paul and Silas and then asks, “What must I do to be saved?” He’s the jailor but he’s asking the prisoners what he needs to do. NT Wright translates the jailor’s question as “Gentlemen, will you please tell me how I can get out of this mess?” And they answer him “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.” The jailor recognizes that under the old kingdom – the empire of Rome - things are about as messed up as they can be. His prison is in a shambles and all the prisoners are loose. He’s in a heap of trouble. But there’s a new kingdom and he can enter that kingdom and be saved – him and his whole household. How does the jailer do this? How do we get out of the shambles that our lives may be? How do we get out of the mess of broken relationships, bad decisions, financial difficulties, regrets, shame, whatever mess it is we find ourselves in? We believe in the Lord Jesus. We recognize and acknowledge his authority as Lord over all. We enter the kingdom of God and live under His rule as members of His household.
This doesn’t mean everything will be great, that’s God is going to instantly make right everything that’s been wrong. All we have to do is look around us to see that’s not true. But God will fill us with His Spirit, create in us a new heart, transform us from the inside out so that we have a new motivation for living as God wants us to live. This is what it means to be born again, because we are born into the kingdom of God. This is the good news. The kingdom of heaven is ours. The jailor found out the truth of this as he and his household believe, are baptized and are changed.
In this beatitude Jesus is declaring the good news that the kingdom of heaven is ours. We can live in this kingdom with full rights and privileges as God places us in right relationships with Himself through His own gracious acts of salvation. We can live as members of God’s own household, fulfilling those responsibilities, with God Himself giving us the ability to do this as He fills us with His own Spirit. There will be persecution as the kingdom of God advances against the kingdoms of darkness. But there is no power that can stand against the kingdom of God. It breaks into every place, breaks every chain, overcomes every form of opposition. God is advancing His kingdom through us, He is working through us. We are his hands and feet, his eyes and mouth as we work against the powers of darkness and do the things Jesus did in our own network of relationships, our own families, our communities, and around the world.
The story of Paul and Silas in prison is the story of God at work expanding His kingdom. God is not just looking out for his boys Paul and Silas. He’s working to bring freedom to the slave girl, bound by an evil spirit and used by her owners for their own selfish gain. He’s working to bring freedom to the jailor and his whole household and perhaps to many of the other prisoners as well. He’s working to bring light into the spiritual darkness of Philippi. At the end of the story God’s rule now extends over many more lives and will continue expanding as these believers now carry out the commission from Jesus to make disciples. This is the good news – the kingdom of heaven is ours.
I’ll invite the worship team to come up now as we transition to a time of prayer. Maybe you are like me and have a hard time with this persecution idea. Maybe you don’t like to think of the conflict and hard work and change that will need to happen if the kingdom of God is going to advance in your own life. But to quote Dr. Phil, how is it working for you outside the kingdom of God? Have you found yourself yet asking the question the jailor asked “How can I get out of this mess?” Whatever mess we find ourselves in, whatever enemies we find ourselves facing, the good news is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The answer is to face the fight because it is a fight between darkness and light. We have to make the decision that we will face the discomfort and pain of confronting the powers of darkness as we live under the rule and reign of Jesus in the kingdom of God.
Last week Chantelle spoke to us about peacemaking and reminded us that it wasn’t comfortable. It’s hard work and it creates its own conflicts. None of what Jesus is talking about in Matthew chapter 5 is sweet and peaceful and comfortable because he’s talking about the kingdom of God advancing against the kingdom of darkness and that creates conflict. Jesus says in Mt. 11:12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it.” There’s work involved in living in the kingdom of God. Are we ready to commit to the work that needs to be done in our own lives, our own families, our own communities and to face the conflict and pain that will be involved as the kingdom of God advances? As the worship team leads us in our closing song, if you are ready to see the kingdom of God advance in whatever situation you may be facing, then in this time of prayer and worship, make that commitment to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Ask for the power of God to come into your own life in a fresh way so that you can make your stand against the kingdom of darkness. If you’d like prayer, myself and others from the prayer team can be available here to pray with you as we worship.