“Joy Through the Fire”

“Joy Through the Fire”

Matthew 5:10-12

Robert Sandeman (1718-1771) was a Scottish Pastor who held to the view that only a mental understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners was enough to save a person’s soul.  In Sandeman’s words, “bare assent to the work of Christ is alone necessary.”  What Sanderman meant by these words is that so long as a person intellectually acknowledges that Jesus died for his/her sins, then that person can know for sure that he/she is forgiven of their sins and will one day be in heaven regardless of how that person feels about Jesus or how that person lives his/her life.  To say that belief in Jesus must also accompany a love for Jesus and a desire to follow him is make a person’s works a necessary part of their salvation.

Sandeman devoted his life to his church and the Bible after the untimely death of his wife, Catherine, who was also the daughter of his pastor, John Glas.  John Glas is attributed with the origins of “non-denominational Christianity.”  However, it was his son-in-law who had the greater voice in his world which allowed him to share the ideas of his father-in-law, and he developed a reputation for being more radical in his thinking than Glas.  Sandeman’s “easy believism” was eventually given a name and that name was “Sandemanianism”, but its more common name is “easy-believism” and among contemporary theologians, it is known as “Free Grace Theology.”  Some theologians such as John Wesley (an Arminian) and Andrew Fuller (a Calvinist) warned of the theological dangers that Sandemanianism would have on the Church.

Robert Sandeman brought his theology to America in 1763, which was just 22 years after Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which many attribute as the catalyst for the First Great Awakening.”  By the time of his arrival, Sandeman’s writings were already widely circulated, and his teachings found a home in many American churches.  Ezra Stiles, who befriended Sandeman, would eventually become the president of Yale University. He said of his friend, “I believe he has sown a seed in America which will up and grow, though I have no apprehension of any great ill effect.”[1] 

I believe Sandemanianism paved the way for an Evangelicalism that reduces faith in Jesus to a collection of facts about his life, death, and resurrection that are acknowledged as true with little regard to the how a person feels about Jesus or how that belief affects the lifestyle of that person.  Yet, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21–23)

What we have seen in the beatitudes so far is that the grace of God that saves a sinner affects not just the mind, but also the heart and the will of a person.  The poor in spirit are those who understand their sin problem.  Those who mourn grieve over their sin and the sins of the world.  The meek are those who know and feel that Jesus’ way is a better way and submit to it.  The evidence that a person has truly been born again is seen in their willingness to forgive, their desire for holiness, and intention in wanting others to be reconciled to God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Now we come to the eighth beatitude, which includes a bit of Jesus’ own commentary on what it means to be persecuted: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10–12).   

Who are the Persecuted?

Just after Jesus said that the “peacemaker” would be blessed, he promises that those who are persecuted will be blessed as well.  It is appropriate that this is the last of the beatitudes.  Just as the person who is genuinely poor in spirit, mourns over sin, and submits to the will of God out of his/her meekness will hunger and thirst for righteousness, so it is true that the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers will not be welcomed in a world that hated Jesus first.  Jesus is not saying that persecution is inevitable for the true Christian, but it is probable. 

In a recent poll conducted by Lifeway Research, of the 1,005 Americans surveyed, 59% believe that Christians are facing growing levels of persecution.  Of those surveyed, 36% believe Christians complain too much about how they are treated even though a number of these same people indicated that they believe tolerance in America for Christians is waning.  I do not think that Jesus had in mind the persecution that American Christians believe they are experiencing. 

The persecuted that Jesus says are blessed are the people who believe that Jesus offers a better way and lives his/her life accordingly.  The blessing is for the one persecuted because of their clear association with Jesus.  Think of the way that Jesus was treated by those around him.  Jesus said of his followers: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:24–25).  The Christian is guilty by association, for Jesus warned: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19).

The persecuted are those who have so aligned themselves with Jesus and the ethics of his kingdom that there is no question what kingdom he/she really belongs to.  A question each of us ought to ask ourselves is whether or not it is clear to those who know us and are watching us whose kingdom we really belong to. 

I am not talking about the person who tract-bombs everyone they meet, nor am I talking about the person who is always obnoxiously talking about Jesus.  I am talking about the type of person whose spiritual DNA has been so changed that he/she cannot imagine a life without Jesus.  This is the person whose hunger and thirst for righteousness is satisfied by Jesus in every way that a relationship with Jesus is a part of who that person is.    

Why are they Persecuted?

Jesus tells us that the reason why the persecuted Christian is persecuted is because of “righteousness’ sake.”  Another way to reword this verse is: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for hungering and thirsting after Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Because the Christian hungers and thirst for a righteousness only Jesus can satisfy, the life that you are living will metamorphosize into the life he wants for you.  Do you see how the Christian faith cannot just be reduced to some facts I believe about Jesus?  The Christian life is a relationship that will change the way you think, the way you feel, and the way you act. 

After Jesus fed the five thousand (John 6:1-15), the people who experienced that miracle wanted to see more so they followed Jesus to a place called Capernaum.  Jesus told the crowd that what they really needed was not another miracle, but something much greater and more satisfying; this is what Jesus said: “I am the bread of life; whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).  Jesus then elaborated on what he meant by this statement:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:48–51).

So, what does it mean to eat the bread of life?  Jesus answered that question:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53–56)

So, according to Jesus, to abide in him is to have eternal life.  The Roman Catholic Church believes that Jesus was talking about communion.  This is why they view communion as a “Holy Sacrament” where the bread and the wine supernaturally become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.  This is clearly not what Jesus is communicating in John 6.  What Jesus is saying here is that to believe in him is to love and follow him, and to love and follow him is to take up residence in him.  It is to have his life and teachings become such a part of what you take in, that his way shapes and directs your way. 

The persecuted who Jesus has in mind here is the person whose life mirrors the life of Christ in such a way that it offends or threatens those who call evil good and good evil (see Isa. 5:20).  The true Christian follows Jesus in such a way that he/she becomes the aroma of Christ to those being saved and at the same time the aroma of death to those who are perishing (see 2 Cor. 2:14-17).  The response of those who are reminded of death by your presences is to silence you, discredit you, or even kill you.

Christians from all over the world experience persecution.  Consider some of their stories from Voice of the Martyrs:

“Two Christian families were recently kicked out of their village due to their faith in Jesus Christ. Twice, the families were brought before the village council where, in the presence of police officers, government authorities and radical Hindu leaders, they were pushed to reconvert to Hinduism. When the families stood firm in their faith, village leaders banned them from the village.”

“Soulayman is a Fulani painter who came to faith in Christ through the witness of a missionary who had hired Soulayman. When his family discovered his newfound faith, they forced him to marry a Muslim woman to try to reconvert him. When a son was born to Soulayman, the family tried to force him to perform an Islamic ceremony on the boy. After Soulayman refused, the family sent his wife to attack him; she stabbed him with a knife. When Soulayman returned home from the hospital after receiving treatment for his wounds, his family wouldn’t let him see his children and attacked him again. Soulayman eventually escaped with his children and reached out to a local missionary who helped him find refuge with a local pastor.”

“Evodia, age 14, and her mother were captured in 2021 when Palma, a town in the Cabo Delgado province, was overrun by ISIS terrorists. Her attackers killed her brother in front of her because of their Christian faith; she was then tortured and forced to become a prostitute. She and her mother spent eight months living in the bush with their ISIS captors before escaping.”

To these Christians, Jesus promised: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

What Kind of Joy Can be Found for the Persecuted?

What kind of rejoicing can be experienced in the midst of persecution?  The kind of rejoicing that comes out of the confidence there is something far greater and more permanent than the worst that man can do to you.  It is a funny thing that we Americans can work with an eye on a retirement plan we will not experience for another 30, 40, 50 years; a retirement that may carry us another 10-30 years. 

Jesus promises us something much more exciting and more lasting than the best retirement plan this world can offer.  Your retirement plan will last only a season, but Jesus promises not only eternity in heaven, he promises the reward of all who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake is great. Just as he promised in the first beatitude, we are promised that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who belong to Him.  If you belong to Jesus, what can this world ever take from you?  What can anyone take from you?  Throughout his beatitudes, Jesus promises the Christian that anything that belongs to Him is ours.  What is ours?

  • Ours is the kingdom of heaven (v. 3).
  • Ours is the comfort of God (v. 4).
  • Ours is the inheritance of a new earth (v. 5).
  • Ours is the satisfaction of Christ (v. 6).
  • Ours is the mercy of God (v. 7).
  • Ours is the approval of God (v. 8).
  • Ours is the inheritance of God (v. 9)
  • Ours is that even in death, we still get Christ (v. 10-12).  

Oh, to be a Christian is so much more than head knowledge!  To be a Christian is to abide in Christ, to identify in Christ, and to be transformed by Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is powerfully transforming your mind, your emotions, and your will and reorienting your whole person to Jesus.  It is for this reason that the face of God now shines upon you, not because of what you have done, but because of everything Jesus has done, is doing, and will do on your behalf.  The beatitudes are about who you are in Jesus!  And who are you in Jesus?  Sometime ago, I wrote down 17 observations from the Bible of who the Bible says we are in Jesus:

  1. In Jesus, you are justified freely by His grace (Rom. 3:24)
  2. In Jesus, you are now God’s children (1 Peter 1:3)
  3. In Jesus, you are forgiven of all our sins (Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:14)
  4. In Jesus, you are loved by God Almighty (John 16:27)
  5. In Jesus, you belong to God (John 17:9)
  6. In Jesus, you will never be forsaken or abandoned by God (John 10)
  7. In Jesus, you are treasured by God (1 Peter 1-2)
  8. In Jesus, you are the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21)
  9. In Jesus, there is, for you, NO condemnation (Rom. 8:1)
  10. In Jesus, God is working all things together for your good (Rom. 8:28)
  11. In Jesus, you have obtained an inheritance that only God alone can give (Eph. 1:11)
  12. In Jesus, you are a new creation… the old is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17)
  13. In Jesus, you are sons and daughters of God (Gal. 4:6)
  14. In Jesus, you are no longer strangers or aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints (Eph. 2:19)
  15. In Jesus, you are members of the body of Christ (Eph. 3:6)
  16. In Jesus, you are set apart for the mission of God (Eph. 2:10)
  17. In Jesus, you are loved by an everlasting God (1 John 4:19)

The early church father Polycarp (AD 69-155) was discipled under the apostle John and spent a lifetime in faithful service to Jesus.  As an old man the authorities in Smyrna had come to his house to arrest him on high treason against Rome for being a Christian.  When he was brought before the proconsul, the authorities demanded that all he had to do was say “Caesar is lord” and they would let him live in freedom, to which Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Polycarp was sentenced to death before an angry crowd in a stadium for all to see.  When Polycarp’s crime was proclaimed to the crowd “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”  The crowd responded angrily: “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship.”  The crowd demanded that Polycarp be burned alive to which he replied, “It is necessary to be burned alive.”  Polycarp willingly was burned alive before thousands of people made up of both Jews and Greeks. 

What compelled and emboldened Polycarp in the hour of his death?  I think it was the reality of another city the true Christian longs for: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Like Polycarp, we belong to a different city, the one where we don’t just get heaven, but we get our greatest treasure – we get Jesus.  Amen.  

[1] https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/connecticut/sandeman.htm