Whatever form persecution may take, it is an inevitable part of the Christian experience. In this sermon on Paul’s confounding challenge to “bless those who persecute you,” Alistair Begg introduces us to one of the most difficult responsibilities of the Christian life: meeting our enemies’ hatred with godly love. We are called, he reminds us, not to be liked by the world, but to live lives of uncompromised holiness—even if the world hates us for it.
Our reading in the New Testament this morning comes from the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel—Luke chapter 6. And we’re reading this in order to help us with our text for this morning, which will come from Romans chapter 12. The reading in the church Bibles is on page 729. And we’re going to begin reading at verse 17:
“He”—that is, Jesus—“went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
“Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
“‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
“‘But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who [ill treat] you.’”
And then he goes on in the rest of the sermon.
From there we turn to Romans chapter 12, which is around 803 or 804 or something in the church Bibles, and to our text for this morning, which is the fourteenth verse: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
And just pause and ask for God’s help:
Gracious God, Sunday by Sunday and day by day, we look away from ourselves to you for the help that we require in understanding and believing and obeying your Word. And so we seek you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, our text this morning is brief, isn’t it? It’s just ten words, I think; I counted them—in English at least: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
It may be brief, but it packs a powerful punch. It is one of the verses that we have occasion to reference when somebody comes to us saying, “You know, I have a problem with this particular verse in the Bible. I’m not sure I understand what it means.” It happens all the time, and anyone who reads the Bible recognizes it. And so when people come to me with a knotty problem like that—that is, “knotty,” beginning with a k, not “naughty” beginning with an n—and when they confront me with that, it is not uncommon for me—because I may find it just as difficult as do they—for me to make the observation that the portions of Scripture I have the biggest trouble with are not the portions or sections of the Bible that I don’t understand, but rather they are the portions or verses of the Bible that I do understand.
And the difficulty that is contained in Romans 12:14 is not a difficulty on account of the complexity of the language. It’s not a difficulty in relationship to understanding what is being called for. But it is a difficulty that attaches to the very fact that it calls us to do something which, by nature, we do not do. It calls for us to do that which demands supernatural power to be able to put it into practice.
And I’m not alone in suggesting that this is difficult. As I read during the week, there were various individuals from the past who were prepared to identify this same fact for their congregations in their days. Barnes, the New Testament commentator, says, “This is one of the most severe and difficult duties [asked of] the Christian.” What is it? “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” John Murray says, “No practical exhortation places greater demands upon our spirits than to bless them that persecute us.” Now, that is well said, isn’t it?
So what I want to do, in seeking to come to terms with the challenge of this verse, is to look at it from three angles, as it were: first of all, to face up to the fact of persecution; secondly, to recognize what we are not to ask God for; and then thirdly, to recognize what we are to ask God for.
So first of all, then, facing up to the fact of persecution. For some of us, if we’re honest, this is an immediate difficulty for us. There is a far more difficult difficulty contained in the challenge, but because of the way some of us have imbibed a form of Christianity, the idea of persecution itself is absolutely alien to our thinking. It’s not unique to our generation. People have wrestled with this, particularly in Western culture, throughout all the years. So you can find the hymn writer asking the question, probably in the ’30s or ’40s, “Shall I be transported to the skies on flowery beds of ease?” In other words, is this Christian life sort of a deal where you fall back into a large, fluffy armchair, and eventually somebody just guides you tranquilly into the presence of God in heaven?
No, it’s not. Really, in the words of the old country-western song, rather Jesus is saying, “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes.” And that rain may come in torrents at times, it may come in an unexpected fashion to unsettle us, and so on. But facing the fact of persecution is something that we have to come to terms with.
Now, the reason that we do is because this is what the Bible teaches. And I want to give you one or two references—we’re not going to expound each of these references, but in order for us to make sure that we do not immediately go wrong. Because some of us have a form of Christianity—let’s be honest—that we’ve been selling to people, and it doesn’t work: “If you will become a Christian, all your difficulties go. You’ll find that everybody absolutely likes you. It’s a tremendous journey.” You know, “Why don’t you step up and join the circus?” as it were.
And the people join up in the circus, and the first thing, the elephants dump right in front of them, and they said, “I didn’t realize this would be such a stinky proposition.”
Said, “Well, actually, we have people to take care of that. If you’ll just hold on a little longer, it gets better as you go.”
And then someone lets a tiger out the cage, and bites one of their hands off. And said, “Well, I didn’t expect that either.”
So we’re either going to allow the Scriptures to describe for us the nature of saving faith and the journey of discipleship, or we’re going to invent one of our own . To the extent that we’ve allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea that Christianity is something other than it is, then when we come up against this, we do not have a file for this. And therefore, for some of us, we just need to start here.
So, for example, Jesus’ words. John 16:33, Jesus says, “In the world, you will have tribulation.” “In the world, you will have tribulation.” Not “you might have it,” but “you will have it.” “It’s not gonna be possible for you,” he says, “to live for me without facing tribulation.” All that that means is worked out as we follow the line of Christ’s life and as we follow the apostolic ministry. Jesus, of course, goes on to say, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,” but that overcoming of sin and the devil and death does not mitigate in our time line the reality of tribulation.
When Paul writes to Timothy, as a young pastor in the first centuries, he writes to encourage him to make sure that he doesn’t find himself unsettled by the challenges that he faces. And so he writes to Timothy—2 Timothy 3:12—“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will [suffer persecution].” All right? He doesn’t say, “Everyone who goes to church will suffer persecution, everyone who’s interested in spirituality will suffer persecution, everyone who displays a kind of religious lifestyle will suffer persecution,” because, clearly, they don’t. We don’t. Many of these things are passé in our generation. No, the phraseology is important: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Why? Because a godly life in Christ Jesus points up the ungodly nature of those who dwell in the paths of wickedness .
Let me cross-reference this, actually, in 1 Peter, because I think this will bring it home. This is not one of my planned verses, but it’s still fine. And many of you can identify with this. Those of us who have been brought up in a Christian home, those of us who have been saved from a lot of stuff, right? The grace of God has saved us from stuff. We haven’t been all these places; we haven’t done all these things. Some of you have not been saved from it, you’ve been saved out of it. And so, when you read 1 Peter chapter 4, it rings your bell. First Peter 4:3: “You have spent enough time”—notice—“in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” “That,” says Peter to his readers, “that was your life. That was where you spent your time. Those were the things that you did. And as a result of the fact that you have been born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”—which is how he begins his letter back in chapter 1—“as a result of the fact that you have been completely transformed,” look at verse 4: “they”—that is, your old buddies, the pagan environment—“they think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation”—and notice the phrase—“and they heap abuse on you.” “They heap abuse on you. They persecute you.” Why? Because their consciences are awakened by the change in the life of the individual who is committed, now, to living a godly life in Christ Jesus. It is the godly life in Christ Jesus which brings the abuse, the punishment, the persecution.
And that, incidentally, is one of the ways in which we are able to determine just to what extent we are committed to living a godly life in Christ Jesus. “Because,” says Paul to Timothy, “one of the ways that you will know is not because it is going swimmingly well, but you will know because people will actually begin to abuse you, to persecute you, to say all manner of evil against you, falsely, because of your relationship with Jesus.” The persecution that is described here in the New Testament is not a persecution that comes about as a result of the Christians doing bad things. It is a persecution that comes about as a result of the Christian doing good things. Again, Peter, he says, “[so that you have lived] such good lives”—“such good lives”—“among the pagans.” It is the good life! “Well, who do you think you are? Are you too great, you too special, to come to the to the Crazy Horse? What’s up with you? Who do you think you are?”
“What do you mean we can’t fudge this thing? We’ve been doing business together for fifteen years. It’s not this Jesus thing that’s kicking in, is it? You’ve been my partner for all this time. We’ve always done this. We always do this prospectively for April 15. What’s gone wrong now?”
“We always sat around and gossiped about all these women. It’s no fun anymore with you. There’s something wrong with you. You used to really enjoy this.”
“So,” says Peter—so you got John 16, you got 2 Timothy 3, you got 1 Peter 4—he says to his readers, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Now, you see, this is where the challenge comes living in twenty-first-century Western culture, isn’t it? Our friends in Egypt today, our brothers and sisters in Iraq, the people in Bahrain, those who are following Christ in many of the countries of the world, do not view this exhortation as some kind of theoretical, mathematical proposition. But it actually comes home right to where they live their lives. It confronts them with a challenge that appears almost insurmountable. And when we read the apostles, we realize that they’re not asking those who are reading their letters to face up to something that they themselves are not facing.
Let me give you one other, and this will be my last one, under the heading of “We Need to Face Up to Persecution”: 1 Corinthians chapter 4, and Paul is writing somewhat ironically to the Christians. And they are boasting in their well-being, and in their well-doing, and so on, and he addresses this, in around verse 8: “Already you have all you want!” He says, “Really? Already you’ve become rich! You’ve become kings. Wow! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! Because that seems so different from what we’re experiencing,” he says, because God has apparently put “[the] apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.” And what he was doing was, he was taking a picture there from the triumph, from the victories of warfare, where the triumphant soldier, whoever it would be—Caesar or any of the rest of them—would come back into the city in this great procession. And at the end of the procession would come all of these individuals who were chained, who were the spoils of the victory in war. And the people saw them coming, and they came at the end of the procession, and they were being prepared for the Colosseum. That was what was going to end up being their destiny. Paul says, “That’s what we’re like.”
And then he puts it as follows, verse 11: “To this very hour”—“if you want an up-to-minute report,” he says—“to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, [we’re] in rags, [we’re] brutally treated, [we’re] homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”
It doesn’t have the same ring, does it, as—again—an American version of Christianity? Do you know what the problem is? We live with the illusion that Christianity is establishment. It’s establishment. You know, it’s kind of the status quo. But Christianity always, everywhere, for all time, is countercultural. It’s countercultural.
I mean, even at its best—even after three centuries of persecution, when Constantine becomes a Christian, and suddenly, it becomes for a while establishment—it very quickly becomes apparent that the idea of baptizing the legal, judicial, political system into the economy of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus just does not work, will not work, cannot work, should not work.
And I have now been here for over a quarter of a century, and despite the fact that I have said this for over a quarter of a century to the listening ears of many, many of you are still absolutely transfixed with the idea that “just around the corner, we’re gonna get it establishment again; we’ll get it back to the way it originally was.” Like what? Like the deism of Benjamin Franklin? What do you want to get it back to? There is no back. There is only now, and there is only forward. And all who face the challenge of an alien world, living in obedience to Christ the controversialist, will suffer persecution.
Now, clearly, there are degrees of persecution. Some, as I’ve said, of our brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout history have endured persecution that is blatant, physical, cruel, and ends in death. In the providence of God, as yet, most of us, because of our background and the places in which we have been brought up, have not faced that kind of persecution. But in Christ we face persecution—persecution that is subtle, that is intellectual, that is emotional. It’s no less persecution. It comes often most painfully from those whom we admire, love, live with—from those who, in our daily routine, are examples to us, perhaps in the realm of the academy, or in business, or whatever it might be.
And it goes something like this. There you are in a room with four or five of your colleagues, and somebody mentions something that has emerged from the newspaper. And you, being transformed by the renewing of your mind, have begun to view this from an entirely different perspective from what is representative in your office. You volunteer a perspective on this that is from a Christian worldview. Your friends smile benignly at you and wait for the door to close. As you’re closing the door, you see just the strangest smirk coming over the face of one, and it’s beginning to ring around the room. And if you were to put your ear to the door, you might hear them say, “You know, he’s such an idiot. He’s a nice guy, but when he starts this Christian stuff, he drives me nuts.” “She’s a good nurse, but she just can’t let go of this Christian stuff.”
And the subtlety of that intellectual and emotional persecution is painful. Neighborhoods, groups of individuals, whose thinking is entirely framed from a secular perspective, are opposed to who you are and to what you believe. And you need to know that. Because otherwise you may determine that the key to your effectiveness as a Christian is found in being liked by everyone, being approved by everyone, being accepted by everyone. And this will be the standard by which we will determine whether we’re making a go of this Christian life. We read this verse, and we come up against the fact that the very reverse is the case. That’s what I say to you—that’s why it makes it so difficult.
Now, why is it? Why the opposition? Why the persecution? We already know because of our studies in Romans chapter 8. Because when we read Romans 8:7, we came across the fact that “the mind of [the] sinful man … the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” It’s very important that we understand this. Because we say, “Why are people so opposed to this? Why do all the other people get a pass? Why can you be in there explaining the virtues of yoga? Why can you be in there telling people the amazing discoveries that you’ve made in Zen Buddhism? And people go, ‘Oh, that’s fascinating. We should perhaps have a coffee and talk about that.’” Or you can tell them that the notions of reincarnation that you’ve been imbibing from reading Hindu books, without realizing you’ve been reading Hindu books, and people say, “Bring me more of this. Tell me more of this stuff!” Why is it that if you actually say, “Jesus Christ, incarnate God, Savior of the world, and my Savior,” they’re like, “Come on!”? Why is that? Answer in Romans 8: their minds are “hostile to God”—“hostile to God.” They’re opposed. Opposed! And therefore, if you are a child of God, they’re opposed to you. Because if you’re going to uphold God’s truth, if you’re going to live by God’s righteous decrees, if you’re gonna proclaim what he says, then you’re gonna be faced with animosity. And not on account—again, I say to you—of wrongdoing, but on account of well-doing.
Okay. I’ve spent a long time on that. Oh, golly, it’s quarter to eleven. When did we start? Quarter to ten? Well, we’re pretty well done then, aren’t we? This is getting worse instead of better. At least I got through two points in the first service.
Well, let me just give you the second point, and we’ll come back to it later on this evening, because this is absolutely vital. Okay. So we gotta face the fact of persecution, and some of us have to do some thinking in order to get there. And then, secondly, we need to realize that we are not to call for the destruction of our persecutors. All right? We’re not to call for the destruction of our persecutors. “Bless those who persecute you.” That’s positive. “Bless and do not curse.” That’s negative. So it’s covered both negatively and positively. It tells us what we’re not to ask for and what we are to ask for.
What are we not to ask for? We’re not to ask for our persecutors to be destroyed. Now that is where the rub comes. Because by nature, we are retaliators. By nature, we wanna do the person down. And in this, we’re not unique. Remember when the disciples come back—it’s recorded in Luke chapter 9—they come back to tell Jesus… They’d been out on a bit of a missionary endeavor; hadn’t gone particularly well. They come back and said, “You know, the folks are not really responding so much to the message, Jesus.” And then they asked him this question: “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them? Shall we just torch the place? I mean, seems like a good idea, Jesus. You sent us out, they’re not buying it. Burn ’em, that’s what I say!”
Now, the reason we can laugh is because it’s such a close call, isn’t it? It’s because we recognize that in ourselves. “These people, God, are so opposed; they’re so anti. Everything is disruptive. The federal government is going to endorse that which is so blatantly opposed to your truth in relationship to marriage and the family and so many things. Why do we have to be like western Europe? Why do we have to follow the lousy British in relationship to these things? And what do you think we should do with these people, Lord? They’re persecuting us. These are our freedoms. These are our convictions. These are the things that we hold dear. Shall we call down fire from heaven and destroy them?”
Now, the reason we understand this is because it is natural to retaliate—to say, “God damn you for what you are doing, what you are saying, how you are living, what you are suggesting.” That is to curse. The curse of God is destruction; the curse of God is to destroy. And by nature, our response is just that. We’re going to say of these people, “This is what you deserve.” It’s instinctive for us to want to see the persecutor suffer—to want to see the persecutor pay. Because, after all, isn’t that justice?
Many of you have been reading Unbroken. It was recommended to me by Pastor Kennedy, and I read it a week ago, to my great benefit. And if you’ve read it, then you’ll know about this particular character here who gave the man Louis Zamperini… to call it a difficult time is somewhat of an understatement. And this is the beginning of a letter that he writes to the “the Bird”:
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.
Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.
The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble.
If you haven’t read the book and you don’t know where the rest of that letter goes, come this evening; I will complete the letter for you. But it is the natural reaction: “You did this to me. Justice says that if justice is to be served, you need to get it as well.” And that thought you need to hold in your mind until we come back. “Justice needs to be served. Therefore, you persecute, you get persecuted. You curse, you get cursed.”
Question to take away with you: What if God had responded in that way to you? What if God had responded in that way to me? What if we could not sing,
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.
“Do you want us to call down fire on those wretches, Jesus? What do you want us to do here, Jesus?”
“This is what I want you to do: bless those who persecute you; bless them and don’t curse them.”
Well then, what does it mean to bless them? To that we can return this evening.
Gracious God, for your Word, the Bible, we humbly give you our thanks. Look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Help us to become students of the Bible. Help us to think carefully, to care deeply, and to respond properly. Some of us are going to have to give up the sinister enjoyment that we have made our own, not by actually physically retaliating but by enjoying thinking vindictively, by making ourselves feel better and appear better as a result of making others appear worse. And so we pray that you will help us, even in the hours of this day, to think, and as we return this evening to study, that you will make us individuals and a church family that is shaped by grace, shaped by mercy, shaped like Jesus Christ.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Albert Barnes, Notes Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistle to the Romans, Romans 12:14.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (1965; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 2:134.
 Isaac Watts, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (1724). Paraphrased.
 Joe South, “Rose Garden” (1968).
 John 16:33 (paraphrased).
 John 16:33 (KJV).
 1 Peter 4:3 (NIV 1984; emphasis added).
 1 Peter 4:2 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 2:12 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 4:12 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 4:8 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 4:9 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 4:11–13 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 8:6–8 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 9:51–56 (paraphrased).
 Louis Zamperini, letter to Mutsuhiro Watanabe, in Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken (New York: Random House, 2014), 404–5.
 Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (1995).