Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:10
The world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing yesterday. What most people didn’t understand at the time was that Apollo 11 was far more dangerous than we knew.
As Eagle neared its landing site on the moon, Neil Armstrong realized that the onboard computer would land the module in a boulder-strewn area, so he took control of the vehicle. He found a clear patch of ground and maneuvered the spacecraft towards it. However, as he approached the area, he saw that it had a crater in it.
Armstrong found another patch of level ground. By this time, Eagle had only ninety seconds of propellant remaining. Lunar dust kicked up by the module’s engine impaired his ability to determine the spacecraft’s motion, so he navigated by large rocks jutting out of the dust cloud.
Finally, on July 20, 1969, at 3:17 p.m. EST, Eagle landed on the moon.
The narrowly-averted landing crisis was not the only challenge Apollo 11 faced. Mission Control in Houston repeatedly lost radio communication with Eagle on its approach to the moon. An intermittent alarm code nearly caused the landing to be aborted.
After Eagle landed, a plug of ice blocked a fuel line, leading flight controllers to consider aborting the moon walk (heat from the module’s engine then melted the ice). As Armstrong descended from Eagle to the moon’s surface, his spacesuit broke an arming switch which he repaired with a ballpoint pen.
If Armstrong or Aldrin had fallen during their moon walk, a tear in their spacesuit would have caused the suit to deflate instantly. The astronaut would then die, on television, in front of the world.
Astronaut Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, privately estimated the trio’s chance of surviving the mission to be fifty-fifty.
But as Flight Director Gene Kranz said later, “What America will dare, America will do.”
A call to courage
Our text today is the eighth beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). In other words, it takes courage to change the world for Christ.
Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, according to a recent report. While 30 percent of the world’s population identifies as Christian, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination around the world are directed at Christians. One scholar estimates that 90 percent of all people killed on the basis of their religious beliefs are Christians.
According to Jesus, we should not be surprised when we face opposition for our faith. Those who hate our Father will hate his children.
This is just as true in America as it is anywhere else in the world. When atheist Sam Harris claims that “science must destroy religion,” he speaks for many who claim that religion is not just irrelevant but dangerous.
How should we respond when we are attacked for our faith? How can God redeem such attacks by using them to help us change the culture today?
Jesus’ beatitude can be literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and now are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his followers would suffer for their commitment to him. And they did.
Before he was crucified upside down, the apostle Peter wrote: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12–13).
Jesus warned his disciples, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23).
Persecution has remained a fact accompanying the Christian faith across all the centuries from their day to ours.
Seventy million believers have been murdered across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Jesus. More believers were martyred in the twentieth century than the previous nineteen combined.
Six centuries ago, Thomas a Kempis observed, “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead, therefore cease not to prepare thyself for the battle, for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.” He is still right.
Choose to be courageous
So, here’s the relevant question today: why be courageous for Christ? Why do what we know the culture will oppose, whether it’s telling skeptics that we love our Lord or standing for biblical truth in a post-Christian culture?
First, suffering believers experience great joy.
According to Jesus, those who suffer for their faith will be “blessed”—the word refers to joy transcending our circumstances. Jesus told risk-taking Christians to “rejoice.” There is joy in facing persecution for Jesus.
He also told us to “be glad,” words which translate a Greek term which means to leap much with irrepressible joy.
He was right. There is great joy in suffering for Christ. The apostles felt it: “When [the authorities] had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:40–41).
Early martyrs felt it. There is an ancient tradition which states that Nero would walk at night on the Coliseum floor, examining the bodies of slain Christians left there. And wherever a body had a face, the face was smiling.
Justin, one of the earliest martyrs, wrote to his accusers: “You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us.”
Second, suffering believers receive great reward.
Paul was sure of it: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). Martyr Jim Elliott wrote in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Revelation promises those who suffer for Christ: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:16–17).
Third, suffering believers join a great fraternity.
“In the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The book of Hebrews described those who suffered for serving the one true God:
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:35–38).
Every disciple but John was martyred, and John was exiled and imprisoned. Seventy million Christians have died since for following Jesus. When we suffer for Christ, we join a great fraternity in the faith.
Last, suffering believers inherit a great kingdom.
“Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first beatitude made this promise; the last repeats it. When we suffer for Christ, we prove that he is our king. And then we join him in his kingdom.
2 Timothy 2:12 promises: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Revelation 20 describes those who stood faithful to Christ in the face of extreme persecution: “They came to life and reigned with Christ” (v. 4).
We will suffer for a short while and then reign with Jesus in his kingdom forever.
Sadhu Sundar Singh was one of India’s most famous Christians. He lived from 1889 to 1929, enduring extreme persecution for his courageous faith.
His own family tried to poison him when he became a Christian. He was stoned and arrested numerous times, roped to a tree as bait for wild animals, and sewn into a wet animal skin and left to be crushed to death as it shrank in the hot sun. He disappeared while on a missionary journey. Indian Christians consider him their Francis of Assisi.
Here’s the statement by Sandu Sundar Singh which drew me to him: “From my many years’ experience I can unhesitatingly say that the cross bears those who bear the cross.”
Will you bear yours?