Matthew 5:10-12: Is Jesus Worth It?

Matthew 5:10-12 says the following: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NRSV).

One can ask various questions about this passage. Are Christians in America truly persecuted, since this is the land of the free? When are we legitimately persecuted for our beliefs, and when do we bring unnecessary persecution on ourselves (e.g., by being obnoxious)?

I’m not really going to touch on those questions today, as good as they may be. My intention when I write about my daily quiet time is not to offer an encyclopedic explanation of a given passage, but rather to discuss what was important to me in my time with God. And it is different at different times, since I am different at different times.

The main question that entered my mind is another query that Christians often raise about this passage: Would I (James Pate) be willing to suffer and die for Christ? Suppose I lived in an Islamic country, where people have to choose between renouncing Jesus Christ and death. Would I renounce the name of Christ to save my own skin? If I lived in Communist China, would I embrace the inconvenience that comes with being a member of a church? Is Jesus worth all of that?

I first became a Christian in my sophomore year of high school. If you would have asked me at that time if I were willing to die for Christ, I would have given you an unequivocal “yes.” I discussed this with one Christian classmate of mine, and she told me that, in her youth group, the leader asked its members what they would do if someone burst into the meeting, pointed a gun at them, and told them to renounce Jesus Christ. And this was long before that horrible incident at Columbine.

In my early Christian days, I read books such as Ellen G. White’s The Great Controversy and the famous Fox’s Book of Martyrs, books that were mainly about the Catholic persecution of the Protestants. I said to myself, “Suppose I were them? Would I die for my faith? I believe that I would. Looks like I’m a real Christian, after all!”

But if you asked me that question today, I’m not sure what I would answer. In order to die for Jesus Christ, I need to love Jesus Christ. And my feelings about him and Christianity are rather mixed. I like the idea that he died for me, since that demonstrates a lot of love on his part. But, in the Gospels, he seems to attach so many conditions onto salvation that I wonder if I can ever be secure. I can’t hate? I can’t lust? Granted, these are thoughts that are not exactly healthy, but I’m only human. And God will forgive me only if I forgive others? What is forgiveness? Does it mean I have to be friends with my enemies? After all, when God forgave me, he became my friend. Will he keep being my friend only if I feel good about people I don’t like?

And it was much harder for Christians in New Testament times, let me tell you. In America, there are lots of Christians, so becoming a Christian usually doesn’t lead to being kicked out of one’s family or community. In New Testament times, however, faith in Christ divided Jewish families. The Roman authorities persecuted Christians. I once read that Christians in the Roman empire were like Communists in 1950’s America, in terms of society’s perception of them: they were that stigmatized.

Suppose someone pointed a gun at my head and said, “Renounce Jesus or die.” On the one hand, I can see myself saying, “Go ahead. Pull the trigger!” That’s not so much because I love Jesus as I should, but more because this life can be pretty hard. Plus, if I die as a martyr, maybe I’ll enter the good afterlife and avoid the bad one (h-e-double hockey sticks). But, then again, I Corinthians 13 says that martyrdom doesn’t count if a person lacks love, so oh well. Nobody’s perfect, even though Jesus tells us to be (Matthew 5:48).

On the other hand, I have such resentment against Christianity that I can envision myself saying to myself, “Christianity is not worth dying over.” Add to that my doubts. There are times when I wonder why I should believe that Christianity is true while all other religions are false. I mean, what proof do we actually have? Sure, Christianity has merit because it can help someone become a better person, but so can other belief systems. Is belief in Christ important, or is just being a good person enough? If I cannot even be sure that Christianity is true, then why should I die for it?

My thoughts in my last paragraph scared me when I was doing my daily quiet time, for I felt like I was entering dangerous territory. But they are important because they lead me to a crucial question: Is Christ worth it, and, if so, why?

I have three musings on this:

1. Polycarp was the Christian bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the John the apostle. He became a martyr in the second century C.E. When the Romans asked him to renounce Christ, he replied, “Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9:12).

That reminds me of certain passages from the Hebrew Bible. “You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense” (Isaiah 43:23). “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3).

For Polycarp, Second Isaiah, and Micah, following God is not a burden, for God is not a slavemaster. I can add some New Testament passages to that effect.

Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I John 5:3: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Unfortunately, I do view God’s commandments as burdensome, for I find loving others to be extremely difficult. If God were to ask me, “How have I wearied you?” I can come up with a list. But, at the same time, these texts do provide me with a certain degree of comfort, for they tell me that things are not supposed to be this way. God is not a slavemaster. His commands are not a burden. So maybe I’m seeing the situation all wrong.

2. I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting this last Wednesday, and it was a good meeting. All sorts of people were in the same room, offering each other their strength, hope, and wisdom. They talked about how AA has helped them get their lives back together, as they learned to love others, have good relationships, be responsible, and depend on God amidst life’s difficulties. At the end of the meeting, everyone joined hands for the Lord’s prayer. They were blacks, whites, and Asians, well-dressed professionals and people who were probably homeless. Yet they were drawn together by a common spiritual bond.

These people had a deep sense of gratitude to God and to AA. And that may be how Christians are to view Jesus. Jesus is someone who has changed people’s lives for the better. As a gentle teacher and Savior, he has taken them from their old, self-centered lives into lives of hope, love, and purpose. In the first century and thereafter, he brought together diverse kinds of people–rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, slave, and free–into a divine family of brothers and sisters. Is Jesus worth persecution and death? When we consider his values, and compare them to the self-centered immorality of most of society, then the answer is “yes.” Many early Christians died for their belief that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t, and they were right to do so. Jesus is a just, loving, and merciful king, while Caesar was a brutal dictator. To testify with one’s life that this is true is a worthwhile endeavor.

3. But not every Christian feels this way about Jesus, and so Jesus is not above using warnings to influence our behavior. Matthew 10:28-33 is an example of such:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Jesus warns Christians that he can cast them into hell. That is incentive enough to die for him if one must choose between Jesus and this temporal life. Of course, Jesus doesn’t want us to see God as a big ogre, since he assures us that we are of more value to him than many sparrows. But he does not hesitate to give us warnings.

So is Jesus worthy of persecution and death? Well, there’s a possibility that he may be the Son of God, so I don’t want to take the chance of crossing him!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Alcoholism, Bible, Daily Quiet Time, Matthew, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Matthew 5:10-12: Is Jesus Worth It?

  1. Nathan K. says:

    Once again, I find that your thought process is similar to mine in some ways– at times, I have also wondered to myself what I would do if faced with severe persecution or death because of my belief in Jesus.

    Honestly, I don’t worry about it now as much as I used to. I believe that, if God calls me to serve Him by suffering persecution or by being a martyr, He will give me the strength I need to do His will. Just as I believe that, if it’s His will, God will give me the strength to live as a witness for Him one day at a time, even when I don’t feel strong or confident.

    Because the fact is, it’s not about my ability to be brave or pious; there’s nothing I bring to the table that isn’t a gift from God anyway.

    Look at the people Jesus chose as disciples. Did he choose them because of their inherent boldness and worthiness? The gospels tell us that they were at times bewildered by what Jesus was trying to tell them, and that they ran away when Jesus was taken away to be killed. In the book of Acts the apostles speak with great boldness and endure great persecution, but the change is not due to them but due to God (specifically, the Holy Spirit).

    Your self-examination of your motives and beliefs in this passage, just like mine, quite rightly reveals weakness. As you point out, even if you or I were to become a martyr, 1 Corinthians says it’s possible to do this for the wrong reason! Coming up later in Matthew is a passage where Jesus describes people doing things like winning many converts and casting out demons, yet still trusting falsely in these things to justify them.

    I believe that it is only by focusing on Christ, trusting in his worthiness despite knowing my own unworthiness, that I can find strength rather than weakness.

    I really appreciated your observation in point #1 and the quote from Polycarp. There are times when feel like I don’t know if God is on my side or against me, and truths and passages like that give me something to cling to. Looking back on my life, I have a lot to thank God for, and he has taken even things that I thought were bad and turned them into blessings.

    I don’t quite agree with your interpretation of Matthew 10:28-33, even though I have been scared by it similarly to you. 🙂 If you look at that chapter, Jesus is sending the twelve out to testify about Him and is giving them a lot of instructions to prepare them for what they will face. And that includes ridicule, rejection, and possibly persecution.

    I think it’s easy to read that passage and get a message of fear, because God quite rightly is fearsome– it is God’s wrath that sends people to hell. But I really think that the main thrust of it is DO NOT FEAR! Jesus is saying that when the disciples are ridiculed or persecuted for speaking the truth, they should not fear what men can do to them, because compared to God, men can do little damage (they can only hurt the body).

    And what of this fearsome God? He knows them completely– every hair on their head, and He who cares about every sparrow values each of them much more than a sparrow. It’s not that God is not fearsome, but I believe that if you are in Christ, then He is with you– as Romans says, “If God is for us, who is against us?”

    There is instruction here for us, too, because we need to understand how serious denial of Christ is, and not be pressured to fear men more than God. And, of course, there are probably a thousand small and big ways I have denied him by my words, actions, or thoughts.

    But I find it interesting that Peter directly broke Jesus’ instruction here– he denied Jesus before men, three times, in fact– and yet still found forgiveness from Jesus himself.

    I believe that Jesus still does the same for me, time after time. And that’s why he’s worth it.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Nathan! Thanks for your comments. I like your interpretation of Matthew 10:28-33. Actually, I like it when someone takes a passage that I see negatively and shows how it can have a positive message. I’ll probably benefit from you a lot in this as I blog through Matthew, because there are a lot of times when I feel Matthew is presenting a salvation by works–If you don’t do such and such, or if you are doing such and such, you won’t enter the kingdom.

    I also like your point on denying Jesus–how he said that he’d deny those who deny him, yet he still accepted Peter. Personally, I think that the narrative/stories part of the Bible take human frailty more into consideration. When I read Jesus’ teachings, it’s like “Be perfect,” but, when I read the stories, I see him meeting us in our imperfection.

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  3. FT says:

    James,

    I have felt and thought this way: a Greco-Roman stoic view (and may I add a bit of gnostic,in which Catholics and Protestants are influenced by) of Christianity makes the journey incredibly masochistic burdensome and extremely difficult. Christianity taken in it’s Hebraic context makes the Christian journey a whole lot saner and a lighter burden. Just my opinion. 🙂

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  4. James Pate says:

    Hey there, Felix!

    Yeah, I’d be interested in hearing more on that. Have you written any posts on that topic?

    I was actually thinking about this issue this last week. I was reading the passage in Matthew in which Jesus says we shouldn’t lust, and I thought, “Were there others at that time who felt this way?” And the answer is yes. Gnostics and Stoics were down on the flesh–they saw sexual desire as something degrading that inhibits the soul from contemplating other things. Judaism also has passages against lust, but it also seems to have a more positive view on sexual desire. For example, Jesus said that people in the resurrection will not marry, but there are Jewish passages that depict sex still going on after the resurrection.

    I know I’m rambling here, but those are some thoughts.

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  5. FT says:

    FT,

    I haven’t yet. I would like if I had the time to do a series about answering the objections to the hebriac roots of Christianity (which can be a touchy subject for some ex-Worldwiders, ask Doug Ward).

    I do not believe for a moment Jesus was banning wholesale sexual desire. A very touchy verse for me but I believe to interpret it that way hyperliterally makes Jesus simply cruel and inhuman. It can be argued that his statement was hyperbole(a type of figurative language to strike a strong point) and it is also argued that he was borrowing a statement from a Talmudic statement which read, “One who gazes lustfully upon the small finger of a married woman, it as he has committed adultery with her.” Kallah, Ch.1.

    You are right that Judaism was waaay more sex positive than Christianity. I blame it on the fact when the church had more a gentile (Greco-Roman) influence, the church fathers (who were of that background) made a tragic mistake of throwing “the baby out of the bathwater” when it came to Judaic thought and practice saying it was “all judaizing and must be avoided at all costs and damn anybody who dissents from our efforts—even a little bit!” From then on, you had anti-women misogynists from St.Jerome and anti-sex Augustine for over two centuries. Sadly, two centuries were wasted because of Stoic-Gnostic dualistic thought that crept into what what we call Christianity.

    I know what I have said is touchy for some and I conclude with this acronym IMHO (in my humble opinion). 🙂

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  6. James Pate says:

    Hi Felix. There are ex-Worldwiders who have a problem with the Jewish roots of Christianity? Does that refer to the ex-Worldwiders who became neo-Nazis (one group I read about in Ambassador Report)? Or is it rather people like Fred Coulter, who says that Hannukkah is pagan?

    Thanks for the Talmudic reference. I think E.W. Bullinger may have said that the lust passage refers to married women as the object. That’s probably where he got that.

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  7. FT says:

    Hi again James!

    It’s a late here but I will explain. Back in ’95 in Worldwide when New Covenant Theology was introduced (or forced depending on your point of view) there were those who embraced NCT that got very overzealous, didn’t care to listen to any alternative view (because any other view is Armstrongism, Judaizing or both) and in turn,led a Theo-McCarthyite attitude toward anyone or anybody who could not accept this new revelation. Nobody can tell them that there are many other ways to interpret the biblical law in Christianity and a link to wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_law_in_Christianity verifies that fact whether they like it or not. NCT is by no means the problem, even the late Dr.Charles Dorothy believed in NCT and refused to see a tension between Holy Day observance and the theology he believed in. The problem is when one picks one view, make it a litmus test for orthodoxy and belittle, berate and/or punish others for failing to embrace it. It is simply no different from evangelicals who embrace the Anselmist penal substitution view and declare that this is only way to interpret the sacrifice of Christ and that to interpret it anyother way borders on heresy or is actual heresy (forget the fact that the Christus Victor theory was the original view in the early church until 1100—or the moral influence theory, whuch I will admit this is equally problematic as Anselmite penal substitution). Those who criticize those embracing the Jewish roots of Christianity usually are criticizing what they don’t understand and that kind of reasoning (or non-reasoning) shuts down any credible discussion that is beneficial for both sides of the fence.

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  8. James Pate says:

    Hi Felix,

    Yeah, Samuele Bacchiocchi once criticized Joe Tkach, Jr. because, while the latter embraced “New Covenant Theology,” he stuck with the Old Testament system of hierarchy.

    I’m not sure if I agree that Christus Victor was the original atonement theory, though I know it was the one that Ireneus held. I’ve always heard that the ransom one was the most popular in the second century. Personally, I stick more with Anselm because the New Testament says that Christ’s sacrifice brought propitiation and forgiveness, and Anselm explains best how that took place. Bud I’m interested to hear how other models address those points, if they do.

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