The timing, the coincidence, enraged them! How could those Jesus-people go ahead and wreck the crucial hours with song? How could it wreak such havoc when they repeat that dread Name, over and over in prayer and testimonies, dancing in the dust with “Alleluias”? Their rites were rendered useless, impotent, there in the Sacred Forest where they pursued their connection with their sponsor, the Dark One. Easter vigil or whatever, those villagers would pay for all their disrespect of the Ancient Ways. And so the beating and the burning began. Once again, these power-seekers could not accept the sovereign power of Jesus’ name, the name that called out Light and Hope, drove darkness into hiding. No, they claimed their rights to slavery, rushed to crush those Christians’ freedom. Blinders on, their anger ruled the day. But Jesus won in the long run. It had seemed impossible to make peace, the politics and ruses insurmountable. Then prayer and Family kindness rose, poured Truth into the tangled web woven by the Enemy, and shattered it. Easter praise is now rising again!
That burnt church was in Pisankaha, attacked in 2015. Glenn recently returned from a work visit to the area and took a photo of the beautiful new church building. What had been deemed destroyed has been replaced by something that shows how the Lord can make things new and even better!
Pisankaha is the village where the very first Nyarafolos came to believe in Jesus, back in the early 1960’s. From the beginning they were viewed as a threat by the Sacred Forest, the secret society that oversees the initiation of young men into traditional customs that included occult rituals. The youth who were believers were no longer joining the initiation process.
The Sacred Forest members exert their authority in other events, too. Whenever there are funerals or other occasions when the Sacred Forest’s masked and costumed representatives of certain gods come out into a village, all women and children are obliged to hide. Uninitiated men must hide too, because anyone not in the cohort risks severe beating if they come into the presence of a “mask”. Whenever their power is threatened, there are repercussions.
Through the years the growing group of believers in Pisankaha has suffered multiple times for their faith. Young men were beaten. Threats were thrown at them. But the most violent attack came on Easter in 2015. The Sacred Forest had previously made it clear to the church that whenever the Sacred Forest was having a special gathering, there was to be no church gathering. Singing and prayer messed up their rites.
However they had not realized that they had scheduled one of their night-time meetings on the same calendar day that was the Saturday night before Easter that year. So they had not alerted the church.
They were furious at the disruption the church’s Easter vigil made in the spiritual world, and attacked the Christians twice. They chased believers to beat them. When women and children hid behind closed doors in their huts. they broke down the doors. Many believers ran into the sugar cane fields next to the village to hide. The attackers stole animals from villagers’ pens, burned the pastor’s house and some others. They then bashed in the doors and windows of the church and burned whatever was burnable. A young girl was at a well to draw water when a mask attacked her; a young man intervened and pushed the mask away. That was considered a major insult and for years afterwards the Sacred Forest demanded reparation in the form of an animal to sacrifice; the Christians would not participate in that.
The believers were left scared and destitute. Other churches in the area and missionaries (including us) contributed sacks of rice and other basics to them so that they would at least have food. Negotiations with the police and political authorities, the Sacred Forest leaders and the village chiefs, began. But arriving at enough reconciliation to permit the Christians to rebuild their church took about five years. Peacemaking was indeed a sensitive, difficult task.
Nevertheless after things seemed calmer, months after the attack, the believers began meeting under the trees in a leader’s courtyard. It was like going back to the church’s early years. They knew that they had been persecuted because of their faith in Jesus, not because of anything they had done to try to instigate hurt. It was true that they did not participate in occult practices, so their young men could not be initiated. And just worshiping in the name of Jesus was itself powerful enough to disrupt those practices!
I knew of another proof of that power of Jesus’ name. There was a young woman who lived in the town of Ferke, in the neighborhood behind our house, who had come to faith in Christ. She was married and had several children. Her husband was deeply involved in occult practices and had many idols and other objects linked to spiritual powers hanging around the house. This bothered her, but she tried to be submissive. But whenever she was praying, and he was at the same time trying to get some help from these gods and other powers, nothing would work for him. He threw her out, and she was left trying to find a home and take care of her kids. Believers gathered around to support her.
That is definitely persecution because of faith in Jesus. True followers of Jesus will imitate him, obey his teaching and become increasingly like him. They are then “righteous,” and this is counter cultural. They do not participate in practices of their community that go against Jesus’ teaching and the rest of the Word of God. That is threatening to those around them, who feel judged or who fear that their rights are being endangered. The repercussions, like those in Nyarafololand, here in the United States, and all around the world, can take many forms:
“Jesus’s words show that persecution is typically either verbal or violent. Verbal forms include insult and slander. The word persecute includes acts of physical violence like the slap of Mt 5:39. Jesus promised that the cost of discipleship will be offset by the enormity of the reward the disciple enjoys in heaven. Jewish leaders rejected and vehemently persecuted the OT prophets, and Jesus repeatedly denounced this persecution (21:34–36; 23:29–37). By treating Jesus’s followers in the same way they had treated the prophets, Jewish persecutors unwittingly bestowed on them a prophet’s honor.”
So when a believer gets either verbal or violent persecution it is an honor! That is actually a hard one to swallow. It does not feel like a good thing when you are beaten, or your husband throws you out, or a brother insults you because of your belief. Why, then, is it a blessing?
Let’s look at this last beatitude closely. It not only follows the pattern of the preceding ones, but in verse 10 it has that “bookend” of repeating the reward that is in the first one – “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:10-12 NIV)
The kingdom of heaven is ours now because it is the realm of Jesus, and he is with us. But someday we will know it and be citizens in it in its ultimate, complete form, when all will be made new. What a day that will be!
This beatitude is actually made more personal and explained in greater detail than the others – maybe because it is so shocking. At first the blessing is general, on those who are persecuted because they do what is right according to God’s Word. They are not self-promoting or in any way falling into the trap of self-pity or self-glorification; their eyes are on the gracious gift waiting for them when they meet their Master and are applauded for living out their faith in obedience. Then (see verse 11) Jesus used the pronoun “you” to let listeners know that this applies to them, not just to martyrs they’ve heard about –even to you and me when hurtful words are hurled at us, or about us, because we are Jesus-followers.
Next comes that jolt in verse 12. We are to be happy to suffer for this reason, being mistreated just like the prophets were: maligned, ostracized, rebuked for doing what the Lord told them to do or say. How can we be glad when this happens? I confess that joy is not at all my normal reaction. Luke’s version of this blessing is in some ways even more shocking:
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. (Lk. 6:22-23 NIV)
I love the following explanation of the deep meaning of this exultation:
“In the corresponding passage of Luke (Lu 6:22, 23), where every indignity trying to flesh and blood is held forth as the probable lot of such as were faithful to Him, the word is even stronger than here: ‘leap,’ as if He would have their inward transport to overpower and absorb the sense of all these affronts and sufferings; nor will anything else do it.
To “overpower and absorb the sense of all these affronts and sufferings,” we need to see them all as natural reactions of a broken world to its shock at belief and action that contradict what it holds as precious. We can inwardly “leap” over them, relying on inner strength from the One who holds us.
All of the characteristics of the “blessed” ones in these beatitudes run counter to worldly values. John Stott does a meaningful summary of them all:
The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple. We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it. This makes him meek or gentle in all his relationships, since honesty compels him to allow others to think of him what before God he confesses himself to be. Yet he is far from acquiescing in his sinfulness, for he hungers and thirsts after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness. We see him next with others, out in the human community. His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world’s pain. On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin. He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as a peacemaker. Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified.
It is a high calling to live in the thick of the world’s pain, not cowering but actively showing compassion and working for peace and reconciliation. By identifying with Jesus Christ, we can expect pushback. It might be like the violent battery and burning that was experienced in Pisankaha. Or it could just be dismissal or slander. Whatever it is, if it comes from being like Jesus — gentle but truthful and merciful and always doing what is right — then we can urge our hearts to leap for joy.
Here in the United States we may sometimes feel we are being persecuted, but it is rarely the violent kind that is going on in many parts of the world. We need to pray for those who even face torture or death because they love Jesus, and be grateful for the freedom that we do enjoy. When some kind of opposition hurts, we must check ourselves to be sure we are responding with the strong gentleness that our Lord desires, always looking for ways to be peacemakers in the true sense of that word, even when it also leads to a “slap” or insult.
We have a different perspective than the world does. We journey on, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2 NIV) Someday we will be in there in pure joy!
 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 19.
 John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 54.