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Understanding Persecution

Date: Apr. 24, 2016

Author: Bob Henkins

Matthew 13:53-14:12

Key Verse: Matthew 13:58

“And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

At 6:01 on the evening of April 4th 1968 shots rang out at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. About an hour later Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was pronounced dead. He was killed because he was pursuing equal rights for African Americans according to our constitution and God’s calling in his life. There has been persecution for those who follow God since the beginning. It started right there in Adam’s family when Cain persecuted Able. It continued down through the ages to MLK’s era and up to our time when Japanese Christian video journalist Kenji Goto was beheaded by ISIS in January 2015. For those who follow the will of God there will always be some measure of persecution. We’ll see it in today’s passage as well. But I want to take a look inside and try to see what’s going on and why it happens so that we can have a better understanding of it when it happens to us. Notice I said when, not if because if we are truly following God it’s just a matter of time.

At the very start of Jesus’ ministry (after he had been tempted in the desert) he had returned to his hometown of Nazareth. It was there that he went into the synagogue and after reading a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah about the coming Messiah, he proclaimed, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) When the people heard this they became furious and drove him out of town. After that Jesus moved to Capernaum and began his public ministry by calling his first disciples. Now it’s been a while since those early days and if you remember last week’s passage Jesus had been telling the crowd what the kingdom of heaven was like through a bunch of parables. When Jesus was done, he decided to go back home again. Maybe they’ve cooled off by now. As was his custom when Jesus entered a town he went straight for the synagogue. This was no exception even though it was his home. Take a look at verse 54. “Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked.” Jesus was different now than he had been when he made his first public announcement. Jesus had grown into a power messenger of God’s word and he spoke with spiritual authority as if he had been an eye witness. Not only that, Jesus was also powerful in action. Wherever he went he performed miracles like healing the sick, driving out demons and raising the dead. The people of Nazareth recognized Jesus’ wisdom and they marveled at it. And they were awe struck in the presence of his miraculous powers.

Usually Jesus performed miracles to support or confirm the message that he preached. This was to help the people know that Jesus was the Messiah and what he was saying was true. At the very least, the people of Nazareth should have recognized Jesus as a prophet and acknowledged the work of God in him. But even though they were amazed, they still had a problem and didn’t trust Jesus. Take a look at verse 55-56a. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.” Why couldn’t the people of Jesus’ own hometown trust him? What caused them to doubt Jesus? It doesn’t make any sense. They, of all people, should have trusted Jesus because they knew him. He wasn’t a stranger to them. But that’s exactly the point. As it turns out, they were too familiar with Jesus. They had watched him grow up from the time he was a little baby until he was about thirty years old when he suddenly got this notion of being the Messiah. The people of Nazareth had been his neighbors, classmates, friends, teachers and probably customers since he was the son of the only carpenter in town. Can you imagine owning a chair or table that Jesus had made? These were people that Jesus had known all his life. They knew his mother’s name and who all his brothers were and apparently his sisters still lived there.

Their question was, “where did Jesus get all this wisdom and power from?” It sounds like a simple enough question but it’s revealing. They asked, “Where did THIS MAN get all these things?” By referred to Jesus as “this man,” they could only see Jesus’ humanity and not his deity. It revealed their lack of spiritual discernment and that they walked by sight and not by faith. The Messiah was going to be the “Anointed one”, the Son of David, mighty warrior, redeemer, a great leader who would break the bonds of Roman oppression. But here was Jesus, Mary’s kid, the carpenter’s son, they used to watch him run around playing, and they COULDN’T GET PAST THAT FACT. They couldn’t let it go. In their eyes, the Messiah was supposed to be someone great, but Jesus was just a carpenter. (not that carpenters are bad, a good one is worth their weight in gold) So instead of seeing Jesus as the Son of God, they looked at his human background and were offended. Maybe they thought, “Who does he think we are? I used to teach him and not he thinks he’s the Messiah.” In reality it was their sin of unbelief held them back for they couldn’t accept Jesus as their Savior.

When the people of Nazareth didn’t acknowledge Jesus for who he was it must have hurt. But instead of fighting with them, Jesus understood them and gently tried to help them. Take a look at verse 57b-58. “But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” 58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith and not honoring a prophet of God. This wasn’t a small matter because it kept them from experiencing the power of God. Because of their lack of faith, they became spiritually destitute. This was the second time the people of Nazareth had rejected the Messiah. This was Jesus’ final visit there and sadly they wouldn’t get another chance. The irony is that Jesus would be known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” but Nazareth wouldn’t accept him.

Now our story shifts to the place. Take a look at verses 14:1-2. “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”” While Jesus is going about his ministry reports of what he is doing are getting back to Herod. This was Herod Antipas one of the sons of Herod the Great. A tetrarch was a one of a group of four co-rulers. For example, Herod Antipas was the Tetrarch of Galilee and Herod Phillip II was the Tetrarch of Iturea and so on down the line. Herod’s family had a history of persecuting God’s people. His father Herod the Great was the one who had all the baby boys in Jerusalem two years old and younger killed because he feared the coming Messiah. From the top down their family was a bit screwed up. For example, Herodias, Herod’s wife in this passage, was actually his niece. So Herod married his brother’s daughter.

When Herod heard the reports about Jesus suddenly he had flashbacks about John the Baptist. He had a guilty conscious. Most people don’t like pain, but pain is our friend, because it lets us know when we need to be careful, or we’ll do greater damage to our body. It’s the same with our conscience. Our conscience is that red warning light in our soul. It’s a moral beeper that goes off when we have done wrong. This weekend I found out that the IRS has what is called a ‘conscience fund’ that was started way back in 1811 when someone in NYC sent in $6 because they had cheated on their taxes. In 1950, it totaled $370K, $14K of it was sent by one person. Along with the money the IRS has received notes that said such things as: “I’ll sleep better now,” or “I’d hate to burn in hell over a couple of bucks,” and my favorite is, “I’m sending you this $175 because my conscience has been bothering me…if it continues to bother me I’ll send the rest!” Herod’s conscience had been bothering him because of what he did to John the Baptist. Matthew recounts the flashback of what happened. John the Baptist had boldly warned Herod and called him to repent because he had taken his brother’s wife and was committing the sin of adultery. John knew that the sin of a ruler would only pollute the land and make it easier for others to sin, and that God would judge the sinners (Mal. 3:5) So every time John saw Herod, he would rebuke him saying in verse 14:4, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Because of this “…Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mk 6:19-20) I find this interesting that Herod was intrigued by John even though he was always telling him to repent. At that point his conscience is very much alive, but not for long because his wife was leading him in the opposite direction as his conscience. You have differing influences in YOUR life as well. Which way are you going? “There’s only 2 choices on the shelf: pleasing God and pleasing self.”

So Herodias devised a plan to have her daughter dance a seductive dance so that she could use her husband’s lust to accomplish her goal. Think about how twisted that is. Herodias was going to use her daughter, to lustfully entrap her uncle. After seeing the seductive dance, Herod was so “moved” that he promised an oath to give her anything she wanted up to half his kingdom. After successfully executing her plan, she prompted her daughter to have John the Baptist, a man of God, killed by a brutal beheading. Not only that, she even had it brought to the party on a platter. That is one sick family. There are so many things going on here but I don’t have time to go through them all. Just a couple. When you live before people, like Herod, you are under pressure to please them. And be careful of making oaths that you can’t, or shouldn’t, keep. In a touch of poignant but tragic irony, Herod’s response shows that he is more concerned to save face in front of his guests than to uphold justice and morality. Herod’s act was another illustration of the rejection of Jesus, for Matthew so connected the ministries of these two men that what happened to one was viewed as having a direct effect on the other. Herod, by rejecting the King’s forerunner, was rejecting the King who followed him.

In this passage we see that persecution came because each group couldn’t get over their sin. They couldn’t let go of it. The people of Jesus’ hometown couldn’t let go of their sin of unbelief and Herod couldn’t let go of his sin of adultery. Something was preventing them of repenting of their sin. And because of their sin they were blinded and didn’t have faith in who Jesus is, what he came to do, or the word of God.

What hinders our faith? Maybe we are holding on to something, some sin that we don’t want to let go of, and so when we hear the word of God we don’t believe it. In fact, we react in opposition to the word of God because as sinners we love the darkness more than the light. And instead of embracing the light we want to get rid of the light. And that’s were persecution comes from. But we have to watch out so that we don’t kill our conscience. The people saw the good in Jesus, they couldn’t deny his wisdom or power, rather it was the sin inside of them that was hanging them up. This helps us not to blame ourselves when we get persecuted. It nothing that we’ve done, but what is inside of others. Jesus told his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.” (Jn 15:18-21)

Jesus saw the real reason for persecution was because of sin. And he had compassion on them. That is the reason that Jesus came. The Messiah came to suffer to save us from our sin. If he didn’t suffer, we couldn’t be saved. That is why we don’t see Jesus fighting back. He knew the persecution had to come and as God’s people, as Jesus’ servants, we should expect nothing less. When we’re persecuted, we want to fight back but that doesn’t help. It only makes matters worse. Why do you think that Jesus spoke so much about the kingdom of heaven? It’s because this world is not the end. Our hope should not be in this world, rather it MUST BE in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wanted to plant hope of eternal life. Not that long ago we celebrated Easter at the conference with the theme “Forever”. We have an eternal inheritance waiting for us in the kingdom of heaven. No matter what people do to us they can never take away our inheritance in heaven from us. 

So when persecution came to people like Martin Luther King Jr, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, St Paul, Stephen, Of the disciples: Andrew, Peter, James, Phillip, Jude, Bartholomew, Thomas and Simon the zealot. They tried to kill John by deep frying him in oil but miraculously he lived. There was Polycarp, John Wycliffe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jim Elliot and so many other that have been killed because of their faith in God, they never lost hope because they had faith in God and were looking forward to the kingdom of heaven. I hope you can remember this whenever you are persecuted.

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