Israel’s Expectations vs. The Kingdom of God
From the beginning of the nation’s history, Israel had been expecting a Messianic ruler to rise up from their ranks. He would be an eternal King anointed by God himself who would crush their enemies, restore peace among the nations, and be a blessing to all the peoples of earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Now, imagine their excitement as Jesus toured the towns of Galilee, performing mind-boggling miracles, exorcisms, and healings. Imagine their anticipation as Jesus’ following grew and his popularity spread throughout Judea, even to Jerusalem. “This is it!”, the disciples must have thought, “This is the man who God promised; the man who will overthrow the oppressive Romans and enact justice on all who have oppressed us over the centuries! The man who will finally liberate our nation and restore our freedom to worship God!”
Now, imagine the disciples’ disappointment as Jesus began to reveal what God’s eternal Kingdom is really like:
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,Matthew 5:1-12
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 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.
Known as “The Beatitudes”, Matthew 5:1-12 is something of a prologue to Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. This famous passage of Scripture sets the precedent for the next two entire chapters, as Jesus teaches his disciples that God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom for the peacemakers, not those who stir rebellion; it is a Kingdom for the persecuted, not those seeking vindication; it is a Kingdom for the meek and humble, not those seeking power, or strength, or fame. The truth that Jesus proclaimed was that true, eternal, heavenly honor comes through humility, and even humiliation. His followers would witness the ultimate example of this truth some years later, as Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on the cross.
Why do we expect things to be different for us?
Americans have enjoyed the freedom to freely practice religion for two centuries. Personal religious freedom is a blessing that should not be taken for granted. We can gather for worship in our churches; we can proclaim the name of Jesus publicly; we can own a Bible. These are liberties that innumerable Christians around the world are not afforded, and likely never will be. Billions of Christian faithful worldwide face brutal persecution for worshiping Jesus. The most frequently used example is China, where Christian worship gatherings are strictly regulated within a government-approved network, with government-approved teachings. Christians as a result are forced to gather for worship in small, secretive localized communities, away from the watchful eye of the state, risking harsh punishment from the government.
The reality for the Chinese and billions more subjugated Christians worldwide is a reality that Christian Americans are absolutely terrified of – but it’s a reality much closer to that which Jesus described in Matthew 5. Yet in America, we cling to our personal religious liberties for fear that we are one law, one mandate, or one elected official away from being dragged out of our homes and churches by the authorities for proclaiming the name of Jesus. As if Jesus promised that we would always be able to exercise our personal rights as people of faith without consequence or opposition.
The call to follow Jesus does not come with the assurance of comfort, personal liberty, government endorsement, or political influence. The call to follow Jesus comes with the certainty that the unstoppable Kingdom of God is breaking through into our sinful world, making all things new, and that our true reward in heaven will come by way of endurance, patience, humility, and faith that Jesus is worth following, regardless of our circumstances. If the government were to take away your right to worship, would anything be stopping you from worshiping? If the government banned us from praying publicly, would anything be stopping us from praying (Daniel might have something to say about that)? If “Under God” is never put back in our Pledge of Allegiance, will God still be sovereign over the world that he created and the nations under his command?
Personal liberties are a blessing, to be sure. It is a blessing to be able to worship with my family and friends and publicly proclaim the name of Christ. It is a blessing to be able to take home a paycheck as a pastor, to pray with a friend in a restaurant, and to write about Christianity and theology as a hobby. But personal religious liberties are just that; blessings. These are rights I am entitled to as a citizen of the United States at this point in the nation’s history, not rights that I am entitled to under God. Of course I am thankful we are afforded the freedoms that we have as Christian Americans, but I am not so naive as to expect that our circumstances will never change.
Why? Because Jesus never promised that earthly authorities would always honor our right to worship. He told his disciples to expect the exact opposite, and to rejoice in the reward that they will receive in heaven when they were mocked persecuted, and slandered for their faith. And, surprise! They were. They were persecuted and martyred, just like countless Christians throughout the centuries have been persecuted and martyred, laying down their personal freedoms for the sake of Christ, who first gave up his divine rights for our sake (Phil. 2:5-11).
Your personal religious freedoms are irrelevant to your calling as a follower of Jesus. The answer to losing your freedoms is not to fight tooth and nail to retain them. Jesus calls us to respond with humility, peace, mercy, and joy. Press on. Be patient. Be humble. The reward is great.
Featured image: (Left) Canva (Right) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/china-christians-religious-persecution-translation-bible