February 27, 2011
As unintuitive as it may seem, it is possible for us to obey Scripture’s command to meet persecution with blessing. By remembering God’s love and mercy and depending on the Holy Spirit’s power, Alistair Begg explains, we can show compassion, extend kindness, and pray for those who wish to harm us. Where our natural impulse is to seek our enemies’ destruction, God offers a better, revolutionary alternative: their very salvation.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Our text is in Romans 12, but our reading is in Titus 3. And I invite you turn to Titus and to the third chapter. And if you need help in getting there and want to use one of our church Bibles, then you’ll find this reading on page 845—page 845. And then Romans 12, when we turn to that, is on page 803 in the church Bibles.
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
And then our text for tonight, as it was this morning—Romans 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
And just a brief prayer:
“Speak, Lord, in the stillness, while [we] wait on thee; hushed [our] heart[s] to listen in expectancy.” Amen.
Well, we return to this short verse, ten words in English and seven words in Greek. Words which we said this morning—or a verse—that packs a punch, and not because it is difficult to understand, because it is actually very easy to understand, but because naturally we recoil from such a directive, and we are in need of supernatural power in order to accomplish what Paul urges upon his readers in Rome and upon all who in turn are readers of his letter—and, therefore, he urges upon us.
There is a sense in which some of this will be repetitive in relationship to this morning, and that is because I never actually managed to address each congregation this morning in precisely the same way. I really don’t know what is wrong with me at the moment, but it is as it is. And so, because I said something in two, not in one, but did in three, and because I can’t remember which one it was, forgive me if you were present in the one in which I said it. And hopefully, in the providence of God, to hear it a second time or in another way will actually drive the point home, not only for you but also for me.
We’re not going to go back through the beginning, and the beginning was an acknowledgement of the fact that Christian discipleship brings us into the realm of persecution. That persecution, we said, may be blatant and cruel and may result in death; it may be subtle and intellectual and emotional and result in the dissolving of our ability to live wholeheartedly because we’re so set about by those who oppose everything that we stand for. The fact of the existence of persecution we paid attention to in the words of Jesus and the words of Paul and in the words of Peter.
Having recognized that—because it addresses it there in verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you”; if there were no persecution, there would be no reason for the directive—and then we went on to begin to consider the fact that the directive that is given to us is both positive and negative. And the instruction that we first need to face up to is the fact that Paul says we are not to call for the destruction of those who persecute us. We are not to call for the destruction of those who persecute us.
We recognized that it is not unusual for us to want to respond in that way. By nature, we are retaliatory. By nature, we want to give people back what they have given to us. And we saw—at least some of us did—that we’re pretty close to the experience of the disciples in Luke chapter 9 when, having received less than a sterling welcome from the people to whom they had gone, they came back and said to Jesus, “Do you think that we ought to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” And that was them coming back from an evangelistic campaign: “Why don’t we just torch them? Because they don’t seem to be very interested in what we went to tell them.”
And we saw that the temptation which Paul is addressing is a very natural temptation, because it is instinctive for us to want to see the persecutor suffer. And we noted that if we will take time to recognize that if we had been on the receiving end of that kind of retribution from God, rather than the mercy that we were able to enjoy and are able to enjoy, then we would be in deep difficulty. And we essentially ended by saying that this notion of God’s mercy towards us in Christ is the key to coming to terms with this fourteenth verse. Unless we are grasped by this element, if you like—by the reality of this—then it will be pretty well impossible for us to do anything with this verse. It’s not enough for us to congratulate ourselves for simply not retaliating—say, “Well, I wanted to retaliate, but I didn’t retaliate”—and then at the same time allowing ourselves the luxury of vindictive thoughts. All right? So we didn’t actually punch back when we were on the receiving end of the harm, and therefore, we feel pretty good about it. That’s not good enough, says the Bible. Because it would still be possible for us to maim and to defraud and to spoil and to kill simply by our thinking.
And that, of course is, what Jesus did, remember, when he took the issues of the law and he tightened it and heightened it by saying, “You know, you are able to kill people with a word, and you may by your slanderous tongue destroy a reputation,” and so on. And the very fact that we have restrained ourselves or refrained from actual retaliating in a physical way does not cover the instruction of this verse. We haven’t fulfilled our duty by responding either in a spirit of resignation or a spirit of stoicism, because we’re called to positively desire the good of our persecutors; we are called to positively bless those who, in Phillips’s paraphrase, are seeking to make our lives miserable. Now, that seems to defuse it just a little bit; it makes it a little less than the reality of persecution. But perhaps Phillips paraphrases it in that way in order to get across the fact of the reality of persecution coming at different dimensions and with different degrees of forcefulness.
We are to bless them: “Bless those who persecute you.”
Now, as I said this morning, this is the challenge. What does it mean to “bless” them? Well, it is the antithesis of asking God to curse them. It is the opposite end of the spectrum from saying, “May God destroy you people for what you have done and what you are doing.” We’re not to do that! The ultimate blessing that may come to those who persecute the believer is the blessing of God’s mercy, of his grace, which is the blessing of salvation itself.
So, in essence what we’re discovering is this: that we are not to ask God to destroy them; we are instead to ask God to save them. For the ultimate blessing of God is salvation. So you see, it’s not simply that we can get away with it by saying a few pleasantries about these people, a few blessed thoughts, a few sort of relatively kindly expressions of goodness, and then feel, “Well, that’s okay, we’re done with that.” That is not what he’s saying. If that was what he was saying, it frankly just seems a little bit trivial to me. And that’s why I think I’ve fiddled around with verse 14 for a long time without ever really understanding, “What are we supposed to be doing when it says, ‘Bless them and don’t curse them’?” And it is this: we’re saying, “God, save these people. Save these people that persecute me in their words, in their deeds, in their opposition to the gospel, in their opposition to goodness, in the opposition to all that is the fruit of the gospel.”
And as soon as we recognize that, we realize that without a power that is outside of ourselves, this is an impossibility. And that is why, when we considered Romans chapter 8, we pondered for a while the wonder of what it means to be on the receiving end of the power of the Spirit of God. And if you turn back for a moment, let me just remind you of this. Romans 8:9, Paul says to those who are in Christ Jesus—he’s not making a generic statement about humanity; he has identified those to whom he is referring, of whom he is referring, in the beginning of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them [that] are in Christ Jesus.” Then he goes on to describe the nature of what it means to be in Christ, and in verse 9 he says, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you”—“if the Spirit of God lives in you.” When he addresses this in 2 Corinthians, remember, he says, “If [any man or woman] is in Christ, [they are] a new creation,” so that the injunction of Romans 12:14 is responded to in light of the power of God.
Secondly, it is responded to in light of the perspective that he has given to us in the opening up of the chapter. That perspective in verses 1 and 2, which started off this miniseries in verse 2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The way the world thinks is retaliatory, vindictive, payback, treating people in the poor way they have treated us. How then is the Christian to respond in a different way? Well, first of all, as a result of God’s power that fills us, and then as a result of God’s perspective in his Word, which instructs us. So in other words, we have to engage our minds in these things. Because a transformed mind is a mind that thinks about everything from a different perspective, and not least of all about the issue of persecution.
But thirdly, it is important for us to recognize that there is actually a process involved in doing this. And this, I think I said in one of the services this morning—this insight I owe to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I don’t know how many commentaries I have read on Romans chapter 12; many of them do very little with verse 14. One of them, it simply says, “Here you will see in verse 14 that Paul is reiterating what Jesus has to say on the Sermon on the Mount.” Well, I read that, and I said, “Yes, I knew that. I mean, how can you call yourself a commentary? I need more help than that! I’m just a poor, ignorant pastor, I’m looking for help. Don’t tell me what I know, tell me something I don’t know.” And mercifully, Lloyd-Jones, I think, got me off in the right direction. I say that because “credit where credit is due.”
And this is what I learned. And this has helped me, and I think it’s going to help you. Verse 14 is not actually an emotional reaction. It’s not an emotional reaction. It’s actually a logical progression. And let me show you the progression.
To bless is to ask God to deal with the persecutors and to be merciful to them. How will the Christian manage to get themselves into this position? Here’s the process.
We begin, first of all, by reminding ourselves of God’s reaction to us. How has God responded to us? We who were his enemies, we who were alienated from him, we who had minds that were hostile to God, we who suppressed the truth of God, we who turned our backs on his ways, we who rebelled against him—how has God responded to us? We, who like the coins in Luke chapter 15 were lost helplessly; like the sheep in the same passage, lost naturally; and like the son, or sons, lost willfully. Just flat-out lost. Start there. How has God reacted to our persecution of him?
Do you remember the story of the prodigal? Do you remember the wonderful picture, the way in which Jesus tells it? “And when he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and immediately planned a celebration for him, and extended the invitation as far and as wide as he could, because ‘This my son was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found.’” The elder son, who had more than the spirit of the Pharisee about him, wanted justice to be served. He only saw this as an opportunity for retaliation: “Your boy, your son, has gone off and done this and done this and done this, and you bring him back in this way? I don’t get that! I have been doing this and this and this, I have slaved in your house, and I never got a young goat. I never got a party. I didn’t get anything!” He doesn’t understand grace. He doesn’t understand the forgiveness of God.
That’s where we start:
When I was lost, you came and rescued me;
Reached down into the pit and lifted me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O Lord, such grace to qualify me as your own.
Actually, what happened is that Christ bore the curse so that we might enjoy the blessing.
The second part in the process is to consider why it is that the persecutors persecute—to ask ourselves, Why is it that people are so opposed to God, to the gospel, to the story of Christ’s redeeming love? Why is it that people are so opposed to this wonderful figure of history, this controversial figure of history, this one who reaches out to the least and the last and the left out, this one who embraces children, this one who takes to himself those who are so lost and so miserable and so in need? Why such opposition to this Christ? Why do people persecute those who name the name of Christ, who love Christ, who say they are the followers of Christ? Why do people not stand up in opposition, as I said in one of the services, if you tell them that you’re engaged in yoga? Or if you’re interested in the reincarnation that is representative in Hinduism? Or that you are enjoying some of the benefits and tranquility of the impact of Zen Buddhism? Almost to a person, people’ll say, “Oh, that’s remarkable! Do you have a book on that? Oh, I’d love to hear about that. Tell me about that. Oh, I’m so… I’m excited about that.” But if ever you want to tell them, “No, no, Jesus Christ has become my Lord and Savior, I’m being baptized,” and so on, they say, “Oh, for goodness’ sake! What in the world is wrong with you?” Why are people so opposed?
Well, you know the answer. We bridged it this morning, we started it this morning: because the mind of the natural man is at enmity with God and cannot please God—Romans 8—the people who are the persecutors are blind. If somebody was a blind person that came into your house and knocked over your best china and two of your favorite lamps and a couple of porcelain ornaments, don’t you think you would say, “Well, wait a minute, I can’t just treat them dismissively. After all, they’re blind! They can’t see! It’s not his fault! He didn’t come in here and smash things up willfully. That’s his condition.”
That’s the condition of the persecutor. Second Corinthians! Isn’t that what we know from Second Corinthians 4? “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” They can’t see! Dare we say it? It’s not their fault! They’re blinded. They’re doing what comes naturally. That’s what makes it so hard when the person is a member of your family, and you love them, and you’ve told them about Jesus, and you’ve shared the gospel—and yet, on every occasion that they get the chance to put in the elbow, to put in the dig, to say the snide remark, to confront you when various members of the family have come in from out of town, and you realize that in the most subtle, skillful, emotional, baneful way, you’re actually being persecuted, and you’ve said to yourself time and again, “Why is it that I’ve been unable to let them see what it is I’m on about?” And the answer is right here: their minds are blinded to the truth of the gospel.
So here comes the third part of the process. Part one, I remind myself of God’s response to my persecuting heart. Part two, I remind myself of the nature of the predicament of those who are outside of Christ. Part three, that calls for compassion. That calls for kindness. That calls for prayer. That calls for tenderness. That calls for blessing. That calls for us to call out not “God damn them!” but “God save them! May they, gracious God, be blessed. May they know the blessing of seeing Christ as a Savior. May they know the blessing of hearing the gospel as the good news that it is. May they, in some measure like Saul of Tarsus, be transformed from persecution to proclamation.”
It really ties in, doesn’t it, with what Paul says earlier in Romans. He says, “Don’t you realize—those of you who are resisting God—don’t you realize that it is… Would you show contempt for his kindness?”—“show contempt for his kindness.” Where is the kindness of God to be found? In the people of God. So that when the people of God respond to the persecution of those who are opposed to God not in retaliation but in prayers for their salvation, then men and women will be caused to say, “I don’t understand that.” And that very question mark over the issue may become the occasion of their salvation.
That’s why I read, incidentally, from Titus 3. Because the principle works its way all the way out in Paul’s writings. You needn’t turn back to it, but let me just remind you again. He says, “I want you to tell your people, Titus, to be committed to doing good. They’re not supposed to be undermining the government. They’re not supposed to be shouting the odds all the time. They’re not supposed to be to be overturning the rulers and the authorities. They’re supposed to be committed to doing whatever is good. They’re not supposed to be slandering people. They’re really supposed to be peaceable, considerate, and they’re supposed to show true humility towards all men—men who are with them, and men who are opposed to them.”
Then what does he do? He says, “Now, think about it. Use your mind, now. Think!” There’s a logical progression here. This is not waiting for something to hit our tummies, where we say, “Well, I’m going to be just blessing everybody,” some sort of emotional surge. No, think about it: “At one time,” what were we like? “Foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved, lived in malice, envy, hated, hating. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not by righteous things we had done but according to his own grace and goodness.” So we were given kindness that we didn’t deserve. We are the children of God. Hence the significance.
Now, let me finish in this way. So, there is a power without which we’re not even Christian; that is the indwelling power of the Spirit of God. There is a perspective that comes as we faithfully study the Bible and as we understand what Paul is saying here in Romans 12:2 about our minds being transformed. There is a process that is involved in this; it may be this, it may be something different from this, but it certainly includes this: reminding myself of how God has responded to me, reminding myself of the predicament that my non-Christian friends are in, and then recognizing that the only rightful response to that is the response not of judgment but of compassion. And then, finally, to remind ourselves of the pattern that we have primarily in Jesus but also both throughout biblical history and church history in the lives of others who have been patterns of this very thing.
So, for example, from the cross, what is it that Jesus says? “Father, forgive them, ’cause they don’t know.” “Father, forgive them, ’cause they don’t know what they’re doing.”
You say, “But that was Jesus! I mean, that’s a pretty high standard.” Well, yes, exactly. “He has given us an example that we should follow in his steps.” You say, “Well, maybe a different one, another one?”
Well, okay, let’s do Stephen, when he is on the receiving end of the stoning. Acts 7: “[They] dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. [And] the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” What an amazing story, huh? “[And] while they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ [And] then he fell on his knees and [he] cried out…” What? Do you remember? “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” “Do not hold this sin against them.” He’s not saying it doesn’t matter. He’s not saying it isn’t sin. He’s not saying it isn’t opposed to the purposes of God. But with his dying breath, he dies in the pattern of Christ.
One of the books of many books that’s been doing its rounds for us as a pastoral team as a result of the initiative, I think, first of all of Scott Kennedy, is a book that some of you will have read, or ought to read, called Unbroken. And it is “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” And I want to give you just a couple of indications from this of a twentieth-century illustration of the very principle. I won’t go into detail on it; I would hate to spoil the book for you.
It’s the story of a fellow called Louie Zamperini, and his eventual imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and the peculiar trial under which he found himself as a result of the animosity and brutality of one particular prison guard, who was referred to by the prisoners as “The Bird”—not because he looked like a bird or acted like a bird, but because it was a non-pejorative way to refer to him so that, if they had a bad name for him and he heard it, then it would make it even worse for them.
But the book chronicles the way in which this guy, Louie Zamperini, was on the receiving end of the animosity of this particular fellow. And the writer says, “Though there were hundreds of POWs in the camp, this deranged corporal was fixated on Louie, hunting the former Olympian, whom he would call ‘number one prisoner.’” It chronicles how Louie tried to hide all the time from him, but this guy would always find him. And when he found him, he gave him a horrible beating. I don’t want to spoil your evening, but let me just give you an indication of this so that the end of it makes perfect sense.
He describes how this fellow would come into the room and find him, and having found him, he liked to take off his belt, which had a large brass buckle on it, and use the belt to beat this American prisoner: “The buckle was several inches square, made of heavy brass. Standing before Louie, the Bird [took] the belt [from] his waist … grasped one end with both hands,” and accused him of coming to attention last. “You came to attention last,” he said, “so I’m going to have to beat you for that.”
Louie felt as if [he’d] been shot in the head. Though he had resolved never to let [him] knock him down, the power of the blow, and the explosive pain that followed, overawed everything in him. His legs seemed to liquefy, and he went down. [And] the room spun.
The guy leaves him for a moment or two, speaks tenderly to him, seduces him into thinking that he’s changed his mind and he wants to be nice to him, and then, as soon as he’s caught him off guard, then once again, when
the sense of relief was just entering his mind … the buckle, whirling around from the Bird’s swinging arms, struck his head again, exactly where it had hit before. [And] Louie felt pain bursting through his skull, his body going liquid again. [And] he smacked into the floor.
He eventually comes back out of all of that—I don’t want to spoil the book for you—but as he tries to make his reentry into life, he’s battling the demons of all these different memories that he’s gone through. And the journalist says that
one day he opened a newspaper and saw a story that riveted his attention. A former Pacific POW had walked into a store and seen one of his wartime captors. The POW had called the police, who’d arrested the alleged war criminal. And as Louie read the story”—listen to this—“all the fury within him converged. He saw himself finding the Bird, overpowering him, his fists bloodying the face, and then his hands locking about the Bird’s neck. In his fantasy, he killed the Bird slowly, savoring the suffering he caused, making his tormentor feel all of the pain[, all of the] terror[, all of the] helplessness that [he had] felt. His veins beat with an electric urgency.
So he fantasized about being able to do to his persecutor exactly what the fellow had done to him.
Then one day he wrote a letter to this man. And this is how the letter goes:
[Dear] Matsuhiro [sic] Watanabe,
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.
Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.
The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”
As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 [sic] and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison. I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri [sic], which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian. 
“I fantasized about his destruction; I prayed for his salvation.” “If any man be in Christ, he’s a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” “Bless those who persecute you; bless them, don’t curse them.” Don’t go to bed at night saying, “God, destroy them.” Let us go to bed at night saying, “O God, save them.”
Let us pray:
Gracious God, our Father, we thank you for the clarity of your Word, the peculiar challenge of this verse, the impossibility of it apart from your grace, and the wonder of it when we see it in evidence in the lives of others. Make us more like Christ, we pray. Help us to think biblically and to live properly so that we might have the joy, in daunting circumstances, to see unbelieving people coming to follow Jesus Christ—not because we meted out the justice they deserve, but because we were able to tell them and show them about a mercy that none of us deserve; that we were able to tell them about a Jesus who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and [heavy laden], and I will give you rest. [And] take my yoke upon you and learn [of] me, for I am gentle and [lowly] in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for extending such a gracious and amazing invitation to us. Forgive us when by life or by lip we appear to deny that invitation to those who stand in need of it and who are within the orb of our influence.
O gracious God, renew our lives according to your truth, fashion our lifestyle according to your grace, and increasingly shape our church family here according to your mercy. And make us more like your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 Emily Crawford, “Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” (1920).
 Luke 9:54 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 5:22 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:1 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 12:2 (paraphrased).
 See D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 12; Christian Conduct (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2000).
 See Luke 15:8–10.
 See Luke 15:4–7.
 See Luke 15:11–32.
 Luke 15:20–24 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:29–30 (paraphrased).
 Kate and Miles Simmonds, “When I Was Lost” (2001).
 2 Corinthians 4:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:34 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 2:21 (paraphrased).
 Acts 7:58–60 (NIV 1984).
 Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010): 241.
 Hillenbrand, Unbroken, 251–52.
 Hillenbrand, Unbroken, 352.
 Hillenbrand, Unbroken, 396–97.
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:28–30 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.