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21. Concerning persecution
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We are now come to the last beatitude: ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted . . ’. Our Lord Christ would have us reckon the cost. ‘Which of you intending to build a tower sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have enough to finish it?’ (Luke 14:28). Religion will cost us the tears of repentance and the blood of persecution. But we see here a great encouragement that may keep us from fainting in the day of adversity. For the present, blessed; for the future, crowned.
The words fall into two general parts.
1 The condition of the godly in this life: ‘They are persecuted’.
2 Their reward after this life: ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.
I shall speak chiefly of the first, and wind in the other in the applicatory. The observation is that true godliness is usually attended with persecution. ‘We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). ‘The Jews stirred up the chief men of the city and raised persecution against Paul . . .’ (Acts 13:50). Luther makes it the very definition of a Christian, ‘Christianus quasi crucianus.’ Though Christ died to take away the curse from us, yet not to take away the cross from us. Those stones which are cut out for a building are first under the saw and hammer to be hewed and squared. The godly are called ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2:5). And they must be hewn and polished by the persecutor’s hand that they may be fit for the heavenly building. The saints have no charter of exemption from trials. Though they be never so meek, merciful, pure in heart, their piety will not shield them from sufferings. They must hang their harp on the willows and take the cross. The way to heaven is by way of thorns and blood. Though it be full of roses in regard of the comforts of the Holy Ghost, yet it is full of thorns in regard of persecutions. Before Israel got to Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, they must go through a wilderness of serpents and a Red Sea. So the children of God in their passage to the holy land must meet with fiery serpents and a red sea of persecution. It is a saying of Ambrose, ‘There is no Abel but has his Cain.’ St Paul fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32). Set it down as a maxim, if you will follow Christ, you must see the swords and staves. Put the cross in your creed. For the amplification of this, there are several things we are to take cognisance of.
1 What is meant by persecution. 2 The several kinds of persecution. 3 Why there must be persecution. 4 The chief persecutions are raised against the ministers of Christ. 5 What that persecution is which makes a man blessed.
What is meant by persecution? The Greek word ‘to persecute’, signifies ‘to vex and molest’, sometimes ‘to prosecute another’, to ‘arraign him at the bar’, and ‘to pursue him to the death’. A persecutor is a ‘pricking briar’ (Ezekiel 28:24); therefore the church is described to be a ‘lily among thorns’ (Canticles 2:2).
What are the several kinds of persecution? There is a twofold persecution; a persecution of the hand; a persecution of the tongue.
1 A persecution of the hand. ‘Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?’ (Acts 7:52). ‘For thy sake we are killed all the day long’ (Romans 8:36; Galatians 4:29). This I call a bloody persecution, when the people of God are persecuted with fire and sword. So we read of the ten persecutions in the time of Nero, Domitian, Trajan etc.; and of the Marian persecution. England for five years drank a cup of blood and lately Piedmont and the confines of Bohemia have been scourged to death with the rod of the persecutor. God’s Church has always, like Abraham’s ram, been tied in a bush of thorns.
2 The persecution of the tongue, which is twofold.
(i) Reviling. This few think of or lay to heart, but it is called in the text, persecution. ‘When men shall revile you and persecute you’. This is tongue persecution. ‘His words were drawn swords’ (Psalm 55:21). You may kill a man as well in his name as in his person. A good name is as ‘precious ointment’ (Ecclesiastes 7:1). A good conscience and a good name is like a gold ring set with a rich diamond. Now to smite another by his name is by our Saviour called persecution. Thus the primitive Christians endured the persecution of the tongue. ‘They had trial of cruel mockings’ (Hebrews 2:36). David was ‘the song of the drunkards’ (Psalm 69:12). They would sit on their ale-bench and jeer at him. How frequently do the wicked cast out the squibs of reproach at God’s children: ‘These are the holy ones!’ Little do they think what they do. They are now doing Cain’s work and Julian’s. They are persecuting.
(ii) Slandering. So it is in the text: ‘When they shall persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely’. Slandering is tongue persecution. Thus Saint Paul was slandered in his doctrine. Report had it that he preached, ‘Men might do evil that good might come of it’ (Romans 3:8). Thus Christ who cast out devils was charged to have a devil (John 8:48). The primitive Christians were falsely accused for killing their children and for incest. ‘They laid to my charge things that I knew not’ (Psalm 35:11)
Let us take heed of becoming persecutors. Some think there is no persecution but fire and sword. Yes, there is persecution of the tongue. There are many of these persecutors nowadays who by a devilish chemistry can turn gold into dung, the precious names of God’s saints into reproach and disgrace. There have been many punished for clipping of coin. Of how much sorer punishment shall they be thought worthy, who clip the names of God’s people to make them weigh lighter!
Why there must be persecution. I answer for two reasons.
1 In regard of God: his decree and his design.
God’s Decree: ‘We are appointed “hereunto’ (1 Thessalonians 3:3). Whoever brings the suffering, God sends it. God bade Shimei curse. Shimei’s tongue was the arrow, but it was God that shot it.
God’s Design. God has a twofold design in the persecutions of his children.
(i) Trials. ‘Many shall be tried’ (Daniel 12:10). Persecution is the touchstone of sincerity. It discovers true saints from hypocrites. Unsound hearts pretend fair in prosperity, but in time of persecution fall away (Matthew 13:20, 21). Hypocrites cannot sail in stormy weather. They will follow Christ to Mount Olivet, but not to Mount Calvary. Like green timber they shrink in the scorching sun of persecution. If trouble arises, hypocrites will rather make Demas their choice than Moses their choice. They will prefer thirty pieces of silver before Christ. God will have persecutions in the world to make a discovery of men. Suffering times are sifting times. ‘When I am tried I shall come forth as gold’ (Job 23:10). Job had a furnace-faith. A Christian of right breed (who is born of God), whatever he loses, will ‘hold fast his integrity’ (Job 2:3). Christ’s true disciples will follow him upon the water.
(ii) Purity. God lets his children be in the furnace that they may be ‘partakers of his holiness’ (Hebrews 12:10). The cross is physic. It purges out pride, impatience, love of the world. God washes his people in bloody waters to get out their spots and make them look white (Daniel 12:10). ‘I am black, but comely’ (Canticles 1:5). The torrid zone of persecution made the spouse’s skin black, but her soul fair. See how differently afflictions work upon the wicked and godly. They make the one worse, the other better. Take a cloth that is rotten. If you scour and rub it, it frets and tears; but if you scour a piece of plate, it looks brighter. When afflictions are upon the wicked, they fret against God and tear themselves in impatience, but when the godly are scoured by these, they look brighter.
There will be persecutions in regard of the enemies of the church. These vultures prey upon God’s turtles. The church has two sorts of enemies.
Open enemies. The wicked hate the godly. There is ‘enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent’ (Genesis 3:15). As in nature there is an antipathy between the vine and the bay-tree, the elephant and the dragon; and as vultures have an antipathy against sweet smells; so in the wicked there is an antipathy against the people of God. They hate the sweet perfumes of their graces. It is true the saints have their infirmities, but the wicked do not hate them for these, but for their holiness, and from this hatred arises open violence. The thief hates the light, therefore would blow it out.
Secret enemies, who pretend friendship but secretly raise persecutions against the godly. Such are hypocrites and heretics. Saint Paul calls them ‘false brethren’ (2 Corinthians 11:26). The church complains that her own sons had vexed her (Canticles 1:6). That is, those who had been bred up in her bosom and pretended religion and sympathy, these false friends vexed her. The church’s enemies are them ‘of her own house’. Such as are open pretenders but secret opposers of the faith are ever worst. A wen seems to be a part of the body, but is indeed an enemy to it. It disfigures and endangers it. They are the vilest and basest of men who hang forth Christ’s colours, yet fight against him.
The fourth particular is that the chief persecutions are raised against the ministers. Our Lord Christ turns himself directly to the apostles whom he was ready to commission and send abroad to preach: ‘Blessed are ye when men shall persecute you’ (verse 11). ‘So persecuted they the prophets before you’ (verse 12). ‘Take, my brethren, the prophets for an example of suffering affliction’ (James 5:10). No sooner is any man a minister, but he is a piece of a martyr. The ministers of Christ are his chosen vessels. Now as the best vessel of gold and silver passes through the fire, so God’s chosen vessels pass often through the fire of persecution. All times are not like the silver age wherein Constantine lived. He was an honourer of the ministry. He would not sit down in the Council of Nicaea till the bishops who were convened there came and besought him. He would say, if he saw an infirmity in the clergy, that his royal purple would cover it. Ministers must not always look for such shines of the prince’s favour. They must expect an alarum. Peter, a famous preacher, knew how ‘to cast the net on the right side of the ship’, and at one sermon he converted three thousand souls. Yet neither the divinity of his doctrine nor the sanctity of his life could exempt him from persecution. ‘When thou shalt be old, another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not’. It alludes to his suffering death for Christ. He was (says Eusebius) bound with chains and afterwards crucified at Jerusalem with his head downwards. Saint Paul, a holy man, who is steeled with courage, and fired with zeal, as soon as he entered into the ministry ‘bonds and persecutions did abide him’ (Acts 9:16; 20:23). He was made up of sufferings. ‘I am ready to be offered up’ (2 Timothy 4:6). He alludes to the drink offerings wherein the wine or blood used in sacrifice was poured out, thereby intimating by what manner of death he should glorify God; not by being sacrificed in the fire, but by pouring out his blood, which was when he was beheaded. And that it might seem no strange thing for God’s ministers to be under the heat and rage of persecution, Stephen puts the question, ‘Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?’ (Acts 7:52). Ignatius was torn with wild beasts. Cyprian, Polycarp martyred. Maximus, the emperor (as Eusebius relates), gave charge to his officers to put none to death but the governors and pastors of the Church.
The reasons why the storm of persecution has chiefly fallen upon the ministers are:
1 They have their corruptions as well as others, and lest they should be lifted up ‘through the abundance of revelation’, God lets loose some ‘messenger of Satan’ to vex and persecute them. God sees they have need of the flail to thresh off their husks. The fire God puts them into is not to consume but to refine them.
2 The ministers are Christ’s ensign-bearers to carry his colours. They are the captains of the Lord’s host, therefore they are the most shot at. ‘I am set for the defence of the gospel’ (Philippians 1:17). The Greek word here used alludes to a soldier that is set in the forefront of the battle and has all the missiles flying about his ears. The minister’s work is to preach against men’s sins which are as dear to them as their right eye, and they cannot endure this. Every man’s sin is his king to which he yields love and subjection. Now as Pilate said, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Men will not endure to have their king-sin crucified. This then being the work of the ministry, to divide between men and their lusts, to part these two old friends, no wonder it meets with so much opposition. When Paul preached against Diana, all the city was in an uproar. We preach against men’s Dianas, those sins which bring them in pleasure and profit. This causes an uproar.
3 From the malice of Satan. The ministers of Christ come to destroy his kingdom, therefore the old serpent will spit all his venom at them. If we tread upon the devil’s head, he will bite us by the heel. The devil sets up several forts and garrisons in men’s hearts — pride, ignorance, unbelief. Now the weapons of the ministry beat down these strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). Therefore Satan raises his militia, all the force and power of hell against the ministry. The kingdom of Satan is a ‘kingdom of darkness’ (Acts 26:18; Revelation 16:10), and God’s ministers are called the ‘light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14). They come to enlighten those that sit in darkness. This enrages Satan. Therefore he labours to eclipse the lights, to pull down the stars, that his kingdom of darkness may prevail. The devil is called a lion (1 Peter 5:8). The souls of people are the lion’s prey. The ministers’ work is to take away this prey from this lion. Therefore how will he roar upon them, and seek to destroy them!
(i) It shows us what a work the ministry is; though full of dignity, yet full of danger. The persecution of the tongue is the most gentle persecution can be expected. It is not possible (says Luther) to be a faithful preacher and not to meet with trials and oppositions.
(ii) It shows the corruption of men’s nature since the fall. They are their own enemies. They persecute those who come to do them most good. What is the work of the ministry but to save men’s souls? to pull them as ‘brands out of the fire’. Yet they are angry at this. We do not hate the physician who brings such physic as makes us sick, because it is to make us well; nor the surgeon who lances the flesh, because it is in order to a cure. Why then should we quarrel with the minister? What is our work but to bring men to heaven? ‘We are ambassadors for Christ . . .’ (2 Corinthians 5:20). We would have a peace made up between you and God; yet this is the folly of depraved nature, to requite evil for good. Aristoxenus used to moisten his flowers with wine, honey, and perfumes that they might not only smell more fragrantly but put forth more vigorously. So should we do with our ministers. Give them wine and honey. Encourage them in their work that they might act more vigorously. But instead of this we give them gall and vinegar to drink. We hate and persecute them. Most deal with their ministers as Israel did with Moses. He prayed for them and wrought miracles for them, yet they were continually quarrelling with him and sometimes ready to take away his life.
(iii) If the fury of the world be against the ministers, then you that fear God had need pray much for them. ‘Pray for us, that the Word of the Lord may have free course, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men.’ (2 Thessalonians 3:1, 2). People should pray for their ministers that God would give them the ‘wisdom of the serpent’, that they may not betray themselves to danger by indiscretion; and the boldness of the lion, that they may not betray the truth by fear.
The next thing to be explained is what that suffering persecution is which makes a man blessed.
1 I shall show what that suffering is which will not make us blessed.
(i) That suffering is not reckoned for martyrdom, when we pull a cross upon ourselves. There is little comfort in such suffering. Augustine speaks of some in his time who were called Circumcellions, who out of an itch rather than zeal of martyrdom, would run themselves into sufferings. These were accessory to their own death, like King Saul who fell upon his own sword. We are bound by all lawful means to preserve our own lives. Jesus Christ did not suffer till he was called to it. Suspect that to be a temptation which bids us cast ourselves down into sufferings. When men through precipitance and rashness run themselves into trouble, it is a cross of their own making and not of God’s laying upon them.
(ii) That is not to be accounted martyrdom when we suffer for our offences. ‘Let none of you suffer as an evildoer’ (1 Peter 4:15). ‘We indeed suffer justly’ (Luke 23:41). I am not of Cyprian’s mind that the thief on the cross suffered as a martyr. No, he suffered as an evildoer! Christ indeed took pity on him and saved him. He died a saint, but not a martyr. When men suffer by the hand of the magistrate for their uncleanness, blasphemies etc., these do not suffer persecution, but execution. They die not as martyrs, but as malefactors. They suffer evil for being evil.
(iii) That suffering will not make men blessed, when they suffer, out of sinister respects, to be cried up as head of a party, or to keep up a faction. The apostle implies that a man may give his body to be burned, yet go to hell (1 Corinthians 13:3). Ambitious men may sacrifice their lives to purchase fame. These are the devil’s martyrs.
2 What that suffering persecution is which will make us blessed, and shall wear the crown of martyrdom.
(i) When we suffer in a good cause. So it is in the text. ‘Blessed are they which suffer for righteousness’ sake’. It is the cause that makes a martyr. When we suffer for the truth and espouse the quarrel of religion, this is to suffer for righteousness’ sake. ‘For the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain’ (Acts 28:20).
(ii) When we suffer with a good conscience. A man may have a good cause and a bad conscience. He may suffer for ‘righteousness’ sake’, yet he himself be unrighteous. Saint Paul, as he had a just cause, so he had a pure conscience. ‘I have lived in all good conscience to this day’ (Acts 23:1). Paul kept a good conscience to his dying day. It has made the saints go as cheerfully to the stake as if they had been going to a crown. Look to it that there be no flaw in conscience. A ship that is to sail upon the waters must be preserved from leaking. When Christians are to sail on the waters of persecution, let them take heed there be no leak of guilt in their conscience. He who suffers (though it be in God’s own cause) with a bad conscience, suffers two hells; a hell of persecution, and an hell of damnation.
(iii) When we have a good call. ‘Ye shall be brought before kings . . .’ (Matthew 10:18). There is no question but a man may so far consult for his safety that if God by his providence open a door, he may fly in time of persecution (Matthew 10:23). But when he is brought before kings, and the case is such that either he must suffer or the truth must suffer, here is a clear call to suffering, and this is reckoned for martyrdom.
(iv) When we have good ends in our suffering, namely, that we may glorify God, set a seal to the truth, and show our love to Christ. ‘Ye shall be brought before kings for my sake’ (Matthew 10:18). The primitive Christians burned more in love than in fire. When we look at God in our sufferings and are willing to make his crown flourish, though it be in our ashes, this is that suffering which carries away the garland of glory.
(v) When we suffer as Christians. ‘If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed’ (1 Peter 4:16). To suffer as a Christian is to suffer with such a spirit as becomes a Christian, which is:
When we suffer with patience. ‘Take, my brethren, the prophets for an example of suffering affliction and of patience’ (James 5:10). A Christian must not repine but say, ‘Shall I not drink the cup’ of martyrdom which my Father has given me? There should be such a spirit of meekness in a Christian’s suffering that it should be hard to say which is greater, his persecution or his patience. When Job had lost all, he kept the breastplate of innocence and the shield of patience. An impatient martyr is a solecism.
To suffer as Christians is when we suffer with courage. Courage is a Christian’s armour of proof. It steels and animates him. The three children or rather the three champions were of brave heroic spirits. They do not say to the king, ‘We ought not to serve your gods’, but ‘We will not’ (Daniel 3:18). Neither Nebuchadnezzar’s music nor his furnace could alter their resolution. Tertullian was called an adamant for his invincible courage. Holy courage makes us (as one of the fathers says) ‘have such faces of brass that we are not ashamed of the cross’. This is to suffer as Christians, when we are meek yet resolute. The more the fire is blown the more it flames. So it is with a brave-spirited Christian. The more opposition he meets with the more zeal and courage flames forth. What a spirit of gallantry was in Luther who said, writing to Melanchthon, ‘If it be not the cause of God we are embarked in, let us desert it! If it be his cause and will bear us out, why do we not stand to it?’
To suffer as Christians is to suffer with cheerfulness. Patience is a bearing the cross; cheerfulness is a taking up the cross. Christ suffered for us cheerfully. His death was a freewill offering (Luke 12:50). He thirsted to drink of that cup of blood. Such must our sufferings be for Christ. Cheerfulness perfumes martyrdom and makes it the sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savour to God. Thus Moses suffered cheerfully. ‘Moses, when he was come to years, chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season’ (Hebrews 11:24, 25). Observe: ‘When he was come to years’: It was no childish act. It was not in his nonage, but when he was of years of discretion. ‘He chose to suffer affliction,: Suffering was not so much his task as his choice. The cross was not so much imposed as embraced. This is to suffer as Christians, when we are volunteers; we take up the cross cheerfully, nay, joyfully. ‘They departed from the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name’ (Acts 5:41). Or as it is more emphatic in the original, ‘They rejoiced that they were so far graced as to be disgraced for the name of Christ’. Tertullian says of the primitive Christians, that they took more comfort in their sufferings than in their deliverance. And indeed well may a Christian be joyful in suffering because it is a great favour when God honours a man to be a witness to the truth. Christ’s marks in Saint Paul’s body were prints of glory. The saints have worn their sufferings as ornaments. Ignatius’ chains were his jewels. Never have any princes been so famous for their victories as the martyrs for their sufferings.
We suffer as Christians when we suffer and pray. ‘Pray for them which despitefully use you’ (Luke 6:28).
There are two reasons why we should pray for our persecutors.
Because our prayers may be a means to convert them. Stephen prayed for his persecutors: ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’ (Acts 7:60). And this prayer was effectual to some of their conversions. Augustine says that the church of God was beholden to Stephen’s prayer for all that benefit which was reaped by Paul’s ministry.
We should pray for our persecutors because they do us good, though against their will. They shall increase our reward. Every reproach shall add to our glory. Every injury shall serve to make our crown heavier. As Gregory Nazianzen speaks in one of his orations, Every stone which was thrown at Stephen was a precious stone which enriched him and made him shine brighter in the kingdom of heaven. Thus have I shown what that suffering is which makes us blessed, and shall wear the crown of martyrdom.
1 It shows us what the nature of Christianity is, namely, sanctity joined with suffering. A true saint carries Christ in his heart and the cross on his shoulders. ‘All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution’ (2 Timothy 3:12). Christ and his cross are never parted. It is too much for a Christian to have two heavens, one here and another hereafter. Christ’s kingdom on earth is the kingdom of the cross. What is the meaning of the shield of faith, the helmet of hope, the breastplate of patience, but to imply that we must encounter sufferings? It is one of the titles given to the church, ‘afflicted’ (Isaiah 54:11). Persecution is the legacy bequeathed by Christ to his people. ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation’ (John 16:33). Christ’s spouse is a lily among thorns. Christ’s sheep must expect to lose their golden fleece. This the flesh does not like to hear of. Therefore Christ calls persecution ‘the cross’ (Matthew 16:24). It is cross to flesh and blood; we are all for reigning. ‘When wilt thou restore the kingdom again to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6). But the apostle tells of suffering before reigning. ‘If we suffer, we shall also reign with him’ (2 Timothy 2:12). How loath is corrupt flesh to put its neck under Christ’s yoke, or stretch itself upon the cross! But religion gives no charter of exemption from suffering. To have two heavens is more than Christ had. Was the head crowned with thorns and do we think to be crowned with roses? ‘Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial’ (1 Peter 4:12). If we are God’s gold, it is not strange to be cast into the fire. Some there are that picture Erasmus half in heaven and half out. Methinks it represents a Christian in this life. In regard of his inward consolation he is half in heaven. In regard of his outward persecution he is half in hell.
2 See hence that persecutions are not signs of God’s anger or fruits of the curse, for ‘blessed are they that are persecuted’. If they are blessed who die in the Lord, are they not blessed who die for the Lord? We are very apt to judge them hated and forsaken of God who are in a suffering condition. ‘If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross’ (Matthew 27:40).The Jews made a question of it. They could hardly believe Christ was the Son of God when he hung upon the cross. Would God let him be reproached and forsaken if he were the Son of God? When the barbarians saw the viper on Paul’s hand, they thought he was a great sinner. ‘No doubt this man is a murderer’ (Acts 28:4). So when we see the people of God afflicted and the viper of persecution fastens upon them, we are apt to say, These are greater sinners than others, and God does not love them. This is for want of judgement. ‘Blessed are they who are persecuted’. Persecutions are pledges of God’s love, badges of honour (Hebrews 12:7). In the sharpest trial there is the sweetest comfort. God’s fanning his wheat is but to make it purer.
1 It reproves such as would be thought good Christians but will not suffer persecution for Christ’s sake. Their care is not to take up the cross, but to avoid the cross. ‘When persecution arises because of the word, by and by he is offended’ (Matthew 13:21). There are many professors who speak Christ fair, but will suffer nothing for him. These may be compared to the crystal which looks like pearl till it comes to the hammering, then it breaks. Many, when they see the palm-branches and garments spread, cry ‘Hosanna’ to Christ, but if the swords and staves appear, then they slink away. Bezal urged King Henry the Fourth (of France), then of Navarre, to engage himself in the Protestant religion, but he told him he would not launch out too far into the deep, so that, if a storm should arise, he might retreat back to the shore. It is to be feared there are some among us, who, if persecutions should come, would rather make Demas his choice than Moses his choice, and would study rather to keep their skin whole than their conscience pure. Erasmus highly extolled Luther’s doctrine, but when the Emperor threatened all that should favour Luther’s cause, he unworthily deserted it. Hypocrites will sooner renounce their baptism than take up the cross. If ever we should show ourselves Christians to purpose, we must with Peter throw ourselves upon the water to come to Christ. He that refuses to suffer, let him read over that sad scripture, ‘Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 10:33).
2 It reproves them who are the opposers and persecutors of the saints. How great is their sin! They resist the Holy Ghost. ‘Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?’ (Acts 7:51, 52). Persecutors offer affront to Christ in heaven. They tread his jewels in the dust, touch the apple of his eye, pierce his sides. ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ (Acts 9:4). When the foot was trodden on, the head cried out. As the sin is great, so the punishment shall be proportionable. ‘They have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink, for they are worthy’ (Revelation 16:6). Will not Christ avenge those who die in this quarrel? What is the end of persecutors? Diocletian proclaimed that the Christian churches and temples should be razed down, their Bibles burned. He would not permit any man that was a Christian to hold an office. Some of the Christians he cast alive into boiling lead. Others had their hands and lips cut off; only they had their eyes left that they might behold the tragedy of their own miseries. What was the end of this man? He ran mad and poisoned himself. Felix, captain to Emperor Charles the Fifth, being at supper at Augsburg, vowed he would ride up to the spurs in the blood of the Lutherans. A flux of blood came up that night into his throat wherewith he was choked. It were easy to tell how God’s hand has so visibly gone out against persecutors that they might read their sin in their punishment.
1 Let it exhort Christians to think beforehand and make account of sufferings. This reckoning beforehand can do us no hurt; it may do us much good.
(i) The fore-thoughts of suffering will make a Christian very serious. The heart is apt to be feathery and frothy. The thoughts of suffering persecution would consolidate it. Why am I thus light? Is this a posture fit for persecution? Christians grow serious in the casting up their spiritual accounts. They reckon what religion must cost them and may cost them. It must cost them the blood of their sins. It may cost them the blood of their lives.
(ii) The fore-thoughts of persecution will be as sauce to season our delights, that we do not surfeit upon them. How soon may there be an alarum sounded? How soon may the clouds drop blood? The thoughts of this would take off the heart from the immoderate love of the creature. Our Saviour at a great feast breaks out into mention of his death. ‘She hath prepared this against my burial’ (Mark 14:8). So the fore-thoughts of a change would be an excellent antidote against a surfeit.
(iii) The fore-thoughts of sufferings would make them lighter when they come. The suddenness of an evil adds to the sadness. This was ill news to the fool in the gospel (who reckoned without his host). ‘This night shall thy soul be required of thee’ (Luke 12:20). This will be an aggravation of Babylon’s miseries: ‘Her plagues shall come in one day’ (Revelation 18:8). Not that antichrist shall be destroyed in a day, but (‘in a day’) that is, suddenly. The blow shall come unawares, when he does not think of it. The reckoning beforehand of suffering alleviates and shakes off the edge of it when it comes. Therefore Christ, to lighten the cross, still forewarns his disciples of sufferings that they might not come unlooked for (John 16:33; Acts 1:7).
(iv) Fore-thoughts of persecution would put us in mind of getting our armour ready. It is dangerous as well as imprudent to have all to seek when the trial comes, as if a soldier should have his weapons to get when the enemy is in the field. Caesar, seeing a soldier whetting his sword when he was just going to fight, cashiered him. He that reckons upon persecution will be in a ready posture for it. He will have the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit ready, that he may not be surprised unawares.
Let us prepare for persecution. A wise pilot in a calm will prepare for a storm. God knows how soon persecution may come. There seems to be a cloud of blood hanging over the nation.
How shall we prepare for sufferings? Do three things.
1 Be persons rightly qualified for suffering.
2 Avoid those things which will hinder suffering.
3 Promote all helps to suffering.
1 Labour to be persons rightly qualified for suffering. Be righteous persons. That man who would suffer ‘for righteousness’ sake’ must himself be righteous. I mean evangelically righteous. In particular I call him righteous:
(i) who breathes after sanctity (Psalm 119:5). Though sin cleaves to his heart yet his heart does not cleave to sin. Though sin has an alliance, yet no allowance. ‘What I do I allow not!’ (Romans 7:15). A good man hates the sin to which Satan most tempts and his heart most inclines (Psalm 119:128).
(ii) A righteous person is one who makes God’s grace his centre. The glory of God is more worth than the salvation of all men’s souls. He who is divinely qualified is so zealously ambitious of God’s glory that he does not care what he loses, so God may be a gainer. He prefers the glory of God before credit, estate, relations. It was the speech of Kiliaz, that blessed martyr, ‘Had I all the gold in the world to dispose of, I would give it to live with my relations (though in prison), yet Jesus Christ is dearer to me than all.’
(iii) A righteous person is one who values the jewel of a good conscience at an high rate. Good conscience is a saint’s festival, his music, his paradise, and he will rather hazard anything than violate his conscience. They say of the Irish, if they have a good scimitar, a warlike weapon, they had rather take a blow on their arm than their scimitar should be hurt. To this I may compare a good conscience. A good man had rather sustain hurt in his body or estate than his conscience should be hurt. He had rather die than violate the virginity of his conscience. Such a man as this is evangelically righteous, and if God call him to it he is fit to suffer.
2 Avoid those things which will hinder suffering.
(i) The love of the world. God allows us the use of the world (1 Timothy 6:7, 8). But take heed of the love of it. He that is in love with the world will be out of love with the cross. ‘Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world’ (2 Timothy 4:10). He not only forsook Paul’s company but his doctrine. The love of the world chokes our zeal. A man wedded to the world will for thirty pieces of silver betray Christ and a good cause. Let the world be as a loose garment that you may throw off at pleasure. Before a man can die for Christ he must be dead to the world. Paul was crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14). It will be an easy thing to die when we are dead before in our affections.
(ii) Carnal fear. There is a twofold fear:
A filial fear, when a man fears to displease God. When he fears he should not hold out, this is a good fear. ‘Blessed is he that feareth always’. If Peter had feared his own heart better, and said, ‘Lord Jesus, I fear I shall forsake thee; Lord strengthen me’; doubtless Christ would have kept him from falling.
There is a cowardly fear, when a man fears danger more than sin, when he is afraid to be good; this fear is an enemy to suffering. God proclaimed that those who were fearful should not go to the wars (Deuteronomy 20:8). The fearful are unfit to fight in Christ’s wars. A man possessed with fear does not consult what is best, but what is safest. If he may save his estate, he will snare his conscience. ‘In the fear of man there is a snare’ (Proverbs 29:25). Fear made Peter deny Christ, Abraham equivocate, David feign himself to be mad. Fear will put men upon indirect courses, making them study rather compliance than conscience. Fear makes sin appear little and suffering great. The fearful man sees double. He looks upon the cross through his perspective twice as big as it is. Fear argues sordidness of spirit. It will put one upon things most ignoble and unworthy. A fearful man will vote against his conscience. Fear enfeebles. It is like the cutting off Samson’s locks. Fear melts away the courage. ‘Their hearts melt because of you’ (Joshua 2:9). And when a man’s strength is gone he is very unfit to carry Christ’s cross. Fear is the root of apostasy. Spira’s fear made him abjure and recant his religion. Fear hurts one more than the adversary. It is not so much an enemy without the castle as a traitor within endangers it. It is not so much sufferings without as traitorous fear within which undoes a man. A fearful man is versed in no posture so much as in retreating. Oh take heed of this! Be afraid of this fear. ‘Fear not them that can kill the body’ (Luke 12:4). Persecutors can but kill the body which must shortly die. The fearful are set in the forefront of them that shall go to hell (Revelation 21:8). Let us get the fear of God into our hearts. As one wedge drives out another, so the fear of God will drive out all other base fear.
(iii) Take heed of a facile spirit. A facile-spirited man will be turned any way with a word. He will be wrought as wax. He is so tame that you may lead him whither you will. ‘With fair speeches they deceive the hearts of the simple’ (Romans 16:18). A facile Christian is malleable to anything. He is like wool that will take any dye. He is a weak reed that will be blown any way with the breath of men. One day you may persuade him to engage in a good cause, the next day to desert it. He is not made of oak but of willow. He will bend every way. Oh take heed of a facile spirit! It is not ingenuity but folly to suffer one’s self to be abused. A good Christian is like Mount Sion that cannot be moved (Psalm 125:1). He is like Fabricius of whom it was said, a man might as well alter the course of the sun as turn him aside from doing justice. A good Christian must be firm to his resolution. If he be not a fixed, he will be a falling star.
(iv) Take heed of listening to the voice of the flesh. St Paul ‘conferred not with flesh and blood’ (Galatians 1:16). The flesh will give bad counsel. First King Saul consulted with the flesh and afterwards he consulted with the devil. He sends to the witch of Endor. Oh, says the flesh, the cross of Christ is heavy! There is a nail in the yoke which will tear, and fetch blood. Be as a deaf adder stopping your ears to the charmings of the flesh.
3 Promote those things which will help to suffer.
(i) Inure yourselves to suffering. ‘As a good soldier of Christ endure hardship’ (2 Timothy 2:3). Jacob made the stone his pillow (Genesis 28:18). ‘It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth’ (Lamentations 3:27). The bearing of a lighter cross will fit for the bearing of an heavier. Learn to bear a reproach with patience and then you will be fitter to bear an iron chain. Saint Paul died daily. He began with lesser sufferings and so by degrees learned to be a martyr. As it is in sin, a wicked man learns to be expert in sin by degrees. First he commits a lesser sin, then a greater, then he arrives at custom in sin, then he grows impudent in sin, then he glories in sin (Philippians 3:19); so it is in suffering. First a Christian takes up the chips of the cross, a disgrace, a prison, and then he carries the cross itself.
Alas how far are they from suffering who indulge the flesh: ‘. . . that lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches’ (Amos 6:4); a very unfit posture for suffering. That soldier is like to make but poor work of it who is stretching himself upon his bed when he should be in the field exercising his arms. What shall I say, says Jerome, to those Christians who make it all their care to perfume their clothes, to crisp their hair, to sparkle their diamonds, but if sufferings come, and the way to heaven has any water in it, they will not endure to set their feet upon it! Most people are too effeminate. They use themselves too nicely and tenderly. Those ’silken Christians’ (as Tertullian calls them) that pamper the flesh, are unfit for the school of the cross. The naked breast and bare shoulder is too soft and tender to carry Christ’s cross. Inure yourselves to hardship. Do not make your pillow too easy.
(ii) Be well skilled in the knowledge of Christ. A man can never die for him he does not know. ‘For which cause I suffer those things; for I know whom I have believed’ (2 Timothy 1:12). Blind men are always fearful. A blind Christian will be fearful of the cross. Enrich yourselves with knowledge. Know Christ in his virtues, offices, privileges. See the preciousness in Christ. ‘To you that believe he is precious’ (1 Peter 2:7). His name is precious; it is as ointment poured forth. His blood is precious; it is as balm poured forth. His love is precious; it is as wine poured forth. Jesus Christ is made up of all sweets and delights. He himself is all that is desirable. He is light to the eye, honey to the taste, joy to the heart. Get but the knowledge of Christ and you will part with all for him. You will embrace him though it be in the fire. An ignorant man can never be a martyr. He may set up an altar, but he will never die for an unknown God.
(iii) Prize every truth of God. The filings of gold are precious. The least ray of truth is glorious. ‘Buy the truth and sell it not’ (Proverbs 23:23). Truth is the object of faith (2 Thessalonians 2:13), the seed of regeneration (James 1:18), the spring of joy (1 Corinthians 13:6). Truth crowns us with salvation (1 Timothy 2:4). If ever you would suffer for the truth, prize it above all things. He that does not prize truth above life will never lay down his life for the truth. The blessed martyrs sealed to the truth with their blood. There are two things God counts most dear to him, his glory and his truth. ‘I will’, says Bishop Jewel’, ‘deny my bishopric; I will deny my name and credit, but the truths of Christ I cannot deny.’
(iv) Keep a good conscience. If there be any sin allowed in the soul, it will unfit for suffering. A man that has a boil upon his shoulders cannot carry a heavy burden. Guilt of conscience is like a boil. He that has this can never carry the cross of Christ. If a ship be sound and well-rigged, it will sail upon the water, but if it be full of holes and leaks, it will sink in the water. If conscience be full of guilt (which is like a leak in the ship), it will not sail in the bloody waters of persecution. An house will not stand in a storm, the pillars of it being rotten. If a man’s heart be rotten, he will never stand in a storm of tribulation. How can a guilty person suffer when for ought he knows he is like to go from the fire at the stake to hell-fire! Let conscience be pure. ‘Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience’ (1 Timothy 3:9). A good conscience will abide the fiery trial. This made the martyrs’ flames beds of roses. Good conscience is a wall of brass. With the Leviathan, ‘it laughs at the shaking of a spear’ (Job 41:29). Let one be in prison, good conscience is a bird that can sing in this cage. Augustine calls it ‘the paradise of a good conscience’.
(v) Make the Scripture familiar to you (Psalm 119:50). The Scripture well digested by meditation will fit for suffering. The Scripture is a Christian’s palladium, his magazine and fort-royal. It may be compared to the ‘tower of David on which there hang a thousand bucklers’ (Canticles 4:4). From these breasts of Scripture divine strength flows into the soul. ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (Colossians 3:16). Jerome speaks of one who by frequent studying the Scripture made his breast ‘the library of Christ’. The blessed Scripture as it is an honeycomb for comfort, so an armoury for strength. First, the martyrs’ ‘hearts did burn within them’ (Luke 24:32) by reading the Scripture, and then their bodies were fit to burn. The Scripture arms a Christian both against temptation and persecution.
Against temptation: Christ himself, when he was tempted by the devil ran to Scripture for armour: ‘It is written’. Three times he wounds the old serpent with his sword. Jerome says of Saint Paul, he could never have gone through so many temptations but for his Scripture-armour. Christians, are you tempted? Go to Scripture; gather a stone hence to fling in the face of a Goliath-temptation. Are you tempted to pride? Read that scripture, ‘God resisteth the proud’ (1 Peter 5:5). Are you tempted to lust? Read James 1:15, ‘When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin when it is finished, bringeth forth death’.
Against persecution: When the flesh draws back the Scripture will recruit us. It will put armour upon us and courage into us. ‘Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. Behold the devil shall cast some of you into prison that you may be tried and you shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life’ (Revelation 2:10). O, says the Christian, I am not afraid to suffer. ‘Fear none of those things thou shalt suffer.’ But why should I suffer? I love God and is not this sufficient? Nay, but God will try your love. It is ‘that ye may be tried’. God’s gold is best tried in the furnace. But this persecution is so long! No, it is but for ‘ten days’. It may be lasting but not everlasting. What are ten days put in balance with eternity? But what am I the better if I suffer? What comes of it? ‘I will (says God) give thee a crown of life’. Though your body be martyred your soul shall be crowned. But I shall faint when trials comer ‘My grace shall be sufficient’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). The weak Christian has omnipotence to underprop him.
(vi) Get a suffering frame of heart.
What is that? you say. I answer: A self-denying frame. ‘If any man will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross’ (Matthew 16:24). Self-denial is the foundation of godliness, and if this be not well-laid, the whole building will fall. If there be any lust in our souls which we cannot deny, it will turn at length either to scandal or apostasy. Self-denial is the thread which must run along through the whole work of religion. The self-denying Christian will be the suffering Christian. ‘Let him deny himself and take up his cross’.
For the further explication of this, I shall do two things.
1 Show what is meant by this word deny.
2 What is meant by self.
1 What is meant by deny? The word ‘to deny’ signifies to lay aside, to put off, to annihilate oneself. Beza renders it ‘let him renounce himself’.
2 What is meant by self? Self is taken four ways:
A man must deny worldly self, that is, his estate. ‘Behold we have forsaken all and followed thee’ (Matthew 19:27). The gold of Ophir must be denied for the pearl of price. Let their money perish with them (said that noble Marquess of Vico) who esteem all the gold and silver in the world worth one hour’s communion with Christ.
A man must deny relative self, that is, his dearest relations, if God calls. If our nearest alliance, father or mother, stand in our way and would hinder us from doing our duty, we must either leap over them or tread upon them. ‘If any man come to me and hate not father and mother and wife and children, etc., he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). Relations must not weigh heavier than Christ.
A man must deny natural self. He must be willing to become a sacrifice and make Christ’s crown flourish, though it be in his ashes. ‘They loved not their lives unto the death’ (Luke 14:26; Revelation 12:11). Jesus Christ was dearer to them than their own heart’s blood.
A man must deny self self. This I take to be the chief sense of the text. He must deny carnal ease. The flesh cries out for ease. It is loath to put its neck under Christ’s yoke or stretch itself upon the cross. The flesh cries out, ‘There is a lion in the way’ (Proverbs 22:13). We must deny our self-ease. They that lean on the soft pillow of sloth will hardly take up the cross. ‘Thou as a good soldier of Christ endure hardness’ (2 Timothy 2:3). We must force a way to heaven through sweat and blood. Caesar’s soldiers fought with hunger and cold.
A man must deny self-opinion. Every man by nature has an high opinion of himself. He is drunk with spiritual pride, and a proud man is unfit for suffering. He thinks himself too good to suffer. What (says he) I that am of such a noble descent, such high parts, such repute and credit in the world, shall I suffer? A proud man disdains the cross. Oh deny self-opinion! How did Christ come to suffer? ‘He humbled himself and became obedient unto death’ (Philippians 2:8). Let the plumes of pride fall.
A man must deny self-confidence. Peter’s confidence undid him. ‘Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended; though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee’ (Matthew 26:33, 35). How did this man presume upon his own strength, as if he had more grace than all the apostles besides! His denying Christ was for want of denying himself. Oh deny your own strength! Samson’s strength was in his locks. A Christian’s strength lies in Christ. He who trusts to himself shall be left to himself. He who goes out in his own strength comes off to his own shame.
A man must deny self-wisdom. We read of the ‘wisdom of the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 1:12). Self-wisdom is carnal policy. It is wisdom (says the flesh) to keep out of suffering. It is wisdom not to declare against sin. It is wisdom to find out subtle distinctions to avoid the cross. The wisdom of the flesh is to save the flesh. Indeed there is a Christian prudence to be used. The serpent’s eye must be in the dove’s head. Wisdom and innocence do well, but it is dangerous to separate them. Cursed be that policy which teaches to avoid duty. This wisdom is not from above but is devilish (James 3:15). It is learned from the old serpent. This wisdom will turn to folly at last. It is like a man who to save his gold throws himself overboard into the water. So the politician to save his skin will damn his soul.
A man must deny self-will. Saint Gregory calls the will the commander-in-chief of all the faculties of the soul. Indeed, in innocence, Adam had rectitude of mind and conformity of will. The will was like an instrument in tune. It was full of harmony and tuned sweetly to God’s will, but now the will is corrupt and like a strong tide carries us violently to evil. The will has not only an indisposition to good, but an opposition. ‘Ye have always resisted the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 7:51). There is not a greater enemy than the will. It is up in arms against God (2 Peter 2:10). The will loves sin and hates the cross. Now if ever we suffer for God we must cross our own will. The will must be martyred. A Christian must say, Not my will but thy will be done.
A man must deny self-reasonings. The fleshy part will be reasoning and disputing against sufferings. ‘Why reason you these things in your hearts?’ (Mark 2:8). Such reasonings as these will begin to arise in our hearts:
1 Persecution is bitter.
Oh but it is blessed! ‘Blessed is he that endureth temptation . . .’ (James 1:12). The cross is heavy, but the sharper the cross, the brighter the crown.
2 But it is sad to part with estate and relations.
But Christ is better than all. He is manna to strengthen; he is wine to comfort; he is salvation to crown.
3 But liberty is sweet.
This restraint makes way for enlargement. ‘Thou hast enlarged me in distress’ (Psalm 4:1). When the feet are bound with irons, the heart may be sweetly dilated and enlarged.
Thus should we put to silence those self-reasonings which are apt to arise in the heart against sufferings.
This self-denying frame of heart is very hard. This is ‘to pluck out the right eye’. One says, a man has not so much to do in overcoming men and devils as in overcoming himself. ‘Stronger is he who conquers himself than he who conquers the strongest walled city’. Self is the idol, and how hard it is to sacrifice this idol and to turn self-seeking into self-denial! But though it be difficult it is essential to suffering. A Christian must first lay down self before he can take up the cross.
Alas! how far are they then from suffering that cannot deny themselves in the least things; who in their diet or apparel, instead of martyring the flesh, pamper the flesh! Instead of taking up the cross take up their cups! Is this self-denial, to let loose the reins to the flesh? It is sure that they who cannot deny themselves, if sufferings come, will deny Christ. Oh Christians, as ever you would be able to carry Christ’s cross, begin to deny yourselves. Consider:
Whatever you deny for Christ, you shall find again in Christ. ‘Every one that hath forsaken houses or brethren or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my name’s sake shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life’ (Matthew 19:29). Here is a very saving bargain. Is it not gain enough to have ten in the hundred, nay above an hundred for one?
It is but equity that you should deny yourselves for Christ. Did not Jesus Christ deny himself for you? He denied his joy; he left his Father’s house; he denied his honour; he endured the shame (Hebrews 12:2); he denied his life; he poured out his blood as a sacrifice upon the altar of the cross (Colossians 1:20). Did Christ deny himself for you, and will not you deny yourselves for him?
Self-denial is the highest sign of a thoroughpaced Christian. Hypocrites may have great knowledge and make large profession, but it is only the true-hearted saint that can deny himself for Christ. I have read of an holy man who was once tempted by Satan, to whom Satan said, Why do you take all these pains? You watch and fast and abstain from sin. O man, what do you more than I? Are you no drunkard, no adulterer? No more am I. Do you watch? Let me tell you, I never slept. Do you fast? I never eat. What do you more than I? Why, says the good man, I will tell thee, Satan; I pray; I serve the Lord; nay, more than all, I deny myself. Nay, then, says Satan, you go beyond me for I exalt myself. And so he vanished. Self-denial is the best touchstone of sincerity. By this you go beyond hypocrites.
To deny yourselves is but what others have done before you. Moses was a self-denier. He denied the honours and profits of the court (Hebrews 11:24-26). Abraham denied his own country at God’s call (Hebrews 11:8). Marcus Arethusus’ who lived in the time of Julian the Emperor endured great torments for religion. If he would but have given an halfpenny towards the rebuilding of the idol’s temple, he might have been released, but he would not do it, though the giving of an halfpenny might have saved his life. Here was a self-denying saint.
There is a time shortly coming, that if you do not deny the world for Christ, the world will deny you. The world now denies satisfaction, and ere long it will deny house-room. It will not suffer you so much as to breathe in it. It will turn you out of possession; and, which is worse, not only the world will deny you, but Christ will deny you. ‘Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is heaven’ (Matthew 10:33).
(vii) Get suffering graces; these three in particular:
Faith; Love; Patience.
Suffering grace is faith. ‘Above all, taking the shield of faith’ (Ephesians 6:16). The pretence of faith is one thing, the use of faith another. The hypocrite makes faith a cloak, the martyr makes it a shield. A shield is useful in time of danger; it defends the head; it guards the vitals. Such a shield is faith. Faith is a furnace grace. ‘Though it be tried with fire, it is found unto praise and honour’ (1 Peter 1:7). Faith, like Hercules’ club, beats down all oppositions. By faith we resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9). By faith we resist unto blood (Hebrews 11:34). Faith is a victorious grace. The believer will make Christ’s crown flourish, though it be in his own ashes. An unbeliever is like Reuben: ‘Unstable as water he shall not excel’ (Genesis 49:4). A believer is like Joseph, who, though the archers shot at him, ‘his bow abode in strength.’ Cast a believer upon the waters of affliction, he can follow Christ upon the water, and not sink. Cast him into the fire, his zeal burns hotter than the flame. Cast him into prison, he is enlarged in spirit. Paul and Silas had their prison songs. ‘Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder’ (Psalm 91:13). A Christian, armed with faith as a coat of mail, can tread upon those persecutions which are fierce as the lion and sting as the adder. Get faith.
But how comes faith to be such armour of proof? I answer,
Six manner of ways.
(1) Faith unites the soul to Christ, and that blessed Head sends forth spirits into the members. ‘I can do all things through Christ . . .’(Philippians 4:13). Faith is a grace that lives all upon the borrow. As when we want water, we go to the well and fetch it; when we want gold, we go to the mine; so faith goes to Christ and fetches his strength into the soul, whereby it is enabled both to do and suffer. Hence it is that faith is such a wonderworking grace.
(2) Faith works in the heart a contempt of the world. Faith gives a true map of the world (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Faith shows the world in its night-dress, having all its jewels pulled off. Faith makes the world appear in an eclipse. The believer sees more eclipses than the astronomer. Faith shows the soul better things than the world. It gives a sight of Christ and glory. It gives a prospect of heaven. As the mariner in a dark night climbs up to the top of the mast and cries out, ‘I see a star’, so faith climbs up above sense and reason into heaven and sees Christ, that bright and morning star; and the soul, having once viewed his superlative excellencies, becomes crucified to the world. Oh, says the Christian, shall not I suffer the loss of all these things that I may enjoy Jesus Christ!
(3) Faith gets strength from the promise. Faith lives in a promise. Take the fish out of the water and it dies. Take faith out of a promise and it cannot live. The promises are breasts of consolation. The child by sucking the breast gets strength; so does faith by sucking the breast of a promise. When a garrison is besieged and is ready almost to yield to the enemy, auxiliary forces are sent in to relieve it. So when faith begins to be weak and is ready to faint in the day of battle, then the promises muster their forces together, and all come in for faith’s relief and now it is able to hold out in the fiery trial.
(4) Faith gives the soul a right notion of suffering. Faith draws the true picture of sufferings. What is suffering? Faith says, it is but the suffering of the body, that body which must shortly by the course of nature drop into the dust. Persecution can but take away my life. An ague or fever may do as much. Now faith giving the soul a right notion of sufferings and taking (as it were) a just measure of them, enables a Christian to prostrate his life at the feet of Christ.
(5) Faith reconciles providences and promises. As it was on St Paul’s voyage, providence seemed to be against him. There was a crosswind arose called Euroclydon (Acts 27:14), but God had given him a promise that he would save his life, and the lives of all that sailed with him in the ship (verse 24). Therefore when the wind blew never so contrary, Paul believed it would at last blow him to the haven. So when sense says, Here is a cross providence, sufferings come, I shall be undone, then faith says ‘all things shall work for good to them that love God’ (Romans 8:28). This providence, though bloody, shall fulfil the promise. Affliction shall work for my good. It shall heal my corruption and save my soul. Thus faith, making the wind and tide go together, the wind of a providence with the tide of the promise, enables a Christian to suffer persecution.
(6) Faith picks sweetness out of the cross. Faith shows the soul God reconciled and sin pardoned; and then how sweet is every suffering! The bee gathers the sweetest honey from the bitterest herb. ‘A bitter medicine often gives strength to the weary’. So faith from the sharpest trials gathers the sweetest comforts. Faith looks upon suffering as God’s love-token. Afflictions (says Nazianzen) are sharp arrows, but they are shot from the hand of a loving Father. Faith can taste honey at the end of the rod. Faith fetches joy out of suffering (John 16:20). Faith gets an honeycomb in the belly of the lion; it finds a jewel under the cross; and thus you see how faith comes to be such armour of proof. ‘Above all, taking the shield of faith’. A believer having cast his anchor in heaven cannot sink in the waters of persecution.
2 Suffering grace is love. Get hearts fired with love to the Lord Jesus. Love is a grace both active and passive.
(1) Love is active. It lays a law of constraint upon the soul; ‘The love of Christ constrains us’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). Love is the wing of the soul that sets it flying and the weight of the soul that sets it going. Love never thinks it can do enough for Christ. As he who loves the world never thinks he can take enough pains for it, love is never weary. It is not tired unless with its own slowness.
(2) Love is passive; it enables to suffer. A man that loves his friend will suffer anything for him rather than he shall be wronged. The Curtii laid down their lives for the Romans because they loved them. Love made our dear Lord suffer for us. As the pelican out of her love to her young ones, when they are bitten with serpents, feeds them with her own blood to recover them again, so when we had been bitten by the old serpent, that Christ might recover us he fed us with his own blood. Jacob’s love to Rachel made him almost hazard his life for her. ‘Many waters cannot quench love’ (Canticles 8:7). No, not the waters of persecution. ‘Love is strong as death’ (Canticles 8:6). Death makes its way through the greatest oppositions. So love will make its way to Christ through the prison and the furnace.
But all pretend love to Christ. How shall we know that we have such a love to him as will make us suffer? I answer: True love is a love of friendship, which is genuine and ingenuous when we love Christ for himself. There is a mercenary and meretricious love, when we love divine objects for something else. A man may love the queen of truth for the jewel at her ear, because she brings preferment. A man may love Christ for his ‘head of gold’ (Canticles 5:11), because he enriches with glory. But true love is when we love Christ for his loveliness, namely, that infinite and superlative beauty which shines in him, as Augustine says, ‘We love Jesus on account of Jesus’; that is, as a man loves sweet wine for itself.
True love is a love of desire, when we desire to be united to Christ as the fountain of happiness. Love desires union. The soul that loves Christ is ambitious of death because this dissolution tends to union. Death slips one knot and ties another.
True love is a love of benevolence, when so far as we are able we endeavour to lift up Christ’s name in the world. As the wise men brought him ‘gold and frankincense’ (Matthew 2:11), so we bring him our tribute of service and are willing that he should rise though it be by our fall. In short, that love which is kindled from heaven makes us give Christ the pre-eminence of our affection. ‘I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate’ (Canticles 8:2). It the spouse has a cup which is more juicy and spiced Christ shall drink off that. Indeed we can never love Christ too much. We may love gold in the excess, but not Christ. The angels do not love Christ to his worth. Now when love is boiled up to this height, it will enable us to suffer. ‘Love is strong as death’. The martyrs first burned in love, and then in fire.
3 The third suffering grace is patience. Patience is a grace made and cut out for suffering. Patience is a sweet submission to the will of God, whereby we are content to bear anything that he is pleased to lay upon us. Patience makes a Christian invincible. It is like the anvil that bears all strokes. We cannot be men without patience. Passion unmans a man. It puts him beside the use of reason. We cannot be martyrs without patience. Patience makes us endure (James 5:10). We read of a beast ‘like unto a leopard and his feet were as the feet of a bear and the dragon gave him his power . . .’ (Revelation 13:2). This beast is to be understood of the antichristian power. Antichrist may be compared to a leopard for subtlety and fierceness, and on his head was the name of blaspheming (verse 1), which agrees with that description of the man of sin, ‘He sitteth in the temple of God showing himself that he is God’ (2 Thessalonians 2:4); and the ‘dragon gave him power’ (verse 2), that is the devil, and ‘it was given to him to make war with the saints’ (Revelation 13:7). Well, how come the saints to bear the heat of this fiery trial? (verse 10): ‘Here is the patience of the saints.’ Patience overcomes by suffering. A Christian without patience is like a soldier without arms. Faith keeps the heart up from sinking. Patience keeps the heart down from murmuring. Patience is not provoked by injuries. It is sensible but not peevish. Patience looks to the end of sufferings. This is the motto: ‘God will guarantee the end also.’ As the watchman waits for the dawning of the morning, so the patient Christian suffers and waits till the day of glory begins to dawn upon him. Faith says, God will come, and patience says, I will stay his leisure. These are those suffering graces which are a Christian’s armour of proof.
(viii) Treasure up suffering promises. The promises are faith’s bladders to keep it from sinking. They are the breast-milk a Christian lives on in time of sufferings. They are honey at the end of the rod. Hoard up the promises.
God has made promises of direction that he will give us a spirit of wisdom in that hour, teaching us what to say. ‘I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist’ (Luke 21:15). You shall not need study. God will put an answer into your mouth. This many of God’s sufferers can set their seal to. The Lord has on a sudden darted such words into their mouths as their enemies could easier censure than contradict.
God has made promises of protection. ‘No man shall set on thee to hurt thee’ (Acts 18:10). How safe was Paul when he had omnipotence itself to screen off danger! And ‘there shall not an hair of your head perish’ (Luke 21:18). Persecutors are lions, but chained lions.
God has made promises of his special presence with his saints in suffering. ‘I will be with him in trouble’ (Psalm 91:15). If we have such a friend to visit us in prison, we shall do well enough. Though we change our place we shall not change our keeper. ‘I will be with him.’ God will hold our head and heart when we are fainting! What if we have more afflictions than others, if we have more of God’s company! God’s honour is dear to him. It would not be for his honour to bring his children into sufferings and leave them there. He will be with them to animate and support them, yea, when new troubles arise; ‘He shall deliver thee in six troubles’ (Job 5:19).
The Lord has made promises of deliverance. ‘I will deliver him and honour him’ (Psalm 91:15). God will open a back door for his people to escape out of sufferings. ‘He will with the temptation make a way to escape’ (1 Corinthians 10:13). Thus he did to Peter (Acts 12:7-10). Peter’s prayers had opened heaven, and God’s angel opens the prison. God can either prevent a snare or break it. ‘To God the Lord belong the issues from death’ (Psalm 68:20). He who can strengthen our faith can break our fetters. The Lord sometimes makes enemies the instruments of breaking those snares which themselves have laid (Esther 8:8).
In the case of martyrdom God has made promises of consolation. ‘Your sorrow shall be turned into joy’ (John 16:20). There is the water turned into wine. ‘Be of good cheer, Paul’ (Acts 23:11). In time of persecution God broaches the wine of consolation. Cordials are kept for fainting. Philip the Landgrave of Hesse, professed that he himself experienced the divine consolations of the martyrs. Stephen ’saw the heavens opened’ (Acts 7:56). Glover, that blessed martyr, cried out at the stake in an holy rapture, ‘He is come, He is come’, meaning the Comforter.
Promises of compensation. God will abundantly recompense all our sufferings, ‘in this life an hundred-fold, and in the world to come ‘life everlasting’ (Matthew 19:29). Augustine calls this the best and greatest usury. Our losses for Christ are gainful. ‘He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’ (Matthew 10:39).
(ix) Set before your eyes suffering examples. Look upon others as patterns to imitate. ‘Take my brethren the prophets for an example of suffering affliction’ (James 5:10). Examples have more influence upon us than precepts. The one instruct, the other animate. As they show elephants the blood of grapes and mulberries to make them fight the better, so the Holy Ghost shows us the blood of saints and martyrs to infuse a spirit of zeal and courage into us. Micaiah was in the prison; Jeremiah in the dungeon; Isaiah was sawn asunder. The primitive Christians, though their flesh boiled, roasted, dismembered, yet like the adamant they remained invincible. Such was their zeal and patience in suffering that their persecutors stood amazed and were more weary in tormenting than they were in enduring. When John Huss was brought to be burned, they put upon his head a triple crown of paper printed with red devils, which when he saw, says he, ‘My Lord Jesus Christ wore a crown of thorns for me, why then shall I not wear this crown, how ignominious soever?’ Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, when he came before the proconsul was bidden to deny Christ and swear by the Emperor; he replied: ‘I have served Christ these eighty-six years and he has not once hurt me, and shall I deny him now?’ Saunders that blessed martyr, said, ‘Welcome the cross of Christ; my Saviour began to me in a bitter cup and shall not I pledge him? You Baynham, you papist that look for miracles, I feel no more pain in the fire than if I were in a bed of down.’ Another of the martyrs said, ‘The ringing of my chain has been sweet music in my ears. O what a comforter (says he) is a good conscience!’ Another martyr, kissing the stake, said, ‘I shall not lose my life but change it for a better. Instead of coals I shall have pearls!’ Another, when the chain was fastening to him, said, ‘Blessed be God for this wedding girdle!’ These suffering examples we should lay up. God is still the same God. He has as much love in his heart to pity us and as much strength in his arm to help us. Let us think with ourselves what courage the very heathens have shown in their sufferings. Julius Caesar was a man of an heroic spirit. When he was foretold of a conspiracy against him in the senate-house, he answered he had rather die than fear. Mutius Scaevola having his hand held over the fire till the flesh fried and his sinews began to shrink, yet he bore it with an undaunted spirit. Quintus Curtius reports of Lysimachus, a brave captain, that being adjudged to be cast naked to a lion, when the lion came roaring upon him, Lysimachus wrapped his shirt about his arm and thrust it into the lion’s mouth and taking hold of his tongue killed the lion. Did nature infuse such a spirit of courage and gallantry into heathens! How should grace much more into Christians! Let us be of St Paul’s mind: ‘Not counting my life dear, so that I might finish my course with joy’ (Acts 20:24).
(x) Let us lay in suffering considerations. A wise Christian is considerative.
Consider whom we suffer for. It is for Christ, and we cannot suffer for a better friend. There is many a man will suffer shame and death for his lusts. He will suffer disgrace for a drunken lust. He will suffer death for a revengeful lust. Shall others die for their lusts and shall not we die for Christ? Will a man suffer for that lust which damns him, and shall not we suffer for that Christ which saves us? Oh remember we espouse God’s own quarrel and he will not suffer us to be losers. If no man shall ‘kindle a fire on God’s altar for nought’ (Malachi 1:10), then surely no man shall sacrifice himself for God in the fire for nought.
It is a great honour to suffer persecution. Ambrose, speaking in the encomium of his sister said, ‘I will say this of her, she was a martyr’. It is a great honour to be singled out to bear witness to the truth. ‘They departed from the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name’ (Acts 5:41). It is a title that has been given to kings, ‘Defender of the faith’. A martyr is in a special manner, a ‘defender of the faith’. Kings are defenders of the faith by their swords, martyrs by their blood. Gregory Nazianzen calls Athanasius ‘the bulwark of truth’. It is a credit to appear for God. Martyrs are not only Christ’s followers, but his ensign-bearers. The Romans had their Camilli and Fabricii, brave warriors which graced the field. God calls out none but his champions to fight his battles. We read that Abraham called forth his trained soldiers (Genesis 14:14), such as were more expert and valiant. What an honour is it to be one of Christ’s trained band! The disciples dreamed of a temporal reign (Acts 1:6). Christ tells them (verse 8), ‘Ye shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem . . ’. To bear witness by their sufferings to the truth of Christ’s divinity and passion was a greater honour to the disciples than to have had a temporal reign upon earth. A bloody cross is more honourable than a purple robe. Persecution is called the ‘fiery trial’ (1 Peter 4:12). God has two fires, one where he puts his gold, and another where he puts his dross. The fire where he puts his dross is hellfire. The fire where he puts his gold is the fire of persecution. God honours his gold when he puts it into the fire. ‘A spirit of glory rests upon you’ (1 Peter 1:7; 1 Peter 4:14). Persecution, as it is a badge of our Order, so an ensign of our glory. What greater honour can be put upon a mortal man than to stand up in the cause of God? And not only to die in the Lord but to die for the Lord? Ignatius called his fetters his spiritual pearls. St Paul gloried more in his iron chain than if it had been a gold chain (Acts 28:20).
Consider what Jesus Christ endured for us. Calvin says that Christ’s whole life was a series of sufferings. Christian, what is your suffering? Are you poor? So was Christ. ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). Are you surrounded with enemies? So was Christ. ‘Against thy holy child Jesus whom thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles . . . were gathered together’ (Acts 4:27). Do our enemies lay claim to religion? So did his. ‘The chief priests took the silver pieces and said, It is not lawful to put them into the treasury because it is the price of blood’ (Matthew 27:6). Godly persecutors! Are you reproached? So was Christ. ‘They bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews’ (Matthew 27:29). Are you slandered? So was Christ. ‘He casteth out devils through the prince of devils’ (Matthew 9:34). Are you ignominiously used? So was Christ. ‘Some began to spit upon him’ (Mark 14:65). Are you betrayed by friends? So was Christ. ‘Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?’ (Luke 22:48). Is your estate sequestered? And do the wicked cast lots for it? So Christ was dealt with. ‘They parted his garments, casting lots’ (Matthew 27:35). Do we suffer unjustly? So did Christ. His very judge acquitted him. ‘Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man’ (Luke 23:4). Are you barbarously dragged and haled away to suffering? So was Christ. ‘When they had bound him (though he came to loose them) they led him away’ (Matthew 27:2). Do you suffer death? So did Christ. ‘When they were come to Calvary, there they crucified him’ (Luke 23:33). They gave him gall and vinegar to drink, the one deciphering the bitterness, the other the sharpness of his death. Christ underwent not only the blood of the cross but the curse of the cross (Galatians 3:13). He had an agony in his soul. ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death’ (Matthew 26:38). The soul of Christ was overcast with a cloud of God’s displeasure. The Greek Church speaking of the sufferings of Christ, calls them ‘unknown sufferings’. Did the Lord Jesus endure all this for us, and shall not we suffer persecution for his name? Say, as holy Ignatius, ‘I am willing to die for Christ, for Christ my love was crucified’. Our cup is nothing to the cup which Christ drank. His cup was mixed with the wrath of God, and if he bore God’s wrath for us, well may we bear man’s wrath of him.
Great is the honour we bring to Christ and the gospel by suffering. It was an honour to Caesar that he had such soldiers as were able to fight with hunger and cold and endure hardship in their marches. It is an honour to Christ that he has such listed under him as will leave all for him. It proclaims him to be a good Master when his servants will wear his livery though it be sullied with disgrace and lined with blood. Paul’s iron chain made the gospel wear a golden chain. Tertullian says of the saints in his time that they took their sufferings more kindly than if they had had deliverance. Oh, what a glory was this to the truth, when they durst embrace it in the flame! And as the saints, sufferings adorn the gospel, so they propagate it. Basil says, the zeal and constancy of the martyrs in the primitive times made some of the heathens to be Christianised. ‘The Church is founded in blood and by blood it increases’. The showers of blood have ever made the church fruitful. Paul’s being bound made the truth more enlarged (Philippians 1:13). The gospel has always flourished in the ashes of martyrs.
Consider who it is that we have engaged ourselves to in baptism. There we took our press-money. We solemnly vowed that we would be true to Christ’s interest and fight it out under his banner to the death. And how often have we in the blessed supper taken the oath of allegiance to Jesus Christ that we would be his liege-servants and that death should not part us! Now if when being called to it, we refuse to suffer persecution for his name, Christ will bring our baptism as an indictment against us. Christ is called ‘the Captain of our salvation’ (Hebrews 2:10). We have listed ourselves by name under this Captain. Now if, for fear, we shall fly from our colours, it is perjury in the highest degree, and how shall we be able to look Christ in the face another day? That oath which is not kept inviolably shall be punished infallibly. Where does the ‘flying roll’ of curses light, but in the house of him that ’sweareth falsely’ (Zechariah 5:4)?
Our sufferings are light. This ‘light affliction . . .’ (2 Corinthians 4:17) 1 It is heavy to flesh and blood, but it is light to faith. Affliction is light in a threefold respect:
1 It is light in comparison of sin. He that feels sin heavy feels suffering light. Sin made Paul cry out, ‘O wretched man that I am!’ (Romans 7:24). He does not cry out of his iron chain but of his sin. The greater noise drowns the lesser. When the sea roars the rivers are silent. He that is taken up about his sins, and sees how he has provoked God, thinks the yoke of affliction light (Micah 7:9).
2 Affliction is light in comparison of hell. What is persecution to damnation? What is the fire of martyrdom to the fire of the damned? It is no more than the pricking of a pin to a death’s wound. ‘Who knoweth he power of thine anger’ (Psalm 90:11)? Christ himself could not have borne that anger had he not been more than a man.
3 Affliction is light in comparison of glory. The weight of glory makes persecution light. If, says Chrysostom, the torments of all the men in the world could be laid upon one man, it were not worth one hour’s being in heaven. And if persecution be light we should in a manner set light by it. Let us neither faint through unbelief, nor fret through impatience.
Our sufferings are short: ‘After ye have suffered awhile’ (1 Peter 5:10); or as it is in the Greek, ‘a little’. Our sufferings may be lasting, not everlasting. Affliction is compared to a ‘cup’ (Lamentations 4:21). The wicked drink of a sea of wrath which has no bottom. It will never be emptied. But it is only a cup of martyrdom, and God will say, ‘Let this cup pass away’. ‘The rod of the wicked shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous’ (Psalm 125:3). The rod may be there, it shall not rest. Christ calls his sufferings ‘an hour’ (Luke 22:53). Can we not suffer one hour? Persecution is sharp, but short. Though it has a sting to torment, yet it has a wing to fly. ‘Sorrow shall fly away’ (Isaiah 35:10). It is but awhile when the saints shall have a writ of ease granted them. They shall weep no more, suffer no more. They shall be taken off the torturing wrack and laid in Christ’s bosom. The people of God shall not always be in the iron furnace; a year of Jubilee will come. The water of persecution like a land-flood will soon be dried up.
While we suffer for Christ we suffer with Christ: ‘If we suffer with him . . .’ (Romans 8:17). Jesus Christ bears part of the suffering with us. Oh, says the Christian, I shall never be able to hold out. But remember you suffer with Christ. He helps you to suffer. As our blest Saviour said: ‘I am not alone; the Father is with me’ (John 16:32); so a believer may say, ‘I am not alone, my Christ is with me’. He bears the heaviest end of the cross. ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deuteronomy 33:27). If Christ put the yoke of persecution over us, he will put his arms under us. The Lord Jesus will not only crown us when we conquer, but he will enable us to conquer. When the dragon fights against the godly, Christ is that Michael which stands up for them and helps them to overcome (Daniel 12:1).
He that refuses to suffer persecution shall never be free from suffering:
Internal sufferings. He that will not suffer for conscience shall suffer in conscience. Thus Francis Spira, after he had for fear abjured that doctrine which once he professed, was in great terror of mind and became a very anatomy. He professed he felt the very pains of the damned in his soul. He who was afraid of the stake was set upon the wrack of conscience.
External sufferings: Pendleton refused to suffer for Christ; not long after, his house was on fire and he was burned in it. He who would not burn for Christ was afterwards made to burn for his sins.
Eternal sufferings: ‘Suffering the vengeance of eternal fire’ (Jude 7).
These present sufferings cannot hinder a man from being blessed. ‘Blessed are they that are persecuted . . .’ We think, ‘Blessed are they that are rich’; nay, but ‘Blessed are they that are persecuted’. ‘Blessed is the man that endures temptation . . .’ (James 11, 12). ‘If ye suffer for righteousness, sake, happy are ye’ (1 Peter 3:14).
Persecution cannot hinder us from being blessed. I shall prove this by four demonstrations:
They are blessed who have God for their God. ‘Happy is that people whose God is the Lord’ (Psalm 144:15). But persecution cannot hinder us from having God for our God. ‘Our God is able to deliver us’ (Daniel 3:17). Though persecuted, yet they could say, ‘our God’. Therefore persecution cannot hinder us from being blessed.
They are blessed whom God loves, but persecution cannot hinder the love of God. ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall persecution?’ (Romans 8:35). The goldsmith loves his gold as well when it is in the fire as when it is in his bag. God loves his children as well in adversity, as in prosperity. ‘As many as I love I rebuke’ (Revelation 3:19). God visits his children in prison. ‘Be of good cheer, Paul’ (Acts 23:11). God sweetens their sufferings. ‘As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth’ (2 Corinthians 1:5). As the mother, having given her child a bitter pill, gives it afterwards a lump of sugar; persecution is a bitter pill but God gives the comforts of his Spirit to sweeten it. If persecution cannot hinder God’s love, then it cannot hinder us from being blessed.
They are blessed for whom Christ prays; but such as are persecuted have Christ praying for them. ‘Keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me’ (John 17:11); which prayer, though made for all believers, yet especially for his apostles which he foretold should be martyrs (John 16:2). Now if persecution cannot hinder Christ’s prayer for us, then it cannot impede or obstruct our blessedness.
They are blessed that have sin purged out; but persecution purges out sin (Isaiah 27:9; Hebrews 12:11). Persecution is a corrosive to eat out the proud flesh. It is a fan to winnow us, a fire to refine us. Persecution is the physic God applies to his children to carry away their ill humours. That surely which purges out sin cannot hinder blessedness.
(xi) The great suffering consideration is the glorious reward which follows sufferings: ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ The hope of reward, says Saint Basil, is very powerful and moving. Moses had an eye at the ‘recompense of reward’ (Hebrews 11:26), yea, Christ himself (Hebrews 12:2). Many have done great things for hope of a temporal reward. Camillus when his country was oppressed by the Gauls, ventured his life for his country, to purchase fame and honour. If men will hazard their lives for a little temporal honour, what should we do for the reward of glory? A merchant, says Chrysostom, does not mind a few storms at sea, but he thinks of the emolument and gain when the ship comes fraught home. So a Christian should not be over-solicitous about his present sufferings, but think of the rich reward when he shall arrive at the heavenly port. ‘Great is your reward in heaven’ (verse 12). The cross is a golden ladder by which we climb up to heaven. A Christian may lose his life, but not his reward. He may lose his head, but not his crown. If he that gives ‘a cup of cold water, shall not lose his reward, then much less he that gives a draught of warm blood. The rewards of glory may sweeten all the waters of Marah. It should be a spur to martyrdom.
Not that we can merit this reward by our sufferings. ‘I will give thee a crown of life’ (Revelation 2:10). The reward is the legacy which free grace bequeaths. Alas, what proportion is there between a drop of blood and a weight of glory? Christ himself, as he was man only (setting aside his Godhead), did not merit by his sufferings, for Christ, as he was man only, was a creature. Now a creature cannot merit from the Creator. Christ’s sufferings, as he was man only, were finite, therefore could not merit infinite glory. Indeed, as he was God, his sufferings were meritorious; but consider him purely as man, they were not. This I urge against the Papists. If Christ’s sufferings, as he was man only (though as man he was above the angels), could not merit, then what man upon earth, what prophet or martyr is able to merit anything by his sufferings?
But though we have no reward ‘ex merito’, by merit, we shall have it ‘ex gratia’, by grace. So it is in the text, ‘Great is your reward in heaven’. The thoughts of this reward should animate Christians. Look upon the crown, and faint if you can. The reward is as far above your thoughts as it is beyond your deserts. A man that is to wade through a deep water, fixes his eyes upon the firm land before him. While Christians are wading through the deep waters of persecution they should fix the eyes of their faith on the land of promise. ‘Great is your reward in heaven’. They that bear the cross patiently shall wear the crown triumphantly.
Christ’s suffering saints shall have greater degrees in glory (Matthew 19:28). God has his highest seats, yea, his thrones for his martyrs. It is true, he that has the least degree of glory, a doorkeeper in heaven, will have enough; but as Joseph gave to Benjamin a double mess above the rest of his brethren, so God will give to his sufferers a double portion of glory. Some orbs in heaven are higher, some stars brighter. God’s martyrs shall shine brighter in the heavenly horizon.
Oh, often look upon ‘the recompense of the reward’. Not all the silks of Persia, the spices of Arabia, the gold of Ophir, can be compared to this glorious reward. How should the thoughts of this whet and steel us with courage in our sufferings! When they threatened Basil with banishment, he comforted himself with this, that he should be either under heaven or in heaven. It was the hope of this reward which so animated those primitive martyrs, who, when there was incense put into their hands and there was no more required of them for the saving of their lives but to sprinkle a little of that incense upon the altar in honour of the idol, they would rather die than do it. This glorious reward in heaven is called a reigning with Christ. ‘If we suffer, we shall also reign with him’: first martyrs, then kings. Julian honoured all those who were slain in his battles. So does the Lord Jesus. After the saints’ crucifixion, follows their coronation. ‘They shall reign’. The wicked first reign and then suffer. The godly first suffer and then reign. The saints shall have a happy reign. It shall be both peaceable and durable. Who would not swim through blood to this crown? Who would not suffer joyfully? Christ says, ‘Be exceeding glad’ (verse 12). The Greek word signifies ‘to leap for joy’. Christians should have their spirits elevated and exhilarated when they contemplate the weight of glory.
If you would be able to suffer, pray much. Beg of God to clothe you with a spirit of zeal and magnanimity. ‘To you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake’ (Philippians 1:29). It is a gift of God to be able to suffer. Pray for this gift. Do not think you can be able of yourselves to lay down life and liberty for Christ. Peter was overconfident of himself. ‘I will lay down my life for thy sake’ (John 13:37). But Peter’s strength undid him. Peter had habitual grace, but he lacked auxiliary grace. Christians need fresh gales from heaven. Pray for the Spirit to animate you in your sufferings. As the fire hardens the potter’s vessel which is at first weak and limber, so the fire of the Spirit hardens men against sufferings. Pray that God will make you like the anvil that you may bear the strokes of persecutors with invincible patience.
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