“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
The verse before us this morning is perhaps one of the most difficult verses in the entire Bible. And I am not alone in saying that. In going through the commentaries in preparation for this message, I found them saying the exact same thing.
Why is it that this passage is so hard? It is not because it is an inconvenience. It is a tough one because it commands something that is 100% contrary to our natural instincts. This verse commands us to do something that goes against every inclination of our human nature.
And that is why I want to begin by reminding us how much we need Christ. It behooves us right now to throw ourselves at his feet and beg for his Spirit because this verse is so foreign to everything we know. If we are even going to begin to think about living out this verse, we need Christ to subdue our hearts and bridle the bitter inclinations that abide there.
Now the theme of the verse is easy to pick up because the word bless is used twice. And when you think of blessing others, you might initially thing, “Yeah, sure. No problem.” But when you consider who we must bless and how we must bless them, then your attitude quickly changes. And you understand how much you need the divine hand of God.
The passage says, “Bless those who persecute you.” Right away you see there how extreme this is. The difficultly of this verse becomes immediately obvious because of who it tells us we must bless.
I. It is difficult verse because of who it tells us we must bless.
The objects of our blessing are to be the people who have made us objects of their hate.
The language here is so vivid too. The word for persecute means “to pursue passionately.” It is the idea of being hunted. It is like a lion going after his prey. And those are the people who we are to bless. The people who are pursuing us—those people who are hounding us, these are the people we are to bless.
And you need to remember that the persecution being talked about here is persecution for our faith. It is persecution because our Christ-likeness is impinging on someone else’s life. It is persecution because we have been standing up against someone and speaking out against the life they have been leading or the things that they have been doing that have been wrong.
A lot of people think they are being persecuted because they have all kinds of people speaking harshly to them or harshly about them. But the fact is that they are not really undergoing persecution at all. What they are experiencing is the reaction of somebody to their sin. They have acted, not in a righteous way, but in a foolhardy way. So they are feeling the heat for it.
You can easily see someone who makes this mistake, can’t you? The man who goes to work and whose boss is always nagging him because he isn’t doing his work quick enough or well enough. You can hear the guy saying to one of his Christian friends, “Well, I really need your prayers. I’m really taking a lot of heat from my boss. He’s really coming down on me and he just won’t get off my back. He is always dogging me and just won’t stop.”
That isn’t persecution. That is discipline. What that person is experiencing is correction. The thing is that he isn’t responding properly to the correction. His unrighteousness has brought the wrath of his boss upon him.
But that is often the case with people. They think that they are being persecuted, but in all reality they are really being hounded because they are not living the way God wants them to. They are offending other people because they are not showing the honor or the deference that they should be. As a result they have all sorts of people coming down on them.
But what this verse is talking about is true persecution. It is talking about being hounded because you believe in God. This is someone who is being hunted because he is actively living out the law of God and promoting God’s ways. It is this kind of situation that is being talked about. And those people who are hounding and hunting us are to be the people we bless.
And that’s what makes this verse such a difficult verse. It is easy to bless those who are our bosom buddies. It is easy to bless those who bless us. I would even say it is not all that difficult to bless those people who come down on us because of the wrong we do. We might not want to. But it is a lot easier than blessing those who despise you when you’ve never done anything wrong. To bless someone who is attacking you simply because you are doing what is right, now that is hard.
But the law of God calls us to it. We are to be giving the highest respect everyone. And our love and respect is to extend even to those who would be qualified as the worst enemies of God! Even to those who mistreat us unjustly.
I know that this is hard, and the next part of the verse doesn’t make it any easier. Because it not only tells us who we should bless, it tells us how we must bless them.
II. How we must bless them.
And it tells us that the blessing that we bless them with must be both pure and positive.
A. This blessing must be a pure blessing.
Paul specifically says, “bless and do not curse.” In other words, you may not permit one drip of cursing to be pronounced. If you do, your blessing has just been defiled, and you’ve just broken this command.
Now remember what a curse is in this instance. This is not just cursing in that you say a bad word; what we typically think of as cussing. That’s not what this means. This cursing is the biblical kind of cursing where you call down evil upon someone. And he’s saying, no matter how harshly someone treats you, you must not do that.
How hard is that? This is so extreme! Part of the reason it is so hard is because it is so radically opposed to our natural instincts. When we are mistreated, our natural reaction is to get back at that person. That’s most especially true when we are filled with righteous indignation. We just become so inflamed and want to ring that person’s neck.
Here you can think of the disciples when they were rejected by the Samaritans. I’m sure you can sympathize with them. Jesus and his crew were on their way to Jerusalem and they had to go through Samaria. And Jesus sent some of his band ahead to a certain village to make preparations for them so that they could be provided for along the way. But the people of the village wouldn’t allow for it. The disciples were aghast! Who do these people think they are treating the Son of God like this. This is preposterous! They knew who Jesus was. They had heard of his miracles and his teaching. Now they are giving him the cold shoulder. They are slamming the doors in his face. The disciples are filled with righteous rage. So they turn to Jesus and say, “Lord, do you want us to curse these people? Do you want us to call down fire from heaven?”
But Jesus said, “No!” Actually the Scripture says that he rebuked them. In other words, he really came down on his disciples and let them know that that is not the way they are to act.
Now you have to wonder about this because the disciples had some biblical precedent for their actions. We read in the OT about how Elijah called down fire from heaven, which came down and licked up 100-150 soldiers. And you might ask, “What gives?”
Well, in Elijah’s case we have to remember that he was a prophet. He knew what God’s will was, and really it was God who was calling down the curse upon those soldiers. Elijah was just God’s mouthpiece at that moment. Moreover, Elijah’s curses were not done out of a vengeful spirit. The cursing at that moment was intended for the wider body of Israel. The curses that Elijah called down were so that the rest of the people of Israel would turn to God and fear Him.
When you read the passage with the disciples, you get the sense that they were not concerned at all for the Samaritan people. They merely wanted revenge! They just wanted to teach those spiteful Samaritans a lesson.
And that is typically what we want, isn’t it? We most likely do not care about that person’s soul or anyone else’s soul. We just want justice. We just want that person hurt because they have hurt us. But God doesn’t want us to lash out at our enemies. He doesn’t want us to curse them. He wants us to give them nothing but pure blessing.
And if it is going to be a pure blessing, it needs to be a positive blessing.
B. Our blessing must be positive
In other words, we must really and truly “bless them.” The word bless is from the Greek word “eulogeo,” which literally means to “speak well of.” You know when you go to a funeral you may have to give a eulogy. And in the eulogy, you speak a good word about the person who is laying in the coffin beside you.
That is what God wants us to do with those who persecute us. Though they be dead to the things of God, God wants us to speak well of them and treat them with kindness. That means we have no right to speak in a disrespectful manner to them or to slander them. We never have that right. Rather we must continue to treat them with the highest esteem and in accord with the law of love.
Perhaps an illustration from Paul’s own life might be good here. Remember that toward the end of the book of Acts Paul is imprisoned for his faith by the Roman officials. And once he was brought out to speak in behalf of his defense. As he talked he spoke with the utmost respect, even addressing the scoundrel that held him captive without cause as the “‘most excellent’ Felix.” Paul continued to honor his civil superior, even though Felix wasn’t worthy of much respect.
This is how God calls us to act. To be positive in our blessing. We are to commend the good things about them. Or, if we cannot find anything of good report we are to remain silent and only let prayers be offered up on their behalf, that God would bless them.
And this really begs the question of how do we pray for our enemies? I mean the greatest blessing we can offer them is our prayers, isn’t it? The greatest thing we can do for our enemies is speak favorably of them to our God. So how do we pray for them?
When we pray for our enemies we should pay that God would pour out upon them the greatest blessing he could ever give someone: a spirit of repentance. We pray he would bless them by putting a stop to their wicked ways.
You will notice that I didn’t say that he would bless them and prosper them in their wicked ways. That would be no blessing at all to them, would it? That would be a curse to them. That would only mean letting them heap misery upon themselves and the others around them. What we want is a positive prayer, a prayer that seeks their welfare. So when we pray for our enemies, we should pray that God bless them by correcting them and causing their wicked ways to cease.
This week I was doing some research and I came across a good quote from Martin Luther on how to pray for our enemies. Luther said, “We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends, and if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than [infringing upon] the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.”
That is a great prayer for our persecutors. We should pray that they be converted and be our friends, or that their plans would fail rather than letting the gospel be perverted or hindered. Luther went on to give the illustration of a Christian woman named Anastasia. Anastasia was married to an idolatrous man who was a notorious persecutor of Christians. He had hated them so much that he even threw his own wife into a horrible prison, in which she had to stay until she died. But despite being treated in such a way she sought to bless her husband. She wrote to a Christian friend and asked him to pray for her husband that, ‘if possible, he be converted and believe; but if not, that he be unable to carry out his plans and that God soon make an end of his ravaging.” And Luther says, “Thus she prayed him to death, for he went to war and did not return home.”
“So we, too, pray for our angry enemies, not that God protect and strengthen them in their ways, as we pray for Christians, or that He help them, but that they be converted, if they can be; or, if they refuse, that God oppose them, stop them and end the game to their harm and misfortune.”
But Matt, it’s like you are praying imprecatory Psalms. How is that positive? How is that pure? It seems like you are cursing them more than blessing them. I admit that if you are doing that with a spirit of revenge and no care for the gospel ministry, then that is wrong. But if you are seeking their welfare and the welfare of the gospel, then such a prayer is warranted. If any harm comes to them, the blood is not on your hands. It is God who is breaking out against them.
Our problem is though that most likely we would use such a prayer in the wrong way (with the wrong motive). Most likely our desire for revenge would cloud our minds and we’d simply want the person injured, rather than converted.
That’s why we must deal with our own hearts before we deal with our enemies. That’s why we must go to Jesus and seek the power of God. Because God always calls us higher; and this is perhaps the highest of our callings: to bless, and not curse our persecutors.
When in Egypt some years ago a minister held a service for some soldiers who were in the area. The minister asked a big sergeant who was a bright and shining Christian to tell the rest of the men how he came to know the Lord. As he recounted his testimony he said this, “There was a private in the company who had been converted before his regiment came to Egypt. We gave that fellow a terrible time. The devil got possession of me, and I made that man’s life a positive burden to him. Well, one night, a terribly wet night, he came in sopping wet and tired. But before getting into bed he got down on his knees to pray. My boots were heavy with wet and mud, and I let him have one on one side of the head and then on the other side. But he did not retaliate. He simply continued on with his prayers. The next morning I found my boots at his bedside. The night before I had just kicked them off and let them sit, caked in mud. But I found them cleaned and beautifully polished. That was his reply to me, and it just broke my heart.”
The sergeant was so amazed that his foe would respond in such a way, that he ended up giving his life to Christ. I’m sure loving that sergeant wasn’t easy. But the love that he showed was certainly the power of God.
May the same spirit fill our hearts and may God give us the power to bless and not curse our enemies.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.