- “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Would you refer to someone suffering persecution as a blessed individual? It seems odd to most of us. So in coming to the eighth and final beatitude of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, we arrive at a most unexpected pronouncement from our Lord. ““Blessed are those who are persecuted”?
- Here are people declared by our Lord to be “blessed” when they are insulted, persecuted and falsely maligned with all kinds of evil against them. How unusual for them to be commanded to, “Rejoice and be glad!”
Who would expect the eighth beatitude to follow the seventh? How could those described as “peacemakers” be persecuted? For that matter, do we expect the poor in spirit, meek and merciful to be so fiercely opposed? How could their lives be so provokingly different that others want to persecute them, insult them, and falsely say all kinds of evil against?
These words are so unexpected because we have a natural tendency to shield ourselves from persecution and insulate our lives from hardship. We prefer to avoid opposition. We pursue paths of least resistance. We want to minimize the pressures and burdens of life. And we consider ourselves blessed when we don’t have hardships like these.
We say: “I was blessed with good health.” When things go well and we are trouble free, we say: “God’s blessing was with us.” We simply do not consider it a blessing to face opposition and hostility.
We find the words of James 1:12 a bit unexpected – “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial…” It would seem more likely for us to say, “Blessed is the person who has no trials.”
Don’t forget to teach this
We must not underestimate the importance of what our Lord is saying. Like so much of His teaching, he startles us with the unexpected. And if we leave this part of his teaching out, we might encourage people to turn to God to be free from all the troubles of this life.
Some people turn to Christ partially motivated by this desire to be released (not so much from the burden of sin and condemnation) but from the trying circumstances of life.
Have you ever heard the recklessly irresponsible invitation, “Come to God and your troubles will be over!”? It is true that the weight of guilt and despair associated with our sin is lifted at salvation. The horrible burden of a condemning conscience is removed when we are forgiven by our Lord.
Blessing that leads to trials
The Psalmist declared, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity…” (Psalm 32:1-2). This is a real experience for those whom the Lord forgives. Yet it does not mean the removal of all troubles in this life.
When Jesus described various responses to the word of God, he spoke of people who “hear the word and at once receives it with joy.” Yet something was lacking because our Lord said, “they last only a short time.” What happened to these joyful recipients? Jesus said, “When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (see: Matthew 13:20-21).
Jesus anticipated superficial reception of the gospel on the part of some. But he also anticipated the possibility of trouble or persecution associated with receiving the gospel. When it becomes too costly, the self-seeking fall away.
Those who have worked in evangelism and discipleship are all too aware of this response.
Jesus wants it to be clear that hose who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (verse 6); those who live by the prayer “thy will be done on earth as it in heaven” (6:10); those who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (6:33), will be persecuted “because of righteousness” (for living by God’s standard of what is right) (5:10).
When Jesus says “blessed” he is not referring to their temporal emotional condition but to divine approval of their lives. He is also declaring them to be “highly honored and privileged.” They are to anticipate a great reward in heaven!
Unlike the first seven beatitudes, Jesus expanded on the eight one. He did this in verses 11-12, by personalizing it. He moved from the more general third person address used throughout the beatitudes to the second person form of address. He said: “blessed are you…”
These blessed followers of Christ are targets of three forms of abuse – ridicule (cast insults at you), persecution, and slander: (they say all manner of evil against you falsely). The reason for being treated this way is not only “because of righteousness” (living by God’s standard of what is right), but with very personal words, Jesus said, “because of me” (in direct relation to your commitment to Jesus) (cf. Matthew 10:40-42; Acts 9:1-5; Matthew 25:34-40).
Jesus later warned His followers, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. … Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also… They will treat you this way because of my name…” (John 15:18-21; cf. Colossians 1:24; Galatians 6:17; Philippians 1:29).
You cannot live a life of serious commitment to Jesus in a world under the rule of Satan without sooner or later engaging in conflict and experiencing persecution. It’s not just possible; it’s inevitable.
After the apostle Paul listed negative characteristics in the lives of unregenerate people in the last days, he wrote, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12).
And this reception by the world of unbelievers for the followers of Jesus is as inevitable as His reception. And the faithful steward of the gospel will not leave out this message when they call men and women to Christ, it is the message of the cross (cf. Matt.16:24).
Suffering for Christ is an unavoidable reality of discipleship to Jesus. The apostle Paul told the new disciples of Antioch “to continue in the faith” understanding that “through many hardships we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22; cf. I Thessalonians 3:3-4).
While it is true that the church of Jesus Christ throughout her history has known periods of rest and tranquility where she enjoyed the favor of God and men, persecution has been more common. The persecution doesn’t calm the zeal of Jesus’ true disciples. It doesn’t break their loyalty or dissuade their faithfulness. It ignites the zeal!
This is what happened because of a great persecution described in Acts 8. Most of the disciples were scattered from the safety of the home Church in Jerusalem. But those who were scattered “preached the word wherever they went.” This was the time when “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (see: Acts 8:1-4).
A reality of salvation
The reality of persecution this is linked deeply to what takes place in our lives at salvation. The scripture tells us that: “God called us out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). says: “You were once in darkness, now you are light in the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8). Jesus said, “He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The basic orientation of the unbeliever is to live in the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is the self-centered, self-indulgent life. We have much more than an external behavior problem or inner psychological challenge. The Bible tells us that the problem of humanity goes to our very nature and will. Before we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation, “we are by nature children destined for wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
We are people with a God-resisting nature. “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5), but the verdict over our lives is “light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil and, apart from God’s intervention, we will not come into the light for fear that our deeds will be exposed (see: John 3:19-20).
Light of the world
It is not coincidental that our Lord moved from the subject of persecution to a focus of the disciples’ influence as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16).
When Jesus said, “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house,” He addressed a temptation that has always challenged Christians. It’s the temptation to self-protectively Christianize our lives to insure minimal contact with unbelievers. It’s a temptation to bushel the light, to monasticize the church. We feel this temptation because those who are “the light of the world” are a source of conviction that “exposes the deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11).
The apostle John wrote, “Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you”(I John 3:13). The apostle Peter challenged a group of persecuted believers to, “Remain zealous for good.” (I Peter 3:13). He saying, “Don’t retreat. Don’t hide. Don’t bushel the light. Take the light to the darkness and let it shine! Live lives like well-lit cities on a hill that can’t be missed! let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14-16). But living this way means that we should expect opposition.
Persecution comes in various degrees and forms. It could be mild ridicule or social separation (Luke 6:22 – “they ostracize you”). Or, we might be the objects of hatred, slander, and false accusations. Sometimes when your testimony for Christ is known, unbelievers will put you under intense scrutiny and constant criticisms. Persecution can even come for simply living out biblical standards of hard work, honestly, reliability and going the extra mile.
Many experience the daily tension of either living or working with people who have an ungodly value system and morality.
- D.A. Carson wrote, “…even the Christian who come from a secure and understanding home will face flak somewhere. Perhaps at work, he will discover that some of his colleagues are saying of him, “Well, you know, he’s a Christian; but he carries it a bit too far. He won’t even cheat on his income tax. The other day when I offered to slip him a company binder that I knew he needed for his private papers at home, he turned it down. When I pressed him, he said that taking it would be stealing! And have you ever seen his face cloud over when I tell one of my jokes? What a prig!”
Some people live in the same house with unbelievers and this can be especially difficult. Sometimes the unbeliever doesn’t want to see the Bible around or will ask you not to bring up religion when people visit. They might also bring unsaved friends over and create an ungodly atmosphere in the home. There are untold numbers of ways a believer could experience persecution.
How should we respond?
Rejoice and be glad (cf. Acts 5:17-42)! Your present suffering has significant future and past connections. There is a great reward in the future! The apostle Paul wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18; cf. II Corinthians 4:16-18; I Peter1:6-9).
Then there is a noble link to the past, Jesus said, “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Consider these prophets. There is Elijah, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah…” Your sufferings are not new. Perhaps this is who the writer to the book of Hebrews has in mind when in he wrote of others who…
- “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:36-38; cf. Matthew 23:34; Luke 11:47-51; Jamaes 5:10).
Considering our great and noble heritage, we are compelled with Isaac Watts to sing,
“Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?”
Jesus said to keep one eye on the future and one on the past. “Great is your reward in heaven for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you, rejoice and be glad.”