READ : Matthew 5:10-12
Do you know what an oxymoron is? That’s a phrase whose two words seem to contradict each other, like the sign I saw asking for “Clean dirt.” Or how about this one, straight from the Beatitudes: “blessed persecution”?
When you step back and consider the beatitudes as a whole, one thing in particular stands out: the good life which these words of Jesus describe is very different from the good life as it’s popularly conceived. In fact, it’s more than different. It is directly contradictory.
Jesus’ ideas about what constitutes blessing are the exact opposite of what most people aspire to have or to be. In the world’s estimation, it is the rich who are blessed, not the poor. You don’t want to be poor, whether in spirit or any other way. According to humanity’s collective wisdom, the happiest place is at the top, not the bottom. The good life means being free from trouble and care, not feeling the weight of one’s sinfulness. It means being strong and aggressive, not meek and gentle; full, not hungry; successful, not pure; in control, not broken and reduced to absolute dependence upon God. The world thinks those are blessed who mind their own business and take care of themselves and their own, not those who are always going around trying to make peace or show mercy to strangers. Most of all, the consensus opinion is that you’re happiest when you’re comfortable and well off, pain-free, trouble-free, and popular.
This belief makes Jesus’ final beatitude sound all the more strange. Here it is:
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.
Persecution is suffering at the hands of others. It might be ridicule, ostracism, prejudice, discrimination, unfair treatment, or beatings, imprisonment, assaults, and even murder. And Jesus calls this a blessing? The world values wealth, power, security, comfort and self-sufficiency. Jesus says the truly well off are the lowly, the empty, the defenseless sufferers. Does this make sense? Only if there is a God and only if heaven is real – because heaven is exactly what God promises to those who are willing to face suffering because of their commitment to him.
Persecution and suffering are not subjects we like to think about or things we readily welcome, but Jesus’ words force us to face up to the truth. There’s no getting around it. If you want to be a Christian, you’re going to have to face persecution. And this is not just a necessary evil that goes along with the territory. Jesus tells us it is a positive blessing. Perhaps we had better listen more closely to what he has to say on the subject. He makes four points about it.
The first point Jesus makes about persecution for his followers is to expect it. This is the only beatitude out of the whole list that is doubled for emphasis. First Jesus makes the general statement that those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed. Anyone who experiences suffering because of his commitment to justice and the truth and what is right wins God’s approval. This is an unqualified truth. It doesn’t matter who he is, where he lives, even what religion he follows; God bestows his favor upon that person. But then Jesus goes on to make the same point by addressing his disciples directly: “Blessed are you when people insult you . . . persecute you . . . falsely accuse you because of me.” Here Jesus is speaking specifically to Christians, and he goes so far as to identify the cause of righteousness with himself. People who are on the side of the good are actually, whether they know it or not, fighting for Christ. And whoever else may be enlisted in the cause of righteousness, Jesus expects all of his followers to be there.
So really, this beatitude is a prophecy. If you are a Christian, you can expect to be slandered, insulted and mistreated as a result. This is going to happen. Don’t be taken aback or put off or confused by suffering, because it will come. A great preacher of the last century named John Henry Newman once remarked that since Christians stand beneath the cross of Jesus, we should not be surprised if some of his blood spills over onto us. If this is how he was treated by the world, then it should not come as a shock when we’re treated the same way. So expect opposition, even persecution. If you intend to be a Christian, then plan on paying the price. And don’t let it discourage you when it comes.
The thing Jesus wants us to do is to understand persecution. Despite Jesus’ warnings and despite his own example and that of his closest followers throughout all the ages, many Christians are still surprised and upset when they end up facing ridicule – or something stronger – on account of their faith. “Why is this happening?” we think. For most of us most of the time the persecution will be something pretty mild. It won’t be like it was for Christians in the Roman empire or in Stalin’s Russia or in some places like China or the Sudan or the Middle East even today. Our lives and liberty probably won’t be threatened. The most we will have to face is laughter or mocking, perhaps the loss of a friendship or being discriminated against at work or at school.
But even that is painful. And it helps if we understand just what’s going on. For, as Jesus observed, persecution arises against prophets. We become targets when our words and our lives start bearing witness to the living God. People who come to Christ inevitably begin to change. They start to live lives of righteousness. They begin to demonstrate justice and holiness, and to speak out against things like the oppression of the poor or the exploitation of the defenseless or inhuman treatment of the aged or the dying or the unborn. They talk about Jesus. They testify to the reality of new life in him, and all this upsets the world. When Christians begin to do these things, persecution arises.
A real-life example of this is happening today, among many other places, in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. When people in the Mayan cultures there are converted to Christ – and many hundreds and thousands have been in the last several decades – their lives immediately start to change. They break out of the cycle of drinking and spouse abuse, corruption and bribery, idolatry and witchcraft. They start to live lives that are distinctive, sober, upright and godly. The result is harsh persecution. Sometimes they are driven from their homes and villages, sometimes their property is seized and their homes destroyed. Sometimes they’re subjected to harassment, to beatings, even to death by gangs led by tribal authorities who prey upon them, while officials of the establishment look the other way. And yet their faith is vibrant and joyful and the evangelical church there continues to grow. This is how it has been throughout the world for 2,000 years. Persecution for righteousness’ sake, far from killing the church, only makes genuine faith in Christ flourish.
MAKE SURE YOU DON’T DESERVE IT
A third thing Jesus emphasizes to his disciples about persecution is to make sure that when it comes they have not deserved it. As Christians, “it’s important that we get in trouble for the right reasons” (F. Dale Bruner). Notice Jesus does not say that all persecution is blessed, only that which is for righteousness’ sake or on account of him. Jesus adds that if people are insulting you and falsely saying things against you, then you can rejoice. But not if what they say is true! The basic point is that if and when you experience ridicule or rejection or harsher treatment than that, be certain that you haven’t asked for it and that you don’t deserve it.
Sometimes Christians have invited persecution. In the early church it was even necessary for the leaders to make rules forbidding people from seeking out martyrdom because some were so excited they went out looking for trouble. I myself know of Christians who have been mocked or ridiculed, not so much because of their faithful witness to Christ as because they were making a nuisance of themselves or behaving obnoxiously. The first epistle of Peter is really an extended treatise on the subject of persecution. He reminds us there, as Jesus does here, that if we are mistreated we must be sure it is for doing right, not wrong (1 Peter 2:19,20). We must always bear witness to Christ, says Peter, with gentleness and respect (3:15,16). We must be willing to accept trouble if it is God’s will, but we should not seek it out (3:17) and above all, we must always take care not to do things that would legitimately call down punishment upon us (4:14-16). There is no merit or reward in suffering as a wrong-doer.
REJOICE IN IT
The final thing Jesus tells us to do with persecution is perhaps the most surprising thing of all. He says to rejoice in it; not rejoice for it, rejoicein it. There’s a difference. We don’t have to try to pretend that suffering is enjoyable or that pain is a pleasure. We don’t have to be glad for persecution, but we can be glad as a result of it. Jesus offers us two reasons why. First, “because great is your reward in heaven.” This is a reminder that God’s judgment differs from the world’s. What people laugh at, God blesses and honors. What the world sneers at, God rewards. The kingdom of heaven belongs not to the proud, the high and the mighty, but to humble followers of Jesus Christ who remain faithful to him no matter what it costs them. God blesses such people and he will reward them greatly some day. Suffering here, glory hereafter – this is the Christian watchword.
The second reason Jesus gives for rejoicing in persecution is because whenever you suffer for your faith, you are in great company. “Rejoice and be glad,” he says, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” – and, we might add, the apostles, the evangelists, the missionaries, the pastors, and the ordinary faithful Christians who have come ever since. Whatever trouble we endure for Christ’s sake can allow us to identify with Paul and Silas in the Philippian jailor’s prison, backs bleeding, arms and legs fastened in the stocks, but singing hymns of praise to God. Persecution enables us to join Peter and the apostles in rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. The best thing about persecution for Christ is that it is an infallible mark of authenticity. It validates your faith. It shows that you really do belong to him and to the company of his true believers. It may never be fun but it is always blessed. I know that sounds odd, but if you have ever experienced it, you know that it is so.
Prayer: Father, we praise you this day for all who are suffering for the sake of Christ and righteousness and we ask you to stand with them today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.