READ : Matthew 5:10-12
Persecution is a prophet’s reward. It’s how people treat those who bear witness to the truth.
When you look at the beatitudes as a whole, one thing in particular stands out: the good life which these sayings 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. It’s the exact opposite of what the world considers to be the good life.
In the popular mind, the mind that’s expressed, for example, in the glossy magazines you see in the supermarket, it’s the rich and the famous who are blessed, not the poor in spirit. You don’t want to be poor. According to collective wisdom the happiest place is at the top, not the bottom. The good life means being free from trouble and care, not mourning because of one’s failures. It means being strong and aggressive, not meek and gentle; full, not hungry for righteousness; successful, not pure in heart; in control, not broken and reduced to absolute dependence upon God.
The world thinks that those people are blessed who mind their own business and take care of themselves, not those who are always going around trying to make peace or show mercy. And most of all, the world says you’re happiest when you’re comfortable and well off, when your life is pain-free and trouble-free.
And that attitude makes Jesus’ last 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 say all kinds of evil against you falsely 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 simply suffering at the hands of others. It might be ridicule or ostracism. It could be prejudice or discrimination, or unfair treatment. It could also be physical beating, imprisonment, even murder. And Jesus calls all of this a blessing. The world values wealth, power, security, comfort and self-sufficiency. Jesus says the truly well off are the lowly, the empty, and 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 aren’t things that we like to think about and we certainly don’t readily welcome them, but Jesus’ words force us to confront this truth. There’s no getting around it. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus, you will face persecution. And this isn’t just a necessary evil that goes along with the territory. No. Jesus tells us this is a positive blessing. Let’s think a little more closely about what he means.
There’s four points that we can make with respect to persecution. And the first is that we should expect it. This is the only beatitude out of the whole list that is doubled, and I think Jesus did that for emphasis. First you notice he makes a general statement. He says anyone who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake is blessed. And I think by that he means anyone from whatever background, even from whatever religion who’s willing to stand up and commit themself to justice and truth and who suffers as a result wins approval from God. That’s an unqualified truth. It doesn’t matter who the person is, God bestows favor upon the person who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
But then Jesus says that a little bit differently and applies it directly to his own disciples: “Blessed are you,” he says, “when people insult you . . . persecute you . . . falsely accuse you because of me.” So there Jesus is speaking specifically to Christians, and he identifies the cause of righteousness with loyalty to himself. People who are on the side of the good are actually, whether they realize it or not, standing up for Jesus Christ. They’re on his side. And whoever else may be enlisted in that cause of righteousness, Jesus expects that all of his followers will be there.
So really, in a sense this beatitude is a prophecy. If you are a Christian, if you are actively following Jesus Christ, you can expect trouble as a result. It could be slander, insults, mistreatment. It could be something worse. A great preacher of the last century named John Henry Newman once remarked that as Christians we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, and so we shouldn’t be surprised if some of his blood spatters on us. If that’s how Jesus was treated when he stood for righteousness, it shouldn’t come as a shock if we receive a little bit of the same kind of treatment. So if you’re a Christian you can expect it, and don’t let it discourage you when it comes. Be willing to pay the price.
The second point Jesus wants us to understand about persecution is to really know why it’s coming. Despite Jesus’ warnings here, despite this beatitude, despite his own example and that of his closest followers through the ages, many of us are still surprised and upset when we end up facing opposition on account of our faith. “Why is this happening?” we think. For most of us most of the time persecution will be something fairly mild. It isn’t like that, of course, for some Christians in the world today in certain places. And it hasn’t been that way for many others in other times and places.
But even mocking and laughter and subtle discrimination is painful. And I think it helps us if we understand just why that’s happening. It helps us to endure it. Notice what Jesus said, “in the same way [people] persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Persecution is a prophet’s reward. It’s how people treat those who bear witness to the truth.
The fact is that when someone becomes a Christian, a real Christian, inevitably their life begins to change. It takes on more of the life of Christ himself. People who are following Jesus begin to demonstrate holiness in their own person and a commitment to justice. So they start to speak out against or work against things like the oppression of the poor, or the exploitation of the helpless, or the mistreatment 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 of that is deeply upsetting to the powers that be.
A real-life example of how following Jesus arouses persecution (a prophet’s reward) is happening today 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 few decades their lives immediately start to change. They break out of the cycle of drunkenness and abuse and corruption and bribery, idolatry and witchcraft. They begin to live lives that are distinctive, to use a New Testament phrase from the book of Titus, they are “sober, upright and godly lives.”
And the result is predictable: harsh persecution by the village elders, by the economic forces that rule in those towns and cities of southern Mexico. Sometimes the evangelicals’ property is seized and their homes are destroyed. Sometimes they are subjected to harassment, or beatings, even death by gangs led by the tribal authorities. The officials of the establishment all the while look the other way. And yet in this vibrant community of faith, this evangelical church continues to grow. That’s how it has been for 2,000 years now. Persecution for righteousness’ sake, far from killing the church, actually tends to make genuine faith in Christ flourish.
MAKE SURE YOU DON’T DESERVE IT
Here’s a third thing to understand about persecution: make sure you don’t deserve it. As someone has said, “it’s important that we get in trouble for the right reasons” (F. Dale Bruner). Notice that Jesus does not say all persecution is blessed, only that which is for righteousness’ sake or on account of him. And he tells you, make sure that if people are falsely saying things against you, you can rejoice. You can’t rejoice if they have a case to be made against you. The basic point is that if you experience opposition or persecution or harsh treatment, be sure you haven’t asked for it or that you don’t deserve it.
Sometimes Christians have invited persecution. In fact, in the early church it was necessary for the church leaders to make rules forbidding people from seeking out martyrdom. People were so intense and so eager to bear witness to Christ that they actually courted death, and the church said, “No, that’s wrong.” We all probably could think of examples of Christians who were sincere and well meaning, but they did something ridiculous or made a nuisance of themselves, or behaved obnoxiously. If you’re persecuted or if you’re mistreated because of bad behavior, there’s no reward really for that.
Peter says in his first letter, chapter 2, that we must be mistreated for doing right, not for doing wrong (vv. 19-20). We must bear witness to Christ with gentleness and respect (3:15-16). And if it’s God’s will, we should be willing to accept trouble, but don’t seek it out (3:17). There is no merit or reward if you suffer for unrighteousness’ sake!
REJOICE IN IT
And finally this with regard to persecution. “Rejoice in it,” Jesus says. Rejoice not for it, but rejoice in 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 for what results from it.
Jesus actually offers us two reasons why we should rejoice.
First, “because great is your reward in heaven.” It’s a reminder, the most basic reminder of all, that this world is not all that there is. Ultimately, we need to live our lives here for the sake of what is coming hereafter. And we need to remember that God’s judgment contradicts the world’s judgment. What people laugh at, God blesses and honors. What the world mocks, God rewards. The kingdom of heaven does not belong to the proud, to the high and the mighty. It belongs to humble followers of Jesus Christ who remain faithful to him no matter what the cost. God blesses such people and he will reward them greatly some day. Suffering now, glory later that’s the Christian way.
And the second reason Jesus gives for rejoicing in persecution: Whenever you suffer for your faith, you’re in good 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 martyrs, the missionaries, the pastors, the ordinary faithful followers who have come ever since.
Whatever trouble we endure for Christ’s sake can allow us to identify with all these saints, with Paul and Silas in the Philippian jailor’s prison, their backs bleeding, their arms and legs fastened in the stocks, but singing hymns of praise to God. It enables us to join company with Peter and the other apostles who rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
The best thing about persecution for the sake of Jesus Christ is that it is a real mark of authenticity. It validates your faith. It shows that you really do belong to him and to the company of his true followers. It may never be fun, but it is always blessed. I know that sounds odd, but if you have ever experienced it, I think you know that it is true.