Jesus ended the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10 MEV)
That statement is so counterintuitive that he repeated it: “Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be very glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in this manner they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
We can’t earn salvation, but we can earn blessings by exhibiting certain characteristics. Each Beatitude builds on the one before. If anyone thinks he can be that kind of person on his own merit, he hasn’t gotten to the first rung on the ladder. The sequence begins with the admission that our own spirit has nothing to offer.
An unfallen world would honor the kind of people Beatitudes describe. Our world hates them. It certainly hated Jesus and tried to destroy him. Jesus warned on many occasions that it would treat his followers the same way.
What is persecution?
The Greek for persecute means to run after. Occasionally, it can mean something like pursuing a goal. Usually, however, it implies a hostile intent. Jesus himself coupled persecution with pursuit.
In pronouncing woe on the scribes and Pharisees, he declared, “Therefore I send you prophets, and wise men, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute them from city to city” (Matthew 23:34, emphasis added).
Indeed, Jews drove Paul out of Thessalonica and followed him to Berea to cause a riot there.
Throughout all of history in every culture, those in power have persecuted outsiders and anyone who seems different. Just consider schoolyard bullying to see how the impulse to persecute is hardwired into human nature.
Religious people, in claiming divine support for their actions, carry out the worst persecutions. It doesn’t have to be Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or other organized religions. Communism amounts to an atheistic state religion. Just consider how severely the Chinese government persecutes minorities.
But religious people also have such thin skin that they falsely wrap themselves in this Beatitude. We have probably all heard, or heard of, church people who claim to be persecuted if anyone dares to disagree with them or objects to their bad manners.
What persecution earns a blessing?
Jesus didn’t pronounce a blessing for all persecution. Racism and ethnic intolerance cause tremendous suffering, but the blessing only extends to persecution for righteousness’ sake. Or for Jesus’ sake, which he always claimed is the same thing.
We learn from the New Testament that no one but Jesus is inherently righteous. God imputes righteousness by faith. Jesus claimed, quite truthfully, to be God. No one else would dare to equate righteousness’ sake with his own sake. Religious people, who should have searched Scripture to determine the truth, subjected Jesus to judicial murder. Jesus pronounced blessing only on those who, literally or metaphorically, follow him to the cross.
Note also, the change of emphasis from “blessed are those” to “blessed are you” from verse 10 to verse 11. What’s more, he didn’t say “if” you are persecuted, but “when.”
But Jesus also specified when people “say all kinds of evil against you falsely.” When we act like a jerk, it’s true when people call us a jerk. People can be unnecessarily cruel to you if you’re in the wrong. Don’t claim a blessing in that case.
In short, all kinds of persecution exists. It runs the gamut from suffering violence for being in the wrong group in the persecutors’ eyes to insults from someone who just doesn’t like us. Jesus limits the blessing to persecution for being his follower and for being innocent of any wrongdoing.
What is the reward for persecution for righteousness sake?
Jesus said of the persecuted that theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
That reward is the same blessing promised in the first Beatitude to the poor in spirit. It’s not like Jesus could only think of seven blessings for eight categories of people. Each beatitude builds on all the others. With the eighth promising the same blessing as the first, we have come full circle.
When you stop to think about it, the only people who can say “my kingdom” in terms of ownership are royalty, or at least the nobility.
British subjects can say “my kingdom” because they live there. Queen Elizabeth can say “my kingdom” because she inherited it to reign. Other members of the royal family can say “my kingdom” in the same sense because they have precise roles in helping the queen. One or more members of the royal family will eventually inherit the kingdom and reign.
Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. That title can make sense only if his church comprises the kings he’s King over and the lords he’s Lord over. The New Testament has much to say about inheriting the kingdom, being a joint heir with Christ, and being adopted into God’s family. And God’s family, from Abel through the prophets, Jesus, and his followers, suffers in this world.
How should we respond to suffering?
Just as he repeated the blessing for persecution, he uses two synonyms to tell us how to respond. “Rejoice and be glad” occurs commonly in Scripture. In a sense, gladness is the weakest level of rejoicing. When I’m going through some kind of trouble, I can be glad it’s no worse. Or if I can’t manage that, I can be glad for nice weather or that my food tastes good.
But that’s not quite what Jesus meant. He said, “very glad,” or in some translations, “exult.” The Greek translation of the psalms often uses the same word Jesus used for “be glad.” English translations usually render it something like “shout for joy.”
Jesus explains that persecution has a great reward in heaven. Nowadays, lots of people ridicule Christianity for being about “pie in the sky by and by when you die,” but Jesus wants us to take heavenly rewards seriously. We should probably think of them more, not less. Keeping an eye on them can help us act more Christlike when we run into trouble.
God’s prophets all suffered persecution, be it ridicule or martyrdom. In the parallel passage in Luke 6:26, Jesus even goes on to say, Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers spoke of the false prophets.”
When people show hostility to us, it’s not always because we did something wrong. It can be a sign of doing something right. When the world treats us like it treated Jesus and the prophets, Jesus promises us the same heavenly reward. If we can rejoice in advance for the promise of a special Christmas present, surely we can rejoice in advance for the promise of inheriting the kingdom.
Persecution memorial. Some rights reserved by Stephen Craven
Martyrdom of Paul. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Flagellation of Christ. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Foxe’s Christian Martyrs 1907 image. Public domain from Flickr
Today I choose joy. Source unknown