We have been studying the beatitudes that are found at the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We have observed that these blessing statements are counter cultural and not natural to human thinking. But Matthew 5:10-12 may be the most counterintuitive and countercultural statement Jesus makes in the beatitudes.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10–12 ESV)
Even more interesting is that Jesus says it twice. Both of the “blessed” statements say you are blessed when you are persecuted. It is so hard to believe that Jesus had to say it twice so that we would not dismiss the declaration. We need to hear it twice so we do not deny its truth.
Notice the basis for the persecution. Those who belong to the kingdom of heaven will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. People will utter all kinds of evil against you on Jesus’ account. Notice that persecution is not only torture or physical opposition, but insults and malice. Jesus teaches the need to expect suffering for right living and for godly teaching. Our natural inclination is to flee persecution by closing our mouth and forfeiting right living. But we must listen to Jesus. We are not doing something wrong when people speak evil against us because of the name of Jesus. We are not doing something wrong when we are persecuted for living a righteous, godly life. We will be tempted to change the way we live and speak because we think that the world’s resistance to our lives means we need to make the change. We do not need to make the change. We are the light in the world. Light and darkness cannot mix. The scriptures are filled with declarations that the world is going to resist us and cause us harm for the sake of Jesus.
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:12–13 ESV)
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1 Peter 4:14–16 ESV)
Not only should persecution be expected because we are trying to live a righteous life, but Jesus warns us to consider if we have no trouble at all. In Luke’s account, often called the Sermon on the Plain, listen to what Jesus said:
Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26 ESV)
Remember that these beatitudes are describing those who belong to the kingdom. Those who belong to the kingdom endure persecution and continue to live righteously. Jesus told a parable about a sower sowing seed on different soils. Listen to the result from the seed sown on rocky ground.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20–21 ESV)
The point is that there are going to be all kinds of people who look like they have received the word of God, even receiving the word with joy. They will remain with the Lord for a time but when difficulties or persecution arises because of Jesus’ word, these will immediately fall away. Suffering and persecution of the cause of Christ reveals the true motives of our hearts. God allows these tribulations for his name to occur so that we can be proven faithful to him (cf. Daniel 7). We see this in all kinds of areas in our lives. Marriage is always a useful analogy, especially because our relationship with Jesus is often pictured as a marriage in the New Testament. Marriage can be very easy during the honeymoon. The commitment is easy. But when our covenant vow to remain together “for better” turns into “for worse,” then the commitment to the marriage is truly revealed. The same is true with our commitment to each other in the church. We must remain together not only for the better but also during the worse. God’s true followers remain with him during resistance and suffering for his name. Our love for God is so great that we are faithful to him even when oppressed. We will follow Jesus without reservation such that we will suffer for him. We must seek God’s will in spite of what others want. This is ultimately what our decision comes down to. The approval of God is greater than our desire for the approval of others. Otherwise we will not endure when others revile us, persecute us, and utter all kinds of evil against us for Jesus’ name (Matthew 5:11).
Rejoice and Be Glad
But more than this, I want you to see that this is not just a simple statement of blessing upon those who will suffer for his name. There is a command given to us. There is encouragement given to us. Listen to it in verse 12: “Rejoice and be glad.” Has that caught your eye before? When you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, rejoice and be glad. When people revile you because of Jesus, rejoice and be glad. When people persecute you, rejoice and be glad. When people utter all kinds of evil against you for Jesus, rejoice and be glad. We see the apostles practicing this.
And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:40–41 ESV)
There are two reasons given as the basis for the ability to rejoice and be glad when you are reviled and persecuted. First, Jesus says to rejoice and be glad “for your reward is great in heaven.” This is the sufficient reason for gladness in persecution. You are laying up for yourselves treasures in heaven when you are willing to be ridiculed for your faith and righteous living. You are making the right choice! When you decide to not deny Christ but openly admit your faith in him and live in such a way that confirms that faith to the world, your reward in heaven is great. This is the great reward. Here is our hope in the future. Notice that good living conditions today is not our hope to remain faithful to God in difficulties. Our hope is not that things will be better tomorrow. Our hope is not that we will not be killed for his name. Our hope is not that our suffering will be light or quick. Our hope is that the reward in heaven is great. This is all that matters! Disciples are willing to follow Jesus faithfully and boldly affirm his identity despite the cost to ourselves because of the promise of a great reward in heaven. This is the strength that God gives us to stand. This is why we will withstand persecution faithfully.
There is a second basis for rejoicing and being glad when we are reviled and persecuted is that they persecuted the prophets also. You are experiencing what other godly people have suffered. To say this another way, join the club. What you are experiencing is not unique. You are not going through something that no other Christian has ever gone through. We sometimes think in these terms that we are the only ones who have to make such a sacrifice. Sometimes it will look like this in the present. We think that we are the only ones suffering for righteousness’ sake and it does not look like anyone else is. But this is not a competition. Remember what happened at the end of John’s gospel. Jesus is telling Peter that he is going to give up his life early for Jesus. “But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress and carry you where you do not want to go. This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” (John 21:18-19). Peter asks about the disciple whom Jesus loved, “Lord, what about this man?” (John 21:21). Remember what Jesus said. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). It does not matter if no one else is sacrificing their lives for Jesus. What is that to you? You follow Jesus. You know what you are called to do. You are joining the club with the apostles and prophets who gave their lives completely for Jesus, even to the death.
It is a privilege to suffer for Jesus. We must change our thinking so that we understand this and act in this way. Remember what the Lord has taught us.
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:29–30 ESV)
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. (2 Timothy 2:11–12 ESV)
Seek the Lord and love Jesus even when the conditions are not favorable to do so. Follow Jesus without reservation, willing to suffer for him. This can only happen by denying ourselves and loving Jesus. Keep your eyes on the future. Your reward is great in heaven and others have suffered just like you. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10 ESV)