Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted

Matthew 5:10-12

Christian persecution is not only a certain reality in this world for those who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it also is something which indicates how blessed Christ's people truly are.

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If I were to describe for you what a baseball is, then I could do so from a couple of a different avenues. I could tell you that the inside of the baseball is made of a cork, with some string wound around it, and that this inner part is then covered with a while leathery material and stitched together with red string. This would be describing both the inside of the baseball and the outside of the baseball. I'd be describing its inner realities which cause its outer apperance and function to be what it is.

Similarly, those in the kingdom can be described not only from what they are in the inside but also from what they are on the outside.

Poverty in spirit and mourning are very much internal realities -- they concern the inner being of a person. The soul and the heart.

Meekness and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and mercy are things which begin inwardly but necessarily will creep out of a person.

If you are meek, you know that you are by how you feel towards others. If you hunger and thirst for what is right, then you will aim for producing it in your life. If you have a heart of mercy toward others then you will act and live in a merciful manner.

Having a pure heart lifts a sinner’s head from out of somber introspection and onto the only thing worth living for -- the glory of God. A pure devotion to making much of the glory of God will then necessarily be evident in every facet of a person’s life, inwardly and outwardly.

And being a peacemaker is an outward trait -- it involves being consumed with God’s glory to such an extent that you want other sinners to find the same delight and satisfaction in God’s greatness that you have found, so you tell the world about the reconciling work of Christ. You proclaim the gospel of peace which makes God’s enemies into his friends. The work of Christ doesn’t make salvation possible. The reconciling death of Christ on the cross actually accomplishes salvation for his people.

But I could also describe a baseball by what it other things around it do to it. Gloves catch it. Pitchers throw it. Bats hit it.

And so also a kingdom citizen is described not only by what he or she is like on the inside, and by what they are like on the outside, but also by how others around them interact with them.

For those of us who are a part of the kingdom of heaven, we are sometimes treated well by those around us because we proclaim the gospel of peace.

You may speak of how God can be reconciled to sinners to a loved one in pain and suffering, and it might be received with great joy. That might be just the thing that an anxious soul that is pondering eternity needs to hear. You might speak of how Christ is the only way to God to a neighbor who has been struggling for years to try to please God with his or her good works and religious deeds -- and the truth of the Gospel might be warmly received and embraced as the thing that your neighbor’s soul had been craving. When Jonah preached repentance to the city of Nineveh, what did they do? They glorified God by repenting. When Peter preached the great sermon at Pentecost, thousands were added to the church. So it is true that the aim of peacemaking is that the sinner would glorify God in turning to Christ. This is what Jesus says about the result of us manifesting our kingdom attributes in Matthew 5:16 -- “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

But then we find that there is a second very real and very necessary reaction by those around us. When we act like kingdom citizens are supposed to act, because we think and feel and desire like kingdom citizens are supposed to think, feel and desire -- when this happens then we’ll also be treated with scorn, mockery, disdain, ridicule, insult and even injury.

And this is what Jesus is teaching us in Matthew 5:10-12.

So let’s read together this last of the beatitudes so that we can see the necessary result of being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:10-12 - “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.”

This section of Jesus’ teaching is obviously different from the rest of the Beatitudes -- because he gives the regular beatitude form in verse 10, but then we have the elaboration in verses 11 and 12.

It very well may have been the case that Jesus gave fuller explanations after all of his beatitudes in other settings in which he taught them, but we only have an explanation recorded for us in Matthew’s account for this last of them.

So in order to help us as those who are a part of his kingdom, Jesus tenderly and lovingly explains to us why it is that we should consider ourselves blessed when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Because he considers us blessed when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

And there’s one more thing we need to clarify before we dive into what Jesus is teaching to his listeners here.

Three times in these three verses we find the word translated in English as “persecuted” or “persecute.” It’s the same Greek word all three times, and it is the standard word that we find in the NT for persecution. Another example of it is found in the conversion of Saul:

Acts 9:4–5 - “And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

This word means “to persecute,” but it has another sense that it is frequently used for in the NT. Listen to these verses and see if you can figure out where this word is used:

Hebrews 12:14 - “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

2 Timothy 2:22 - “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

Philippians 3:14 - “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

In Hebrews 12:14 the writer tells us to “strive for peace.” In 2 Timothy 2:22 Paul tells Timothy to “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace.” And in Philippians 3:14 the Apostle writes, “I press on toward the goal.”

Strive. Pursue. Press on. Same word has we have in Matthew 5:10-12 for “persecute.”

And what this observation indicates is the fact that persecution involves the sense of seeking out and pursuing.

If you are being persecuted, then you are being sought out and pressed. There is intent by the persecutor toward the one being persecuted. Those who persecute others have set themselves with purpose in order to harass them.

And we have an elaboration on what this pursued persecution is in verse 11 -- Jesus there says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” To be persecuted is also to be reviled and to have all kinds of evil uttered against us falsely. So it involves both physical and verbal harassment. It involves deceit and falsehood with the intent to harm.

Such is Christian persecution.

And there is one more characteristic of Christian persecution that is most important for us to understand. Before we survey the wonderful things that Jesus teaches us about how it is a blessed thing to be persecuted, we must clearly understand what true persecution is.

And to help make this point I’m going to let Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones speak to us for just a moment. Here is an important observation that he made concerning Matthew 5:10 -- he said about this verse:

“It does not say, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are objectionable.’ It does not say, ‘Blessed are those who are having a hard time in their Christian life because they are being difficult.’ It does not say, ‘Blessed are those who are being persecuted as Christian because they are seriously lacking in \wisdom and are really foolish and unwise in what they regard as being their testimony.’ It is not that...So often one has known Christian people who are suffering mild persecution entirely because of their own folly, because of something either in themselves or in what they are doing. But the promise does not apply to such people. It is for righteousness’ sake.”

The apostle Peter addresses this in his first letter to suffering believers around the Roman empire. He wrote in 1 Peter 2:20 -- “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” And then in 4:15 -- “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”

The point is that persecution that comes on account of our own sinfulness isn’t what Jesus is referring to.

And the doctor goes on further to give even more clarification on what is in view here:

“We are not told, ‘Blessed are the persecuted because they are fanatical.’ Neither does it say, ‘Blessed are the persecuted because they are overzealous.’ This text surely does not even mean, ‘Blessed are they that are persecuted for a cause.’ There is always this danger of our developing the martyr spirit. There are some people who seem anxious for martyrdom; they almost court it. That is not the thing about which our Lord is talking.”

Lloyd-Jones continues to discuss that true Christian persecution is also not that which might arise from political disdain. Taking heat for being a conservative or a capitalist or a libertarian is not the same thing as being ridiculed for the sake of righteousness. You might choose to take a stand for a cause you esteem highly, or for a policy issue, but any push-back you receive for those things is not that which Jesus calls blessed in Matthew 5:10-12.

So what Jesus is talking about when he says that there is blessedness to those who are persecuted for righteousness sake is this -- that true Christian persecution is that which arises on account of the follower of Christ acting like Christ -- On account of evidencing the righteousness that their hearts hunger and thirst for. Thinking like Christ which leads to living like Christ will sometimes lead to a pressing harassment by those who despise Christ.

This is what Jesus himself said would be the case. John 15:18-21 -- “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Because we follow Christ, the same treatment that the world greeted him with is ours to anticipate. Because the world hates Christ, the world will hate those who make it their all-consuming desire to make much of him by emulating his righteousness and by proclaiming his worth and glory.

So it is our Christlikeness which is the righteousness that prompts blessed persecution.

When we live like Christ, as those who are a part of his kingdom, the kingdom of this world rejects us. Understanding our allegiance to Christ’s kingdom leads us to live for him and for his kingdom, such that we become a reproach to those who belong to the kingdom of this world.

This is even what he tells us explicitly in verse 11 -- “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” The blessing is only present for the reviling and hating which occurs on account of Christ.

Are you ever persecuted? Do you have family members or neighbors or coworkers or classmates who find your righteous allegiance to Jesus something worthy of mockery? Or are you not so closely aligned to him that anyone notices anything different?

Are you known to be a person who finds Jesus to be your greatest love? Do you speak of him? Do you love his Word such that you recite it in normal conversation? Is it ingrained in your heart such that you can’t help but quote it? Are you known for living like Jesus lived? Loving sinners. Hating sin. Compassionate to all. Strong in faith. It is for things like this that true Christian persecution comes.

Is our church ever persecuted? Do we as a church demonstrate the marks of allegiance to Jesus that would manifest distinctiveness from church gatherings that the world would approve of?

Everyone expects for a church to be welcoming to visitors. Everyone expects for people to dress up for church. Everyone expects for you to make a donation. 

But what would the world not expect? Prayers of confession for sin. Fervent singing about the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Honor and respect given to every single book and chapter and verse and word and letter of the Word of Christ. A love which compels us to ask hard and pointed questions about the soul. An uncompromising loyalty to the gospel of Jesus Christ. These are things which must mark us as a local church in order that we might corporately be persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

So we know we should be righteous in order that we might be persecuted. But what is the blessing that Jesus promises for us? Is it really worth it? What motivates us to live in  way that will naturally and certainly lead to reviling and evil lies being spread about us?

This is the one Beatitude in which Jesus provides further detail in order to answer this question. We have recorded by Matthew an explanation that enhances our understanding of the blessedness of being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. And when we unpack what Jesus teaches, we find that he gives us 4 aspects of blessedness in light of Christian persecution.

So here are the 4 ways in which we are blessed because of our Christian persecution.

1. We are blessed with proven faith.

Again, here in Matthew 5:10 Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The same promised blessing that opens the Beatitudes now closes it. The poor in spirit have the kingdom of heaven. And those who are persecuted for righteousness have the kingdom of heaven.

Those who are crushed before God because of their sinful unworthiness are assured with the fact that only such people have the kingdom of heaven. Only the contrite in heart will dwell with the One who inhabits eternity, in his kingdom.

And in the same way, it is those who are persecuted for righteousness sake (or, for the sake of loving Christ and being like Christ) -- these ones are similarly assured of the fact that they are the only sort of persons who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

This makes sense -- if this kind of persecution arises only on account of a person living like Christ, and if we know that no one alive will naturally act, let alone want, to do such a thing -- then the only explanation for true Christian persecution is if you have indeed become a citizen of the kingdom of heaven by the grace of the King.

And so when we see evidence of persecution, we are able to gain a very real appreciation for what God has done in our hearts. We sense the provenness of our faith. Which is why I’ve called this point as I have -- that the blessedness of Christian persecution gives us a proven faith.

Persecution evidences the fact that we have genuine saving faith.

This is a very similar concept to what Peter discusses in 1 Peter 1, where he writes in verses 6-7, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

He tells his readers that their faith is being tested by various trials -- of which persecution is one form of trial or testing -- and that when they endure these trials then they have the blessing of a refined faith -- one that is demonstrated to be genuine. To endure reveals authenticity. To undergo persecution on account of something that is distinctively Christlike reveals authenticity -- it is the blessing of a proven, tested, verified, purified faith.

Not only are we blessed with a proven faith when we are persecuted, but we are also blessed with authentic joy.

2. We are blessed with authentic joy.

In verse 12 Jesus begins with a command. “Rejoice!” he says. “Be glad!” he declares. Both of these words are imperative verbs in the original, as the English conveys as well. In light of Christian persecution, we are to be blessed in following Jesus’ command to have joy and gladness.

Is it not counter-intuitive? Is this not backwards? Should we not feel sorrow and concern in light of persecution? Is it not a dark reality?

It just seems unnatural to be glad and full of joy when a door is slammed in your face after sharing the gospel, or when a family member tells you in no uncertain terms to never speak to them again, or when a job is lost, or when scorn and mockery comes from peers. These aren’t things that are very fun.

But Jesus isn’t saying that we have to view them as “fun.” We don’t have to regard persecution as pleasant. We aren’t to be ascetics who deliberately walk into tortuous circumstances for “pleasure.”

What he is saying is that we must have the ability to value things correctly -- that we must be able to regard our persecution as a most joyful thing because of what it means. We must be able to see personal ridicule and wicked vice in response to our righteousness as a most delightful thing because we are able to see with heavenly vision and not just earthly vision.

For the Christian, heavenly realities can burst into earthly experience. And persecution is one such soil in which this happens. The Christian is able to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness and realize that there is much need to rejoice because of all that such a trial means.

The persecuted Christian is to echo the thoughts of Paul in Romans 8:18 -- “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Paul doesn’t say that current sufferings are deemed more valuable than the glory which shall be revealed. No -- he says that he views his current sufferings as not even comparable to the glory which will be revealed. He says in Romans 8 that suffering and eternal glory aren’t even able to be put side by side for comparison.

It’s like trying to make a comparison between the little mound of sand that you fashion at the beach and the formation of rock we call Everest. The two are fundamentally not-able-to-be-compared. And such is the relationship between present persecution and the glory that awaits all who endure it.

And so it is that we are commanded to rejoice and be glad, and we will do so as our blessing for being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

Thinking further about rejoicing, we come to the third aspect of the blessing of Christian persecution, which is this:

3. We are blessed with tangible reward.

In verse 12 Jesus says that the specific reason why we are to rejoice and be glad is because “your reward is great in heaven.” Because we have great reward in heaven we have reason to rejoice.

You might have heard different people explain different things about how we should be motivated by heavenly reward. Some say that we can’t know much about it, but that we’ll love it whatever it is!

Some say perhaps too much about it -- they make speculation about what heaven will be like and what we’ll get and what not. Some say somewhat arbitrarily that we’ll have “jewels in our crown” as a reward.

So what is it? What is our heavenly reward that Jesus has in mind?

There is actually far more specific detail in the Scripture about this question than we might realize, but I want us to consider just one place when heavenly reward is taught. And that’s Matthew 19. Turn there with me.

We’ll start in verse 16 with the account of Jesus’ interaction with a person who had great possessions on earth. This context will be key for what comes after that account.

Matthew 19:16-30

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.  And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

The point Jesus makes is that those who would be rich with stuff here on earth won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. They have their reward. But those who would give it all up here on earth will have what happen to them? According to what Jesus says in verse 29, anyone who forsakes houses, families, and lands for Christ will receive a hundredfold and eternal life.

In Jesus’ list, he includes everything of possible value and treasure on earth. Houses and lands refer to stuff and to ownership and industry and commerce. Family members refer to those whom we love and whom we care for and invest time with. And Jesus says that everything that we could have had on this earth will be multiplied to us 100 times in the age to come.

Now what does that look like? How is it that we’ll have 100 times mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children? What precisely does he mean when he says that we’ll have 100 times more houses and lands? What is the implication for us in the fact that the 12 Apostles will rule over Israel? Will we rule also in a similar way, as we read in Revelation 19 and 22?

The answer to all these questions is -- “I’m not completely sure.” Scripture doesn’t tell us explicit detail. But from what it does tell us, I can tell you that the reward we receive in the age to come is NOT merely a crown with a bunch of sparkly jewels in it. It’s NOT a harp. It’s NOT just a big house made of gold that we’ll get to sit around and do nothing in.

Whatever it is, it’s something that has a great deal of similarity to what we find to be rewarding in this life.

We find the fruit of our labor rewarding. We find our families and friends rewarding. We find our righteous hobbies and interests rewarding. Well, I believe that it will be such things as these but to a far grander magnitude and degree than we can imagine that we will inherit as reward.

And the prospect of that reward is the blessing we have to hold onto when we are persecuted for righteousness sake.

What matter will it be if the world takes away your reputation, when God is going to give it to you 100 times greater in heaven? Why worry about the world taking your stuff and possessions when God is going to give them back to you 100 times greater in heaven? What concern is it to you that the world removes you from your family and those you love, when Jesus says that God will return them to you 100 times greater in heaven?

Again, we don’t know exactly what it all means. But we do know that this reward has a tangible similarity to what we give up for Christ now, and is granted to a far greater degree than we could ever imagine.

That is the tangible reward of the blessing of Christian persecution. And there is one more thing that Jesus says is a part of the blessing of persecution. It’s this:

4. We are blessed with inspiring forefathers.

In Matthew 5:12 Jesus says: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

We’re not alone. Your persecution is not unique. It’s been going on ever since righteousness and wickedness existed together in the world. Cain and Abel. Noah and the entire earth. David and Saul. All the prophets. All the apostles. All the martyrs.

And when we endure Christian persecution, we are connecting our lives with the lives of so many faithful men and women who have gone before us.

This is the call of Hebrews 11 and 12. In Hebrews 11 we read about the faith of so many men and women, many of whom were severely persecuted for their faith -- Hebrews 11:35–38 says “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

And then in Hebrews 12:1 we see how we are to connect ourselves to such great forefathers and foremothers. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”

We are to see their example and be inspired to lay aside that which pulls us into thinking more and more about this world so that we might run the race that leads out of this world and into the next. Since they endured faithfully, we can endure faithfully. The pull of the world wasn’t too strong for them. It’s not going to be too strong for us.

And then in Hebrews 12:2 we read of the ultimate example for us to follow. It’s Jesus, of course. He’s the ultimate persecuted prophet before us. He’s the reason any of us are persecuted at all. And so we find strength to press on what we do what the writer tells us here in Hebrews 12:2 -- “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

So may it be that we are consumed with looking unto Jesus so that we will be persecuted for his sake. And may it be that we will be consumed with looking unto Jesus as we are persecuted for his sake.