“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.”
Persecution Is Not Outdated
The first question I would like to take up this morning is whether Jesus’s words about persecution are relevant in these days. Has modern society become so tolerant that talk of persecution is outdated? My answer is that these verses are very relevant and not at all outdated. Let me mention two reasons why this teaching on persecution is still relevant today.
1. The Global Perspective
The first reason comes from a global perspective. Let’s just take two countries as examples. Peru’s National Evangelical Council has documented the killings of ninety evangelical Christians from 1983 through 1985. Seventy percent were Pentecostals, twenty percent were Presbyterians, and the rest undetermined. The Maoist Sendero Luminoso oppose the evangelicals because they refuse to join the armed struggle of the guerrillas. And the government police oppose them because they treat the wounds of the guerillas. Besides the ninety killed in the last three years, another twenty have disappeared after being detained by police for questioning.
The other country I will mention is Romania. I just received a letter a couple weeks ago from John Swanson, the pastor of Elim Baptist in Anoka, in which he told me of a businessman who just returned from Romania with tragic stories of the persecution of Baptists in that land. This businessman will be speaking in their evening service on April 6 with a firsthand report.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2.2 billion people lived in 79 countries under significant restrictions on their religious freedom in 1980. Sixty percent of all Christians live in these countries. And sixteen percent (224 million) of all Christians live in countries where there is severe state interference and harassment.
So the least we can say is that, from a global standpoint, the words of Jesus are very relevant, and indeed very precious, for millions of our brothers and sisters who live under the pressure of constant surveillance.
2. The World Opposes New Creation
My second reason for saying that these words about persecution are relevant today is taken from the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (See Acts 14:22; John 15:20; Matthew 10:25.)
How could Paul make such a sweeping statement? “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” He makes it on the basis of a deep conviction about the nature of Christianity and the nature of the sinfulness of man. He is convinced that there is such a tension between the message and way of life of Christians on the one hand, and the mindset and way of life of the world on the other, that conflict is inevitable.
“Christianity’s message stands at odds with the world’s mindset.”
This conviction is rooted in the nature of fallen man and the nature of the new creation in Christ. Therefore, it does not go out of date. It is still true today. Sooner or later, a deeply God-centered Christian will be mistreated for the things he believes or the life he lives.
So these words of Jesus about persecution are relevant for today not only because millions of Christians in our global village are being persecuted for their faith this very day, but also because — to one degree or another — all of you who are dead-earnest about putting God first in your work and home and school and leisure will bump into some form of opposition sooner or later. None of us knows when our freedoms may cease or when we may be called by God to go to a dangerous place or take a stand here that will cause many to dislike us.
Now, what is this teaching of Jesus?
Why Persecution Comes
First, let’s focus on why the persecutions come. This is important because not all persecuted people are blessed. Only those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Verse 10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10).
Hungry for Righteousness, Filled with Mercy
Recall the structure of the Beatitudes. There are two groups of four, and each group ends with a reference to righteousness. The first group ends with verse 6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And the second group ends with verse 10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
The three Beatitudes that lead to hunger for righteousness are descriptions of a kind of holy emptiness. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn over their needy condition, and the meek who hand their cause over to God. It’s natural that these three descriptions of emptiness and need should be followed by a description of hunger. If you don’t have something, you hunger for it.
Then the next three Beatitudes are descriptions not of emptiness but of fullness. The hunger is beginning to be satisfied by an overflowing mercy, a pure heart, and a power to make peace. So the righteousness longed for in verse 6 is given in the form of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. The result is persecution for this very righteousness.
Love for Jesus Brings Righteousness and Reviling
Another way to define the righteousness of verse 10 is to look at its parallel in verse 11. In verse 10, the persecution is “on account of righteousness,” but in verse 11, it is “on account of Jesus.” “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” “On my account” and “on account of righteousness” probably mean the same thing.
So what we learn from this is that true righteousness — the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) — always involves a relationship with Jesus. True righteousness is not done for its own sake. It is done for Jesus’s sake. The mercy and the purity and the peacemaking of a disciple of Jesus comes from Jesus (“Without me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5]) and is done for the honor of Jesus. It’s this attachment to Jesus that gives our righteousness its distinct character.
The Root of Persecution is Love and Justification
But that raises a question: if that is what righteousness means — being merciful and pure and peaceable by relying on Jesus and living for his glory — why would anybody persecute that? It doesn’t seem very offensive.
The answer that goes to the root cause is found in Luke 16:14–15. Jesus has just said, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Then comes the persecution, the mockery. Verse 14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.” There is the persecution and part of its explanation: “They were lovers of money.” In other words, Jesus’s attitude toward money is an attack on their love of money.
Then comes the rest of the explanation of their mockery. Verse 15: “But he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men.’” So here is the root of persecution with its two shafts. One shaft is the love of something evil or untrue and the other shaft is the need to justify that love. This is the root cause of persecution.
Jesus comes on the scene with a way of life and a message that implies that the love of money is treason against God. “You can’t serve two sovereigns.” This is not an antagonistic insult. It is part of his purity. It is true. It is essential to know if you are going to be saved. But it goes against the Pharisees’ love of money. So, to justify themselves, the Pharisees put Jesus down. This is standard operating procedure for self-justification. And this is the root of all persecution.
A Righteous Life Will Be Persecuted
So we can see why a life devoted to righteousness or godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against.
- If you cherish chastity, your life will be an attack on people’s love for free sex.
- If you embrace temperance, your life will be a statement against the love of alcohol.
- If you pursue self-control, your life will indict excess eating.
- If you live simply and happily, you will show the folly of luxury.
- If you walk humbly with your God, you will expose the evil of pride.
- If you are punctual and thorough in your dealings, you will lay open the inferiority of laziness and negligence.
- If you speak with compassion, you will throw callousness into sharp relief.
- If you are earnest, you will make the flippant look flippant instead of clever.
- if you are spiritually minded, you will expose the worldly-mindedness of those around you.
Two Responses to a Life of Righteousness
When you desire to be godly in all your affairs and relationships — when you follow the righteousness of Jesus in his strength and for his glory — there are two possible responses people can have who stay around you. These are described in John 3:20–21.
“For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
That is one possible response: hating the light and not accepting it.
“But he whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
That is the other possible response: doing the truth and coming to it and freely admitting that all good in us is accomplished by God.
The two options are persecution or conversion. (See these two options in Matthew 5:10 and 16.) But, we ask, what about all the unbelievers in my life who are neither converting nor persecuting — who are just civil, or even polite? There are at least two possible explanations:
Your light is under a bushel. You are keeping the stumbling block of the cross well concealed (Galatians 5:11; 6:12–13). You don’t let your distinctive values show.
You are letting your values show and the people around you are moving toward one or the other of these two polls: persecution or conversion.
Neither of these must happen immediately. There are all kinds of factors that can hinder expressions of persecution. We see these often in the gospels when the Pharisees were angered but were hindered by expediency from expressing their anger in outright persecution. Neither persecution nor conversion will always happen immediately. In fact, many people are torn inside themselves, partly hating the claims of Christianity in your life, partly attracted by them.
So we should all examine ourselves to see if we are playing a kind of cowardly Christian incognito. And if we are, we should repent and resolve to be more sincere in the expression of who we really are. But we must not assume that, because there is no persecution right now and no conversion right now, the fault must lie with us.
The gestation period for the new birth may be nearing a happy end, or the storm may be ready to break against you. But in either case, you can be very content.
The Blessedness of the Persecuted
Verse 11: “Blessed [fortunate] are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad.”
Now this is a shocking piece of counsel. What can possibly justify the command to be glad when we are hated and mocked and tortured and killed? And make no mistake about it — Jesus does have death in view here. This is what they did to the prophets (Matthew 23:30; 1 Kings 18:13; 19:10; Nehemiah 9:26; Jeremiah 26:23). This is what they would do to the disciples. So Jesus says in Matthew 24:9, “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”
How Can We Rejoice When Reviled?
What can justify such counsel to people in pain? — ”Rejoice and be glad!” I see two possibilities: either this is the talk of an insensitive, sophomoric, ivory tower theologian who has never known what it is to scream with pain, or this is the talk of one who has seen something and tasted something and knows something about a reality that most people have never tasted or glimpsed.
This is the Lord speaking. It is not some pastoral novice that blunders into a funeral home slapping people on the back, saying, “Praise God, anyhow.” This is the Lord. And he says to his disciples, most of whom will drink the cup of martyrdom, “Rejoice and be glad” when you are persecuted, when you suffer. How can he say this?
“The mercy and purity of a disciple of Jesus comes from Jesus”
He can say it because he knows, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the reward of heaven will more than compensate for any suffering we must endure in the service of Christ. “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” There is a mystery here — the mystery of joy in the midst of agony; the mystery of gladness in the midst of misery and groaning. And this mystery is contained in a miracle, namely, the miracle of faith — the bedrock assurance that heaven is a hundredfold compensation for every pain. To the degree that you believe what Jesus sees in heaven, to that degree you will be able to rejoice and be glad in suffering. “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”
The Reviled and Righteous will Be Rewarded
But this raises a question: In order to rejoice and be glad in the suffering of persecution, must you not believe that the suffering itself enlarges your reward in heaven? If the same reward in heaven could be obtained without suffering, would we not cry out against the uselessness of suffering rather than being glad to embrace it?
If nothing more comes of suffering, than of not suffering, why embrace it with joy? What gave Rowland Taylor and Bishop Ridley and John Bradford the impulse to kiss the stakes at which they were burned? What moved Obadiah Holmes, after ninety lashes turned his back to jelly for Jesus, to say to the magistrates, “You have struck me with roses”? Why did Thomas Hardcastle say that persecution is “a precious season of grace”?
I think the answer is that the more your faith is tested through suffering, the greater will be your reward. I think this is taught in Matthew 19:29, “And every one 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 inherit eternal life”, but especially in 2 Corinthians 4:17–18:
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.
He says that affliction “prepares” or “brings about” an eternal weight of glory. As Charles Hodge says,
Afflictions are the cause of eternal glory. Not the meritorious cause, but still the procuring cause. God has seen fit to reveal his purpose not only to reward with exceeding joy the afflictions of his people, but to make those afflictions the means of working out that joy. (Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, 104)
In other words, rejoice and be glad in the midst of suffering for righteousness and for Jesus, because that very suffering will receive a very great compensation and a very great reward. And the greater the suffering your faith endures, the greater the reward you will receive in heaven. So rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven!
Focus Your Heart on Heaven
I close by pressing home one of the clear implications of this text. Jesus wills for his disciples to desire the reward of heaven more than we desire the reward of the world. Jesus wills for us to have our treasure in heaven, not on earth (Matthew 6:19–20). Jesus wills for your heart to be so set on heaven that to leave this earth is a cause of rejoicing. Not without tears. Paul said, “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” and as Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane in the face of his own pain — for the joy set before him endured the cross.
Jesus wills for us to have our hearts primarily in heaven, our hopes primarily in heaven, our longings primarily in heaven, our joy primarily in heaven. There is no other way that you can rejoice and be glad at the loss of your earthly joys. How shall we rejoice and be glad when these things are taken from us if we have not loved heaven more?
Consider the Prophets of Old
So what shall we do? How shall we keep our hearts in heaven? Make a regular practice of your life to consider the prophets of old who were persecuted and killed for the cause of God and righteousness. Turn often to Hebrews 11:36–38 and read how by faith they suffered mocking and scourging, 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, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy!
Go often to these great men and women of old and get inside their hearts. Put yourself on the rack with them and learn how to love heaven with them. Listen as they say, “Abuse suffered for the Christ is greater wealth than all the treasures of Egypt, for we look to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
Consider the Martyrs
Read the testimonies of those who have given their all for Christ.
The letter of John Hooper, written three weeks before he was burned at the stake in England in 1555: “You must now turn all your [thoughts] from the peril you see and mark the felicity that followeth the peril . . . Beware of beholding too much the felicity or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draweth from God” (Ryle, Light from Old Times, 115).
You children, consider the children of John Rogers. He was burned alive the same year Hooper was, because of his faith in Christ. His children accompanied him to the place of execution and called out encouragements to him through their tears that he might be strong and not turn back and dishonor Christ (Light from Old Times, 64).
“The more your faith is tested, the greater your reward.”
Consider the famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As he left his prison room on the way to the gallows in 1945, he said to Payne Best, “This is the end — for me the beginning of life” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 830). Ten years later the camp doctor wrote,
At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 830)
Or consider the last letter of Vanya Moiseyev, the twenty-year-old Baptist soldier in the Soviet Red Army. He had been tortured for some time. On July 16, 1972, they went too far, and he died. On July 15, he wrote to his brother Vladimir,
Don’t tell our parents everything. Just tell them, “Vanya wrote me a letter and writes that Jesus Christ is going into battle. This is a Christian battle, and he doesn’t know whether he will be back.”
I desire that all of you, dear friend, young and old, remember this one verse. Revelation 2:10 — “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Vanya, 175.)
Look to the prophets. Look to the martyrs. Whatever you must do to get your heart in heaven and off the world, do it! Otherwise, you will not be able to obey the command of our Lord, “Rejoice and be glad in persecution, for great is your reward in heaven.”
And let the battle cry of the missions movement of our church continue to be:
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
If someone should ask whether having our heart in heaven will make us useless on earth, the answer is given by Jesus in the very next paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount. People who have their hearts so much in heaven that they fear no man but rejoice in persecution — such radically free and joyful people are the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”