New Life in Christ: The Beatitudes for Today 9
“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)
Of all the beatitudes, this is surely the strangest to our ears as well as to the ears of those who first heard it. How are the persecuted blessed? In our age of materialism and plenty, when the worst opposition we meet is the social exclusion of the politically correct, persecution seems like an exotic and alien thing; a distant memory of another place and another time, perhaps. But the very strangeness of Jesus’ words are, in reality, more of an indictment of our mediocrity as his followers than a result of any alleged anachronism. It’s not that Jesus’ words are out of date so much as that our lives are out of step with his call!
Clearly, for Jesus the blessed life entails persecution as much as it means poverty of spirit, mourning for sin, meekness of mindset, hunger for holiness, mercy, purity, or being a peacemaker. It’s a truth underscored in verse 12 when Jesus notes that persecution is the fate suffered by the prophets before us. It is, in other words, the standard M.O. of the world as it reacts to Christians faithfully following Jesus Christ. And while persecution may occur among us in America in mild and usually only verbal forms, its full force has been felt across the ages by the church in every part of the world, continuing to this day. From the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7) to the Huguenots of France and the Maryan Martyrs of the English reformation, to Jim Elliot in the 20th century, persecution and suffering have been ceaseless features of the world wide experience of the church of Jesus Christ. David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, is quoted as having declared that “one in every 200 Christian workers is being killed on the mission fields of the world,” and that, “in recent years the average number of believers who have been martyred for their faith is 300,000 per year.”1 Persecution is a reality. It is the violent expression of the universal hostility of the kingdom of Satan to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. As such, it reflects the age old cosmic conflict first begun in Genesis 3:15, where God fixed enmity between the seed of the Serpent and the seed of the woman. Since then there have been two lineages, the line of covenant promise and the line of rebels. One thinks of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Israel and the Canaanites, Judah and the Babylonians, the church and the world. It is, therefore, a mark of spiritual authenticity, painful, awkward, unwanted, but real nonetheless, that all who know and follow Christ faithfully will meet the opposition of the world.
What we must not forget is that the cosmic war has already been won. Battles continue to rage but the decision victory has been secured at the Cross. There the Seed of the Woman crushed the serpent’s head! At the Cross, Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (Col. 2:15). Knowing that the battle belongs to the Lord helps us remain in the trenches and fight on.
So, too, do the twin promises attached to this beatitude. To the persecuted, Jesus says, belongs the kingdom of heaven (v. 10). When others revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on Jesus’ account (verses 11-12), we are to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The kingdom is ours who face the rejection of the world. The riches of an eternal reward are ours from whom the world strips earthly glory. When we are opposed for Christ’s sake, the world inadvertently reminds us that we are not of the world, that we do not fit within it, that it can never be our final home. Our rewards are heavenly; our destiny is another realm; the kingdom of God is our happiest habitation.
One final remark before we leave our study of the beatitudes: it is in suffering for righteousness’ sake alone that Jesus promises these blessings. We end here because it helps remind us of the overall aim of the beatitudes. They seek to help us live for God, to make righteousness our principal pursuit. They describe and pronounce a blessed life of likeness to Christ. It is this that receives comfort, inherits the earth, finds satisfaction, is overtaken by mercy, sees God, and knows assurance of adoption! Holiness and happiness, obedience and beatitude always go together. Such a life may well elicit hostility in a world and a day when values have been inverted, and good is evil and evil is good. But it will always be a life that knows the deeper and greater rewards of grace that the world can never snatch away.
May the Lord grant you, indeed, his richest beatitude as you pursue likeness to your Savior!
1 Cited in John Blanchard, The Beatitudes for Today, (Bromiley, UK: Day One Publications, 1996) pp. 245-246