“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.
Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.
But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!
We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!
This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.
Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.
We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).
Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!
Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.
Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.
So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).
As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.
It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!
Ethan R. Longhenry