Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“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

The Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Purity has been a sacred matter throughout the generations. It seems that almost every culture has some ritual declaring or making participants clean or pure; we tend to value pure, clean things. Insistence on cleanliness and sanitation is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the medical and public health fields. In general, we associate good, positive things with purity and cleanliness, and negative, evil things we portray in dirtier, filthier ways. Purity is good.

In order to communicate the value of purity in a physical way, God established many commands regarding cleanliness for Israel in the Old Testament. Certain foods were reckoned as clean, and others unclean and defiling (Leviticus 11:1-47). Many bodily discharges rendered a person ritually unclean, needing purification (cf. Leviticus 12:1-8, 15:1-32). Various skin diseases also rendered a person unclean (Leviticus 13:1-14:57). Many of these cleanliness laws were established to limit contagion and the spread of disease; others were designed to mark out Israel as a special people. All of the cleanliness laws, at some level, were designed to instruct Israel about God’s sanctity and the need for cleanliness before Him.

By the first century, the Israelites were quite faithful when it came to ritual cleansings. Many small pools used for such ritual cleansing, known as mikva’ot, have been discovered through archaeological digs; some are mentioned in John 5:1-4 and John 9:7. The Israelites understood the concept of ritual cleansing; they placed a high priority on remaining ritually clean and pure.

External cleansing is great, well, and good, but Jesus’ radical message in Matthew 5:8 is that it is not enough. External cleansing can only remove the symptoms of defilement, not the cause.

Jesus considers those who are pure in heart to be blessed, or happy. It is the internal purity which allows for external purity and righteousness; despite whatever pretense people may try to maintain, as long as there is impurity and defilement within, impurity and defilement must come to the surface some day. True defilement is not something a person can ingest; defilement comes out from what is within, which is Jesus’ powerful message in Mark 7:14-23.

This “beatitude” is as much a challenge as it is a declaration of blessedness. None of us can be fully pure in heart; we all fall short of God’s glory and sin (Romans 3:23, 7:14-25, 1 John 1:8). There is always a strong temptation to foster and harbor impure thoughts and attitudes within ourselves; we easily deceive ourselves into thinking that since no other human can perceive our thoughts, no one else knows what we are thinking. To this day people face strong societal pressures to make sure that their outward actions conform to societal norms; this is why we rarely tell others how we really feel about them, and very few of us feel comfortable admitting the darkness that is often present deep within us. Thus, we keep things inside.

But God does see and know; all things in darkness will be revealed by light at some point (Ephesians 5:7-13). Meanwhile we labor under significant burdens, trying to save face and keeping up a false exterior. It never works out; it always collapses somehow.

This is why God throughout the New Testament insists on a complete cleansing and renewal of the individual. It is not as if people are generally good and just need a little help here or there; we must come to terms with our sad reality. Sin has corrupted and defiled not just our deeds but also our thoughts and feelings, and we must fully repent, changing our minds so that our attitudes and actions will follow (Acts 2:38). This is why we must capture every thought unto obedience in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5); this is why we must mentally dwell on that which is good, holy, and profitable (Philippians 4:8). We must in every way seek to remove all that which is unholy, impure, and defiled from our thoughts and feelings; then we can live without hypocrisy, allowing our exterior to shine with the interior light which comes from Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).

Those who are pure in heart shall see God. We are not intended to understand this verse on a physical, concrete level: after all, the heart is merely an muscle pumping blood, and no man can see God (John 1:18). Purity in heart involves purity of mind and emotion, and none of this is possible without purity in soul. Little wonder, then, that the Risen Jesus speaks of the saved as those who have not soiled their garments and who walk with Him dressed in white (Revelation 2:4-5), and Paul speaks of Jesus presenting a church to Himself which is pure and unblemished (Ephesians 5:25-27). Those who are pure shall be with God forever and will stand in His presence in the resurrection (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Such purity cannot come from our own futile efforts; we can try to cleanse ourselves all we want, but the stain of sin remains. None of us will walk in white because we, by our own power, have kept from defilement. We all need cleansing, and continuous cleansing at that, from Jesus through the blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 5:25-27). We must seek after purity in Christ; we must seek to align our will to His so that we can be conformed into His image (Romans 8:29), and thus maintain our cleansing. Let us seek to be pure in heart so that we may see God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

In our sin-sick world, conflict seems to be ever-present. Some nations fight against other nations; plenty more maintain strained, tense, and tenuous relationships with each other. People of different clans, tribes, ethnicities, and other such groups of people nurse disagreements and conflicts with other, similar groups. Within extended families there always seem to be some relatives who cannot stand each other and who perpetually fight or remain at odds with each other. Even within immediate families, husbands, wives, and children have plenty over which to fight and maintain tensions and hostilities. For that matter, there is internal conflict between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:17)!

The reality of conflict is sad enough; the promotion and fostering of conflict is even worse. And yet the sad reality is evident: conflict, tension, and difficulty generates interest, money, and power. If you can make a television show where different people are constantly in conflict with each other, you will have an easier time getting a strong viewership than if everyone in the story is at peace with one another. Politicians tend to get more people to vote for them if they can demonize the opposing candidate as “the other,” focusing on the differences and the negatives rather than the similarities and positives. The stronger the rivalry between different teams, groups of people, and the like, the stronger the passions, and thus the greater the interest. In the world, in almost every arena of life, “dividers” receive interest, power, money, and fame; “uniters” may receive lip service for their work, but will never generate the same interest, power, money, or fame as the “dividers.”

And so Jesus, as He continues to pronounce as blessed, fortunate, or happy those who are not normally recognized as such (or, for that matter, recognized at all), declares peacemakers blessed, for such shall be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When considering these Beatitudes, as they are often called, it is easy to gloss over the “rewards” which the fortunate ones will receive. They all seem to be some variant of the saved, members of the Kingdom, or those who will obtain the promises God has provided. Yet the “reward” of being called the “sons of God” has great significance: “sons of God,” in the Old Testament, refers most often to spiritual beings in God’s presence (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Jesus will later reckon those who obtain the resurrection of life as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36); it is for their revelation that the creation eagerly waits in Romans 8:19. “Sons of God” is a description indicating close association with both God the Father and Jesus the Son; to be called a “son of God” would be a great honor indeed.

So why do the peacemakers receive such a blessing? We can understand why through Galatians 3:26, in which Paul declares that all believers who seek to obey Christ are sons of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ. How is it possible that we could be sons of God by trusting in Jesus and through what Jesus accomplished? As Paul makes evident in Ephesians 2:11-18, Jesus allowed all of us to be reconciled both to God and to one another by becoming the ultimate Peacemaker: He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by bearing the cross and in so doing eliminating the Law and its trappings that served to divide the Jews from the Gentiles, and brought both together in Him in one body.

Those who make peace, therefore, are as Jesus, seeking to kill hostility and reconcile man back together with God and with one another. One can see Jesus’ entire purpose and mission in terms of this reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:6-11): since God is Three in One and One in Three, maintaining relational unity, anything that serves to divide man from God and one another is accursed, but that which reconciles and restores man in relationship with his God and with one another glorifies God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2, John 17:20-23, Galatians 5:17-24). Therefore, those who work to make peace between opposing parties reflects God and His will within Himself, for mankind, and with mankind. The great honor of being known as “sons of God” makes perfect sense: to make peace among people is to share in close association with the work of God.

This does not mean that peacemaking is easy; all of us have a tendency toward division, hostility, and tension toward others, and when we see different groups feuding with each other for whatever reason, we have a natural tendency to want to stay out of it and get far away. We also must make sure that we do not confuse peacemaking with meddling or being a busybody. We must also recognize the multitude of forces in the world that work against peace: many such forces unabashedly maintain the face of evil and hostility, perhaps even in almost demonic terms (cf. Ephesians 6:12), but plenty of conflict, tension, and division masquerade with “holy” and “pious” facades. The truth of God must never be compromised (Galatians 1:6-9); yet a significant aspect of God’s truth is His desire to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11), and the promotion and maintenance of strife, divisions, and sects are always inconsistent with God’s revealed truth, remaining works of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

Peacemaking has always been a hard thing to do and a tough path to take; there are always plenty of forces that work against it. But the path of peacemaking is the path of Christ; to reconcile mankind with God and with one another is the essence of God’s purpose in Christ. Let us work to promote and advance peace, ever thankful for Jesus’ peacemaking that allows us to be sons of God, reconciled back with the Father!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Sustenance Through Righteousness

“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

No matter how old or young we might be, no matter how rich or poor, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, language, and any other way that people try to divide one another up into various groups, we all understand, to a degree, hunger and thirst. We all have felt the internal groans that accompany the desire for food; we have all experienced the dry mouth that seeks hydration.

Food and drink represent the most primal and basic of needs. Shelter is nice; nevertheless, in many places, one can live without it. All of our other “needs” are not really needs; we can continue living just fine without them, although our quality of life will be hurt. Yet none of us can live long without food or drink.

So what happens when we are bereft of food or drink? Hunger and thirst grow. Before long, all we can imagine is the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst. That hope drives us and sustains us to find a way to satisfy those desires. Soon anything remotely edible is eaten; anything that might have moisture is consumed. Even if some food or drink is found, hunger and thirst might return again soon. It starts all over again. And, if enough time passes without eating or drinking, we would die from starvation or dehydration.

Jesus understands this reality all too well, having previously experienced a long fast and intense hunger (cf. Matthew 4:1-2). Yet His concern, while preaching to His disciples and gathered Jews on the mountain, is not with physical hunger; He speaks blessings upon those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

There is a reason why Jesus describes the situation as He does. He does not say, “blessed are the righteous.” This is probably partly because there are none who are completely righteous (cf. Romans 3:9-20). The big problem is that the people look to many of the religious authorities for their definitions of righteousness, and Jesus knows quite well that those religious authorities only maintain the pretense of righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:20, 9:11-13, 23:1-1-36). Mere pretense will not do here. Jesus is aiming at something far more deeply felt, far more primal than the exterior.

And that depth is the challenge that this declaration makes for each successive generation. It is always far too easy to circumscribe “righteousness” or over-emphasize aspects of righteousness over other aspects of the idea. People like using this verse to make themselves feel better about their condition, lamenting how people do not seem to want righteousness anymore. They are right; precious few hunger and thirst after righteousness today. But that has always been the case– and this verse was not designed to make people comfortable.

So far Jesus has not blessed people who are normally considered blessed; in fact, the people whom Jesus declares happy are normally reckoned as unhappy. The poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who are meek (Matthew 5:3-5)– these are not found among the elites of society, in aristocracy or positions of authority. When was the last time that a mourner was idolized? Who wanted to exchange a comfortable lifestyle for poverty? Who thinks that meekness is really the way to get ahead in the corporate world? So far Jesus has been turning the world and our understanding of it upside down; this has not suddenly stopped at Matthew 5:6.

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness should not be envisioned as merely being everyone else’s moral censor. Far from it; to hunger and thirst after righteousness is to consider righteousness the most primal need in life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness believe that if they do not keep avoiding the wrong and doing the right, especially doing the right, they will die, just as quickly (if not quicker) than if they stopped eating and drinking. They are sustained in life by showing love, mercy, and kindness. Those who really hunger and thirst for righteousness do not need to wear that desire as a badge or to use it as a platform; they are too busy seeking to satisfy their desire to do what is right.

Are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness aware of the immorality in society? Most certainly! If they are not seeing it in the lives of those upon whom they have shown mercy and love, they are experiencing the effects of persecution from those who perceive that too much righteousness undermines what they want to do and who they want to be. Remember that Jesus has been declaring blessed and happy those who are not considered such by the world at large; that is no less true of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are meek. It is a hard road to walk; it is not something which most people would understand as pleasant. And yet such people are driven by their desire to satisfy righteousness, just as all people are driven to satisfy their hunger and thirst.

Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? There is no doubt that we all want to appear righteous. There is even little doubt that most of us want to be on the side of righteousness. The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers all wanted to be seen as righteous and to be on the side of righteousness. No; only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Do we believe that we will die if we are not abiding within righteousness? Do we seek out opportunities to do what is right– and to avoid what is evil– like we would be willing to seek out food in a famine and water in a drought? Are we driven by righteousness like it is the most basic, primal impulse within us?

This is a challenge as much as a declaration of happiness; if we do not so hunger and thirst for righteousness, we should be. In the truth in Christ there is light and life; in evil there is nothing but darkness and death (John 1:4-5, Romans 6:23). Man does not live by bread alone, Moses says and Jesus affirms, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). Better to hunger for what is right than for food; better to thirst for righteousness than for water, since food and drink perishes, but righteousness will endure forever through God in Christ (Amos 5:24, 2 Peter 3:13).

It is not easy. We are going to be tempted to sin constantly. We will be tempted to put the physical necessities of life above the spiritual. We may experience quite stunning forms of persecution that we might never have imagined (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and He obtained shame, derision, flogging, and a cross for it. Yet He was filled with all power and authority (Philippians 2:5-11); and so we shall be filled with all good things if we yearn for righteousness as well. Let us consider righteousness our most primal need, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Meek

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

The meek rarely, if ever, get good press, if they get any press at all. In fact, being meek or part of “the meek” is often like being part of a running joke.

There are reasons for that. The meek are people who are more quiet and gentle. They may have internal (or even external!) strength, but they keep it under control. They are reckoned as “mild” people. As such, they are easily forgotten and passed over. It is always easier to just hear the shouting voices and to deal with the loud mouths, along with those who lash out and act out according to their whims and desires. It is much easier to forget about those people who are more reasonable and who maintain their composure. And, as tyrants know, they are a lot easier to oppress as well!

But Jesus does not make a joke out of the meek– He will, in fact, later identify with them (Matthew 11:29). He declares them blessed– happy and fortunate (Matthew 5:5). He can do so because of their ultimate end– they inherit the earth (or land, Matthew 5:5).

Much ink has been spilled and not a few false doctrines have been advanced on the basis of the meek “inheriting the earth.” Suffice it to say that Jesus is evoking, if not quoting, Psalm 37:11, and much regarding the “beatitudes” is quite practical and earthy. Jesus is as much challenging the standard worldview about our time on the earth as He is pointing to some later spiritual reality; if this is not clear from Matthew 5:3-9, it is much more so in a later retelling in Luke 6:20-26. We are not wise to build our eschatological views primarily on what Jesus says in Matthew 5:5.

Nevertheless, why is inheriting the earth the reason for the blessed state of the meek? It speaks to the ultimate value in meekness– there is strength there, but it does not have to be flexed and used. The meek are more than happy to remain under the radar, so to speak– loud mouths may, for a time, advance in life, but if they run afoul of authority, we all know their end. Meanwhile the meek are able to continue their existence, reproduce, and maintain their existence on earth. Moderation and self-control pay off in the end.

Even though we do well to understand the verse in terms of the physical in its context, we can certainly make spiritual applications. There is great value in sensibility, maintaining strength under control, and not feeling compelled to loudly advance oneself. Jesus Himself is meek in heart, and we are called upon to follow His example (Matthew 11:29, 1 John 2:6).

The world does not lack loud people aggressively trying to advance their own agendas; it never has, it never will. In such an environment, those who have no less conviction but maintain moderation and self-control are easily passed over but are no less valuable or important. Meekness has never been really considered a virtue in the world, let alone a mark of manliness; yet in the Kingdom of God, those who are meek are greatly treasured and honored. Let us work to develop a spirit of meekness, and inherit the Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry