Blessed are the Persecuted. Really?1
“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).
Seriously? Did Jesus really mean what he said? Yes. Let’s look closely at this stunning statement.
This beatitude explodes several myths that people believe about what it means to be a Christian.
• It shatters the myth that Christianity is a means of deliverance from suffering. As we become more like Jesus, we should expect to be treated like Jesus!
• It shatters the myth that God loves his children too much to allow them to suffer at the hands of unbelievers. God does indeed love us, but that does not mean we will be insulated from the pain of persecution.
• It shatters the myth that those who suffer persecution are being chastised for their sin. But remember: the persecuted are also the pure in heart! Often it is precisely because of one’s success in manifesting the characteristics contained in the other beatitudes that provokes persecution.
• It shatters the myth that suffering is always the sign of God’s displeasure or anger.
• It shatters the myth that suffering can separate us from the love of Christ. But see Romans 8:35.
• It shatters the myth that suffering or persecution at the hands of the unbeliever is a sign of the latter’s victory (see Rev. 12:11).
• It shatters the myth that suffering is selective, restricted to a few special saints. Says John Stott:
“The condition of being despised and rejected, slandered and persecuted, is as much a normal mark of Christian discipleship as being pure in heart or merciful. Every Christian is to be a peacemaker, and every Christian is to expect opposition. Those who hunger for righteousness will suffer for the righteousness they crave” (53).
Jesus does not pronounce as blessed those who suffer for any reason whatsoever. The beatitude applies to those who suffer for the sake of righteousness. Peter undoubtedly had in mind this beatitude of Jesus when he wrote the following in 1 Peter 2:18-21.
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:18-21).
In this passage we are told that to keep our mouths shut and patiently endure when suffering for some sin we have committed is no great virtue (Peter’s words are: “what credit is it?”). But to restrain ourselves from retaliation and self-vindication when we are unjustly wronged is especially pleasing to the Lord. Some suffering and persecution are deserved and therefore disgraceful. But we have actually been “called” (1 Pet. 2:21) to endure unjust, undeserved persecution. Again, Peter encourages us to
“[keep] a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:16-17).
In 1 Peter 4:12 we are told that we should “not be surprised at the fiery trial” of persecution and suffering that comes upon us, and that for three reasons.
(1) The suffering of persecution plays an essential role in our sanctification. It is, says Peter, “for our testing” (4:12). Suffering is critical to the formation of Christian character: it hones, refines, purges, and purifies us, as well as compels us to rely more wholeheartedly on the all-sufficiency of God’s grace.
(2) Suffering now will only serve to intensify the joy of our glorification: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).
(3) Finally, there is a special, unique anointing of the Spirit on Christians who suffer for Christ’s sake and bear his reproach. Indeed, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:14). The word “glory” here has the definite article, lit. “the glory,” thus pointing (most likely) to the “glory” of Christ to be revealed fully at his second coming (v. 13). The point is this: to suffer reproach for Christ is to enter into the experience of that glory in advance of its ultimate and consummate display at the end of the age!
Note also in 1 Peter 4:15-16 that, again, some suffering is shameful, namely, the suffering that comes from sinning:
“But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16).
If you wish to avoid persecution in the world, here is what you must do: mimic the world’s standards, never criticize its values, keep quiet about the gospel, laugh at its sordid humor, make use of the same profane and obscene speech you hear from your co-workers, smile and keep silent when God’s name is mocked and reviled, and be ashamed of Jesus Christ.
Jesus also expands on what provokes persecution. In v. 10 he speaks of persecution “for righteousness’ sake” but in v. 11 it is “on my account,” i.e., because of Jesus himself. “This confirms that the righteousness of life that is in view is in imitation of Jesus. Simultaneously, it so identifies the disciple of Jesus with the practice of Jesus’ righteousness that there is no place for professed allegiance to Jesus that is not full of righteousness” (Carson, 28).
Observe carefully how Jesus says we are to respond to such persecution: “Rejoice and be glad!” We are not to retaliate like an unbeliever would. We are not to sulk like a child. We are not to lick our wounds in self-pity like a beaten dog. We are not simply to grin and bear it like a Stoic. Still less are we to pretend that pain feels good. This is not a call for us to become masochists who enjoy pain. But even more: we are not only not to retaliate, we must not even resent it. Rather, we are to rejoice and be glad! But how can a sane person do that?
First, it always helps to reflect on the fact that such pain is minimal when compared with the agonies of hell.
Second, recall to mind John 15:21 – “But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” To claim exemption from persecution is to renounce one’s association with Jesus. If you think you are above and beyond persecution, you are above and beyond Jesus.
Third, we must never forget how the early disciples responded when they were beaten and thrown in jail. “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Fourth, we must reflect often on the purpose of suffering in our sanctification: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
Fifth, Paul went so far as to say that suffering is a sign of our status as the adopted children of God: “if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
Sixth, there are the two reasons Jesus himself provides. First, blessed are those who are persecuted because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10). Second, we must rejoice because “your reward is great in heaven” (v. 11). Says Piper: “One way of rejoicing in suffering comes from fixing our minds firmly on the greatness of the reward that will come to us in the resurrection. The effect of this kind of focus is to make our present pain seem small by comparison to what is coming” (Desiring God, 234). Jesus can tell us to rejoice and be glad when we suffer persecution for his name’s sake because he knows that the reward of heaven will more than compensate for any suffering we must endure in obedience to him.
Persecution and the suffering it brings takes on many differing expressions. Jesus seems to single out verbal abuse and denunciation in v. 11. For us, in our day, this is often the only form of persecution we experience. But others suffer far more severely.
I read recently that a Christian professor at a state university was fired because he refused to call a woman a man.
A young Muslim girl was savagely beaten by her father because she told him she had converted to Christianity. She was then ostracized by her family and eventually murdered by a mob because she supposedly brought dishonor and shame on her community.
State-sponsored churches in parts of China that were forced to close due to COVID-19 lockdowns are only permitted to reopen if they hand money over to the Chinese Communist Party.
A pastor and at least 23 others were killed and 18 others injured after gunmen attacked a church in northeast Burkina Faso two Sundays ago. In a neighboring community, a deacon, a pastor, and the pastor’s family were killed by abductors over the weekend.
Persecution often takes on a different from here in the U.S. As many of you know, a California judge has declared that anyone who gathers under the church roof of Godspeak Calvary Chapel will be severely punished. He issued a restraining order against the church and its pastor, Rob McCoy. The order was granted by a Ventura County judge after the local government sued McCoy and his church for holding in-person services of up to 200 people, which violates Covid-19 shutdown restrictions.
The court order means that anybody who dares go into that church building, at any time in the future, until this judge gives his blessing, will be held in contempt of court. There are already penalties and fines of $1,000 a day. Those who enter the building for worship or prayer must face the possibility of arrest and incarceration.
Perhaps the most widely seen form of persecution today goes by the name of “cancel culture.” Cancel culture refers to the practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally found on social media in the form of group shaming. When something is canceled, it is nullified, ended, voided. When a person is canceled, they are no longer supported publicly.
Usually public figures are said to be canceled after it has been discovered that they have spoken out in defense of a position that others find offensive. It involves calling out the bad behavior, boycotting their work (such as by not watching their movies or listening to their music or shopping at certain stores), and trying to take away their public platform and power.
But that raises a question: if the righteousness for which we are persecuted is, to use the words of the Beatitudes, being merciful and pure and meek and peaceable, why would anybody persecute that? It doesn’t seem very offensive. Christians can be the object of scorn, ridicule, or be “canceled” for any number of reasons:
• If you value sexual purity and seek to abide by the Scriptural command that sex outside of marriage is prohibited, you will be branded as closed-minded and an enemy of free love.
• If you oppose abortion, you will be vilified as a person who is the enemy of free choice.
• If you choose total abstinence when it comes to alcohol, or at minimum choose to drink in moderation and never to the point of becoming intoxicated, you will be branded as a joyless fundamentalist.
• If you live a comparatively simple lifestyle and give generously to your church or to global missions, many will charge you with being a legalist who considers himself morally superior to everyone else.
• If you take seriously the blessing Jesus pronounces on the meek, you will invariably expose the evil of pride and suffer rejection by many.
• If you are diligent at your place of work and honest in your dealings with others, you will expose the immorality of laziness and theft.
• If you stand firmly against so-called “same-sex marriage” you will be cancelled and labelled as a Puritan who fails to keep up with the times. You, so they will say, are on the wrong side of history.
• If you are spiritually minded and devoted to the study of Scripture and obedient to its principles, you will expose the carnality and worldliness of those around you.
The bottom line is this: If you wish to find the strength and courage and spiritual stamina to remain faithful to Jesus and to the Word of God, it requires an act of faith. Faith in what? Faith in the truth of what Jesus said in v. 12, that “your reward is great in heaven.” Setting your heart and mind on the promise of what awaits us in heaven and in the age to come is the only way to remain steadfast, patient, and full of hope when persecution comes. We would do well to learn from Moses who,
“when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:24-26).