“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:10-12
Up until this last Beatitude, Christ’s opening words from the Sermon on the Mount had been quite comforting. The poor in spirit would gain the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourned would be comforted. The meek would inherit the earth. Those who had a hunger and thirst for righteousness would be filled. The merciful would obtain mercy. The pure in heart would see God. The peacemakers would be called the children of God. What’s not to like about all of that?
But then Jesus launched into a word about persecution. To make matters worse, this was the only Beatitude in which He stated the Beatitude and then followed it up with some extra commentary. You’ll notice that the actual Beatitude ends with the promise about the kingdom of God. (Interestingly, the first and last Beatitude end with exactly the same promise.) Then come two more verses on the subject of persecution.
Of all the Beatitudes, did Jesus have to linger a bit longer on the most bothersome one? Come on, who wants to hear about being persecuted? All the previous Beatitudes were matters the believer could control. They were things the Christian could do or become. Persecution, however, strikes from the outside. The believer doesn’t persecute himself; somebody else does it. It’s the one Beatitude over which the believer has no control whatsoever.
The Luke version of the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t water the Beatitude down any either. In it, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). The New Testament offers us several examples of Christians being persecuted, even to the point of death. We don’t find one instance, though, where the Christian says to the persecutor, “Could you let me have a quick moment here to leap for joy about what’s happening?”
There is one thing that needs to be understood about this persecution. It must be brought about for “righteousness’ sake.” Your bad behavior can cause you to have trouble with others, but that’s not persecution. For there to be true persecution, your stance or actions must be in the godly right. The evil that is spoken against you must be spoken “falsely.” If it’s no more than legitimate criticism, it’s not persecution.
There’s certainly no denying that the early church experienced intense persecution. The apostles were arrested (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42). Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60). James was killed (Acts 12:1-4). Paul was stoned (Acts 14:19-20). Paul and Silas were whipped and imprisoned (Acts 16:16-34). Paul was arrested again and ultimately brought before Caesar (Acts chapters 21-28). It wasn’t until the emperor Constantine “Christianized” the Roman empire that the persecution of Christians ceased.
This isn’t to say, though, that persecution doesn’t exist today. The fact is, it does. Certainly it exists in China and other far off lands, but it also exists right here in everyday America. Anytime you take a stand for Christ, and someone else makes you suffer somewhat for it, that’s persecution.
The Christian girl who won’t consent to pre-martial sex, only to have the boy tell lies about her at school, experiences persecution. The Christian office worker who gets called names because he won’t join the guys when they hit the bars after work experiences persecution. The Christian pastor who loses some church members over a God-sanctioned sermon that he preached experiences persecution. You see, persecution can take on many different shapes and appearances.
But the great news is that experiencing persecution, as unpleasant and even deadly as it can be, carries with it tremendous eternal rewards. Jesus said, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” Since every Christian will enjoy some reward in heaven, Christ’s words must mean that being persecuted brings extra special heavenly reward. The harder a thing is to endure for Christ, the greater the eternal reward. That is only fair.
So, Christian, try to do some remembering whenever you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Remember that you are standing in a long line of believers that runs back through the early Christians, back through the Old Testament prophets, all the way back to Abel (Genesis 4:1-8). Remember that Jesus, your Savior, was persecuted unto death. And remember that experiencing persecution allows you to earn heavenly rewards that you otherwise couldn’t earn. As a matter of fact, if you can, it would even be good if you would literally leap for joy about the persecution. (Okay, that last one will be tough, but you get the idea.)