Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted
This post is the 9th in the series of posts on the Beatitudes—a section that spans from Matthew 5:3-12. In this section, the Lord Jesus describes 8 attitudes that should be present in the life of everyone who claims to be his follower. The pursuit of these attitudes is counter-culture. That’s why the beatitude lifestyle can also be described as “Counter Culture Christianity.”
In this post, we will be looking at the eight and final attitude—that of patiently enduring the sufferings that come from living out our Christian life. Jesus described this in Matthew 5:10-12, “10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
A young Christian American woman was murdered in Iraq a few years ago. Her crime? She went there to help others by providing clean water to refugees.
Amazingly, she had written a letter to her church to be read if she were killed. “When God calls, there are no regrets,” she wrote. “I wasn’t called to a place. I was called to him…to obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory was my reward. His glory is my reward.”
Regarding her funeral, she wrote, “Be bold and preach the life saving, life-changing, forever eternal GOSPEL. Give glory and honor to our Father.”
She listed some of her favorite passages of Scripture, including 2 Corinthians 5:15, which says, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
Another was Romans 15:20, which says, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.”
In closing, she wrote, “There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him.”
His glory—my reward! No joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him! Don’t those words reveal that this lady understood the essence of this last beatitude? And as a result, even though she, like many faithful followers of Jesus, tragically lost her earthly life, she did end up gaining real life for all eternity. She has now received her reward, the joy of being with God and worshiping him for all eternity.
The Reality of Suffering.
In these verses, the Lord Jesus reminds us clearly that we will face persecution when we live out his commands. In context, we will face rejection as we live out a “counter-cultural lifestyle” described in the beatitudes thus far. Please notice Jesus did not say “if” but “when” people “insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you” [Matt 5:11]. It’s just a matter of time before all of his followers will face a backlash for living out his commands. The degree of backlash may differ depending on where a person lives or the unique circumstances each faces, but the reality of persecution is stressed here.
Jesus, in essence, is saying that when we pursue his commands, the world and Satan will pursue us to inflict pain on us. The subject of persecution is not a pleasant topic, especially in the Western world we live in. But it is still a topic that is very important for all who seek to follow Jesus sincerely. Why? Because Jesus, often in his ministry with brutal honesty, talked about the reality of persecution that his followers would face. He wanted them to understand clearly what it would cost them to follow him. Here are some examples.
Matthew 10:22 “You will be hated by everyone because of me.”
Mark 8:34 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Luke 14:27 “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
John 15:20 “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
So, we see clearly how Jesus repeatedly talked about persecution because it is an important subject.
But it’s not Jesus only who considered this subject important. Even the apostles did!
Acts 14:22 “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
2 Timothy 3:12 “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
1 Peter 4:12 “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Even in the book of Revelation, we read the words of John as he tells us when Antichrist comes to power, believers will undergo tremendous suffering for their faith.
Revelation 13:10, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.”
The Reason for Suffering.
Not only does the Lord teach us that we will undergo suffering to one degree or the other, but he also tells us the reason for this suffering. Notice in verse 10, he talks about being “persecuted because of righteousness.” In the last part of verse 11, he talks about going through suffering “because of me.” So, “righteousness” refers to living for Jesus—for following his commands. That’s why this is not the suffering that comes from our sinful actions [1 Pet 4:15]. Nor is this the general suffering all people experience from living in a fallen world [Rom 8:20-22]. No, this is suffering, in particular for being a follower of Jesus.
When we live for Christ, the enemy will not be silent. The kingdom of darkness will hit back and hit back hard. Jesus tells us in another passage why believers will suffer persecution in John 3:19b-20, “people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” The purpose of light is to expose what is otherwise not exposed.
So, when Christians, through their words and their lives, expose the deeds of unbelievers, they will retaliate. They will insult, persecute, and say all kinds of evil! In whatever way, life could be made miserable for the believers, and to whatever extent they can get away with their actions, persecutors will do it—through words and actions.
The Response to Suffering.
And when persecuted, what should be our response? Jesus gives a clear answer in the first part of verse 12: “Rejoice and be glad” [Matt 5:12]. Leap for joy—is a more apt rendering. In the light of the coming reality of being with the Triune God in the kingdom that Jesus will be setting up, abundant joy must be the fitting response. In fact, abundant joy is the New Testament’s unified theme as to the believer’s response to persecution.
In writing to suffering believers, Peter commanded them to “rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ” [1 Pet 4:13]. James tells us to “Consider it pure joy…whenever [we] face trials of many kinds” [Jas 1:2].
Acts 5:40-41 tells us that when the apostles were “flogged” by the religious authorities for preaching Jesus, they “left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name.” The next verse tells us that despite the suffering, “they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” [Acts 5:42]. Acts 16:23-25 tells us that Paul and Silas, as they were in prison after having been “stripped…beaten with rods…severely flogged…were praying and singing hymns to God.”
The above responses clearly indicate that the early Christians did not give up the faith after one or more painful experiences. They kept on remaining faithful in the call to follow Jesus.
Sadly though, our response often is the exact opposite. At times, we cannot even get out of bed due to overwhelming sorrow because we think we have paid a heavy price for being loyal to Christ. It could be something as small as an insult, and we mourn for days together. Why such a response? Here are some reasons: Too much of the world in us, failure to take Jesus’s words seriously, too much ego. That’s why we don’t respond rightly to even the mention of the word “persecution.”
But let’s remember being persecuted to some degree or the other is inevitable for all who desire to live in God’s kingdom [2 Tim 3:12]. And the response in such cases should be one of abundant joy.
Yes, there may and often will be tears. But those tears should not stop us from still having that deep joy on the inside, knowing that we are taking the blows for the One who took so many blows for us. And that understanding should bring a deep and abiding joy even amid deep cries of anguish. We are, as Paul says, people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” [2 Cor 6:10].
The Reward for Enduring Suffering.
A logical question one could then ask in light of going through all this suffering is this: What’s the point? What will I get in the end? Is it worth it if it means so much pain involved in following Jesus? The answer Jesus gives is pretty straightforward: “theirs [and theirs alone] is the kingdom of heaven” [Matt 5:10]. I also believe in verse 11, when Jesus says, “great is [their] reward in heaven,” he is referring to the same thing as well as in verse 10.
They alone will be living in the coming kingdom of heaven in the future in the presence of the Father, Son, and the Spirit and worshiping them due to their sins being washed away through Christ’s blood. That’s the reward! They are indeed the “blessed” [Matt 5:10] ones. They are the ones on whom God’s approval and his favor rest!
In fact, in one sense, the entire beatitudes are about living in the kingdom of God. Notice how Matthew 5:3, where Jesus spoke the first beatitude, and Matthew 5:10, where he told the last beatitude, both end with the phrase, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the beatitudes are sandwiched between verses 3 and 10, thus indicating the focus is on living in the kingdom.
And to encourage us to pursue this reward, Jesus went to add in the last part of Matthew 5:12, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Stated differently, this has always been the pattern for God’s people, even in the Old Testament. From Abel, who was persecuted by his very own brother Cain, God’s people have always been persecuted, including the prophets who spoke God’s truth.
So what Jesus is saying is this: You are not alone in this, nor is this suffering something new. This has always been the case—persecution for pursuing God. But the reward is worth it. Living with the Triune God for all eternity. That reason alone should promote great joy—even in the midst of deep suffering.
Let’s remember. Jesus’s teachings on the entire Sermon on the Mount, including these Beatitudes, are to serve as a mirror for all who claim to be Christians. Yes, we cannot keep any of these commands to perfection. Only Jesus did! We have been made right with God because of his work alone!
However, since we have been united with Jesus by faith, we have the Holy Spirit living within us. And his work is to make us become more like Jesus continually. So, these characteristics must be evident in us. And where there is evidence of this kind of righteousness, there will be persecution. Whether in the home, workplace, school, college, or social relationships, we will face rejection for following Jesus. But that’s cause for abundant joy because it shows we are indeed followers of Jesus.
Many professing Christians aren’t facing any persecution because there isn’t much righteousness displayed. At best, it’s only self-righteousness. That’s not the genuine biblical righteousness, the righteousness Jesus is talking about here, which is the call for right living as a result of being united with him. Jesus addressed such people at the end of his sermon with these chilling words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” [Matt 7:21]. And the Father’s will is that only those who display a beatitude lifestyle will be in his kingdom.
Stated differently, according to Jesus’s words in these beatitudes, only those who are: poor in spirit, mourn over their sins, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pursue purity on the inside—i.e., the heart and those who are willing to undergo persecution—will be in the kingdom of heaven. So, if you’ve never truly turned to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, please don’t delay. Turn from your sins and embrace the forgiveness he offers, and only then will you have the strength to pursue this beatitude lifestyle—including the ability to suffer for him.
The bottom line is this: suffering for the faith is the lot for every true Christian. Jesus suffered. Believers in both the Old and the New Testament suffered. How can it be any different for any of us? Often, we think being persecuted is a sign of God’s displeasure toward us. Hence the popularity of the prosperity gospel message.
But the apostle Paul says something very different. He reminds us in Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” The word “granted” is the word from which we get the word “grace or favor.” It has the idea of a “gift.” Belief in Christ [the first part of this verse] and suffering for Christ [the second part of this verse] are both “gifts” that God, in his grace, has given to us. How can we thank him for one and refuse to thank him for the other? It is a privilege not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him.
So, instead of retaliating when we face insults and rejection, let’s follow in the footsteps of our Lord, whose response when facing suffering was this: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” [1 Pet 2:23].
Dear readers, when we finish this life and are in the presence of Jesus, we will realize whatever we went through for him—even if it led to death—did not come even close to what he went through for us. He left the Father’s presence, all of heaven’s glory, and came down to earth. He endured unspeakable suffering while on earth and ultimately went to the cross to die that shameful death we deserved. He bore the Father’s wrath for our sins. How, then, can we not consider it a privilege to suffer for him?
So, let’s reflect on the rejections and insults we face and ask ourselves: Is it because we live for Jesus we are suffering? Or is it the result of our sinful actions? If it’s the former, let’s rejoice, be glad, and continue to persevere, knowing it will be well worth it in the end. If it’s the latter, let’s confess our sins to God, repent of our actions, and ask him to help us overcome these tendencies.
No Reserves, No Retreats, No Regrets
William Borden graduated from high school in Chicago in 1904. He was the heir of the Borden Dairy estate. For graduation, he received the uncommon gift of a trip around the world. Little did those who gave him this trip realize what it would do to him.
While on the trip, William began to feel a burden for those less fortunate and those in need of Christ around the world. He wrote home expressing a desire to give his life in service to Christ as a missionary. Though friends and relatives stood in disbelief, Borden wrote two words in the back of his Bible: “No reserves.”
He returned to America and enrolled at Yale University. He was a model student. Though others might have thought college life would quench William’s desire for the mission field, it only fueled it. He started a Bible study, and by the end of his first year 150 students were meeting weekly to study the Scriptures and pray. By the time he was a senior, one thousand of the thirteen hundred students at Yale were in discipleship groups meeting for weekly Bible study and prayer.
He did not limit his evangelistic efforts simply to the up-and-out around Yale’s pristine campus. His heart was equally for the down-and-out. He founded the Yale Hope Mission. He ministered to those who were on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. He shared the ministry of Christ with orphans, widows, the homeless, and the hungry, offering them hope and refuge.
A visitor from overseas was asked what impressed him most during his time in America. He responded, “The sight of that young millionaire kneeling with his arm around a ‘bum’ in the Yale Hope Mission.”
When Borden graduated from Yale, he was offered many lucrative jobs. Yet to the dismay of many relatives and friends, he refused. Instead, he wrote in the back of his Bible two more words: “No retreat.”
He entered Princeton Seminary and, upon graduation, set sail for China. Intending to serve Christ among the Muslim populations, he stopped over in Egypt to study and learn Arabic. However, while there, he contracted spinal meningitis. He lived only a month longer.
At the age of twenty-five, William Borden was dead. Borden counted all things loss for the sake of knowing Christ and making Him known. He refused to be taken in by the futility of the life inherited from his forefathers, but rather sought to live out the glory of his ransom by the blood of Jesus Christ.
When his Bible was discovered after his death, it was found that he had added two more words to the back page: “No regrets.”
Those who know the price of their redemption also know that a life lived for the One who ransomed them is a life with no regrets…William Borden chose to go with the One who had ransomed him. How about you?
[Carter; Anthony (2013-03-19). Blood Work, (pp. 106-108). Reformation Trust Publishing. Kindle Edition.]
Note:CLICK here for a sermon associated with this beatitude.