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. – Matthew 5:10-11
When I was recently speaking on the subject of Christian persecution, I told my wife how intimidated I was to make this topic piercingly relevant in our comfortable modern culture, with so much religious freedom. Her reply helped open my own eyes on the subject. She suggested we perhaps can see this issue best through its opposite: if being persecuted for righteousness’s sake means being insulted or rejected because we are speaking the gospel for Christ’s sake, then its opposite is being accepted, popular, or enjoyed because we are not speaking and living publicly for Christ.
When we consider the issue through this lens, we starkly see how applicable it is, how far short we often fall as Christians of enjoying the blessedness of unpopularity for Christ’s sake. And now the Beatitude that perhaps seemed least applicable to begin with becomes the most searching and convicting!
Am I truly hungering after righteousness? Then it will be evidenced in rejection for righteousness’s sake! Am I poor in spirit? Then I will not hesitate to be shamed by the world in order to speak well of my Savior.
What does it mean to be persecuted for righteousness?
What Jesus means by “persecution” is explained in his own words in the surrounding context. In verse 11, we see that persecution includes: being reviled (insulted, reprimanded, despised, rejected) and having people say negative things about you for Christ’s sake.
We must be careful to notice that Christian persecution always centers on Christ, not us. It is for Christ’s sake—not just our own unpopularity, our difficulty getting along with people, our offending people (even with the truth) by unkind and inconsiderate words or manner. (Remember 1 Peter 2:20: “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”).
Yet we don’t see anything in Jesus’s description of persecution about being burned at the stake, chased out of your home, or thrown in prison—even though many of his disciples would eventually face these violent responses to their Christian testimony! Rather, the words Jesus chooses in order to describe persecution highlight the personal rejection and social isolation. Interestingly, Peter writes to those who are suffering physical consequences for their Christian faith, and his emphasis almost exactly mirrors that of Jesus: “if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (1 Pt. 3:14), and “If you are insulted [same word as “reviled”] for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:14).
Do we think there’s something unique about our culture or our generation, that the greatest deterrent to living and speaking publicly for the glory of Christ is what other people will think and say? Certainly not! Think about it: the difficulty of losing your house or being put in prison would be far less if your entire community and culture embraced what you were standing for and welcomed you afterward with open arms. Likewise, not losing your house or being put in prison does not shelter you from the serious and daunting loneliness, shame, and rejection that any culture can heap on those whom they despise and deride.
Have we been persecuted for righteousness?
In light of Jesus’s description of Christian persecution—which does not necessarily mean doing prison time, but will always mean sacrificing my personal popularity in order to speak well of Jesus in front of others—have we experienced the blessedness Jesus’s promises here?
Have I been passed over for promotion, have I had to stick out at a social event, have I been ostracized by my classmates, have I received odd looks or peer pressure for what I won’t let my children do for Christ’s sake? (Let’s not kid ourselves: peer pressure is not just a problem for kids! It is just as much a danger for adults.)
The point of Jesus’s beatitude is not just to make us feel guilty but to help us realize we are either trusting in the approval and acceptance of others or we are trusting in Christ’s promise: “You are blessed if you are insulted for me!”
This means any time I avoid speaking about Jesus, or go along with the crowd in order to fit in or not be rejected, I am disbelieving Christ’s assurance that it is a greater blessing and happiness to be reviled for Christ’s sake than it is to fit in for my own sake.
And it also means that we cannot excuse ourselves from this beatitude by just saying, as we often do, “Thank God we don’t live in a country that persecutes Christians.” Every country, in every generation has persecuted Christians when those Christians are boldly speaking well of Christ and living out his Word! Paul put it in no uncertain terms, didn’t he? “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). If we are not in some sense despised by, reviled by our unbelieving culture and co-workers and community then it necessarily means we have in some way been hiding the light of Christ. Those who bravely, although joyfully and winningly, speak well of Jesus in public will always suffer for it in an unbelieving world.
Some Bible-students have suggested this is the one beatitude not describing or based on personal character and actions. Yet Jesus insists it has everything to do with who we are and how we are living: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:19; see also 17:6-14). The goal of course is not ever to be “persecution” in and of itself, but speaking and living publicly for Christ… which Jesus says will always lead to severe social rejection on some level.
Are we being persecuted? More specifically, can you think of an instance in the last week in which you were insulted or rejected because you were publicly speaking and living for Christ? In the last month? The last year?
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What is the promise to those who, in boldly proclaiming the fame of Jesus Christ, suffer personally for it? “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
They appear to lose all; but not so, for they gain assurance that all is theirs. Everything on earth may be taken from them, but they have the astounding and everlasting promise that heaven is theirs.
The world opposes the name of Jesus Christ, either by discounting him or by ignoring him; it always has, and Jesus says it always will. The world is speaking evil of Christ; if Christians do not speak well of him, who will? Is Christ well-spoken of by you?
It is interesting and revealing, is it not, that we often thank God for the blessing of not being persecuted? Meanwhile, Jesus says the opposite! Blessed are those who are persecuted for his name’s sake. Your situation is a happy one when persecuted for Christ’s name because your life is counting for the only thing in all the universe that really matters and lasts.
Justin Huffman has pastored in the States for over 15 years, authored the "Daily Devotion" app (iTunes/Android) which now has over half a million downloads, and recently published a book with Day One: Grow: the Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. He has also written articles for For the Church, Servants of Grace, and Fathom Magazine. He blogs at justinhuffman.org.