10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 11 “You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. 12 Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)
We saw in our last post that “the mercy and the purity and the peacemaking of a disciple of Jesus comes from Jesus and is done for the honor of Jesus. It’s this attachment to Jesus that gives our righteousness its distinct character” (John Piper, sermon, 1986), and that makes it worthy of persecution from the world.
Now, this is clarifying for us, but it’s also a bit more confusing. How are we to know that our actions of mercy or peacemaking … or our moral purity … are motivated rightly by a relationship to Jesus? And how are we to know that people of the world recognize it as such and are therefore actually persecuting us? These are great questions that I also struggled through a bit as I studied this, and I want to share with you some answers by way of highlighting what persecution is NOT.
In his (very long) sermon on this text, Martin Lloyd-Jones lists several things Jesus did NOT say about persecution and righteousness, and in so doing, he brings remarkable clarity to the text, helping us know whether or not we are experiencing persecution for the reasons that Jesus says here in this text that make us ‘blessed.’
First, Jesus does not say, “Blessed are who are persecuted for being good.” In fact, I think that being good or doing good will often get you REWARDED in this world, not persecuted. The world generally praises and admires those who do good and noble things. There are people who have made great sacrifices, given up careers and wealth, and the world has thought of them as great heroes. So we should suspect immediately, then, that such actions are not true righteousness.
Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are irresponsible in their manner of evangelism.” Martin Lloyd-Jones says there are Christians who bring all kinds of trouble down on themselves because they are foolish in their style and tactics of evangelism to the culture. Maybe they are unusually insensitive or offensive. But for whatever reason, they bring all kinds of ridicule and suffering on themselves. And Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who unnecessarily bring persecution on themselves by being irresponsible in their evangelism.” Peter put it this way in 1 Peter 4:15 – “But let none of you suffer … as a meddler.” So if we are experiencing suffering or some form of persecution by being irresponsible in our testimony or by coming across as nosy or cocky, this is not the kind of persecution that results in a blessing.
Related to that, Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for religious/political reasons.” I assure you (and you know this very well) that if you mix your faith with politics, you will be persecuted. But that does not mean that it will be persecution for RIGHTEOUSNESS’ sake. The Beatitude and the promise apply to persecution for the sake of righteousness. It can be very easy, especially in this day and age, to be persecuted for our political beliefs that are born out of our faith, and that persecution does not apply.
Neither did Jesus say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for a cause.” Lots of good people suffer for lots of great causes, but this is not the same as what Jesus said: suffering for righteousness’ sake. Being persecuted for a cause (such as abortion or civil rights) makes us more prone to develop a martyrdom syndrome … like we cannot be blessed in our faith unless we are being made miserable by those opposed to our cause. This is not the kind of persecution that leads to blessing.
So, none of those things are persecution for righteousness’ sake … for a righteousness that is attached to a relationship to Jesus. So what IS such persecution?
Let me put it to you like this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for being more and more like Jesus.” This has been the case all through Scripture.
In Genesis, Abel is persecuted by his brother Cain. Moses received GRIEVOUS persecution for his leadership and faithfulness to the Lord and his calling. Saul was relentless in his persecution of David. The story of Daniel instantly comes to mind as a classic example of persecution for being more like God.
None of these were persecuted for being foolish or fanatic, neither for a cause or a political ambition. They were persecuted only for their righteousness.
In the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul affirm this teaching. In John 15:18-20, Jesus says:
18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
Paul affirms this in 2 Timothy 3:12. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
That passage reminded me of Romans 12:18-19.
18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
But it’s not always possible because righteousness in the name of Jesus gets persecuted, but Paul gives us v. 19.
19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.
Rob is Teaching Pastor at Blackman Baptist Church.