‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (Matthew 5:10-12).
With these words – a double ‘Beatitude’ – Jesus concludes his words of ‘Blessing’. And what a note on which to finish: suffering and persecution. In our relatively comfortable western world we might feel uneasy with
Jesus’ words here. Yet we know how true is the reality of persecution against his followers. We hear accounts of the barbaric cruelty perpetrated against God’s people by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
In November 2012, Dr. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, observed that Christians are the most persecuted religion in the world. Yet for the most part the western world remains either ignorant or silent – implying perhaps a desire not to get involved or a disinterest in matters of justice towards Christians.
There is nothing new in this. Many of Jesus’ early followers suffered persecution and even death for their commitment to him as the Messiah. Indeed under Nero, such were the atrocities perpetrated against God’s people that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus who was far from supportive of Christians, even many in the wider Roman society took pity on them (Tacitus, Annals, Book 15 ).
Persecution can take many forms. There’s the more obvious form of physical hardship, torture, imprisonment, death. But there are more subtle forms – mocking and personal rejection. In one way this beatitude is the most searching of all. If a follower of Jesus never experiences some kind of mocking or rejection, just how much of a follower are they?
Now we should notice what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are difficult or awkward people or because they are religious fanatics’. No. Jesus restricts the blessing to those who suffer persecution because of righteousness— people who are determined to live as Jesus lived.
PLEASING TO GOD
It is significant that Jesus calls for a commitment to righteousness, for this is something that pleases a righteous God. Martin Luther, who himself faced persecution and threat of death, observed: ‘The command to you is not to crawl into a corner or into the desert, but to run out, if that is where we have been, and to offer your hands and your feet and your whole body, and to wager everything you have and can do.’ He continues, ‘What is required is a hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end. If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.’
It is only when we can sit light to the things of this world and do all that we can do serve the righteousness of a righteous God that we will receive the blessing of joy of which Jesus speaks. As John Stott has commented, ‘Commitment to Jesus Christ means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that we should be called upon to suffer. In fact it is a joy and a token of his grace.’
Who then are the really ‘blessed’? Who are the ones who have God’s approval? As we look at what Jesus is saying with these ‘Beatitudes’, he is expecting his followers to undergo radical changes. ‘Instead of feeling proud of your relationship with God,’ he is saying, ‘understand your poverty before God. Instead of being indifferent towards unbelievers feel the pain for a world that is thumbing its nose at God.’
‘Instead of adopting the power play and plotting of the world to achieve kingdom ends, walk the tougher path of humility and service. Hunger for truth and righteousness. Show mercy. Pursue purity. Work for peace. Reckon on the reality that life won’t always be easy for you as one of my people,’ he is saying. ‘But stay with me. It will be worth every bit of it.’
John Stott concludes: ‘The culture of the world and the counter-culture of Christ are at logger heads with each other… Jesus congratulates those whom the world most pities, and calls the world’s rejects, blessed.’