Blessed Are the Persecuted
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 5:10-12
This morning, we are going to finish off the Beatitudes by looking at vv. 10–12. To provide context, I’d like to read vv. 3–12. As our culture shifts, vv. 10–12 become increasingly heavy verses to preach. Ironically, as I was studying this passage early last week, I was also following what was happening with a fellow pastor, Tim Stephens. We went to the same seminary, though he was a few years behind me, and I didn’t know him well. He pastors a smaller church in Calgary, Alberta, and he was arrested last Sunday for violating COVID restrictions.
I’m not going to pretend like I fully understand the situation in his community or claim I would make all the same decisions he has made. But we are 14 months into this thing, and the risks of COVID are plummeting as the vaccines are disbursed and cases in general but especially serious cases are falling. However, their church was still expected to maintain a max gathering of only 15 people.
At some point, the church has to assemble if it is committed to God’s Word and biblical priorities. So, this church simply acted on their convictions. They didn’t run around flaunting their practices; they just did what they believed was right. But their pastor was arrested. And what was maybe most startling was that politicians and neighbors were willing to go on record as celebrating the arrest of a peaceful family man and pastor.
It’s scary stuff. And it made Jesus’ words pop in an especially powerful way, because he is not talking about some distant situation. No, these words hit closer and closer to home as the values of our nation shift.
What do we do? Do we run for the hills? Do we try to earn the world’s favor by doing all that we can to fit in? Or will we cling tighter to Christ than ever before and give all our energy to his mission and purpose? I pray that each of us will choose the latter, trusting that Jesus is worth the cost and will be faithful to his promise. Notice first…
I. The Reason for Persecution
(Read v. 10): I must say that vv. 11–12 have very different literary style from vv. 3–10. So, vv. 11–12 are not a 9th beatitude; instead, they expand on v. 10.
Therefore, v. 10 is a stunning conclusion to the Beatitudes. Afterall, most people at least respect the other 7 qualities, even if they don’t want them for themselves. But persecution always comes with lots of stigma. This was obvious in the articles about Pastor Stephens. People were angry at him. And persecuted Christians throughout church history have always endured the same hostility. Afterall, the only way anyone can justify such cruelty is by portraying Christians in the darkest terms.
So, in the world’s eyes, the persecuted are shameful and despised. But surprisingly, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” In other words, Jesus highly favors those whom the world hates and treats harshly. It’s an incredible statement. But I must emphasize that Jesus’ doesn’t bless any and all who are persecuted. Rather, he blesses those who are persecuted…
“For Righteousness’ Sake”: In v. 6, Jesus already blessed those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” He loves those who pursue righteousness. But now he warns that righteousness often brings the world’s hatred. To be clear, righteousness does not go looking for persecution.
But MacArthur nails it, when he says, “Righteousness is confrontational, and even when it is not preached in so many words, it confronts wickedness by its very contrast.” That’s so true. No matter how humble and gracious you are, if you “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” your life will shine an uncomfortable light on sin, and people won’t always like it.
What do we do? Should we back off of righteousness and make peace with the ungodly, as so many have done? No, continue to live a righteous life, because God’s blessing is worth infinitely more than the world’s blessing. Verse 11 adds a 2nd reason for persecution…
“For My Sake”: This phrase is mostly synonymous with “for righteousness’ sake.” But it also personalizes the pursuit of righteousness. The godly man isn’t merely seeking to better himself by pursuing righteousness; instead, he wants to please the Savior by obeying his will.
And he is willing to do so at great personal cost. For many early Christians, this would have meant refusing to participate in pagan worship. For us it may mean refusing to affirm sexual perversities as legitimate or a variety of other things. Regardless, God’s favor rests on the one who boldly stands on God’s Word, for “Christ’s sake,” no matter the personal cost.
A helpful complement to Jesus’ words is found in 1 Peter 3:13–17; 4:12–19. Peter’s audience was facing severe persecution, and it certainly sounds like he had our text in mind as he instructed them (read).
We especially hear Jesus’ voice, when Peter pronounces a blessing in 3:14, on those who suffer “for righteousness’ sake” and in 4:14 where he mentions being “reproached for the name of Christ.” Those phrases are important, because Peter clearly states that there is no glory in suffering for evil. He warns that we better make sure that we suffer “as a Christian.”
I’d go so far as to say that few things dishonor the Lord’s name more than when people boast that they are being persecuted for Christ, when in reality they are just being loud-mouthed idiots.
On that note, Peter doesn’t encourage us to go looking for persecution. Instead, 3:13 encourages us to live godly lives in the hope that rational people will see our sincerity and respect it. Similarly, 1 Timothy 2:2 says that our aim should be to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” Christians shouldn’t be obnoxious, rebel-rousers, who invite unnecessary attacks.
But even if we don’t go looking for a fight, ungodly people will often bring it to us, and Peter acknowledges that it’s hard. But the pain is worth it, because “You are blessed” (3:14), “Blessed are you” (4:14). Not only that, we enjoy a unique union with Christ, when we suffer as he did for him (3:18). We’ll come back to that, but returning to our text, I next want to consider…
II. The Cost of Persecution
The verb “persecute,” in vv. 10, 11 is a common NT term. In a general sense, it means “to pursue,” whether for good purposes or bad. But in the NT, it is mostly used for persecution, for aggressively pursuing someone to do harm based on their religious convictions. This harm can be anything from slander to imprisonment, to abuse, and even to death.
The apostles endured the worst end of that spectrum early on. They were beaten, and James was killed with a sword. Peter’s audience probably wasn’t facing death, but they had to refuse to participate in pagan worship. This certainly alienated them from family and trade guilds, which were often essential for getting work. And Christian wives and slaves probably endured awful challenges for similar stands. It’s heavy stuff.
And notice that v. 11 warns about 2 other types of persecution. Christians are often “reviled” for their faith and people “say all kinds of evil against (them) falsely.” Slander is painful and infuriating. For example, a Christian is sincerely seeking to love the Lord and love his neighbor. He’s not hurting anyone. But an enraged jerk makes false accusations against him. It hurts.
And oftentimes, those accusations create other consequences. Christians are alienated from friends and family. They lose work and miss out on promotions. The end result is that they are not the respected and honored as they should be. Instead, they are despised, rejected, and weak.
Now, we live in a unique society that has long embraced an unusual amount of Christian thinking. As a result, Christians have enjoyed a unique standing in our society. Therefore, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the hatred and persecution.
But the NT everywhere warns that persecution, not honor, is the normal lot of a Christian. Peter warned, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you” (1 Pet 4:12). And Jesus warned, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19).
As much as we don’t want persecution, it shouldn’t surprise us. We’ll actually be more content, and we’ll do a better job serving our Lord if we simply embrace the expectation that if I am properly serving Christ, the world will reject me. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Notice the rewards that Jesus promises.
III. The Rewards of Persecution
I see three rewards in the text. The first is…
Comradery with the Saints: Notice the final encouragement of v. 12. Jesus mentions this, because most of the time when you are enduring persecution, it feels very lonely, and it feels like you are on the losing team. You wonder, “Am I making a foolish choice that I will regret?”
We already saw in John 15 that we can take comfort in our comradery with Jesus. When the world hates me for my faith, it doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong; rather, it means I’m doing something right, because that’s how unbelievers treated Jesus.
Here, earlier in Jesus’ ministry, he says to an Israelite audience, that they can find a similar comfort by identifying with the OT prophets. Every Jew understood that some of the greatest and godliest prophets endured great hatred for their stand.
Ahab and Jezebel hated Elijah and wanted him dead. Jewish tradition says that Isaiah was put in a hollow log, which was then sawn in two. The people of Jerusalem hated Jeremiah for predicting the fall of Jerusalem, and some of the leaders put him in a muddy cistern to die. It’s horrible. Hebrews 11:35–40 offer a masterful description of their sacrifice and God’s approval.
The prophets didn’t enjoy the high life. But in God’s eyes, “the world was not worthy” of them. What a statement! And Jesus says we stand in their train, when we suffer for Christ. Oh, that it would be said of us, not that we had a cute church and the world’s praise, but that we were courageous lovers of Jesus “of whom the world was not worthy.” 2nd reward…
The Kingdom of Heaven: Verse 10 repeats the same promise as v. 3, which, as we’ve said, means that the kingdom of heaven is the central reward of the Beatitudes. We’ve also said that this kingdom is primarily focused on the Millennial Kingdom that Christ will establish when he returns.
The Gospels also teach that membership in the kingdom provides certain blessings today and for all eternity, but Jesus is primarily promising the persecuted a place of glory in the kingdom that Jesus will establish one day. He is saying to the persecuted, “You may be despised in this world, but I will give you glory in the next.” Of course, the glory that the persecuted will enjoy in the kingdom will far exceed all that they have lost in this world. Christ will honor his own. The 3rd reward is…
Great Rewards in Heaven (v. 12a): We’d all love to know what that great reward is, wouldn’t we? Unfortunately, the Scriptures don’t tell us a lot, other than to say Christ will more than make up for whatever we sacrifice.
The Apostle Paul, who endured plenty of persecution himself, provides helpful perspective, when he says, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:17–18).
We don’t typically think of the afflictions Paul endured as “light,” but when you have a clear vision of eternity as Paul did, you understand that they really aren’t that significant. That’s not to say that persecution isn’t painful. I can’t imagine what it was like for Pastor Stephens to be handcuffed and taken away from his wife and children last Sunday. And believers in China and throughout the Muslim world endure far worse.
But even the worst persecution imaginable, is “temporary.” And Paul says that God has “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” awaiting the persecuted in heaven. You will never outgive God. His reward will be worth every cost.
So, the challenge for us is to embrace the vision of Paul. See his eternal reward, and, as the song say, “And things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” Therefore, notice finally…
IV. The Response to Persecution
Jesus urges the persecuted in v. 12, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” Jesus uses 2 continuous, present tense imperatives, so the idea really is, “Be always rejoicing and always glad.”
Yes, persecution is never pleasant; therefore, Jesus is not calling for high fives and chest bumps, as if we are celebrating a Super Bowl victory. But when Christ calls us to suffer, knowing that we can take it, we should have joy.
I’m reminded of the apostles’ response the first time they were beaten for preaching the gospel. Acts 5:41 states, “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.”
It’s an incredible response, isn’t it? These men had watched the Savior whom they loved die for their sins a short time earlier. Now, as they nursed the wounds on their backs, they solemnly rejoiced that Christ counted them worthy to share in his suffering.
May God give us the same love for the Savior, the same longing to be near to him, and the same passion to make his glory known at any cost.
Not only that, Jesus encourages us that we can find joy in the eternal reward that awaits us. We must clearly see the reward, anticipate the joy of heaven, and rejoice through all of the pain and hardship.
That’s really good perspective as we watch our culture change and as we wonder what our future and the future of children will hold. Do not be afraid, and don’t back down. We are surrounded by lost souls, and fields are white for harvest. God has placed us in a very strategic position in our nation and in our nation’s history to make a bold and influential stand for righteousness and the gospel. It’s a great time to be alive and to serve Jesus.
And BTW, if you are in Christ, you can stand. God never gives us more than we can bear, and he always gives grace to do what he has called us to do. So, don’t be afraid. Grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ. Pursue righteousness. Learn to think like someone who is a pilgrim in this world, not a citizen. Develop courage by consistently standing for truth and sharing the gospel. When people mock you and turn their backs from you, rejoice at your newfound knowledge of Christ. And then keep going.
The world may see you as weak, insignificant, and even as evil. But Jesus looks with great honor on those who are persecuted for name. His approval and his reward are worth it all. So, do not fear persecution. “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”