2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
18 If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember the words I spoke to you: “No servant is greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. 23 He who hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: “They hated me without reason.”
26 When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, He will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.
Today we come to the end of our series on the Beatitudes with Jesus’ words to us in Matthew 5:10-12 - “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Persecution or suffering for the cause of Christ has been called the acid test for those who claim to citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as we should not be surprised at all the evil we see in the world, which we looked at last Sunday, so we should not be shocked and amazed at the ridicule, persecution and even hatred we are confronted with because we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The Bible tells us to expect it, but then Jesus tells us to rejoice and be glad – not because we’re suffering, but because we’re doing it for Him, and our reward cannot be measured in earthly terms.
There is also a strong connection between the first and last beatitudes. The first – blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God – speaks about the condition of becoming a citizen of the kingdom, and the last describes the character of those who have become citizens. Remember, the Kingdom of Heaven is not only a promise of what is to come. It is also a very present reality, but being in the Kingdom here and now brings opposition, persecution and scorn for the cause of righteousness. If you are in the Kingdom of God, you are righteous, but because you are righteous, you suffer for it. There’s an old saying that old-age is not for sissies, but the more time you spend in God’s presence, and the closer you walk with Him, you soon learn that being a Christian is not for sissies either.
The words of Jesus in this final beatitude are prophetic, as it points to the events after Pentecost. The disciples of Jesus had not faced persecution before Pentecost, but as soon as the Christian Church was established by the events of Pentecost, so the persecution began, and it continues today, nearly 2000 years later.
Hebrews 10:32–34 says, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” Those words were written to the first generation of Christians, but they apply to us today as well.
Foy Wallace wrote in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, “The last Beatitude sees the disciple of Christ at his highest, triumphing by the sheer spiritual power of the new kingdom over forces of opposition. He is not necessarily the martyr in the arena under the gaze of the spectators, but the disciple of Christ anywhere who overcomes the buffeting storms of hostility, who finds himself the subject of malignity, due to his loyalty to Christ and the principles of His kingdom. Here is the test of truly possessing the kingdom - the one who can bear it, and maintain his integrity and fidelity as the disciple of Christ, surely has his inheritance in the kingdom.”
In this beatitude Jesus makes a clear connection between the persecution of the prophets of old and the Church today. 2 Chronicles 36:15-16 says, “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through His messengers again and again, because He had pity on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets.” And if we go to the New Testament in Acts 7 where Stephen took the Sanhedrin to task and ended up being executed as the first Christian martyr in history, one of the last things he said before being stoned to death was, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him - you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Throughout the previous beatitudes Jesus presents us with some tremendous challenges as He encourages us to turn our backs on our sinful nature, and to live for Him instead. The rewards that He promises are simply amazing. The Kingdom of Heaven is ours, we will be comforted, we will inherit the earth, we will be filled, we will be shown mercy, we will see God and we will be called sons of God. But then He concludes His teaching by telling us to expect persecution because of these things.
John MacArthur puts it like this: “The Lord’s opening thrust in the Sermon on the Mount climaxes with this great and sobering truth: those who faithfully live according to the first seven beatitudes are guaranteed at some point to experience the eighth. Those who live righteously will inevitably be persecuted for it. Godliness generates hostility and antagonism from the world. The crowning feature of the happy person is persecution! Kingdom people are rejected people. Holy people are singularly blessed, but they pay a price for it.”
If you’ve ever read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, you will know just how high a price so many have paid for their faith.
John Foxe died more than 400 years ago, but he would not be surprised to hear that the persecution continues to this day. We also need to know that it will continue until Jesus returns for His Church. By the grace of God, the extent of the persecution most of us face is not much more than the ridicule of some friends and family, but there are no guarantees.
Persecution has happened and continues to happen to the Christian Church and to individual followers of Jesus Christ, but why?
What is the cause of all this persecution?
Jesus answers that question in the final beatitude. We are persecuted because of righteousness. Because we are righteous, we become friends of God, and enemies of satan and his demons and agents in the world.
When we stand up for the cause of Christ, there will be persecution in one form or another. This doesn’t mean that we are to actively seek persecution by our behaviour or our words. We are not to provoke persecution. We’re meant to be peacemakers, not troublemakers remember? We are to take the peace of Christ into the world. In the very next section of the Sermon on the Mount after the beatitudes, Jesus tells us we are to be salt and light in the world. That is our mission, but we need to know that satan doesn’t want the world to know the truth of Jesus Christ. When the righteous take the message of hope and righteousness into the sinful world, we will face opposition and persecution. This is why Jesus calls us blessed. We’re not blessed by persecution, but because of it.
Persecution for our faith is evidence that we are being true to Christ – that is why He calls us blessed.
We also need to understand the difference between suffering for our faith and suffering for our sin. People - Christians and non-Christians alike, do suffer for doing evil, but that kind of suffering is punishment, not persecution.
Peter, in his first letter to the Church writes, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:12-16)
John MacArthur again says, “All the virtues of the Beatitudes character are intolerable to an evil world. The world cannot handle somebody who is poor in spirit, because the world lives in pride, in a state of self-promotion and ego substantiation. The world cannot tolerate mourning over sinfulness. It wants to bypass sin altogether and convince itself that it’s alright. The world cannot tolerate meekness; it honours pride. The world cannot tolerate someone who knows he is nothing and seeks something that cannot be earned. The world knows little about mercy, about purity, about making peace. These characteristics flagrantly counter the system.”
When we suffer persecution for our faith, it is as a direct result of our determination to live righteously, and to fly in the face of worldly principles. Christian persecution is because of righteous living, not because of our sins.
In His conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus says to him, “Light has come into the world, but men 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 his deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)
The reason for persecution of Christians is that the very principles we try to uphold and live by stand in direct conflict with the ways of the world. This is the reason we should not be surprised when we are hated for our faith. Jesus could not have put it any plainer in John 15. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
Righteous people do not love the world, and the life of the righteous is a constant rebuke of sin.
Simply put, if all of the previous beatitudes teach us how our lives are to be lived, we can only come to one conclusion: Being despised, rejected, slandered and persecuted as a result, is as much a characteristic of Christian discipleship as being pure in heart or merciful. Every Christian is to be a peacemaker, and every Christian is to expect opposition. Those who hunger for righteousness will suffer for the righteousness they crave. In fact, maybe we should ask ourselves this question: If I am a Christian but I am not being persecuted and ridiculed for it, why not? Again, this does not mean we actively seek or provoke hatred for our faith, but do our Godly words and behaviour make a difference? Do our non-Christian friends and family notice?
John Stott says, “We should not be surprised if anti-Christian hostility increases, but rather be surprised if it does not.”
So how are we to react to persecution? Everybody likes to be liked, so what do we do when being a Christian makes us unpopular?
Jesus says in Matthew 5:12, “Rejoice and be glad.” The NKJV even says we are to rejoice and be exceedingly glad.
Our natural reaction to persecution might be to retreat, but we can’t do that. We can’t be the light of the world if we are not prepared to shine that light. To try and escape from the world is to escape responsibility. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17 just before He went to the cross, He prayed, “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:14-18)
Because we belong to Jesus, we are no longer of this world, but He has sent us into this world to serve just as He came into this world to serve.
As hard as it is, but by God’s grace and in His strength, we need to seek His help to prevent us from reacting to persecution negatively. Our first instinct is to complain and to lash out and try to get our own back. We can so easily become discouraged, but we simply have to persevere. Remember, we have the Spirit of God within us, and with Him, nothing is impossible.
The Life Application Bible commentary notes on the last beatitude says, “Jesus said to be happy when we’re persecuted for our faith. Persecution can be good because (1) it takes our eyes off earthly rewards, (2) it strips away superficial belief, (3) it strengthens the faith of those who endure, and (4) our attitude through it serves as an example to others who follow. We can be comforted knowing that God’s greatest prophets were persecuted. The fact that we are being persecuted proves that we have been faithful; faithless people would be unnoticed. In the future God will reward the faithful by receiving them into His Eternal Kingdom, where there is no more persecution.”
One final quote from John Stott, whose book on the Beatitudes I’ve used extensively during this series, and I think he hits the nail firmly and squarely on the head here: “It may seem strange that Jesus should pass from peacemaking to persecution, from the work of reconciliation to the experience of hostility. Yet however hard we may try to make peace with some people, they refuse to live at peace with us. Not all attempts at reconciliation succeed. Indeed, some take the initiative to oppose us, and in particular to revile or slander us. This is not because of our foibles or idiosyncrasies, but for righteousness’ sake and because of Jesus, that is, because they find distasteful the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst, and because they have rejected the Christ we seek to follow. Persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value-systems.”
“He began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We are so blessed. We are blessed by His grace and favour and by His mercy so freely given to us.
In a moment we’ll be singing that wonderful song by Matt Redman: “Every blessing you pour out I’ll turn back to praise. When the darkness closes in Lord, still I will say, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ On the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering, my heart will choose to say, ‘Blessed be your name’”.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read James 1:2-3 and John 15:18-19
God created us for fellowship. We are social creatures by nature, which means that relationships are important to us.
How do we make sense of this when we read passages of Scripture like these (and there are many others which tell us we will face persecution and hatred for being Christians?)
How have you personally experienced persecution for your faith?
Was your faith in Jesus strengthened or weakened as a result?
What do you think Jesus means by saying that we are “blessed because of righteousness?”
Discuss this statement by John Stott in your group: “We should not be surprised if anti-Christian hostility increases, but rather be surprised if it does not.”
One of our struggles when being persecuted or even hated for our faith is resisting the temptation to fight back and seek revenge.
Using the previous 7 beatitudes in Matthew 5, how can we, and how should we react to persecution?
The more time we spend in the Bible, the more we learn how radically different the life of a faithful Christian is to the ways of the world.
What have you learned during this series on the beatitudes?
Which beatitude has challenged you most? Why?