Jean’s Gospel: Blessed Are The Persecuted
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10)
By repeating the identical promise – “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – the first and eighth Beatitudes form an inclusion. The reader may recognize the prominence of these two Beatitudes, as well as a relationship between them: As the first Beatitude is paradigmatic of a disciple’s condition before God, so the eighth Beatitude is paradigmatic of a disciple’s condition in the world. That is to say, persecution is the response, which the poor in spirit should expect from the world, for living from the Word of God, hungering for righteousness, giving undivided worship to God, and being exponents of mercy and peace for their neighbors and the world.
Matthew introduces the theme of persecution in Jesus’ birth narrative, where Herod seeks out the life of the child Jesus. It is precisely because Jesus is righteous that he is persecuted and eventually put to death. The mark of a disciple is that he or she, like Jesus, becomes a target of the world’s hatred of righteousness. The mark of God’s activity in the world is on the disciple who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Suffering, as a fruit of faith, blessed by Jesus, is not commonly taught or understood in contemporary American Christianity. The eighth Beatitude cuts against the grain of what many of Jesus’ original hearers were hoping for in the Messiah: Would the Messiah not restore the kingdom of Israel and bless the pious with strength, victory, wealth, long life and happiness? Would he not do the same for his church and all Christendom?
However, the gospel takes pains from beginning to end to dispel the notion that Jesus came to wage war against flesh and blood. Instead he came to wage a cosmic war and triumph over the powers of sin, death and the devil, to reconcile God and mankind and to redeem God’s entire creation. Jesus came, died and rose again to “deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:13).
By his lowly birth and flight to Egypt; by his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey; by his rebuke of the disciple who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant; by turning the other cheek to the servants who spit in his face and slapped him at his trial; by being obedient to the will of his Father that he lay down his life as a ransom for many, suffering crucifixion under Pontius Pilate; and by rising from the dead after three days, Jesus won the cosmic war and by his sufferings and cross reveals both the utter depravity of mankind on the one hand, and the extravagant love of God for his enemies on the other.
Cutting against the grain of human wisdom, God’s strength was revealed in weakness; his victory was accomplished through suffering. As it is written: “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor 2:8)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted”
Jesus actually dedicates two Beatitudes to persecution. The ninth Beatitude expands on the eighth. Jesus double blesses his disciples for the insults, persecution, slander, etc., which will confront his disciples, who are not to go out of the world to avoid persecution, but to function as salt and light in and for the world. Disciples of Jesus are like “sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16); and again: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master…. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (Matt 10:24-25)
The Apostle Paul may have been alluding to Matthew when he wrote: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12). Persecution appears to be just as intrinsic to the Christian life as poverty of spirit. Luther offers an explanation: “The devil is a wicked, wrathful spirit, and neither can nor will endure it that a man enters the kingdom of God. If any one undertakes to do this, he throws himself in his way, and stirs up and tries all the opposition against him that he can.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”
However, Jesus makes an important distinction: “for righteousness’ sake”. Persecution is blessed only when the cause therefore is commanded in the Word of God; in that case it is God’s cause for which a disciple suffers persecution. On the other hand, evil doers also suffer but without God’s command or blessing. The Apostle Peter, who also may have been alluding to Matthew, develops this distinction: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” (1 Pet 4:14-15)
If I suffer for righteousness’ sake (or as in the ninth Beatitude for Christ’s sake) it is not my cause or your cause, but a divine cause for which I suffer. I have not concocted a cause out of my head or taken it up at the suggestion of anyone else; I know it from the Word of God. In that case, Jesus says I am blessed, for mine is the kingdom of heaven; and in the ninth Beatitude: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:12)
When a disciple of Jesus is insulted, persecuted or slandered for righteousness’ / Jesus’ sake, he or she is in a most favored position with God, even though by all outward appearances the contrary situation appears to be the case. Though emotional, financial and/or physical misery and suffering often accompany persecution, Jesus promises his disciples a great reward in heaven. We are not told specifically what the reward is, but all of the Beatitudes include eschatological promises.
The idea of rewards, which Jesus brings up several times in the Sermon, conveys two very important lessons: First, a disciple’s reward is bestowed by his Father who is in heaven. The Father rewards his children, not because persecution (or piety or any work) earns or deserves a reward, but because the Father loves his children who believe in his Son and condescends to them with grace.
The second lesson is that a disciple of Jesus must look to heaven (i.e., the next life) for the ultimate gifts that the Father has in store for him, and not settle for the penultimate rewards available to man in this passing age, “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19). It is the hypocrites, who are double minded, who do not trust the promises of God, who settle for temporary earthly rewards at the expense of the eternal and heavenly.
Christians are not employees, but are children of their Father in heaven. He is gracious towards us for the sake of Christ who by his suffering, death and resurrection ransomed us from sin and death and the power of the evil one. But that is just the foretaste. What about the age to come? It will be more glorious for God’s children than we can possible imagine: a share in the resurrection; where death is swallowed up by life; an eternal home with Christ our Lord in a new heaven and a new earth; where God’s name is hallowed (i.e., honored) by all, where his kingdom has fully come; and where his will is accomplished in all; and where Christ is all and in all. All this and more await you in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.