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8. Blessed Are The Persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12)

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“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.

Matthew 5:10-12 (NET)

The first seven Beatitudes lead naturally into the eighth. The more we demonstrate the characteristics of the kingdom in our lives, the more we will be persecuted by the world. Persecution is the gold stamp on the believer’s life. The last beatitude is the only one with a double blessing. Christ says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness” (v.10) and “Blessed are you when people insult you” (v.11). It is these people and these alone who are part of the kingdom of heaven.

We must consider this beatitude well, as it will sustain us in dark times. When Charles Spurgeon was severely depressed over the criticism he received in his ministry, his wife printed all eight beatitudes on a large sheet of paper and tacked it on the ceiling above his bed. She wanted him to remember, first thing in the morning and last at night, that the righteous will be persecuted. There are no exceptions, and we must remember this as well.1

In Matthew 24:9, Christ taught that in the end times believers will be hated by all nations because of him. Persecution will only continue to grow as this world gets further away from God. As this world becomes darker, the light in believers will become even more offensive. Already, more Christians have died for the faith in the last century, than the other centuries combined. How can we remain faithful in suffering?

In this study, we will consider the persecution believers experience because of righteousness, the joy to be found in it, and its reward.

Big Question: What is the meaning of the eighth beatitude and what are some applications from it?

Persecuted

Interpretation Question: What does it mean to be persecuted?

The word “persecuted” means to “pursue” or “chase.” It can also be translated “harass.”2 In verse 11, Christ says, “Blessed are you ‘when’ people insult you”. “When” can also be translated “whenever.” This means that believers will not always be persecuted. They will experience times of peace and possibly times of popularity. Even Christ was not persecuted all the time.3

“Persecuted” is a passive perfect participle and could thus be translated “allow themselves to be persecuted.”4 What is shocking about these believers is that they are willing to undergo persecution in order to pursue righteousness, preach truth, and to honor God. They are willing to bear their cross for Christ’s sake (cf. Lk 14:27).

Observation Question: What are the three types of persecution Christ lists that believers will at times experience?

  1. “Insult” literally means to “to cast in one’s teeth.”5 This probably refers to people negatively talking about believers to their faces.
  2. “Persecute,” in the context of verse 11, probably refers to physical abuse, such as imprisonment.
  3. “Falsely say all kinds of evil against you” may refer to being talked about behind their backs.
  4. There will be times and seasons when Christians experience each of these.

Interpretation Question: Why will believers be persecuted?

Christ gave two reasons: “for righteousness” in verse 10 and “on account of me” in verse 11. These two statements are clearly parallel—referring to the same thing. As with Abel, Cain killed him not because of something he did wrong but because of something he did right. Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice to God which enraged Cain. Obviously, this also happened to Christ. John 3:19-20 comments on the world’s response to Christ:

Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed.

When people are living in sin, they naturally will hate those living in righteousness. To be the honest person in a class room where everybody is cheating (and to possibly report or speak out against those who are cheating) will provoke persecution. To work at a business, where others regularly gossip, talk negatively about the leadership, get drunk after work, practice dishonesty, etc., and be the one to decline to participate will again stir up resentment. It may lead to being harassed, passed over for promotion, or even fired. With Daniel, his co-workers got him tossed into the lion’s den (Dan 6). You may not face lions, but your persecution will increase as you, like Christ, expose sin and call for righteousness. Therefore, harassment, ostracism, and persecution are the lot of faithful believers.

Persecution for righteousness also happens as a result of spiritual warfare. In Job 1, when God drew attention to Job’s righteousness, it led Satan to accuse Job and seek permission to afflict him. Job lost his job, family, and eventually his health, and it was all rooted in the spiritual realm; he was attacked because of his righteousness. This commonly happens to believers, especially when they are on fire for God. Satan will afflict them because of their righteousness in order to deter them from living for God. To do this, he not only uses demons but also the world.

Interpretation Question: How was persecution experienced in the early church?

Persecution was experienced in at least three ways:

1. Persecution often manifested in one’s family life.

Typically, a child might become saved but the parents and siblings would not. A wife would accept Christ while the husband refused. As result, some believers were shunned, beaten, disowned, and possibly killed over their faith.

2. Persecution often manifested in one’s social life.

Social gatherings and celebrations commonly happened at temples. People would bring meat to be sacrificed; a portion was burned for the gods and another portion was given to the priests, but the majority went to those who sacrificed. They would celebrate by eating and drinking at the temples in honor of the gods. The typical invitation would say something like: “I invite you to dine at the table of our Lord Serapis”6 (or the name of some other god). This excluded Christians from those gatherings. How could they participate in a celebration meant to honor pagan gods? This even affected ordinary dinners at a neighbors’ house. Typically, before eating dinner, pagans would offer food and drink to their idols—similar to how Christians asks for the Lord’s blessing over their meals. How could a Christian participate with a clear conscience? Again, this led to separation, hatred, and ostracism.

3. Persecution often manifested in one’s work life.

Much of the ancient work life was also centered around worshiping the gods. A blacksmith might be offered a contract to make idols, or a mason to work on temples. This again would affect the conscience of Christians. In addition, cheating, cutting corners, and bribery was common in the work force. To refuse could lead to not only being hated but also losing employment. This was the lot of early Christians.

Tertullian, a second-century Christian leader, was approached by a man who said, “I have come to Christ, but I don’t know what to do. I have a job that I don’t think is consistent with what Scripture teaches. What can I do? I must live.” Tertullian replied, “Must you?” For Tertullian, there was only one option: Obey and honor Christ—survival was secondary.7

Heightened Persecution

At times, this persecution grew to startling heights. Under Nero, Christians were burned as torches to light up his garden. Meat was tied to Christians’ bodies, and they were given to the dogs to be torn apart in the amphitheater. By the end of the first century, the Roman emperors became deified. As the empire expanded, it became the primary way Romans tried to keep unity between all the nations under their rule. People could worship other gods and speak different languages, but they had to declare that Caesar was Lord. It was compulsory to give a verbal oath of this once a year. When completed, they would receive a verifying certificate called a libellus. After this public proclamation, people could continue to freely worship other gods. However, this was something faithful Christians refused to do, and therefore were considered traitors. Because of their refusal, they suffered the confiscation of property, loss of work, imprisonment, and often death.8

Certainly, Christians could avoid persecution by compromising their faith—declaring that Caesar was Lord, honoring the gods at the temples and people’s homes, and by not speaking out against sinful practices—and indeed, some did. However, Christ taught that in order to be his disciples, we must hate father, mother, and other family members. We must be willing to take up our cross (Lk 14:26-27). A “disciple” who is unwilling to bear his cross is no disciple at all, and according to this final beatitude, he is not part of God’s kingdom. In fact, Christ taught that those who denied him before others, he would also deny before the Father (Matt 10:33). In Luke 6:26, he declared, “Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.” Bearing the character of the Beatitudes always leads to bearing the persecution of the final beatitude. It won’t always be extreme in nature, such as imprisonment or burning; often it will be subtle—like being considered strange, weird, or archaic (cf. 1 Pet 3:16, 4:4)—but it will be there if we are truly part of the kingdom.

Are you willing to take up your cross to follow Christ?

Application Question: In what ways do you see persecution towards Christians growing in the world today? How have you experienced persecution for righteousness? How should a Christian respond if he or she lacks some form of persecution for righteousness?

Rejoicing in Persecution

Observation Question: How should believers respond to this persecution?

Believers are not called to retaliate or return evil for evil. We are not called to sulk in self-pity over our persecution. In verse 12, Christ calls believers to “Rejoice and be glad.” “Be glad” can literally be translated, “Leap for joy!” And this is what has happened throughout biblical history. In Acts 5:41, the apostles, after being flogged by the Sanhedrin, left rejoicing because they had been counted worthy to suffer for the name. In Acts 16:25, while in prison, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns. They rejoiced in the midst of their suffering.

Surprisingly, joy in suffering is not an uncommon experience for those being persecuted for the faith. Kent Hughes shares two powerful testimonies:

Samuel Rutherford, the saintly Scottish pastor, wrote from his prison sty, “I never knew by my nine years of preaching so much of Christ’s love, as He taught me in Aberdeen by six months imprisonment.” “Christ’s cross,” he also said, “is such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings to a bird.”

And in our own time a Romanian pastor describes how he was imprisoned and tortured mercilessly and yet experienced joy. Locked in solitary confinement, he had been summoned by his captors, who cut chunks of flesh from his body, and was then returned to his cell, where he was starved. Yet in the midst of this sadism, there were times when the joy of Christ so overcame him that he would pull himself up and shuffle about the cell in holy dance. So remarkable was his joy that on his release from prison and his return to his home, he chose to fast the first day in memorial to the joy he had known in prison.9

Interpretation Question: How is joy possible in the midst of great suffering for Christ?

1. Joy in suffering for Christ is a Divine bestowal.

This beatitude, as with the others, begins with “Blessed,” which can be translated “Happy.” When believers are willing to accept persecution for the sake of righteousness, God gives them a divine bestowal of joy. This has been the experience of believers throughout history. Like Stephen being “full of the Holy Spirit” as he saw Christ before being stoned in Act 7:55, many experience intimacy with God while suffering for the faith—resulting in great joy.

2. Joy in suffering for Christ is a discipline.

When Christ calls for us to “Rejoice and be glad,” these verbs are imperatives in the Greek. Therefore, they are not mere suggestions, but holy commands from our Lord. We must, as an act of obedience, choose to rejoice and leap for joy when criticized and thought strange for Christ. We do this in the same way that we seek to give thanks in everything, as this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus (1 Thess 5:18).

3. Joy in suffering for Christ is a result of redeemed thinking.

Observation Question: What type of thinking leads to joy in the midst of suffering for righteousness, as demonstrated in Matthew 5:10-12?

(1) We must remember that suffering for righteousness, as with the rest of the Beatitudes, is a proof of our salvation. Christ says this about those persecuted for righteousness, “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” “Them” is emphatic in the Greek—meaning “them alone.” Thus, to be without some form of persecution may prove we are not truly saved. (2) We must remember that suffering for righteousness will be greatly rewarded in heaven. James 1:12 says, “Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.” (3) We must remember that suffering for righteousness puts us in the company of the prophets. Elijah was hunted by Ahab and Jezebel. Jeremiah was imprisoned and tradition says stoned to death. Similarly, Isaiah was sawed in half. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. Stephen was stoned. Ten of the eleven disciples (excluding the betrayer, Judas) were martyred. John, the eleventh, was exiled to the Island of Patmos by the Emperor Domitian. As we rightly consider suffering for righteousness, it should cause us to be glad—literally leap for joy! Paul taught that just as belief in Christ is a gift of God so is suffering for him. Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him.” Suffering for the faith is a gift from God, and therefore we should rejoice in it.

Interpretation Question: What are some other reasons that Scripture says we should rejoice in suffering?

(4) Scripture also teaches that we can rejoice because suffering produces perseverance in us, character, and hope in God (Rom 5:3-4). (5) We can rejoice in suffering because it makes us weak, and therefore, more able to display God’s power. God told Paul that his power was made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:7-8)—leading Paul to boast in his weaknesses and infirmities (v. 9-10). (6) We can rejoice in suffering because in the midst of it, we experience God’s comfort and therefore are equipped to offer comfort to others who suffer. Second Corinthians 1:3-4 says,

Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

As we rightly think on suffering for Christ and sufferings in general, we realize that though suffering is a cross to bear, it is also a crown to wear. The benefits are exceedingly great—so much so that biblically-minded Christians can truly leap for joy in them. God is working in believers for his good—making them into the image of Christ to the glory of God (Rom 8:28-29). Thank you, Lord, for your faithfulness in using the cross for the good! Amen!

Application Question: What are your thoughts about the possibility of experiencing joy in the midst of suffering for Christ? Why is this possible? How have you experienced joy in the midst of trials in general?

Conclusion

Paul told his protégé, Timothy, that “Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). This is an inescapable fact. And, as this world becomes darker, the light that shines from believers will become even more offensive—leading every nation to hate Christians (Matt 24:9). Already, more Christians have died in the last century for the faith, than the other centuries combined.

However, let us remember that afflictions we experience in this life are light in comparison to the weight of glory and reward we will experience in heaven (2 Cor 4:17). We should consider it a gift to experience what our Lord suffered on this earth (cf. Phil 1:29). It means we are looking more like him. In addition, we also must remember when it is time to suffer for Christ’s name, grace will be available. The grace that saved us and the grace that sanctifies us will be available so we can suffer in a way that glorifies Christ (cf. Phil 1:19-20). Thank you, Lord!

Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown

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1 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 72). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

2 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 73). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 222). Chicago: Moody Press.

4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 224). Chicago: Moody Press.

5 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 73). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

6 Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 128–129). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

7 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 223). Chicago: Moody Press.

8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 223–224). Chicago: Moody Press.

9 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 70). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Kingdom

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