Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. —Matthew 5:10-12
Preaching these verses today, I face a temptation. I am tempted to apologize, because I’m a coward. I am tempted to say, “I am so sorry. I wish I could spare you this. But if you’re following the real Jesus, some people will mistreat you. You’d think that, if you’re humble and tenderhearted and meek, if you’re hungry to grow, if you’re merciful and pure in heart and peaceable – and doesn’t our world need more of that? – but if you’re living the Beatitudes, this world will not roll out the red carpet for you. You will be misunderstood and misjudged, and you will be blamed for it. What a horrible Beatitude this is. I apologize!” Jesus isn’t apologizing, obviously. He’s saying, “Rejoice and be glad!” He is compassionate, but he is also bold. The Bible says he is the Lamb and the Lion (Revelation 5:5-6). Today we’re hearing a roar from the Lion. Do you realize what he’s saying? He is saying, “You’re taking a hit for me? Good! I’m giving you a privilege. Congratulations!”
A question arises. Who is this Jesus? What kind of man would say to us, “Blessed are you when people mistreat you on my account”? In other words, “If you take a hit, don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s for me”? Either Jesus was an egomaniac, or he is God. If Jesus was an egomaniac, you have to reinterpret his acts of humility as the most cynical self-promotion. But if Jesus is God, he deserves your all. But whatever you think, the real Jesus did present himself as worth suffering for, and you and I must face that today. He never told us to inflict suffering for his sake, but he did tell us to accept suffering for his sake, and he did not apologize. He did not say, “Your reward on earth is great.” He said, “Your reward in heaven is great.” His promise has the power to help us stop caring so much about popularity and comfort and being included in the right circles. Then we have prophetic impact. It begins for us when we give up on our own ideal designer lives and bow down before Jesus and say, “Your kingdom come. It will cost me. But that’s okay with me now. I just want to live for you.”
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Here is what Jesus isn’t saying. He is not congratulating us when we get picked on for being foolish or annoying. The only suffering he considers persecution is “for righteousness’ sake” (verse 10) and “on my account” (verse 11). When you’re graded down at school or cold-shouldered in the neighborhood or passed over at work, not because you’ve done wrong but because you’ve done right, Jesus is very close to you. He looks you right in the eye and says, “Way to go! I mean a lot to you, and you mean so much to me. They will not reward you. But I will.” The Lord tells us up front that suffering is part of following him. The Bible says, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). And he isn’t asking too much of us.
Jesus has always been controversial. Even as a baby, when he was presented at the temple, Simeon prophesied to Mary, “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Jesus is a living fork in the road. Just being who he is, even with all his grace and mercy, he confronts us with decision, for or against. Who he is draws out of us the hidden truth about ourselves. And it is painful for us to see who we really are. That’s when conflict pops up to the surface.
If your heart is embracing the Beatitudes, you are bringing Jesus into your world today. You are bringing his presence and power. For that, you will be punished. But it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus in you. And that is an honor. The Bible says, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14). The early Christians rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for his sake (Acts 5:41). Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). He wants to bring peace. He will bring peace. But for now, some people refuse his peace. We all feel the pressure to compromise the gospel and settle for a false peace.
It gets complicated, doesn’t it? The Lord just said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Now he says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” Why are peacemakers persecuted? Who could be against peace? Jesus came to banish war and poverty and injustice and create a humane new world forever. He died for that. He will accomplish it. But here’s the problem. The Lord Jesus will create a perfect world for the display of God’s glory alone. Nearly everyone wants a better world, but few people want it for God’s glory alone. Long ago Augustine helped us understand the deepest dividing line way down underneath every other human dividing line:
Two “cities” – today we might say, two identities – have been formed by two loves: the earthly city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly city by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former city glories in itself, the latter city glories in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greater glory of the other is God. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to God, “You are my glory, and the lifter up of my head.”
It gets complicated, because our pride will reject even peace, if it’s the peace of Christ. The only way to get free is to see our arrogance in the light of the cross. Charles Colson died last week. He was the White House “hatchet man” in the early 1970s. But Charles Colson changed sides – not from the Republicans to the Democrats but from the glory of man to the glory of God. He told us about the moment it happened over at a friend’s house one evening:
Just as a man about to die is supposed to see flash before him, sequence by sequence, the high points of his life, so on that August evening key events in my life paraded before me as if projected on a screen. Things I hadn’t thought about in years – my graduation speech at prep school, being “good enough” for the Marines, my first marriage into the “right” family, sitting on the Jaycees’ dais while civic leader after civic leader praised me as the outstanding young man of Boston, then to the White House, the clawing and straining for status, “Mr. Colson, the President is calling.” “Mr. Colson, the President wants to see you right away.”
Now, sitting there on the dimly lit porch, my self-centered past was washing over me in waves. It was painful. Agony. Desperately I tried to defend myself. What about my sacrifices for government service, the giving up of a big income, putting my stocks into a blind trust? The truth, I saw in an instant, was that I’d wanted the position in the White House more than I’d wanted money. There was no sacrifice. And the more I had talked about my own sacrifices, the more I was really trying to build myself up in the eyes of others. It was pride that propelled me through life.
That ego, even when it strives for a better world, is the dark energy troubling this world. Jesus said to all sincere lovers of world peace, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). In other words, cross over from your own kingdom of self-idealization and wave the white flag of surrender to the new King. Then you will have peace. But it’s costly. Frederick William Faber, the nineteenth-century poet, put it bluntly:
Then learn to scorn the praise of men, and learn to lose with God;
for Jesus won the world through shame, and beckons thee his road.
Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Living for him is not safe, but it is rewarding: “Yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account
Now Jesus gets up close to us. He speaks personally to us. He says, “Blessed are you.” He looks directly at us and tells us what we can all expect. We probably won’t be burned at the stake. But every one of us will be spoken against. The word translated “revile” is about abusive words. “Revile” means to insult someone, to interpret someone unfairly, to speak against them. Here’s how bad it can get: “. . . utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.” We’ve all heard the glib slogans like “In every conflict there is wrong on both sides.” Really? In every conflict? Did Jesus think so? He understood that angry people don’t need facts. They can imagine things and spin things into outrageous craziness and talk it all over the place. But Jesus also has something to say. When others say, “Cursed are you,” Jesus says, “Blessed are you.”
So here’s the question for every one of us here today. Have you given your reputation to Jesus? He’s asking you for it. And you will never amount to anything for him until you surrender to him at that deep level.
Here’s how you can endure being spoken against. Jesus said, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). He will rejoice over you forever, and his approval will satisfy your heart. No one can take your dignity away, after you’ve given it to him. We all want approval. Our hearts crave approval. And every one of us will go somewhere to get it. The world is offering its approval on terms of our compliance with its contempt of God. Jesus is offering his approval on terms of his grace. He forgives us when we fail him. Only he does.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you
Now it’s obvious how strong this word “Blessed” has been all along. “Rejoice and be glad” is what it amounts to. The Lord isn’t saying to us, “Gut it out.” He’s saying to, “I want you to keep two things clearly in mind, because they will cheer you up.”
One, your reward in heaven is great. You might not be invited to that party downtown. But you will be invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb above. At that party downtown everyone will be smiling outwardly but sizing each other up inwardly and slandering each other all the way home in the car. At that feast above everyone will love everyone with all their hearts, and everyone will be rejoicing in the Lamb who was slain for them. And we will never go home. It will be home. And we will be honored, because he will be honored. Your reward in heaven will be great. Jesus died to give it to you. And he will. He is committed to you.
Two, slander and gossip are how they persecuted the prophets. We’re in good company. Would we want to be in any other company? What if prophet-killers liked us? What would that say about us? And do you see what the Lord is implying here? The prophets of the Old Testament weren’t persecuted by the nations; the prophets were mistreated by God’s own people. I read a book about a Chinese Christian who had been tortured for Christ many times. Then he came to this country on a speaking tour, and Christians began spreading false reports about him. He wrote in his book:
In China, Christians are persecuted with beatings and imprisonment. In the West, Christians are persecuted by the words of other Christians. This new kind of persecution was no easier than physical persecution. I cried out in prayer, asking the Lord for his strength. I forgave the people behind this attack from the bottom of my heart and we continued on our trip.
No matter what anyone says, including misguided Christians, will you follow Jesus, no matter what the cost? Will you today give your life in complete surrender to the Lord? As a boy, I was often moved when my church sang an old hymn with this verse:
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?
We come now to the end of the Beatitudes. It’s time to ask ourselves where we stand. Are you willing – it’s a matter of willingness; we don’t have to be superhuman, but we do have to be willing – are you willing to sail through whatever bloody seas he chooses for you? It is the only way to follow the real Jesus. Will you settle the matter today? Will you give yourself unreservedly today to the real Jesus? Then we will hear him say, “Rejoice and be glad. Your reward in heaven is great.”