“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10)
As Jesus concludes the prelude to his Sermon on the Mount, he pronounces a final blessing unto those who endure persecution for righteousness’ sake. He elaborates on the hardships that his disciples will inevitably face, addressing them personally saying “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11). How can any follower of Jesus be hopeful in the face of such severe oppression from the world? The key to deciphering this beatitude lies in understanding the cause for our persecution and then the confidence to carry us through persecution.
Now to be clear, when Jesus speaks about persecution he isn’t referring to punishment for violating the law or being disrespectful in one’s conduct. The persecution that he speaks of is actually unjust suffering for following Jesus and trying to live a righteous life. The apostle Peter reasons “how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?” (1 Peter 2:20). Rather if we suffer for doing good and are blameless, then this is commendable to God. Peter goes on to explain that this is the calling we receive; to follow the example Christ set, who did not retaliate and “entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). We begin to see that this is the pattern for the life of the disciple. Jesus tells his followers to not be surprised “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18). Paul reminds his student Timothy that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). With all this in mind, we should not be taken aback by opposition from the world but live boldly for Christ with sober expectations.
So what hope is there for the suffering children of God? What does it mean to be granted the kingdom of heaven? If you’ve been following our Beatitudes series, you may notice that the promise following the last blessing is the same promise as the first. Jesus’ declaration should come as a great comfort and assurance; that all who suffer in this life for following him, belong eternally secure under God’s rule and authority. The language used indicates that this is a present reality for those under Christ! It is for this reason that Christ can say to us “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
It was by this assurance that the prophet Jeremiah was able to withstand the abuse he experienced serving as God’s prophet. Known as the ‘weeping prophet’, he was continually rejected and mistreated by the leaders of Judah, God’s chosen people. Throughout his ministry, he was beaten and received threats of death and imprisonment (Jeremiah 20:1-2; 26:11; 37:16). In our culture’s eyes, Jeremiah seems to have wasted his life foolishly. Yet the writer of Hebrews spoke highly of those who died living in faith; who rejected the idols of their time and “were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). We need not seek hope in any earthly treasures but turn our eyes to our inheritance in Christ, which can never perish, spoil or fade. In writing his final letter to Timothy, Paul speaks with confidence knowing that God “will bring [him] safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). Being united to Christ, we too can rest in the assurance of his promises.
How does this shape the way we live? Knowing that Christ fully suffered in our place and calls us to follow his footsteps, we can endure persecution with sober expectations and confident assurance. Oppression from the world is no longer an unforeseen tragedy but an occupational hazard for the Christian. When the gospel is rejected or Christ’s name is scorned, it should not come to us as a surprise. However, this should not drive us to inaction rather it should empower us to act. In 2019, OpenDoors reported that there were 245 million Christians worldwide who experienced persecution for their decision to follow Jesus . Hearing this alone should drive us to respond with our greatest weapon against the forces of this world – prayer.
Pray earnestly by the Spirit for the Lord’s people, the authorities that do not recognise God’s authority, and for the coming of the kingdom. As we finish off this series, let us remember the radical nature of God’s kingdom and how it stands in sharp contrast to the culture of our society. The Beatitudes prove to be much more than counter-cultural moral instruction, rather they are steadfast assurances to comfort God’s people.
 – Open Doors USA. (2019). Christian Persecution by the Numbers – Open Doors USA. [online] Available at: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/christian-persecution-by-the-numbers/.