Blessed Are the Persecuted
Blessed Are the Persecuted
Imagine you are in the market for a new car. You visit the dealer and the salesman who is showing you the latest model takes you for a test drive. As you turn out of the parking lot, he launches into his sales pitch: "Three hours in this car," he says, "and your back will be so out of joint, you will need physical therapy to walk upright again! The cost of repairs alone will put my children through college. And when you drive it down the street, every head will turn, because everyone who sees you will be laughing at you."
Nobody who wanted to make a sale would say such a thing. It doesn't make much sense. Which makes you wonder what Jesus was thinking when he uttered this final beatitude in Matthew 5:10: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." If this is a sales pitch, it's not a very good one. But Jesus isn't making a sales pitch in this beatitude. He is offering a word of comfort to disciples who will be persecuted because of him. He knows that no one, at least no normal person, likes being persecuted.
Jesus tells us who should rejoice over rejection.
Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted" in verse 10. Then, in verse 11, he says, "Blessed are you." To those who are already suffering persecution, Jesus says, "Don't be discouraged;" to those who have yet to face persecution, he says, "Don't be surprised." In saying these things, Jesus serves notice to his disciples. Those who follow him faithfully should expect to experience a measure of rejection. Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are you if people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you." He says, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you." There is a tone of inevitability here.
It is true that Jesus can bring people together—husbands and wives who have stopped loving one another, children who are estranged from their parents, neighbors whose relationships have crumbled can all testify to the power the gospel has to heal. But Jesus can also come between people.
In Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus warns: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man's enemies will be the members of his own household." These are sobering words for a church that wants to market itself to the world. Jesus' words imply that opposition is an inescapable consequence of discipleship. As much as we would like to fit in, we cannot help being out of step to some degree. If we are faithful to our calling, the best we can expect is for people to respond to us as they would to Christ.
"It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!" Jesus warns in Matthew 10:25. John's gospel contains a similar warning. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus tells his disciples: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first (John 15:18).
When I was a student in seminary, my friend Tom and I were going door to door sharing the gospel. At one house a balding, pot-bellied man in a white undershirt answered. He had about a day's growth of beard. The man listened to us for a few seconds, but as soon as he realized what we wanted to talk about, he slammed the door—hard. Something about the way it happened made me feel really bad. I was embarrassed and humiliated. I wondered why I had wanted to knock on the doors in our neighborhood in the first place. To tell you the truth, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and resolved never to attempt such a thing again, when my friend Tom said something I've never forgotten. "John," he said, "that man thinks he just slammed the door in our faces. But he didn't. Not really. He just slammed the door in Jesus' face."
This is exactly how Jesus said the world would be. If people called Jesus the prince of demons, imagine what they will say about us. We shouldn't take it personally; we shouldn't grow discouraged. Jesus says those who are rejected for his sake should rejoice. In this sense, rejection is a mark of God's acceptance—evidence that people have caught a glimpse of Christ in us. That faith doesn't necessarily make it any less painful. It's only natural for us to want to be accepted. But Jesus' point is clear: if we are faithful in following Christ, we can expect opposition. It may even come from those who are closest to us.
As we encourage each other in this truth, we also need to be careful. This blessing is only associated with a particular kind of rejection. That's the second thing we should notice about this beatitude.
Jesus tells us when we should rejoice over rejection.
Rejection is a mark of blessing only when it is for the sake of righteousness: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness," Jesus says. When does Jesus say that insults, persecutions, and slander are a reason to rejoice? When it's for his sake. This is a very important clarification. There is a danger that we will misapply Jesus' words. Without this clarification we might be tempted to think that it is a blessing anytime someone insults us.
If we fail to listen carefully to this beatitude, we may draw the false conclusion that every nasty thing someone says about us is a blessing. Sometimes the nasty things people say about us aren't a blessing at all—they're just the truth. What's more, not all that we call persecution really is persecution. Sometimes the behavior we label as persecution is just a natural and reasonable reaction to our bad behavior. In such instances people reject us for good reasons. They don't reject us because we are followers of Christ—they reject us because we are surly; they reject us because we are petulant; they reject us because we are hypersensitive and hard to get along with. The truth is that if we saw ourselves the way others see us, we wouldn't like us either.
First Peter 3:17 says it is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. This verse points to an important distinction when it comes to suffering: not everything we suffer is necessarily suffering appointed to us because we are Christians. Some of the things we suffer are simply the natural consequences of being unwise.
Some Christians suffered in the last stock market downturn because they made poor investment choices. They were really Christians and they experienced real suffering, but the two weren't necessarily connected. I'm not saying that God didn't have a purpose for them in the experience. I'm sure that he did. But they were suffering because they were poor investors, or maybe they suffered simply because they were living in a bad economy. Often, the things we suffer aren't directly related to our personal actions at all. The doctor diagnoses you with a serious illness. Your company downsizes and you get laid off from your job. In such cases we suffer not because we are Christians, but simply because we are living in this world.
In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says the heavenly Father "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." In other words, there are some blessings in life that are simply a matter of common grace—everybody experiences them, whether they deserve them or not. The converse is also true: there are some troubles that are also universally experienced. When Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast in August 2005 and the levees gave way, Christians in New Orleans were battered by the storm along with everyone else. This suffering didn't come to them because they were Christians—it was a function of their location.
These examples differ significantly from the kind of suffering mentioned by Peter in 1 Peter 3:17. A disease, a bad economy, a raging storm are all impersonal. When I suffer from these things, I'm not being singled out by some human agent. The kind of suffering mentioned by Jesus in this beatitude or described by Peter in 1 Peter 3:17 is targeted suffering. In these cases the tormenter has a face. This suffering has my name on it.
But there are some cases where I am not merely the target of rejection, I am also the cause. That is Peter's point. If you're going to suffer, it's better to suffer for doing good than doing evil. Frankly, in our context where persecution is not the norm, we have to ask a question when we believe people have rejected us because of our faith: is it possible that there is something in our attitude or behavior that contributes to the problem?
Before I entered pastoral ministry I worked for a number of years in the mail room at Chevy Motor Division's world headquarters in the suburban Detroit area. During my first few days on the job, I tried to find ways to let my coworkers know I was a follower of Jesus. This was really as much for me as it was for them. I figured that if I publicly identified myself as a Christian, I would have to act like a Christian. In those first few days on the job, people's reactions were always the same. "Oh no," they would say, "not another one!" I learned that the fellow I replaced was also a believer who eagerly shared his faith with the people on his mail route. At the time I considered my coworkers' reaction a form of persecution—until I learned more about my predecessor's work habits. Perhaps if he'd shown the same zeal for his job as he had for evangelism, his message might have had a better reception. But maybe not. It is also entirely possible that the bad report my colleagues gave me about this man was just a smoke screen. What if they just didn't like the fact that he was so up front about his faith?
Do you sense that people have rejected you because of your faith? Start with some serious soul searching. Scrutinize your life and ask some hard questions of yourself and those around you. Is this really suffering for Jesus' sake? If the answer is yes, then rejoice! Of course, that is easier said than done. That's why Jesus includes some motivation in this beatitude.
Jesus tells us why we should rejoice over rejection.
We should rejoice, Jesus assures us, because there is a return for our suffering. Jesus promises a reward to those who are persecuted and slandered for his sake. "Rejoice and be glad," he tells them, "because great is your reward in heaven." His point is clear enough. But don't you think such a promise falls hard on the modern ear? It seems a little hollow to us—maybe a little shallow. It feels uncomfortably like the kind of thing a bad employer might say. Somebody who wants us to work long hard hours at a difficult job but either can't afford or doesn't want to pay us much for our labor. "The salary's not much," the employer admits, "but the work itself is rewarding."
"Oh, don't worry about it when people hate you and slander you because of me. You'll get a reward in heaven!" In heaven? Is that all? How about a little reward in the here and now? How about a little acclaim? How about a little respect? How about a little power? Reward in heaven is all very good, but the world in which I have to operate day to day uses a different currency. Reward in heaven is good, Jesus, but what can you do for me now? And why should I have to face such difficulties in the first place?
When people reject us because we are followers of Christ, it is all too easy for us to be disappointed with God. Underneath such disappointment lies the underlying assumption that we are owed something more—something better—for our devotion to Christ. The fact that we are so little motivated by Jesus' promise says more about our vision than it does about the reward. Our view is too limited. We walk this pilgrim's path with downcast eyes, so that all we see are the difficulties that lie immediately before us. Perhaps one of Christ's designs in saying this is to compel us to lift our gaze to the wider horizon. There is great reward, he says—but not here. There is acceptance—but not here. There is honor—but not here.
Or perhaps our trouble is that we feel setting our sight on the reward is too mercenary. Maybe we think that bearing rejection with an eye to the reward is somehow unworthy of someone devoted to Christ and that we ought to bear the suffering for its own sake, or at least for Jesus' sake. We think we shouldn't need or want a reward; we're afraid that it reduces us to the mentality of a wage earner. There is something to such fears.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, Jesus shows us the danger of a wage earner's mentality with his portrait of the older brother. The older brother—the responsible one who stayed home and kept his nose to the grindstone—walks the weary path from the fields only to find that his slacker brother has come home penniless and in rags. Not only has his younger brother been welcomed, but his father has decided to throw him a party. The older brother is furious and refuses to enter. "Look!" he complains, "All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'"(Luke 15:29-30). All these years I've been serving you, God, and what do I get for it? That's the trouble with the wage earning mentality. It turns sons into slaves.
We ought to be on guard against the wage earning mentality, but remember it's Jesus himself who points us to the reward. He's the one who says we should face these trials with a sense of expectation. What's more, Jesus describes this as a blessing, not a wage. When there is a wage, the return is commensurate with the suffering. What I receive as a wage is assumed to be equal to the effort I've expended. Jesus doesn't speak in terms of equivalence. He uses the language of grace. Those who are persecuted are not paid for their troubles, they are blessed. Verse 12 says, "Rejoice and be glad, because great [not equal] is your reward in heaven." Jesus doesn't describe the nature of the reward, but he does offer proof. You know your reward is great because others have gone before you. Verse 12 goes on to say, "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
For most of us—those for whom persecution is the exception and not the rule—Jesus' words are a reality check. They are a reminder that this world is not our home. They beg the question penned by one hymn writer:
Must I be carried to the skies On flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, To help me on to God?
The answer, of course, is no. We are not exempt. But neither are we alone.
Sure I must fight, if I would reign; Increase my courage, Lord; I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, Supported by thy Word.
Thy saints in all this glorious war Shall conquer, though they die: They see the triumph from afar, And seize it with their eye.
When that illustrious day shall rise, And all thy armies shine In robes of victory through the skies, The glory shall be thine.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.