The eighth Beatitude is somewhat different from the others. It is also in sharp contrast to many people’s view of what would be normal Christian experience. They might think this would put people off: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…’ (Matthew 5:10).
A while ago I read a report in a broadsheet newspaper enquiring into the relevance and attractiveness of the Christian faith. One clergyman recommended reading a certain tabloid newspaper, on the basis that it kept people in touch with ‘the world’. Another report in the same paper commented on an ‘ageing association’ in the USA, which maintained that church-going contributed to longevity.
These things are typical of today’s shallowness in relation to Christian things. There must be a high feel-good factor for a ‘faith’ to be acceptable. Anything too demanding won’t do at all.
Shock to the system
When we come to the eighth Beatitude, however, we get a shock to our system. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of what is right in the eyes of God! Is this something to keep quiet about as we seek to ‘attract’ people to our services? How can we tell people that persecution is involved in living the Christian life?
It flies in the face of the ‘insurance policy’ view of Christian faith so broadly entertained by people today. But, of course, here it is fair and square; discipleship for Christ involves cost, pain and opposition.
It is something Jesus emphasised repeatedly: ‘In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). ‘If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you’ (John 15:18-20).
There is a difference between this Beatitude and the others. The first seven point to qualities possessed which affect the experience of the blessed ones. We might describe these traits as evidencing ‘personal piety’. But the eighth speaks of something imposed from outside.
Because of where they stand in relation to the Word of God, they receive persecution of one sort or another. Or, we may put it this way: whenever the first seven Beatitudes are true of a person, the eighth will invariably follow in some degree.
More than anything, this warns us not to reduce Christianity to a minimal church-going moralism. There is a cost in discipleship. There is an offence caused by those who stand for righteousness.
There is hostility in the world to Christ and to God’s Word, because they challenge the world at its heart. Unrenewed men and women are dominated by sin. Any contradiction of their sin will, invariably, be strongly resisted.
People are usually comfortable in their sin. Sin is ‘fun’ (though the consequences may not always be pleasant). Unrenewed man finds God’s Word and Christ’s cross an ‘offence’ because they challenge his position.
Man is so proud (through sin) that he cannot tolerate the notion that he is not in control of his own destiny. To the Jews, says Paul, the cross is a ‘stumbling block’ and to the Gentiles it is ‘foolishness’ (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Unregenerate man will not yield himself to Christ and righteousness. The carnal mind, says Paul, is ‘enmity against God’ (Romans 8:7). Or, as James puts it: ‘a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God’ (James 4:4).
The gospel addresses people as sinners needing a Saviour. The necessity for the cross cuts across man’s cherished notion of self-salvation. The result is hostility to the message and the messengers of God —until there is a quickening from the Holy Spirit upon the soul.
Loyalty to Christ opposed
One commentator put it this way: ‘Christians are persecuted for the sake of righteousness because of their loyalty to Christ. Real loyalty to him creates friction in the hearts of those who pay him only lip-service’.
Whoever lives according to verses 3-9 of Matthew 5 will surely stir consciences. People will be confronted with truth. While in many cases people are responsive, and by the grace of God come to faith in Christ, there will be very different reaction on the part of others.
Persecution! It sends a shiver down our spine. We are glad to avoid aggressive reactions, and the Christian will, of course, be peaceable. But he or she should also be straight with their fellow men and women when it comes to truth and righteousness.
Unfortunately, many believers hold back. They do not pull people up concerning their sins. They leave things unsaid that should be said, to avoid awkwardness. So, people often remain unchallenged about sin.
We do not want to be accused of being mad or odd. We skilfully avoid situations that might incur violent (or adverse) reactions, and sin goes on unchallenged and unchecked. What did one astute observer remark? ‘For evil to prevail it just needs good men to do nothing’.
There are different types of persecution. It need not be of a physical sort. There is, for example, psychological persecution. We can often succumb to that sort of persecution. When Christian believers are outnumbered and social mores change, there is subtle pressure to soft-pedal uncomfortable truths and conform to the norm.
Shame on us! The call of Christ is for his people to stand in the evil day (equipped with all the armour of God — see Ephesians 6), come what may by way of mockery, ridicule, rejection or even physical abuse.
The believer must stand against all the ills of the age, as Daniel and his three young friends did as aliens in a foreign land (Daniel 1, 3). We are to take a stand against blasphemy, lying and fornication, pornography, co-habiting unmarried couples, gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, Christless living, and against the breaking of all God’s righteous commandments.
That will not make us popular with the world! But it has to be done, whatever persecution or abuse is incurred.
The blessedness in persecution
Is there any reward for the righteous who suffer the world’s persecution? How can we ‘rejoice and be exceedingly glad’ over such opposition? Note these three things:
1. ‘Theirs is the Kingdom of heaven’. What are any deprivations we may suffer for the Lord’s sake in comparison to the glory to be enjoyed hereafter? Jesus said to the church at Smyrna (and, by extension, to the church in every age): ‘Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer … be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life’ (Revelation 2:10).
As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians: ‘Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’ (4:17). After all, the things that are seen are temporal, but the things unseen are eternal. What are life’s afflictions in comparison to the glories of eternity?
2. ‘Great is your reward in heaven’. The reward for those ‘persecuted for righteousness’ in this life is an eternity spent with the Lord Jesus and all the elect of God, in the all-surpassing glory of the new heavens and the new earth where only righteousness dwells.
In the parables of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and pounds (Luke 19:11-27) this ‘reward’ is defined: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter in to the joy of your Lord’.
3. The believer will be gathered to a glorious company. Who will be there? All the prophets, martyrs, and the persecuted people of God who have ‘gone before’. It is instructive that the great cloud of witnesses, catalogued in Hebrews 11, is referred to in terms of what they had endured from a hostile world.
On this basis, the church of the New Testament is encouraged to ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’ (Hebrews 12:1), including everything Satan and the world may throw at the people of God.
There is a challenge, finally, in these Beatitudes, for the people of God to nail their colours to the mast and be prepared for all the sorts of contradictions hurled by a hostile world at Christ.
The child of God may be very fearful, but a promise is given. In Mark’s Gospel there is reference to disciples being taken before councils and abused for their faith in Christ. ‘Do not worry’, says Jesus, the Holy Spirit will help you in such adversities (Mark 13:9-13).
The Apostles came to exemplify this after Pentecost. Acts 5 tells us of the persecutions they suffered. They had scattered when Jesus was arrested in the garden not long before, but not now.
They are commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus. Did they comply? Not in the least: ‘they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name’ (Acts 5:40-41).
Here is a fact of real Christian faithfulness: there is no crown without a cross, and there is no faithfulness without some degree of suffering for his name.