Blessed are those who are persecuted. Huh? Persecuted for what? And why? Why is it a blessing to be persecuted? And what is the blessing that’s received? If you don’t know what this is about, it probably sounds like someone’s really into being dumped on. But then, if you’re a regular here, you know what this is about. It’s the conclusion to our series on the Beatitudes.
While you can certainly read this and get something out of it, I highly recommend checking out the series. It goes through an in-depth look at each of the Beatitudes. How they relate to the Old Testament, to the people Jesus spoke to at the time, and how that translates into actions for us today. It also shows how each one builds upon the previous ones, including how they form an iterative process for us to become increasingly closer to Jesus as we grow in our faith.
Blessed are the persecuted – what does persecute mean?
As is often the case, we need to start with a look at exactly what “persecute” means. What it meant when Jesus spoke. And what it means to us today when we read His words.
Let’s start with today. dictionary.com says this about persecute:
verb (used with object), per·se·cut·ed, per·se·cut·ing.
to pursue with harassing or oppressive treatment, especially because of religious or political beliefs, ethnic or racial origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
to annoy or trouble persistently.
That’s not a bad start. Obviously, the word is applied to a much broader swath of people than what Jesus had in mind. When we get to reading the actual verses, this will become clear. The other thing we’ll find is that persecution then, as well as today, can be more than annoying or causing trouble. It did, and does, go all the way up to killing people.
Next, let’s look at the word from the point of view of a biblical dictionary.
Persecution is aggressive and injurious behavior carried out in a hostile, antagonistic spirit, normally by a group. Persecutors are known especially for their fiery zeal (Phil 3:6), a zeal that is described elsewhere as “not based on knowledge” (Rom 10:2 NIV). Persecution itself is a terror, more or less inevitable in the biblical world, especially the NT.
Persecution as a terror is a very different picture than what we think of with the word annoy. Of course, annoyances can get to be terrifying, but certainly not all annoyances reach the level of terror. As such, we see the bar raised for what minimally is seen as biblical persecution compared to the common usage of the word today.
Persecution and its attendant spirit of animosity are set against the backdrop of the Bible’s dramatic portrayal of Satan’s great enmity against God and his people.
So persecution is a weapon of the evil in the battle between good and evil. Unfortunately, those who are supposed to be on the side of good in that battle don’t always respond as we should. We’ll read below how Christians should respond to persecution. The final paragraph of this excerpt goes over those times when we fail. The times when we resort to persecution of our persecutors, which is not the proper response.
It is concretely expressed in the antagonism of the wicked (described as the children of the devil, Jn 8:44) toward the righteous (the children of God, Rev 12:17). It is thus no surprise that the image of persecution is so pervasive in the Bible, for it falls upon God’s people by virtue of their relationship to him (Jn 15:18–21). This sense of solidarity and union with Christ and his people is movingly described in Acts 9:4, where the risen Jesus asks Saul, persecutor of followers of the Way, “Why do you persecute me?” In fact, persecution serves as a sign of the authenticity of one’s relationship to Jesus (Mt 5:10, 12; Phil 1:29) and one’s response as a veritable litmus test to determine that authenticity (Mt 13:20–21). Disciples can count on persecution. Those who respond in faith will be counted as righteous; however, “many will turn away from the faith” (see Mt 24:9–11 NIV).
Notice – persecution serves as a sign of the authenticity of one’s relationship to Jesus. I often wonder, when things are going too well, am I slipping away in my relationship with Jesus? While no one really wants to be persecuted, I can’t help but feel that the total lack of troubles could be a cause for concern. It’s as if the devil has decided we aren’t worth his effort. In other words, no effort needed because he’s already got us.
In light of the above, persecution in the Bible is primarily of a religious nature (although ethnic persecution occurs, as in Esther). In this spiritual context it assumes a number of different forms: physical (beatings, Is 50:6; stonings, Acts 14:19), verbal (mocking, Lk 23:11; insults, Ps 69:9; slander, Rev 2:9), social (excommunication or ostracism, Jn 9:22) or mental (intimidation, Lk 13:31; threats, Acts 4:21, 29). Persecution also involves or can lead to imprisonment (Mk 6:17), banishment (Rev 1:9; see Outcast), even death (2 Chron 24:21; Rev 2:10).
We see here a better description than just to say annoyances. It shows a broad spectrum of things that come under the umbrella of persecution.
Because persecution is inevitable for the truly righteous (Phil 1:29; 2 Tim 3:12), the people of God are exhorted to respond positively. Negative reactions such as fear (Phil 1:28; 1 Pet 3:14; Rev 2:10), compromise (Gal 6:12), cursing (Rom 12:14), desertion (Mt 26:56), retaliation (Rom 12:17–21) or apostasy (Heb 10:32–39) deny potential Christian witness. Instead believers are to commit themselves to God (1 Pet 4:19), rejoice because of the great eschatological reward awaiting them (Mt 5:12), demonstrate patience (1 Cor 4:12) and perseverance (Heb 10:36), and pray for those who inflict persecution upon them (Mt 5:44). Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G. (2000). In Dictionary of biblical imagery (electronic ed., pp. 635–636). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, some of the occasions when we fail to respond appropriately to persecution, and what to do about that.
Blessed are the persecuted – the passage
Now that we’ve seen what persecuted meant when Jesus spoke, and have a better idea of how His words apply to us today, let’s look at the final passage in the Beatitudes.
5:3-12 pp — Lk 6:20-23
Mt 5:10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You hopefully noticed, there are two sets of “blessed are …” verses related to persecution. After seven verses, with seven “Blessed are …” statements, I can’t help but feel that two statements in three verses about being blessed because of persecution is important. When Jesus says something twice, it’s a reaffirmation that yes, it really is going to happen.
After reading the first seven verses of the Beatitudes, it’s like Jesus knows we really need to be aware of the cost involved in doing those first seven things. It’s like something He said to His disciples.
Lk 14:25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Lk 14:28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
Lk 14:31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Lk 14:34 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
But then, Jesus also reaffirms the blessings of the persecution as well.
I feel like we need this. After all, remember what happened when one large crowd followed Jesus, and wasn’t prepared for what he said at the end.
Jesus had a large crowd – over 5,000 people. They listened to Him. Saw miracles. Were healed. But then were told about eating His flesh and drinking His blood – which is now known as Communion, a remembrance of the Last Supper. However, they weren’t ready for that last part. So this happened:
Jn 6:60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Jn 6:61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
Jn 6:66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
Jn 6:67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Jn 6:68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Blessed are the persecuted – why this could be so hard to accept
In the passage above, we looked at people who weren’t ready for Jesus’ message. Now, think about what’s happening here in the Beatitudes. We’ve just been told we should be happy to:
Give up a lot of our own desires, and substitute those from God instead.
Mourn, not only for ourselves, but others, even for people we don’t even know, because that’s right in the eyes of God.
Be meek, taking an ego hit by giving up on our own power, and using God’s power instead to accomplish things we can’t do on our own.
Seek the very righteousness that Jesus tells us is going to be the cause of our persecution.
Be merciful to others, even to people we know will never return that behavior to us.
Be pure in heart, knowing full well that many of our sources of pleasure are anything but pure in God’s eyes.
Be a peacemaker, a pretty much thankless job that requires us to understand both sides of issues from people that likely hate each other and can’t agree on much of anything.
After that, all the things we have to go through to reach even starting positions in that list of things from Jesus, now He tells us we’re going to be persecuted for doing them? If that’s not cause for the unprepared to run away, I don’t know what is. It seems like Jesus has a habit of saving the worst for last.
And yet, if we stick around long enough, we find out that Jesus actually saves the best for last. Did you notice verse 10?
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Does that sound a bit familiar? How about the very first Beatitude?
Mt 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Wow. We start with the reward for recognizing that we need the Holy Spirit = for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And now we see at end, the reward for suffering through persecution = for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Remember when I said this was an iterative process? We grow ever closer to Jesus as we proceed. And at each Beatitude, we not only need the ones before them, but we also can become even better at the ones before them. Why? Because that initial gift of for theirs is the kingdom of heaven begins right away. As soon as we begin to let go of our selfish spirit and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us.
And here, Jesus reaffirms, again, what He said all along. for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. For ours is the kingdom of Heaven. And it becomes a larger and larger part of our lives every step along the way. And that is how we come to be blessed by the persecution.
Blessed are the persecuted – what it doesn’t mean
Blessed are the persecuted doesn’t mean every time something bad happens to us it’s persecution. Sometimes, stuff really does happen. Bad things aren’t always about someone persecuting us. For instance, if we stand on the top part of a step ladder (you’re not supposed to do that) and fall, it’s because we did something dumb. Something we’re warned about and should know better than to even try. But then, we do it anyway. I’ve been lucky – I have been on that top step but never fell off.
Blessed are the persecuted – it’s not about us
To make that point, let’s look at something Luke recorded. It’s very similar to the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. From the two descriptions, Matthew’s and Luke’s, it appears to be two different locations. Matthew’s is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s as the Sermon on the Plain. There’s also the difference in point of view. Matthew was Jewish while Like was a Gentile. As such, the lack of a perfect match between them is natural, and not an indication of anything wrong.
My reason for choosing Matthew to do this series is exactly because he brought the Jewish point of view. That’s gives us a reference point back to the Old Testament. However, now that we’re looking at persecution, I think it’s better to see what Luke wrote.
Blessed are the persecuted – in Luke’s Gospel
To that end, here’s Luke’s recording of the Sermon on the Plain.
6:20-23 pp — Mt 5:3-12
Lk 6:17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
Lk 6:20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Lk 6:21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
These first verses aren’t as different as they may seem when compared to what Matthew wrote. The Greek behind the English words is very much in line with Matthew’s writing of Sermon on the Mount. Really, it’s not surprising that Jesus doesn’t use the exact same words. Over the course of His three year ministry on earth, He doubtless gave similar messages to various groups of people as He traveled. The message was likely customized to the audience at each location as well.
The following verses are the ones we’ll pay attention to for this topic – persecution.
Lk 6:22 Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
There’s something interesting about that word hate.
3404 μισέω [miseo /mis·eh·o/] v. From a primary misos (hatred); TDNT 4:683; TDNTA 597; GK 3631; 42 occurrences; AV translates as “hate” 41 times, and “hateful” once. 1 to hate, pursue with hatred, detest. 2 to be hated, detested. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
Did you notice the part about pursue with hatred? It’s not obvious here in verse 22. However, Matthew records Jesus using the same word later in the Sermon on the Mount:
6:22, 23 pp — Lk 11:34-36
Mt 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Mt 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
Mt 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
Notice verse 24, where Jesus says, Either he will hate the one and love the other. There is an element of pursuit in that statement. We pursue the things we love. We avoid the things we hate. Well, usually. The exception comes when we hate something or someone so much that we feel a compulsion to do something about it.
I feel like it really applies here, in this discussion of hatred toward Jesus. I’ve had discussions with atheists, where I’ve seen the passion with which they read the Bible. True – they don’t understand it. And yet, they spend so much time reading and studying it. More than many Christians, I dare say. And their hatred for the God they read about in the Bible spurs them on to study more, and spew their hatred out at any opportunity.
Their hatred of Jesus drives them to pursue Him. And to pursue anyone who loves Him. I’ve asked some of them whether their desire to learn so much about God might in fact come from the Holy Spirit. That maybe, if they open their minds and their hearts, they’d come away with a different attitude about Jesus. Sadly, that’s usually the end of the conversation.
But my point here is, yes, hatred can, and does, cause some people to pursue the object of their hatred. And along the way they inflict any kind of punishment they can on those who love the thing they hate. Insults, as Luke records, are just one of the ways they try to persecute.
Ultimately though, as Jesus points out – it’s not because of us. It’s because of Him.
Lk 6:23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
Rejoicing over the persecution just sounds so counterintuitive. And yet, it’s not. Early on in this series, I wrote something called A note on happiness. It speaks to that. For a much deeper look at joy and persecution, please check out Too much joy?
Lk 6:24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Lk 6:25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Lk 6:26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”
Blessed are the persecuted – what it does mean
Quite simple, Blessed are the persecuted means we will:
have the kingdom of Heaven
inherit the earth
be shown mercy
be called sons of God
have the kingdom of Heaven
Just in case you didn’t recognize that list, it’s the “for they will” part of each of the Beatitudes.
Conclusion – Blessed are those who are persecuted
If you didn’t go back and read Too much joy?, I’ll suggest again that you do. It goes into the passage below, from James.
Jas 1:2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
It’s important for this topic. I’ve already said, many times, that as we move through the Beatitudes, each builds on the previous ones. And each one also requires some amount of the previous ones in order to accomplish that one. It’s a clear case of building a foundation that gets stronger and stronger.
It also involves an iterative process, where we continually go back to the first one, and progress through them, over and over. And each time, again, we get stronger because of them. Our faith grows. There’s less of us and more of the Holy Spirit, as we continue to give more and more of ourselves to Him. That’s transformation. And it’s dying to self. Both of which are important parts of growing as a Christian.
But we can’t stop with just the first seven Beatitudes. We must continue on into number eight. Into the part where Jesus talks about persecution. We just have to. Because it will come. Jesus guaranteed it. So we must not only go through it, but we must even embrace it. It’s the only way to grow.
If we pick and choose among the Beatitudes, part of Jesus’ “manifesto” on how to be a Christian in the Sermon on the Mount, we settle for less. Less of the Holy Spirit in us. Less of our life being led by what Jesus taught. Less of an impact for Jesus in this world. Less than we could be. So much less.
We were meant for greatness in His name, through His power. But it’s not saying a few words. It’s not reading the Bible once. And it’s not reading and then saying “I got this”! It’s about doing. Always about doing. Action. And action brings persecution.
And so, ultimately, if we want to be a true follower of Jesus, we must embrace all of the Beatitudes. All of them!