We conclude our series on the Beatitudes with an examination of our Lord’s words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This Beatitude overflows into the next one: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven”. We note an added intensity in this final Beatitude, as Christ goes from speaking to His followers in the third person to addressing them directly in the second person—He first says, “Blessed those who are persecuted” and then looks them in the face and says, “Blessed are you”. The thought is the same in both Beatitudes, but the intensity increases.
We note too that Christ first pronounces a blessing upon those “who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, promising them that the coming Kingdom of Heaven belonged to them and of their assured entry into glory in the age to come. (We have noted before that the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” meant the coming rule of God in this age as well as the next, and not a blissful life after death.) We therefore must look again at what is meant by the phrase “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”. What does this mean? Does it envision a scenario in which someone is persecuted for doing such righteous things as praying, giving alms, and fasting? In a word, no.
As suggested previously the term “righteousness” is a kind of theological code for God’s work through Jesus of Nazareth. The term “righteousness” denotes God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises, His reliable fulfilling of what He had said through His prophets that He would do to restore His people. Christians believe that God fulfilled His prophetic promises through the life and work of Jesus the Messiah, so that through Him God fulfilled all righteousness and kept His promises to His people. Therefore those who were “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” were those who were persecuted for their faith and discipleship to Jesus.
The persecution of Jesus’ disciples in Israel began soon enough. Even during His ministry it was clear that unambiguous commitment to Him was enough to have one cast out of the synagogue and treated as persona non grata in Israel—as the parents of the blind man whom Christ healed knew only too well (John 9:22-23). Very soon in Jesus’ ministry, Jews began to be divided on the basis of their response to His claims. Some felt that He was of God; others felt that He was a demonic deceiver who was leading Israel astray (John 7:12, 40-43). Those who followed Him as His disciples were increasingly subject to civil penalty, even to the point of flogged in the synagogues and killed (Mark 13:9-13, John 16:2). This escalating persecution began even during the ministry of Jesus, and resulted in the final rupture of the synagogue and the church.
It was this escalating rupture of which our Lord spoke when He pronounced a blessing on those who would remain true to Him regardless of the persecution they received from their fellow Jews and the reviling they received from their close neighbours. This rejection doubtless hurt all the more because it came from friends from whom Jesus’ disciples had been close to before: they had embraced as kindred spirits and their children had played together, and now their former friends had turned against them because of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Such rejection no doubt felt like a dagger through the heart. But it was this pain that brought a great reward in the age to come.
Persecution because of one’s faith in Jesus was not confined to the Jewish believers in Jesus during the first century. In every century and in every land, faith in Christ divides family, separating a man from his father and a daughter from her mother, severing even the sacred bonds of family and kinship (Matthew 10:35). Yet one must choose Jesus even over these sacred familial bonds, however painful this may prove. If a person chooses family over Christ, this person is not worthy of Christ and His Kingdom (Matthew 10:37). It matters nothing at all what the world may say when it slanders us for our faith in Jesus, for He is worth more than all the world.
And the reward He promises is worth more than all we may lose in this world. Our reward is great in heaven, and there it remains, waiting for us to claim it, if only we hold fast our faith in Christ until the end. The Beatitudes thus ends on this note of triumph and promise. Our commitment to Christ may cost us dearly in this age, rupturing the most sacred of bonds, and costing us even the most precious things uniting us to our loved ones. Yet Christ is worth all. All beatitude and eternal blessing are bound up with Him. If we have Christ, we have everything. If we lose Him, we lose all.