Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5: 10-12).
It’s not much fun to be persecuted: Ask any teenager who is overweight, acne-prone, disabled, from a family of limited means – perhaps just not pretty enough or athletic enough or smart enough – or is otherwise excluded from elite status.
Ask any black person who was chosen decades ago to become the token integrator of a formerly all-white Deep South classroom. Or vice versa.
Ask the person who’s been publicly and falsely accused of a scandal. Ask one whose innocent words have been twisted against him.
Yet Jesus said that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed – are inheritors of his kingdom.
Several ideas are implicit or explicit in the text quoted above.
First, Jesus’ disciples are to expect to be similarly abused and hated and lied about. One of the oft-illustrated themes of scripture is that evil and darkness will always attack goodness and light, whatever forms they may take. For those who pursue righteousness, opposition – from the mild end of slanderous remarks to the extreme of martyrdom that many believers have tasted – is part of the package.
Second, Jesus’ disciples are not to instigate persecution nor to seek revenge for it when it befalls them. They may rightfully defend themselves, as Paul did in appealing as a Roman citizen to Caesar, but Jesus made it clear in the same preaching that his people’s approach to their enemies is to be anything but typical: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Paul adds to this thought in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Third, realizing that persecution is inevitable, Jesus’ disciples are to be joyful in their sufferings – not because it exalts them, but because it demonstrates faith in God’s ultimate purposes.
Lastly, there is the admonition that any persecution should be “for righteousness’ sake” – that the believer must not invite harsh words and even retributive actions by his own misbehavior. Peter wrote, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (I Peter 3:17).
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