Why does Jesus bless the persecuted?
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others insult you, persecute you, lie about you, and say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad! Your reward is great in heaven, for the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.
Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and insult you and slander you as evil because you follow the Son of Man! Rejoice when that happens and leap for joy! Great is your reward in heaven, for that is how their ancestors treated the ancient prophets.
The first seven beatitudes describe the character of Jesus’s apprentices: they will be humble, repentant, gentle, merciful, single-minded peacemakers who are intent on living in a way that honors God. The eighth beatitude does not describe another characteristic of a disciple. Instead, it explains both the blessings and consequences (persecution!) of discipleship.
Persecution comes in all shapes and sizes, but Jesus is blessing one particular group of persecuted people–those who are persecuted for “righteousness.” What is righteousness? In the context of Jesus’s sermon, righteousness is actively engaging in the pursuit of holiness–showing mercy, performing acts of kindness, making peace between enemies, and working with God in whatever projects he invites us into.
In the beatitude, Jesus equates being “persecuted because of righteousness” with being persecuted “because of me.” There is a personal connection because the beatitudes describe Jesus as well as his apprentices, and since he was frequently persecuted, his people can expect the same: “Students are not greater than their teacher, and a slave is not greater than his master. Students are to be like their teacher, and slaves are to be like their master. And if they call the master of the house ‘the prince of demons,’ how much more will they slander the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24–25).
Persecution sometimes involves physical suffering, but it can take other forms, and it often starts soon after we declare our allegiance to Jesus. Persecution can come from parents or siblings who laugh at our profession of faith and remind us that they “know who we really are.” It can appear as friends who now find us “weird” and less fun to hang out with. It can show up at work when fellow employees ostracize us because we don’t share their humor, interests, values, etc. Persecution has many faces, and Christians are often surprised that some of those faces belong to their friends and loved ones.
So what should Christians do when persecuted? As we have noted in the earlier beatitudes, the answer is not to devise a to-do list. Jesus is not giving us a contingency plan. He is describing the kind of person we will become when we are infused with the power of God and led by the Holy Spirit. We will not, for example, become resentful or seek revenge when persecuted. We will trust God to make things right. Meanwhile, we will pray for our enemies and love (will the good of) those who oppress us.
Many are baffled by Jesus’s instruction to “be glad” and “leap for joy” when persecuted. How could anyone in their right mind celebrate being persecuted? According to Jesus, we can rejoice for two reasons:
- Being persecuted for righteousness confirms we have become identified with our Lord and Savior. A few hours before he was crucified, Jesus told his apprentices, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the One who sent me” (John 15:18–21).
- Being persecuted for righteousness confirms our future. Jesus associates his disciples with the ancient prophets who were also persecuted for righteousness–we know where those prophets are today, and we can rejoice in the fact that we will join them.
God’s will for his children sounds terribly simplistic to most people. He tells us to remember who we are, where we are going, and what awaits us there. And to live accordingly. Colossians 3 explains it well: “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
I could say a lot more on the subject, but God can explain himself much better than I can, so let’s let him have the last word. The Gospels tell us that Simon Peter walked the roads of Palestine with Jesus for three years and frequently heard him talk about the inevitability of persecution. And when he was an old man counseling those younger in the faith, Simon Peter’s words sounded like those of his master:
All of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted and humble-minded. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. For the Scriptures say, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it, for the eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.”
Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, you will be blessed. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. It is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong. For
Christ also suffered….
1 Peter 3:8-18
Next: Woe to those who are rich, well-fed, laughing, and popular.