5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
We have been exploring Jesus’ list of blessings that described the powers of his Kingdom available to those whom he draws to himself. But now we come to a final blessing that involves an external force rather than an internal spiritual power given by the Holy Spirit. It’s the only kingdom blessing Jesus repeats twice in this list – first generally in verse 10, then personally and more specifically in verses 11 and 12.
Scripture says, in many places, that true followers of Jesus will be persecuted. It is inevitable, a natural consequence of looking increasingly like Jesus in a hostile sinful world. But any honest look at the Christian Church in America must recognize that although our nation itself is far from being Christian, there is truly little persecution of Christians today. Americans certainly encounter racial persecution and many encounter political persecution. Some experience persecution in their workplace. But, by and large, our pluralistic society still tolerates Christians to exist and live within it.
And yet Jesus tells us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Some can object that these verses do not teach that persecution is inevitable. It is true that they do not teach that believers, as the result of everything we do, will be reviled, and suffer every day for the sake of righteousness. Yet, these verses do mark out characteristics that belong to the members of Christ’s Kingdom. The logical conclusion is that everyone who exhibits these Kingdom powers will come, at one time or another, be persecuted for their spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, starvation for righteousness, their purity of heart, and their proclaiming God’s offer of peace to the world’s combatants.
That was the way in which the Lord’s disciples received his statements. In 1st Peter 3:14, Peter wrote, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” In 4:14, he said, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” Peter’s first letter directly deals with the stresses and inevitability of suffering. He wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you were suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (4:12-13).
Paul, who endured intense persecution, says the same as Peter. He wrote to Timothy, “… everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). To the church at Philippi he wrote, “For it has been granted two you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29).
To the Thessalonians Paul said, “…you know quite well that we were destined for [these trials]. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (1 Thess. 3:3-4). Matthew, Peter, and Paul would agree that even in the most tolerant country the cross of Christ will never cease to be a symbol for derision and intense hostility.
SAKE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Like the others, this beatitude is subject to misunderstanding and misapplication. The question is: For what is the Christian persecuted? The answer is in the phrase “because of righteousness,” and in the parallel phrase in the following verse, “because of me.” The Lord Jesus was speaking of a particular kind of persecution. He was not sanctifying any persecution that might happen, but one with a specific cause: those persecuted for reflecting the righteousness of Christ.
This is not a promise to those who are persecuted for being a nuisance, for being objectionable, difficult, foolish, and insulting to their pre-believing friends. To make this point, author Joseph Bayly authored a satirical story called, The Gospel Blimp in which Christians in a fictional town purchased a blimp from which to display bible verses. While flying over the city in their gospel blimp, they dropped gospel tracts and leaflets which they called “bombs.”
The townspeople were remarkably tolerant of the blimp and the littering. But their tolerance changed when the project’s promoters added sound equipment and began to blast gospel messages from the air. This prompted the town newspaper to write an editorial complaining of the invasion of privacy and the destruction of communal peace. That night the sound equipment of the blimp was sabotaged, and the Christians called it “persecution.”
The author’s point was that Christians were not really being persecuted when they provoked a response to an unjustified invasion of privacy and disturbance of the town’s peace. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the persecuted.” Sadly, that is the way Jesus’ statement is sometimes interpreted. Those who read it that way delude themselves into thinking that anytime they experience conflict they’re bearing the reproach of Christ.
Very often, Christians are persecuted not for their Christianity, but for their lack of it. Some are rejected because they come across as proud and judgmental. Others are disliked because they are lazy and irresponsible. Incompetence mixed with piety is sure to bring rejection. Christ was speaking of the persecution of those who were abused for the sake of his gospel, for offering God’s peace to those who are at war with God.
Jesus does not mean to convey, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for wrongdoing.” Our flesh, our sinful operating system, will always attempt to justify a wrong act by loud cries of persecution or prejudice. This is why Peter wrote, “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Pt. 4:15).
Neither is Jesus speaking about the persecution that comes from following a cause – even a Christian cause. It is possible to suffer for the sake of Jesus righteousness and for a cause at the same time. But it does not follow that the two are always the same thing. It is possible to suffer for all kinds of causes, including religious ones, and still not be suffering for righteousness’ sake. Jesus was not commending that kind of persecution.
Early on in my career as a prosecutor, I encountered a large group of people claiming to be Christians who were willing to break the law in order to advance their cause. They genuinely believed that if enough of them broke the law and got arrested they would crash the criminal justice system to force governments to give in to their cause. These self-supposed good Christians believed that their prosecution for breaking the law was persecution for being Christians. It was not. It was simply the legal consequence of breaking the law to advance a cause. They were not suffering for righteousness’ sake.
If Jesus statements do not mean being persecuted for being objectionable, or doing wrong, or being fanatical, or endorsing a cause, what does it mean? What does it mean to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for Christ’s sake? It means to be persecuted for being like the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said those who are persecuted for being like him will have joy. And those who are like him will always experience being persecuted in some fashion at one time or another.
When Messiah Jesus was born into the world in his righteousness he exposed the sin of the world, and people hated him for it. Prior to Jesus, those who heard the law of God believed that if they lived up to it outwardly then they could get away with hypocrisy, lying, dishonesty, selfishness, greed, and any number of other “unseen” vices. They could excuse themselves on the basis of their relative external morality, that they were better than other people who were openly bad.
But when Messiah Jesus came, men saw a person who perfectly lived out God’s law both internally and externally – exposing the religious fraud of everyone around him and stripping them of their relative external morality. People hated the exposure of their inner hearts and natures, so they killed Christ for exposing them. Similarly, pre-believers hate any exposure of their evil nature that comes from seeing the righteousness of Christ in his followers. This is why Jesus warned:
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.
If you are trusting into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial blood-shedding death of the risen, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ, then you have his Kingdom powers, and the Holy Spirit is recreating you to look increasingly like Messiah Jesus. It is true we live in a nation that has adopted many Christian values, tolerance being among them. We are not likely to experience the same weight nor kind of persecutions that the early Christian Church endured.
However, it is also true that much of what passes for Christianity in our Western culture has sunk to a level where it is hardly noticed. The world has become tolerant of us. But we have become far more tolerant of the world. Consequently, there are times when precious little of the righteousness of Christ is visible among us.
In his commentary on The Sermon on the Mount, James Boice tells this story:
A man came to [early Church Father] Tertullian once…. His business interests had been conflicting with his loyalty to Jesus Christ. He told of the problem. He ended by saying, “What can I do? I must live.” “Must you?” asked Tertullian. Even in Tertullian’s day the believer’s choice between righteousness and a livelihood was to be righteous.
JOY IN TRIBULATIONS
In his upside-down Kingdom, Jesus promises something very strange to our normal way of thinking. He says we are “blessed” when we experience persecution for the sake of his righteousness displayed through us. In fact, he says there is rejoicing and gladness available to us – obviously from the Holy Spirit’s Kingdom powers and not those of our own flesh. There are at least two ways in which such joy and gladness is possible for us.
The first way we mentioned last week. Jesus is telling us that when his Kingdom powers are visible through us, and the world rejects us for them, this is evidence that we are united into Christ. Jesus said, in John 15:19, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you are out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” You have been given valid, visible proof that you belong to Christ. You are not simply fooling yourself by showing up to church and putting a nice religious face on for an hour. You possess Christ and all of his benefits, including an inheritance in his perfect eternal Kingdom.
Second, if you are persecuted for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, you can be certain that the Holy Spirit has been at work in your heart, turning you from your sins and your sinful ways of thinking, into his sinless image. We can be happy that we are growing in Christ by growing in inward, meek, mourning, pure-of-heart, starved-for-righteousness holiness.
That brings us to the end of our exposition of the Beatitudes. Next week, we will take a look at all the beatitudes as one unit. For now, we need to add a word for those of us who will never be great martyrs for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Unless we wind up in a hostile mission field, our level of persecution will not be as constant or intense.
If God sees every sparrow that falls, he certainly sees the little martyrs as well as the great ones and he is always pleased with his people no matter the level of their persecution. He sees the small sacrifices we make for righteousness and the small insults we quietly bear for his sake, and he notices them just as much as those whom he calls home through violent spiritual opposition. Moreover, he is completely sovereign over your life. He placed you in a country that still claims to believe in tolerance and isn’t likely to start putting Christians to death anytime soon. He has placed other believers into cultures that are utterly hostile to the gospel and many of them he will be pleased to bless by calling them to lay down their lives for his name’s sake.
Of course, America also tends to produce well-meaning Christians who believe they must avoid the world and protect themselves and their children from unbelievers and worldly ideology. They go to Christian exercise classes, they pride themselves on having no unbelieving acquaintances, and make sure their children avoid public schools and the kids that attend them. Some even sell themselves to multi-level marketing schemes to avoid the possibility of working around pre-believers.
Sadly, they believe they are in control of their own lives. They believe they can manage their flesh and their children’s flesh in such a way as to not be tainted by the sin around them — never mind that scripture says our greatest problem with sin is what’s inside of us, not around us! Such people may never know the joy and happiness of inward assurance by the Holy Spirit that Christ is in them because they’re being snubbed, sniped at, or discriminated against. They have huddled in their Christian ghetto and rarely (if ever) venture outside it to share Christ with pre-believers.
Such spiritual isolationists may never recognize that it may be a greater victory for a person to spend 40 years at the same desk in the same office watching other people being promoted because the believer will not perform in such a way that violates his or her conscience. It may be more of a victory raising a family in the ordinary things of the Lord in the midst of an evil world, with nitpicking neighbors or fellow students laughing at them for being humdrum and unglamorous people.
We who live ordinary lives in a pluralistic society can take comfort in the fact that Christ is working in us and through us for his glory and his purposes regardless of the level of persecution we may experience. If you have not been snubbed, sniped at, laughed at, or rejected by those who don’t know Jesus, then you need to ask yourself if you really go out of your way to meet pre-believers so that you can participate in their making peace with God. Do you display Christ’s righteous character in the Kingdom of the evil one? Are you really interested in being a peace-maker?
If so, then Jesus says your greatest joy and hope lies ahead of you. It is outside of you. It is in front of you on your journey through this spiritual wilderness toward the beautiful Mount Zion. Your true hope is not in earning spiritual brownie points with your Christian friends when you are snubbed. Your earnest hope, you’re sure and certain hope if you are trusting into Christ this morning, is that one day you will hear these words:
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” 16 And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying,
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:1–12.
 R. Kent Hughes, op. cit.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 15:20–23.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 53.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 11:15–18.