In Matthew 5:10-16, Jesus declares that those who are persecuted for righteousness and for His name will be blessed. How is the disciple of Jesus to understand these words or how to live in light of them? Jesus also makes clear that our response to potential persecution is not to shrink back and be silent but is to live a distinct life that boldly displays our identification with Him as salt and light in a rotten and dark world.
When a would-be leader is first developing a following, the leader typically recruits followers by emphasizing the benefits to those who join the team and by ignoring or downplaying the costs or the challenges involved in the leader’s vision or agenda. “Get on board with my campaign,” they say, “and I will make you prosperous and your life good, and it will cost you very little.”
How odd it is, then, when we hear Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and hear Him teach about what His disciples can expect if they choose to follow Him. I wonder if you have ever considered the cost of His call and realized how counter-productive should have been His recruiting methods.
CALLED TO EMBRACE PERSECUTION
For the disciple of Jesus, persecution is part of the job description. It is mentioned right along with hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Persecution is not a hidden clause in the small print, but is in the main body of the contract, near the top, in large print.
Notice that you should expect persecution “for righteousness’ sake (5:10).” Think about this. Why should a person experience persecution because they strive to live a righteous life? But Jesus said it would be so and it has certainly proven to be the case. “The wicked spies upon the righteous and seeks to kill him (Psalm 37:28).”
Notice also that you should expect that “others will revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of Jesus (5:11).” In other words, because you publicly identify with Jesus, you should expect to be persecuted.
Some may confuse suffering with persecution, thinking that they are pretty much the same thing. Not so. Suffering is different from persecution. It would be easy to sign up for suffering, because suffering has been guaranteed to all people since the fall of man and the introduction of sin into the world. All people will suffer to some degree. After all, “Man is born for trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7).” Suffering comes upon us despite all we do to avoid it. It is a part of the human condition that almost no one can escape.
Persecution is not like that. Persecution for righteousness’ sake (5:10) and for Jesus’ sake (5:11) is entered into voluntarily, based on our commitment to Jesus as Lord. Persecution is avoidable. Be like the world in your behavior and be silent about Jesus and you will avoid persecution. Persecution for Jesus’ sake comes upon His disciples because they willingly choose to do those things that could produce persecution. Persecution occurs when those who hate Jesus can identify and harm those who visibly and publicly love Jesus.
The prospect of persecution is loathsome to the human soul. All humans naturally recoil from the idea of persecution. There is a natural fear and dread that comes with being hated and harmed and possibly imprisoned or killed, simply because you strive to live a holy life and tell people how to go to heaven when they die.
But despite this natural revulsion from persecution, Jesus calls His followers to expect it and to “Rejoice and be glad” in the midst of it (5:12). Why? Because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and because “your reward in heaven is great.”
IS THERE A LOOPHOLE?
Maybe there’s a loophole here for those who want to follow Jesus and get the benefits of being a Christian but who don’t care for the persecution part. Knowing that some will be tempted to reject persecution, Jesus declares that our lives must taste like the salt of the earth (5:13) and that we must live such that our faith in Jesus shines like a city on a hill or like a lamp in the house (5:14-15). This means that, rather than the disciple of Jesus managing persecution, the disciple is to display Jesus in every part of their life so that they maximize the possibility of receiving the blessing of persecution.
Follow the logic here. First, Jesus declares that I am blessed if I am persecuted for righteousness’ sake (5:10), and I am blessed when others revile me and persecute me and utter all kinds of evil against me falsely on account of Jesus (5:12). Now, if no one knows about my hunger for righteousness and no one knows that I am a disciple of Jesus, those who hate Jesus will never persecute me, and thus, I will never receive the blessings promised to those who are persecuted. But because He wants me to be blessed, Jesus exhorts me to let my righteousness be a tangible saltiness in the world and He encourages me to let my association with Him be a visible light to the world. That way, my persecutors can easily find me and bless me!
This is not entirely tongue in cheek. The New Testament is full of exhortations and commandments regarding persecution, making it evident that the disciple of Jesus is not to be surprised by hatred and persecution (1 Peter 4:12, etc.), but is to expect it as part of the call. Consider Romans 12:14; 2 Timothy 3:12; Matthew 5:44-48; 10:16-39. J. C. Ryle said, “Persecution, in short, is like the goldsmith’s stamp on real silver and gold – it is one of the marks of a converted man.” Since that is evident from the pages of Scripture, let us boldly tell of Jesus and live in righteousness and embrace whatever persecution may come as a blessing from the Lord.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- Based on how I am living, how quickly could those who hate Jesus find me if they came to persecute someone? (The point of the question is to consider how I am living in light of Matthew 5:10-12. Do I believe Jesus that I am blessed if I am persecuted for His name’s sake? Is that evident in my life?)
- Have you ever been persecuted for righteousness’ sake or for the name of Jesus?
SDG rmb 10/05/2020