Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake
The Beatitudes begin with Godward attitudes—spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, and hunger—and progress to manward concerns—mercifulness, purity, and peacemaking—before concluding in Matthew 5:10 with the inevitable reality of persecution and insults (see also Matt. 10:22; John 15:20). But this unpleasant inevitability carries with it a promise of a share in the divine life, for this is what true “blessedness” is: communion with the “blessed” God (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15; Titus 2:13).
The suffering described here is not the thorns and thistles of the fall in general (Rom. 8:18–25); nor is it persecution due to hypocrisy, judgmentalism, or just general obnoxiousness. It is certainly not the imagined persecution of heightened sensitivity that has more to do with identity politics than the cost of discipleship. We dare not trivialize persecution in that way when brothers and sisters are being imprisoned by oppressive regimes and dying at the hands of extremists. The suffering that is blessed here is suffering for righteousness’ sake—being persecuted for doing the will of our Master. To embrace the promise of this beatitude, the persecution must be for doing His righteous will (1 Peter 3:8–17). It is only then that ours is the “kingdom of heaven.” Matthew’s phrase, synonymous with the “kingdom of God,” is his way of reminding us that God’s righteous rule (in the heavens) is not man’s way (Isa. 55:9). Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are living out God’s ways in the midst of a world that does not respect and will even reject them. Having the root meaning of “pursued,” being persecuted will take violent and extreme forms as well as subtler ones such as ridicule, dismissiveness, marginalization, and exclusion.
Christ’s blessing here helps us in several ways. First, it is ours. When we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and wonder if it is worth it, we can remain resolute that the kingdom of heaven is ours. Second, it is a source of joy because in it we are identified with our Lord (Matt. 10:25; Acts 5:41). Third, it is a signpost guiding us along the path of Jesus. The way of the cross is not an elective in the school of Christ (Matt. 10:24–25). There is no other path to life except the cruciform way. Fourth, it invites us to take inventory when we aren’t experiencing persecution. All who live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Tim. 2:12). We are to be wary of ourselves when the world has only good to say about us (Luke 6:26). Absence of persecution may be be-cause we are fitting in too well with the world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, it may mean that we have exchanged discipleship for citizenship.
Finally, persecution testifies to our union with Christ. In Philippians 3:8–11, Paul relates how the persecutor became the persecuted and that even though he lost all that he once held dear, he gained Christ and the righteousness that comes through faith (v. 9). The purpose or goal of counting everything else as loss is knowing Christ and the powder of Christ’s resurrection along with the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, for it is necessary to become like Christ in His death if we want to share in His life. Union with Christ means a share in all things that are Christ’s, including the rejection, reviling, and persecution that was His. For if we have a share in Him, ours truly is the kingdom of heaven. And with this knowledge, we will be able to persevere with joy in trials and answer our persecutors with a benediction (James 5:1; 1 Peter 3:9).