51. The Beatitudes: Blessed are the Persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12; Luke 6:22, 23,
The eighth Beatitude has the same shape as the rest.
“Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for
theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. But just as Jesus picked up one phrase
out of his pattern Prayer (“forgive us our trespasses”) that he
might explain and re-emphasize it, so also now he chose to dwell on this
blessing specially, underlining its almost unbelievable paradox.
One implication behind the Lord’s word here is that
persecution is not inevitable. But it comes to a great many - “by
coldness, contempt, and ridicule, if not by actual ill-usage” (Plummer).
In the past century the Lord’s people have been marvellously free from
persecution, partly because they have had the good fortune to serve Christ in an
epoch and in the midst of nations remarkable for broad-mindedness and tolerance,
and partly because they have not been wondrously efficient in making their
message or their personal dedication known.
Persecution a Blessing
That persecution is in itself a blessing can hardly be
questioned. Not only does it distinguish sharply between the counterfeit and the
true. It also has a fine astringent effect, bringing home to the believer the
truth and unique value of his faith.
But it is important to observe that Jesus promised this
happiness to those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, not because
of self-display or through fanatical combativeness or out of the delusion (as
often happened in the third and fourth centuries) that martyrdom guarantees an
inheritance of life everlasting. The emphasis must be on Christ and witness for
Christ, as the parallel phrase: “for my sake”, very plainly shows.
The two expressions meet in that loveliest of all titles of Jesus: The Lord our
The phrases used to describe the persecution envisaged cover a
wide range of bad treatment: “they shall revile you (that is, to your
face), and persecute you (physically), and shall say all manner of evil against
you (behind your back).” Perhaps the worst feature of all is that these
vile things are said falsely, the persecutors knowing them to be false. It is a
hard trial of faith and patience to know that pernicious slanders are put round,
and to have no redress. In such circumstances, to relax and leave all in
God’s hands is no easy matter. Yet, beyond all question, this is the best
possible attitude to adopt.
It has been suggested that this Beatitude is a fairly plain
hint that the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of discrete items out of the
Lord’s teaching, for (it is asked) would Jesus talk to his disciples about
persecution, using a past tense, so early in his teaching? Luke’s version
also (6:22) has an explicit future tense. Certainly the best examples of this
come right at the end of the ministry when it was possible to see very plainly
that “if they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you... If the
world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.” And in that
context (Jn. 15:18, 19) the word “world” (meaning certainly
“the Jewish world”) comes six times with sickening reprobation. But
the warnings are just as needful concerning this worldly twentieth-century
In Luke the persecution phrases are quite different, though
the gist of them is the same: “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you,
and when they shall separate you (i.e. apply the knife of disfellowship), and
reproach you (this is the “reviling” of Mt. 5:11), and cast out your
name as evil.” This last expression probably refers to the invention of
labels of opprobrium. And they will say it “falsely”-the Greek word
means “telling lies” (and knowing that they are lies).
Such experiences are not to be lamented, but should be ground
for quiet satisfaction, always provided that the operative phrases: “for
righteousness’ sake”, “for the Son of man’s sake”,
dominate the situation.
On a later occasion Jesus foretold explicitly the hardships
which beset his preachers of the gospel: “they shall put you out of the
synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he
doeth God service” (Jn.l6:2). Even during the lord’s ministry the
very threat of this was sufficient to scare men away from open confession of
loyalty to him: “Because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest
they should be put out of the synagogue” (12:42). This experience actually
befell the blind man whom Jesus healed through the waters of Siloam (9:22, 34),
but lie was a tough character, and, fortified by his new Christ-endowed
sight, was willing to face up to anything.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility -though it is
highly unlikely-that this easy-going generation might well change suddenly to
one of intense hostility to the truth of Christ. There are those interpreters
who believe that they can find this foretold in Bible prophecies of the Last
Days. The contingency should be considered, and minds prepared and (as far as
possible) policies settled beforehand.
In the Early Church
A worse form of persecution hit the early church when the
emperor Nero, spurred on by his concubine Poppaed, a convert to Judaism, turned
savagely against the believers in Christ. This is the background to the first
epistle of Peter, written from Rome at a time when the persecution was spreading
to the provinces. What could Peter do better than fall back on these reassuring
words of his Lord: “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake,
blessed are ye” (3:14). “Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of
Christ’s sufferings: that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be
glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy
are ye” (4:13, 14) - the entire section of that chapter is worthy of
The idea that persecution for the faith is something to
rejoice in is an attitude of mind altogether foreign to current thinking. Yet
Jesus used the most extreme language to emphasize this: “Rejoice ye in
that day, leap for joy” (Lk. 6:23). The word is that which describes the
rich foot settling down to enjoy his comfortable retirement. It is used also of
the intense happinesp at the prodigal’s return. Paul writes of persecution
as a special privilege: “For unto you it is granted in the behalf of
Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Ph.
It is part of the solid satisfaction which must accompany any
persecution to know that by such an experience one joins a noble and glorious
fellowship: “in the like manner did their fathers unto the
prophets.” By this expression Jesus implicitly put his disciples on the
same level as the prophets who by their worthy witness in Old Testament times
attempted to stem the tide of apostasy. The reflection follows inevitably: if
mere disciples have such high status before God, what of the One whom they
serve? Thus, in an almost casual incidental fashion, Jesus claimed a greatness
surpassing that of Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah and Daniel.
But what a prospect is this, for the present-day disciple to
be offered a status comparable to that accorded to the superlative characters
just named! Moses, rejected by his nation when he sought to join them in their
suffering and struggle, knew what it was to experience “the reproach of
Christ”. David was hunted as a fugitive in the wilderness until his morale
almost gave way under the strain. Elijah’s lament -- how
understandable!-was: “Lord, now take away my life for I am not better fin
what I can achieve) than my fathers.” Jeremiah in the pit thought all hope
was lost. Daniel had to contemplate being savaged by lions rather than let go
his loyalty to the God or Israel. And Jesus chose to speak of his own followers
in the same breath as men like these!
Nor should it be overlooked that some of them met their vile
treatment at the hands of those who should have been their best supporters. It
is a question with possibly humiliating answers to it when one enquires to what
extent the same has been true in the past century -- sincere conscientious
servants of the Lord being ostracized and treated despitefully by their
brethren, “when attempts at sympathetic understanding would have been more
appropriate than censure.
“Filling up the sufferings of Christ” is not the
only reason for enduring persecution without fear or complaining: “for
behold, your reward is great in heaven.” The conjunction here makes
clear that it is seemly and right to rejoice at the prospect of future
reward. True, the loyal service of Christ is its own reward here and now, but if
the Lord bids his disciple look to the future also with keen expectation, how
can anyone say that such forward-looking joy has anything ol a mercenary spirit
about it. The literal words of this Beatitude are part of the overflowing
rejoicing of Christ’s saints in the new Jerusalem: “Let us rejoice
and be exceeding glad, and let us give the glory unto him” (Rev.
“Woe unto you”
There is, however another very sombre antithesis to this
rejoicing by the Lord’s people: “Woe unto you, when all men shall
speak well of you) for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Lk.
6:26). Only when there is some conformity of outlook will the world speak well
of the disciple of Jesus. This kind of thing can happen only when the disciple
has a message which the world approves of, or else when he has no message at
all. And, either way, his discipleship is then scarcely worth the paper it is
written on. In Jeremiah’s day, “the prophets prophesied falsely, and
the priests bore rule by their means; and the people loved to have it so”
(Jer. 5:31). The world’s approval can be a danger signal. The Lord has no
more serious warning: “Woe unto you.”
Notes Mt. 5:10-12; Lk. 6:22, 23, 26.
- Matthew’s word “persecuted” is in perfect tense, i.e.
implying not only in the past but still feeling the effects of it, either
physically or in the spirit.
- “Theirs is” presents a
problem. Why should this last Beatitude and the first be the only ones with a
- “Great is your reward in heaven” clearly does not
mean “you go to heaven for it”, but that it is stored up in heaven;
6:20. Here is an echo of Abraham’s experience, facing threat of
persecution through offending the pride of the king of Sodom; Gen. 15:1;
- This Beatitude seems to have its roots in ls. 66:5, 10, and in
turn is alluded to in Jas. 2:6, 7 (= Lk. 6:22, 24a) and in 1 Pet. 3:14; 4:14. A
similar though rather less obvious chain is; Jer. 5:31 = Lk. 6:26 = Jas. 4:4.
- Does Lk. 6:22 specify three intensifying degrees of