Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

51. The Beatitudes: Blessed are the Persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12; Luke 6:22, 23, 26)*

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 Righteousness.

Different Varieties

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 world.

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 study.


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. 1:29).

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. 19:7).

“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.
  1. 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.
  2. “Theirs is” presents a problem. Why should this last Beatitude and the first be the only ones with a present tense?
  3. “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; 14:21-54.
  4. 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.
  5. Does Lk. 6:22 specify three intensifying degrees of excommunication?
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