‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’Matthew 5:10-12
I have argued that the final four beatitudes are beatitudes of likeness—places where we are called to be like our God in the world. We are to be like Him in mercy, in purity, and in peacemaking. Last of all, we are to be like Him in persecution.
This may, perhaps, seem strange at first. And yet the fact that God’s ways are opposed in the world is the constant testimony of Scripture—opposed by the nations who rebel against God’s law, opposed as well by God’s own people. Jesus himself declares in Matthew 10:24-25, ‘A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!’ If they hated and opposed Jesus, how much more will they hate and oppose those who align themselves with Jesus’s kingdom? The message seems clear: begin the Kingdom way, and some form of persecution will be inevitable.
Persecution, of course, will take a variety of forms. But let us be clear at the outset, as Jesus is clear, that this is a persecution that is for righteousness’ sake. There are those who take pleasure in generating opposition—those who willingly do wrong. Such people encounter opposition because of the wrong and then claim to be persecuted. This is not the attitude that the beatitude recommends.
Instead, the persecution for the sake of righteousness has two forms. Let’s call the first kind the persecution of the narrow way. When you make a choice in your life for the right, when you make a choice to have a clear conscience, that choice may result in pain in your circumstances. You will experience opposition to the choice you have made, and that opposition is a form of persecution. In this respect, persecution is the resistance you experience for choosing the right path, the pain we feel for doing the right thing in a world of wrong. Framed this way, persecution is a perfectly natural pain—it’s the pain of setting something right, of ordering what was disordered. When a doctor has to set a bone, there is pain in making the bone straight, and each of our lives is twisted and bent—we all suffer from a scoliosis of our souls. When we begin to approach God it is much like bending our crooked lives to match the true plumb line of His truth. There is a breaking and a setting. Persecution is the pain of treading that singular, right, narrow path which we must traverse, all while there are a host of distractions seeking to trip and distract you in the process. Persecution is the gauntlet of faith.
But there is a second form of persecution, of course. Let’s call this the persecution of otherworldliness. When you are brought into the life of the Kingdom—when you walk the Way of King Jesus—when you stand opposed to earthly wealth, comforts, power, and the status quo, and when you commit to mercy, purity, and peacemaking—then inevitably the very fact of walking in this Way sets you at odds to the world. The world has its comfortable rhythms and patterns, it tries to ensure that all its people stay in step. Citizens of the Kingdom, however, dance to different music. Our faithfulness frustrates the world’s desires. Our obedience is deeply disruptive. Persecution, therefore, is simply the inevitable consequence of living the Kingdom. If you commit to living for Christ, then you must expect persecution.
But here we must be careful. It is true that opposition to our faith is a sign that we are faithful, but we must be careful to ensure that the opposition is rooted in our faith, and not our sin. That is why, again, we are blessed if we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness—persecuted because we are truly following Jesus, not simply because we take a secret pleasure in being disruptive.
This is all reinforced when we look to the reward promised to those who are persecuted—‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ It is, of course, the same reward offered to the poor in spirit. Far from thinking that either the persecuted or the poor in spirit get short-changed on heavenly rewards, we are to see and understand that they are in fact the same people. The person who commits to poverty of spirit—to living against the world’s idea of wealth—will find himself or herself persecuted on account of righteousness. The person who commits to mourning will trouble the world’s comforts. The person who commits to meekness will anger the world’s power. The person who commits to hunger and thirst will rattle the status quo. The person who commits to mercy will shock a world passionate for vengeance. The person committed to purity will shine uncomfortable light on the world’s darkness. The person committed to peacemaking will cast doubt on the world’s peace. To follow Jesus’s beatitude way is to set yourself up for opposition—but through that opposition lies the Kingdom of Heaven.
The attitude, then, of the last beatitude is one of radical obedience to the otherworldly life of the Kingdom of God, an obedience that draws us into an inevitable opposition to the world. We experience that opposition first in our own lives as we pursue the narrow way, and then interpersonally as our commitment to the Kingdom manifests in opposition to the Word.
When we commit to this attitude, we receive a promise: to those persecuted on account of righteousness God promises the Kingdom of Heaven. On this promise, our citizenship with God is secure.
And, lastly, when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake our lives once again become a thin space through which God’s kingdom begins to shine. God’s power, made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9), God’s Spirit, speaking through us in trials (Matt 10:19-20). In persecution we stand for God, and God’s light rests on us in witness to all who see us.
Read a book of Spiritual biography in which you encounter the radical obedience of followers of Jesus. Reflect on how that person’s obedience challenges your own. I’ll suggest three: