“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:10-12
Anyone who reads the gospels cannot help but wonder what it would be like to witness Jesus’s ministry firsthand. While it would be amazing to see Jesus in action, it would also be fascinating to observe the various responses to his words and deeds. For example, it would be quite entertaining to see the looks on people’s faces as he delivered the beatitudes. Many of his earliest followers were poor, downtrodden, and in desperate need of hope. They flocked to Jesus when they heard him proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. Finally, they had some good news. As the first half of the beatitudes explain, the coming kingdom would be paradigm shifting for the marginalized members of Jesus’s audience (Matt 5:3-6). When God finally made right all that was wrong with the world, they would come out on top. Perhaps the audience would have been full of smiles that expressed a mix of relief and excitement, like children who wake up to a snow day.
In the second half of the beatitudes, Jesus promised that those who followed his teachings would be richly rewarded by the Father (Matt 5:7-10). Maybe a spark flickered in the eyes of those who resolved to obey. Anyone who hears the beatitudes should long for future consummation of Christ’s kingdom. In the meantime, they ought to resolve to live in a manner that pleases their King. Indeed, such a combination of hope and determination is needed to respond well to the final beatitude: “Blessed are those are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom.” Surely, some of the first listeners would have been confused. Why would anyone hate and persecute those who are characterized by humility, peace, and compassion? However, many would have recognized that since the kingdom belonged to the downtrodden, they could expect to be tread upon until the kingdom came in its fullness.
Persecution for Righteousness and Christ’s Sake
Disciples of Jesus can expect to receive harsh treatment for following his teachings. No one wants to have their sin brought into the light by another. Those who have been exposed tend to despise those who have revealed their shortcomings. While a follower of Christ does not intend to condemn others through their righteous behavior, it is bound to happen. When a Christian declines to participate in sinful behavior, the behavior is condemned. When a Christian does a good deed, those who fail to do likewise also stand condemned. However, it is not the believer who takes the judgment seat, but the unbeliever who judges themselves in light of the righteousness which a Christian shines. Those who approach life with moral laxity frequently resent those who walk in holiness.
Why Persecution Happens
After verse 10 gives the initial blessing upon those who are persecuted because of their righteousness, verses 11 and 12 give further explanation. While verse 10 states that persecution would come on account of righteousness, verse 11 clarifies that such persecution would come on account of allegiance to Christ. A believer practices righteousness not simply for righteousness’ sake, but because of their allegiance to Christ as king.
Any society will find it necessary to oppose those who pledge their loyalty to entities or ideals which compete against the foundations of that society. In communist countries, loyalty to any entity other than the state will lead to persecution. In Islamic countries, persecution comes from loyalty to any god other than Allah. Modern Western society expects its members to remain loyal to the ideological foundations of the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is certainly possible to understand these ideals in a manner which favors Judeo-Christian values. Unfortunately, many people in our surrounding society insist that the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness should not be subject to any limitations.
Our Conflict with the Surrounding Society
Modern morality has fallen into disarray. In stark contrast, Christ and his spokesmen, the authors of the Bible, provide strict ethical standards. The Bible places stringent prohibitions in many areas where leniency has come to be expected, such as sexuality and abortion. God expects us to pursue justice which requires us to speak out against moral atrocities (Micah 6:8). When we do so, we take on a prophet-like role (Matt 5:12). However, it should be mentioned that we have not fulfilled this role until we have urged our audience to submit to the authority of Christ (28:18-20). This message should cause those who hear it to rejoice. Sadly, prophetic messages, and those who bear them, tend to be rejected (Matt 5:12; 23:29-36).
We do not need to become vocal in order to find ourselves in a hostile engagement with the world. As was discussed above, simply practicing Christian ethics inadvertently denounces worldly values. Thus, any follower of Christ stands in direct conflict with modern Western ideals and is subject to persecution. Christians can expect to be mocked as killjoys, disregarded as prigs, or despised as bigots. In many cases, the world will claim that Christians are guilty of some moral evil. Christians are frequently accused of hating those who commit various sins. Of course, God will only approve of us if such accusations are untrue (Matt. 5:11).
Future and Present Persecution
To be fair, the vast majority of us who live in Western society will only encounter relatively mild forms of persecution. While it hurts to be lambasted by friends or family for our beliefs, we are still able to work, worship, and enjoy political rights with negligible interference. However, such rights have recently come under attack. Many Christian news outlets have sounded the alarm over Canada’s Bill C-4, which was passed in December of 2021. Paul Carter from The Gospel Coalition explains that “the language of Bill C-4 as passed is exceedingly broad and may have the effect of criminalizing religious conversation and teaching with respect to the Biblical perspective on human sexuality and gender.” It is too soon to tell how the law will impact Christians living in Canada. There is still hope that the law could be overturned by the Canadian Supreme Court.
Recently in the United States, the Supreme Court has had to defend Christians from politicians. In 2012, the ironically named Colorado Civil Rights Commission attempted to force a Christian baker to make a wedding cake for a so-called “same-sex marriage.” Fortunately, the Court decided in his favor in a 7-2 decision. Unfortunately, the Constitution is subject to varying interpretations and amendments, and cases may be overturned. Afterall, two of the judges voted unfavorably and those who are hostile to Christianity may gain political and social influence. For example, Bernie Sanders, a US senator and popular presidential candidate, went so far as to claim that Christians should be barred from political office because of our “hateful” beliefs regarding the condemnation for sin which remains on those who do not put their faith in Christ. While we still experience many freedoms, they are not guaranteed.
However, even if we lost many of our rights, the persecution we would face would still pale in comparison with what many Christians around the world currently experience. Around six thousand Christians were killed for their faith last year. Most of these deaths took place in Nigeria, where an average of thirteen martyrdoms occur each day. While it is hard to imagine a future where Christians living in the West would regularly die for their faith, martyrdom is a present reality for many Christians around the world.
Our Future Reward
We belong to a kingdom ruled by a crucified king. If the world despised and rejected our king, we should expect a similar treatment as his loyal subjects. Come what may, whether it is discrimination or death, Jesus tells us to respond with rejoicing. No matter what happens, our reward will outweigh our trials to an unimaginable degree (5:12). Our own families may curse us, but God will call us His sons (5:9). Our enemies may attempt to wipe us off the face of the earth, but the earth is our inheritance (5:5). We may have reasons to mourn now, but a day is coming where God himself will wipe away our tears (5:4). We can rejoice when we suffer for Christ because our hope is set on his everlasting kingdom. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 See, “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: Reflections on the passage of Bill C-4.” https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/were-not-in-kansas-anymore-reflections-on-the-passage-of-bill-c-4/
 See, “Bill C-4: History, Concerns, and Response.” https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/bill-c-4-history-concerns-and-response/
 See, “Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masterpiece_Cakeshop_v._Colorado_Civil_Rights_Commission)
 See, “Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test for Christians in Public Office”. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/bernie-sanders-chris-van-hollen-russell-vought/529614/