“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10 NKJV).
Who really wants this blessing when only the slandered, shunned or slaughtered qualify? No thanks! Then, again, who really wants to be excluded from the kingdom of heaven? This blessing — along with the blessing on the poor in spirit — promises kingdom participation.
To make matters worse, this blessing has special prominence. It’s the only one of eight separate blessings that Jesus elaborates. He personalizes the blessing in the following verse (“you”) and then elaborates: Not only does future blessing await you, but it places you in a long line of venerable prophets, which brings you joy and gladness now.
Several questions lunge at me off this page of my Bible. Shouldn’t we avoid persecution if possible? But, if we succeed, are we disqualified from some kingdom blessing? How would persecution bring blessing, if it does? What if we do not experience persecution (something we’d normally regard as a “blessing”)? Does this blessing even apply to us today? Well …
To begin, Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom often strike usas strange given our normal assumptions and expectations. This final blessing concludes a list of odd blessings that single out circumstances (such as poverty, grief and injustice) or pursuits (such as showing mercy and resolving conflict) and call them “blessed.” At the least, what He calls “blessing” just defies common sense. That reminds us of other things Jesus says about the kingdom of God such as: the first will be last and the last will be first; the great must be servant of all; and saving your “self” demands losing your “self.” Clearly, kingdom blessing reflects values and priorities that differ from those of the world, and perhaps even in the church.
One reason it seems odd to associate persecution with blessing is that few of us have ever experienced persecution. But persecution was not foreign to Jesus. Despite the large and adoring crowds, His message drew sharp and intense criticism. Then, as His ministry unfolded, His mission brought suffering and dying. His contrasting vision of God’s kingdom, along with the priorities driving his mission, led inevitably to conflict and suffering.
As it was with Jesus, so it was with His first followers. The earliest church experienced opposition and persecution as “normal,” just as Jesus did. All the original disciples (except the betrayer) suffered persecution, and most of them sacrificed their lives for the gospel. The Apostle Paul taught his house churches that the way of Jesus will lead to persecution (2 Timothy 3:2; Acts 14:22). Therefore, for Jesus and His first followers, it would not have seemed strange to think of being persecuted and experiencing blessing because of it.
Then, if we step back to view Jesus’ life and ministry with a wider angle, we can see that opposition and persecution have always been normative for God’s people. Before the Romans of Jesus’ day were the Syrians, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Philistines, Midianites, Canaanites and … . In fact, everywhere God’s people have heard and obeyed God’s call on their lives, conflict and suffering dogged their trail.
If we back up even further to the very beginning, we may be surprised to see that the only time obedience to God did not lead to conflict, if not suffering, was prior to our first parents’ fateful decision to live their way instead of God’s. One bite of forbidden fruit initiated enmity between the serpent and humankind that would not end until the Descendant of one struck the other on the head (Genesis 3:15).
Finally, if we consider our experience with persecution, or lack thereof, in relation to the wider stories of the peoples of the world today and earlier days, we observe the same pattern. Many followers of Jesus today, perhaps most, experience opposition and persecution precisely “for righteousness’ sake” and “for the sake of the gospel.” In fact, where followers of Jesus thrive, the most thriving is often in places and at times when they suffer the most persecution. Which, in turn, reflects what we find as we scroll back from our day through the millennia of church history to Jesus’ day. Here, therefore, are three conclusions:
First, the majority of Jesus’ followers throughout history have encountered persecution. Analysis of this fact would reveal that their encounters with persecution have come especially when they have gone to new places with the gospel (which is what Jesus told followers to do) or when they have called the church to reaffirm and commit again to following Jesus deeply after a time of drifting or decline.
Second, historically considered, we are nearly alone in thinking it odd when Jesus connects blessing with persecution. What seems odd to us has been the norm for God’s people throughout history. And here, I suggest, is where these panoramic observations show us how this beatitude can address us today.
Third, as it turns out, the blessing no one wants is the blessing everyone needs — everyone, but in different ways. Clearly the persecuted of every age and place need blessing — prayer, material and spiritual support now and vindication and healing when God’s kingdom comes in all fullness.
Just as clearly, however, the relative few of us not persecuted also need this blessing. We need it as invitation to examine our values and priorities (2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10–11). Have we stopped going to new places and peoples? Have we drifted? Are we in decline? If so, we will want to turn, draw near, and renew our vision and commitments. We may be sure that blessing will follow, but likely persecution as well.
If, however, all is well, we are not in decline and are not drifting, hearing Jesus’ blessing upon the persecuted, for both now and later, reveals the role we must assume in making Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing the experienced reality of many brothers and sisters who evennow“are given over to death every day, reckoned as sheep headed to slaughter” (Romans 8:36, see Psalm 44:22).
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” (fmchr.ch/godscalldk) and the co-author of “The Female Pastor: Is There Room for She in Shepherd?” (fmchr.ch/fpsisdk).