“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 5:10
When I was a senior in seminary, I had the dubious honor of being selected to preach the “senior sermon.” Every year, one member of the graduating class was invited to address the whole student body, the faculty, and the entire assembly of the local presbytery in a special convocation at the school. The seminary I attended was not noted for its commitment to orthodox theology or conservatism, and I was often swimming against the current. In my sermon, I preached from the book of Job and talked about the nature of human sin.
In the course of my years in seminary, I had learned different ways to define and explain the nature of sin: in terms of the limitations of human existence, inauthentic existence, and the threat of non-being. All of those categories had some interesting insights, which I acknowledged in my sermon. But, I said, when I read the Scriptures, this is not the definition of sin that I find there. It’s far more than being finite, inauthentic, or threatened with non-being. Sin, according to Scripture, is an offense against God, who is holy. I talked about Job’s initial attempt to defend himself against the transcendent majesty of God; yet, when he saw God appear, Job said, “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further,” and “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 40:4–6; 42:6).
My classmates warmly embraced me and expressed their gratitude for the sermon. It was an extraordinary experience of love and affection, but it was short-lived. As I left the chapel, three professors were standing at the doorway with the dean of the institution, and they were obviously enraged. They heard in my sermon a critique of the theology they had been teaching. The dean, trembling in anger, came over and strongly rebuked me. With his finger in my face, he said, “That was the worst distortion of Christian theology I’ve ever heard.”
Dr. John Gerstner was professor of church history and theology and an expert on orthodox Reformed theology. Still white and trembling, I went to his office and told him what had happened. He looked at me with a warm smile and said, “Blessed are you, Roberto” (which was his nickname for me, after the great Roberto Clemente). “Every Reformed Christian from Martin Luther to B.B. Warfield is rejoicing in heaven over the sermon that was preached in the chapel of this institution this morning.” He continued, “Don’t you realize that what you have experienced today was being persecuted and slandered for the sake of the gospel, and our Lord said, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted’?”
Living in America, we have the freedom to preach the gospel without being exposed to violent criticism or persecution. This has not been the case for many Christians around the world and throughout history. There’s no question that the history of Christianity is filled with stories of the persecution of God’s people. Christians have been jailed, tortured, and killed, and have had their businesses, livelihoods, and reputations destroyed. Martin Luther was accused of stirring up a hornet’s nest, creating so much conflict over the gospel that he should have been ashamed of himself. He said that anytime the gospel is preached clearly, without distortion, there is conflict, and if there is no conflict in the life of the church, it’s probably a sign that the gospel is not being preached.
It has to be asked of our generation: Why are we not in jail? Why are we not being stoned and beaten with rods as the Apostles were? Why do we not have people gnashing their teeth at us with the kind of visceral hostility that Jesus and the Old Testament prophets received?
Of course, if people are angry with us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being faithful to the gospel. It may be that we are being insensitive or offensive, and that people are reacting justly. And we must be careful here. We don’t want to cause offense with our behavior; if unbelievers are going to take offense, it should be to the gospel message itself, which pierces unbelieving hearts. But it must be asked whether something is amiss when we do not face the kind of opposition that Christians have historically received.
One reason we don’t face as much opposition is because the culture is more indifferent than it used to be. But perhaps the biggest reason for the absence of greater persecution in our day is that we have learned how to avoid it. We have become masters of conflict avoidance, and the best way to avoid conflict regarding the gospel is to water it down in order to make it more palatable to people. I remember how surprised I was at the reaction of some of my friends to my conversion to Christ. I was converted in my freshman year in college; it was the most exciting event in my whole life, and I couldn’t wait till the first break when I could come back to my hometown and see all my friends. We had known each other for years and loved each other. Yet, when I told them about my conversion, they looked at me like I had lost my mind. They said, “You’re some kind of fanatic.” Some of them even became hostile. I was shocked; I was happy to discover Christ, and I assumed they would be too.
I realized there was always the temptation to soften the call to repentance that God gives to all of us. The New Testament warns that we must beware of people-pleasers and those of whom everyone speaks well, because Jesus said, “They hated Me and they’re going to hate you.” He didn’t suggest that this was a possibility; He said it was a certainty: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
It is easy to become paranoid in response to the unpleasant experience of rejection. But we are told to look to God for the grace to endure persecution for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. Christ is honored when His people patiently bear the hostility of the world. We should not be surprised when these things happen, nor should we seek to make it happen. It goes with the territory when we are preaching the gospel and living for Christ.
In this last Beatitude, Jesus said that those who are persecuted for a just cause—persecuted for Jesus’ sake—are going to receive the kingdom as their inheritance. As we are despised and rejected by men, as we experience hostility, we share in Christ’s suffering, for He has suffered these things before us and for us. And the Father has made Him King of kings, and He has prepared a kingdom for those who walk with Him.
These believers—who identify with His rejection and who are patient and willing as their character is being developed through trials and through persecution—are, as the Apostle Paul said, filling up in their own lives the afflictions of Christ (2 Thess. 1:3–12). The response to being reviled and rejected by men should not be bitterness, not losing heart, and not being discouraged—but, according to Jesus, to rejoice and be glad.
The Beatitudes are God’s prescription for how we can be blessed. They tell us what pleases Him. He delights to give to those who delight in Him and to comfort those who are in distress. He promises the world to those who submit to Him and imitate His gracious authority, and He promises to fill those who yearn for righteousness. Those who show mercy will receive mercy, and those who are pure will see God. Those who make peace are truly those who know peace with God through Christ, and those who are persecuted for Christ’s sake will gain the kingdom. In all these ways, God promises to bless those who would seek Him. And one day, we will receive the ultimate blessing: to behold Him as He is, and to glorify Him forever.1