“PERSECUTED FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ SAKE”
by Wayne S. Walker
New Testament Christianity, to those who are not acquainted with its real nature, must appear full of paradoxes. In the Sermon on the Mount we are told what practical religion is. If some uninspired person should make such statements, we would be ready to pronounce him insane because in the Beatitudes everything which we regard with dread has a blessing attached to it – the poor, the mourning, the hungry, and the reviled are congratulated. Yet, throughout the Scriptures, those things which we consider as desirable have woes denounced against them – the rich, the full, the laughing, and the honored are all represented as in a truly pitiable condition.
But perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that persons possessed of true Christianity should be the objects of persecution; and that, on this very account, they should be esteemed blessed. But so it is, for Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12, NKJV). Jesus does not affirm here that anyone who suffers and is persecuted will be blessed because this is not true. But He identifies several attributes of the persecution to which He ascribes these blessings when He talks about being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
I. It must be undeserved. The Lord predicts that His followers will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. It must be evil said or done against us falsely. There can be no blessing in merited suffering. 1 Peter 4:14-16 reads, “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.”
On the surface, this seems to be a very improbable case. The very character of God’s people ought to preclude the idea. If the disciples of Jesus were the exact reverse of what they are, we could expect them to be the objects of hatred and contempt. But who can hate the meek, the merciful, the pure, or the peacemakers? What connection is there between the verses of our text and the whole preceding context? One would imagine that the premise was altogether contrary to fact.
That their very righteousness should be the ground of their sufferings appears still more strange. If they were guilty of rebellion, theft, murder, or anything else that rendered them bad members of society, no one would wonder that they should receive such evil treatment on those accounts. But that their conformity to Christ and His principles of goodness should be the true reason for the world’s enmity against them seems incredible.
But we are taught to expect such enmity on the part of the world. Christ Himself warned the disciples that they would receive the very same treatment as He received (Jn. 15:18-21; 16:1-4). And His apostles guard us against being surprised or offended because of it (1 Pet. 4:12; 1 Jn. 3:13). Nor should we think that our enemies will reveal the real reason for their aversion. They will not say, “I hate you for your piety.” They will give some other name to it; they will call it fanaticism, hypocrisy, or narrow-mindedness. And under that charge they will raise up their voice against it (see Jn. 10:31-33).
Furthermore, experience proves that such enmity exists. Look at the holy men of old; which one of them was not persecuted for righteousness’ sake? “But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now” (Gal. 4:29). Surely Christians are not dragged as they once were to prison and to death. But can we therefore say that they are not persecuted? Are not they reviled? Do not they have all manner of evil spoken against them falsely? Have not men separated them from their company to reproach them and cast out their name as evil, for the Son of God’s sake? It is as Paul promised, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Godly living will bring suffering.
For righteousness’ sake
II. It must be for righteousness’ sake. ” It must be inflicted because of our faithful attachment to right and to Christ. It must be “for Christ’s sake.” When persecution comes – undeserved and for His sake – its endurance is, indeed, a great blessing. It connects us with the highest system – the kingdom of heaven. Paul and Barnabas went about, “Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
It also ensures for us the highest reward – heaven. John encouraged the saints at Smyrna, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2: 10). And then it identifies us with the greatest men of all ages – “for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Hebrews 11:32-40 mentions some of them, their sufferings, and their rewards. Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, and Daniel are a few of the great examples. Their suffering lifted them to a worldwide and lasting renown because it was for righteousness’ sake.
Viewed as a blessing
III. It must be viewed as a blessing. To the world suffering is to be abhorred. But to the eye of faith, it is not so; the believer views his persecution in light of Jesus’ affirmation, “Blessed are ye.” It is a badge of honor. Look back on all the prophets, on Christ, and on the apostles. The latter “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41). When Paul spoke of sufferings for Christ’s sake, he represented them as an honor bestowed upon us in behalf of Christ (Phil. 1:28-30). Indeed, of Jesus Himself it is said, “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” Thus we may consider ourselves partakers of Christ’s sufferings (1 Pet. 4:13).
It is a means of good. Even at present the Christian feels that his trials are productive of spiritual benefit in his life and bring to him manifold blessings – patience, experience, and hope (Rom. 5:3-5). And when he looks forward to the eternal world and considers how rich a recompense of reward he will receive there for every sacrifice which he has made here, he can see his persecutions in a different light (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Such gives us the strength and hope to endure (Jas. 5:10-11).
Finally, it is a ground of joy. Our Lord says to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad.” Paul was certainly a very competent judge. While living a life of constant pain and suffering he wrote, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). To the same effect also James speaks, congratulating every persecuted saint and encouraging him to glory in all his tribulations (Jas. 1:2, 12). However painful they may be, if only they work for our eternal good, they must, and will, to every believing soul, be an occasion of real joy.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “The only homage wickedness can pay to righteousness is to persecute it.” However, the Scripture gives us a word of warning. We must take care that our suffering is indeed for righteousness’ sake. If it is brought upon us by our own fault or foolishness, it is our own and not that of Christ. “For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing” (1 Pet. 2:17). Yet, we also have a word of encouragement. Our merciful Savior, who has trod the way before us, will sympathize with us in our trials, will work them for our good, and in due time will put us safely and forever beyond the reach of them all. “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
(Credit is here given to Homiletic Thesaurus on the Gospels. Matthew by Herald F.J. Ellingsen, published by Baker Book House in 1949, for many of the thoughts included in this article.)
—Taken from Guardian of Truth; May 3, 1984; Vol. XXVIII, No. 9; pp. 266-267