"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:10
We come in verse 10 to the last of the Beatitudes, Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake. It is generally agreed that verses 11 and 12 are a kind of elaboration of this Beatitude, and perhaps an application of its truth and message to the disciples in particular. In other words, our Lord has finished the general portrayal of the characteristics of the Christian man by the end of verse 10, and He then applies this last statement in particular to the disciples.
At first, this Beatitude seems to be rather different from all the others in that it is not so much a positive description of the Christian as an account of what is likely to result because of what has gone before and because the Christian is what we have seen him to be. Yet ultimately it is not different because it is still an account and description of the Christian. He is persecuted because he is a certain type of person and because he behaves in a certain manner. The best way of putting it, therefore, would be to say that, whereas all the others have been a direct description, this one is indirect. This is what is going to happen to you because you are a Christian, says Christ.
Now it is interesting to observe that this particular Beatitude follows immediately the reference to the peacemakers. In a sense it is because the Christian is a peacemaker that he is persecuted. What a wealth of insight and understanding that gives us into the nature and character of the Christian life! I do not think you will ever find the biblical doctrines of sin and the world put more perfectly or precisely anywhere in Scripture than in just these two Beatitudes Blessed are the peacemakers, and Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake. If a Christian man is a peacemaker this is what happens to him.
Another preliminary point of interest is that the promise attached to this Beatitude is the same as the promise attached to the first, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That is, if you like, a further and additional proof of the fact that this is the last Beatitude. You start with the kingdom of heaven and you end with it. It is not, of course, that the various blessings which have been attached to the other Beatitudes do not belong to those who are in the kingdom of heaven, or that they do not get blessings. They all get blessings; but our Lord started and ended with this particular promise in order to impress upon His listeners that the important thing was membership of the kingdom of heaven. As we have seen, the Jews had a false notion about the kingdom. But, our Lord says in effect, I am not talking of this kind of kingdom. The important thing is that you should realize what My kingdom is, and you should know how to become members of it. So He starts and ends with it. Over and above all these particular blessings which we receive, and which we are to receive in greater measure and greater fullness, the great thing is that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and thus belong to that spiritual realm.
Here, again, I think we are entitled to say that we are confronted by one of the most searching tests that can ever face us. Let no-one imagine that this Beatitude is a kind of appendix to the others. In its way it is as positive a description as any that precede it, though it may be indirect; and it is one of the most searching of all. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake. What an amazing, astounding and unexpected statement. Yet remember that it is part of the description of the Christian quite as much as being pure in heart, quite as much as being peacemakers, quite as much as being merciful. This is one of the characteristics of the Christian, as I am going to remind you, and that is why it is one of the most searching tests that we can ever face. All these Beatitudes have been searching, but there are ways in which this is even more searching than the others. But let me hasten to add that perhaps there is no Beatitude where we have to be quite so careful, there is no Beatitude that is so liable to misconstruction and misunderstanding. There is certainly no Beatitude that has been so frequently misunderstood and misapplied. Therefore we must approach it with great circumspection and care. It is a vital statement, an essential and integral part of the whole teaching of the New Testament. You will find it right through the Gospels and the Epistles. Indeed, we can go so far as to say that it is one of the great characteristic messages of the whole Bible, which carries its inevitable implication with it. I suggest, therefore, that the most important thing to emphasize is this phrase, for righteousness' sake. It does not merely say, blessed are they which are persecuted, but blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
Now I need not, I am sure, take any time in pointing out what a relevant statement this is for Christian people in every country at this moment. There is more persecution of Christians today, some would say, than there has been since the first centuries of the Christian era; and I think a good case can be made out for that statement. There have been grievous periods of persecution at various epochs in the long history of the Church, but they have generally been more or less localized. Now, however, persecution has spread throughout the world. There are Christian people who are being actively and bitterly persecuted in many countries at this very moment, and there may well be a strong case for saying that this may be the most important verse in your life and mine. There are so many indications that the Church may indeed be facing that fiery trial of which the apostle Peter writes and speaks. He was thinking primarily, of course, of one that was coming in his own day. But it may well be that we in this country, in apparent safety and ease, may know and experience something of the fiery trial and furnace of affliction and of persecution. Let us be clear, then, that we understand this verse and know exactly what it does say.
To that end let us start with a few negatives. It does not say, Blessed are those who are persecuted because they are objectionable. It does not say, Blessed are those who are having a hard time in their Christian life because they are being difficult. It does not say, Blessed are those who are being persecuted as Christians because they are seriously lacking in wisdom and are really foolish and unwise in what they regard as being their testimony. It is not that. There is no need for one to elaborate this, but so often one has known Christian people who are suffering mild persecution entirely because of their own folly, because of something either in themselves or in what they are doing. But the promise does not apply to such people. It is for righteousness' sake. Let us be very clear about that. We can bring endless suffering upon ourselves, we can create difficulties for ourselves which are quite unnecessary, because we have some rather foolish notion of witnessing and testifying, or because, in a spirit of self-righteousness, we really do call it down on our own heads. We are often so foolish in these matters. We are slow to realize the difference between prejudice and principle; and we are so slow to understand the difference between being offensive, in a natural sense, because of our particular make-up and temperament, and causing offence because we are righteous.
So let me put another negative. We are not told, Blessed are the persecuted because they are fanatical. Neither does it say, Blessed are the persecuted because they are over-zealous. Fanaticism can lead to persecution; but fanaticism is never commended in the New Testament. There are so many temptations that tend to come to us in the spiritual and Christian life. Some people, even in worship, seem to think that they must say their Amen in a particular way, or must say it often. Thinking that this is a sign of spirituality, they make themselves a nuisance at times to others and so get into trouble about that. That is not commended in Scripture; it is a false notion of worship. The spirit of fanaticism has also very often led people into grievous difficulties. I once remember a poor man who not only brought suffering upon himself, but also upon his wife on account of his zeal. He was over-zealous, and he was not facing some of the injunctions given by our Lord Himself, because he was so anxious to be testifying. Now let us be careful that we do not bring unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. We are to be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. God forbid that any of us should suffer because we fail to remember that. In other words we are not told, Blessed are they who are persecuted because they are doing something wrong, or because they themselves are wrong in some respect. You remember how Peter put it in his wisdom, Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer. Let us notice, also, what he put into the same category as murderers, evildoers, thieves and so on-busybodies in other men's matters (see 1Pe 4:15).
Let me now add another negative from a different category. This text surely does not even mean blessed are they that are persecuted for a cause. This is a little subtle and we must be careful. I say that there is a difference between being persecuted for righteousness' sake and being persecuted for a cause. I know that the two things often become one, and many of the great martyrs and confessors were at one and the same time suffering for righteousness' sake and for a cause. But it does not follow by any means that the two are always identical. Now I think that this is one of the most vital points for us to bear in mind just at this present moment. I think that in the last twenty years there have been men, some of them very well known, who have suffered, and have even been put into prisons and concentration camps, for religion. But they have not been suffering for righteousness' sake. We have to be careful about that very distinction. There is always this danger of our developing the martyr spirit. There are some people who seem anxious for martyrdom; they almost court it. That is not the thing about which our Lord is talking.
We must also realize that it does not mean suffering persecution for religio- political reasons. Now it is the simple truth to say that there were Christian people in Nazi Germany who were not only ready to practice and live the Christian faith but who preached it in the open air and yet were not molested. But we know of certain others who were put into prisons and concentration camps, and we should be careful to see why this happened to them. And I think if you draw that distinction you will find it was generally something political. I need not point out that I am not attempting to excuse Hitlerism; but I am trying to remind every Christian person of this vital distinction. If you and I begin to mix our religion and politics, then we must not be surprised if we receive persecution. But I suggest that it will not of necessity be persecution for righteousness' sake. This is something very distinct and part icular, and one of the greatest dangers confronting us is that of not discriminating between these two things. There are Christian people in China and on the Continent at the present time to whom this is the most acute problem of all. Are they standing for righteousness' sake, or for a cause? After all, they have their political views and ideas. They are citizens of that particular country. I am not saying that a man should not stand for his political principles; I am simply reminding you that the promise attached to this Beatitude does not apply to that. If you choose to suffer politically, go on and do so. But do not have a grudge against God if you find that this Beatitude, this promise, is not verified in your life. The Beatitude and the promise refer specifically to suffering for righteousness' sake. May God give us grace and wisdom and understanding to discriminate between our political prejudices and our spiritual principles.
There is much confusion on this very matter at the present time. Much talk which appears to be, and is said to be, Christian, in its denunciation of certain things that are happening in the world, is, I believe, nothing but the expression of political prejudices. My desire is that we might all be saved from this serious and sad misinterpretation of Scripture, which may lead to such needless and unnecessary suffering. Another great danger in these days is that this pure Christian faith should be thought of by those who are outside in terms of certain political and social views. They are eternally distinct and have nothing to do with one another. Let me illustrate this; the Christian faith as such is not anti-communism, and I trust that none of us will be foolish enough and ignorant enough to allow the Roman Catholic Church, or any other interest, to delude and mislead us. As Christians we are to be concerned for the souls of communists, and their salvation, in exactly the same way as we are concerned about all other people. And if once we give them the impression that Christianity is just anti-communism we are ourselves shutting and barring the doors, and almost preventing them from listening to our gospel message of salvation. Let us be very careful, Christian people, and take the words of Scripture as they are.
Let us look at one final negative; this Beatitude does not even say, Blessed are they that are persecuted for being good, or noble, or self-sacrificing. There again, of course, is another vital and, it seems to some people, subtle distinction. The Beatitude does not say we are blessed if we suffer for being good or noble, for the excellent reason that you will probably not be persecuted for being good. I doubt very much also if you will ever be persecuted for being noble. The world, as a matter of fact, generally praises and admires and loves the good and the noble; it only persecutes the righteous. There are people who have made great sacrifices, those who have given up careers, prospects and wealth and who sometimes have even sacrificed their lives; and the world has thought of them as great heroes and has praised them. So we should suspect immediately that that is not true righteousness. There are certain men today who are acclaimed as very great Christians by the world simply because they have made such sacrifices. That, I suggest, should raise at once a query in our minds as to whether they are really practicing the Christian faith, or whether it is not just something else perhaps a general nobility of character.
What, then, does this Beatitude mean? Let me put it like this. Being righteous, practising righteousness, really means being like the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore they are blessed who are persecuted for being like Him. What is more, those who are like Him always will be persecuted. Let me show this first of all from the teaching of the Bible. Listen to the way in which our Lord Himself puts it. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you (Joh 15:18-20). Now there is no qualification, it is a categorical statement. Listen to His servant Paul putting it in this way, Yea, says Paul, writing to Timothy, who did not understand this teaching and was therefore unhappy because he was being persecuted, Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2Ti 3:12). It is again a categorical statement. That is why I said at the beginning that I sometimes think this is the most searching of all the Beatitudes. Are you suffering persecution?
That is the teaching. Let us look at its out-working right through the Bible. For instance, Abel was persecuted by his brother Cain. Moses received grievous persecution. Look at the way in which David was persecuted by Saul, and at the terrible persecution that Elijah and Jeremiah had to endure. Do you remember the story of Daniel, and how he was persecuted? These are some of the most outstanding righteous men of the Old Testament, and every one of them verifies the biblical teaching. They were persecuted, not because they were difficult, or over-zealous, but simply because they were righteous. In the New Testament we find exactly the same thing. Think of the apostles, and the persecution they had to endure. I wonder whether any man has ever suffered more than the apostle Paul, in spite of his gentleness and kindness and righteousness. Read his occasional descriptions of the sufferings that he had to endure. It is not surprising that he said that all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. He had known and experienced it. But, of course, the supreme example is our Lord Himself. Here He is in all His utter, absolute perfection, and His gentleness and meekness, of whom it can be said that a bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench. Never was anyone so gentle and so kind. But look at what happened to Him and at what the world did to Him. Read also the long history of the Christian Church and you will find that this statement has been verified endlessly. Read the lives of the martyrs, of John Huss, or the Covenanters, or the Protestant Fathers. Read about it also in more modern times and observe the persecution endured by the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening in the eighteenth century. Not many men have known what it is to suffer as did Hudson Taylor, who lived into our century. He knew what it was to undergo at times grievous persecution. It is just a verification of the statement of this Beatitude.
By whom are the righteous persecuted? You will find as you go through the Scriptures, and as you study the history of the Church, that the persecution is not confined to the world. Some of the most grievous persecution has been suffered by the righteous at the hands of the Church herself, and at the hands of religious people. It has often come from nominal Christians. Take our Lord Himself. Who were His chief persecutors? The Pharisees and scribes and the doctors of the Law! The first Christians, too, were persecuted most bitterly of all by the Jews. Then read the history of the Church, and watch it in the Roman Catholic persecution of some of those men in the Middle Ages who had seen the pure truth and were trying to live it out quietly. How they were persecuted by nominal, religious people! That was also the story of the Puritan Fathers. This is the teaching of the Bible, and it has been substantiated by the history of the Church, that the persecution may come, not from the outside but from within. There are ideas of Christianity far removed from the New Testament which are held by many and which cause them to persecute those who are trying in sincerity and truth to follow the Lord Jesus Christ along the narrow way. You may well find it in your own personal experience. I have often been told by converts that they get much more opposition from supposedly Christian people than they do from the man of the world outside, who is often glad to see them changed and wants to know something about it. Formal Christianity is often the greatest enemy of the pure faith.
But let me ask another question. Why are, the righteous thus persec uted? And, especially, why is it that the righteous are persecuted rather than the good and noble? The answer, I think, is quite simple. The good and noble are very rarely persecuted because we all have the feeling that they are just like ourselves at our best. We think, I am capable of that myself if I only put my mind to it, and we admire them because it is a way of paying a compliment to ourselves. But the righteous are persecuted because they are different. That was why the Pharisees and the scribes hated our Lord. It was not because He was good; it was because He was different. There was something about Him that condemned them. They felt all their righteousness was being made to look very tawdry. That was what they disliked. The righteous may not say anything; they do not condemn us in words. But just because they are what they are, they do in fact condemn us, they make us feel unhappy, and we shrivel into nothing. So we hate them for it and try to find fault with them.
You know, people say, I believe in being a Christian; but that is much too much, that is going too far. That was the explanation of Daniel's persecution. He suffered all he did because he was righteous. He did not make a show of it, he did it quietly in his own way. But they said, This man condemns us by what he is doing; we shall have to catch him. That is always the trouble, and that was the explanation in the case of our Lord Himself. The Pharisees and others hated Him just because of His utter, absolute holiness and righteousness and truth. And that is why you find gentle, loving, lovable people like Hudson Taylor, to whom I have already referred, suffering terrible and bitter persecution sometimes at the hands of ostensible Christians.
Obviously, then, we can draw certain conclusions from all this. For one thing, it tells us a great deal about our ideas concerning the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. If our conception of Him is such that He can be admired and applauded by the non-Christian, we have a wrong view of Him. The effect of Jesus Christ upon His contemporaries was that many threw stones at Him. They hated Him; and finally, choosing a murderer instead of Him, they put Him to death. This is the effect Jesus Christ always has upon the world. But you see there are other ideas about Him. There are worldly people who tell us they admire Jesus Christ, but that is because they have never seen Him. If they saw Him, they would hate Him as His contemporaries did. He does not change; man does not change. So let us be careful that our ideas about Christ are such that the natural man cannot easily admire or applaud.
That leads to the second conclusion. This Beatitude tests our ideas as to what the Christian is. The Christian is like his Lord, and this is what our Lord said about him. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luk 6:26). And yet is not our idea of what we call the perfect Christian nearly always that he is a nice, popular man who never offends anybody, and is so easy to get on with? But if this Beatitude is true, that is not the real Christian, because the real Christian is a man who is not praised by everybody. They did not praise our Lord, and they will never praise the man who is like Him. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! That is what they did to the false prophets; they did not do that to Christ Himself.
So I draw my next deduction. It concerns the natural, unregenerate man, and it is this. The natural mind, as Paul says, is enmity against God. Though he talks about God, he really hates God. And when the Son of God came on earth he hated and crucified Him. And that is the attitude of the world towards Him now.
This leads to the last deduction, which is that the new birth is an absolute necessity before anybody can become a Christian. To be Christian, ultimately, is to be like Christ; and one can never be like Christ without being entirely changed. We must get rid of the old nature that hates Christ and hates righteousness; we need a new nature that will love these things and love Him and thus become like Him. If you try to imitate Christ the world will praise you; if you become Christlike it will hate you.
Finally, let us ask ourselves this question: Do we know what it is to be persecuted for righteousness' sake? To become like Him we have to become light; light always exposes darkness, and the darkness therefore always hates the light. We are not to be offensive; we are not to be foolish; we are not to be unwise; we are not even to parade the Christian faith. We are not to do anything that calls for persecution. But by just being like Christ persecution becomes inevitable. But that is the glorious thing. Rejoice in this, say Peter and James. And our Lord Himself says, Blessed are ye, happy are ye, if you are like that. Because if ever you find yourself persecuted for Christ and for righteousness' sake, you have in a sense got the final proof of the fact that you are a Christian, that you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Unto you, says Paul to the Philippians, unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake (Phi 1:29). And I look at those first Christians persecuted by the authorities and I hear them thanking God that at last they had been accounted worthy to suffer for the Name's sake.
May God through His Holy Spirit give us great wisdom, discrimination, knowledge and understanding in these things, so that if ever we are called upon to suffer, we may know for certain that it is for righteousness' sake, and may have the full comfort and consolation of this glorious Beatitude.
 John Huss (or Jan Hus) c. 1370-1415 Reformer of Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) and advocate of the theology of English Reformer John Wycliffe (c. 1328-84), condemned by the Council of Constance and burned at the stake.
 Covenanters the Scottish Presbyterians (1638-90) who held to the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. In these they pledged to maintain the Presbyterian form of church government and worship against episcopacy (the form of church government ruled by bishops).
Excerpt from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 1981 Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI