Lenten Devotional Day 9

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.

March 5, 2020

The rough road to blessing

Matthew 5:10 – “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

Just as the poor in spirit are the possessors of the kingdom of heaven, which they have received as a gift from God because they recognize their abject need for Him, so are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  That is their blessing! The eighth beatitude is different from those which have come before it but maintains spiritual continuity with them. The first seven beatitudes reflect “active voice” virtues. They describe character actions and animating values that the people portrayed are in the way they think and live.  Conversely, the quality in this pronouncement is in the passive voice: “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  Such a change in focus by Jesus from what you value and what you are in action to and emphasis on the price one is willing to pay for “righteousness’ sake” is the next step in Jesus’ spiritual logic in the Beatitudes.

A well-known aphorism goes, “virtue untested is no virtue.” In this beatitude they are reminded that all the character qualities described so far by the Lord are not to be simply inward attitudes but must be lived out. Otherwise, the spiritual character He is calling for is not real in His disciples.  Outward action in the face of maltreatment is simply what faith looks like.   Jesus speaks now about the blessedness of those who pay the price for their love of and commitment to righteousness.  He focuses his disciples’ attention on recognizing the trouble that can come from living out all the beliefs and ideals of a true faith in God.  He emphasizes what it will most likely cost those who live for righteousness, because Jesus knew Israel’s history of failure and rejection of the prophetic message of righteousness. The blessing is for those whose virtue is tested.

Jesus never misleads his followers about the expensive nature of walking in His way.  But Jesus never says simply: “be strong, be brave, do the right thing just because it is right.”  He is clear in this beatitude that bearing persecution is not a matter of stoic resignation and strength of resolve.  Rather it is possible only because the kingdom of heaven is possessed in the depths of their being by those who are willing to be persecuted for righteousness.  Not some superhuman native ability empowers those who are victimized for righteousness’ sake, but the divine gift of God’s kingdom and His presence.  They are “possessed” by the goodness of the reign of God, even as they are the “possessors” of God’s reign in this life.  

Consider the structure of the beatitudes as the indication that this is how Jesus sees the matter.  The first declaration of the blessedness of the poor in spirit announces that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  As I emphasized in the second reflection of this series, the poor in spirit who recognize how much they need God are granted the reality of the reign, control, and holy presence of God as a gift, not something they earn.  By recognize their need they are in the proper posture – open acceptance of God’s gracious mercy. Just as the first beatitude declares that possession of and participation in the kingdom of heaven right now is the blessing of those who understand the depths of their need for God, this eighth declaration and promise of blessing by Jesus is the bookend of these proclamations in Matthew 5:3-10.  The blessing is that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” in both cases. The Lord is not, therefore, describing two different groups of people, but the same. The ability to live in persecution is one that is produced in them by the gift of God’s reign –His power, purpose, and presence – not a great moral achievement by the sufferers.

Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ are living out the virtues of the beatitudes, beginning with a poverty of spirit that recognizes that only God’s kingdom really matters in the end, because it alone can set all things right.  As receivers of the gift of God’s reign, those who embrace abuse for God and His righteousness will also participate in all the other blessings that flow from being poor in spirit.  They have comforted and strengthened hearts that mourn their failure, even as they meekly surrender to the gift of God’s presence, guidance, and control, while they hunger and thirst for all of God’s justness and goodness to be made manifest in their lives and in the world.  Yearning for more of the One to whom they have surrendered, these merciful persons live out the mercy of God they have received because their purity of heart is singularly focused upon God as their desire and purpose.  This is how they become and live as peacemakers, God’s children.  

These persons are blessed not because their persecution has earned them anything from God, but because the only thing they know to do is to live for God’s glory, God’s reign, and God’s purposes in life.  The kingdom of heaven is theirs in the midst of their persecution, prior to their persecution, and after their persecution, for God is their Father. 

Just like Jesus they suffer – blessedly and gladly – for their love of God. Hebrews 12 tells us that it was “for the joy set before Him” that Christ “endured the cross, despising its shame.  Persecution for God’s glory, will, way, holiness, and purposes is not something these blessed persons seek out, but when it comes . . . they know they are blessed. To shrink away or hesitate to live in righteousness due a threat of suffering would be to deny God.  This is impossible, because they know God’s beautiful and empowering love.

Be blessed, no matter the cost!

Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Dr. Blakemore is a co-founder of the JCW Center and the Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary.