"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Every Sunday I try to remember the persecuted church in the pastoral prayer. I try to keep a note that we should be praying for them in the email blast as well. It is important that we do this because all throughout the world our brothers and sisters are suffering greatly for righteousness sake. Recent estimates suggest that 70 million Christians were martyred in the past two thousand years. About 45 million of these (approximately two-thirds) were martyred between 1900 and 2000. Martyrdom still occurs today.
The kind of persecution that Jesus is speaking about includes being murdered, tortured or physically abused for righteousness. However, Jesus means more than this. In America, violent persecution is rare. We often think that persecution is only when the government tries to put us to death or tries to hinder the work of the church. Jesus says that it also includes “reviling” and “harassing” and “uttering all kinds of evil against you falsely.”
To ‘revile’ means to ‘reproach’ or to heap insults upon. When people do this to you for righteousness sake, you are being persecuted. The word, Jesus uses in verse 11 for “persecute” means to run after or pursue. It is what we would call harassment. When this happens to you for righteousness sake, then you are being persecuted. When people lie about you and make things up about you falsely, you are being persecuted. In the ancient church, Christians were falsely accused of being atheist, cannibals and adulterers. All this was false of course, but that is what they were accused of. In that sense they were being persecuted.
We see that the concept of persecution includes a number of things. We are likely to be persecuted in some manner, when we try to imitate our Lord. The phrase “on my account” is parallel with the previous verses “for righteousness sake.” This means that the righteousness in view is the imitation of Jesus. Remember that all these beatitudes describe Jesus. Since we are united to Jesus and identified with Jesus, we will manifest them all to some degree. This is why we can expect persecution. Look at Matthew 15:18-20,
"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
Why is the church persecuted? Because the world hates Jesus. But we can rejoice when the world persecutes us by looking to our heavenly reward. This is what Jesus says in verse 12.
If you have ever had surgery or a major dental procedure, you know what it feels like to dread something. You dread the pain that you will have to go through and you dread the recovery. Maybe you are a little scared and it causes you anxiety. How do you get through it? Well you remind yourself that it is temporary. You will not be in pain forever. You will not feel anxious forever. In a little while, it will all be over. You view the present, painful experience, through the future experience. This is exactly what Jesus is telling us to do. He says, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” In other words, view your present suffering through the fact that you will be rewarded in heaven. A heavenly perspective does three things for us.
First, it enables us to endure hardship. Whether by persecution of in general. Look at 2 Corinthians 4:17-18,
"For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."
Second, it motivates us to do good works. Look at Matthew 6:19-21,
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Third, it helps us to rejoice and be glad. Notice what Jesus says in the first part of verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad.” This is a commandment to us in the midst of suffering and persecution. What this tells us is that rejoicing and being glad will not spontaneously arise within us under bad circumstances.
We must work at rejoicing and being glad. We do this by interpreting our circumstances in light of our heavenly reward. However, we are not to rejoice at the pain and suffering. Jesus is not a masochist. He knows that the pain we feel is real and it does not feel good. Jesus would not be so insensitive to tell us that we should be happy about the pain. Instead he says that we are to rejoice because our heavenly reward.