In the final beatitude on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his followers to expect persecution. “Blessed are you,” he declares, “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:13).
But we must carefully consider what we call persecution. Certainly, persecution involves being mistreated, but for what reason? on whose account? We commit a logical fallacy when we reason: “Persecution involves mistreating Christians. I am a Christian who is being mistreated. Therefore I am suffering Christian persecution.”
Unfortunately, many Christians hastily take the bucket marked “persecution”—and put into it all kinds of things that don’t belong there. Yes, persecution means suffering and mistreatment. But Jesus is not talking about just any kind of suffering and mistreatment. Neither is he talking about just any kind of persecution. There is religious persecution, but there is also racial persecution. There is persecution based on genetics or military or police service.
Jesus qualifies Christian persecution in three phrases:
- “For righteousness’ sake” – 5:10
- “On my account” – 5:11
- “For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” – 5:12
Each phrase illuminates the other two, suggesting the following general definition of Christian persecution: it is the mistreatment that arises specifically because of one’s allegiance to Christ. A person’s loyalty to Christ entails, of course, living and speaking righteously, which is why Jesus’ says that it is “for righteousness’ sake” and that it bears some resemblance to the mistreatment experienced by the Old Testament prophets.
The righteousness in view here is not self-righteousness, but rather the deeds of joyful, Spirit-energized obedience lived out by God’s people (see Matthew 5:16). It is, to put it simply, living a Christlike life. And that allegiance, that kind of living, will put a person on a collision course with others and their values. This is why Jesus puts his persecuted hearers in line with the prophets of the Old Testament—prophets like Noah, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. They spoke as courageous ambassadors of God’s righteousness. Moreover, because of their allegiance to God, they disturbed the consciences of those around them. That is why we must say that the persecution Jesus is talking about is persecution of a very specific kind. It is mistreatment that arises specifically because of one’s allegiance to Christ.
There are many reasons a person may want to mistreat you, but unless it has this specifically as its cause: “for righteousness’ sake,” and on account of Christ, it is not Christian persecution, and it does not have the promise of blessing nor the command of joy attached to it. If we fail to see this distinction, we will end up calling persecution what is not persecution.
I was helped by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ study on this passage (see “The Christian and Persecution” in Studies on the Sermon on the Mount), and borrow heavily from him in noting carefully what Jesus did not say.
1. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for self-righteousness’ sake.”
You will arouse people’s consciences enough by simply doing the right thing not matter what and doing it with a humble spirit. To parade your good deeds with a high head and a haughty spirit is to invite needless suffering, and that suffering cannot be properly called Christian persecution.
2. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for being difficult.”
We too easily bring trouble upon ourselves by being objectionable, harsh, and rude. It is not a sign of godly zeal to be obnoxious, deliberately hateful.
Someone might object, “Well, the gospel is offensive, isn’t it?” Yes, but the gospel has its own kind of offense. It deeply offends one’s pride, bringing a person to despair of his or her own righteousness. But let us, insofar as possible, not give people a reason to confuse the holy offense of the gospel with the unholy offense of our reckless, insensitive comments or tactless, insulting approaches. If someone will be offended, let it be only because they are hearing the news about a God who is holy enough to punish sin, loving enough to send his Son to die, authoritative enough to call people to repentance, and powerful enough to bring the dead to life.
3. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for an obscure theological conviction.“
Jesus did not promise the blessedness of suffering for a curiously narrow doctrinal view, or for something that may be of immense importance personally but which is not really central to Scripture, the gospel, the character of God, or holy living.
Here is a great danger. It is not wrong to suffer for your conscience and theological convictions. You may choose to die on the hill of trichotomy or dichotomy, of infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, of dispensationalism or covenant theology. People may argue with you. They may snub you. Many will simply not understand you. You may feel hurt and call it what you will, but do not call it Christian persecution.
4. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for a particular cause.”
Here is where we need much discernment. There are many good causes for which we might suffer. There are many good causes that might even be intertwined with Christian values. And we might choose to suffer mistreatment, ridicule, or loss for these causes, but such mistreatment must be carefully distinguished from persecution on Christ’s account, for righteousness’ sake.
Here Martyn-Lloyd Jones is on point, and reading him is especially valuable because he was preaching not as an American and not in the 21st century, but as an Englishman in the mid-20th century, nearly 70 years ago. He writes:
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. . . . We have to be careful about that very distinction. There is always this danger of our developing the martyr spirit. . . . We must also realize that it does not mean suffering persecution for religio-political reasons. . . .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. . . . 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.”
Jesus did say this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And what is the sake of righteousness? It is the one’s living for Christ, with all that entails.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 131–32.