“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“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.
We didn’t blend in. Our brightly colored ski jackets and flashy knit caps stood out like spilled bottles of paint. We were from America. And none of the Moscow citizens doubted that as we all rode down in silence on the seemingly endless escalator. There was no hiding that we were foreign. Surrounded by the sea of humanity in the Moscow Metro, we were different. We didn’t just blend in.
As Jesus ends the beginning of His first sermon, He continues to preach about what it will mean to be a Christ follower, to be a disciple. He has already said startling and unsettling things. He has emphasized the anti-cultural traits of mercy and meekness, of the mournful and the pure in heart. Then it’s as if His eyes shifted from the crowd to the twelve. He says pointedly that the disciples will be persecuted and reviled. Jesus tells those men that the not-fitting-in for the rest of their lives will be hard. They will stand out. They will be hated. And for that, He says, they have reason to rejoice and be glad. How does that make any sense at all?
Three times in three verses Jesus speaks of persecution, almost promises it. But He also pointedly tells His listeners that the persecution which brings reward is not just aimless or unfounded hatred. The followers of Jesus will be persecuted specifically because they are followers of Jesus. And they will be persecuted because their lives are lives of righteousness. Their hunger and thirst for righteousness have been satisfied, their lives will bear witness to it, and they will be reviled. It will be their very righteousness that makes them targets, that makes them enemies.
Righteousness means living our lives in accordance with God’s will. It means, by the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, shaping our will, values, and conduct to conform to God’s character. The Old Testament prophets spoke God’s word to God’s people. And Jesus reminds the disciples that a fallen culture often recoils at such prophecy. The prophets bore persecution. So will the Christ-followers who walk in the righteousness of God by patterning their lives after God’s Son.
Then the Lord says that the persecution brought by living righteously will generate blessedness, rejoicing, and gladness in the believer. We will walk in step with the Spirit knowing more and more that God has given us both the will and the ability to do so. We will rejoice in demonstrating God’s character and drawing ever closer to Jesus. And the Lord will reward our faithfulness.
The reward of righteousness and its consequent persecution is that we will be welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven. And that welcome begins right now.
Years after the Sermon on the Mount, the missionaries Paul and Silas demonstrated the reality of this promise in a dark prison in the city of Philippi.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. Acts 16:25-26
Singing hymns in prison? Rejoicing in persecution? Paul answers the questions in his letter back to the believers in Philippi.
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Philippians 1:12-14
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are empowered to live their lives in a manner worthy of their calling. Those lives are often marked by not fitting into a culture that rejects the Lord. And all of Scripture reminds us that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. And beginning now, the reward of eternity in the presence of Jesus animates our lives, strengthens our faith, and encourages us to bear the persecution of the world.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. Philippians 1:27-30
May the Lord grant us mercy to suffer well for the sake of the Kingdom!