Thoughts on the Beatitudes (15) - Evan Gear

Matthew 5:10 — Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Here it seems Jesus is telling his disciples that if they lead a righteous life, they will be persecuted. For the sake of their righteous deeds people will chase them down. While this is true, I would like to draw out more fully the meaning of this. To do so, it is helpful to see something of the experience described here in Matthew 5:10 as it happened in the loves of the first Christians. They, you will remember, were persecuted by the hand of Saul. As we read in Acts 9:1-2:

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 

Notice why Saul persecutes those men or women. They do not seem to be intentionally seeking to stir the anger of Saul. In colloquial terms, they are not “poking the bear.” Instead, their communal life is described in terms that seem completely disassociated with Saul. They are called disciples of the Lord; they belong to the Way. In verse 13, they are called those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus.
So, looking at this example, the first thing to note in regard to this beatitude is the nature of the righteousness that brings on the persecution. It is primarily an affiliation with Jesus. The righteousness for which the blessed are persecuted is the righteousness of union with Christ. It is not some particular act that provokes the ire of your neighbor. It is not rudeness or rashness but being known as one who loves the Lord, his disciple, belonging to the way, calling on his name, a branch abiding in the vine. This should not surprise us considering the warning from his very mouth: If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. It excludes all self-sought persecution.
Secondly, note that Saul is himself motivated to the persecution by a sense of righteousness. He gets letters from the high priest. For him the pursuit of the Christians is a religious duty, sanctioned by the clergy. It is in this sense a clash between the false righteousness of the world and the true righteousness of Christ. False righteousness, zeal without knowledge (Rom. 10:2-3), burns in wrath against the Way that leads to life in Christ. Again, Jesus has warned us of this very thing (John 16:2-3):
They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. 3 And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.
So, we may read the beatitude both ways. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their righteousness in Christ and blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of a false sense of righteousness in their persecutors. I do not think we need choose one or the other because both are in view. The blessing falls on those who are the righteous in Christ persecuted by those who think they offer service to God. And, if we may continue to follow the example of Saul’s persecution, notice the nature of the blessing. It is the sight of their enemy falling down and worshipping at their side. Saul becomes Paul and the authority, power, wisdom, and might of the king is greatly magnified. As Jesus here promises, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
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