Matthew 5:11-12 — 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
This last of the beatitudes seems almost a repetition of the one before it. Christ again pronounces his dominical blessing upon the persecuted. Only here there is added to the persecution certain acts of speech. The blessing is for those who are reviled and who hear the utterance of all kinds of evil spoken against them falsely.
Adding these details, he then restates (because we are forgetful hearers) the cause of such evil speech. The blessed ones are in union with him. These things happen, he says, on my account. It is then that he does something new. At this point, we have come to expect in this place the description of the blessing. We have heard it each time prior to this one: for they shall be… for theirs is… etc. But instead of a description of the blessing, he adds a command.
This is interesting because we often read the beatitudes themselves as commands. We hear blessed are the meek and we set ourselves to cultivate an attitude of meekness in our lives. We want the blessing so we conform ourselves to the state of the blessed but the beatitudes are not commands. They are descriptions of the nature of the people of God. Christians are these things not by self-effort but by gift. As Paul writes of himself (1 Cor. 15:10), by the grace of God I am what I am. And, again, to the church at Ephesus (2:8) For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. We are made Christians by grace, by an act of God like birth. It is not something we conjure up ourselves. He accomplishes it. He sets us in the place of blessing, just like a believing parent sets his or her child in the hands of the pastor to receive baptism.
We read the beatitudes as commands but they are not commands, at least not until verse 12. It is there to the persecuted he issues the command: Rejoice and be glad. It is an injunction to do a thing that seems completely unnatural in the situation. When you are experiencing the hatred of others, when violence in word or deed threatens you because you belong to Jesus — sing!
Rejoice and be glad.
This is, of course, the very thing we read of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. Arrested, beaten, and in the stocks at about midnight [quite unexpectedly] Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). How do they do it? What is their motivation at such a time? Well, we might say something flippant like, “they had the Holy Spirit.” Such a statement would be true but it lacks the encouragement that Jesus himself gives here. Our Lord gives us two reasons, two motivations to ‘sing in the stocks.’
First, he says, for your reward is great in heaven. It is great, not it will be great. Presently, at the very moment of the persecution there is reward… in heaven. And further, that reward is for you. You the persecuted one, the reviled and falsely accused have now a reward in heaven. Secondly, he adds to the reward this: for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. The persecuted one though he may feel alone in such a moment is not alone. He is a member of a choice group. He has a seat with the prophets.
So, how can I rejoice and be glad in the midst of such hardship? Because, Jesus says, you are rich in heaven and you are not alone. And, really, that double encouragement is but an unfolding of the single gift that is ours as Christians. It is the gift of Christ himself. For what riches do we have in heaven but him and what fellowship do we have with the body apart from the head?
We can rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted on his account because in such moments, we find fellowship with Christ on the cross. The reality of the verse I am crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) comes home. In the revilings directed toward us are the echoes of those voices on Golgotha (Matthew 27:42-43):
He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
Yes, rejoice and be glad for you are sharing with the Lord his suffering and surely, sharing that, you will share his glory — life eternal, streets of gold, and a feast where you will sit with the likes of Abraham, Isaiah, and Job.