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SM #10: In Good Company

Updated: Feb 18



Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me. Be glad for grace and jump for joy, because great is your reward in the heavens, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:10-12)


CORE (The heart of the message):


The Beatitudes paint a portrait of Jesus, and of his followers. When we are loyal to Jesus, our commitment to right-relatedness above all will put us at odds with secular and religious culture drawing their ire and fire. Jesus-people have the privilege of forming an alter-culture of good company where we celebrate grace with joy, despite persecution.



CONFESSION (Personal reflection):


I confess that I like being liked and I hate being hated. This means I am pulled toward being a people-pleaser, to passively fit in, reflect back, and go along with. I am a “go with the flow” kind of guy, and yet I know apprenticeship to Jesus requires a commitment to swimming up stream. But wow, I really like being comfortable. I have an inner Homer Simpson who wonders: why run when you can walk; why walk when you can stand; why stand when you can sit; why sit when you can lie down. My inner Homer is just counting the days until I am old enough to acquire my own electric scooter with a basket, so I don’t have to use my legs to get around like a sucker.


So, I find this Beatitude especially hard. Perhaps for a comfort-seeking, people-pleasing, mush-pot like me, the key to not being scared into neutrality is being more scared of missing out on the deep, heart-nourishing joy of the kingdom of heaven here and now. I am presently experiencing some of that joy in my life, even in the middle of difficult times, and as we might suspect, Jesus is delivering that joy courtesy of other joy-full, grace-glad kingdom citizens.


Sometimes I feel persecuted when I am really being justly criticized or challenged for actual failure on my part, and I need to listen rather than write this off as persecution. God can use people in our lives to bring about his discipline (Revelation 3:19).


Other times I feel persecuted when really someone just doesn’t like me, and I can benefit from doing some self reflection and learning any personal lessons to see if there really is something in me that is causing offense.


Other times I feel persecuted by someone’s criticism and yet I realize what they are saying is just off base and out of touch with reality – they don’t know me and they don’t know what they’re talking about, and I need to let it go.


And on that rare occasion when something truly good about me, something righteous about what I’m saying or doing, something about my commitment to Jesus draws actual persecution, then, I must learn, this is my time to leap for joy. I once heard a pastor say when he felt persecuted he would go into his office or some other private place and start leaping around – he acted with child-like abandon until he felt the joy. I haven’t tried this – yet.


It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply. ~ A.W. Tozer (The Root of Righteousness)



CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):


Jesus has begun his Sermon on the Mount with a series of beautiful blessings before ever giving a command, demand, or direction. Grace comes first, and we are meant to remember this later when the Sermon sets the standards high.


Now we arrive at the eighth and final Beatitude. The promise of this Beatitude (the kingdom of the heavens) is word-for-word the same as the first Beatitude, which forms an inclusio (a literary and theological bracket) that sets apart a unit of teaching. With this, the Beatitudes are now bookended. And this final Beatitude also includes a special double blessing and encouragement for the persecuted (which sometimes misleads people to think of it as two Beatitudes, for a grand total of nine Beatitudes). Citizens of Christ’s kingdom are currently blessed, but that doesn’t mean life is easy.


Luke’s parallel Beatitude (Luke 6:22-23) helps us flesh out more specifics in Jesus' teaching on this topic.


Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. ~ JESUS (Luke 6:22)

Jesus speaks of persecution that takes the form of being hated, relationally excluded or separated from, insulted or belittled as though guilty of something terrible, and even having one’s name becoming outcast.


This is the original cancel culture.


Jesus is describing a particular brand of persecution, where religiously pious people consider themselves on God’s side and doing God’s good work while they are pursuing, persecuting, prosecuting disciples of Jesus as though they were rebels, criminals, and worthy of being silenced.


There were likely Roman soldiers visibly present the day Jesus preached his sermon, watching and listening, since Romans always paid attention to the gathering of large crowds. And even more likely present were Jewish religious leaders, who monitored all popular teachers and potential Messiah movements. These two groups would become the primary sources of persecution for Jesus and his first followers.


Jesus doesn’t entice his followers with false promises of an easy life. He may have even noticed his disciples and others in the crowd looking around at the potential threats watching them, and he uses this opportunity to speak words of sobering truth mixed with joyful hope. Following Jesus will be hard, but it will be joy-full like nothing else.



People don’t tend to seek God when they are comfortable. Pain and suffering amplify the sound of God’s voice. We can become deaf to his call in times when life is easy. Our hearts can close tight, sealed by a heavy rusty door. ~ Greg Laurie (Jesus Revolution)




CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):


Blessed. The Greek word here translated “blessed” (makarios) means something like fortunate or flourishing. It’s like our English word “lucky” but without the randomness that luck suggests. We could translate it “God has made lucky those who” or “God’s favour is upon those who” or “Flourishing are those who”, but “Blessed” probably still works best, as long as we remember that it points to a Blesser behind the blessing. The word carries a connotation of communication, exhortation, declaration, and congratulation. That is, the translation might be more literally “Blessings upon…” or “God blesses”, the way we might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, but with real power to make the wish a reality. The blessings come from somewhere and Someone. Also remember the blessings are a present reality, right here and right now, even if a future fulfillment is hoped for. For more on this, see our first 1820 study on the Beatitudes called "SM #2: A Kingdom of Beggars".]


Persecuted. The Greek word used three times in these three verses (diōkō) literally means to pursue or chase after. It can be used positively, like pursuing love (1 Corinthians 14:1) or striving for what is good for everyone, even when being mistreated (1 Thessalonians 5:15). But generally, when a person is being chased, the implication is persecution (e.g., Matthew 10:23). In the Bible, persecution usually refers to casting judgement and inflicting suffering on people who hold beliefs that the establishment frowns upon (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 14-15). Persecutors are pursuers who want to prosecute in the name of justice. They are hunters who track disciples down and make life hard. They don’t see themselves as bullies who enjoy hurting people, but as righteous people who are just taking a stand for truth. It was, for instance, “the priests and the prophets” of the religious institution who tried to have Jeremiah the prophet of God executed (Jeremiah 26). Most pursuing prosecuting persecutors may feel like they are doing God’s good work, but when we really get to know the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, we know that they are not following the will and way of Jesus. God does not bless the pursuers, but the pursued.


Because of righteousness. The persecution that Jesus says brings blessing is because of our righteousness not our rudeness. People might be made to suffer for doing wrong or being a jerk, but that is punishment not persecution (1 Peter 4:15). Legalistic religion can attract its share of stiff-necked, stone-hearted, thrill-seeking confrontationalists who love and live to argue. They might call it “being courageous” or “taking a stand for righteousness” or “speaking up for justice” or “defending the faith”, but often those descriptions are nothing more than self-justifying catch-phrases used to excuse being a jackass. One of the most effective tools in the toolbelt of these argument-addicts is their martyr-complex, claiming victim status for being persecuted. But Jesus overlooks all of this nonsense and addresses disciples committed to righteousness, which, as we discussed in our study entitled “SM #5: Holy Hunger”, refers to right-relatedness. Righteousness includes the concepts of justice, compassion, and mercy bound together. In short, a righteous person is not a sinless person, but a person who looks like the portrait painted by the Beatitudes – humble, gentle, merciful, and mercy-needing peacemakers. And just in case you don’t have a clear enough vision of true righteousness, Jesus will go on to make a corresponding statement, equating righteousness with himself (see below), so we can look at the life and teachings of Jesus to understand what righteousness really looks like. For now, do you wonder if you are a victim of persecution? First ask yourself, have I done all that I can to live out the kingdom values of the Sermon on the Mount, especially those listed in the Beatitudes? Am I committed to loving all, including my enemies? Is it my radical and gracious peacemaking that is drawing fire? If not, you do not get to claim the badge of persecution “because of righteousness”. You may draw some heat as a “social justice warrior”, but until you are a “social righteousness warrior”, which means you speak out boldly for compassion and forgiveness and mercy as much or more than justice, you are not being persecuted “because of righteousness”. One more thought here: as part of the fourth Beatitude, Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. And now, in the eighth Beatitude, we find that those who have finally been filled with righteousness will be persecuted for it. Be careful what you wish for.


Theirs is. Present tense. To be “blessed” means to be fortunate because of one’s actual circumstances. So, somehow the persecuted are actually and presently blessed because a greater circumstance than their pain is now true because of Jesus: they are already surrounded by and welcomed into the kingdom of the heavens here and now. Jesus uses strong language here. The kingdom of the heavens belongs to these disciples, it is their rightful inheritance (Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 1:4).


The kingdom of the heavens. This promise is, word for word, identical to the promise of the first Beatitude. As mentioned earlier, these bookend blessings create what is called an inclusio. They are like brackets saying this is one unit of teaching, even though Jesus expands on this Beatitude with more detail in what follows. The Greek word for kingdom (Greek, basileia) simply means a nation or society ruled by a king – a monarchy. The character of the king determines the quality of the kingdom. A kingdom is a realm in which the king’s will and way holds sway. This kingdom’s boarders are not geographical but relational, wrapping itself around all who follow Jesus as Lord. Jesus is referring to God’s Kingdom originating from heaven and bringing a different way of living into our lives here and now. Jesus brought the kingdom of the heavens into our world (4:17) and we now have the opportunity to be citizens, soldiers, and ambassadors of it (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20). The fact that this kingdom is of the “heavens” (Greek, ouranos), plural, suggests that the kingdom of God is all around us, originating from the realm of heaven but existing and expressing itself in, through, and to our lives. [Lots more to read about this in our 1820 study called “SM #2: A Kingdom of Beggars”.]


Blessed are you. Jesus repeats his blessing but now he shifts pronouns from “those” (third person plural) to “you” (second person plural). This reminds us of Jesus’ primary audience for his teaching: his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount, like all of Jesus’ teaching, is not meant to become legislated morality for society at large. Instead, it lays out the narrow way for apprentices of Jesus who will create alter-culture communities of faith, hope, and love. Jesus makes eye-contact with all of his disciples through these words, including us. We should pay attention.


Insult, persecute, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely. See our “Context” section above. This persecution takes the form of people who pursue us to pull us down, accuse us, and effectively erase our names with falsehood. (The Greek for “falsely” literally means lying.) If, as these Beatitudes describe, we are already the poor in spirit, who mourn our own sin, are gentle by nature, and are deeply aware of our own lack of righteousness and need for mercy, these kinds of persecutions can be devilish in their soul-crushing capacity. The accusations of these pursuers can drive already humbled hearts into the ground. So Jesus spends extra time on this Beatitude to lift our souls out of the mud and to give us reason to rejoice.


Because of me. Jesus now explicitly centres himself in the life of his disciples. Loyalty to Jesus is at the centre of our lives, and persecution. Jesus also defines what righteousness looks like for us, since he here parallels himself with righteousness (see “because of righteousness” above). Ancient prophets and rabbis in Jesus’ day expected Jews to be willing to suffer for God’s name (Psalm 44:22; 69:7; Isaiah 51:7). No prophet or rabbi ever taught their listeners to be willing to suffer for the prophet's or the rabbi's name. Think of it: Isaiah or Jeremiah (or Muhammed for that matter) never said anything like this. Jesus is not only likening himself to righteousness, but also to God in a way no religious teacher of his day ever would (remember the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ teaching in 7:28-29).


Be glad for grace and jump for joy. Here we have the first imperative, the first command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – joy! A literal translation of the two Greek words used here would be: 1) to lean into or prioritize the goodness of grace. 2) to exult; to leap or jump for joy. Because of grace (the Greek word for grace is embedded in that first word), Jesus-followers can be joy-full, even when (and especially when) persecuted. Jesus believes we can go beyond merely enduring persecution with a stoic disposition and a commitment to the principle of nonretaliation, to actually celebrating in the middle of our harassment, hard to do as that may seem, especially in our litigious society that thrives on our unhappiness. When we celebrate grace in the face of accusation, we turn persecution into worship – honouring God and turning our backs to Satan, the original accuser. After all, in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, it was the “music and dancing” in the Father’s house (Luke 15:25) that tipped off and enraged the older brother. When we celebrate the Father’s grace no matter what, we are the ones gathered around the centre of the universe, and everyone else who thinks they are the centre of the universe are really just left standing out in the field with their complaints. Jesus also warns elsewhere that when everyone seems to love us, we are more likely a false prophet saying what people want to hear rather than a truth-telling, enemy-loving Jesus-follower (Luke 6:26). So, persecution can be validation that we are on track with Jesus. (But caution, it can also be validation that we are a jerk.) The early Christians took this Beatitude to heart and rejoiced when persecuted, never allowing their suffering to stifle their proclamation of the Good News of Jesus (Acts 5:41-42; 16:22-25; Colossians 1:24). They saw suffering as an opportunity for deeper and more meaningful fellowship with Jesus (Philippians 3:10). So, persecution can be validation that we are walking closely with Christ. Jesus next gives us two more reasons to rejoice…


Great is your reward. The idea of rewards in heaven can seem out of place. Notice Jesus says, not that heaven will be our reward, but that we will have rewards in heaven (literally, “the heavens” – see below). What’s with that? We can justifiably wonder, who will care in heaven who gets the gold, silver, and bronze medals for Beatitude living? But we can think of our “rewards” in terms of relationships. The kingdom relationships we forge here as well as the lives we touch by our alter-culture communal living, will be our heavenly rewards. People are the blessing. This makes sense of Jesus’ parable of the Shrewd Manager in Luke 16, where Jesus says we should use our worldly resources to make eternal friendships. And in Mark 10:29-30, Jesus promises the blessing of new extended family in this life, lasting into the life to come.


In the heavens. Some persecution ends in death and no apparent reward happens in this life. Even then, there is a reward to look forward to. Because the gentle will inherit the earth, this promise may be saying, not that the persecuted will get a reward up in heaven, but that a reward is now being prepared for us in heaven, and will be ours when heaven comes to earth at the end of all things (Revelation 21-22). And since citizens of the kingdom of heaven on earth do experience tastes of heaven here and now, we may receive some of this great reward presently in the loving and joy-filled relationships we experience with other believers in this life. This is the value of the more ambiguous “the heavens” (plural), which Matthew always uses, as opposed to “heaven” (singular), which Matthew never uses. The plural may point to our abode after death but also includes a sense of what is happening spiritually all around us now. The “heavens” includes our spiritual and relational atmosphere. [See SM #2: A Kingdom of Beggars for more on this.] So, our “reward in the heavens” may culminate after we die, but we can begin to look for a taste of it in this life. Both are true.


The prophets before you. Another reason Jesus gives us to rejoice if/when we experience persecution is that we can know we are in good company (e.g., 2 Chronicles 36:15-16; Jeremiah 26:7-9; Matthew 23:33-37; Acts 7:51-60). This list of persecuted prophets would include John the Baptist, who Jesus said was the greatest of all prophets (Matthew 11:11), and yet John lived a life of suffering until he died a martyr. So, what made John the greatest? He didn’t perform any miracles. He didn’t deliver the Torah like Moses, or call fire down from heaven like Elijah, or part the Jordan river like Elisha, or write a book of the Bible like Ezekiel. But one thing set John apart – his prophetic ministry included pointing others to Jesus. And, so can we. Jesus puts those who carry his message in the same category as prophets who speak on behalf of God (Matthew 10:40-41), and these “Jesus prophets” should expect resistance. Notice Jesus speaks of the prophets “before you” and not “before us” – the prophets were not before Jesus since Jesus was before all (John 8:58). And to this good company of the prophets, today we can now also add the apostles and countless other saints of the Church who have been persecuted, tortured, and executed (not to mention merely mocked and marginalized) over the past two thousand years, often at the hands of people who identify as "Christian". When you are feeling downtrodden (what a great word, downtrodden – to feel beaten down and walked over), please know you are not alone. Not only is Jesus with you, but so are so many other saints who have been right where you are.


Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called on to suffer. In fact it is a joy and a token of his grace. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship)






COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):


Jesus ends his blessings on a theme of persecution. It may be intentional this comes immediately after the blessing pronounced upon peacemakers. This sequence says something. Being a peacemaker means we lean into relationships where hostility and division are doing damage. This ministry can especially set us up for being assaulted, verbally at least if not physically.


Peacemakers and grace-givers might be misinterpreted and mocked as weak or cowardly for not joining a fight, or meddlers for interfering, or idealistic in a way that is out of touch with reality, or too soft for not focusing on exposing and rebuking sin as the end goal. (Exposing and rebuking sin may be one step along the pathway of merciful peacemaking and relational restoration, but it is never an end goal.) Peacemakers may be persecuted by religious and nonreligious people alike.


In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Timothy 3:12)
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. ~ The apostle Paul (Philippians 1:29)

Beyond verbal insults, what does “persecution” look like today for believers living in Western society? (If you’re in a group, you might want to pause here and explore the answer to this question before moving on.)


Comparatively speaking, we don’t experience persecution (that is, being physically pursued, hounded, and harassed) the same way as our spiritual ancestors did and our extended family in different parts of the world do today. Today in the West, we are less likely to be physically attacked and more likely to be verbally beaten up (which Jesus addresses in verse 11, so this Beatitude is still very relevant to us in our context). And even then, that verbal abuse will likely happen online more than in person, since we just don’t tend to exchange ideas in person as much anymore.


Recall our 1820 study called “SM #4: Conquering Through Gentleness” when we talked about "the online disinhibition effect", which refers to a lack of restraint, compassion, or empathy that happens in cyberspace, where screens and keyboards buffer the soul-to-soul connection that face-to-face communication can forge. While we may suffer less physical threat, today we may experience an increase in constant verbal assault online if we dare to speak up for the values, ethics, and indeed, the wide-reaching mercy of Jesus. And sadly, being mocked for an emphasis on the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace of Christ will often come from fellow Christians as much as non-believers.


When we feel attacked, perhaps these pointers might be helpful:


1. Slow down and ask ourselves if there is merit in the criticism. The disagreement may be a learning opportunity. This may include discussing the criticism with trusted and wise believers who may help us see our own blind spots. Perhaps our tone or approach needs to change, or maybe our opinion is not representing Jesus’ Good News to the fullest extent. We always “win” a debate if we come away having learned something valuable.


2. Absolutely refuse to retaliate. Disciples of Jesus swear off all violence, physical or verbal. We speak the truth boldly, but we do not belittle, diminish, or disrespect people, even people who are being blockheads. We do not fight fire with fire, and in fact we brainstorm how we might help bring peace into any conflict. Jesus has already blessed peacemakers and he will go on to detail the importance of active enemy-love in the Sermon on the Mount (also see the apostle Paul’s treatment of this subject in Romans 12:17-21). Persecution, then, is one of our greatest opportunities in life to demonstrate to the watching world around us a central and unique aspect of the way of Jesus: loving our enemies by doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27-28). After all, we can’t love our enemies well if we have no enemies.


3. Open your heart to Jesus. Times of suffering and persecution can be times of greater intimacy with our suffering Saviour. The apostle Paul says, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). We may be more attracted to knowing the power of his resurrection than we are to the fellowship of his suffering, but both are beautiful in their own way. There is real intimacy, real tender togetherness, real koinonia fellowship with Jesus when we suffer. He meets us there, because he’s been there. In fact, many of us may have lives filled with an abundance of quality teaching, bible knowledge, and spirit-filled fellowship, but it will be a season of suffering that fully unlocks our experience of Christ in us and becomes our time for rapid and rich spiritual growth.


"The most difficult moments in our lives - the ones we fear and avoid at all costs - are our crucibles. They have the most potential to forge our souls into the shape of Jesus." ~ John Mark Comer (Practicing the Way)


4. Take a lesson from one of the prophets. In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah is persecuted to the point of being physically exhausted and emotionally crushed. Read the chapter and notice how God helps him through his time of defeat: a) getting enough food and rest and exercise, b) spending time listening to God’s “gentle whisper” (maybe that’s what you’re doing right now through these 1820 studies), c) remember that you are not as alone as you think you are, and d) take your next step in sync with your purpose and calling (remember how Jesus recommissions Peter in John 21).


5. Rejoice and be glad for grace! If we have been self-reflective enough and are convinced that our (verbal) persecution is happening because of our alignment to the will and way of Jesus, then let us rest in that grace. Sometimes, one of the best clues to understanding what is the right is to see where the wrong is attacking the hardest. Jesus sees and understands, since “for the joy set before him” he endured the cross, despising all its shame (Hebrews 12:2).


Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. ~ The apostle James (James 1:2-4)

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. ~ JESUS (John 16:33)


CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):


1 Kings 19; Proverbs 29:10; Matthew 10:16-20, 39; 16:24-26; 19:29; 23:33-37; 24:9; Mark 10:29-30; John 3:19-20; 15:18-16:4, 33; Acts 5:41; 7:51-60; 14:21-22; Romans 5:3-4; Philippians 3:10; 2 Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 11:32-40; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 4:3-4, 12-19; 5:10; 1 John 3:13



CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):


  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. Who in history (Biblical history, Church history, secular history, or the history of your own life) most inspires you to rejoice in suffering?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?



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3 Comments


So much meat I’ll have to read several times

How about if we aren’t persecuted ? This has always made me wonder

does that mean I won’t be reward in the heavens ? Is there more than one heaven

and what does rewarded mean ?

thanks soooo much for your in-depth writings and sharing them

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May 29, 2023
Replying to

Maybe no persecution indicates we’re being TOO peaceable?


When loved ones do wrong, it’s easiest to say nothing. “It’s not my business.”


Bonhoeffer (or someone) said: All it needs for evil to triumph, is for good people to say nothing.


Tony

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