Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:11-12 (NRSV)
We have come to the end of the Beatitudes. The last one is, in many ways, a more elaborate restatement of the previous one, but it’s worth looking at this one on its own.
In the first place, the prior Beatitude talked about being persecuted because of faithfulness. This one brings things into sharper focus – you are blessed if you are persecuted because of Jesus.
This is probably not a crowd-pleasing way to end your list of Beatitudes, but it sets up a dynamic Jesus has with his potential followers that we’ll see often enough: he warns them about it. In contrast to our number-driven efforts to “reach people for Christ,” Jesus makes an effort to thin the herd, so to speak. Following him means taking up his cross. It means opposition, it means humiliation, it means suffering, and it means dying, and if you aren’t ok with that, then you should invest your time elsewhere.
This is important for a crowd of followers to realize because Jesus is not simply an apocalyptic curiosity or a philosopher or someone you invite into your heart. He is the king of a rival kingdom that will shatter all the others. This mission will be wildly unpopular with “all the others,” and if you’re going to sign up for it, then you need to be ready to find yourself the recipient of the worst that the powers of the age can dish out.
You see how closely identified these concepts are right from the start: being God’s faithful people, the coming of the kingdom, and the person of Jesus Christ. They are all part of the package.
A very noteworthy part of this Beatitude is that Jesus compares those who are persecuted because of him to the prophets who were persecuted in Israel’s history. This is noteworthy because those prophets were not persecuted by other empires; they were persecuted by the powerful in Israel. And they were not persecuted because of their doctrine or being sticklers for morality, but because they were a warning. They were a testimony that God would act to vindicate the faithful and judge oppressors, even if those oppressors were Israel’s own rulers.
This is also a theme that we will see many times in Matthew – the idea that Israel’s leaders began to use their positions to serve themselves at the expense of the people. God send prophet after prophet to warn them, but they did not believe. John the Baptist was perhaps the last of these Old Testament prophets, and now the Lord has sent His Son to the stewards who have been overseeing His vineyard.
By following Jesus and taking up his life and his message, his followers become prophets in this tradition, announcing to the world that the kingdom of God is here and judgement on the world powers is imminent. They are living, breathing embodiments of the need to repent and embrace the mission God always had for Israel from the beginning – to be the kingdom of peace that will light the way for the rest of the nations. But Jesus is no fool; he knows both he and his followers will suffer as the prophets before them suffered.
Hopefully it is obvious that today’s followers of Jesus are no longer a testimony to the immanent judgement of Israel’s power structure and the Roman Empire. That is a historical contingency that was huge in the life of the people of God in Jesus’ day, but it is in our rear view mirror.
We are a testimony, however – not like the Old Testament prophets who called their leaders to repent under threat of exile or worse, but to the reality of the next creation – the Spirit-filled people living together in a kingdom of peace that is a light to the nations – a kingdom that is no longer defined by national Israel, but is defined by all who follow after Jesus.
Will this testimony continue to draw persecution? Likely. If you find yourself living comfortably and prosperously in a world that runs off of a very different engine than the kingdom of God, you might wish to do a spot check to see if you are, in fact, modeling that new creation for the world. Can the nations look at you, or your church, or THE church and come away with the idea that the world you exemplify is the only one that will last, while the rest will become relics of history? Do we look like a Spirit-filled community that is busily engaged in care, restoration, mercy, and justice? Or do we look like a religious organization whose only real distinctive is that Jesus is prominent in our theology and worship?
If the gospel is true, then we should look like a new world – a better one – one that anyone who isn’t prospering in this one would love to see made real. There is no apologetic argument about “the truth of Christianity” worth making if we can’t even do this.
- What does it mean to be a prophet? Does it mean more than the ability to predict the future? What do prophets actually do in Scripture? How does that translate into activity on this side of the Resurrection?
- How can you pray for the people of God in the world that would help us be a living testimony to the reality of what God is doing?