By J.R. Miller
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:10
Blessed means happy. It seems strange indeed to hear our Master say "Happy are those who are persecuted." Of course He did not mean to say that persecution is pleasant, that it gives delight to the feelings and sensibilities. He had in His mind a deeper thought of happiness, than the men and women of the world have in their eager quest. It is heaven's conception of happiness, which is folded up in this word blessed. It is a happiness which has no sorrow mingled in it, no thorns in its pillow, no poison in its cup. It is not surface happiness, for to men's eyes--the happy are those who are the world's favorites; while those who are hated, hunted and harried, men pity.
The Master's meaning becomes yet more clear, when we remember that it is not in persecution itself, that the happiness or blessedness lies. There can be nothing really good or pleasant in being scourged, tortured or exposed to persecution in any form. Pain is not pleasant--it cannot by any straining of the imagination, be made into a happy experience. The same is true of suffering in every form. We are never required to enjoy it. No measure of grace imparted to us while we suffer, no revealing of the love of God or of the presence of Jesus Christ, no uplift of the soul by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit--can ever make physical pain and suffering, pleasant. It is not thus by some magical transformation of sorrow into joy, of anguish into ecstasy--that God turns our mourning into songs of gladness.
Nor does the grace of Christ make the bitterness of persecution, sweet to the experience. The lash cuts no less deeply, and causes no less poignant suffering, because it is a Christian who is bending under its cruel strokes. The fire is no less hot, and produces no less anguish, because it is a saint of God around whom the flames are enfolding.
The blessing is found not in the physical qualities of persecution, but in something which comes out of the persecution. The state of being persecuted is a blessed one, because it puts one in the way of receiving rich spiritual benefit. The experience of persecution, however great the loss and suffering which it produces, is blessed--because of the compensation it brings in the purifying and enriching of the character, and in other benefits which result from it.
There is a very important qualification in the terms of this beatitude, which must not be overlooked--it is those who have been persecuted for righteousness' sake who are blessed. Then in the direct application of the beatitude to His disciples--the Master also made it very clear that the persecution must be on account of their loyalty to Jesus.
"Blessed are you when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake." The evil things said against them must be false. If the accusations are true--there is no promise of blessing in the enduring of them! "But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it--this is commendable before God."
Then the persecution must be for Christ's sake--that is, because we are His, because we are identified with Him, and are living His life in the world.
It must be for righteousness sake--that is, because we are living righteous, because of our holiness.
There are those who bring persecution upon themselves--by their own unchristian manner of life. They may be hard to live with. Their religion is neither beautiful nor winning. The good fruits on their life grow on briery stems, or among thorns. The unchristian lives invite persecution. Then there are those who cloak some iniquity under the guise of religion--and call the opposition which they meet with from good people, persecution. But there is no comfort here for such. It is only when men suffer for the sake of the righteousness which is displayed in them--that this beatitude spreads its white wings over them.
What are the blessings which come in being persecuted for righteousness sake? One is the uplifting of the soul into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings. We talk much in the easy parlance of our religious meetings about becoming like Christ. We fail, however, to realize or to remember, that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the life of Christ was His suffering for righteousness' sake. The world hated Him and hounded Him with its persecutions, until it had Him nailed on His cross! When we talk lightly of our desire to be like Christ--we usually think of the gentle things of His life, the sweet living and the kindly ministering. But to become truly like Christ--is to enter into the experience of His struggle with sin, His being hated by the world, His enduring of persecution.
To be persecuted for Christ's sake--lifts the believer up into a closer fellowship with Christ than he has ever enjoyed before. No other joy is so deep as that which is found in such suffering with Christ.
Another blessing in being persecuted so, is found in the testing of faith. While life is easy, with no opposition, no taunt or sneer, no call for courage--we may not be altogether sure of our loyalty to Christ, or that we could endure persecution for Him. Too often those who confess Christ in the quiet of a sheltered life, where every influence is congenial and encouraging, when they are thrust out amid worldly antagonisms, exposed to ridicule, and compelled continually to show where they stand--fail and fall away from Christ.
We are not sure that our untested faith is genuine. Or it may be genuine and yet be weak and faulty, needing to be strengthened and purified. Persecution tries the Christian's faith--and brings out its latent golden qualities, so that it shines in radiant beauty. Peter speaks of the trials of believers, "These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."
Another blessing of being persecuted, is in the enriching of other lives which comes through the tears and sufferings of the faithful. No one has ever endured persecution with submission and patience--but the world has been made better. Every tear shed in witnessing to the truth--has fertilized one spot of the earth. Every drop of martyr blood that has fallen to the ground--has caused some plant of righteousness to grow more luxuriantly. We do not think often enough, of what we owe to those who have gone before us and have given their life in suffering and sacrifice for holy causes. Every blessing we enjoy, represents martyrdom somewhere in the past. Truth has always been advanced, through the persecution of those who at first stood up alone, to declare what God had taught them.
At the time it seemed as if noble and worthy lives had been thrown away, wasted, uselessly sacrificed. John the Baptist was declared by Christ Himself to be greatest among men born of women. He wielded immense influence. Yet he preached only a short time when persecution cast him into a dungeon and silenced his voice. A few months later his head was carried by a dancing girl into the king's banqueting hall, and exhibited with cruel delight. "What a waste of life!" his friends said. But was it a waste? Could John have done more for the world by a score more years of preaching, than he did through his martyr death?
Or take Stephen. He had a magnificent abilities for service. He made at once a tremendous impression by his preaching. He had just begun to witness for Christ. Then came martyrdom. His eloquent voice was silenced. His great heart of love ceased to beat. We would say that the church suffered an irreparable loss, in Stephen's martyrdom. If only he had lived thirty more years of that noble life--how he would have enriched the world!
No! He did more for Christianity by means of his tragic death, than he could have done if he had lived a hundred years; and his blood as it was poured out that day, did more to promote the cause of Christianity than he could have done if he had been permitted to live in comfort, and preach, unhindered, to the end of his day.
So it has always been; martyrs' blood has been the seed of the church; martyr fires have lighted the way to new conquests.
Sacrifice is the law of progress. There are times when the truest way of helping a cause, is not by living to advocate it--but by dying as a witness. The blessings of liberty have come to us through tears and blood. Along the centuries holy men wore chains and languished in dungeons--that today we may have civil and religious freedom. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness' sake; they have lightened the world by their testimony and fertilized it with their tears and blood.
Another blessing from being persecuted, is found in the reward which will be given to those who suffer for the sake of Christ and His truth. "Great is your reward in heaven!" Soldiers who have been wounded in their country's service, are welcomed home with joy when they return from the war. Their scars are not looked upon as disfigurements, but as decorations of honor.
Those who in this world suffer in serving Christ, enduring persecution for His sake and in His work--will have their reward in heaven in many ways. For one thing, they will have a higher place among the redeemed, than those who may have wrought faithfully--but without cost in enmity and suffering. The scars of woundings received in the cause of the Redeemer, will be marks of honor among the glorified. If we suffer with Christ--we shall also reign with Him. No truth is taught more clearly in the New Testament, than that losses met in serving Christ in this world--will have their abundant compensation in the life of heaven.
These are only suggestions of the blessedness of those who endure persecution for righteousness' sake. Paul spoke of the scars he bore in his body from the scourgings, stonings and chains of his persecutions, as "marks of the Lord Jesus." They set him apart before all the world as belonging to Christ. Amid all that he had suffered as a Christian, his real inner life was unscarred, and would be presented to God without marring.
Of course, it is implied that we endure persecution with patience, with submission, without bitterness or resentment. There is no one who can harm us--but ourselves. If we chafe, resist and complain; if we grow angry and unforgiving, we have let the hurts of persecution reach our soul--with their wounding and scarring. But if while we endure wrong, we keep our heart sweet and loving, even the worst enmity cannot harm us--and we shall find great blessing in suffering for the sake of Christ.
The promise given with this beatitude is, "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven!" Already the kingdom of heaven is in them, and they are possessors of its honors. When their present life is ended, and they pass through the eternal gate--it will be to enter into the fullness of the glory of the kingdom, in the immediate presence of the King! It may be thought that to most followers of Christ now in civilized lands, this beatitude can mean but little, since persecution is so rare. It is true that the day of the martyr's stake and chopping-block, and of chains and dungeons for righteousness sake, are past. Yet there are other forms of persecution which if not so cruel and terrible--yet try men's souls and put to sorest test, their loyalty to Christ.
The world loves Christ no more now--than it did when it nailed Him on the cross! Satan is no less active now in opposing the advance of Christ's kingdom--than when Saul was breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples! It is not the spirit of enmity--but its form of manifestation which has changed. Instead of the rack, the thumbscrew, the hot iron and the chopping-block --it is the taunt, the sneer, the laugh which now are the instruments of persecution. It still costs to be a faithful follower of Christ. We must still suffer persecution for righteousness sake--if we are unalterably loyal to Christ and His truth.
Still therefore, does this beatitude shine above the gate of life. Still it is true, that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. Still does the blessedness of the persecuted await all who would be faithful to Christ. The time will never come--when the way of righteousness will be the easy, flower-strewn way. Always it will lie over sharp stones and amid thorns. But ever, beyond the pain and cost, is the shining reward for all who persevere in their sufferings. The sufferings of the persecuted, enrich the world and glorify Christ; and those who are faithful unto death will receive the crown of life!