Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
August 23, 1998
Blessed are Those Persecuted for Righteousness Sake
A HISTORY OF PERSECUTION
Those who would live righteously for God have always been persecuted by those who would not.
From the beginning of history it has been so. Righteous Abel gave a worthy sacrifice to the Lord
and it pleased the Lord. Wicked Cain made an unworthy sacrifice to the Lord which was not
accepted. The result was that Cain, in a jealous rage, lashed out and murdered his brother Abel.
Every righteous man or woman mentioned in the Bible has suffered at the hands of the
unrighteous. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David – all the
prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, Jesus Himself
and all the apostles. It seems that righteousness is a magnet for persecution. The persecution
against the righteous had continued from the Apostolic period even to the present day with many
still losing their lives because they love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why? And how could Jesus say what He says in the text we will be studying this morning about
persecution for righteousness being a blessing? Turn to Matthew 5 as we continue in our study of
the Sermon on the Mount and finish our series on the Beatitudes. Remember that the whole thrust
of Jesus’ message in the sermon was to explain the nature of true righteousness as opposed to the
religious righteousness – the self-righteousness – of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus begins the
sermon with a series of statements concerning the blessings that would be received by those who
had certain characteristics. As we have already seen from our study, these are not characteristics
that anyone can work up for themselves in order to become righteous, but they are the marks that
demonstrate that a person has already been made righteous by the working of the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew 5:10-12 Jesus concludes this series of statements about blessing – the Beatitudes -
with a declaration that "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of
righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you,
and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and
be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before
These are not two beatitudes, but one beatitude stated twice with verses 11 & 12 expanding on
verse 10. It is also the only beatitude that is not a distinctive positive description of a righteous
person. Instead, it is a statement telling what will result from living righteously along with a
statement of blessing. It is also by far the most difficult of the beatitudes both to understand and
to live out. This one, even more so than all the others, will draw the line and divide between those
who are truly righteous and those that are not – between those that are truly Christians and are
saved, and those that feign Christianity, but are not actually converted and saved.
If we are to understand how this beatitude divides the true and the false, then we must understand
the persecution that Jesus is talking about, for there are many that are persecuted that claim this as
fitting them, but they are sadly mistaken. Many believe they are being persecuted because they are
righteous, when in reality they are only getting what they deserve.
PERSECUTION THAT IS DESERVED
In 1 Peter, the Apostle is preparing those early believers scattered throughout Asia Minor for the
persecution they were already experiencing and that which was to come in the future. He says
several interesting things to them about making sure they suffer for the correct reason and not
because of their own folly.
In 1 Peter 2:12 for example, Peter says, "Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so
that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds,
as they observe [them,] glorify God in the day of visitation. In other words, make sure that when
they speak evil against you that it really is slander by continuing to live righteously so that they
might give glory to God when He comes. He adds in verse 20, "For what credit is there if, when
you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right
and suffer [for it] you patiently endure it, this [finds] favor with God." If you sin and are harshly
treated, then you have only received what you deserve.
Peter goes on in 3:17 to say, "For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing
what is right rather than for doing what is wrong." You gain nothing in suffering if you suffer
because you have done wrong. Drop down to 4:12 – 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery
ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were
happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing;
so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled
for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
15 By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome
meddler; 16 but if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let
him glorify God.
Too often too many people want to look at their suffering as a mark of their spirituality when in
reality the persecution they are undergoing is deserved because of their own sinfulness. They may
or may not actually commit murder, but they hate certain people and 1 John 3:15 tells us that
"Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer . . . ". They steal from people in the name of God
- which is the worst form of thievery. Proclaiming they are collecting money to do God’s will, they
use what you give to consume it on their own lusts – consider the scandals of the many "TV
Evangelists" who claimed to be giving everything of themselves to the Lord’s work, but in fact
lived in mansions and surrounded themselves with all the luxuries of this world. They are evil
doers promoting and exalting themselves rather than being humble servants glorifying Jesus
Christ. They stick their noses where they do not belong in an effort to control other people and
make them conform to their own image rather than being truly spiritual people and helping others
conform to the image of Christ (Gal. 6:1-4).
Let me give you some more concrete examples: There are those that are out telling others about
Jesus Christ that are persecuted not because of the message they bring, but because they are
obnoxious. Examine all the Scripture and show me where God commends someone for being
obnoxious in telling the gospel? The only offense we are to ever bring is Jesus Christ Himself – the
offense of condemnation that comes when someone sees the holiness of Christ and becomes
repulsed by their own sinfulness.
If we become offensive ourselves in sharing the gospel, then we are obstructing the message of
His love. This kind of offense is done by all sorts of people – from well-meaning folks who just
lack proper manners – to people who are self-righteous and have a "holier-than-thou" attitude – to
those who are so obnoxious that they assault people with the gospel rather than share it.
I remember a fellow that buttonholed Diane at a shopping mall. He demanded to know if she was
saved or not and then demanded she pray out loud with him in the middle of the mall for all the
unsaved walking around. When she balked at doing so, he accused her of all sorts of things. I
called the fellow on the phone later, but got nowhere with hi. He was a law unto himself and
thought himself very spiritual because he was "suffering" for the cause of Christ. The truth was he
was rebuked because he was obnoxious and he brought dishonor to the name of Christ. He did
not have the blessing Jesus was talking about.
There are also those that have gone beyond being "fools for Christ’s sake" (1 Cor. 4:10) to being
freaks. These too are obnoxious not only in their attempts at evangelism, but also in trying to
make others conform to their own ideas of what holiness means. They stick their noses where
they do not belong and ask questions that should not be asked. It can be the "brother" that flaunts
his freedom in Christ and causes a weaker brother to stumble and fall into sin (Rom. 14:20; 1 Cor.
8:10), or it can be the weaker brother that goes around asking questions he has no business asking
(1 Cor. 10:15-17), and like a snoop tries to find out what a stronger brother is doing and then
judge him by his own weak conscience (rom. 14:3,4). Either way, the hostility and ostracism they
incur are not for the sake of righteousness, but because of their own sinfulness.
There are also those that are persecuted for a cause, rather than for righteousness. The Jehovah
Witnesses make a big deal out of the suffering they have endured at the hands of others by saying
it is because of what they do for God. The reality is that they suffered for a cause – their man
made religion, and not for Christ – whom they do not know. Even Christians have to be very
careful lest they be swept into a political movement and suffer for some political cause rather than
for what is truly righteousness’ sake. That can be a fine distinction sometimes, but it needs to be
made. A case in point is an organization I used to receive letters from a group called, the
"Christian Anti-Communism Crusade." Their focus is so much on the cause of being against
communism that political rhetoric has replaced the gospel they should be proclaiming. There is
not justification for being rude to those whom Christ has died for. Remember, the blessing Jesus is
talking about here is only for suffering for righteousness sake – not for political causes.
What does it mean then to be persecuted for righteousness sake?
PERSECUTION THAT IS UNDESERVED
THE NATURE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
The nature of righteousness is that it provokes the unrighteous. It always comes at the hands of
those what are not living according to God’s standards – but take warning here – some of the
greatest persecutions against the righteous have actually come from the "church", i.e., man’s
organization of the Christian religion. It can even come from fellow believers who have gotten
their eyes off of Christ and onto their own traditions.
But that should not surprise us, for much of what goes on under the name of Christianity is really
no different than what Judaism had degenerated into at the time of Christ. They had exchanged
the law of God for their own system of rules and regulations that they could manipulate. Much of
so called "Christianity" in our own time has also exchanged the gospel of Jesus Christ ,i.e., that
man is sinful and under the wrath of God facing impending judgement, but God loved man so
much that He Himself became a man in Jesus Christ, lived a sinless life, then died on a cross to
pay the penalty of our sin as our substitute, He then rose from the grave on the third day proving
He has power over death and that He is who He claimed to be, and He offers eternal life to all
who will put their trust in Him – they have exchanged this gospel for a system of religious works
by which you earn your way to heaven. It was the Jewish religious leaders that lead the
persecution against Jesus and had Him crucified. The "church" has often followed that same path.
It has been those who profess to be part of the church that have persecuted the truly righteous
ever since the 4th century when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire. The
Dark Ages where dark because the truth of the gospel was suppressed by a man made system of
religion. Every group that arose to proclaim the truth of the gospel would be persecuted by the
Roman Catholic church – such as the Cathari and the Waldensians. That is the also the reason for
the persecution of men such as John Wycliffe in England (1324-1384), Jon Hus in Bohemia
(1369-1415), Jerome of Prag (d. 1416) and Savonarola in Florence (1452-1498). Each of these
were condemned as heretics by Rome and were martyred (except Wycliffe who already died, but
his bones were dug up and burned). They were only the beginning of those who would die during
the 16th and 17th centuries as martyrs of the reformation period. Foxes Book of Martyrs gives
account after account of those what were burned at the stake because they would not submit to
the Church of Rome and deny that salvation came by grace through faith.
True righteousness is becoming like Jesus in character. Jesus says that the blessing comes to those
who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (vs 10) and in vs. 11 "on account of Me." In
being truly righteous we become a reflection of Christ to all around us. The more we do that, the
more righteous we are living – the more the unrighteous world can not stand us. Jesus said in John
15:18-21, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 "If you
were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I
chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 "Remember the word that I said to
you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you;
if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 "But all these things they will do to you for
My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me."
The more we are like Jesus, the more the world will hate us because it hates Him. to live for
Christ is to live in opposition to the devil and his world system (Eph. 6). To live for Christ then is
tot be confrontational by our very existence because our personal holiness is an affront to a sinful
world. You do not even have the say anything and you will provoke the unrighteous because you
are not like them – the world loves it’s own, but it hates those who are not (Jn. 15:19). Paul said
it plainly to Timothy in 2 timothy 3:12 – "And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus
will be persecuted."
Our text this morning points out several ways that persecution comes – vs. 11, Blessed are you
when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on
account of Me." The "when" here can mean "whenever" and carries the idea that personal insults,
physical abuse, or slander could come at anytime. It does not mean that the mistreatment will be
constant – not even Jesus was constantly harassed – but that oppression will come to all who are
The insults may be verbal and to your face, or actions of contempt. It means to revile, reproach,
complain against – literally to "cast in one’s teeth." It may range from being looked down upon by
people who think we are foolish to those that hate us deeply. I remember working for the L. A.
County Agriculture Department and being turned down for a full time position – job security,
benefits, good pay, good promotions in the future – because I wanted to complete seminary and
could not guarantee them I would make a career there. The supervisor of our whole division came
out to talk with me and told me I was foolish to turn the offer down. I could still work in a
church, like he did (active in an Episcopalian church doing drama) and even take classes at night.
But he looked down on me for placing Gods’ call on my life first.
But insults can certainly be a lot stronger than that. Consider the insults hurled at the Apostle Paul
so often – some looked down on His physical appearance and said he could not speak well and
that he was foolish (2 Cor. 11). In Philippians Paul even says there were those who were
preaching the gospel "out of selfish ambition . . . thinking to cause me distress in my
imprisonment" (Phil. 1:17). Consider what happened to Jesus after he was arrested and was put
on trial. He was spat upon, hit and taunted with those that hit Him saying, Prophesy to us, You
Christ; who is the one who hit you?" (Mt. 26:67,68). The soldiers put a royal robe on Him saying,
"Hail, King of the Jews." They would then hit Him in the face.
If you live righteously the world will consider you a fool and often will treat you as such. You will
be called names, you will be taunted and mocked, and you will be the butt of jokes. You will have
insults cast against you.
Persecution does not always mean death, but it may well end up there. When Jesus called upon
His followers to take up their crosses and follow Him (Luke 9:23), they knew fully well what that
meant – and it did not mean getting a nice piece of jewelry to wear around your neck – it meant
being willing and ready to die. And die they did. Tradition holds that all of the apostles died as
martyrs except John who was exiled to the Island of Patmos until he did die. James was executed
by Herod (Acts. 12:2). Tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down, Andrew was
crucified on an "X" shaped cross (St. Andrew’s Cross), Paul had his head cut off. After them
others died – Polycarp, who said before being burned alive in a Roman Arena, "86 years I have
served Him (Christ) and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king?" the early
Christians were often martyrs dying in the arenas as sport for the ungodly people watching. Killed
by sword and pear by gladiators, eaten alive by lions, children wrapped in sheepskin and then wild
dogs turned lose on them, and how many were covered with pitch and burned as torches in Nero’s
The same thing continues today. Christian scholars have claimed that there have been more
Christian martyrs in this century than at anytime previous. How many believers have died at the
hands of atheistic communism? How many at the hands of totalitarian despots? How many at the
hands of those entrapped in other religions – paganism, animism, idolatry, eastern mysticism,
Hinduism, and Islam?
Other persecution may not be so physical, but it is just as real. Six years ago the Continental
Orchestra and Singers were kicked out of the park across the street from the White House
because they were singing songs about Christ. It did not matter that they had all the appropriate
permits, they were breaking the artificial rule of freedom from religion that has arisen in the last
few decades as the idea of separation of Church and State continues to be perverted. You have
freedom of speech until you talk about righteousness – then you are censored. Cal Thomas’ book
Book Burning, is an eye opener here about who and what is censored by the media. People also
lose their jobs because they are righteous. Terri Lambertsen and her co-worker John W. Kennedy
both lost their jobs at an Iowa newspaper because they held pro-life views. Forest Mims lost a job
with Scientific American because he believes in a Creator God. Phillip Bishop, an Associate
Professor at the University of Alabama was forbidden to teach "optional classes where a ‘Christian
perspective’ of an academic topic is delivered."
Consider also the lesser known cases – people you know or you yourself that are held back in
company advancement because you will not participate in unethical things your company does. Or
students that are graded down because they write a paper reflecting God’s moral standards. Or
personal ostracism from co-workers, "friends" and neighbors because you will not participate in
their dirty jokes, crude behavior, gossip, parties, or other immoral behavior.
Persecution also comes in the form of slander – saying evil things against you falsely. I could
spend a long time telling how the media slanders morality in general and Christianity in particular,
but I think we are well aware of that. We are also well aware of how others will lie behind our
backs to get themselves ahead at our expense. How even righteous things that we do can be
distorted and perverted into horrible lies. But the same has occurred from the beginning. The early
Christians were accused not only of burning Rome, but also of cannibalism, and of having sexual
orgies because they celebrated the "body and blood" of Christ and had "love feasts." Sometimes
the slander seems like just a case of misunderstanding, but other times it is an obvious and
malicious twisting of the truth. Even Jesus was called a "glutton and drunkard" (Mt. 11:19).
Yet in the midst of all this we are to rejoice. How?
REJOICING IN THE MIDST OF PERSECUTION
First, we must remember our reward – Mt. 5:10. We gain the kingdom of heaven. Notice here that
the beatitudes start and end with the same blessing – the Kingdom of Heaven. We are persecuted
because we demonstrate all the characteristics of true righteousness – Poor in Spirit, Mournful,
Meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, Merciful, Pure in heart and Peacemaking. And
as we have said all along, these characteristics can only be true of those in whom the Holy Spirit
has regenerated the heart. These are the truly saved, True Christians. As we become more like
Jesus, the world will react to us the same way it reacted to Him. Remember what Jesus said in
John 15:20 . . . ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also
persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.
It is also a joy to know that in the midst of the turmoil that comes with persecution, you will have
a great reward in heaven (vs. 12). You are laying up gold, silver and precious stones (1 Cor. 3)
that bring glory to god and sow your life is counting for eternity. You are fulfilling the purpose of
Consider also your association with the great prophets of the past. All the great prophets suffered
persecution. Hebrews 11 points out many of these great men of God as examples for us. Moses,
who choose rather to endure the ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing
pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt;
for he was looking to the reward (vs. 25,26). Those in vs. 36-38 are described as having
experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned,
they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about
in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated 38 ([men] of whom the world
was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.
The world is not worthy of these great men of faith – but the believer is to be worthy of them. To
be persecuted verifies that we belong to the line of the righteous. That is why there is a cause for
rejoicing as described by Jesus – an exceeding joy – literally a skip and jump up with excitement
kind of joy. The joy is not that you are persecuted – that is a cause for grief both personally and in
mourning over the persecutors sin – but it is a source of joy to know that you are walking in
Our assurance of salvation does not come from some decision we made in the past – that would
be trust in a decision and salvation comes by trusting Jesus Christ alone. Assurance of salvation
comes from three sources. 1) The promise of God’s Word. 2) The inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
3) A changed life. Our assurance that the decision we made in the past and that the prayer of
confession and repentance we prayed was true is a life of righteousness, and true righteousness
will result in persecution.
The truly righteous have the characteristics described in the beatitudes. He or she is unlike anyone
else in the world. They seek to live life controlled and dominated by Jesus Christ, and their focus
is on things eternal – heaven and the world to come – not on this world which is passing away. So
it is that when persecution comes because of their righteousness, they rejoice exceedingly.
John Chrysotom was a godly man that became the foremost preacher in Constantinople. His
preaching however was uncompromising and soon offended the corrupt Empress Eudoxia and
other church officials. Chrysotom was threatened with banishment by Emperor Arcadius if he did
not cease his uncompromising preaching. His response was, Sire, you cannot banish me, for the
world is my Father’s house. He was then threatened with death, and he responded, Nay, but you
cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God." He was threatened that all his treasures would be
taken away. Chrysotom replied, Sire, that cannot be either. My treasures are in heaven, where
non can break through and steal. Finally the Emperor threatened, Then I will drive you from
man, and you will have no friends left!" Chrysotom answered, That you cannot do either, for I
have a Friend in heaven who has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’" Chrysotom was
banished and died soon after, but none of the threats or the eventual reality of his banishment and
death could take away what he valued most. He could rejoice even in the midst of persecution.
Can you say the same thing?
Pastor Scott L. Harris