BEATITUDE EIGHT

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.

The Eighth Beatitude is pivotal.  It is the other parenthesis.  Both it and the first refer to the presence of the kingdom of the heavens.  The Eighth prepares for the Ninth Beatitude by speaking of persecution.  All of the first eight Beatitudes speak in the third person.  The Ninth is in the second person, as is the remainder of the Sermon.  The poor in spirit of the First Beatitude are here defined more precisely. They are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
         Persecution is an early theme in the Matthew Gospel. The Child Jesus was persecuted from his birth. King Herod searched for the Child Jesus after hearing about the vision of the Magi. In his madness he ordered the murder of all boys two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2). The persecution theme is found also near the end of the Gospel. Pilate’s wife declared Jesus himself innocent when she wrote to her husband that she “suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). In the end, however, the pressure of the chief priests and the crowd so reinforced Pilate’s own self-interest that he pronounced the death penalty upon the Righteous One.
        Not only is the Master persecuted, but so also are his disciples. Jesus warned them of this in his discourses. The Gospel of Matthew, like the Five Books of Moses, is arranged into five great discourses of Jesus: 1) Chapters 5-7;  2) Chapter 10;  3) Chapter 13;  4) Chapter 18;  5) Chapters 24-25. In his second discourse, Jesus established the office of the Twelve Apostles and sent them out with instructions. He warned them that they would be handed over to local councils, flogged in synagogues, arrested and brought before governors and kings. Speaking in his third discourse in parables that both hide and reveal secrets of the kingdom, Jesus pointed out that seeds falling on rocky soil have no root. When trouble and persecution come such disciples fall away (Matthew 13:21). So, the persecution of Jesus’ disciples will ever be an outward sign revealing God’s hidden activity in the world. The Ninth Beatitude continues that theme and points the disciples to the great rewards awaiting them in heaven.

Blessed are those who are persecuted

Persecution of the righteous is a major theme not only in the Gospel of Matthew, but also throughout the Bible. For example, the persecution of the righteous is a major theme of the Psalms.  Like the Pentateuch and Matthew’s Gospel, the Psalms are divided into five Books. In the first Book David wrote about King Saul’s relentless pursuit of him through Cush, the Benjamite

“O Lord, my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me, or they will tear me like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me”
(Psalm 7:1-2).

         In the second Book of Psalms, in the New Testament’s second most quoted Psalm, David again cried about the enemies who persecuted him. This song foreshadowed Christ’s suffering on the cross (Matthew 27:34, 48): “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst . . .” (Psalm 69:21).

Early in the third book, David bemoaned the power of God’s enemies: “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? . . .Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name” (Psalm 74:10,21).

In the fourth book the oppressed one cried out to the Lord: “Unless the Lord had given me help I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death” (Psalm 94:17).
        In the New Testament’s most quoted Psalm, in the fifth Book, David wrote: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’”(Psalm 110:1).
        The Old Testament makes clear that persecution comes not only from external enemies, but also from within the chosen people. The ironic fact is that the very city in which the temple of God stood was the city that persecuted and killed the prophets sent to speak God’s Word to it. This was why Jerusalem was destroyed and its people sent into captivity: 

“The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy”
(2 Chronicles 36:15-16).

The same thing happened when the Lord himself appeared in Jerusalem in the person of Jesus. As he looked out upon the city Jesus cried out:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” 
(Matthew 23:37-39).

 

For the sake of righteousness

        Jesus was persecuted from his birth. He was persecuted throughout his ministry. His enemies persecuted him with an unjust trial, trumped up charges and an illicit sentence of death on a Roman cross. He was never justly found guilty of any crime nor was he ever rightly accused of any sin against God’s laws. He was totally innocent. He was absolutely obedient to the will of his heavenly Father. He was perfect and without sin. His heavenly Father blessed Jesus as his beloved Son and was well pleased with him (Matthew 17:5).  Jesus was righteous.  He lived a righteous life.
        No other man living or dead has ever been able to make such a claim. As David pointed out in Psalm 14, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (v.3).  Again in Psalm 143 he wrote, “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you” (v.2). If no man other than Jesus is righteous, then no man can live a righteous life. No man can practice righteousness. What then does Jesus mean when he promises a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness?
        He discussed this already in the Fourth Beatitude when he spoke about those who thirst for righteousness. All who follow Jesus by faith are “righteous” men and women. Jesus is the one who declares them just and righteous before God by faith. This is not an earned righteousness. It is rather righteousness declared and pronounced by God the righteous Judge. It is a gift and an act of God’s grace. In this gift God reveals his essential nature. It is God’s will and plan that his Son who knew no sin becomes sin for all. On the cross, Christ was punished for the sins of all men.   Consequently, all who believe that Jesus was delivered over to death for their sins are credited before God as being righteous (Romans 3-4). No punishment awaits them, either temporal or eternal.
        Christ died; therefore, all who are one with him through faith have also died with him and risen again to live to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:8-10). Free from the slavery of sin, men of faith are now slaves to righteousness and to God (Romans 6:17-23). They are no longer controlled by their sinful natures, but by the Spirit of the living Christ in them (Romans 8:9).  Believers live by faith in the Son of God who loved them and gave himself for them (Galatians 2:19-20). They are new creatures. The image of God is being renewed within them. They who are new in Christ live by his Spirit and, according to their new natures, bear the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22).
        This way of life is absolutely contrary to the ways of the world. The world, led by the devil, the prince of this world (John 14:30), hates all who live this way, because they serve Jesus who has destroyed the devil’s power. So, Jesus tells us who live by faith in him not to be surprised if the world hates us.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master’ (John 13:16). If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me” (John 15:18-21).

For theirs is the kingdom of the heavens

Therefore, we are not to fear when we are persecuted. We are to expect it and rejoice. They will throw us out of their assemblies, even kill us. All this is to be expected, because they do not know the Father or Jesus nor does the Spirit of God dwell in their hearts. We do not, however, fear this. The same Spirit who brought us out of death to life, that Spirit who opened our eyes to see Jesus and the glory of God, that Spirit who empowers us to be peacemakers in this world, that Spirit continues to live within us, guiding us into all truth. That Spirit speaks to us the very Word of God and reminds us who we are in Christ and of what is yet to come (John 16:12-15). That Spirit is a fountain of living water springing up in us. No longer do we thirst for the living God, for he lives within us (John 4:13-14; 7:37-39; Isaiah 12:1-3). The kingdom of the heavens is ours, for the King of the heavens is sending his Spirit to live within us.
        All the ancient promises to the people of God are now coming to pass. We who are in Christ are under his gracious rule. He is ever guiding us and satisfying our needs. Though weakened by the persecutions of this world his Spirit is ever strengthening us. We are like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11).  Regardless of what happens to us here, we have hope, hope guaranteed by God. Traveling through the wilderness of this world, hated and despised by it, we look for a heavenly country and a new city with eternal foundations, designed and built by God (Hebrews 11:10, 13-16).  We look forward to a new heaven and a new earth and to the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. We look forward to God himself dwelling with us. We look forward to the end of all persecution, death, mourning, crying and pain. The old order of things is passing away. Everything is being made new (Revelation 21-22). Soon, very soon, our King will come again in all his glory. We who are his bride, we who have his Spirit within us, say, “Come!”
        And he says, “Yes, I am coming soon!”
        Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

 

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