When Christ’s followers live godly lives, they are assured of two things: God’s reward and the world’s hatred. They also experience a clear conscience and true happiness.
We are back now on the hillside, listening as Jesus delivers His famous Sermon on the Mount. He is delivering the longest of His Beatitudes. And remember, the Beatitudes are stepping stones to true happiness. He continues here in Matthew 5:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (verses 10-12)
Jesus is saying those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are truly happy. “Persecuted” is passive in the Greek language, suggesting the persecuted are willingly allowing themselves to be mistreated––perhaps even martyred. You could translate it, “harassed”! Is Jesus really saying, “Happy are the harassed”? Well, keep in mind, He adds to that this little phrase “for righteousness’ sake.”
The Greek word here translated “persecuted” carries the idea of being chased or pursued. Just make sure you are being chased for doing the right thing and not the wrong thing.
When I was a young boy, my best friend—another missionary kid—and I would explore the woods near our subdivision in the summertime until it grew dark. There was an apartment complex on our way home, and the box that controlled the electricity for the entire building was downstairs.
One day we looked to make sure no one was around, and then I pulled that big gray handle down and that entire building went dark—the lights went out. Several days later we were back again, and this would be the last time I pulled that prank––and I do mean the last time. Two men, one dressed in army fatigues, happened to be standing on the balcony just above the wall where the switch box was located. They heard that electrical lever slam down, saw the building grow dark, and watched two boys sprint out from underneath their balcony.
They shouted, “Hey you.” and as I ran even faster, I turned and saw one of the men leap over the balcony railing, land on his feet, and begin to chase after us. We had enough of a head start to outrun him. If we hadn’t, I would not have lived long enough to grow up and become a Bible teacher.
I was being chased, but for the wrong reason. And if I had been caught, I would not have been persecuted––I would have been punished. There is a big difference between punishment and persecution.
Jesus does not say here, “Happy are those who make a nuisance of themselves. Happy are those who are unethical, and irritating, and arrogant.” No, He says, “Happy are those who are persecuted because they are living godly lives!”
The apostle Peter writes this in 1 Peter 4:12-13:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
This is the kingdom promise Jesus is giving back in Matthew chapter 5.
Peter continues in verse 14:
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed [makarios, the same word used in the Beatitudes—“you are truly happy”], because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler [that means turning the electricity off an apartment building]. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God. (verses 14-16)
Beloved, much of the world views the term Christian as a derogatory term. The followers of Jesus Christ were first referred to as “Christians” by the Gentiles of Syrian Antioch, and the name wasn’t a compliment; it was an insult. Little Christs, they were called (Acts 11:26).
And to this day, following Christ might lead to insults, suffering, persecution and even loss of life.
I want to point out that Jesus does not say here in Matthew 5, “Happy are those who are persecuted”––period. Persecution by itself doesn’t make any Christian happy. No, Jesus says in verse 12, “Rejoice … for your reward is great in heaven.”
People around the world today are making a decision to follow Christ and suffer the consequences. A pastor friend of mine was in a Muslim country where fourteen former Muslims decided to follow Christ as their Savior. When they were baptized, they were asked several standard questions, which frankly, we cannot imagine here in America. The final question was this: “Are you willing to be imprisoned and to be thrown out of your home for Christ?”
Let me tell you, no matter what these new Christians will experience, 100 years from now their happiness will know no boundaries in the glory of Christ’s presence.
With that, the Lord finishes delivering these eight beatitudes—eight steps to true, genuine happiness.
The world will say that happiness depends on how much you can get out of life. Jesus says that happiness is when you follow Him through life. The world says, “Blessed are those who are trouble-free.” Jesus says, “Blessed are those who endure trouble, for My sake.”
Many of you might remember the career of the thee-time heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay—later known as Muhammad Ali. He dominated the world of boxing for years. In fact, his face was featured on sports magazines more times than any other athlete. I remember reading that when Ali was an old man, Gary Smith, a sportswriter, went to his country estate to interview him. He was met at the door by a bent figure with slurred speech—a combination of Parkinson’s disease and too many punches to the head.
Ali escorted Gary out to a barn that had become his museum of sorts. It was filled with mementos—trophies, life-sized pictures of him punching the air and holding championship belts high above his head. He had earned millions of dollars in championship fights.
But as they got closer, Gary noticed on these life-sized photos, white streaks running down them; pigeons that nested in the barn had made their contribution. Ali noticed too and scowled at them.
Almost as an act of closure, he shuffled over to the wall and one by one turned those huge, framed photos around, so they faced inward. He finally finished and went to the open barn door where he gazed out over the countryside and muttered something under his breath.
Gary said to him, “Excuse me. What did you say?” Ali said, “I was saying, ‘I had the world and it was nothin’—it was nothin.’”
Happiness came and went.
Listen to what Jesus Christ says here to all who follow Him—people who will not be making many headlines but are often overlooked, ignored, or even treated unkindly; people like you and me who might not mean much to the world now. One day, He says, the world—a new heaven and a new earth—will belong to you.
And beloved, it will not be nothing; it will be something amazing. And just knowing our future, according to Jesus Christ and His Word—that is enough to give us hope and joy to get through today. Think about it—happiness now, happiness and heaven forever!