There are some things which the natural man is simply incapable of doing. If we are thinking carefully, we should recognize that obedience to the words of Christ in this passage heads the list. This inability of the non-believing is important for us as we consider the passage.
Christ gives the last Beatitude, and then continues on the subject of persecution with some exposition. The Beatitude is found in verse 10 — “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
His exposition is found in the following two verses. “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
Consider first what the blessing does not mean. Christ does not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for being obnoxious.” It is an elementary error in logic to suppose that if righteousness provokes persecution, nothing else can provoke it. We must heed the warning given by Peter, and it will help us avoid this error (1 Pet. 4:12-16). Jesus teaches that it is not our sin that provokes the response (He assumes that the accusations are false).
So what provokes persecution? Christians are not despised for being good with a kind of “general civic goodness.” As Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out, this is because the world thinks you are being like they are, at least when they are at their best. In other words, it is a self-compliment — general civic goodness reaffirms their faith in human nature. You are good, and you are the same as they are.
Hostility comes when we are different, and righteousness is different. The thing we have which provokes such a response is a likeness to Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches this expressly in John 15:18-20. Consider verse 20. “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
What is the nature of the persecution? There have been many times when persecution has come to blood. But the Bible does not limit persecution to the kind recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Christ specifies two types of verbal persecution here. We are blessed when we are reviled, that is, when we are taunted, insulted, railed upon, etc. This brings a blessing from God. Consider Phil. 1:29.
It also includes every type of conceivable slander — all manner of evil spoken falsely. Make sure you live in a manner which makes such lies difficult. But even if you do, it will not make them impossible — rather such slanders will become inevitable (2 Tim. 3:12).
But now consider the craziness of the biblical response to this. Jesus teaches that we are blessed in the circumstance of persecution. But He goes farther, and says that we are required to respond to persecution in a certain way. That way is to rejoice, and to be exceedingly glad. The original rendered exceedingly glad includes the idea of jumping up and down for joy. The Bible is really clear on this. What does James say about meeting trials? “Count it all joy . . .” (James 1:2).
Persecution will result in much heart-searching, and this is good. But when it is clear that you have received the treatment you have on account of Christ, then the result in your life should be exuberance.
Many Christians are troubled by the notion of “reward,” but they really should not be. We are often tempted to try to be “more spiritual” than the Bible requires. The result is frequently some sort of stoic or gnostic counterfeit of Christian living, rather than what the Bible actually teaches and requires. Consider the matter of reward. Doesn’t it sound “more spiritual” to set aside all question of reward, and just do the right thing because it is the right thing? True, it sounds more spiritual, but it is not.
The Bible does not try to keep us from thinking about our reward in heaven. Here, and in countless other places, we are required to fix our minds on our eternal inheritance, and to do so diligently.
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18).