Do you remember that time when the mother of James and John went up to Jesus and asked of Him, “Say that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine shall sit, one at Your right, and one at Your left”? Jesus’s response was revealing: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)
Jesus’s answer to a request for a great reward was this question: “Are you able to share in my great suffering?”
Those who will receive the greatest rewards in the kingdom won’t be those who had the best publicity, or those who had the widest audience. It will be those who suffered most on account of Jesus. This is what He says in the final Beatitude:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)
The people who are really happy are the people who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness. And what Jesus is saying is that persecution is evidence that they belong in the kingdom of heaven.
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. (John 15:18)
The basic principle is if the world treated the most righteous person who ever lived the way they treated Him, why should you expect any better treatment? If they hated Him — and they did — they will hate you. And the reason they hate you is because you’re not part of them.
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, because of this the world hates you. 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. (John 15:19-20)
If we are faithful to proclaim the gospel to an unbelieving person or in an unbelieving environment — if we are faithful to speak about the truth of Christ to those who love sin — their response is inevitably hostile. But we have to keep this in mind: persecution is the path of blessing. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the persecuted.
All that will live godly in this present age will suffer persecution. (2 Timothy 3:12)
It’s a question of degree, of course; we’re not all being martyred. We’re not all paying with our life. We’re not all being imprisoned. And Jesus clarifies that in this Beatitude. Sometimes, He says, persecution looks like insults.
Most of us have probably experienced this. So many times I have tried to present the gospel to someone, only for them to respond in an insulting way because they didn’t want to hear about it. You may have experienced this when you have tried to witness to an unsaved family member or friend.
Now, mark Jesus’s clarification “because of Me” (Matthew 5:11). We aren’t blessed if we’re persecuted on our own account. If people are saying evil about you because it’s true, or if people are confronting you because your demeanor is offensive, there’s no blessing in that. This isn’t a pronouncement of blessing on anybody who suffers any kind of confrontation. This is all about those who are persecuted because they are identified with Jesus Christ.
So, how does persecution on account of Christ bring blessing? Jesus explains that great persecution brings great reward in heaven.
The assumption here is that there are variations in reward. And we know that this is true from elsewhere in Scripture. John references this fact in his second epistle:
Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. (2 John 8)
In other words, it’s possible to have a reward coming to you but to forfeit it because of sin. So when we get to heaven, rewards will vary. There will be some who receive a great reward and some a lesser reward, and the difference will be related to faithfulness. This means that each of us needs to dedicate ourselves to working toward that reward.
When we assume that perspective, we gain a different view of persecution. If you someday lose a job or a spouse because of your love for Christ, you can rejoice in the promise that you will be rewarded for that suffering. And just a reminder: heaven lasts forever. There will be no limit to your enjoyment of your reward.
But there’s also another blessing associated with persecution. Not only does it bring you greater reward, but it also puts you in excellent company. Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad when you are persecuted, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
When you suffer for Christ’s sake, you are in some classy company. Hebrews 11 lists some of the heroes you stand among when you choose the things of Christ over the things of earth: Noah, the Patriarchs, Joseph, Moses, and the faithful prophets who were rejected and killed. You stand by Isaiah and Jeremiah. And you stand by Jesus Himself, who was the supreme prophet and was likewise put to death because of the message He brought.
It is a privilege to be associated with these heroes of the faith. It is a privilege to wear the uniform of faithful service and be counted as a soldier in such an illustrious line.
Friends, we have a world to reach. Many will reject and resent us. But there will be some out there who understand and believe the message we bring. And in the end, all the suffering we face on account of Christ will be rewarded abundantly.
In the Beatitudes, then, we have moved all the way through being a broken, bankrupt, mourning, meek, hungry sinner to seeing how we can live life so compellingly that we provoke persecution while bringing glory to God and blessing on our own heads. That is the sum of our lives. That is what the Lord calls us to, and that is the only path to true happiness.
This blog post is based on Dr. MacArthur’s sermon “The Only Way to Happiness: Endure Persecution, Pt. 1,” originally preached in 1998.