John Hooper, the English Reformer and pastor, was burned at the stake for his unwavering stand upon the truth of Scripture. In 1555, just three weeks prior to his martyrdom, John Hooper gave the following charge in a letter: "You must now turn all your thoughts from the peril you see, and mark the happiness that follows the peril...Beware of beholding too much the happiness or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draws us from God."1
In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul states, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul was deeply persuaded that conflict is inevitable between the righteousness lives of the saints and those living ungodly lives in the world. This is nothing less than a tension between light and darkness.
In the conclusion of his beatitude statements in Matthew 5, Jesus pronounces divine blessing upon those who suffer persecution because they exhibit the godly characteristics of the previous beatitudes. Jesus defines persecution as arising from two sources:
First, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "for righteousness" (Mt 5:10). The beatitude statements can be divided into two groups of four with each group ending with a reference to "righteousness." The first group concludes in verse 6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," and the second group in verse 10, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." The three beatitudes that lead to "hunger for righteousness" are descriptions of a type of holy emptiness--blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn over their needy condition, and blessed are those who are meek and give their cause over to God. These three descriptions of need are fulfilled in the form of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. The inevitable result is persecution for this very righteousness. In other words, the righteousness exhibiting itself in the life of the Christian through the characteristics of mercy, purity, and peacemaking provokes violence in those who do not know Christ. The ungodly observe the righteous lives of believers as a condemnation upon their own unrighteous behavior. In response, they lash out in ridicule and sometimes through severe forms of persecution.
Second, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "on my [Jesus] account," or "because of me [Jesus]" (Mt 5:11). Jesus forewarned his followers of the type of treatment they could expect, "You will be hated by everyone because of my name" (Mt 10:22). In verse 11, Jesus is highlighting a Christological title with which believers identify and are persecuted for. According to Luke 6:2, it is the title "Son of Man," that may have instigated the particular offense of unbelievers. This title identifies Jesus as a King of heavenly origin who will reign over a universal and eternal kingdom and who is worthy of worship by all peoples of the earth. This declaration was regarded as blasphemous and proved to be the key to the final condemnation and death of Christ on the cross. The world is okay when believers identify Jesus as a moral teacher or a great leader, but when a Christian attributes divine authority, kingship, and universal rule to Jesus they become outraged and angry. Jesus was saying, "If you identify with me, if you proclaim me as the Son of God, if you proclaim me to be the rightful king, you will relentlessly face opposition, anger, and persecution from those who disagree." Jesus is saying that identification with him at this vital juncture of confession of him to be the "Son of Man," us what gives the righteousness of the Christian its distinct character.
Jesus proceeds in Matthew 5:11 by offering three expressions of persecution that his disciples experience in this world. First, he says they will "revile you," which means that opponents of Christian righteousness and the gospel will mock and verbally shame you. Second, the word "persecute" in verse 11 means "to run after, pursue, or run out." The idea is that the disciples of Christ may be pursued from town to town with the evil intention of violently abusing them or turning them over to the authorities for prosecution. Third, verse 11 states they "will utter all kinds of evil against you falsely." This means that the persecutors of Jesus' followers will raise false allegations against them that have no basis but are in reality imagined lies.
A life devoted to righteousness and godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against, because your holy life is an indictment against their sinful one. The reason for persecution is holy, hot, blazing righteousness and a committed devoted relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus is blessing those who have identified with him and saying in response, "You are mine!"
Thomas Watson, the great Puritan writer, said of Christians, "Though they be ever so meek, merciful, pure in heart, their piety will never shield them from suffering. They must hand their harp on the willows and take up the cross. The way to heaven is by the way of thorns and blood. Set it down as a maxim, if you will follow Christ, you will see the swords and staves. Put the cross in your creed."
Does this describe you? Are you ready to face opposition and persecution in order to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ in every way? For those who are free in Christ and joyful in persecution are indeed the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."
1. John Hopper, "A Letter Which Master Hooper Did Write to Certain of His Friends," The Church of England Magazine (London: James Burns, 1836) p. 382