“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, because theirs is the kingdom from heaven.
Blessed you are when they might revile and persecute and falsely say all manner of evil against you on account of Me. Rejoice and be glad! Because your reward is great in heaven. For thus they persecuted the prophets before you.”
By viewing the beatitudes as a ladder or zipper-like chiasm, there are some expectations regarding the final statement. We should expect two things in general: (1) that this final beatitude corresponds with the first beatitude in more than only the reason given (i.e., because theirs is the kingdom of heaven), and (2) that this pronouncement of blessing fits into the second table of the beatitudes (horizontal outworking of vertical humility). While technically and structurally the beatitudes come to a close after v. 10, we would do well to study vv. 10-12 together. Thematically and contextually, vv. 11-12 provide further explanation regarding the beatitude in v. 10. Structurally, vv. 11-12 provide a natural transition to vv. 13 ff.
The Beatitude: The Combatted (v. 10)
It is no accident that Jesus began with those who are contrite and concludes with those who are combatted, nor should we ignore that He turns His attention to the persecuted immediately after addressing peacemakers. The connection to the first beatitude may be expressed as, “blessed are those who are humble before God and have been humbled by man.” The correlation to the previous beatitude may be something like, “blessed are those who proclaim peace and those whose proclamation has been soundly rejected.”
As before, Jesus continues using the same pattern of proclaiming a certain group of persons or character trait of persons to be blessed only to follow the statement with His reasoning. Here is the eighth and final beatitude.
Jesus’ Congratulations (v. 10a)
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”
Jesus pronounces blessing upon those who have been persecuted. The term (διώκω) literally means to pursue, chase after, drive away. Like so many other terms the context dictates whether we should read this as a positive or negative idea. After all, the same term is used to speak of pursuing good things like righteousness (Rom. 9:30, 31; 1 Thess. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:12), hospitality (Rom. 12:13), peace (Rom. 14:19; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:11), love (1 Cor. 14:1), sanctification (Phil. 3:12, 14), and the good of others (1 Thess. 5:15). Yet of the 45 occurrences of διώκω in the New Testament, six of them are found in Matthew’s gospel (half of which are in these three verses – 5:10, 11, 12), all of which are set in the context of persecution. If persecution carries the main idea of pursuit, then those who persecute are tenacious and dogged in their goal. One is reminded of the religious leaders as they hounded Jesus (John 5:16), Saul when he traveled to Damascus only to seek out Christians (Acts 9:1-2), or the Galatian Jews who followed Paul from city to city only to thwart his preaching (Acts 14:19). The idea carries a certain level of commitment that is not satisfied until the quarry is captured or at least sufficiently dealt with. The passive voice (δεδιωγμένοι) is interesting because it shifts the congratulations to those being pursued rather than the pursuers. To this we should notice that Jesus, for the first time, uses the perfect aspect rather than the present (as in vv. 4, 6) to describe those who have every right to consider themselves blessed. The NASB rightly translates this beatitude as “those who have been persecuted” and thus captures the past action with continuing results. This immediately brings up two questions: (1) why use the perfect aspect rather than the present and (2) why are these individuals being persecuted?
First, the perfect aspect presents the action as having already taken place. Jesus does not speak of those going through persecution or those who will be persecuted but those who have been persecuted. In this sense, the blessed objects of persecution have withstood it, endured it, and did not fall under it. They’ve been pursued, hounded, and harassed but did not cave under the pressure. They’ve endured and persevered. The first beatitude addresses those who are contrite before God (v. 3). The final beatitude congratulates those who have been humbled before men. One would think that those who live so humbly would be valued members of society. This statement indicates that this is not the case. This leads to the second question regarding the reason they were pursued in the first place.
The idea that persecution is always bad is ridiculous. When the United States Marshal Service mounts a manhunt for escaped convicts, it could rightly be called persecution. They will pursue the individual until they get their man. Jesus does not address those who are persecuted for their wickedness but for the sake of righteousness. It is necessary to read these words and consider their meaning rather than inserting our own definitions. Jesus pronounces blessing on those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, not morality. It is impossible to speak of righteousness (that which is right, just, fair, accurate, correct, appropriate, whole, and true) apart from the divine perfection of God. All that was said of v. 6 is true here as well. Righteousness certainly speaks of one’s actions and lifestyle but penetrates further to motivation, desires, and belief. Simply put, righteous actions are only righteous if they are done with righteous motives. While it is true that living a moral life in the midst of an immoral world would excite attention and perhaps even entice persecution, that is not what Jesus is speaking of here. If a Mormon or a Muslim is hounded for their refusal to drink alcohol, they are not congratulated by Jesus, are they? May it never be! What is referred to is lifestyle, actions, and motivation that accurately reflect the character of God. To frame it more concretely, Jesus refers to those who profess to be and live consistently as a Christian. They proclaim Christ (peacemaker) and live under Christ’s command (righteousness) and are thus persecuted by a world that hates Christ. We must not confuse righteousness with morality!
Jesus’ Reasoning (v. 10b)
“Because theirs is the kingdom from heaven.”
Jesus provides the same reason for the persecuted’s blessedness as He did the poor in spirit (v. 3) and all that we said there is true here. He began and ended these beatitudes with a perspective of the present state: certainty of kingdom citizenship (vv. 3, 10). The main force of the beatitudes, however, focus on the future reality these blessed individuals will enjoy in the context of the kingdom (vv. 4-9). Even though the kingdom is not a present reality, these blessed individuals have a secured claim to its glory. This security is the reason Jesus says they are blessed.
There are a few things to notice before moving on. First, this is the first and only beatitude without a clear Old Testament allusion or quotation, though the concept of persecution is alive and well in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms (Ps. 7; 31:15; 69:26; 109:16: 119:86). The general theme of persecution (best traced in its entirety in Psalm 7) is as follows: (1) the wicked persecute the righteous because they are righteous (Ps. 7:3-4), (2) the righteous cry out to/trust God (Ps. 7:6-11), (3) God will avenge the righteous in the end (Ps. 7:12-16), (4) the righteous are blessed by and give praise to God (Ps. 7:17). In other words, the consistent hope of deliverance from persecution is eschatological, not temporal. Even David (the author of Ps. 7) did not anticipate freedom from persecution in his lifetime (as the king) but in the end when God would bring justice and righteousness to earth.
A second observation is the fact that there is never a picture of the coming kingdom that would allow for its citizens suffering persecution. One of the primary blessings a king provides for his people is protection. What kind of king allows for his citizens to be pursued by an enemy? Has he no control over his borders? If the blessing is pronounced on those who have already endured persecution, then this citizenship that is secured is for a kingdom that has not yet been established.
A third and final deduction is that we should never expect things to get better until the Lord comes. It is a ridiculous, moronic, and blasphemous notion that the world will increase in prosperity, godliness, and righteousness until finally the Lord will come again. If that is true, then there should be no one who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness, yet only those who have been so persecuted are considered blessed. All this and more is made clear in the following verses.
The Explanation (vv. 11-12)
Even though v. 11 begins with the same blessed that announces congratulations as vv. 3-10, it is incorrect to consider this a ninth beatitude for two main reasons. First, the form of v. 11 does not match the carefully constructed beatitudes of vv. 3-10. There is a statement of blessing but no reason (ὅτι) why they are considered blessed. Second, Jesus never left the subject of persecution. Of the six uses of διώκω in Matthew, half of them are in vv. 10-12. I don’t work for the FBI, but some might call that a clue to consider these verses together.
Together, vv. 11-12 explain the beatitude of v. 10 by offering both a specific definition of the cause of persecution, or “righteousness” (v. 11) and prescribing an application when such persecution arises (v. 12).
Specification (v. 11)
“Blessed you are when they might revile and persecute and falsely say all manner of evil against you on account of Me.”
Jesus transitions from speaking in general terms to specific instruction by using the second person rather than the third. These words are directly aimed at His disciples gathered around His feet. It is important that we keep this in mind before applying these words directly to ourselves. It is the disciples of Jesus who are likened to the prophets (v. 12c), not us.
Jesus pronounces blessing upon these disciples in connection to three kinds of abuses. He does not say that they are blessed because these abuses are hurled at them but as a reminder, He confirms that when (not if) these things happen, they are still considered blessed by Christ. Each of these are presented in the aorist aspect, a first for the beatitudes. The point is to present this persecution as a single whole rather than focusing on the harassment’s beginning, end, duration, reiteration, or any other aspect. Jesus presents the big picture here. The third person (they) is generic, but when taken with the conjunction ὅταν (when/whenever) and the aorist aspect, the sense is very much that the disciples can count on these things happening.
To revile (ὀνειδίζω) is to insult, mock, or ridicule. Those who revile attempt to belittle their victim. This is the opposite of praise and honor. To persecute (διώκω) as we have already stated is to pursue with the intention of capturing or doing harm. The placement between two verbs of audible sin does not suggest that Jesus emphasizes the verbal aspect of persecution over the physical. This is hardly the experience of the Lord or His apostles. Rather, placing persecution in the middle keeps this concept centered in the discussion. To speak all kinds of evil (εἴπωσιν πᾶν πονηρὸν) is to bring a variety of wicked allegations against them. The key term here is falsely (ψευδόμενοι), for there is no evil done by bringing evil deeds to light. These accusations are false, trumped up, fictitious, and imagined. Early persecutors of the church charged believers with ridiculous accusations such as cannibalism, incest, theism, and general hatred of humanity. These charges were drawn from a malicious and purposeful misrepresentation of the Lord’s supper (this is My body/blood), the idea of married couples being brother and sister as join heirs with Christ, the rejection of the Roman pantheon, and the refusal to join society’s pagan practices in various festivals and celebrations. What is being described is slander and the objective of slander is hardly to accurately represent. Rather, it is to murder one’s character.
In an effort to make Himself crystal clear, Jesus modifies these statements with on account of Me. He offers no blessing for those who are insulted, pursued, or slandered for any other reason. It is not that Jesus condones such behavior but that these words have a very specific context. Christian persecution is always within the context of Christ. The insults, harassment, and slander comes on account of one’s association with and proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. This not only explains what is meant by “righteousness” (v. 10) but also sets a precedent. To associate with Jesus is to invite dishonor and difficulty in this world. To follow Jesus alone is to elect the path of pain. In the midst of this pain, Jesus encourages His disciples by reminding them that they are indeed blessed. Even so, He prescribes the appropriate response.
Application (v. 12)
“Rejoice and be glad! Because your reward is great in heaven. For thus they persecuted the prophets before you.”
These two present imperatives (χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε) prescribe continuous action. Here is the response to one who recognizes that he is truly blessed. This praise and gladness is not offered at the conclusion of such trials, but at their beginning, in their midst, and at their conclusion. This is what James was speaking of when he commanded the brethren to consider it joy when they encounter various trials (James 1:2). We read of the apostles readily obeying with this application when they were persecuted in their turn (Acts 5:40-42). It is after this application of praise that Jesus provides a reason (ὅτι): because of their heavenly reward.
It is at best incomplete to simply take this statement as a general spiritual reward in a cloudy palace in the sky. Of the 82 occurrences of οὐρανός in Matthew, at least 31 of them are in connection with the eschatological and Messianic kingdom. Of the rest, most are a reference to the abode of God the Father while a few simply indicate the sky or the air. The near context refers to the kingdom that comes from heaven twice (vv. 3&10). It is therefore only logical to assume that Jesus means that this reward (which is stored in heaven) will become theirs when the kingdom (which comes from heaven) is established on earth subsequent to a successful Messianic invasion (Ps. 2). This understanding is supported by God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:1: “Do not fear Abram, I am a shield to you. Your reward is very great.”. The Greek LXX uses remarkable similar language (ὁ μισθός σου πολὺς ἔσται σφόδρα) to what Jesus here states (ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς). This reward is in connection with the covenant made with Abraham, a covenant connected to the promise of land, seed, and blessing. This covenant that promises a king and a kingdom. The reason to rejoice when persecuted is because they have a marvelous reward in connection with the coming kingdom. In other words: blessed are those who have been persecuted, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
To this Jesus adds a logical rationale. It may seem ludicrous to consider those who are hounded by society as blessed. In response to this, Jesus offers the example of the prophets. In his defense, Stephen rightly summarized Israel’s treatment of the prophets: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just was your Fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:51-52 NASB). Were the prophets hounded for immorality? Were they slandered for dishonesty? Were they insulted for their unrighteousness? No, they were persecuted for the sake of righteousness. They aligned themselves with the promised and coming King and were hated for it. Faithfulness comes with a price.
There are at least two final thoughts. First, to the accusation that Jesus is changing the entire paradigm of Scripture, that He is unhitching His message from the Old Testament or that He is reinterpreting the prophets, one might wonder why Jesus would bother to link His disciples to the Old Testament prophets. If He is altering their message, why would He encourage His disciples by linking their faithfulness with the prophets’?
Second, as we prepare for opposition and persecution we should consider from where persecution is likely to come. The pattern of Scripture and history shows that opposition to faithfulness first comes from sources close to home. Jesus (a Jew preaching to Jews in a Jewish context) was persecuted by the Jews. The apostles (Jews preaching to Jews in a Jewish context) were persecuted primarily by the Jews. When Athanasius stood against the world to proclaim Jesus’ divinity (325 AD) it was in the context of a Christian council. When Martin Luther defended the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone (1517), it was in the context of “the church.” He then had to flee for his life. Jonathan Edwards (1749) was driven to poverty by his own church because he would not serve unregenerates the Lord’s supper. Charles Spurgeon (1887) was kicked out of his own denomination for refusing to budge on basic biblical doctrines such as the divinity of God the Son and the inspiration of the Scriptures. While there have been numerous persecutions of Christians from the paganistic/secular world, the pattern is predominantly fixed that persecution comes from those who should know better. Jesus is not warning His disciples about the pain that will come from the polytheistic pagans, but from the monotheistic, Yhwh-confessing, Scripture-quoting Jews. The point is this: any and all attempts to live righteously (i.e., to follow Jesus alone) will first and foremost reveal the hypocrisy of those who claim Christ yet do not follow Him before it sheds light on those who live in darkness, acknowledge the darkness, and are comfortable with the darkness. Those who scream the loudest at the light are those who think they are already living in it.
 D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 165.
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 194-5.
 David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 153.
 John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 207.
 Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 169-70.
 Nolland, p. 208.
 Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 74.
 Nolland, p. 209.
 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 74.