The Persecuted Righteous Ones
Written by Amy Caun
Throughout the ages people have been fascinated by kings and kingdoms. For centuries kings and queens were the primary rulers, and even today when many other forms of government exist we as humans are still fascinated by kings and kingdoms. We find them so intriguing for a simple reason: we were created to be part of a kingdom, and even to be kings and queens in that kingdom. We were made to rule the earth, to have dominion over it as kings and queens in God’s kingdom. In our fallen world our souls feel the ache of longing to be restored to our purpose and to again rule and reign with the Lord.
The promised Messiah would come to set wrongs right and establish his kingdom, so when Jesus’ followers learned He was the Messiah they were ecstatic. Finally Rome would be punished and they would no longer be oppressed by foreign rulers! From early in his ministry Jesus described what his kingdom would look like, and the Beatitudes are one example of this. As Jesus sat on the mountain and began describing his kingdom and its inhabitants, people may have been both excited and confused. They were poor, hungry, and had mourned for years. The Israelites had known great oppression, and they hoped they would be delivered out of this. Yet Jesus’ words were not a promise of immediate relief, instead they showed just how different his kingdom was from their expectations.
That doesn’t sound like the kingdom we were expecting. Enduring war is one thing because we can fight valiantly, but persecution? Why should kings and queens endure that? Jesus’ words attack our sensibilities and one of the greatest concerns we have: self-preservation. Why would we willingly put ourselves in harm’s way and take whatever pain comes from it? The only reason to do such a thing is that by doing we gain something worth far more that makes it worth enduring and rejoicing in even the greatest persecution we could endure (Matt. 13:44-46).
What type of kingdom is this? Certainly not one of human making, nor one the disciples expected or wanted. They thought Jesus would bring an earthly kingdom and conquer their enemies, and they fought over who would receive a higher place in the kingdom. But Jesus describes this kingdom as something worth losing everything for, and requires that his followers forsake everything to follow him into this kingdom (Matt. 13:44-45, 16:24-26). American Christianity tends to downplay or neglect these words, or redefines them so they aren’t quite so, well, demanding. We will gladly give of our time, effort, and money, but if there is a risk to our health or our family’s then we’re out. Our natural response to conflict is to flee or fight, not to stand still and take it. Even if we did, we would not count receiving such a beating (verbally of physically) a blessing. But in Jesus’ upside-down kingdom it is.
Before looking at the role persecution plays in God’s kingdom we must see why these people are persecuted: because they are righteous. People can experience rejection, ridicule, and persecution for many reasons: their political beliefs, their upbringing, ethnicity, looks, religious views, passions, and much more. But Jesus only addresses here those persecuted for one reason: they live righteously. These people are living righteously like Jesus in a sinful world and the world hates it. The world is not opposed to being good and noble because they feel that is what they are at their best, and so many initially admire Jesus and praise him as a good teacher, but when they realize His very being is different and condemns them they hate Him and all who follow Him.
When Jesus’ contemporaries heard His words they hated Him, threw stones at Him, tried to trap Him, and ultimately chose to release a murderer and kill Him. The world has a standard of goodness they want to live up to, but when they see the righteousness of God they learn the truth: their sin condemns them and separates them from God and their “good works” are unacceptable and useless in saving them. So they decry, hate, and persecute anything and anyone that truly is righteous because it reveals their sin and wickedness. When Christ the Light exposes their sin they despise Him for it and try to hide from or get rid of His presence (John 3:19-20).
Jesus clearly told his followers that persecution was part of being his disciple (Matt. 16:24-26, 2 Tim. 3:12, 1 Pet. 4:12, Phil. 1:29). Because suffering is a normal part of discipleship, if we are not experiencing suffering we should question where righteousness is being displayed in our life. If we never face persecution we are either not living righteously or we are nowhere near darkness where Christ’s light would be evident. We do not seek out suffering, if we are living righteously it will find us, and when we encounter it we must faithfully endure it while blessing those who persecute us (Rom. 12:14, 1 Cor. 4:12). If we are suffering for righteousness, Peter exhorts us to glorify God in our suffering and entrust our souls to our faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:15-16, 19). Yet the normality of persecution does not explain why Jesus counts it a blessing. Most people think blessing is health, wealth, praise, and a good life and thus view persecution as a curse to flee rather than a gift to embrace.
The story is different in God’s kingdom. When God looks at those who are persecuted for living in His righteousness He declares these are the ones who are truly blessed! Why? They are blessed because they are part of the kingdom of heaven. The Greek typically translated “theirs is the kingdom” literally reads “of them is the kingdom of heaven” or, more colloquially phrased, “the kingdom of heaven is made up of this kind of people.” The persecuted are the ones who inherit the kingdom, not those praised and applauded by the world, but those hated by it. While the world praises the prosperous and wealthy and considers them lucky, Jesus says it is the persecuted who are truly fortunate and whose lives should be desired because they are His own. In Christ’s upside-down kingdom it is the ones who live with curses who are truly blessed, because they will receive the greatest blessings possible: Christ and communion with Him forever. Their earthly life may be marked by persecution, but they will experience eternal reward and glory with Christ. This blessing is not only a future reward, it is their present state because as God’s children they are in his kingdom now. Now they are experiencing Christ, His power, and His goodness. Their persecution is proof of their kingdom citizenship and of their godly living, for in their persecution Christ’s life is evident in them and the Holy Spirit is clearly upon them (1 Pet. 4:14, 2 Cor. 4:8-12). God is with His people always, even in the midst of persecution, and He will faithfully strengthen and uphold them during persecution.
One of the great examples in Scripture of a man persecuted for righteousness is Daniel. The Babylonians tried to make Daniel like them, and though he was trained to be a Babylonian citizen he would not compromise his purity and standing as a citizen of God’s kingdom. God blessed Daniel and gave him great wisdom and favor. He became a counselor to the king and his advice proved far better than the Babylonian’s. But though Daniel had attained to the peak of this worldly kingdom it was not his home. His faith and hope were in God’s kingdom and his allegiance was to Him alone. So, he lived righteously as a citizen of God’s kingdom even while serving one of the greatest earthly kings. Daniel knew God placed and removed kings and kingdoms according to His will and he knew his favor in Babylon was due to God’s wisdom and mercy. Daniel was appointed as one of the three highest officials under Darius, and Darius planned to set him over the whole kingdom, which infuriated the other officials (Daniel 6:3). But they found no fault with him because he was faithful, honest, and righteous; the only thing they could attack was his allegiance to God (6:4-5).
When they convinced Darius to outlaw prayer, Daniel immediately went home and prayed as was his daily practice (6:10). He would not be swayed by an earthly law to forsake the heavenly Kingdom, he feared God and continued to worship and serve him. He was caught by those who laid the trap and slandered before Darius. Darius had not recognized the trap and had been manipulated by his officials, but now he felt forced to uphold his ill-conceived law and let these hungry officials throw Daniel to the lions. The jaws of death seemed inevitable, but God delivered his faithful servant by shutting the lions’ mouths. His faithfulness even to death led the king to worship God and throw his persecutors and their families to these lions, whose jaws were now released and devoured them.
Daniel is one of the few righteous men in Scripture who is constantly praised and who is never described as falling into sin. Yet Daniel was not an extraordinary citizen of God’s kingdom, at least, he is not meant to be. He lived as all kingdom citizens should: as a humble servant of the King, living rightly in the life God called him to live. He faced the persecution God promises awaits His people, and his righteousness in persecution is proof of his citizenship. Yet his life shows not just persecution, but blessing. His life displays God’s tender love, care, mercy, and salvation of His own. Daniel was never alone, even in facing death, He was in God’s sovereign hands. His pain was not unknown or out of God’s control, but God worked in his life for Daniel’s good and His glory.
This is the Lord we serve who calls us blessed, for even in the face of death we are safe in His arms and nothing can separate us from His love. This world is not our home and Christ has overcome it, therefore we can have peace even in the most hostile of circumstances and hope in the greatest persecution (John 16:33). One day all who trust in Christ will be finally brought into His glorious kingdom and will forever live and reign with Him. Oh for that day! May we graciously and joyously embrace the troubles of this life with hope and faith that these things truly are momentary and light in comparison to eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Therefore, we run with endurance and confidence in Christ and live righteously as kingdom citizens, knowing the world can never take away the blessings God bestows.
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 Lloyd-Jones, Studies Sermon on the Mount, 133, 135.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) 136.
 Ibid, 28. (Carson)