Open Matthew 5:3-12.
The Beatitudes are revolutionary. They’re cameos of what happens when God turns the world back up the right way, overturning evil, restoring his reign. Release from oppression brings exuberant joy. Those who’ve missed out receive the kingdom. Those who’ve grieved receive comfort. The powerless receive the earth. Those who’ve yearned for justice are finally satisfied.
The heart of this joy is the untwisting of our humanity. All the injustice and power struggles and grief and poverty stem from abusing the power God gave us to rule his creation. We were designed to image his character by managing his world. Instead people have grasped his power and wielded it violently, destructively, oppressively. But all this evil is untwisted as God, in Jesus, brings us back under his reign.
So Jesus proclaims great joy on those who are genuinely human. Blessed are those who stop revolting, and reflect the image of our heavenly sovereign instead.
He gives us four cameos of what that looks like. It’s treating each other with mercy, so people see God’s mercy (5:7). It’s acting out of a pure heart, so people can see God rather than our image (5:8). It’s working for peace, so people see the family resemblance (5:9).
But there’s a problem with Jesus’ approach.
Will “being nice” to people who are violent and evil work? Won’t we just get chewed up and spat out? As Jesus has already acknowledged, the world is a dark and violent place where the poor miss out, the powerless are downtrodden, and many mourn and yearn for justice. Isn’t it unrealistic to imagine that we can just live as God intended in the beginning? Won’t we be destroyed by the violence and evil around us if we do that?
This was as obvious to Jesus as it is to us today. Israel had constantly suffered in Old Testament times. They were still crushed by the nations in Jesus’ day. Nevertheless, he called them to be God’s kingdom people in the face of this injustice.
He knew we’d get hurt. He called it a kingdom privilege:
Matthew 5:10 (ESV)
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus had no illusions about how tough it will be to live as truly human beings in a world where violence and abuse reigns. The eighth Beatitude is a blessing on those who suffer doing exactly that. The rich and powerful demean and, if necessary, demolish those who live under God’s authority, because it threatens their power base and exposes their inhumanity.
Jesus knew. Judah’s kings threw Jeremiah in prison to silence him. Gentile kings threw Daniel to the lions because he appealed to a higher authority. Others were permanently silenced by the beastly powers: stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by swords (Hebrews 11:37).
Jesus understood the powers would react like this to him and to his followers. It starts with social pressure to shut up and conform. Then come the spin-doctors to discredit those who are being genuinely human. If that doesn’t succeed, the next step is imprisonment, and the ultimate weapon is always death.
With his eyes fully open to the dangers, Jesus calls us to follow him on this dangerous path, trusting the God who gives the kingdom to such people. Rejoice, he says! If you’re suffering for doing right, jump for joy because those who use evil to keep power are feeling threatened. They know how fragile their power-base is. Rejoice! Their power will fail; heaven’s ruler will be king. And he knows how to reward his people:
Matthew 5:11–12 (ESV)
11 Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As representatives of God’s kingdom, we cannot use the abusive powers that characterize the nations in rebellion. We must embody the mercy our king has shown us. We must renounce violence as a means of getting what we want, so people can see God. We must make peace, as sons representing our Father. When we suffer abuse for being truly human, we’re to rejoice that somebody felt threatened, so God’s reign is becoming visible.
Does that sound scary and full of hope at the same time?
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2009), 171:
Here also Jesus takes his ethic of nonretaliation (5:38–47) to its furthest possible length: a disciple not only refuses to strike back, but rejoices when persecuted. The persecution itself confirms one’s trust in God’s promise of reward, because the prophets suffered likewise (13:57; 23:37; 26:68; Jer 26:11, 23; 1 Kings 18:4; 19:10; 2 Chron 36:15–16; Neh 9:26), as Jewish tradition also acknowledged.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 169–170:
The pursuit of “righteousness” (v. 6) can arouse opposition from those whose interests or self-respect may be threatened by it. Already in the commendation of the merciful and the peace-makers these beatitudes have marked out the true disciple not as a hermit engaged in the solitary pursuit of holiness but as one engaged in society, and such engagement has its cost.
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos, 2010), 265–266:
Who suffer on account of righteousness. This is descriptive of those who inflame the hatred, and provoke the rage, of wicked men against them, because, through an earnest desire to do what is good and right, they oppose bad causes and defend good ones, as far as lies in their power.
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