Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (5:12)
The believer’s response to persecution and affliction should not be to retreat and hide. To escape from the world is to escape responsibility. Because we belong to Christ, we are no longer of this world, but He has sent us into this world to serve just as He Himself came into this world to serve (John 17:14–18).
His followers are “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:13–14). For our salt to flavor the earth and our light to lighten the world we must be active in the world. The gospel is not given to be hidden but to enlighten. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (vv. 15–16).
When we become Christ’s salt and Christ’s light, our salt will sting the world’s open wounds of sin and our light will irritate its eyes that are used to darkness. But even when our salt and light are resented, rejected, and thrown back in our face, we should rejoice, and be glad.
Be glad is from agalliaō, which means to exult, to rejoice greatly, to be overjoyed, as is clear in the King James Version, “be exceeding glad.” The literal meaning is to skip and jump with happy excitement. Jesus uses the imperative mood, which makes His words more than a suggestion. We are commanded to be glad. Not to be glad when we suffer for Christ’s sake is to be untrusting and disobedient.
The world can take away a great deal from God’s people, but it cannot take away their joy and their happiness. We know that nothing the world can do to us is permanent. When people attack us for Christ’s sake, they are really attacking Him (cf. Gal. 6:17; Col. 1:24). And their attacks can do us no more permanent damage than they can do Him.
Jesus gives two reasons for our rejoicing and being glad when we are persecuted for His sake. First, He says, your reward in heaven is great. Our present life is no more than “a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14); but heaven is forever. Small wonder that Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures for ourselves here on earth, “where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matt. 6:19–20). Whatever we do for the Lord now, including suffering for Him-in fact, especially suffering for Him-reaps eternal dividends.
God’s dividends are not ordinary dividends. They are not only eternal but are also great. If God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20), how much more abundantly is He able to grant what He Himself promises to us?
We often hear, and perhaps are tempted to think, that it is unspiritual and crass to serve God for the sake of rewards. But that is one of the motives that God Himself gives for serving Him. We first of all serve and obey Christ because we love Him, just as on earth He loved and obeyed the Father because He loved Him. But it was also because of “the joy set before Him” that Christ Himself “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). It is neither selfish nor unspiritual to do the Lord’s work for a motive that He Himself gives and has followed.
Second, we are to rejoice because the world persecuted the prophets who were before us in the same way that it persecutes us. When we suffer for Christ’s sake, we are in the best possible company. To be afflicted for righteousness’s sake is to stand in the ranks of the prophets. Persecution is a mark of our faithfulness just as it was a mark of the prophets’ faithfulness. When we suffer for Christ’s sake we know beyond a doubt that we belong to God, because we are experiencing the same reaction from the world that the prophets experienced.
When we suffer for our Lord we join with the prophets and the other saints of old who “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” (Heb. 11:36–38). Though the world is not worthy of their company, every persecuted believer is. To be persecuted verities that we belong to the line of the righteous.
Our assurance of salvation does not come from knowing we made a decision somewhere in the past. Rather, our assurance that the decision was a true decision for Jesus Christ is found in the life of righteousness that results in suffering for the sake of Christ. Many will claim to have preached Christ, cast out demons, and done mighty works for His sake, but will be refused heaven (Matt. 7:21–23). But none who have suffered righteously for Him will be left out.
The world cannot handle the righteous life that characterizes kingdom living. It is not understandable and acceptable to them, and they cannot stomach it even in others. Poverty of spirit runs counter to the pride of the unbelieving heart. The repentant, contrite disposition that mourns over sin is never appreciated by the callous, indifferent, unsympathetic world. The meek and quiet spirit that takes wrong and does not strike back is regarded as pusillanimous, and it rasps against the militant, vengeful spirit characteristic of the world. To long after righteousness is repugnant to those whose fleshly cravings are rebuked by it, as is a merciful spirit to those whose hearts are hard and cruel. Purity of heart is a painful light that exposes hypocrisy and corruption, and peacemaking is a virtue praised by the contentious, self-seeking world in words but not in heart.
John Chrysostom, a godly leader in the fourth-century church preached so strongly against sin that he offended the unscrupulous Empress Eudoxia as well as many church officials. When summoned before Emperor Arcadius, Chrysostom was threatened with banishment if he did not cease his uncompromising preaching. His response was, “Sire, you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” “Then I will slay you,” Arcadius said. “Nay, but you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,” came the answer. “Your treasures will be confiscated” was the next threat, to which John replied, “Sire, that cannot be, either. My treasures are in heaven, where none can break through and steal.” “Then I will drive you from man, and you will have no friends left!” was the final, desperate warning. “That you cannot do, either,” answered John, “for I have a Friend in heaven who has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ ” Chrysostom was indeed banished, first to Armenia and then farther away to Pityus on the Back Sea, to which he never arrived because he died on the way. But neither his banishment nor his death disproved or diminished his claims. The things that he valued most highly not even an emperor could take from him.
How to Rejoice in Persecutions
The most striking part of Christ’s eighth and last beatitude is the command that the Christian is to rejoice in persecutions: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” How puzzling! For these questions immediately arise in the mind of any thoughtful reader: “How are we to rejoice in persecutions? How does one rejoice when unjustly insulted, scorned, or condemned?” These are valid questions, and the answer is well worth pondering. How does a Christian rejoice in persecutions?
I am convinced that the only valid answer to that question is—by knowledge.
In order to understand this it is necessary to recognize that some battles in the Christian life can be won in no other way than by knowledge—not by reason, not by feelings, but by knowledge.
A young man goes to college and meets a girl with whom he falls in love and whom he would like to marry but who is not a Christian. He wants to marry her, but he should not. The Holy Spirit within him is telling him so. As a result a terrific battle is in progress. How is he to win it? Well, it is certain that he will never win it by trusting his feelings, for his feelings are what have created the problem in the first place. He will not win it by reason, for the human mind is subtle, and he will always find ten reasons why he should marry her for every one why he should not. Neither can he win the battle by trusting his conscience. The human conscience can be bent to do almost anything we want it to do; in this case it can even be bent to immorality. There is only one way in which the young man will win the victory in this situation, and that is by clinging to the knowledge of God’s will that he has received from Scripture. He must say, “Lord, I do not want to give this particular girl up. I can think of a dozen reasons why I do not need to give her up. I can even make my conscience tell me that I should not give her up. But I know that I must. And because of that I will do it.” The young man must make an intellectual decision. And this means that, apart from any other factor, he must determine simply to walk in the way that he knows God would have him to go.
It is exactly the same when a Christian is in the midst of persecution. And what is more, almost every verse in the Bible that refers to persecution implies this. If you are enduring persecution, perhaps from your friends or your family, you dare not trust your feelings. There are times when Christians feel on top of the world even when they are suffering. But this is not always true. It is just as probable, perhaps more so, that the Christian will feel sad and dejected, as Elijah did under the juniper tree. If you trust your feelings, you will rejoice at best only at times and then only partially.
Neither can you trust your reason, for the reasoning power of a Christian is often that which is most shaken in the midst of persecution. Have you ever noticed how the apostle Paul described his mental state in the midst of his many persecutions? He writes about it in 2 Corinthians, telling us that confusion of his reason was at least part of the problem. He says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9). Along with being troubled, persecuted, and cast down, Paul also says that he was often perplexed. And hence he had learned that he could not trust even his own great powers of reason in the midst of troubles and persecutions.
If we cannot trust our feelings and if we cannot trust our reason, what can we Christians trust in order that we might rejoice in persecutions? We can only trust the knowledge that we have of God’s purposes in persecution and his control of suffering. And this is a knowledge gained only through Scripture. The victory is intellectual. It is only knowledge that will calm the Christian’s troubled heart and allow the supernatural joy of God’s Spirit to triumph in the midst of his suffering.
Identity with Christ
What are the things that a Christian can know that allow him to rejoice in persecutions? There are at least five. The first one is this: The Christian must know that through persecutions God is demonstrating his identity with Christ. This is the point of all the verses that teach that if we suffer with Christ we also shall be glorified with him. And it is behind Christ’s observation in our text, “For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We can see an example of this in what it means to be an American today in areas of the Near East where America’s present foreign policy is disliked and sometimes hated. Several years ago I was present in one of the Near Eastern countries in the company of two friends. One of them was another American with whom I had journeyed around the better part of the Mediterranean. The other was a Christian pastor who was born and raised in that country. We Americans thought very little of things we were doing as we toured the sights, but some of those things, although innocent in themselves, worried him. There were places where he did not want us to linger, objects we were not to photograph, subjects that he did not want us to speak about in public. In answer to our confused questions he explained that at the moment anti-American feeling was running high and that an innocent act, however well motivated, might be dangerously misconstrued. He said that this strong feeling was not directed so much against us personally as against our nation.
In just the same way the world always will be bitterly opposed to Jesus Christ and to his foreign policy, and it will hate his ambassadors. To the citizens of “his country,” however, the persecution will merely be evidence of their identification with him. They will know that it places them in the great company of those who have been similarly persecuted, and the persecution itself will be a matter of honor.
It was this knowledge that gave joy to the first Christians ever to be persecuted. They were Peter and John, and perhaps some of the other apostles, and they were beaten for the sake of their testimony in Jerusalem. We read, however, that after they were beaten, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:41–42). Persecution is evidence of the believer’s identification with his Lord.
The second part of a Christian’s knowledge that will help him to rejoice in persecution is the knowledge that God often uses persecution to perfect the believer. In the great wisdom of God, persecution is often the means by which the Christian is helped along the road to practical holiness and thereby made a little more like Jesus.
Peter knew this. He had known it personally, and he had seen it in the lives of his converts. Hence, when he wrote his first letter to those in Asia who were experiencing persecution, he wrote this about it: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:6–8). Peter was saying that for the Christian, persecution (and also suffering in general) is the crucible in which God the refiner purifies us and removes the dross from our lives.
Let me give you another illustration. Dr. Billy Graham tells of a friend of his who went through the Depression in the 1920s, losing a job, a fortune, a wife, and a home. But he was a believer in Jesus Christ, and he tenaciously held to his faith even though he was naturally depressed and cast down by circumstances. One day in the midst of his depression he stopped to watch some men doing stonework on a huge church in the city. One was busy chiseling a triangular piece of stone. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked. The workman stopped and pointed to a little opening near the top of the spire. “See that little opening up there near the spire?” he said. “Well, I’m shaping this down here so that it will fit in up there.” The friend said that tears filled his eyes as he walked away from the workman, for it seemed that God had spoken to him personally through the workman telling him that God was shaping him for heaven through his ordeal.
Peter said, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10–11). David tells us in one of the Psalms that before he was afflicted he went astray but that after the affliction he kept God’s word (Ps. 119:67). Most certainly, persecution was a significant factor in the spiritual growth of each of these men. Persecution is also a factor in God’s dealings with his children today. Because of this truth we may face persecution with all joy, knowing that after we have gone through its furnace we shall be more like Jesus, our Savior.
The third truth that will help a Christian to rejoice in persecution is the truth that persecution allows the Christian an opportunity to show forth the supernatural radiance of the Christian life. If everything is going well with you and you rejoice, what makes you different from the nonbelievers who are in the world? Nothing at all! They too rejoice when circumstances are favorable. If you are able to rejoice when things are not favorable, however, then Jesus Christ may be clearly seen in you, and the supernatural power of the Christian faith is made manifest. Persecution is the dark background for the supernatural radiance of this life.
Again, this truth is best illustrated by a story. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Mathews and their daughter Lilah were the last missionary family of the China Inland Mission to leave China after the Communist takeover at the end of the Second World War, and the story of their last two years in China is one of great persecution. For the better part of their two-year captivity in China they lived in one small room. Their only furniture was a stool. They could not contact their Christian friends for fear of subjecting them to reprisals for befriending aliens. Their funds were cut off by the government except for the smallest trickle. The only heat they had came from a small stove which they lit only once each day to boil rice for dinner. Even the fuel which they used was made by Mr. Mathews from the refuse that animals deposited around the streets. For a time the couple submitted to the treatment stoically, asking all the while that God would soon deliver them from China. At last a turning point came in their outlook. They realized that Jesus Christ had come from heaven, not merely submitting to the will of his Father, but delighting in it. And they saw that their own experience was comparable. It was an opportunity for the radiance of joyful obedience to be manifested in them and in which their conduct could be a supernaturally effective witness. After this they came to rejoice and even to sing hymns. And they came to accept the privilege of suffering for the sake of Christ with as much joy as they later experienced when they learned of their pending deliverance.
It was a similar knowledge of the opportunities afforded by persecution that taught Hugh Latimer to cry out to Nicholas Ridley as they were both led to the stake in Oxford, England, in 1555, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.” And he was right. For the behavior of Christians in persecutions was then and often still is a great testimony to God’s grace.
Rewards in Heaven
There are two more truths that a Christian should also know in order that he may rejoice in persecutions. The first is the promise of rewards. Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).
There are many Christians who consider even the thought of rewards to be ignoble. But that is because they are thinking only of material or self-exalting things. Actually, the rewards are far more likely to be spiritual—fellowship with Christ and proximity to him—and they cannot be the least bit self-exalting, for even they flow from God’s grace. Do not make your Christianity something so ethereal that you think your conduct should be above the thought of rewards. That is not how the believers of other ages prospered. Abraham looked for a city, with foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Moses chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season because “he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb. 11:26). Even Jesus “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, … and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). He said, “Rejoice … for great is your reward in heaven.”
Finally, the Christian can rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord Jesus himself is particularly near him in the moment of severe persecution. Do you remember the story of the three Hebrew young men who were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace? Their names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, whom the king named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Three men! But when the king looked into the furnace he said, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? … Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:24–25). In the same way Jesus Christ is particularly near those who are persecuted for his sake, and they can have great joy in this knowledge.
Victory in Persecution
When a Christian can anchor himself in a knowledge of the five great truths that have just been explained, persecution can result in rejoicing. And the rejoicing will—this is the culminating point—lead to greater knowledge.
Job knew suffering and great persecution. But he triumphed through knowledge, and the persecution itself led on to more knowledge. At the beginning Job knew that he had nothing in himself and that he had no rights at all before God. When God allowed the most severe blows of life to fall upon him, Job thrived in the knowledge that there was yet the corresponding grace of God and the inextinguishable love of God for himself. As the trials continued, he came to know that God was testing him and purifying his faith, and he rejoiced in that knowledge. Finally, he learned that God was revealing himself to him in a new way, and he came to expect an even fuller revelation. For Job, knowledge was the key to spiritual victory and his knowledge actually grew because of it. So should it be for every persecuted Christian.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 231–233). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 55–60). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.