“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
How should I respond to that amazing teaching by Jesus? Is this a calling to persecution like Jesus just called the disciples to humility, meekness, hunger, mercy, purity, and peace? Or is persecution something that I am likely to encounter as a follower, like mourning, and Jesus is teaching me about the heavenly attitude to have when persecution happens?
I think I have an idea about what was happening in the lives of Matthew’s first readers. Some of the disciples who Matthew wrote specifically to influence were being mistreated, at least socially, by fellow Jews who didn’t trust Jesus. These unbelievers were led in their meanness by the Pharisees who were an influential bunch. Jesus said, “They persecuted the prophets before you,” and emphasized that again later (Matthew 23) directly identifying the Jews who actually murdered the prophets.
I don’t know that there is evidence of wide-spread deadly persecution for the first readers of Matthew. Yet, it seems that Matthew wants to underscore the relationships these followers have. They are related to the prophets who were killed by the Jews, yet now have reward in heaven. They are related to Jesus, who was persecuted by the socially and religiously elite among the Jews and has ascended to the right hand with all authority. They are in great company, even if the social standouts don’t think so.
I’ve never been mistreated by a Jew. There haven’t been many times in my life that I felt like I was being mistreated by anybody because I am a follower of Jesus. But I have some incredibly brave relatives; ancestors and contemporaries in Christ who have their reward in heaven. If I ever do have to put up with discrimination or deadly force “because of Jesus,” I’ll remember them, and I will not deny my Savior and Lord! That’s Life at Work!