Persecuted for Righteousness

The Sermon on the Mount (Part 7)

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).  We often see this verse as being persecuted for being a Christian or being persecuted for living a righteous life.  And this could very well be Jesus’ point.  But I wonder if there could be another angle to this verse based on the word “righteousness”.

At the heart of the gospel message is the proclamation that you and I are made 100% righteous when we believe the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:21).  “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30).  “For as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19).

That we have been declared righteous in the here and now by faith in Jesus is settled fact in the New Testament.  But that message is not always well-received even in the church.  It was happening in the apostle Paul’s day and is still with us today.

In Acts chapter 13, the apostle Paul launched into a powerful sermon that concluded with this promise, “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man [Jesus Christ] is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).  The gist of Paul’s message?  You are justified, declared righteous, by believing in Jesus.

While many hearers rejoiced at this gospel message, the end of the story is a familiar one.  “But the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region” (Acts 13:50).  This is a common theme in the book of Acts.  Paul faced persecution many times for proclaiming that the forgiveness of sins and being declared righteous was fully found through faith in Christ, apart from the Law.

Paul came back to this idea of being persecuted for his message of righteousness in this allegory from Galatians chapter 4.  “But the son [Ishmael] of the bondwoman [Hagar] was born according to the flesh, and the son [Isaac] of the free woman [Sarah] through the promise.  This contains an allegory: for these women are two covenants” (Galatians 4:23-24).  Paul goes on to explain that Hagar and Ishmael are a picture of the old covenant or the Law, and Sarah and Isaac represent the promise of the new covenant of grace.

Look now at Paul’s conclusion to the story.  “But as at that time, he who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit [Isaac], so it is now also!” (Galatians 4:29).  Did you catch the “so it is now also!”?  Paul is saying that those who see a need for a continued connection to the Law are persecuting grace teachers like Paul.

But what about today?  Is this still true?  I am afraid it is.  The law keepers are still persecuting the grace teachers.  Law keepers give an intellectual assent to grace.  They see grace as one part of the gospel.  But the message of the New Testament is that grace in the ONLY gospel.  And I say with sadness that friends of mine have lost their ministry position because of preaching too much of a grace emphasis.

I believe it is possible that Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” may be a prophecy regarding those who are persecuted for proclaiming a message of righteousness, proclaiming a message of grace.  If so, it was being fulfilled in Paul’s day, and it is still with us today.