(In 2017, I wrote this series for the 40 days prior to Easter to prepare our hearts and minds for the significance of Jesus’ resurrection. I’m reposting the series now for the 40 days after Easter to encourage us to follow through, living in the risen Savior and King.)
Today’s verses are Matthew 5:10-12, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
When I began this series, I scheduled the 40 devotions so they would end on Easter weekend. I did so because the Lord’s gospel for us in this life centers on the cross of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter morning. Our human nature, however, wants the blessing of the latter without the sacrificial love of the former. Off course, the Jesus calls His followers to both, but the spiritual resurrection of our rebirth and the physical resurrection that awaits all people (His faithful to eternal life and the rebellious to eternal death, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:31-46) are both one time blink-of-an-eye events. The Lord tells us to take up our cross daily. (Luke 9:23)
Of course, Jesus’ resurrection is essential. Without the risen Christ, we would have no living Savior to secure continue our growth in this life or guarantee our victorious entrance into the next. We would have no living King to protect and provide for us. As the Apostle Paul rightly says in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Still, it is easy to see that – in many ways – the cross overshadows the empty tomb in Scripture. You can use any good online Bible program to search for the words “resurrection, resurrected, resurrect, raised from the dead, etc.” and “crucified, crucifixtion, etc.”, and you will find that the Lord’s death on the cross is referenced well over 200 times in the New Testament. All references to the resurrection (Jesus, any of His followers then, and our future resurrection) total less than 50.
Yes, Jesus’ resurrection was and ours will be glorious and the beginning of eternal unspeakable joy. But the cross describes and prescribes the life to which our Lord calls us now. It describes the great cost that our Lord paid to cover all the sins of His people – past, present and future – and the persecution of which He warned followers in Matthew 10. It also prescribes the life of self-sacrifice to which He calls us.
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul. For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:21-27)
The Lord is even more explicit in Luke 14:25-27 when He see large crowds following Him, many of whom were apparently unaware, forgetting or denying the extreme loyalty and self-sacrifice to which He called them. “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.”
So what’s Jesus’ purpose in closing the Beatitudes with this statement about persecution and reward? Is He trying to thin the herd? Or maybe He’s just giving them fair warning so no one complains later that “You didn’t tell me it was going to be like this!”
Yes and no.
The Lord Jesus certainly wants our following by faith to be informed. That’s why His warning in Luke 14 included the analogy of a man with limited resources building an expensive tower and a smaller Army going up against a larger Army. He wants us to count the cost and decide, quite literally, what we think He is worth.
But He’s also reminding us of the heart of real love for Him and His real love for us: sacrifice and commitment.
Those who truly love the Lord will serve Him no matter what it costs them. In fact, they will rejoice in their willingness to endure hardships as opportunities to prove their genuine commitment. (Acts 5:41, 1 Peter 4:12-19, etc.) This why Jesus restates His first blessing, receiving the Kingdom of heaven: those who begin following out of true love for Him will persevere to the very end for the blessings of His Kingdom in this life and in eternity.
Some persecutions we face will be due to our clear proclamations of the gospel and real stands that we take for His honor. Others will be false accusations – anything the enemies of His cross can drum up to shut us up.
Anyone can be a fair weather friend. Jesus calls His people to stay with Him in the storm, because that’s when we see His love for us most clearly. And He will not simply reward us, He will greatly reward us as faithful servants and beloved friends. (Matthew 25:23 and John 15:25-17)