This blog post is part of a series of posts that will explore the Atonement by studying Christ’s life in the New Testament. If you want to find the assignments, you can download my eBooks for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (John coming soon.)
The Atonement and Your Personal Relationship with Christ – Assignment for Matthew 5
“1. Christ has officially begun His ministry here. His ministry is a part of His purpose, His goals, and is the set up to His eventual Atonement. Keep this in mind as we study His teachings. See if you can find how the Savior’s teachings fit into the Atonement, plan of Salvation, and your life, personally.
2. Each thing Christ has taught in this chapter, He has modeled Himself. He is the Exemplar. You may consider studying some of these qualities and finding instances where Christ exemplifies them. For example: poor in spirit. Find a time when Christ was poor in spirit. How can you follow His behavior in your own life?” – New Testament Study Companion: Matthew
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
This is the final of the beatitudes that we’ll be studying. I feel like I’ve learned so much! I hope that you have, too.
This last beatitude is actually a little longer than the others. We can quote it in one verse, but the Savior actually continues on:
” Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” – Matthew 5:10-12
Before I began to really study this beatitude, I wondered, why did Christ tell this one last of all? and Why did Christ explain this one more than He did the others? I’m not completely sure of the answers. (Besides, they would only be speculation, anyways). But I’m keeping them in mind. In a way, I suppose it implies importance to this beatitude. In any case, think about this while we study the beatitude.
As with the other beatitudes, we will first discover what this beatitude means. We will then see how Christ exemplified it during His great work of the Atonement.
The Meaning of the Parable
Persecuted for righteousness’ sake
You don’t have to think very long or hard to find examples of people who have either persecuted the righteous or have been persecuted because they were righteous. A few quick examples include: The people in Lehi’s Dream (1 Nephi 8), Joseph Smith (See here), The Savior (Luke 23), Abinadi (Mosiah 17), and Alma both persecuted others (Mosiah 27 and then after his conversion was persecuted (Alma 14). There are even modern-day accounts of people who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Jeffrey R. Holland shares a few examples in this talk).
The point of this list is to say that people have always been persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The short list above is not even the tip of the iceberg. So many of the people I listed here who were persecuted for righteousness’ sake were martyred. What dedication! Yet the beatitude says that “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” how could persecution unto death be considered a blessing?
Jacob, the son of Lehi, was reminded about his suffering:
“Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” – 2 Nephi 2:2
Trusting that we’ll be blessed for enduring persecution requires us to trust in God and His perspective. It can be difficult to see how such endurance could be a blessing. I’m often guilty of thinking, “Oh, things will be alright. If I’m righteous, then the Lord will spare me of my suffering.” Sometimes, this is true. Because of righteous decisions, there is a great deal of suffering that I’m spared of – self-inflicted problems such as addiction.
However, this beatitude reminds us that there are times when, even though we’re righteous, we will suffer. Some people, like many mentioned above, suffer to the death. There are times when we won’t be delivered from the difficulty and affliction we’re in until we die. We must maintain an eternal perspective while going through this life, otherwise it is impossible to endure persecution.
There is another aspect to being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. I can’t help but think about the people who are doing the persecuting. What on earth is their motive? An unnamed high priest wonders the same thing when Korihor is about persecuting the people of God and preaching against the gospel:
“And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him [Korihor]: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?” – Alma 30:22
In other words, this high priest is asking Korihor, “What’s your deal? Why are you changing God’s ways and laws? Why are you trying to frustrate our happiness? There are so many more witnesses than you of God and His divinity. What gives???”
Why do people persecute others? What motivated the Pharisees to hate the Savior so much? Why did Korihor, Sherem, and Nehor seek to destroy the church in the Book of Mormon. Why did mobs of people attack and then kill Joseph Smith? What motivates those who persected in the past and those who persecute others now?
In the Book of Mormon is recorded Lehi’s dream. He had a vision where he saw many people walking along a path and an iron rod to the tree of life. This path was arduous and difficult. The people needed to endure trials, mists of darkness, and even scoffing and mocking in order to finally partake of the fruit of this tree. Along this path were people in a “great and spacious building” who mocked the people who were faithfully holding tight to the rod of iron and making their way to the tree of life.
Why did they mock? What was it to them? We find out more about these people from Nephi:
“And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever.” – 1 Nephi 12:18
The people in the great and spacious building were motivated by the “vain imaginations” and pride.
Other helpful examples are the excuses given by three prominent “anti-Christs” in the book of Mormon.
Why did Sherem persecute the people and preach against God? He tells here:
And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment. – Jacob 7:18
Sherem preached against righteousness because he had been deceived.
Why did Nehor preach against the church and then even kill Gideon, a righteous man? We learn in Alma:
“And it came to pass that he did teach these things so much that many did believe on his words, even so many that they began to support him and give him money.” – Alma 1:5
Nehor preached against righteousness because he was able to get power and money for his self-promotion and teaching. Nehor later killed a righteous man, and was consequently put to death. At his execution, Nehor admits that what he had taught people was “contrary to the word of God,” (Alma 1:15).
Why did Korihor persecute the righteous? He explains it himself:
“But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.” – Alma 30:53
From these four examples, I can only surmise that people persecute the righteous because they are proud, they are deceived, they want power and prestige over others, and because righteousness is not really pleasing to our carnal, natural minds.
I think it is important to remember the motives of those who persecute against righteousness. Sometimes the reason is pathetic- the people are confused or deceived. Other times, the reasons are insidious – they want power over people. Understanding these motives can help us to fight them off. Those who preach against the gospel and persecute righteousness can be very convincing.
Kingdom of Heaven
Next, the Lord teaches that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Before investigating this further, the first thing that strikes me is that Christ doesn’t say, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for they will be blessed with monetary riches.” He doesn’t say that they “…will experience great health throughout their lives.” He doesn’t promise friends, an easy life, or many of the things that we consider blessings.
Instead, Christ offers something that no one or thing else can offer: the kingdom of Heaven. I think that if we remember that this is the blessing, then we will also better be able to keep perspective of our current trials and tribulations. In other words, this beatitude demands us to have an eternal perspective.
Now, what is the kingdom of Heaven?
I can’t help but think of the many parables that Christ gives in Matthew 13. In this chapter alone, we learn that the kingdom of Heaven is:
- “Mysterious” – it is not understood by the natural mind, but by the Spirit. (Verse 11)
- Will be purged of the tares. (Verse 24)
- Like a mustard seed – the least of all seeds, but greatest of all herbs: growing into a tree. (Verse 31)
- Like leaven – a small amount will leaven the whole loaf. (Verse 33)
- A treasure in a field and when a man finds it will sell all he has to buy that field. (Verse 44)
- A pearl of great price. (Verse 45)
- A net that is cast into the sea and gathers of every kind. All of the bad is discarded, then all truth and goodness is included. (Verse 47)
As I look through this list, I’m struck by a few things: the kingdom of Heaven is, of course, God’s kingdom. It is perfectly cleaned. In fact, it has been cleansed by Him. The tares were cast out. The garbage caught in the net was discarded. Only the pure remains.
Additionally, I’m formulating another idea of the kingdom of heaven. It is abundantly rich. Like the mustard tree, it is large and strong even though it had humble beginnings. It is a pearl of great price. It is everything in the earth that is good and true. I really love understanding this concept. I have recently gotten into yoga and meditation. There are so many good practices from eastern religions. As I’ve learned more about them, I remember to keep the Savior at the center of everything that I’m learning, but that the gospel is all truth circumscribed into one great whole.
This is the kingdom of Heaven: all that is good, just, and true. It is all that is beautiful and joyous. It is every pure and good thing. It isn’t just this ethereal idea of people floating around in clouds and blowing trumpets (although there may be some of that…who knows). My point is it is more than that. The kingdom of Heaven is substantive. It is all of everything – truth, goodness, purity. I need to remember that God isn’t just offering us a life of hanging out in the sky. He offers us the abundant life. To those who are righteous to the point where they will endure persecution because of their righteousness Christ offers everything in His kingdom.
Understanding this makes martyrdom, even, seem like a small price to pay for everlasting joy and abundance.
Jesus Christ – His Atonement and Persecution
Now that we understand more about this beatitude, we will look at how it can possibly relate to Christ’s Atonement.
Persecution for Righteousness’ sake
Well, at first glance, I think that it is really easy to see the relationship between this beatitude and the Atonement. The entire Atonement is fraught with persecution and suffering. Here are a few thoughts on the matter:
Christ was righteous, and I mean Righteous. He is the essence of all righteousness. His example is perfect. He was pure. The Atonement – which was taking on our sins and imperfections and paying the price that justice demanded of them so that we could receive mercy – could only be performed by Him. Because of His purity, only He could offer Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins.
It is interesting to me, too, that Christ – immediately after paying the price of our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane – would be betrayed, falsely accused, and arrested.
After being arrested, he is taken before Pilate and questioned. He then is taken to Herod where he is treated like some kind of circus freak. (Herod wants him to “perform”). This is all before the real persecution starts. But it’s bad enough already. Can you imagine being falsely accused and then taken before local judges/magistrates where they treated you like some kind of freak show? How horribly humiliating.
But Christ’s persecution – all because He was righteous – doesn’t end there.
Christ is sentenced to death, primarily because a mob chanting, “Crucify Him!” refused to release a known robber. The Pharisees and wicked people that condemned Christ were largely offended by who He was – the son of God – one who healed, served, and performed miracles. Instead of seeing that Christ was their promised Messiah, because they had been so far removed from righteousness, they persecuted it.
As Christ endured His sentence, He also endured a great deal of persecution.
Nephi describes Christ’s experience succinctly:
“And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” – 1 Nephi 19:9
AFTER Christ had already suffered the pains of every sin and infirmity of every person in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ then suffered the humiliation of false accusation, arrest and judgement. Then, He continued to suffer mocking, scourging, and smiting.
Matthew relates what happened to the Savior as He hung on the Christ but before He gave up the ghost:
And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads,
And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.
Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said,
He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.
He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.
The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.” – Matthew 27:39-43
I find this to be one of the most bitterly ironic passages, or paradoxical, maybe hypocritical? I don’t know. But this passage is annoying, at best, and I shake my head in amazement. These unbelieving Jews, the people of the covenant, didn’t understand their own religion or their God. And what they persecute Christ for demonstrates their ignorance and pride.
They walk by Him, wagging their heads. This implies a sense of persecution and mockery, for sure.
Then, they tempt Christ, saying, “If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.” They claim that because He can’t save Himself, then He’s obviously not capable of saving anyone else. But they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand their own laws and ordinances. They didn’t understand the symbolism of the blood sacrifice that they offered – as a type of the sacrifice that He would offer.
The thing that is ironic here is that because Christ didn’t save Himself in that moment, he saved Himself and all mankind. Had Christ not endured persecution for righteousness sake, and He had the power not to, then He would not have been able to finish His work. By staying on that cross,and by dying, He was saving Himself and others!
Thankfully, we have the advantage of hindsight when thinking of Christ and His Atonement. We know that three days after being crucified, He was not in the garden tomb. He was risen. And He lives.
Sometimes it is easy to think that we could endure the persecution that those who lived in the past endured, but we forget that they didn’t have the advantage of hindsight.
When I think of Christ’s experience being persecuted, I am reminded of the fact that sometimes the wicked do have the power to hurt us to the point where we may die. Sometimes the wicked do obtain material wealth and power over others. We see this with war criminals. We see this with the Pharisees that condemned Christ.
But we must maintain perspective. The devil had power to bruise Christ’s Heel, but with that very heel that had been bruised, Christ was able to crush the devil’s head.
Righteous will prevail. It’s worth enduring persecution for.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Because of all that Christ suffered – even unto death; because He chose to descend below all, He was able ascend above all and inherit the kingdom of God.
And, because Christ has suffered our sins, we can covenant with Him and also become joint heirs and inherit the kingdom of Heaven.
Last week, I went to the Mesa Easter Pageant with my kids. When Christ was being crucified, T-Rex was perplexed, “Why didn’t he fight?” He asked. It was cute, and it was a good question.
That’s the thing, though. Christ didn’t fight the immediate problem. He could have He could have escaped and destroyed His executioners. He could have avoided all persecution. He could have silenced the Pharisees or He could have given into their traps. Of course, Had he done that, then the Atonement would not have been performed, Salvation for all would have been thwarted and niehter the Savior nor anyone else would have been able to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
And, as I write this, maybe the right answer to my little boy is, “Oh, but He did fight. He fought the true fight of agency and mastery over sin and temptation. He performed His work. He was resurrected. He lives. He didn’t get diverted by a little difficulty (okay, crucifixion is more than a “little” difficulty). Instead, He stayed focused on His real battle, and He conquered.
What have you learned about being persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Have you experienced this in some way? How did you endure?