Blessed Are the Persecuted Prophets, Part 2: The God Who Respects Our No

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The gospel is a comedy in the classic literary sense: it ends with a wedding and turns expectations on their heads along the way.

It’s often said that the people of Jesus’s time expected the Messiah to come in military power, overthrow Rome, and rule Israel from a literal throne in Jerusalem. That is surely the truth–even though the Old Testament gave hints, all along, that that wasn’t exactly how it would be. God’s plan was more subversive, more transformational than that.

And so when Jesus calls us his prophets at the end of the Beatitudes, he also promises persecution. He’s actually quite specific: you will be persecuted, insulted, and slandered for the sake of righteousness (right-being) and because of Jesus.

But when that happens, he lets us know, we ought to rejoice and be exceedingly glad, because our reward is great in heaven.

Why Persecution Comes

In a sense, it seems backward that persecution should be allowed. If God is sovereign (which he is), if Jesus is triumphant (which he is), and if the kingdom of God has come (which it has), why isn’t persecution a thing of the past? Why aren’t the righteous immediately vindicated and the wicked–here defined as those who reject the gift that would transform and save them–just forced into compliance?

The answer lies in God’s respect and love for all people, and in the subversive nature of his plan. He did not come to destroy the people in whom the kingdom of darkness reigns, but to transport them out of it into the kingdom of light.


At Jesus’s trial, Pilate asked him whether he was the King of Jews. Jesus answered:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36)

Only hours before, the disciples experienced what this meant in a shocking and visceral way. When soldiers and a mob showed up to arrest Jesus, Peter leapt forward with great courage and drew his sword to defend his rabbi, as he had sworn to do. He struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. It was a classic showdown: good versus evil, the children of light springing to the defense of the innocent.

Except that Jesus held out his hand to stop Peter. He knelt down and replaced the servant’s ear. And he said:

“Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels? How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)

A Roman legion could include 6000 soldiers, so Jesus revealed here that he could immediately call more than 70,000 angelic soldiers into action.

But he didn’t. He respected his enemies and left them alive, in order to enact their salvation and forgiveness only a little way down the road.


The kingdom of heaven does not work the way the kingdoms of the world do. Historically, kingdoms of the world advance through conquest and force. By contrast, Jesus came and planted his kingdom as an invisible force in the lives of his people. He chose empty people and made them prophets, able to give voice to the heart of God in the world. Our lives are seeds. The kingdom does not come from outside and force its way in; it comes from inside, germinates in secret, and grows.

Until it changes the world.

For that process to work, the kingdom cannot rely on violence. Every time Christians have tried to advance the kingdom through violent means, it has backfired. We have driven people away from God, not drawn them to him. God’s desire isn’t to cut off the enemies’ ears; it’s to heal them.

How else can they hear the Word that would save them?


The kingdom has come as a seed and a message. It will literally transform lives, and it will bring the rule of God into every place where it’s invited. It does so in a way that is not violent … on an earthly level.

On a spiritual level, this is violence indeed. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church, Jesus declared. The kingdom of light invades, raids, and guts the kingdom of darkness.

So the kingdom of darkness fights back.

It’s interesting that out of the three types of persecution Jesus promises here, two are spoken: insults and slander (lies). The kingdom of God advances primarily through word; the kingdom of darkness fights back the same way. Truth is powerful; so are lies.

But since truth is MORE powerful, and since it brings with it freedom and transformation, the kingdom of darkness is not above good old-fashioned physical violence either. Persecution happens, especially when the gospel first advances in an area. So many Christians died in the early Christian era that it was said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”


God is on a rescue mission. The goal is not to destroy the world, as happened with Noah’s flood, but to save it. A violent world fights back. God is constantly rejected. Those who speak for God shouldn’t expect that they won’t be affected by this.

So God tells us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, bless those who curse us. The kingdom of light will win in this way.

We shouldn’t think this means God delights in our suffering. He wept over his own in Gethsemane. But we live in a violent reality, and God invites us to join him in loving his enemies, in pursuing those who reject him, in blessing those who curse, in replacing the ears of those who come to cut off our message.

God respects the “no” of those who reject him every day. His plan is long-term and transformational. He is giving a full harvest time to grow. More seeds drop all the time. Others are germinating deep in the earth. Others are already changing the landscape. Some fields are new; some have been bearing fruit for hundreds of years. The fight is a riot of weeds in the midst of the wheat–but the wheat is there.


So we are invited into his mission. We are invited into his patience. We are promised persecution in the process–that just as he met with opposition, slander, and trouble, so will we.

We don’t have to manufacture our own persecution complexes in order to feel genuinely Christian. We can thank God for times and places of peace even as we keep up the work of sowing, watering, growing, and transforming in whatever ways present themselves.

But where we do encounter trouble, we’re also promised reward. Reward so great that we should, as Luke says, “Leap for joy.” There is trouble on earth, where so much of reality is still violent. But in heaven–the parallel reality, the invisible world in which we already walk through the Spirit–there is unspeakable reward.

(This is Part 31 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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