(Mat 5:10-12) “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Prophecy, to Jesus, was not merely God’s way of proving that he knows the future. Rather, prophecy is one way in which God reveals his will for and makes promises to his people. Jesus wasn’t saying: be assured that God really is omniscient! The First Century Jews considered that entirely obvious.
No, Jesus’ point was that: God is finally keeping his promises. You see, the prophecies were covenantal, not apologetic. That is, they were promises to be kept, not proof of God’s foreknowledge. (Of course, they do prove God’s foreknowledge. That’s just not the main purpose they serve.)
And if God was about to keep his promises, the people would naturally expect life to suddenly get very easy.
(Isa 66:11-12) For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance.” 12 For this is what the LORD says: “I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees.”
Many prophecies of the return from exile speak of great wealth, peace, and prosperity.
(Isa 60:5-7) Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. 7 All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth will serve you; they will be accepted as offerings on my altar, and I will adorn my glorious temple.
And so, imagine the shock of this crowd hearing: The kingdom is dawning! Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! It hard to imagine anything more jarring. How can the kingdom be dawning along with an age of persecution? How comforting is that??
Jesus was revealing something new. Check your cross-referencing Bibles. The earlier Beatitudes have lots of cross-references to the prophets. Not this one.
The new thing is that there will be a transitional period between the dawn of the kingdom and the coming of the kingdom in its fullness. And during this time, there will be persecution. Why?
(Mat 5:13-16) “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
This is a missionary passage. It’s also a passage about doing good to show that God is good. Indeed, this section is joined to the previous section by —
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness … .”
“Righteousness” is a word that shows up over and over again in the prophets, and it usually describes God — his honoring of his covenant with Israel and his concern for the oppressed. But when applied to his people, it speaks of dealing justly with the oppressed.
(Isa 1:21) See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her– but now murderers!
(Isa 1:26-28) I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.” 27 Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness. 28 But rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the LORD will perish.
(Isa 5:22-23) Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice [righteousness] to the innocent.
(Isa 26:5-9) He humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. 6 Feet trample it down– the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor. 7 The path of the righteous is level; O upright One, you make the way of the righteous smooth. 8 Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts. 9 My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.
To be persecuted “for righteousness” is not being persecuted for being in the church. Being persecuted for righteousness is being persecuted because you insist that the poor and oppressed be treated justly — and do so yourself.
Thus, we see some of the flavor of “they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” These are deeds of righteousness.
These words then naturally lead to —
(Mat 5:17) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Jesus had already been talking of the Law and the Prophets. He was already promising that they’d be fulfilled. He’s saying: it’s really going to happen just as God promised — but there will first be this in-between time of persecution and missionary work.