The verse in question comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he lays out the core principles and values of the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 5:12, he says:
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
To understand this verse fully, we need to examine the context and break down its key components:
The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus had begun attracting large crowds with his teaching and miracles. In Matthew 5-7, he goes away from the crowds and up a mountain, where his closest disciples come to him. There he lays out the ethical code and central principles of life in God’s kingdom for his followers.
A key theme is the reversal of worldly values in God’s kingdom. What the world thinks important, Jesus says God considers insignificant. And what the world despises, God honors. This backdrop helps illuminate why persecution leads to great reward in heaven.
“Rejoice and Be Glad”
Jesus begins by saying we should “rejoice and be glad” when persecuted and reviled for his sake. This seems counterintuitive to our natural human reaction. Our instinct is to avoid pain and seek comfort. So why should we rejoice?
Jesus explains it’s because there is a “great reward in heaven” for those persecuted for righteousness. The eternal treasure of heaven far outweighs any earthly suffering. And living for Christ inevitably brings persecution because the world hates having its evil exposed (John 7:7). But we can rejoice knowing our reward in heaven is secure.
“For so they persecuted the prophets”
Jesus also puts the persecution of his followers in the context of the prophets who came before them. The Old Testament prophets were persecuted because they spoke the truth of God, which indicted people for their sin and rebellion. Elijah, Jeremiah, and others were reviled and mistreated for their faithful witness (James 5:10).
So in the same way, Jesus says persecution is to be expected by his disciples. If the prophets were persecuted for declaring God’s word, so too will you be persecuted for living by my Kingdom principles that confront the world’s sinful ways.
Kingdom Principles Bring Persecution
What are some of the Kingdom principles Jesus taught that provoke persecution?
- He emphasized moral purity and exposed sinful lust (Matt. 5:27-30).
- He elevated humility, mourning over sin, meekness, and purity of heart over pride, callousness, high social status, and living for pleasure (Matt. 5:3-12).
- He replaced “eye for an eye” justice with radical grace, loving enemies, and going the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-42).
- He commanded full commitment to God above all else, rejecting half-heartedness (Matt. 6:24).
- He preached the exclusivity of Christ as the only way to the Father (John 14:6).
Principles like these confront and indict the world’s sinful ways. People revile and insult true disciples of Jesus because they reveal human pride, lust for pleasure, love of money, and rebellion against God.
A Mindset Fixed on Eternity
Jesus calls his followers to endure persecution with joy because their mindset is fixed on the eternal reward of heaven rather than momentary earthly comfort. Scripture offers many promises of the believer’s heavenly reward:
- “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23).
- “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Rom. 2:6).
- “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
- “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
With an eternal perspective, we can see that hostility and insults for Christ’s sake are actually opportunities to share in His sufferings and prove our hope is in heaven. Therefore, Jesus commands us to rejoice amidst persecution because of the breathtaking reward that awaits all who endure mistreatment for His name.
Heavenly Rewards for Faithful Endurance
Scripture hints at the kinds of eternal rewards believers can look forward to in heaven:
- The martyr’s reward – Those killed for their testimony for Christ receive a special reward, perhaps a “martyr’s crown” (Rev. 2:10, 3:21).
- Treasures in heaven – Jesus urges us to store up eternal treasure rather than earthly wealth (Matt. 6:19-21). Our eternal treasure is proportionate to our faithfulness on earth.
- Crowns and honors – Paul says believers can earn crowns for perseverance under trial (James 1:12), for winning souls (Php. 4:1), and for godly service (1 Pet. 5:4).
- Rule and authority – Jesus promises authority over cities in proportion to our faithful service (Luke 19:11-27).
- The Father’s reward – We receive the reward of our Father’s affection, praise, and honor for serving Christ (Matt. 6:1-6).
These passages give glimpses of the kinds of rich, eternal blessings awaiting in heaven for those who are reviled and persecuted for living wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ on earth.
Application for Believers Today
How should we apply this verse about persecution and reward to our lives as modern-day Christians?
- Don’t compromise God’s principles to avoid persecution but stay faithful to Christ even if it brings ridicule.
- Don’t retaliate against persecutors but love them and pray for them. Our battle is spiritual, not personal.
- Keep an eternal perspective when persecuted for righteousness; don’t lose heart.
- Rejoice when persecuted for Christ’s sake: we share in His sufferings and our reward in heaven will be great.
- Persecution shows Christ considers us worthy to suffer for Him (Acts 5:41). It proves our allegiance is to Him alone.
- Do not deliberately provoke persecution, but when it inevitably comes, handle it graciously.
- Trust God’s sovereignty over all forms of persecution. He allows it to purify us and perfect us for glory.
As we hold firmly to God’s principles against an antagonistic culture, we can expect hostility from those confronted by the truth. But Jesus urges us to meet persecution with joy and perseverance, keeping our focus on the surpassing greatness of our reward in heaven.