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 the heavens.
We are joining these two Commandments of Blessedness together
since they are like one another.
In the last two Commandments of Blessedness it is said that everyone who lives according to righteousness will be persecuted. By "righteousness", one must understand life according to God's commandments. In other words, blessed are they who are persecuted for the faith and for piety; for their good deeds, performed in the name of Christ; for constancy and steadfastness in the faith. Such people will be rewarded in eternal life with the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Persecution for righteousness takes various forms. This can be spiritual estrangement, rejection or reproval, or opposition to the God-pleasing activity of those living according to righteousness, calumny, constraints caused by those in authority, exile, torture, and finally, death.
Remember the word , said Jesus Christ, that I said unto you. The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name's sake, because they know not him that sent me (John 15:20-21). In these words, Christ calls for His followers to imitate Him in everything, including also His self-abasement. To imitate Christ is not some kind of outward duty and it is not the fulfillment of a coercive demand. In other words, this is not an outward assimilation and repetition of His deeds and actions. The imitation of Christ is the living, free ordering of religio-moral life in Christ, by the power of love for Him, as for one's Ideal, Redeemer and Saviour. In order to come to love Christ, we are called to go along the inescapable path of self-renunciation. Through self-renunciation, as such, we come to a reconcilement with all adversities, sorrows and every unpleasantness. The great hierarch of Moscow, Metropolitan Philaret, loved to say: "There is not greater glory than to share dishonor with Jesus."
True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ's sake. They will be persecuted together with Him and like Him, for the truth confessed by them and for the good done by them. As we have already said, these persecutions can appear in the most diverse forms, not only physical, but they will always be senseless, unjust, cruel and without any reason, for, according to the word of the Apostle Paul, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (II Timothy 3:12). However, we must beware of a false "persecution complex" and be assured that sufferings fall to us only for righteousness, and not for our own weaknesses and sins. The Apostolic writings clearly forewarn: For this is thankworthy, teaches the Apostle Peter, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when you do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps (I Peter 2:19-21).
If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you....But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil doer, or as a busybody in other men's matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf (I Peter 4:14-16).
Why does the world persecute true faith, piety, righteousness, which are so beneficial for the world itself? The word of God answers us: ...[the] world lieth in wickedness (I John 5:19). Men, according to the word of King David, loved evil more than goodness (Psalm 51:3), and the prince of this world, the devil, acting through evil men, hates righteousness and persecutes it, since it serves as a denunciation of unrighteousness. As regards this, the holy righteous John of Kronstadt wrote: "Evil, depraved men always hated and persecuted the righteous, and they will always hate and persecute them. Cain hated his righteous brother, Abel, persecuted him for his piety and finally killed him; the bestial Esau hated his meek brother, Jacob, and persecuted him, threatening to kill him; the unrighteous children of the Patriarch Jacob hated their brother, the righteous Joseph, and sold him secretly to Egypt so that he would not be an annoyance to them; the impious Saul hated the meek David and persecuted him until his death, encroaching on his life; they hated God's prophets, who denounced their iniquitous life, and some of them they beat, others they killed, still others they stoned, and finally they persecuted and killed the greatest Righteous One, the Fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the Sun of righteousness, Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Complete Collection of the Words of Protopriest John Sergiev [in Russian], Volume I, pages 218-224).
Persecution on the part of the enemies of Christianity embraces the whole aggregate of external conditions under which the ancient Church's existed. The heavy weight of the persecutions was magnified even more by the fact that indigence and poverty constituted the distinctive features of the first Christians. For you see your calling, brethren, writes the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: ....base things of the world and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are (I Corinthians 1:26, 28). Besides outward trials, the Christians, who were poor materially but rich in spirit, had to endure inner trials which were no less weighty: backbiting, revilement, ridicule, abuse, calumny and so on.
The history of the Church shows us that Christians who were living according to righteousness suffered not only from pagans, but were also persecuted when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Such luminaries of the faith as Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene, Sophronius of Jerusalem and many others underwent lack of recognition, vilification, exile and martyrdom. So it has been even until our days, when in communist countries the power of the state was hurled forth with particular force for the annihilation of Christianity and Christians.
Saint John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, was a great zealot of righteousness. In accordance with his sacred responsibility, he could not look indifferently on people's vices and he denounced them, not fearing persecution. It is understood that the vicious people on their part could not indifferently endure the denunciations of the preacher of righteousness and social justice. His enemies increased, but for righteousness he was prepared to endure every persecution. The malicious enemies of John Chrysostom triumphed, and the hierarch was condemned to incarceration. When his friends lamented and sorrowed over him, he was completely tranquil and even cheerful. "Pray, my brethren," he would say; "remember me in your prayers." When the tears of those around him were the response to this: "Do not weep, my brethren, " he would continue; "the present life is a journey, during which it is necessary to bear both the good and bad." To John Chrysostom belong the remarkable words, which afterwards many martyrs and righteous loved to repeat: "Glory to God for all things, but especially for afflictions."
Christians must accept any suffering joyfully, with mercy toward him who causes it. As Christ, while dying on the Cross, said: Father, forgive them... (Luke 23:34); as the Protomartyr Stephen, while being stoned, prayed: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge (Acts 7:60). Christ said: But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.....But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest; for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given unto you... (Luke 6:27-29, 35-38).
The final, Ninth Commandment of Blessedness constitutes a preparation, so that we would be able to accept the further preaching of Jesus Christ on following after Him, carrying our life's cross; but the main thing - to approach closer to the great Mystery of the sufferings on the Cross of the Saviour Himself.
Let no one be troubled by the apparent victory in this world of falsehood over truth, of darkness over light. The fundamental truth of the Christian gospel consists of the fact that Christ resurrected, that He is the Conqueror of death, and He makes us, who believe in Him, participants and heirs of this victory. To those who believe in Him, Christ gave the Cross - the most powerful weapon against evil. On the image of the Cross for ever lies the sanctifying reflection of the paschal victory - the victory of God's truth over the kingdom of the prince of this world.
Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations - says the Lord to His faithful followers. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me (Luke 22:28-29).
In the Apocalypse we read about people who have fulfilled the final two Commandments of Blessedness: These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them (Revelation 7:14-15).
From the very first until the very last pages of the Gospel, the Apostles of Christ together with the Mother of God and all the Christians continuously rejoice over the salvation ushered in by Him.
As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full (John 15:9-11).
...and your heart shall rejoice, Christ says in another place, and your joy no man taketh from you....Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:22, 24).
True Christian joy is not earthly happiness, pleasure or a pleasant way of passing time, but the joy...in believing (Romans 15:13) that cannot be compared with anything else, the joy of knowing God's love, the joy, according to the word of the Apostle Peter, of worthily [partaking] of Christ's sufferings (I Peter 4:13).
Spiritual joy is closely tied with spiritual suffering. It is incorrect to think that joy comes only after suffering; joy in Christ comes together with suffering in Christ. They coexist and depend one on the other for their strength and power. As sorrow over sin comes together with the joy of salvation, so also suffering in this world is consonant with and even directly evokes this ineffable joy of salvation. Therefore, as the Apostle James says, Christians must count it all joy when [they] fall into divers temptations, knowing that the perfect work of their unshakeable faith is expressed by the fact that they are able to become perfect and entire, wanting nothing (James 1:2,4). Such also is the firm conviction of the Apostle Paul, who wrote:
.....[we] rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Romans 5:2-5).
Such is the joy of Christians, the joy of the martyrs, which more than anything else bears witness to the truth of the Christian faith and the genuineness of Christian spiritual life.
Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in the heavens (Matthew 5:12).
ŠArchpriest Victor Potapov