“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:10-12).
One of the clearest gospel expositions of this beatitude was given by Martin Luther himself. It is found in his Commentary on Galatians (Luther’s comments are found on pgs. 440-442. I have rearranged the order of the paragraphs to facilitate the purpose of this article, a meditation on the eighth beatitude).
Galatians 5:11. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case, the offense of the cross has been abolished.
Christ comforts his disciples in Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The church cannot permit for this joy to be snatched away from its hands. Thus, I would not wish to enter into a joint agreement with the Pope, the bishops, the princes, and the sectarians. If we had such a joint agreement, it would be an unmistakable sign that we have lost the true doctrine.
In brief, as long as the church teaches the gospel, it will suffer persecution. That’s because the gospel presents God’s mercy and glory, it brings to light the evil shrewdness and trickeries of the devil and it paints him just as he is and tears away from him the mask of God’s majesty with which he appears and deceives the entire world—that is, the Gospel exposes as evil and demonic all worship, religious orders invented by men, and traditions regarding celibacy, meats, and other such things, which men think make them worthy of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Then there is nothing that irritates the devil more than the preaching of the Gospel, for it tears away the mask he uses to appear as God; he is exposed just as he is, the devil and not God. Therefore, it cannot be any other way but as long as the Gospel flourishes, the cross and its offense will follow; otherwise, no one has put a hand on the devil, he’s barely been tickled! But if he’s hit with well-placed blows, he does not rest; he begins to roar out of control and stirs up scandals everywhere.
Then if Christians are to uphold the word of life, don’t be afraid or offended when you see the devil is out and about, roaring everywhere; when you see the world agitated, dictators practicing their cruelty, and sects on the rise. On the contrary, be assured that these are not frightful signs but signs of joy, as Christ Himself said, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” Would to God then that we don’t lose the scandal of the cross; that’s what would happen if we preached what the prince of this world and his cronies would want to hear with delight, the righteousness of works! In that case, we would have a kinder devil, a favorable world, a Pope full of grace, merciful princes. But since we present Christ’s benefits and glory, they persecute and strip us of our goods and lives!...
Paul resorts to every possible resource striving for the Galatians’ return. He now reasons using his own example. “Because I remove righteousness from circumcision, my reward has been (he says) the hate and persecution of the priests and elders and of all my nation. If I were to attribute righteousness to it, the Jews would not only stop persecuting me, but they would also love and highly congratulate me. But since I preach the Gospel of Christ and the righteousness of faith, abolishing the law and circumcision, I suffer persecution. But on the contrary, to avoid this cross and the cruel hate of the entire Jewish nation, the false apostles preach circumcision and thereby obtain and retain the goodwill of the Jews…” Further, they would want nothing more than the lack of dissension, only peace and agreement between Jews and Gentiles. But it is impossible to achieve that without losing the doctrine of faith, which is the doctrine of the cross, which is full of scandalous offenses. Thus when he says, “If I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case, the offense of the cross has been abolished,” he wants to say that it would be great foolishness and cause for great indignation if the cross would no longer cause a scandal. He states the same when he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17). It’s as if he had said, “I will not allow the abolishment of the scandal of the cross of Christ.”
Here, some will say, “Then Christians are really crazy, for of their own free will, they plunge directly into danger, for what else are they doing when they preach and confess the truth? Don’t they realize they are doing nothing else but engaging the hate and enmity of the entire world and stirring up scandals?” This, said Paul, does not offend nor perturb me in the least. Rather, I grow bolder and I’m granted hope by the joyous success and increase of the church, which blooms and grows under the cross, for it is necessary that Christ, the head and husband of the church, reign among His enemies (Ps 100:2). But on the contrary, when the cross is abolished and the tyrants and heretics’ fury ceases on the one hand, and the scandals on the other, and everything is at peace, that’s when the devil is watching over the entrance to the house; that’s a sure sign that he has removed the pure doctrine of God’s word.
When Bernard considered this topic, he said that when Satan besieges the church on every side, be it by subtleties or violence, that’s when the church is at its best condition. But on the contrary, it’s at its worst when surrounded by great calm... Thus, Paul is clear that whatever is preached in times of peace is clearly not the Gospel.
That concludes Luther’s remarks on the persecution of the Gospel. Are we now in a time of peace or persecution? If it’s peace, let’s pray for persecution – any kind – that we may be driven to preach the gospel with all clarity. If it’s persecution – any kind – “Rejoice and be glad [in the gospel], for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:12).