Jesus’ Theology Of The Cross: Blessed Are The Persecuted

11Blessed are you whenever they mock you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you, lying against you. 12Rejoice and exult because your reward is great in heaven. For thus they persecuted the prophets before you. (Matt 5:11–12)

During the Reformation, the French-speaking Reformed churches and the Dutch-speaking Reformed churches in the Netherlands called themselves “the churches under the cross.” This was a lament but it was also a badge of honor.

There were other perspectives current during the sixteenth century. Some were anticipating an earthly glory age before Christ returns, the radical Andreas Karlstadt von Bodenstein was one of those.1 He looked forward to the restoration of the Mosaic judicial laws. The Swiss Reformed Churches addressed this very ideology in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) in chapter 11:

We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.

In so doing, they were following the Lutherans, who, in 1530, had rejected this very theology of glory:

The [New Testament] does not introduce any new laws about the civil estate, but commands us to obey the existing laws, whether they were formulated by heathen or by others, and in this obedience to practice love. It was mad of Karlstadt to try to impose on us the judicial laws of Moses.

The Reformed churches were suffering churches. The French Reformed (Huguenots) suffered grievously under the Roman Catholics. No one knows how many French Reformed were martyred in 1572 during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, but it was most probably in the tens of thousands. From 1567, thousands of Dutch Reformed Christians were martyred by occupying Spanish authorities.

Karlstadt was not the only one to expect earthly glory associated with the Messiah. The disciples also expected glory. Even after Jesus had been crucified and raised, the disciples were asking him about earthly glory:

 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

Calvin says, on Matthew 5:11, the disciples “foolishly imagined the kingdom of Christ to be filled with wealth and luxuries.”2 Asking about the restoration of the Kingdom is akin to asking, “May one of my sons sit on your left and one on your right? (Matt 20:21). Jesus’ response is telling, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matt 20:22). The cup, of course, was his suffering and death. The disciples (or their mother) asked for glory and Jesus offered suffering and death of the most ignominious sort.

These considerations help us to understand the words of our Lord in the Beatitudes. The theologians of glory (e.g., Christian Nationalists, Theonomists, Reconstructionists, Postmillennialists) offer us a theology of glory, i.e., of this-worldly glory and triumph before Christ returns.

One of the chief purposes of the Beatitudes was to teach believers the nature of life between the ascension and the return of Christ. Nothing in the Beatitudes indicates that this life will be a matter of going from triumph to triumph or from glory to glory. The expected pattern, according to our Lord, is suffering (the cross) and then glory.

Our Lord taught us to expect people to mock us for our faith, and even to persecute us. This was certainly the experience of the pre-Theodosian Christians. The Apostle Peter said,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Pet 4:12–14).

As the theologians of glory tell it, the Beatitudes were for then but not for now, and certainly not for the glorious future before Jesus returns. Scripture, however, tells a very different story. Peter says, “be not surprised.” According to Peter, it is normal when fiery trials happen to us because of our faith. In the passage immediately after this, he contrasts suffering for Christ with suffering as a criminal. For Peter, that is a cause of shame for the Christian and the church.

Suffering for Christ’s sake is not unusual for Christians. It is to be expected. In this passage, Peter is reflecting on our Lord’s words. When he says “rejoice and be glad” he is alluding back to the last Beatitude.

When our Lord says “blessed are you,” he is declaring an objective state of affairs. Not only are we blessed when we suffer for Christ but we ought to rejoice when people insult and persecute us. Why? Because it is a confirmation that we are indeed identified with Christ. When the world looks at us, they see Christ, which is what Jesus had said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

What is the point? It is an orientation to the world, an eschatology. Peter was a theologian of the cross. Paul was a theologian of the cross. John was a theologian of the cross. They were all theologians of the cross because our Lord himself was a theologian of the cross.

The message of this worldly conquest, power, and glory is a temptation. The charismatic and Pentecostal movements have been very successful at selling this message to Christians. The Reconstructionists and Postmillennialists are offering visions of this worldly glory, which seems to be particularly attractive to American Christians, but it is so at the expense of great swaths of biblical teaching. It moves our vision from our ascended Lord and his glorious coming to something else. Our Lord, however, held out a future, gracious heavenly reward. It is to that we should be looking even when we are privileged, and blessed, to suffer for his name’s sake.

NOTES

1. I have sometimes called Karlstadt an Anabaptist, which he was from 1523–34. He did reject infant baptism in those years. In 1534, he was appointed University Preacher and professor of Hebrew at Basle until his death in 1541.

2. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 268.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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3 comments

  1. Really encouraging stuff doctor! Stuff like this always great! I wish more Christina’s knew that the Christina life is full of suffering. I mean if anybody read this comment look at acts 14, Paul encourages believers by telling them that things are gonna be hard. And all of it just points to our amazing savior who suffered the most, in our stead. Hope all is well in Cali Dr!

  2. Thank you professor Scott Clark for your diligent work in protecting the saints from these movements. You’re the good pastor of Ephesians 4.
    I’m in the thick of it myself in attending a young congregation who want to fix the world. I get it. They want a fixed world for their children to grow up in. But what they don’t realize is its not given for us to do that but continue in gospel proclamation not winning nations nations but hearts one at a time.
    Gospel Blessings

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