The Beatitudes are some of the best-known passages of the Bible. We read them at least once each year for All Saints’ Day and every third year during Epiphany. There’s a good chance you’ve heard more sermons on the Beatitudes than any other text other than the Christmas narrative. So, I’m not going to go into detail about the individual beatitudes this year but will focus on the final beatitude.
Jesus said: “Blessed are you when others 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 they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
On the Feast of All Saints, the Church remembers those saints who have gone before us. The term “saints” does not mean that they were necessarily more pious and righteous than all the rest of us, though it is fitting to emulate the faith and life of many of them. That is one of the reasons our Lutheran forefathers made sure that we kept observing saints’ days, feasts, and festivals. The word translated “saint” in English means “holy one.” Though Scripture makes it clear that none of us are holy and righteous on our own, God declares that anyone who has been baptized in the triune name of God and has been given saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and His work of salvation is a saint.
Today, as Jesus speaks words of blessing to us, we also see that we have been called holy. In the Beatitudes, Jesus gives the promise of blessing after blessing to those saints today who endure the hardships of this life. The rewards of a life in Christ are above and beyond what you can conceive of yourselves, for the Lord reverses the original curse of death and grants you the fruits of eternal life won by Jesus.
This ninth and final beatitude is markedly different from the previous eight. The indefinite pronoun they of the first eight beatitudes is now replaced with a clear distinction between the disciples and Jesus. “Blessed are you” shows how the disciples are to apply all these beatitudes to themselves. Men will actually “revile” the disciples, upbraid them with violent language; “persecute” or inflict injury upon them, and “utter all kinds of evil against you.”
Jesus points to the renowned martyrs of the past, so many of whom gave up even their lives for God. He places the Twelve and His other disciples alongside of the prophets. In one and in only one way may we join this most illustrious company in heaven: by joyfully suffering persecution for Christ’s sake. Beyond question, the highest glory in heaven belongs to the martyred prophets, and next to them stand in due order all others who in their various stations suffered for Christ. So, not despite your persecutions are you to rejoice, but because of your persecutions. The wounds and hurts are medals of honor. They attest that you belong to Christ not to the world. In war, promotion is rapid, and the war for Christ never ceases. Yet so many are afraid of a few scars for Jesus’ sake.[i]
Instead of grieving and lamenting in view of this persecution or under the distress it inflicts, Jesus tells His disciples to rejoice and be glad. At once the adequate reason for the rejoicing under such circumstances is added: “for your reward is great in heaven.”
The word “reward” can easily be misunderstood. We usually think of it as “a consequence that happens to someone as a result of worthy or unworthy behavior” or “money offered for some special service, such as the return of a lost article or the capture of a criminal.”
In the day of the Reformers, the term reward was quite contentious between the Lutheran theologians and their adversaries. The adversaries used the idea of rewards to support their teaching on the necessity of good works for salvation. They claimed, “eternal life is called a reward and that, therefore, it is merited in a wholly deserving way (de condigno) by good works.” The Lutherans disagreed, saying: “Paul calls eternal life a ‘gift’ (Romans 6:23), because by the righteousness presented for Christ’s sake, we are made at the same time sons of God and coheirs of Christ. As John says, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life’ (John 3:36). Augustine says, as also do very many others who follow him, ‘God crowns His gifts in us.’ Elsewhere it is written, ‘Your reward is great in heaven’ (Luke 6:23).”[ii]
The Reformers made it clear that the definition of reward was not the real issue they had with their adversaries. They asserted:
We do not argue about the term reward. We argue whether good works are of themselves worthy of grace and of eternal life, or whether they please only on account of faith, which takes hold of Christ as Mediator. Our adversaries not only attribute this to works, namely, that they are worthy of grace and of eternal life, but they also state falsely that works have surplus merits. The adversaries maintain that these merits can be granted to other people to justify them, as when monks sell to others the merits of their orders. They heap up these freakish ideas… especially about this one word reward.[iii]
The Reformers provide an example of their adversaries’ false comments regarding the reward:
It is called a reward; therefore, works are the price paid for it. So works please by themselves, and not for the sake of Christ as Mediator. And since one has more merits than another, some have surplus merits. Those who have earned them can sell them to others.[iv]
The Reformers were not trying to start a needless word battle about the term reward. But it was a matter of where people could find true and certain comfort. Can works give consciences rest and peace? Are works worthy of eternal life? Or it given to us for Christ’s sake? These were the real questions regarding these matters. If consciences are not rightly taught about these, you can have no certain comfort. Good works do not fulfill the Law. You need God’s mercy, that through faith you are accepted by God. Good works—be they ever so precious, even if they were the works of St. Paul himself—cannot bring rest to the conscience.
But for the ultimate answer of what reward means we turn back to Jesus.
From time to time in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of reward, but all thought of merit is unconditionally excluded. His reference to reward implies that (1) man stands under the eyes of the holy God; (2) he owes obedience to God as Lord and King; (3) man’s salvation can be accomplished only by God Himself; (4) only God’s generosity grants a reward, and that it does so only to men with receptive hearts which are open to be blessed by the wonders of the kingdom of God; and (5) reward derives from God’s love and which finds in the kingdom of God the beginning and completion of this overflowing generosity.[v]
The question naturally arises why then, Jesus should speak of reward at all. There can be no doubt that He found the term in the world around Him, that He retained it, but that He did so only at the same time to transcend it. In fact, Jesus rejected quite unconditionally any speculation concerning our reward with God or men. For Him, the idea of reward arises with faith in the consummation of the kingdom of God. In His love, the Father gives His children the greatest gift there is, namely, the kingdom of God. He there perfects our moral will, our obedience to God, because human life is played out before God and is related to Him.[vi]
Thus the concept of reward is taken up into calling to the kingdom of God and the message of the coming and consummation of this kingdom. Because God is understood quite absolutely in the greatness of His being and the incomparability of His generous love, because He is in no way dependent on or conditioned by human action, the idea of merit, or human reward. There is a reward only in so far as God in sheer love, draws human obedience, for all its limitations, into the power and glory of the kingdom of God.
This reward is “pay,” but never in the sense of something earned by works of sufferings of yours but as something unearned and freely bestowed by the generous hand of God (Matthew 19:29). This reward is great, not according to your merit, which does not exist, but according to Him who bestows it beyond any merit of yours. It is “in heaven,” with God, laid up for you there like a wonderful investment drawing interest, to be paid out to you in due time. It consists, not in salvation, which becomes yours by faith before you ever do or suffer anything for Christ’s sake, but in the greater glory that shall be yours in heaven. What those rewards are like, we finite humans cannot begin to perceive, so God simply promises they will be great.
If we are persecuted or punished for wrongdoing, we have no reason to complain. But we must also expect to suffer at times for saying and doing what is right. That was what happened to Jesus, and He warns that we must not expect any better treatment from the unbelieving world.
All God’s prophets of the Old Testament suffered persecution at the hands of those who should have welcomed and honored them. That will not change, because sinful human nature does not change. Even members of Christian congregations who publicly confess that they regard the Holy Scriptures as God’s inerrant Word, the final authority on all matters of which it speaks, sometimes persecute those who proclaim the whole counsel of God to them. If, for example, they do not like what God’s Word (and their pastor) tells them about divorce or about the sexual purity God requires, many will simply look for a minister and congregation that are willing to overlook or compromise what God clearly says, and they will accuse their God-given pastor of being old-fashioned, bigoted, narrow-minded, intolerant, and uncharitable.
But all who remain faithful to God’s truth will be richly rewarded in heaven. These rewards will be of grace, not merit, and they will be in addition to the salvation that is yours by Christ’s merits alone. And these rewards will be pleasant surprises for those who receive them.
So the Beatitudes reminds you of the blessedness that belongs to all believers in Christ, and they also remind you of the greater blessedness that could be yours already in this life if you would strive more diligently to follow the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose only concern was to be faithful about carrying out the mission of mercy for which He came into this world.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Lenski, R.C.H. (1998). The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (p. 197). Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
[v] Gerhard Kittel, Editor (1967). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume IV (pp. 718-719). Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
[vi] Karner, 97 f