Matthew 5:11-12 in detail, rejoicing under persecution
This passage has a parallel within the Sermon on the Plain, where, as the last of four beatitudes, it is mirrored by a corresponding woe.
Three blessings followed by . . .
“Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall exclude and mock you, and throw out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23 WEB).
Then three woes followed by . . .
“Woe, when men speak well of you, for their fathers did the same thing to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26 WEB).
The sentiments of Luke 6:22-23 are presented in a similar order to those in Matt 5:11-12, but in the Greek the texts differ significantly, being lengthier and using a different vocabulary (that notably avoids the provocative scriptural significance of certain words found in Matthew, as discussed below). You don't need to understand Greek to play 'spot the difference' between these passages. Luke has:
“22 μακαριοι εστε οταν μισησωσιν υμας οι ανθρωποι και οταν αφορισωσιν υμας και ονειδισωσιν και εκβαλωσιν το ονομα υμων ως πονηρον ενεκα του υιου του ανθρωπου
23 χαρητε εν εκεινη τη ημερα και σκιρτησατε ιδου γαρ ο μισθος υμων πολυς εν τω ουρανω κατα τα αυτα γαρ εποιουν τοις προφηταις οι πατερες αυτων”
(Luke 6:22-23 Westcott Hort)
Compared to Matthew’s:
“11 μακαριοι εστε οταν ονειδισωσιν υμας και διωξωσιν και ειπωσιν παν πονηρον καθ υμων ψευδομενοι ενεκεν εμου
12 χαιρετε και αγαλλιασθε οτι ο μισθος υμων πολυς εν τοις ουρανοις ουτως γαρ εδιωξαν τους προφητας τους προ υμων”
(Matt 5:11-12 Westcott Hort)
Vermes (2004, 315), challenges the provenance of this passage on the grounds that there is no significant evidence for persecution of Jesus or his followers at the time of his ministry. He therefore places its literary roots in the late first-century persecution of the Church. Evidence of persecution is, however, there for those willing to accept the testimony of the gospels (see notes for Matt 5:10), so this passage is exactly the sort of thing one would have expected Jesus to say toward the outset of his ministry.
The background for persecution has already been amply dealt with in the notes for Matt 5:10., which establish that, not only was persecution of the righteous a consistent feature in the biblical history of Israel, but that it continued up until, and beyond, the time of Jesus. Moreover, the circumstances of John the Baptist’s ministry would have left Jesus and his supporters expecting an outbreak of persecution against them.
That this general background of persecution included false witness is clear from incidents such as:
- The malicious words that imprisoned Joseph (Gen 39:11-20);
- Isaiah’s threat against those who make a person an offender with a word (Isa 29:20-21) and Malachi’s against those who swear falsely (Mal 3:5);
- The taunts levelled at Nehemiah’s work (Neh 4:1-4) and the false prophecy directed against him (Neh 6:12);
- The psalmists plea in Ps 27:11-12.
The Greek behind Matt 5:12
In Matt 5:12 the disciples are instructed to χαίρετε (chairo = rejoice) and be ἀγαλλιᾶσθε (agalliao=shout with joy). The Greek word used here for shouts of joy is relatively rare in the Septuagint, with most occurrences in Psalms. These fall into roughly two groups.
The shout of joy
The first group either speak of the joy that results on entering into God’s presence or encourage the expression of such joy, examples
- “These things I remember, and pour out my soul within me, how I used to go with the crowd, and led them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, a multitude keeping a holy day” (Ps 42:4 WEB);
- “She shall be led to the king in embroidered work. The virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to you. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be led. They shall enter into the king’s palace” (Ps 45:14-15 WEB);
- “My soul shall be satisfied as with the richest food. My mouth shall praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you on my bed, and think about you in the night watches” (Ps 63:5-6 WEB);
- “Serve the LORD with gladness. Come before his presence with singing” (Ps 100:2 HNV).
The second, and far larger, group speak of the joy that results from God’s restorative intervention. A few examples should suffice to give the flavour:
- “Oh that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, then Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad” (Ps 14:7 HNV);
- “Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, That the bones which you have broken may rejoice” (Ps 51:7-8 WEB);
- “Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps 51:12 WEB).
The short psalm 126 uses agalliao no less than three times.
1When the LORD brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream. 2Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad. 4Restore our fortunes again, LORD, like the streams in the Negev. 5Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. 6He who goes out weeping, carrying seed for sowing, will certainly come again with joy, carrying his sheaves.
(Ps 126:1-6 HNV)
To these references in the Psalms one can add an example from Isaiah: “The ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing to Zion; and everlasting joy shall be on their heads. They shall obtain gladness and joy. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa 51:11 HNV).
From this we may observe that this agalliao joy results from entering into God’s presence, hence
and outpouring of such joy is the natural result when God intervenes so that his people can enjoy the freedom to obey him and to embrace
that presence. It is the “cultic joy that celebrates and extols the help and acts of God, whether shown to the people
or community or to the individual” (Bultman
The root chairo is fairly widespread in the Septuagint and translates a number of Hebrew terms relating to joy but usually שָׂמַח (samach) (Conzelman 1964, 362-3), examples include 2 Kings 11:20, Joel 2:23, Jonah 4:6, Hab 1:15. However, in the Psalms, the LXX always translates samach with εὐφραίνομαι, and often combines this, rather than chairo with agalliao (Conzelman 1964, 363). Only outside the Psalms does one find chairo and agalliao together, and then exceedingly rarely, as discussed below.
In Matt 5:3-10 the beatitudes are consistently addressed in the third party, “Blessed are the ...”, and
concern the way of righteousness, a return to which ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven. With these verses, Jesus switches focus, no longer does
he address generically identified groups, but now he speaks directly to those who have chosen to follow, “Blessed are
you ...”. No longer is he concerned with reward in the Kingdom of Heaven for those who follow the way of righteousness, but now he
addresses the heavenly reward merited by those willing to follow him. Vermes (2004, 315), observing
this distinction, notes that “recompense on high following earthly suffering indicates a total contrast between this
world and the next, as is commonly attested in rabbinic literature” (Vermes 2004, 315).
Yet, thanks to Vermes’ views on the absence of persecution (see Notes
on Matt 5:10), he attributes these verses to the hand of an editor rather than the voice of Jesus.
The Greek vocabulary used in Matt 5:11 may be fruitfully compared to that in the LXX, for some words are relatively restricted in their use. Matt 5:11 uses ὀνειδίζειν (oneidizo, to revile) and διώκω (to persecute). The LXX uses the root ὀνειδίζω infrequently and, amongst the canonical books, it being most common in the psalms (Schneider 1964, 5:239). Ps 44:16 (=43:17 LXX) brings both words together, with ὀνειδίζειν (oneidizo, to revile or verbally abuse) translating the Hebrew’s גָּדַף (to revile or speak evil), and διώκω (to persecute) translating the Hebrew נָקַם (naqam, to seek vengeance), though in both cases the psalm uses the word adjectively of people. The conjunction of these two Hebrew roots appears as unique to this verse as that of their Greek equivalents.
Jesus’ words appear to contain a linguistic signpost to Ps 44:16, so it is perhaps not surprising to find, in that same section of the psalm, a lament that people speak badly of God’s servants, even though this is unjustified. Then, linking this section to the overall theme of the Beatitudes, we find the psalm reflecting that all this is happening even though they had not departed from the covenant and the way of righteousness. The relevant section is worth quoting in full:
8In God we have made our boast all day long, we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah. 9But now you rejected us, and brought us to dishonor, and don’t go out with our armies. 10You make us turn back from the adversary. Those who hate us take spoil for themselves. 11You have made us like sheep for food, and have scattered us among the nations. 12You sell your people for nothing, and have gained nothing from their sale. 13You make us a reproach to our neighbors, a scoffing and a derision to those who are around us. 14You make us a byword among the nations, a shaking of the head among the peoples. 15All day long my dishonor is before me, and shame covers my face, 16At the taunt of one who reproaches and verbally abuses, because of the enemy and the avenger. 17All this has come on us, yet have we not forgotten you, Neither have we been false to your covenant. 18Our heart has not turned back, neither have our steps strayed from your path.”
(Ps 44:8-18 WEB)
N.B. Where the WEB has path, other translations have way (e.g. Ps 44:8-18 ESV or Ps 44:8-18 KJV).
There is evidence that suggests the sons of Korah’s repute as psalmists may have arisen out of a formal prophetic role, for David set apart “certain of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with stringed instruments, and with cymbals” (1 Chr 25:1 WEB). Now, whilst there is no categoric link between this group of prophetic musicians and the Sons of Korah, certain links do seem to be implied and the term Sons of Korah could be a collective noun applide to this group or some subset of them. The genealogy at 1 Chr 6:33–47 portrays the propetic-musican Heman, whose sons also lifted the horn in the word of God (1 Chr 25:5-6), as a descendant of Korah (1 Chr 6:33-38) and therefore a Son of Korah in the broader sense. Psalm 88, another by the Sons of Korah, also helps to suggest they were linked to Heman, as it is dedicated to his earlier namesake, Heman the Ezrahite. However, the the Korahites family relationships are far from clear, for 1 Chr 26:1 describes Meshelemiah, a Korahite gatekeeper, as “of the sons of Asaph” (WEB), a different lineage, but one that shared the same prophetic-worship role. In Psalm 49, another psalm of the Sons of Korah, the psalmist declares “My mouth shall speak of wisdom; And the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding. I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp” (Ps 49:3-4 KJV), a succinct description of the role of the musician-prophet reminiscent of that given by Asaph (Ps 78:1-2, cf. also Num 12:6-8). Given that the Sons of Korah seemed to embrace sections of the prophetic-musician clans, and fulfilled a similar role to them, it is perhaps reasonable to see in Ps 44:16 a group of prophets reviewing their experience of persecution and yearning for God to awake and deliver them.
Psalm 44 is a psalm of the Sons of Korah, and, as the Korhites were charged with the security of the temple, it is noteworthy that in Ps 69:9 (=Ps 68:10 LXX) the LXX uses ὀνειδίζειν (oneidizo = to revile) to translate חֶרְפָּה (cherpah = to reproach). Through John’s gospel, Ps 69:9 is particularly associated with Jesus’ temple clearing claim to have authority over the temple’s operation (John 2:17), an act which made him powerful enemies and which was thrown back at him in his trial (Matt 26:60-61) and again during his crucifixion (Matt 27:40). Chapter 27 of The Emmaus View argues that the rejection of Jesus’ authority at the temple (John 2:18-20) preceded the Sermon on the Mount, and by no more than a couple of months. If that is accepted, then Jesus rejection at the temple would have been part of the reviling that prompted this passage. The reference to oneidizo in the Sermon would then naturally suggest that Jesus’s activities could be seen in terms of Ps 69:9.
Unlike the other beatitudes, Matt 5:11-12 seems to point to a plea rather than a promise. However, amongst this group of psalms of the Sons of Korah, Ps 44:16-18 falls in a significant place, the point where lament (e.g. Ps 42:3, Ps 43:1-2, 44:9) gives way to Psalm 45’s vision of the glory of God’s anointed king and his kingdom (Ps 45:1-2, 6-7). This progression mirrors the experience of the Korhites themselves. During David’s struggles with Saul, the Sons of Korah were a persecuted people fighting alongside a fugitive (1 Chr 12:6), but the coming of his kingdom saw them exalted to an honoured place within the house of the Lord.
In Psalm 45:15, a princess approaches the king, her companions led into her wedding with rejoicing and exceeding gladness, which the Septuagint renders εὐφροσύνῃ καὶ ἀγαλλιάσει (LXX 44:16). We find this passage alluded to in Rev 19:7-8 where one finds that the rejoicing and exceeding gladness accompanies the coming of the marriage of the Lamb. In Revelation the Greek is χαίρωμεν καὶ ἀγαλλιῶμεν, with its similarity to Matt 5:12.
In the Septuagint equivalent of Ps 105:43 (=104:43 LXX) εὐφροσύνῃ and ἀγαλλιάσει are once again used, as in Ps 45:15, and the theme is a familiar one, the expression of joy at entering the fulfilment of the kingdom. The psalm, speaking of God’s chosen people being led into the promised land, declares “He brought forth his people with joy, his chosen with singing. He gave them the lands of the nations. They took the labor of the peoples in possession, that they might keep his statutes, and observe his laws. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 105:43-45 HNV).
France (1995, 111) suggests that Matt 5:11-12 contains echoes of the encouragement in Isaiah: “Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; don’t fear the reproach of men, neither be dismayed at their insults” (Isa 51:7 WEB). Indeed there might be, for the Prophet then calls upon God to Awake and act again as he once did when he made a way through the sea (Isa 51:9-10). However, Isaiah’s words draw upon an image already established through the psalms’, a picture of God waking and dealing with his enemies (Ps 78:65-6), which appears recurrently as God is called upon to deal with various issues (e.g. Ps 7:6, 35:23, 59:4), including those of the sons of Korah in Ps 44:16-18 (see Ps 44:23).
Turning to Matt 5:12, though the root chairo is fairly widespread in the Septuagint, rarely
does it accompany agalliao. Amongst the canonical books, there are only two occurrences, Ps
95:12 LXX (=Ps 96:12) and Hab 3:18. In neither is chairo used to translate the
usual Hebrew word samach. The former, “Let the
field and all that is in it exult! Then all the trees of the woods shall sing for joy” (Ps 95:12 WEB), does not quite fit the context in the Sermon, as it relates to a response from the
natural order rather than from people. However, the context of Hab 3:18 is precisely that into which Jesus was speaking, i.e. the prophet
rejoicing despite the bleak circumstances that precede a day of judgement. Moreover, the Hebrew roots behind the rejoicing and joy in
Hab 3:18 are, when taken together, as unique as a fingerprint. They single out this sole verse within the Hebrew Bible and, one presumes,
the same would probably have been true in Aramaic. Here is the relevant section in context:
“13You went forth for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the land of wickedness. You stripped them head to foot. Selah. 14You pierced the heads of his warriors with their own spears. They came as a whirlwind to scatter me, gloating as if to devour the wretched in secret. 15You trampled the sea with your horses, churning mighty waters. 16I heard, and my body trembled. My lips quivered at the voice. Rottenness enters into my bones, and I tremble in my place, because I must wait quietly for the day of trouble, for the coming up of the people who invade us. 17For though the fig tree doesn’t flourish, nor fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive fails, the fields yield no food; the flocks are cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls: 18yet I will rejoice in the LORD. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!”
(Hab 3:13-18 HNV)
In the above “rejoice” is from the Hebrew root עלז (translated as ἀγαλλιάω in LXX) and “be joyful” id from גל (translated as χαίρω in LXX).
Were it not for the absence of an equivalent to Matt 5:10 in the Sermon on the Plain, this passage would unquestionably be considered a continuation from that verse. Matt 5:10 makes the point that God’s favour belongs to those who suffer persecution for righteousness sake, Matt 5:11, by paralleling verse 10, clarifies what that will mean in practice. Jesus is the disciples righteousness (Rom 4:22-24), so pursuing righteousness will mean pursuing him, persecution for righteousness will become persecution for him. Apart from a scholastic prejudice toward considering Matt 5:10-11 a later compilation, there appears no reason to divorce the two halves of this couplet.
Vermes (2004, 315) notes a similarity of theme development in two triply-attested sayings from Matt 10.
(Matt 10:17-20 WEB)
17But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you. 18Yes, and you will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the nations. 19But when they deliver you up, don’t be anxious how or what you will say, for it will be given you in that hour what you will say. 20For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
This passage, paralleled in Mark 13:8-11 and Luke 21:12-8, suggests that Jesus expected persecution as the norm for a prophet, but that when it happened the Spirit of prophecy would provide the prophet with appropriate words. It is interesting to note that in Luke 21:15, it is Jesus own words that take the place of the Spirit, against Matt 10:20 and Mark 13:11. As if to avoid invalidating the submission of Luke’s Gospel as part of a legal defense, without deviating from the underlying truth of Jesus’ words (cf. John 6:63).
(Matt 10:37-41 WEB)
36A man’s foes will be those of his own household. 37He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. 38He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. 39He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. 40He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. 41He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.
There are again parallels, with Mark 8:34-8 and Luke 9:22-6, and the general idea is clear.
Close to these passages comes the idea that one needs to loose one’s life to follow Christ, but in doing so there would be both new life and reward (Matt 16:25-28).
Luz (2007, 119) notes that the promise does not apply to all persecution, but specifically to that persecution which results from obedience to Christ (cf. 1 Pet 3:14-15, 1 Pet 4:14).
Stott (2003, 52) notes how the disciples put these instructions into action after they faced the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:41). He goes on to suggest, as must any who see the Beatitudes as exemplifying intended Christian behaviour, that persecution will be the common experience of all Christians (2003, 53).
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, suggests Stott (2003, 53) understood the inevitability of suffering better than most in his century. Bonhoeffer himself suggested “This does not refer to the righteousness of God,” i.e. to suffering because we are unrighteous, “but to suffering in a just cause, suffering for their own just judgements and actions. For it is by these that they who renounce possessions, fortune, rights, righteousness, honour, and force for the sake of following Christ, will be destinguished from the world. ” . . . “Not recognition, but rejection, is the reward they get from the world for their message and works” (Bonhoeffer 2001, 66-67).