Blessed are those who are persecuted

(pt. 1)

January 6, 2020

by Barry Fike

          For many years these verses have been quoted as the basis for the theological assumption that there is merit in being persecuted for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  The word “righteousness” is commonly explained as referring to those who have been persecuted for their devotion to religion, for their obedience to the commandments of God or to the righteous who oppose evil causes.  This assumption has been based on the English translation that seems to have Jesus teaching this to his followers.  But even earlier than the English translation this belief was gaining popularity.  As early as the second century AD this idea developed and found its fruition in the martyrdom of millions during the years of the ten severe persecutions.

1.  Domitian (96 AD) - John banished to Patmos

2.  Trajan (98-117 AD) - Simon brother of James, crucified (107 AD)

3.  Hadrian (117-138 AD)

4.  Antonius Pius (138-161 AD)  Polycarp suffers martyrdom

5.  Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) Justin Martyr suffers martyrdom

6.  Septinius Severus (193-211 AD) Persecutions very severe

7.  Maximim (235-238 AD)

8.  Decius (249-251 AD) Determined to exterminate Christianity

9.  Valerian (253-260 AD) More severe than Decius.  Cyprian, bishop at Carthage,


10. Diocletian (284-305 AD) The last imperial persecution and the most severe.

              Almost from the beginning the idea of gaining religious merit through suffering persecution or through martyrdom has continued in the theological consciousness of the ecclesiastical church to the present day.  However, this is not what Jesus meant in this verse.  Religious merit is not found by suffering persecution. 

              Besides the persecution misunderstanding there are four problems with the translation itself.  1. This doesn’t have anything to do with persecution; 2. Righteousness is not righteousness; 3. You don’t possess the kingdom; and, 4. This isn’t in the future tense. 

              There is also a problem if you look at the beatitudes with this being the eighth, yet it doesn’t seem to fit with its seven parallels.  Since we have Hebrew poetry in effect we should have eight parallel sayings.  It’s going to be shown that each of these beatitudes are saying the same thing eight different ways.  Because of these numerous difficulties it doesn’t seem as if religious persecution is the meaning.  If this isn’t the meaning then what is?

              The most important thing to remember when we read these words is that Jesus is a Rabbi instructing Jews using the Hebrew language. 

              In Greek the word employed here for "persecute" is “dioko” coming from the root dio meaning to flee.  “A. To impel, to set in rapid motion, to journey, to ride, to march, to row, or generally to hasten.  B.  To persecute, to expel.” (TDNT, vol. 2) In the New Testament we find sense a. In Luke 17:23: “Do not run after them,” and Phil. 3:12,14: “I hasten (towards the goal).”   Statistically, however, b. Is more common, always in the sense of religious persecution implying guilt on the part of the persecutors.”   A word that means pursue or chase gradually would be used for another concept that if a person is chasing someone else he would be persecuting him.

              It’s interesting that even in the Greek there is the sense that the idea of persecution, as we normally think of it, isn’t the only definition for this concept.  As always, with words that have duel, or more, concepts, the context would determine the definition to use.  But, as has already been pointed out, the instruction here was given in Hebrew not Greek.  So the question is what is the Hebrew word used?

              The Hebrew words for this concept is "radaf" which also has two meanings.  It can mean “run after something”, “pursue”/“chase” or “persecute”. 


“Hearken to Me, you who follow after rightness and justice...”  Isaiah 51:1


              It would make no sense to translate this word  "radaf": “Listen to me, you who persecute rightness (or righteousness/salvation)...”  The very context forces us to translate this “you who pursue rightness...”  It is because of this double meaning of "radaf"that the misunderstanding is found in Matthew 5:10. 

              The meaning of this one word is very important because the discussion is concerning the people who make up the Kingdom of God and what they are like.  A mistranslated word could give us a concept that Jesus did not give to his original audience. 

              Again, when one notices the original context in which Jesus is speaking and notices the original language (Hebrew) there is not one but four mistranslations in this verse.

A.  Persecute should be translated pursue.

B.  “Righteousness” is an unfortunate translation in English.  “Salvation” or “Redemption” would be more accurate.  In Hebrew “righteousness” is simply a synonym for the concept of Salvation or Redemption.

C.  Third, “theirs” also leaves the wrong impression.  We do not possess the Kingdom.  The correct translation would be “of these,” or “of such as these” as in Luke 18:16, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them, for OF SUCH AS THESE is the Kingdom of God.”

D.  Fourthly, the Kingdom of Heaven is not futuristic, as is so often understood.                

            We see this problem in Luke 10:9, 11 where the English translation reads, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”  If we try to understand this passage with the Greek word “engiken” (translated “has come near”) we are in trouble.  Engiken means “about to appear” or “is almost here”.  But in Hebrew “karav” means the exact opposite:  “It’s here!  It has arrived....”  This word is used in 2 Kings 16:12: “And when the king came from Damascus the king viewed the altar.  Then the king drew near (karav) to the altar, and went up on it.”  In other words, the king went right up to the altar, and stood right next or beside it!  He was right there!   This word is also found in Deut. 22:13,14: “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and then despises her, and brings false charges against her and maligns her, saying, “I have taken this woman, and when I came near (karav) her, I did not find her a virgin...”  Here “came near” (karav) is used in the same way in which “knew” is used in the Bible - that is, “to come near” and “to know” are Hebrew idioms for having sexual relations. 

              In both instances the Hebrew leaves us with the proper concept that Jesus leaves with his listener.  Present tense - NOW!

              Thus, if one were to retranslate this verse with this information it would read: “How blessed are those who pursue righteousness [salvation or redemption], for of these is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

              The single thought of the Beatitudes is a simple description of the kind of people who make up the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like the others this beatitude wants above all else for God to rule in the life of every person.  Thus, Jesus is not discussing persecution at all.  He is describing people whose chief desire is for God to redeem the world.  This is the number one priority of Jesus.  “The son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10)  In this beatitude Jesus is again emphasizing that the kind of people who make up the Kingdom of God are those who want more than anything else to see God save the lost, those who pray “Thy Kingdom come”. (an exhortation which means “Rule God, over more and more individuals”)  To pursue righteousness means the same as hunger for righteousness in the fourth beatitude. 

              If this is true what about the context found in verses 11 and 12?  We’ll look at that in my next blog.