“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.” (Matthew 5:11–12 NLT)
Visit the locker room before any team sporting event, and you’re likely to hear the coach give some sort of speech intending to encourage the players, even rile them up so they are suitably psyched to face the opposing team on the field of play. The coach has trained them for this moment, but now the training is set aside. Now, the coach can only help dispel any doubts they hold in their minds, remind them of their training, and push them toward excellence. Each player knows the challenge set before them – namely, the other team – but their job is to play with such excellence that nothing the other team can do will stop their ultimate victory.
Like a coach before a game, Jesus’s announcement of God’s blessing for those who are persecuted for following him is intended to prepare his followers for something yet to come. Making this pronouncement at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had not yet garnered a lot of the criticisms from the religious elite that would eventually lead to his death at the hands of the Roman Empire, and therefore his followers were also not subject to persecution. Yet here he is, near the start of his ministry, telling his followers that it will not always be easy to follow him, but they will be blessed by God because of it.
If we, like those players in the fictional locker room, take our coach’s words to heart, trusting that what Jesus says is not only true but trustworthy, then we know we have been called to live lives of such excellence that even when people speak ill of us it rings false. Like Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, it is up to us to train in such a way that we are well-prepared to win.