Jesus declares in the final beatitude – “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10, NASB95) The promise of this beatitude links back to the first beatitude – ““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NASB95). The beatitudes do not end but circle back to the beginning creating a complete picture of what the normal Christian life should look like.
Experiencing persecution because of faith does not release us from being humble in spirit, broken over sin, gentle, strongly pursuing righteousness, being merciful, desiring purity of heart, and ministering reconciliation to a broken world. If anything persecution calls followers of Jesus to double down on all of these Christlike attributes, attitudes, and actions. There is a story that exemplifies what I’m hoping to get across.
Holland, winter of 1569: The posse is not far behind him now. If they catch him it means jail, torture, and eventual death unless he recants. His crime? He was rebaptized in his teens, allowed his home to be used to rebaptized others, and is counted as a heretic because of his faith. He is not the first to be hunted but stands in a long line of those persecuted, tortured and killed in the waves of reformation.
His steps takes him to the edge of the river and he chooses to risk the thin ice rather than being captured. The ice cracks and shifts has he crosses, with each step he risks breaking through and plunging into the frigid waters. He is exhilarated when he reaches the safety of the far shore and feels that he will escape arrest. Looking back he sees that one of the deputies chasing him has fallen through the ice. The mayor of the town and a few others watch from the shore but fear for their own safety as the deputy thrashes in the icy water. Dirk Willems has a choice to make. Does he flee to safety or risk the ice and capture to rescue the drowning deputy.
The teachings of Jesus, especially the beatitudes and the sermon on the mount, are central to Dirk’s faith. Those chasing him also profess Christ but choose tradition, religion, and political power over the clear teachings of Christ. In this era, heresy is not just an offense against the church but is also counted as treason against the king. Dirk is part of a growing group of Christ-followers that are seeking to rediscover and live by the teachings of Christ. Dirk has a decision to make.
He chooses mercy. Retracing his steps across the thin ice he makes his way to the deputy and pulls him out of the icy water. The deputy, grateful to be alive wishes to let Dirk go on his way. But the mayor sternly warns the deputy, reminding him of his oath to the king, and orders him to arrest Dirk.
In May of 1569 Dirk Willems is tried and convicted. The sentence specifies that all of his property is to be confiscated and that he to be executed by being burned at the stake. The sentence was carried out on May 16 of that year.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3–10, NASB95)
The Story of Dirk Willems, the woodcut image of the rescue, and the order of execution is found in the Martyr’s Mirror page 741-742. The Martyr’s Mirror entry can also be viewed online at http://www.homecomers.org/mirror/dirk-willems.htm If you read the article keep in mind that it was written in 1685 while the enmity between Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist still ran high.