Fool Proofing Our Churches

A few weeks ago, I read through Jan Silvious’s book Foolproofing Your Life: How to Deal Effectively with the Impossible People in Your Life. It is a wonderful book, based in the scriptures, and it does have a lot to say about dealing with a person, even a Christian or a Christian leader, who fits the Biblical definition of a fool in some way.

The question that I came away with was: Why are there so many in our churches who live like the Biblical definition of a fool? Why do they find it easy to live like fools in the middle of a church which ostensibly believes the Bible and follows the Bible? Is there some sense in which our churches function as fool factories?

I confess that I do not have much of an answer at this point to that question, but there is a situation from my pastoral experience which comes to mind. Some years ago, a young husband attended my church who was experiencing deep problems in his life and marriage. It came out over the course of time that he had had at one time a connection with a fellowship of believers and had even been on at least one overseas mission trip with that fellowship, though he had left any kind of regular church attendance and involvement before he was married. His profession of being a Christian was quite over-the-top, we may say; it was beyond assertive to be quite defiant, oppositional and antagonistic to be a kind of personal power trip, that when he went into a kind of short term self immersion in what he thought was Christian behavior that he felt strong and powerful and superior. Naturally, this kind of behavior was a tremendous provocation to his wife, since it was almost as if he was trying to be a Christian version of the cartoon character He-Man and his Christianity was a kind of strutting, crowing and and immersing himself in an in-your-face psycho-drama that ‘I have the power!’

It came out that when I shared the two diagnostic questions from Evangelism Explosion that he had never really come to a Biblically based saving faith. His outward profession of faith was all about him living up to what he thought was a manly, powerful Christian, but no trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and for eternal life. This was no conclusion that I had to force upon him at all, but when I gently and caringly shared the questions and then led him to such passages as Ephesians 2:8-9 he came to that conclusion himself. He was visibly shocked and astonished when he himself realized that he had never really even understood the gospel in the first place and what it meant to be saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. There were some hopeful signs at first, since he did pray with me to express repentance for his sins and trust in Christ as his Savior, and there was enough of a change at first for his wife to show up at church wondering what had happened and wanting to know for herself. Unfortunately, someone who attended my church with ambitions to be a pastor and an elder (but who would not submit to any educational course of pastoral preparation nor to any evaluation by any established denominational licensing and ordaining council but who would simply try to copy little things he saw pastors doing) showed up at his door, and we never saw him again at church, and my efforts to visit him again were unavailing.

I’m not losing any sleep over my church losing the attendance of a grown man who had all the resources of any number of easily understandable Bibles and the gospel preaching churches of North America to get the gospel straight and follow Jesus. I have prayed for him and his wife and I would rejoice in the news that he and his wife found a stable, Bible believing church and have been growing in Christ. Rather, I think that there are several things right here which indicate why our churches may seem to be fool factories.

First, we often seem to accept people who show up and say some of the correct things to have been truly saved. It is neither intrusive nor rude to ask someone gently and lovingly  who attends our church and seeks to be a part of the fellowship about the nature and history of his or her profession of faith in Jesus Christ. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that our body language can be of great help to draw people out to disclose what is really in their hearts; if we don’t stand in front of them and stare right into their eyes with an expectant, pressurizing smile that seems to be demanding an immediate answer, but sit beside them and let them speak freely, we can often find out their basis of trust for salvation. It’s usually possible to find out fairly easily those who have experienced a change of opinions and association from those who have experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ by faith in him alone for their eternal salvation. Jan Silvious does mention in her Foolproofing book that many fools who profess to be Christians were probably never saved to begin with, and I would definitely agree. I know that there are risks in putting numbers to this, but I would personally estimate that probably about a third, if not more, of the fools who profess to be Christians fall into this category. (And this brings up a problem that I think there has not been sufficient prayer and scriptural discussion: the problem of North American evangelical nominalism. I’ll leave the pastors and other Christian leaders who read this to chew on that for a while.)

Second, in addition, I don’t think that we say it often enough and loudly enough that our reception of the salvation of Jesus Christ does not make us in ourselves better than any other human being. The very heart of true repentance, the abject humility of the broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17), which is part of the Biblical reception of salvation, in itself entails the renunciation of any self pretensions of superiority, since it involves the admission of personal sinfulness, and this cannot include any pretensions to be a better person than any other sinner on this earth. In the classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress, in fact, John Bunyan made this awareness of personal sinfulness as the difference between a Mr. Faithful and a Mr. Talkative, and someone who came into the kingdom of Jesus by the Wicket-Gate of repentance and faith and someone who tried to slip in by some other way.

Even more, we need to say it much more often and much more assertively that  the fruit in our lives which comes after we have received salvation by faith in Christ is not something that we can crow about, but it is for the glory of God, to demonstrate his power and glory and not our own (John 15:6, Ephesians 2:10). Even more, if we find ourselves in a position of leadership in the church, it can never be about ourselves and our personal glory (“looking good” in front of fellow believers). This was something that I tried to make clear in my earlier post Who Is the Greatest?, and I would repeat: In Christ we are blessed with all his spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3), and there is no indication that there’s anything in being a leader that adds anything on to all the spiritual blessings in Christ with which we have already been blessed.

As a final note, I want to go back to a point that I was making in my earlier post, Called to Follow, Not to Be Radical, that we need to back off of the hype and rhetoric about being radical and extreme as Christians. Quite frankly, I think that such hype may very well feed an underlying sense of self superiority and a foolish power and superiority trip such as I described earlier. It may well be a good idea for youth pastors and other leaders in the church now to issue an apology and disclaimer to the previously fashionable rhetoric and hype about being extreme and radical. It’s not about being radical or extreme – and no believer can find anything to crow about in whether he or she thinks that he or she is a radical or extreme Christian, and especially not if this includes any sense of being superior to any other believer or any other human being. Rather, it’s about denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him (Luke 9:23).

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The Challenge of Discipleship

Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, wrote about the need for men and women who would follow Christ in this world: “Cross loving men are needed . . .  There is a need for us to give ourselves for the life of the world. An easy, non-self-denying life will never be one of power. Fruitbearing involves cross-bearing. There are not two Christs – an easy-going one for easy-going Christians, and a suffering, toiling one for exceptional believers. There is only one Christ. Are you willing to abide in him, and thus bear much fruit?”

There has been a real neglect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today in the North American church today, and there is still a need for men and women who will follow Jesus Christ in this world, and who will bear his cross today. There is a need to good deeper in our understanding of what it means to have saving faith in Jesus Christ and what it means to follow him as Lord, and this means that there is the need to go directly to the explicit expectations of Jesus Christ himself. His own Word tells us what it really means to be saved and to live as his disciple. His description which he gave to the crowds and his disciples in Galilee is still his valid Word to us today on what it takes to follow him.

Jesus gave a description of what it would mean to follow him to the disciples and the crowds after Peter had declared him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God – the confession of saving faith. Jesus went on to explain how his identity as the Messiah would culminate in the cross and the resurrection, and even more. Upon the prediction of his own crucifixion and resurrection, he went on to give an explanation of what it would mean to be his disciple in this world. His expectations set forth the reality of what it means to live in a world which goes against being a follower of Christ when a person begins to take his Lordship, his Word and his commands seriously – and even more than seriously, to be the center of one’s own life. Certainly it may well mean the loss of the approval of others and of the comfort of this world when following Jesus becomes the only reason that one lives in this world. But even more certainly it will ultimately culminate in one receiving the eternal approval of God and eternal life in Christ.

“And when he had called together the crowd with his disciples he said to them, ‘If anyone wants to follow me, let that person deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it. For what real advantage does anyone have to acquire the whole world, and yet to lose his own soul? For what can anyone give in exchange for his soul? For it anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “I assure you that there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until them see the kingdom of God coming in power” (Matthew 8:34-9:1).

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means following him no matter what happens. Following him at all costs then demonstrates the reality saving faith in Christ. It shows to oneself, and others, even to the whole world, that belief in his Word and his promises truly is a personal conviction of their truth and certainty, more than anything else in the world.

Following Jesus means saying yes to his direction and no to every competing demand. It is a complete submission to him that cares only to follow where he leads. It is an overwhelming concern for his will alone that will ignore personal ambitions and the rejection of others to follow him no matter what – with no excuses, no prevarications.

In verse 34 Jesus himself stated what following him would involve: “If anyone wants to follow me, let that person deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me.” We call it denial of self, taking up the cross and following him – but it is all summed up in following him. This directly followed his rebuke of Simon Peter, after Peter had the nerve to try to take him aside and correct him about his ministry culminating in the cross and resurrection. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind, me, Satan, because you are not concerned about God’s concerns but the concerns of people!” So Jesus sought immediately to direct everyone to the concerns of God and not to those of themselves and other people. His call was first to the denial of self. This would mean the refusal of our own personal plans and ambitions for this world, and choosing the will of God above things that may even seem legitimate.  Even more, Jesus said that following him would mean a cross for everyone, and taking up the cross would mean facing the scorn and rejection of this world, like a condemned criminal on the way to the place of execution. His call to follow him would mean sacrifice and suffering for his sake, and his followers should in fact expect nothing better from this world.

This statement of Jesus tells us what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is not the mere confession of him as the Son of God, as in fact Peter had done. It means the acknowledgment of him as a Lord so real that it means following his will no matter what one had originally planed for his or her life and no matter how others may perceive and reject that commitment. The call of Jesus never was just to maintain an institutional religious organization or just to keep up a certain set of standards or morality – though certainly New Testament discipleship means being part of a church and adhering to Biblical morality. Nor was it to follow any new set of religious rituals. Rather, it was to that personal adherence to him and to following him.

The call of Jesus to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow him has been defined as the cost of discipleship, and it needs to be renewed today. This renewal of the call would do much to eliminate the superficial and spurious conversions among those would are unwilling to receive salvation on the terms of Jesus. It would remind us that we have no permission to soften the terms and make things easier for those who prefer no personal sacrifice. It would bring back a healthy Christcenteredness and spirit of sacrifice through which the kingdom of God has always advanced and prospered. Even more, this call of Jesus is the path to freedom from idolatry and slavery which we see all around us in our North American culture.

Note, then, how the call of Jesus to deny oneself frees us from the idolatry of ourselves. It frees us from a deep slavery and addiction to getting what we want, getting our own way and handling things our own way at whatever cost to others and even to the will of God. This kind of deeply ingrained selfishness goes regularly excused, tolerated and uncorrected among modern believers in a way which would have been unthinkable even a generation ago. This is what leads to the terribly sick and deceitful habits and mania for getting our own way, proving ourselves right and manipulating and controlling other people that regularly continue among many professed believers – and is a deep part of the reason why they experience so little of the fruit of the Spirit and presence of God in their lives. It is because there is such continuing idolatry and slavery to oneself, and they have not set themselves firmly on the path of denying themselves and following Jesus.

Just has much, this also frees us from the idolatry of and slavery to our own reputation, even a religious reputation. His call also means freedom from an obsession with being cool and of impressing others with how we look, how we dress, how much we have, and anything else that we try to form into a finely polished image with which to impress the others around us.

The apostles had already responded to Jesus, as Mark had already narrated back in 1:16-20. He called Simon Peter and Andrew, and they left their nets behind and followed him. He met James and John also, and they left their father and hired hands behind and followed him. They had already left behind their livelihood and families to follow him, and, as Peter would point out in 10:28, this was leaving everything that they had behind to follow him. Certainly this has been what it has often meant to follow Jesus into vocational ministry and missionary service; it has often meant leaving behind houses, families, friends and jobs to follow Jesus. Sometimes it has simply meant leaving or changing one’s profession, livelihood and place of living. But this has been a part of the price that many have paid over the years for the sake of following Jesus where he calls. For example, V. Raymond Edman told the story of a man in Ecuador who wanted to go into the ministry in response to God’s call. His wife threatened all kinds of reprisal if he left his lucrative job. But finally he came to her one evening with a bundle under his arm and tears in his eyes. She joined him in prayer and tears, and then he told her what was in the bundle: “It contains my working clothes. I left my employment today.”

But whatever the cost, following Jesus at all costs is the path of eternal life. It shows a saving faith in Jesus deep and real enough to stake one’s entire life on the truthfulness of the gospel. It shows a trust in Christ and a love for him more than anything else in the world.

Jesus directed his words in verses 35-37 against a natural tendency to self preservation and to seeking comfort in this world: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it. For what real advantage does anyone have to acquire the whole world, and yet to lose his own soul? For what can anyone give in exchange for his soul?” Our comfort in this world and even our very lives are not to be held at the cost of denial of Christ and his gospel. These words were directed to those who might have been facing eventual suffering and martyrdom. They were also directed as a strong warning to those who would consider their mission in life to have a worldly position, affluence and comfort, even if these would come with religious trappings and religious guise. The Pharisees had all of those: comfort, affluence and religious attainments, position and reputation. They were the religious big shots of their day. But Jesus called his disciples not to be those who would tie their lives to a world which would pass away. Rather, he gave the challenge to all of them to stake their lives on his promise of the world to come, and even to be willing to lose their lives on behalf of himself and the gospel.

Each person, every human being, has an eternal soul made in the image of God, and is more precious than all the riches of this world. The call of Jesus means refusing the eternal tragedy of the person who tries to get everything that he or she wants on earth,and yet loses everything eternally. If it is true that each person was made to live eternally with God, then nothing on earth is valuable enough to risk forfeiting that destiny.

So here Jesus calls us away from our fascination with our stuff, with our possessions and our money as well. Certainly, in the balance of scripture, there does need to be wise management of our money and possessions, and the call of Jesus has not always meant absolute loss of everything – but it might and each one of us needs to be ready to take that step.

The believer who follows the call of Jesus at all costs does so because he or she has come to realize that Christ is all he or she wants and all that he or she needs. Even if there is earthly deprivation and rejection, there is the companionship of the Son of God, the power of his grace, and the irreplaceable and unchangeable value of eternal life, the treasure in heaven which Jesus gives. So this comes from the realization that following Christ comes to mean more than this world could ever offer.

So then, loyalty to Christ is a matter of choice and action. But even more it is a matter of personal conviction that one cannot keep silent. Being a follower of Jesus means openly declaring that conviction before others. This open confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is the expression of true saving faith in the heart. The declaration of personal allegiance to Jesus Christ is not something that can be kept only ultimately private and personal, but it must be public and definitive.

When a believer openly acknowledges Jesus Christ as his or her Lord before others, this shows his or her expectation of his acceptance of us in the same way in eternity. The reverse, though, is also true, that the refusal to acknowledge him before others also entails a false faith that will meet with his rejection as well.

In verse 38, Jesus described a refusal to declare him as Lord this way: “For it anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” In Matthew and Luke, he put it as the alternatives of silence or confession. The denial of Christ by silence and shame is the evidence of a spurious faith which will be answered by his rejection in the glory of his coming sovereignty. So Jesus spoke these words to encourage the personal stand of those who truly believed in him and all that he promises as Lord and Savior. His call was not to be ashamed of him, in order to please others and to fit in with those who were still in their sin and their rejection of the Messiah.

This open declaration of personal faith in Christ and allegiance to him before the world is still something that he expects from us. This is not something that that is often directly intended to persuade others to accept Christ, though it may often lead to those kinds of opportunities. Rather, it is the open declaration of one’s own conviction, the open expression of the saving faith of the heart, that is not ashamed of Jesus and his words before the world.

This gives the warning that an undeclared faith may come to be shown to be no faith at all. The faith which is put away, kept only private and personal, and not declared before others may be found to be nothing some day. This was the discovery of an economics professor at Yale University some years ago. He came to his position with a vibrant testimony of being a Christian, but gradually started to keep his mouth shut. He gave his account of what had happened in this way: “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs in a drawer, and when I opened it, there was nothing in there at all.”

Even more, openly acknowledging Christ in this life shows our realization that we may face him sooner than we anticipate. It shows that we understand that the course of our earthly lives may be cut short by the return of the Son of God in power and glory.

In 9:1, Jesus makes the statement, “I assure you that there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until them see the kingdom of God coming in power.” There has been some ink spilled over what Jesus really meant by this, but in context it is simply his prediction of the transfiguration, which occurred in 9:28. Jesus told them that they would not all have to die before they would see the glory of the Messiah. In the transfiguration, the disciples saw Jesus changed before them, where he began to shine with his heavenly glory and his garments shone pure white. The disciples saw something there that they might have thought that they would have had to die and be resurrected to witness. In context, his statement was that three – namely, Peter, John and James – would have the privilege of a preview of his true glory. The point is that the reality was already there would demanded their decision, and it was not something that would have been postponed until later when they might have thought that they would have time, when they would have thought that it would be convenient and when it would fit in with their plans.

Thus, the open declaration of Jesus Christ as our Lord shows the anticipation that each day may be the one when he might return. Thus the goal is for the believer in Jesus Christ is to live each day as if Jesus were to return before the day is over. This would mean being forthright before the world now with the expectation that each of us will see him one day face to face. This is like the question that F. B. Meyer once put to Dwight L. Moody, on the secret of his success as an evangelist. Moody replied, “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”

The attitude, then, of the disciple who takes his or her stand for Jesus is that the approval of Jesus is all that matters. The conviction of the truth of Jesus’s return and his eternal reward for his followers then gives the strength to declare oneself for Christ no matter what anyone else may say or do. And this demonstrates that one’s faith in him and all he promises is genuine.

So then, since Jesus Christ is coming back, the only realistic course for anyone is to be on his side when he comes. Then those who love him and declare themselves for him will find themselves with him forever.

The mark of genuine saving faith in Jesus is open acknowledgment of him as Lord and submission to him in one’s daily life. Thus the call of Jesus finds a hearty, ‘Yes!’ from those who have been truly born again of his Spirit. They follow him because he has given them a new heart and a new will that wants to follow his Word. They follow because as children of God by faith in Jesus Christ they listen to the voice of the Son of God. They follow because they have come to love the Son of God and trust his Word more than anything on earth. And they follow simply as a the response of the disciple to the Lord who has love him or her more than life itself. They follow the Lord who has himself left the glory of heaven to die on the cross for the sake of those who would not be ashamed of him and his words in the midst of this lost and dying world. They follow because the bond of eternal love and fellowship between the Lord and his disciples cannot be broken by the enticements of this earth nor the intimidation of others.

First of all, being the disciple of Jesus means that he is Lord and Master. It means that in our lives everything is his in a way what we can truly call nothing to be our own anymore. It means that the highest ambition and goal of our lives is simply to follow the will of God to the glory of God. So, then, if you have made the claim to have been saved by faith in Jesus Christ, are you his disciple? Did you realize that salvation entrails being his follower here on earth? Will you make it your decision now, as a new or renewed decision, to be his disciple, with him as Lord over everything in your life?

Then, being a disciple of Jesus Christ means not only letting go of the control of your life to him, but to be ready to tell the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. This means simply taking a stand for Christ before others regardless of whether it will please or offend them. If you want to do this for the first time, simply tell one other professing Christian that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life and that you will follow him at all costs.

But finally, have you risked any form of difficulty or suffering for Christ? Have you followed him despite possible or real rejection, ridicule and loss of position or reputation in this world? If you have, reaffirm now your suffering and difficulty now as your offering of love for the the Lord who suffered for you. But if you have been slack in denying yourself and taking up your cross as part of following Jesus, perhaps you need to examine the reality and depth of your faith in Christ. Maybe that needs to become newer, more real and deeper than it ever has been before, for the sake of the Lord who bore his cross for us to the hill of Golgotha, to suffer and die for us.

A Scriptural Survey On Persecution

Updated!

Recently I was struck by having heard within two weeks two separate Christian radio programs touch upon the subject of persecution. I honestly could not remember having heard that subject mentioned in preaching and teaching since the 1970s. I think that this shows how inconsistent much modern preaching and teaching, and most likely the lives of many believers in Christ, has become with the Bible since both the Old and New Testaments are full of mentions of the persecution as part of social and legal consequences of adherence to the God of the Bible and to following Christ. It would not be too much to say that there are many, if not most of us in the evangelical church, who have become accustomed to wanting  more to be liked and to fit in and get along with those around us, and  to assume if that isn’t happening in some small, even petty way, something’s wrong with you. This tendency may also be an unconscious infiltration from secular psychology, which has as its goal socialization: producing people well adjusted to their families and to society. That socialization for a believer in Christ may mean an ultimately self destructive adjustment to a world without God and without hope does not seem to receive much attention.

One thing which is often missing from our preaching and teaching is simply this: Persecution will happen to someone who seeks to follow Christ passionately and consistently even if he or she consistently speaks and acts in Christian love and candor. The apostle Paul’s statement is still true: “All those who seek to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will  be persecuted” (II Timothy 4:12).

To some extent I think that the problem is exacerbated by people in the church looking at persecution through the lens of church traditions and stories of persecution and martyrdom under the later Roman empire or through some incidents passed on from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (which is a great read nonetheless). It’s entirely possible that someone in our churches who may in fact be undergoing treatment in his or her school, job, family and neighborhood which falls under a scriptural definition of persecution may not see it as such because he or she is not being dragged off to an arena to a dramatic execution by Roman soldiers. 

Even more, I think that the material prosperity and spiritual immaturity of so much of the North American church may be holding many believers back from standing consistently for Christ in their lives and thus risking the relatively mild forms of persecution that come in our culture and may in fact leave them woefully unprepared for more severe persecution when and if it comes to them. Here are some characteristics of children of affluence (I’m not sure where I got these, but I think that they came from the preaching of Garnett Slatton, the senior pastor at Bay Presbyterian Church in Bay Village, Ohio):

  • Self important
  • Forget God
  • Shallow character
  • Emphasis on having abundance
  • Sense of entitlement and not on working hard to keep and grow abundance.

Would anyone who has such characteristics, even with a profession of faith in Christ and regular church attendance, be ready to stand for Christ if it meant being the recipient of slander and false accusations, suffering rejection, losing financial rewards or security, suffering physically, losing one’s life, or even losing popularity for the sake of following Christ? Quite frankly, I would also say that many, many adults in the modern church exhibit many of the social characteristics of high school students, in that they place inordinate value on looks, popularity, athleticism and affluence, and haven’t grown spiritually enough to understand that the faithfulness to Christ in every circumstance matters more than any of these.

Here are some definitions of the different methods and levels of  of persecution from scripture itself, and most often from the words of Jesus himself where possible. It is noteworthy that a great deal of what scripture has to say about persecution is in the words of Jesus himself – the sinless Son of God, who was crucified for absolutely no fault of his own.

  • Hatred, slander, ostracism and rejection.

This is probably the most common form of persecution that a Christian will experience, and this can happen even in a society which is not explicitly anti-Christian. Here is what Jesus had to say about it:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others scorn you and persecute you and say every wicked thing possible against you because of me. Rejoice and shout for joy, for your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12).

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they ostracize and scorn and treat your name as a swear word because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy, for your reward is great in heaven, because their forefathers did the same things to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23).

This may include calling a believer weird because the believer refuses to indulge in the same kind of partying as others do: “ . . . they think it is strange that you do not run headlong along with them into their excess of reckless living as they slander you . . .” (I Peter 4:1). It’s also noteworthy that both Jesus (Mark 5:21) and Paul (Acts 26:24) were called crazy, and Paul even by (gasp) someone in authority – a Roman governor!  (This brings to mind that in the Soviet Union many Christians underwent malicious psychiatric ‘treatments’ for their faith in Christ. C.S. Lewis noted that this could easily be an excuse for de facto persecution in a Western nation.) Moreover, the religious leaders of the day also spread the slander that Jesus was under demonic influence (Mark 3:30, John 8:48).

I think that this is the level of persecution that Jesus meant when he laid down the challenge,  “. . . let him take up his cross daily . . .” (Luke 9:23) . Someone bearing a cross, on the way to the place of crucifixion, was a convenient target for every jeer, taunt, and form of verbal abuse, as well as whatever other kinds of physical abuse could be slipped in, from the surrounding crowd. Those who spiritualized this passage into its referring to some kind of ‘inward crucifixion’ have, I believe, wrenched it totally from its original context and meaning that it would have had to the first century audience, who would have been well aware of what happened to someone who was bearing a cross. From what Jesus said, and from the experience of him and the apostles, some kind of slander, ostracism and hatred from others who are not following Christ would be such a normal part of Christian experience that it should be very easy to give someone who is experiencing this the benefit of the doubt that he or she is not being deliberately or unnecessarily obnoxious, irritating, weird or self righteous, nor having any kind of mental imbalance.

  • Legal oppression through malicious use of laws and false accusations

There were all sorts of false charges and false witnesses brought against Jesus in his official trial before the Sanhedrin before his condemnation on blasphemy, though they had to make it sedition to get it to stick before Pilate. Likewise, Paul’s imprisonment in Acts came through a riot provoked by a mere supposition that he had done something illegal (Acts 21:27-29). In both of these instances the legal system was twisted and false accusations used to bring about governmental oppression, illegal imprisonment and illegal execution.

  • Restrictions on public speech and teaching in the name of Jesus 

This is most noteworthy in the early chapters of the book of Acts, where the official decree of the Sanhedrin to the apostles was: “We entirely forbid you to speak nothing nor to teach anything in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).  The reply of Peter and John to this should be the reply of believers in every age and every country whenever civil or religious authorities attempt to stop Christian witness, preaching and teaching: “Judge yourselves whether it is right before God for us to listen to you rather than God, for we are not able to stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). Their reaction was to pray for even more boldness (Acts 4:29), and to reply when brought before the Sanhedrin again, “It is necessary to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:29).

  • Restrictions on places and times of gathering

This isn’t something that I’ve noticed particularly in the New Testament, although it was well known shortly thereafter. What comes to mind particularly. is the time that the apostles were gathered behind closed doors,  “ . . .  for fear of the Jews . . .” (John 20:19).

  • Fines and financial confiscation

The apostle who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews noted that there was a huge financial penalty that the Jewish believers who were the recipients of the letter had suffered joyfully (Hebrews 10;34). Certainly they did not deserve the loss of their possessions, in whatever way it happened, but they accepted it joyfully as part of what it meant to follow Jesus.

  • Imprisonment

Peter (Acts 12:3) and Paul (Acts 16:24, 23:10, 24:27) spent a good deal of time in prison as a part of the consequences of holding to their faith in Christ.

  • Physical Beatings and Torture

Paul and Silas were treated to beatings as well as imprisonment (Acts 16:23-24), and Paul was stoned and had received other beatings as well (Acts 14:19, II Corinthians 11:24-25).

  • Execution

The lynch mob which killed Stephen was an example of unlawful, illegal execution (Acts 7:58-60). Later Herod Agrippa I executed James and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-3). It’s notable that martyrdom like this is sometimes confused with the other forms malicious treatment which scripture calls persecution. It’s also notable that martyrs in scripture were not engaging in acts of civil violence or terrorism, nor being killed while engaged in warfare against any other person, faction, religion or nation, nor taking anyone else’s life, especially the life of any innocent victim, and taking one’s own life at the same time.

Here are some more more points about persecution which scripture teaches.

  • Persecution is ultimately a rejection of Jesus, not of the persecuted.

Jesus is now in heaven, and the persecutors of his people on earth cannot get to him. The ultimate issue is really not the faults, weaknesses, or sins of the persecuted. It is rather the persecutors’ rejection of Jesus: “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first, before you . . . They will do these things because they do not know my Father nor me.” (John 15;18, 16:3).

Jesus in fact identifies himself so much with those persecuted for his name and takes their treatment by others so personally that that he could say to Saul of Tarsus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

  • Christ calls for utter faithfulness to himself in these situations.

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it. For what good is it to anyone to gain the whole world and to lose his soul? What would a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 9:35-38).

“Whoever acknowledges me before other people, I will acknowledge that person before my Father who is in heaven; whoever denies me before men, I will also deny that person before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

  • Persecution is a possible reason for apostasy.

I think that professed believers falling away from faith in Christ is something that is taken far too lightly among many in the church nowadays. That someone has the civil freedom to do so does not negate the terrible spiritual and eternal consequences of apostasy. Jesus himself pointed to persecution and affliction in the Parable of the Sower as a reason why many insufficiently rooted believers fall away: “And these are the ones who were sown upon the rocky ground: after they have heard the Word with joy they receive it, and then they have no root in themselves, and are temporary; when affliction or persecution on account of the Word comes they immediately stumble into apostasy” (Mark 4:16-17).

  • There is Satanic instigation and direction behind persecution and martyrdom.

This was what Peter meant when he wrote to the persecuted believers, “Be serious and watchful. Your enemy the devil is walking around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in the faith, since you know that the same sufferings are happening among your brothers and sisters worldwide” (I Peter 5:8-9).

  • The love of God is greater than anything that the persecutors may do to a believer.

This is what the apostle Paul set forth in Romans 8:34-39: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Affliction or difficulty or starvation or nakedness or danger or sword? Just as it is written that,

‘ For your sake we die all day long,
we are considered sheep for the slaughter.’

But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who has loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things which are present nor things which are to come nor powers not height nor depth nor any created thing will be able to separate us from from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This passage was directed a lot more to the believer who is suffering for his or her faith than someone who is simply going through life, doing his or her own thing, and getting irritated and complaining about others who intrude on his or her own selfishness.

  • Jesus promises his peace to those undergoing persecution.

The utter peace of many believers who are suffering for their faith and often being led to execution for their faith has been one of the remarkable things throughout the whole history of the church. Yet Jesus clearly promised, “I have spoken these things to you so that in me you might have peace; in the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33).

Here it’s worthy of note that there have been some gospel presentations which have rightly come under some criticism for holding forth the promise of peace as a reward for making a profession of faith in Christ. Some who have responded because of this promise have then rightly had complaints because things then became worse for them – they had to face conflict with others because of their recent profession of faith! While Jesus and the apostles definitely held forth the gospel promises of forgiveness of sins and eternal life as the eternal consequence of faith in Christ, I think that any mention of peace and joy in following Christ in any gospel presentation needs to be kept in its proper place, alongside the cost of discipleship.

  • The sufficiency of God’s grace is there for believers when they are undergoing persecution.

This is the actual context of the often quoted promise of Jesus to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It was not simply a promise to get through a difficult day with irritating people, but through a number of difficult circumstances, including persecution: “Thus I will boast all the more in my weaknesses, so hat the power of Christ will dwell upon he. Therefore I will be satisfied in weaknesses, in insults, in difficulties, in persecutions and privations, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).

This means that a believer, when he or she is the target of one or more of the methods and situations of persecution, even up to martyrdom, is not dependent on his or her toughness to get through that situation. The grace of God through Jesus Christ is the source of forthrightness and steadfastness in those situations.

  • Believers are called to show extraordinary love and prayer for their persecutors.

The consistent commands of Jesus throughout the gospels, which are repeated by the apostle Peter in I Peter, is that believers are not to reply in kind to their persecutors. This means no reactions of taunting, insults and counter accusations but rather love, prayer and blessing: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those are persecuting you (Matthew 5:44).

This is, I think, where the reactions of ‘turning the other cheek’ in scripture need to be understood correctly. They were not given as a pattern for civil law or for being passive in the face of abusive people but rather need to be understood as Christ’s directions to his followers on how to react to persecution.

  • Believers in Christ are to give a respectful and reasonable explanation of their faith in Christ when facing opposition.

This is what Peter told the believers: “If you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear or get worked up by their intimidation, but set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts, as you are ready to give an explanation to everyone who asks you to give an explanation for the hope which is in you, but with gentleness and respect, as you hold to a good conscience . . .” (I Peter 3:14-16).

Frank Pastore, the onetime pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, once took the fellow Christians on his team to task after he came to Christ because they could not give him a reasonable explanation for their faith when they tried to witness to him. He then took these verses and went through the Bible to guide them on how to do so. I think that too much in our day that this is seen as too much of academic exercise; this kind of defense isn’t so much being able to argue like a philosopher but being able to explain like a witness on the stand. Yet many Christians when challenged, may fall to the same cultural and relativistic cop outs such as:

  • Well, that’s what my church believes.
  • That’s my truth, and that’s your truth.
  • It doesn’t matter what you believe, as much as that you believe.

 

  • Believers are to trust in Christ for supernatural wisdom through the Spirit when brought before persecuting governments, officials, authorities and accusers.

This is the explicit of promise of Jesus himself:

“When they deliver you up, do not consider beforehand what you will say, but it will be given to you on that day what you will say, for it will not be you who are speaking but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).

“I will give you an utterance of wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Luke 21:15).

  • Escape from persecution can be a perfectly godly reaction to it.

Staying in a situation where a believer is receiving persecution is not necessarily God’s will or even God’s command. For instance, Paul escaped from persecution in Damascus through the wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25, II Corinthians 11:32-33), and was sent away from persecutors by the church on more than one occasion (Acts 9:29, 17:14). Jesus himself escaped from malicious crowds on more than one occasion (Luke 4:28-30, John 8:59).

In part of the marching orders that Jesus gave to the apostles, which are rightly understood to have application to missionary activity since then, Jesus commanded, “When they persecute you in this city, flee (or escape) to another;  truly I say to you that you will not go through all the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Mathew 10:23). So Jesus did not definitely give a, “Stand and fight it!” command to his followers when they faced persecution. Rather, this command would be more like, “Go on to the next place. It’s not about standing up for yourselves, proving how tough you are or how much you can take, but fulfilling your mission. There will be others further on down the road who have not heard the gospel. When you find yourself rejected in one city, go on to the next one and be a witness for me there.” And that is exactly what the apostles did throughout the book of Acts.

  • Persecution will come from the religiously deceived.

“They will drive you out of the synagogues; but a time is coming when everyone who kills you will suppose that he is performing an act of devotion to God” (John 16:2).

  • A worldwide persecution will be part of the events that occur before the return of Jesus Christ.

“You will be hated by everyone because of my name” (Luke 21:17). That this will mean civil oppression and mostly likely a worldwide bloodbath of Christians does seem to be something that scripture points to as being what will be coming for Christians. The gospel will definitely be preached to all the world about the time that this occurs (Matthew 24:14), but the reaction of the world will ultimately be rejection and persecution. This is one compelling reason why I think that pastors and church leaders need to be doing more to prepare the people of our churches for persecution and even for martyrdom. If we see the signs of Jesus’s return coming together, we need to be even more prepared to stand firm in the hour of persecution to come. And I don’t think that any Christian can trust either in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States or in a belief in a pretribulational rapture to stand firm when that happens.

I think that there needs to be a greater recognition among the leaders and adherents of our churches that living in Christian love and godliness will not necessarily make us liked by others. Rather, it may as often stoke a deep hatred from others. This means that there is a great need for counting the personal and social costs of following Christ. And, if there is anyone who has never had to face rolling eyes, insults, missed promotions, thwarted plans, ostracism, slander or even a noogie for being a Christian, I would suggest to that person that he or she needs to have some deep concern over whether he or she has ever followed Christ very closely. That’s the implication that I think comes from the following verses. They are from the version of the Sermon on the Mount (often called the Sermon on the Plain) which is found in Luke. I’ve never heard any kind of in depth preaching and teaching on these verses; the one sermon series that I’ve heard that went through the gospel of Luke glossed over them in two sentences.

“Woe to you who are rich,
because you have received your comfort.
Woe to you who are now sated with food,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will cry and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for their forefathers did the same thing to the false prophets”

(Luke 6:24-26).

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It’s been said that more people died for their faith in Christ in the 20th century than in all the preceding centuries. One book that I would recommend is James and Marti Hefley’s By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. While I would recommend it not only for the average Christian, I would especially recommend it for any pastor whose preaching and teaching ministry is intended to be directed toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And certainly I am with you always, to the very end of the world” (Matthew 28:18-20). I would encourage you to read it, mark it up, be taught by it, and use its material as illustrations in your own preaching and teaching.