Holy Things: Living Through Persecution
We live in a confusing world. In many ways, our lives are easier and more comfortable than ever in history. And in other ways, our world has become far more complicated than ever in history.
2000 years ago, life was simple in comparison. Life was harder, but it was predictable. Today, life is comparatively easy, but complicated. In most impoverished countries today, people can’t get good food or clean water, but they have access to the internet and television. That’s confusing and complicated.
You might say that the world today is full of immorality—and it is—but it’s complicated because it isn’t any worse than it ever was. It’s just that today we have technology that pushes the immorality of the world in your face everywhere you turn to look.
You might say that technology is evil. But, it’s not. The technology is just the microscope that shows us the depth of the depravity of human hearts. Technology makes it impossible to ignore the horrific things going on in our world. There are no deeds done in the shadows, because there are no shadows.
We see the world clearly today, but it’s the same world that has always existed.
The New Testament authors paint a picture of two kingdoms—the Kingdom of the World and the Kingdom of God. And these two Kingdoms are at war with each other.
What constitutes these two kingdoms?
We live in the Kingdom of the World. But, as Christians, we have citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God consists of all those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The Gospel that Jesus proclaimed on earth was this.
- Mark 1:15 (CSB) — The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!
Notice, for Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not a future thing. He says the time is fulfilled. It has already come to pass. The Kingdom of God is present in Jesus.
How do you enter the Kingdom of God?
Jesus says you believe the good news or the Gospel. That’s what it means to follow Jesus as savior. And then belief in the good news of Jesus results in a life of repentance from sin. That’s what it means to follow Jesus as Lord. The Kingdom of God consists of those who both believe in Jesus and consequently repent of sins.
I often say that you need three things for a Kingdom: a King, a People, and a land. Well, the Kingdom of God is made up of those who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. That’s the people.
In his letter to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul wrote that,
- Philippians 2:8–11 (CSB) — He [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason, God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s king-language. Jesus was given the highest title possible.
The name that is superior to any other name and that name is Yahweh, which means God of god,King of kings, Lord of lords.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is clear about the Kingship of Jesus:
- Hebrews 12:2 (CSB) — For the joy that lay before him, he [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
You can’t miss in these passages that Jesus is King and he reigns on the throne of his Kingdom, right now.
But, also, don’t miss that Jesus’s Kingship was inaugurated by the gathering of His people. Both Paul and the author of Hebrews tie Jesus’s Kingship to His sacrifice on the cross, because apart from the cross no one could ever enter the Kingdom of God and there would be no Kingdom … because you can’t have a Kingdom without people.
But what about land?
Before dying on the cross Jesus said to his disciples,
- John 14:2–3 (CSB) — In my Father’s house are many rooms; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.
This earth as it exists today is not the land that God has given to his people.
Jesus is clear that when he ascended to his throne at the right hand of the Father, that he went to prepare a place for His people. And in the end, after casting everything evil in this world into the abyss, Jesus will bring that place down to the earth. The Apostle John prophesied,
- Revelation 21:1–2 (CSB) — Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
It’s pretty clear this earth that we live on is not our land.
And if that is true, then as Christians, we are aliens in a foreign land. This earth is not our home. We are foreigners, sojourners, even transients.
But, Christ has left us here in this world to gather together His people for His Kingdom. He commanded us,
- Matthew 28:19 (CSB) — Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.
Speaking of judgment day, Jesus said,
- Matthew 24:14 (CSB) — This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
The Psalmist in Israel prophesied,
- Psalm 22:27 (CSB) — All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of the nations will bow down before you.
See, the Gospel is not that Jesus died for your sins. The Gospel is that Jesus died so you can enter the Kingdom of God. Forgiveness of sins is the invitation to the party; it’s not the party. The Kingdom of God is the party.
So, then you have the Kingdom of the World that is and always has been completely overrun with wickedness and immorality. That’s the world we live in and which the Apostle Paul described this way. He wrote,
- 2 Timothy 3:1–5 (CSB) — But know this: Hard times will come in the last days. [SIDE-NOTE: The “last days” is a term the New Testament authors use for the time between Jesus’s first and second coming—which is now.] For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, demeaning, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of godliness but denying its power.
Paul hits all the immorality in there in one fell swoop. But, notice also, he says that part of the Kingdom of this world are the ‘good people,’ the people who have a form of godliness, but deny the power of God at work in the world. Plain and simple, the Kingdom of this world is made up of people—some even very moral people—who don’t want anything to do with our King, Jesus.
The world opperates one way and the Kingdom of God opperates another. The Kingdom of the World opperates in immorality and idolatry, denying the power of Christ. But, the Kingdom of God opperates in righteousness and devotion to Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God.
In this light, the commission Jesus gave us to take the message of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, is a declaration of war on the Kingdom of this world. What we call the Gospel, those are fighting words. Jesus intends to conquer the Kingdom of this world through us as we proclaim the good news of Christ. We are undercover, covert operatives, taking down the Kingdom of the World from within.
And how does war work?
Think about this. Every time one side makes a move, the other side has to make a move, usually a bigger move. We make a huge mistake as Christians if we preach a Gospel that someone can just give or take. If you tell someone about Jesus and they feel like Jesus is just one of many acceptable religious options, and you are fine with them refusing to believe it, or you allow them to believe that they might be acceptable to God even though they don’t follow Jesus, then you have not communicated the Gospel.
In a very real sense, when you tell someone about Jesus, you are asking them to commit treason. You are inviting them to abandon their allegiance to the Kingdom of this world and join the forces of the Kingdom of God. When you became a Christian, you committed treason against the Kingdom you were born into, the Kingdom of the World. You decided that your allegiance was not to this world, but to Christ and you began following a new king. That kind of message is going to cause problems for the Kingdom of the world.
Paul goes on in his letter to Timothy. He said,
- 2 Timothy 3:10–13 (CSB) — But you have followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, and endurance, along with the persecutions and sufferings…In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Evil people and impostors will become worse, deceiving and being deceived.
Paul understood that to advance the Kingdom of God in this world was an act of war and the Kingdom of this world won’t have it!
The Kingdom of the World is going to persecute us as Christians, because we are the antithesis of everything the world fights for. That means you are going to be treated as less-than, at times. If you are living out your faith before the eyes of all, you are going to be taken advantage of. You are going to be treated unfairly. You might lose jobs. You might be disowned by family. You might be betrayed by friends. Some of this stuff is going to happen to you as a Christian.
But, I want to make another observation about the passage, because Paul said, “Evil people and impostors will become worse, deceiving and being deceived.” I tend to be optimistic. As the Kingdom of God grows and expands upon the earth, we experience a certain amount of strength and security in our faith and so you’ve heard me teach that we should be optimistic about life in the ‘last days,’ which is the time we are living in right now. But, as we succeed in expanding the Kingdom of God, the enemy, that is the Kingdom of the World, will become worse. As the Kingdom of God succeeds, the Kingdom of the World will fight harder. The deceit will become greater, and the devastation all-the-more devastating.
In the book of Acts, we read of the Apostle Paul and his friend Silas. They were preaching in the different cities in the Roman Empire and caused such a great commotion that they were arrested and beaten and thrown in prison for proclaiming the good news of Jesus. That’s real persecution. But, Paul and Silas were not devastated by the persecution. They didn’t give up. They didn’t go into hiding. They didn’t despair. Instead they stayed up all night in chains in the dungeon singing songs of praise to God. Their lives were in jeopardy, but the Kingdom of God was winning and so they were filled with peace, and joy, and satisfaction.
They got to share in the glory. We honor those who fight for our country and lose their lives and we are right to. They get a share in the glory, because they sacrificed much. And their families can be proud, even in the midst of grief.
And that’s the Christian life. Listen, although we are persecuted, we have joy in the midst of suffering, power in the face of persecution, humility in the face of hostility, because we know we have a share in the glory of the Kingdom of God.
But, if we are obedient to Christ our King, we will be persecuted.
- Acts 14:22 (CSB) — It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.
You don’t get to the Kingdom without persecution.
The Apostle John wrote,
- John 15:18 (CSB) — If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you.
The world hates us because it hated Jesus whom we follow.
Jesus himself said,
- Matthew 10:28 (CSB) — Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
We will be persecuted, but like Paul and Silas, we should not fear persecution, but only fear God.
So, that’s persecution. That’s why it happens and that is what must happen for the Kingdom of God to advance in this world.
Now, I’d like to make three observations about persecution and then give some application.
(1) If you are not being persecuted for your faith, then there is no apparent faith.
Paul is very clear that, “All who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted.” If you are not ever being persecuted for you faith, the negative inference of Paul’s statement is that you do not have faith in the first place. And that makes sense, because if God redeemed you and is changing your heart to be like His, then the world is going to see that. You are going to live and speak differently and when you speak about Jesus that should sound like treason to the world and offend the world to the point that, although many ought to come to know Christ through you, many more will reject and persecute you. And that’s okay, because it’s how it is supposed to go. If you are not being persecuted for your faith, then there is no apparent faith.
But, I don’t want to be overly rigid on that because of the next observation.
(2) You can experience comfort without persecution if you retreat into your Church community.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, I said ‘no apparent faith’ in the previous observation because, for many, it’s not that you don’t believe in Jesus, it’s just that you don’t engage your faith outside of the company of other believers. But, you haven’t been called to the Kingdom of God to retreat into your community. You have been called to the front lines.
The church community exists as a place of refuge where you can learn the doctrines of the church and you can learn what it means to follow Christ. The church is a training ground for new believers. And the church is a place to get your wounds bandaged and recover before going back out into the battle. But, at some point you have to reach a place of maturity where you begin to live out your faith in the world around you. As a Christian, you are not to live in retreat forever, but get equipped to go out into the battle.
You go out into the world every day and if you are engaging your faith and enduring persecution for your faith, you will most certainly learn to covet the Sunday morning worship time, because you will need to be refreshed by the people of God so that you can go back out again next week.
So, then, if you don’t seem to care one way or the other if you go to church or not, it’s probably also true that you are not engaging your faith in the public during the week.
So, the church exists as a retreat from the battle, but you have to get into the battle.
(3) Being persecuted for being different is not the same thing as being persecuted for your faith.
Right — my point is that people not liking you is not the same thing as being persecuted for your faith. And hear me out, because we can make this mistake very easily.
As an illustration: The Roman Empire’s power was because of a process called hellenization. Hellenization refers to the process of conforming all of society to operate under the same set of principles. No matter where you lived in the empire, you were required to speak a particular dialect of Greek so that anyone could travel and communicate with everyone they encounter. The Romans built roads to connect major cities and trade routes to connect people. There were certain religions that you were allowed to follow and others you were not so that everyone would worship the same. Hellenization was all about being the same.
So, you can imagine, in the Roman Empire, there were lots of groups throughout time who were persecuted by the Romans. Anyone who was different and refused to conform was going to have trouble with the Roman Government. And that pattern is true today. There are lots of groups today who are not Christian and yet are not tolerated by government or society for a variety of reasons that are not their Christian faith.
And so, we need to be careful not to confuse our identity with other groups with our identity in Christ. These things are hard to talk about, but I want to be clear what I’m saying.
• Persecution because of skin color is not persecution for Christ. It’s terrible and it’s bigotry, but it’s not the same persecution that Paul is talking about.
• Likewise, persecution because of sex and gender is not persecution for Christ.
• Persecution because of social class or wealth is not persecution for Christ. You will be treated different by the rest of the world because of how much wealth you do or do not have. That is not persecution for Christ.
• And persecution because of political preferences is not persecution for Christ. If someone looks down on you or treats you poorly because you are a democrat, or a republican, or a socialist, or a libertarian ,or a constitutionalist, or whatever party you prefer, that is not persecution for Christ. Political parties actually have to do with bringing order to the Kingdom of the World not the Kingdom of God. So, even though that’s a necessary part of living in this world, that persecution cannot be equated with persecution for being Christian.
I bring this up, because I don’t want you to gauge your faith according to your difficulty in life. Difficulty in life occurs for many reasons other than our faith in Christ. We often make decisions in life that make our lives harder and some of those decisions are terrible and irreversible. For some of you, there are factors you can’t control that make your life difficult. I recognize that and I’m sympathetic.
But, I fear that teaching on persecution can actually lead us to become pessimistic and complainers. We can fall into the trap of gauging our godliness on how much we suffer in life. But, much of your suffering is tied to circumstances that have little to do with your faith in Jesus. So then, you have the suffering without the glory and you can become unsatisfied, frustrated, and a complainer. You don’t want to be there.
Christian persecution comes from specific situations: (1) Your refusal to denounce Christ, (2) your persistence to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, and (3) living counter-culturally, according to the will and purposes of Jesus. All other suffering, we chalk up to bad decisions or just life in a broken world full of broken people.
Let’s talk application. There’s a number of Christian books out there focused on how to live the Christian life. Here’s a few:
• Living a Life of Balance
• Living a Life of Significance
• Living a Life of Love and Faith
• Living a Life of Worship
• Living a Life of True Worship
• Living a Life of Intimacy with God
• Living a Life of Adventure and Grace
• Living a Life of Faith, Blessing, and Favor
These are all things we are called to exhibit in our lives as Christians: balance (or temperance), significance, love, faith, worship, intimacy, grace. I’m sure a couple of these books are great. But, we are promised that we will live a life of persecution as a Christian. As far as I can tell no one has ever written a book titled, Living a Life of Persecution. Probably not going to be a bestseller if they do. Maybe I’ll write it.
But, as we move to application, I want to talk about how persecution for our faith should happen.
Notice author Bruce Barton’s warning:
- Bruce Barton (LABC) — Believers must set out to follow Jesus, rather than being on a quest to find trouble. It is possible to be persecuted for being obnoxious, rather than for being obedient. Don’t go looking for trouble—obey Christ and let trouble find you!
I think that advice is sound. If you are living a life honoring to Christ and you are proclaiming the message of Christ, persecution is going to happen, but we don’t want to be obnoxious to the point we seek out persecution by pushing people away fro Christ.
And again, you might think it odd that I say you might go looking for trouble, but too many Christians would rather skip to the persecution to avoid the work of godly living and evangelism. You don’t get the joy and the glory if you do that.
I think Paul gives us a great primer for the godliness we are called to exhibit in this passage. He wrote,
- 2 Timothy 3:10–11 (CSB) — But you have followed my (1) teaching, (2) conduct, (3) purpose, (4) faith, (5) patience, (6) love, and (7) endurance, along with the persecutions and sufferings.
You can see clearly here, 7 ways that the Apostle Paul would have you to live out your faith, that will result in persecution and likewise in the insurmountable joy that accompanies persecution.
And let’s be clear. The goal of this is not the persecution. The goal is the joy and glory that comes with persecution as you serve our King, Jesus.
So, this is a good time for you to take back out your…
Remember, write down a step that you can take this week and we will pray for you this week as you take that step.
(1) The first step is to Follow the Teaching of the Apostles. Here, I believe, Paul has in mind sound doctrine—that is, Paul wants you to be following the clear teaching of the Apostles and not the gimmicks of men.
We live in a world that values diversity in beliefs. Most people would prefer that no one be dogmatic about their beliefs. Everyone can believe whatever they want to believe as long as you aren’t pushing that on other people. Then maybe we can all get along just fine. But, Paul is adamant in multiple places in the New Testament that there are truths that are not negotiable and which cannot be compromised.
If you don’t clearly understand those essential truths, you may, as you Next Step, need to commit to a study on the essential doctrines or teachings of the church.
(2) The second step is to Follow the Conduct of the Apostles. Unfortunately, we have the ability to become so passionate about the doctrines of the church that we lose our ability to conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner. Certainly Facebook and other social media outlets lend themselves to arguments, slander, gossip, and other forms of hateful speech. The temptation, as Christians, is to get so caught up in what we believe to be true that we leave patience, understanding, and grace out of the equation.
And that doesn’t only happen online. As Christians, we need to conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner. So, for your Next Step, I wonder if there isn’t someone you might need to apologize to, that you’ve spoken harshly to. Or maybe your next step needs to be to take steps towards good conduct, if you are in a habit of not conducting yourself respectively.
(3) A third step towards persecution and insurmountable joy is to Follow the Purpose of the Apostles.
What on earth does that mean?
Well, it means to follow the purpose that Jesus gave to the Apostles, which is to proclaim the message of God’s Kingdom in all the world. The purpose of the Apostles is to tell other people about Jesus and that is your purpose also, as a Christian. Your Next Step might be to tell someone about Jesus or at least to invite someone to come to church with you next Sunday.
Think what might happen if everyone here were to invite one person to church every week? What might that do for the expansion of the Kingdom of God?
(4) A fourth step is to Follow the Faith of the Apostles.
We tend to use the word faith in terms of confidence. “I have faith that you will finish college.” It is like that, but it’s more. Faith is unwavering loyalty that is rooted in our confidence in God.
All of the Apostles and many of the other witnesses of Jesus’s ressurection were martyred, killed for their loyalty to Jesus. Paul Himself was killed because of his loyalty to Jesus. Think how many life-threatening situations the Apostle Paul put himself through. How many times was he beaten, imprisoned, left for dead, and he kept up the fight? Now, how many times have you withdrawn from situations because your faith in Jesus made the situation merely uncomfortable?
Your Next Step might need to be to stand up for what you believe in. Believe in Jesus, and have unwavering confidence in Him.
(5) A fifth step is to Follow the Patience of the Apostles. There’s another text where faith and patience show up side-by-side like this and I believe it provides some context for what Paul might mean by patience. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote,
- Hebrews 6:11–12 (ESV) — And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
He says that the promise of the Kingdom of God is inherited through faith and patience. That’s why Jesus said,
- Matthew 10:22 (CSB) — You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Loyalty to Christ matters now. But, the Kingdom of God is for those who persevere, those who endure to the end, those who never give up. Lived properly, the Christian life is full of difficulty. But, the reward is far greater than the difficulty and so you must persevere.
(6) A sixth step is to Follow the Love of the Apostles. The Disciple John has been called the disciple of love. Here’s what he taught about love.
- 1 John 3:16–18 (CSB) — This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him—how does God’s love reside in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth.
John said that we should love our brothers and sisters—that is, our church family—to this immense degree, that we would even die for them.
But, then he gets practical, because he isn’t really teaching about death here. He says that we must not just love people with our speech. We can’t just wish each other well or say, “I’ll pray for you.” Love acts, so John says we must love in action.
What that means is that if someone has a need in the church, it is your responsibility to meet that need in any way possible. I don’t just mean being somewhat generous. I mean being sacrificial, giving until it hurts if that’s what is required. If you are aware of a need in the church, then it’s your calling to make something happen. That’s your Next Step. Start praying, start planning, start acting to meet that need.
(7) Finally, the seventh step is to Follow the Endurance of the Apostles. This is different than patience. Patience is a passive faculty that has to do with waiting for the promises of the Kingdom of God to come in their fullness. Endurance is an active faculty. Paul wants us to be actively enduring persecution and suffering. Here he adds suffering. Persecution is the trials that have to do specifically with advancing the Kingdom of God. But, suffering is a general term that has to do with the general hardship of life in this broken world. And Paul says that you have to be active in enduring the persecution and suffering. Because, if you aren’t winning the battle, you are losing the battle. So, you have to be active and aware of the battle at all times or you will be losing the fight.
It seems odd to invite persecution, but I want to remind you where we started. These 7 steps don’t just invite persecution. They actually proclaim the sufficiency of Christ and His Kingdom. These steps are war songs that ring out throughout the world and the world hates them. And I’m sorry for that, but we are very much in the midst of a war, a spiritual war for the souls of men and women. And we must advance the Kingdom of God in this world.
The world hates Christ and His Kingdom so there will be persecution. But, we must advance the Kingdom of God lest the whole world perish. And for that prize we endure persecution and suffering.
Let me pray for you, that the Lord would increase your endurance and joy as you take a step this week to engage the battle.
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