Monday, February 27, 2012

A Primer on Persecution


Last week, the death sentence for a pastor in Iran was upheld by their government and his death can happen anytime.  From what I read, it can happen now or be dragged in for a few more years, but unless there is a miracle, he will be put to death for his faith in Jesus Christ.  I wrote about this when his sentence was first handed down some time ago, but I think today is a good reminder as to what it is like to be a Christian in most of the world.  There is a verse that comes to mind.
This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, "Follow Me."  John 21:19 NKJV
Jesus, as we know, was talking to Peter.  Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down, at his own request, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same manner of his Lord.  The phrase that really gets me in this verse is "by what death he would glorify God."  Think about that for a moment.  We often think of glorifying God by the work He does through us in life, and that is true.  It does not end there as we even glorify God in our death, even a horrible death.  This should be of no surprise to us as Jesus was our example and He glorified God by His death as well. 

This raises a question that I think is hard to for any of us to answer and that question is whether we are ready to glorify God not just with the lives we lead, but also in our death?  Perhaps this is a morbid question and perhaps it seems a bit far off that even think of such a thing, but that is only because we live where we live.  We never have to really consider giving our lives for the Lord.  We do not live in a place where a government either supports or even carries out death sentences for Christians.  We do not even live in a place where police look the other way when it does happen.  We live in relative peace and security when compared to the rest of the world.  We should appreciate that blessing.  We certainly did not plan to be born in America.  That happened only by the grace of God.  We also did not plan to have whatever Christian influences we have had in our lives to lead us to having that saving faith in Jesus Christ.  That is also by the grace of God.  We did not choose to live in the areas that we live where Christians can go to church in peace.  That, once again, is by the grace of God.  We all live in a relatively stable nation  that still has a large Christian influence so it is not something we need to consider for our future.  But should we?  Just as God has given us the gift of this great place to live, God can also change things on a dime and we can be left in a situation that much of the rest of the world lives in.  We can be attacked, we can be occupied, we can be subject to random terrorist attacks, or we can be consumed with "political correctness" where it literally becomes criminal to preach Jesus (as he is exclusive) or His idea of righteousness (that is counter to the culture of political correctness).  So today I want to raise the "what if" idea.  Are we all ready to suffer and die to glorify our Lord?

First of all, if we should ever find ourselves in that position, we should not be surprised.
Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. 1 John 3:13 NKJV
Despite Jesus telling us this would happen, the Bible takes an extra step to tell us to not be surprised.  God knew that people (especially ones as spoiled as we are) would be completely surprised that the world has turned against us.  I know we love our messages on abundance and prosperity, but the fact is that Jesus promised that our lot in life will be hate and persecution.  Just because that persecution happens to be light in our current time and place does not mean it will always be the case.  I imagine it will be quite a shock for many who are not prepared for such a thing to happen.  I know many believe that their lives will be nothing but sunshine and rainbows with overflowing buckets of gold around every corner, but that is not reality.  Jesus never promised that.  The fact is we should expect persecution.  Jesus did make that promise. 

When the persecution does happen, we should not worry. 
But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute [you], delivering [you] up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name's sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony.  Therefore settle [it] in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put [some] of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost.  Luke 21:12-18 NKJV
There are two kinds of worry that can happen when suddenly faced when we are under persecution.  The first kind of worry is  about the persecution itself.  We worry what might come of it.  Will we lose friends, family, or money?  Will we be beaten and tortured?  Will the ones that we love suffer the same fate? Will we spend time in prison?  Will we be killed?  All of those are possible, but we are not to worry about them.  Jesus tells us here that we will be betrayed by those who are closest to us.  Jesus says that some may even be put to death.  Jesus says we will be hated and with hatred comes every kind of mistreatment imaginable.  Despite all of these, not a hair on our head will be lost.  Wait a minute, did not Jesus just say we may be put to death?  Once again, I feel a scripture is important to understand just what Jesus means.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  Matthew 10:28 NKJV
Death is not something we should fear.  While it is true that we may lose our lives under some form of persecution, we will still be saved eternally.  We still have our salvation.  If we are not to fear death, we should not fear any of the lesser things such as imprisonment, isolation, humiliation, or pain.  None of these can take away the eternal reward that awaits us.  Do not worry about what may come of persecution, because the absolute worst that can happen to you is to be sent to the presence of our Lord.  That is how we can, like Peter, glorify God even in our death.  We can because we can hold on to the hope of the glory that awaits us.  No man can take that from you and the worst man can do is send you to it. 

The other kind of worry is when we worry about how we will respond to persecution. We worry if we will crack under the pressure.  We worry about what we will say to our persecutors.  We worry if we will be a good witness.  Jesus tells us to not even think of those things.  God will give us the words to speak should we ever be under persecution.  The reason why is that we will only mess things up.  We do not know the hearts of our oppressors. We do not know what words will plant seeds in their hearts.  Being human and in that situation, we will also be under tremendous temptation to act out in the flesh.  If they offend us, our natural reaction is to offend back.  If we are are hurt, our natural reaction would be to defend ourselves and strike back.  We must allow the Spirit to work through us to speak the words God has for whomever is persecuting us.  The best thing we can do to prepare for persecution is to just rest our hearts and trust that God will work through us. 

Finally, should persecution come into our lives, the response is not to grumble and complain, but rather the opposite.  When persecution does come, we should rejoice. 
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.  James 1:2-3 NKJV

So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.  Acts 5:41 NKJV
There are two reasons why we should rejoice.  The first reason is that God is going to use whatever you go through to increase your faith.  It is easy to become dejected when under persecution.  That is the natural reaction, that is, of the flesh.  However, we do not live under the flesh anymore, but we live in the spirit.  In that, we can take heart that God is allowing what we are going through not to destroy us, but to strengthen us.  James tells us to count it all joy, that is to consider it a joy.  That takes a deliberate step.  That takes actually ignoring the circumstances we are under and choosing to rejoice in that God is choosing to do a very special work in us.  If you want to draw nearer to Jesus, then suffer for His name.  There is a certain fellowship of suffering the Bible speaks of where we know we have a savior who was persecuted just as we are.  I know persecution is not fun, but we must know that no matter what we will be closer to the Lord when all is said and done.  We will be closer to Him in our lives should it end in this life or we will be rather literally closer to Him in His presence should the persecution take our lives. 

Secondly, we rejoice because we are counted worthy to suffer for the Lord.  The Apostles did not whine and complain after they suffered for their faith, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.  Understand that if you are persecuted, God has allowed it to happen.  If God has allowed it to happen, He has a purpose that He is using you for at that time.  Persecution does not choose us, but God chooses to allow us to suffer persecution for His glory.  God has chosen you to be a testimony even under tremendous circumstances.  God has chosen you for a test He knows that He will strengthen you to pass.  Rejoice that God has chosen you for this special work.  Rejoice that God has chosen you for that special fellowship with Jesus for those who suffer for His name.  Rejoice for the blessing and reward that will come for suffering for the sake of the cross. 

I am going to say something that may sound a little crazy to many of you.  Persecution of the likes we have never even imagined may be coming into our lives.  Do not fear it, do not deny it, do not be surprised when it arrives, and do not fear it as you suffer through it.  However, rejoice.  Rejoice that our Lord is choosing us for a special work.  Rejoice that God is doing a work in our lives through it.  Rejoice in the fellowship with our Lord to comes from it.  And rejoice in the reward to come after it.  God did promise us persecution, but that promise comes with a glorious reward.   
Blessed [are] those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great [is] your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:10-12 NKJV

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