logo Living Water Christian Fellowship logo
Home Recent Sermon Multimedia Sermons News & Events Our Vision Donate Now Through CanadaHelps.org!

“A Biblical Theology of Persecution” by Glenn Penner (adapted)

International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Nov.4, 2012 Is.61:1-3/various (source: idop.ca)

[video: “NIGERIA: Christians under siege – yet overcoming” (8:48) Note: several hundred km north of our location in 1981 (Jos-Owerri); seriousness of persecution; and, connection to growth of the church.Source: here]

    ...Most of the New Testament passages that address suffering do so in the context of suffering for righteousness and not because of sin or because one lives in a fallen world. But in many of the classic books on suffering, this type of suffering is hardly ever stressed...This is to be expected...since most Christians in the West have little or no experience with persecution per se. In our quest to make the biblical text applicable to daily life, the tendency is for Western preachers and teachers to misapply these passages to situations of general physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering because the biblical texts that speak to suffering for righteousness cannot readily be applied to a setting where there is little or no persecution...Hence...the typical Bible student in the West never even suspect[s] that the biblical texts that deal with pain and suffering might be dealing with suffering for righteousness' sake rather than suffering because of sin. This also influences how Western Christians view and deal with those who suffer for their faith in other societies. We fail to recognize that persecution is normative for the follower of Christ historically, missiologically, and (most importantly) scripturally. [As Dr Rebecca in our final video will point out, Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him...” As if suffering is to be EXPECTED as part-and-parcel the normal life of one who trusts in Jesus.]

    There is a clear scriptural link between persecution and discipleship. Indeed, there can be no discipleship without persecution; to follow Christ is to join Him in a cross-carrying journey of reconciling the world to the Father. That this journey is set in the context of conflict, self-sacrifice, and suffering is alluded to as early as Genesis 3:15, [“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”]...the Lord affirms that Satan's judgment, accomplished through human instrumentality, will bring deliverance to the offspring of the woman, but it will take place in a process of bruising and pain. The deliverance will come through the bruising of the serpent's head, but in the process the heel that bruises him will be also be bruised. This truth is illustrated in the following chapter when the first murder takes place following an act of worship, as Cain's sacrifice is rejected by God while his brother's is accepted. In jealousy (a common reason given in scripture for persecution), Cain kills his brother. It is obvious that the New Testament views Abel's murder as much more than the result of sibling rivalry or a family squabble that got out of control.

    Jesus clearly saw Abel's death as an act of martyrdom (Matthew 23:35[“And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”]), as does the apostle John (1 John 3:12 [“Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother.And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.”]). John explains that Abel's death was because Cain's acts were evil and Abel's were righteous. Abel's death is clearly set in a context of martyrdom, a result of the conflict between the world and those who belong to God (1 John 3: 13[“Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.”]).

    Persecution is hardly an exclusively New Testament phenomenon. Numerous passages refer to the suffering inflicted on the people of God throughout the Old Testament historical narratives. It is likely that the psalms of lamentation address the issue of the suffering of God's people more clearly than any other portion of Scripture (including the New Testament). The imprecatory psalms [ie those that contain curses or prayers for the punishment of the psalmist's enemies (Ps 7 35 55 58 59 69 79 109 137 139)] cry out for God’s justice on those who inflict the righteous without cause. The thrust of the book of Job is how a man of God suffers not because of sinfulness of himself or creation but because of righteousness and calls for trust in God in the face of such a paradox. This train of thought is amplified by the call of the prophets to look ahead to the Day of the Lord, believing that history is under the control of an Almighty God who, from the foundation of the world, has set His plans in motion of reconciling the world to Himself.

    All of this comes into focus with the coming of Jesus Christ, the revelation of the triune God. Through Christ, we see, among other things, that sacrificial love is in the very nature of who God is. To suffer and die to accomplish His Father’s purposes was not to be unexpected; Jesus could not be God and do anything but. Weakness, suffering and sacrifice are God's modus operandi. This is how God accomplishes His work: not through strength or compulsion but through love and invitation. As so, the Servant of God suffers and dies, as do those who follow Him. This is to be expected; this is God's way of reconciling the world to Himself. A cross-centred gospel requires cross-carrying messengers. When Jesus declared, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), these words are to be taken much more literally than we are accustomed to doing. At stake is not so much a willingness to die for Christ but a readiness to | due to one’s unconditional obedience to the Crucified One.

    The demand of Jesus on His followers is to tread the path of martyrdom. As He prepared to send His disciples out as sheep among wolves...He told them that they would likely die in the process of carrying out their ministry. In order to build His Church (Matthew 16:18), His death was necessary, as He points out in 16:21[“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”]. This is the foundation. Without Christ's death there is no redeemed community. But just as Christ's cross was needed to establish His Church, our crosses are needed to build His Church (16:24). Both are needed. As Josef Ton observed, "Christ's cross was for propitiation. Our cross is for propagation." To be called to follow Christ is to receive a call to suffer (e.g. Acts 9:16 “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 14:22 “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said.” 1 Thessalonians 3:3 “so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them.” 1 Peter 2:21 “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” 3:9,17 “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing...It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”)

    It was this understanding that sacrifice, suffering, shame, and even death were the normal cost of discipleship that fuelled the evangelistic efforts of the first century Church. They did not expect to experience all of the blessings of heaven in this world. They knew that by their faithfulness, even unto death, they were storing up rewards in heaven. Contrary to the Western belief that it is a blessing not to be persecuted, they knew that it was the persecuted who are blessed (Matthew 5:10-12 [“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”]). Rather than following the common Western practice of thanking God for the privilege of living in a free country where we do not suffer for Him, the early Christians thanked God for the honour of suffering for His sake (Acts 5:41 [“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”]). They knew that in order to bring life to others, they must die; to see others experience peace with God, they would have to suffer the violence of the world; to bring the love of God to a dying world, they would have to face the hatred of those whom they were seeking to reach. It is in this context that the biblical authors described spiritual warfare; not freedom over bad habits or psychological problems, but the brutal reality of witnessing to the faithfulness of God in the face of suffering, sacrifice and death. It was only in this context that the purposes of God would be accomplished.

    This is also the reality of persecution today. We continue the task of taking the gospel to the end of the earth, knowing that He goes with us and that we do not suffer alone. In all of our afflictions, God is afflicted and just as Jesus demanded of Saul of Tarsus, so He asks of today's persecutors, "Why do you persecute Me?" The knowledge that nothing can separate us from Christ's love (Romans 8:35), that the Spirit prays for us when we can only groan in agony (Romans 8:26f) and gives us His words in the face of our accusers (Matthew 10:19f) provides the help that the disciples of Jesus require to remain faithful witnesses. God has provided all that is necessary for the disciple to stand firm.

    Yes, there may be fear, but by God's grace it need not control us. Yes, there may be terrible suffering, but suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to the child of God; disobedience to the Father is.

    As we witness the testimonies of courageous persecuted brothers and sisters in person or through reports, it is worthwhile to reflect on the words of Peter, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” (1 Peter 2:19 ESV). In these words, Peter defines grace as being enabled to endure suffering due to one's faithfulness to God. As we read [or watch] the accounts of those who have suffered for the sake of Christ, we might be justified in saying that, from the world's perspective, those who endure persecution are heroic. But from God's perspective, Peter reminds us, they are recipients of grace. Peter stresses that enduring suffering is evidence that God is at work in one's life. There is no glory for the sufferer. No hero worship. No merit for those who are able to endure hardship, no boasting of one's achievements. It is evidence of God's grace. It is all a work of God, from beginning to end. Is it any wonder that near the end of his first epistle, written especially to instruct persecuted believers to stand firm in their faith, the apostle writes, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you...” (1 Peter 5:10 ESV)

    This hope is solidified with the Revelation of John’s vision of the victorious Lamb. Written to address the apparent discrepancy between the belief that God's kingdom has come and that Jesus Christ is Lord | and the reality that the forces of evil continued to exist, to dominate the culture and even flourish, while oppressing Christians to varying degrees, [the Book of] Revelation provide[s] the churches with what they most needed: a revelation of who Jesus Christ is. God's priority is not so much to answer the questions that His people may have [about] why they are persecuted | as to give them a revelation of Himself. In this final book of the Bible, Jesus is revealed as the One who is in the midst of the churches, as One who is in control of history and who will soon bring history to its conclusion. The believers to whom John writes | face the challenge of witnessing for Christ in the midst of temptations to compromise with idolatry. John sees the persecution as increasing and his warning is meant to prepare the churches for that day, as well as for the challenges they presently face. He sees that not all of the churches are prepared; some are already well on their way to denying Christ. The Christian in Revelation is called to witness for Christ, even to the point of death, in the midst of compromising Christianity and a hostile world, knowing that his[/her] reward is coming. Revelation helps us to see that there is always hope. Defeat may seem imminent to those in the midst of persecution; the disciple needs to be reminded that so is victory. The victory is not, however, as some might suppose, the punishment and destruction of the wicked; the victory is the vindication of the Church. Redeemed, triumphant in heaven, secure forever with the Lamb who has won the victory for Himself and the Church through His death and His conquest over it, the Church participates in this victory with Christ as Bride and Bridegroom. By refusing to deny their allegiance to Him and acknowledge the idolatrous claims of the world order (13:15, 14:9), enduring even unto death, the martyrs share in Christ's victory over it and in His triumph over all the powers of evil (12:11 [“They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”]). God has determined to save the world by the foolishness of the cross of Christ and by the foolishness of the crosses of His children whom He has chosen and called for this very purpose. He will be consistent in using this unique method until He achieves His final goal. God will thus bring the nations to Himself by the sacrifice of His obedient Son followed by the sacrifices of His other obedient sons and daughters.

[video: INDONESIA: “I call prison the school of trust” (3:58); note - 1) the connection Dr Rebecca makes between “believing/trust” and “suffering”; 2) the joy she exudes.Lest we be tempted to (just) feel sorry for those who are persecuted – “I want what SHE’S got!” Source: here]