Sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16)

The world today is an increasingly wicked place. At least that is what I feel. Now whenever I go out into the fray, so to speak, there is a faint but tangible sense of malice and of threat. The environment is hostile, and that hostility is caused by a growing wickedness, and I have begun to feel the feelings of the hunted. And no, I don’t think claims of my own paranoia are well-founded. Rather, I believe I utter words of sober truth (Acts 26:25). Satan has been released from the abyss (Revelation 20:7) and the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:3), although not yet officially revealed, is furiously working his campaign of destruction. Wickedness and overt transgression are everywhere rampant and are spreading like an aggressive cancer. And so, I ponder how I, as a disciple of Jesus and as a child of God, should respond to all this.

The Lord Jesus Himself gave His disciples instructions about this, for He knew what was to come.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Jesus in Matthew 10:16

If I occasionally feel hunted by the evil of our day, what did Jesus’ first disciples feel when Jesus gave them this picture? Here is a picture of sheep among wolves. Sheep are defenseless animals. They cannot run well. They cannot fight at all. They are remarkably un-clever, and they die fairly easily. Wolves, on the other hand, are vicious predators who travel in packs to conquer their prey. They are smart and strong and fast with a mouth full of sharp teeth designed to rip apart the flesh of their prey. A picture of sheep in the midst of wolves is a story that will not have a happy ending for the sheep. And yet this is the picture Jesus gives His followers.

But Jesus also gives His followers instructions for what to do when they find themselves in this seemingly hopeless situation. “Be shrewd (prudent; practically wise) as serpents and innocent as doves.” In other words, realize that the world is full of wolves, and that they would like nothing better than to destroy you. But also know that the Lord is there to protect you. He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and will defend you from the wolves. Since the world is full of wolves, live wisely. Since you are a defenseless sheep, live wisely so that you can proclaim Christ’s excellencies (1 Peter 2:9) as long as possible. By all means, avoid spending a lot of time in wolf dens! When you as the sower go out to sow (Matthew 13:3), be alert for wolves at the edges of the field.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Jesus in Matthew 10:16

As sheep in the midst of wolves, we realize that our mission of being witnesses for Jesus (Acts 1:8) is inherently risky. There is an awesome cost, but we have accepted that cost as not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). For the glorious truth of the gospel is that, if I am a sheep belonging to Jesus, I will never die (John 11:25-26). And so, I go on wisely but boldly sowing seed and making known the mystery of the gospel and proclaiming Christ’s excellencies, trusting that He who sent me out is also He who will forever defend me from the wolves.

SDG                 rmb                 7/6/2021                     #421

Blessed are the persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12)

A few days ago, I wrote an article on the American disciple of Jesus and how he or she relates to persecution. The disadvantage for the American Christian is that their entire faith experience has encased them in a bubble that virtually excludes persecution as even a possibility. It is unconsciously accepted as a “fact” that real persecution for the follower of Jesus does not occur in America. “Yes, it certainly happens to believers in other countries, but it doesn’t happen to us here.” Such is the general mindset in the American church.

I do not share that confidence. It is my belief that real persecution is going to occur here in the not-too-distant future. There are simply too many warnings and teachings (and promises?) about persecution in the New Testament, and there is simply too much evil rising up on every side, for America to remain an island of refuge and safe from the heat. The Lord uses persecution as a way to test His saints, as a way to purify His church, and as a way to show His infinite worth when His saints choose to die rather than deny their Lord. The church in America and the saints in America are entitled to these benefits of persecution just as much as the believers in Nigeria or India. For these reasons, I am persuaded that the heat will soon rise.

So, as a result of this persuasion, I plan to post a series of articles on New Testament passages that address persecution so that believers in America can be prepared to stand firm rather than be surprised and shrink back.

But first, we need a definition for our topic so that we are talking about the same thing.

PERSECUTION – A DEFINITION: Significant suffering or loss intentionally inflicted on a follower of Jesus Christ by a person or group that opposes the Christian gospel and hates the person of Christ because the follower of Jesus has identified as a believer and/or has practiced their Christian faith.

OUR TEXT: MATTHEW 5:10-12

In this series of articles, we will discover that the New Testament is packed with verses that disclose the promised persecution that those who follow Jesus will experience, simply because they follow Him. In this post, we will begin near the beginning of the New Testament and cover two of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:10-12.

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:10-12

THE BLESSINGS OF PERSECUTION

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made plain to all those who would follow Him that every disciple would need to pay a high cost. This cost was never in the small print, but always at the top of the contract, capitalized in bold type. Jesus is the King of kings, and anyone who would join themselves to His kingdom needs to be willing to surrender all for His name’s sake.

And so it is that after Jesus tells the listening crowd the characteristics of His disciples In Matthew 5:3-9, He tells that same crowd of the treatment that they will receive from those outside His kingdom.

The message of these verses is crystal clear: “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” What a strange message for the Son of God to proclaim! What a very unusual recruiting tool! Jesus has just begun His earthly ministry and, although there are large crowds of the curious, He has only a few real committed followers at this point. Then, with the crowd in the palm of His hand, on the edge of their seat, He delivers the thunderclap: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”    

THE PARADOX OF PERSECUTION

Here is paradox! “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Jesus Christ declares to His would-be followers a paradoxical truth. The very thing that causes our natural flesh to recoil in loathing is the source of the Lord’s blessing. How can this be? Persecution involves pain and loss as others vent their hatred on us simply because we follow Jesus. And yet Jesus promises us a blessing if we will be the recipient of persecution for His name’s sake.

THOUGHTS ON THIS PERSECUTION

You must boldly and intentionally raise the flag of Jesus if you will receive the blessing of persecution. Those who are timid and reluctant will go unnoticed by their would-be persecutors. These violent aggressors will overlook you or ignore you and thus you will miss out on the blessing. You must do a lot to be persecuted, especially in a relatively docile place like America. Let your reckless boldness for Jesus kindle the persecution.

In persecution, the believer is dependent on the hatred of others. Most of Christ’s promised blessings are dependent only on our activity, but the blessing of persecution is different. In persecution, the disciple of Jesus is passive and depends on the sinful behavior of Christ’s enemies to receive the promised blessing.

Persecution is received not for disobedient behavior but for boldly obedient behavior in a context that is known to be hostile to the gospel and hostile to Jesus. There is simply no other way to be persecuted. The disciple who would receive the blessing of persecution is the disciple who remains steadfast and immovable in the face of very real potential threats. This is the disciple who refuses to bow down even as they feel the heat of the fiery furnace. This is the disciple who prefers a context hostile to the gospel and has already decided that bold, visible obedience is not optional, but is just part of what it means to follow Jesus. This is the disciple who seeks the blessing of persecution.

Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Those who have been persecuted declare that, not after death, but in the very experience of persecution, there is a sense of the Lord’s blessing. The blessing is in the persecution. All true believers will be glorified and will spend eternity in heaven with the Lord, but what will we experience in this life? The blessings of persecution can only be experienced here during this mortal life. Why not receive this blessing of persecution, also?

SDG                 rmb                 6/29/2021                   #418

The American Christian and persecution (2 Timothy 3:12)

The disciple of Jesus in America is at a distinct disadvantage because of their religious context. What I mean is that the American follower of Jesus comes to faith and lives out their faith in circumstances that are not only very different from those of most of the rest of the world, but also in circumstances that are in many ways foreign to the teaching of the New Testament. Although the cultural environment in America is changing with astonishing speed, the basic mindset of virtually all professing believers in this country is that being a Christian is an honorable and respectable thing, and that our freedom to practice our faith in the Lord Jesus without fear is an inalienable right. The American disciple of Jesus assumes that, as long as he is not too vocal about his faith and as long as he remains winsome and respectable in public, he will be able to go peacefully to his pleasant, pretty church building on Sundays and worship the Lord Jesus unhindered.

OUR ASSUMPTIONS HINDER US

But it is these basic assumptions which hinder our willingness, and thus hinder our ability, to take risks for our faith. The follower of Jesus described in the pages of the New Testament is one who has already given up everything to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11; Mark 10:28; Philippians 3:8), so, when they are called to take risks, they have nothing left to lose. The disciple of Jesus has already died: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). For the one who has already died, the risk of death holds but a feeble threat.

But when Jesus personally called the “rich, young ruler” to follow Him, the risk of losing everything was too high (Luke 18:22; etc.). The Son of God in the flesh gave this man a personal invitation to eternal life if he would but give up all his possessions and the man chose the possessions and refused eternal life. The comfort of his possessions and his easy way of life and his prominence in the community and his respectability and his reputation in the synagogue all hindered him from following Jesus. He simply had too much to lose. Eternal life wasn’t worth the risk. Are we any different?

The life of the New Testament disciple of Jesus is a life that takes intentional risks so that his King may be glorified and so that others can enter the Kingdom. The lives of the believers in the New Testament were inherently risky, and the stakes were high. But, generally speaking, our lives as disciples of Jesus in America are intentionally safe. We have been raised in a Christian culture that avoids risks. With very few exceptions, our role models in the American church are not those known for taking risks. Since our role models avoid risks, and since the overall Christian culture prefers prudence to reckless abandon, we play it safe and continue to believe that persecution is something that happens “over there.” We continue to believe that we can live godly in Christ Jesus and not be persecuted.

DENYING THE BIBLICAL FACTS OF PERSECUTION

The background of the American disciple of Christ almost prevents the acceptance of the biblical facts of persecution. The biblical fact is that Jesus calls all His followers to forsake everything for His name and for the sake of His kingdom, but the American disciple, without even thinking about it, translates that into something like, “Jesus wants me to read my Bible, go to church, and be faithful in my giving.” The biblical fact is that “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12), but the American Christian immediately interprets persecution as something like the people in your office thinking you are weird because of what you do on Sundays and because they have heard you mention the word “God” in conversations. The idea that simply telling your parents that you have become a follower of Jesus could result in them beating you, calling you a traitor, an infidel, and the scum of the earth, and possibly even killing you, is outside the American believer’s imagination. Most American pastors would consider it absurd if someone suggested they could go to jail simply for preaching the gospel in their church. This is not because their faith is small or because they are not true believers or because we are unaware of the experience of many suffering believers in the world. We have this mindset in America because believers here have been protected, and even lauded, by a constitution that has been upheld ever since this country was founded. Not only that, but Christianity has been and still is the dominant religious expression in the country. Many of those expressions are stagnant, apostate, or even heretical, but in this country, a “religion” that is somehow associated with Jesus is still viewed as generally virtuous.

THE PROBLEM THAT WE FAIL TO READ OUR BIBLES

One of the reasons why professing American followers of Jesus have this unbiblical view of persecution and of the cost of following Jesus is that many professing believers are unfamiliar with their Bibles. In churches where the sermons are shallow and are not founded on the biblical text, and where Bible reading is not an expected part of Christian growth, the congregation will be ignorant of the prominence of persecution that is implicit and explicit throughout the New Testament. An ignorant congregation cannot be an obedient congregation, for you cannot obey what you do not know to be a command or an expectation. This woeful situation of biblical ignorance explains much of the worldly mindset that exists in American Christianity.

The solution for this problem is obvious. A church that claims to be Christian is a church that must preach the whole counsel of God so that the congregation hears the word of God properly taught from the pulpit. Churches that do not do this should repent and begin to be Bible-based churches. But also, the professing disciple of Jesus must hear from his church leadership that Bible reading is an expectation of every Christian, and then must begin to include serious Bible reading into their Christian discipleship. There is no discipleship without active, regular Bible reading. Without the regular intake of the Word, you will not grow.

THE PROBLEM OF HOW WE READ OUR BIBLES

For those disciples of Jesus who do read their Bible, there can be another obstacle, and that obstacle is the way most American Christians read their Bibles. It is hard to put this into words, but it is the tendency to read without feeling the full impact of the passage. It is reading how the apostle Paul was stoned by the people of Lystra (Acts 14:19-20) and they “dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (because he probably was dead!), and then not grasping the fact that the greatest Christian missionary was nearly killed many times and was eventually executed for the crime of preaching Jesus. It is reading how the apostles rejoiced because they were “considered worthy to suffer shame for Jesus’ name” (Acts 5:41), and then refusing to tell your friend that you have become a Christian even when he asks you repeatedly “What’s new?” It is reading Paul’s great declaration, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), and then hesitating to go on a mission trip because of the possibility of contracting a disease.

We read our Bibles in a detached way, believing that these events in the Bible really happened as they are described, but not identifying them as anything that would ever happen to me. I see the suffering and the sacrifice of my heroes, and I see the world’s hostility against those that I admire for their personal holiness and commitment to Christ, and yet there seems to be a disconnect in my ability to see myself at the end of that spear. “Oh, I could never see myself doing that, but I admire these brothers that have this level of commitment.”

I don’t think that I hesitate overly long over these types of adventures because I am a spoiled coward, at least I hope that is not the reason. I think, I hope it is mostly the collective expectations of decades of “safe” evangelicalism that has rendered me a seeker of safety instead of one who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS: The solution to this problem is anything but simple and obvious. I think the solution will involve diligent searching for a strategy followed by lots of hard work at carrying out the plan. The first step to solving any problem, though, is identifying the problem, and then admitting that it is, in fact, a problem. Hopefully, this article has taken a step in the direction of identifying the problem for the American Christian.

The next step I would propose would be making a conscious effort to say “yes” to risky ventures for the kingdom of God before you fully consider the risk.

Another thought would be to say “yes” to any and all assignments you sense you are called to do without any consideration of the risk. That is, the only question you are seeking to answer is, “Has the Lord called me to this assignment?” Any risk is the Lord’s area of responsibility. Obedience to His call is my area of responsibility.

Another strategy is that of over-commitment. Make commitments that exceed your capacity and then trust that the Lord will expand your capacity.

Another thought is to explore areas of ministry that create fear and stress in your gut.

And I am sure that others can conceive of other ways to turn the average “play it safe” American disciple of Christ into a fire breather who would never shrink back.

“Some wish to live within the sound of church and chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” C. T. Studd

SDG                 rmb                 6/24/2021                   #417

The end-times in four verses (Isaiah 26:19-27:1)

The prophet Isaiah lived about 700 years before the birth of Jesus, and yet the book of his prophecy contains some of the most remarkable predictions and foreshadows of the Messiah’s first and second advents found in the Old Testament. The accuracy of Isaiah’s prophecy about the events of Jesus’ Incarnation are well-known to most Christians, including predictions of Jesus’ virgin birth, His ministry in Galilee, and His work of atonement to take away sins by His death on the cross. What is not as well-known is that Isaiah also had a lot in his prophecy about Jesus’ Second Coming when He returns in power and glory at the end of the age. This article is about one of Isaiah’s end-times passages.

In one short section of four consecutive verses, Isaiah writes about four key events that will occur at the end of the age. In Isaiah 26:19-27:1, the prophet leaps over thousands of years of human history to tell us about the resurrection, the great tribulation, the return of the LORD, and the judgment of Satan, one major event per verse. And what Isaiah wrote in 700 BC agrees with what other biblical writers have penned since. The Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to write of future events, and Ezekiel and Daniel and Zephaniah and Jesus Himself and John and Paul and others have confirmed the prophecies Isaiah wrote.

ISAIAH 26:19 – THE RESURRECTION

In this verse, Isaiah gives a crystal-clear prophecy of the general resurrection.

19 Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.

   At the end of the age, the dead will live, and their corpses will rise out of the dust. The tomb will become a womb. This is the resurrection, when “those who are Christ’s at His coming (Parousia) (1 Cor. 15:23)” will be made alive. This is what Ezekiel described in the valley of dry bones, when bone came to its bone and sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin, and “breath came into them and they stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army (Ezek 37:7-10). Daniel prophesied that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life (Daniel 12:2).” Jesus talked about this event in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come forth.” In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells of the resurrection when he writes, “The last trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (15:52).” In 1 Thess. 4:16-17, Paul gives the most complete description of the resurrection: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” So, Isaiah writes first of the resurrection.

            At the end of the age, the dead will live, and their corpses will rise out of the dust. The tomb will become a womb. This is the resurrection, when “those who are Christ’s at His coming (Parousia) (1 Cor. 15:23)” will be made alive. This is what Ezekiel described in the valley of dry bones, when bone came to its bone and sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin, and “breath came into them and they stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army (Ezek 37:7-10). Daniel prophesied that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life (Daniel 12:2).” Jesus talked about this event in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come forth.” In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells of the resurrection when he writes, “The last trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (15:52).” In 1 Thess. 4:16-17, Paul gives the most complete description of the resurrection: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” So, Isaiah writes first of the resurrection.

           

ISAIAH 26:20 – THE TRIBULATION

Now Isaiah tells of a time of tribulation when the people of God are forced to hide until the conflict passes.

20 Come, my people, enter your rooms
And close your doors behind you;
Hide for a little while
Until indignation runs its course.

God’s people are urged to “enter your rooms and close the doors behind them.” Outside is some great “indignation” that is threatening them and, to avoid being annihilated, they must “hide for a little while.” This is describing the time of the great tribulation, which Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24:21-22, when the church is severely persecuted, and the best course of action is to retreat into hiding. This is also what John is describing in Revelation 12:6, when “the woman” (the faithful church) “fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God to be nourished for 1,260 days.” The exact event is described again in Revelation 12:14 where “the woman could fly into the wilderness to her place where she was nourished for time and times and half a time, from the face of the serpent.” The church will hide in the wilderness until they are rescued by the returning Jesus Christ. So, we see that Isaiah also wrote about the great tribulation.

ISAIAH 26:21 – THE RETURN OF THE LORD

21 For behold, the Lord is about to come out from His place
To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their wrongdoing;
And the earth will reveal her bloodshed
And will no longer cover her slain.

Now Isaiah tells us about the terrifying day of the LORD when He will “punish the inhabitants of the earth for their wrongdoing.” This is a day of wrath and judgment, a day of thick darkness. The prophets and the Lord Jesus in His Incarnation and the church through her preachers and prophets have been warning of this day for thousands of years, but usually men refuse to hear and refuse to heed and refuse to repent. (See Revelation 9:20-21.) Now the day has come, and there is no room for repentance. The prophet Zephaniah warned of this day: “A day of wrath is that day, a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and battle cry (Zephaniah 1:15-16).” Paul wrote of that day in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 “when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Revelation 19:15 presents an awesome image of the returning Christ: “From His mouth comes a sharp sword so that He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” And Isaiah wrote of this day 700 years before Christ.

ISAIAH 27:1 – THE JUDGMENT OF SATAN

21 On that day the LORD will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.

Finally, Isaiah’s prophecy reaches all the way to the end of history at the end of the last day as Satan himself is being judged. “The LORD will punish Leviathan.” And who is Leviathan? He is “the fleeing serpent” and “the twisted serpent.” Does Scripture tell us of any serpents? There was a serpent in the Garden who tempted Eve. In Revelation we read that “the serpent of old, the dragon, who is the devil and Satan (20:2; also, in 12:9).” “The fleeing serpent” and “the twisted serpent” are none other than Satan. Isaiah also tells us of “the dragon who lives in the sea.” And who is the dragon? From the same verses in Revelation, we see that the great dragon is another alias for Satan. Satan is the serpent, he is the dragon, he is Leviathan. From Isaiah 27:1, “On that day, the LORD will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.” In Revelation 20:10, we read almost the same thing from the pen of the apostle John: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone to be tormented day and night forever and ever.” And so, just as Isaiah prophesied, so it will be on that day, the day of the LORD.

In this remarkable passage, in four verses the prophet Isaiah gives us sure prophecies of four events that will occur at the end of the days.

SDG                 rmb                 3/22/2021

Why must Satan be released from the abyss (Rev. 20:3)?

In this article, we parachute into the “thousand years” of the gospel age in Revelation 20:3. Things are going along splendidly with Satan locked in the abyss. Now for the duration of the “thousand years,” the gospel is being proclaimed and the church is growing, and Christ is building His church (Matthew 16:18). This all goes along swimmingly “until the ‘thousand years’ were completed; after these things he (Satan) must be released for a short time (Rev. 20:3).” And there need be no ambiguity about the intention of the Greek in this sentence. John uses the Greek word δεῖ, which is accurately translated by the NAS as “must.” It is necessary that Satan be released from the abyss. But WHY must Satan be released? That is the question.

In answering this question, we first need to keep in mind that Satan is a mere created being. He is not a threat to the church, and he is certainly not a threat to God. He is brought onto the stage when his character is needed by the Director, because there are some things that he is uniquely qualified to do.

Second, we need to observe that Satan is released from the abyss. This was not a successful jailbreak. Rather, he is released. Satan was not in control. (He never is.) He was rotting away in the abyss when he was unexpectedly released. Who released him? We are not told, but it would be reasonable to assume that the one who locked him in the abyss (the risen Christ) is the same one who released him from the abyss.

So, Satan must be released because his unique talents and abilities are needed by the Director to take the drama toward its scripted conclusion. The Hero of the Drama is preparing to make His final, glorious appearance, and all the details must be made ready for His grand entrance. The church must be purified, pruned, and cleansed through the furnace of persecution. Evil and lawlessness must increase so that the unrighteous are revealed and so hatred against the church can abound. Although they will be ignored, the final warnings of coming judgment must be loudly proclaimed to the unrighteous. Satan must have time to raise up the beast and the false prophet to oversee the proliferation of evil and the persecution of the church. Satan is the only character in the drama who can accomplish these tasks, so Satan must be released.

Finally, upon his release, notice that Satan is given only a short time (Rev. 20:3; μικρὸν χρόνον). He is not in control of the length of his performance; rather, his time on the stage has already been determined by the script. He will burst upon the scene “having great wrath (Rev. 12:12)” and will create havoc and destruction, but he has only a short time (Rev. 12:12; ὀλίγον καιρὸν). And after that short time, “he was thrown (ἐβλήθη) into the lake of fire and brimstone (Rev. 20:10).”

So, Satan must be released after the “thousand years” because the Lord has need of Him.

In Luke 19, as Jesus nears Jerusalem for His triumphal entry, He sends two disciples ahead to fetch a colt. As the disciples were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord has need of it (Luke 19:33-34).” That is probably the best way to think of Satan; consider him to be like this colt. He comes onto the stage of the grand drama when the Lord has need of him.

SDG                 rmb                 3/13/2021

Our suffering as accomplishment (1 Peter 5:9)

“But resist him (the devil), firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.” – 1 Peter 5:9 (NASB)

            Christ has suffered, and so His body, the church, is also called to suffer. Paul’s goal is to know “the fellowship (“koinonia” in Greek) of Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10).” It may correctly be said that to be a Christian is to anticipate suffering for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:10-12). The apostle Peter mentions in his first epistle that Christ suffered and left us an example to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). As Christ has suffered, so we will suffer as witnesses to Him. Jesus said, “And you shall be My witnesses (Acts 1:8),” and the Greek word for witnesses is the word “martyr.” So, we are certainly to anticipate suffering for the name of Jesus. But while it is true that Christ suffered in the flesh (1 Peter 3:18; 4:1) and that the church also suffers, there is a profound difference between these two experiences of suffering.

            Christ has suffered in the flesh and has perfectly accomplished the work the Father gave Him to do. In John 17:4, Jesus said, “I glorified You (the Father) on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” What work did He accomplish? Jesus accomplished the work of atonement. That was the reason Jesus was sent to the earth, to accomplish the work of atonement, a work that He alone could accomplish. To accomplish this work, Christ had to endure the full fury of the wrath of God against all the sins of all His people of all time. Thus, Christ suffered as a means of accomplishing His work. Accomplishing His work involved suffering, but His work was not the suffering itself. How much suffering was Christ required to endure? Exactly the amount of suffering needed to propitiate the wrath of God against His people’s sins.

            Then, when God had poured out all His wrath on Christ, Christ’s work was done. Therefore, Jesus could cry out, “Tetelestai!” “It is finished (John 19:30)!” Three hours of suffering the full wrath of God had been endured and His work was accomplished. Once Jesus’ work of atonement was accomplished, His life could be yielded up (John 19:30; Luke 23:46; Matthew 27:50), because the purpose of His life was fulfilled, and now He needed to die.

            We have already said, “Since Christ suffered, so we will also suffer,” but for Christ’s body, the church, our suffering is central, not incidental. That is, there is an amount of suffering that the body of Christ must accomplish. Note what Peter says in 1 Peter 5:9: “the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.” The verse says that the suffering is the work being accomplished. God has ordained that the body of Christ must suffer as an end and not merely as a means to some other end. As we have seen above, Christ’s suffering was the means necessary to accomplish His work of atonement, but the church’s suffering is the work to be accomplished.

            The New Testament has much to say about suffering for the name of Jesus Christ, but there is also an underlying theme in the New Testament suggesting that there is a predetermined amount of suffering which the church must “accomplish” to fulfill her purpose of witnessing. Consider these verses.

  • “Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered’ (Romans 8:36).” As the sheep were sacrificed routinely and anonymously, so the church suffers continually and without glory to give testimony to the worth of Christ.
  • “Now I rejoice (!) in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24).” Notice that Paul’s sufferings are on behalf of the church and that they are “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This thought is consistent with the idea that the purpose of the church is to witness to Christ through suffering.
  • We have already looked at 1 Peter 5:9, “the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.”
  • Underneath the altar were the souls of those who had been slain (for Jesus), and they cried out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?” They were told to rest a little while longer until the number of their fellow servants who were to be killed even as they had been would be completed also (Revelation 6:9-11). The clear message from this passage is that God has determined a set number of martyrs who must be killed to complete the testimony of the church.

The church is called to be a witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). This is one of the purposes of the church, and the collective suffering of the entire church is accomplishing this part of the church’s purpose. Thus, it may be said that a suffering church is an accomplishing church.                         

SDG                rmb                 1/20/2021

Do we seek suffering? – Part 2 (Philippians 3:10)

“that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings.” – the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10

It seems that the statement is made at some point in conversations about suffering, especially among American Christians. It is usually well intended and sounds like an appropriate thing to say in response to affliction for the name of Jesus. “Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering. . .” But the more I think about that statement, the more uncomfortable I become. Is that true? Are we not to seek suffering? And if that is the case, then why do so many of my heroes in the Bible and so many Christians in history suffer for their faith? Is it normal to be a serious Christian and not suffer for my faith? And what do I do if God is calling me to a course of action that almost certainly includes suffering to some degree?

            Because of the importance of the topic of suffering for the believer, I am going to spend several posts exploring what I see to be problems with the statement, “Of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering.” The goal is to arrive at a solid perspective on suffering that makes me more useful to Jesus.

            Problem #1 (January 5) dealt with the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ effectively sought out His own suffering as the necessary means for accomplishing His mission of redemption and atonement. Since Jesus sought suffering, it seems hard to imagine that we do not. In this post we will look at Problem #2.

“Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering . . .”

PROBLEM #2

            “That’s really a trivial statement.”

Upon examination, we realize that the declaration above (“Of course, we do not seek suffering”) is somewhat trivial. What I mean is this: Of course, Christians do not seek out suffering! No one in their right mind seeks out suffering as an end in itself, so saying that the Christian is not called to seek suffering is just stating the obvious. Jesus did not call His disciples to seek suffering for suffering’s sake, but He did call us to follow Him wherever He leads regardless of any real or imagined consequences. The consequences of my obedience are the Lord’s responsibility. He determines those, and one of those potential consequences may be suffering. Another consequence could be my physical death. As a disciple of Jesus, I choose to obey regardless. The duty of obedience is my responsibility. I obey because obedience to my Master is my highest aim. I long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

When viewed in this light, the possibility of suffering is irrelevant. It is beside the point. Suffering is just one of the potential consequences of my obedience to the Lord. Why focus on one potential consequence instead of focusing on the goal or the prize of my obedience (Philippians 3:14)? Why highlight this one possible personal consequence instead of bringing all glory to Christ and focusing all my energy on proclaiming the gospel? Why think about a consequence of obedience that might cause me to shrink back from God’s appointed path (Hebrews 10:38-39), instead of running with endurance the race before me and fixing my eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), which will spur me on?

The bottom line is that the disciple of Jesus does not seek out a path just because it offers an opportunity to suffer, but neither does the disciple of Jesus shrink back from any God-appointed path that requires personal suffering. Suffering is not sought, nor is it required, but neither is it ever avoided.

SDG                 rmb                 1/9/2021

Do we seek suffering? – Part 1 (Phil. 3:10)

            It seems that the statement is made at some point in most conversations about suffering, especially among American Christians. It is usually well intended and sounds like an appropriate thing to say in response to suffering for the name of Jesus. “Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek suffering. . .” But the more I think about that statement, the more uncomfortable I become. Is that true? Are we not to seek suffering? And if that is the case, then why do so many of my heroes in the Bible and in history suffer for their faith? Why does the Bible have so much to say about suffering if my experience of the Christian life can safely avoid it? Is it normal to be a serious Christian and not suffer? And what do I do if God is calling me to a course that will almost certainly result in my suffering to some degree?

            Because of these questions and because of the importance of the topic of suffering, I am going to spend the next several posts exploring what I see to be problems with this statement. The goal is to arrive at a solid perspective on suffering that makes me more useful to Jesus.

“Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering . . .”

PROBLEM #1

“Can you support that statement with Scripture?”

The first reaction to this statement may be to agree with it and let the conversation move on, but as discerning followers of Jesus, we must respond to these types of statements with at least a small challenge.

“That’s an interesting idea. Can you support that statement with Scripture?” Scripture is the place where all disciples of Jesus find a common foundation. Does a given theological position, or a faith practice find solid support in the word of God?

When I think about the fact that Jesus Christ was acutely aware of His appointed suffering on the cross from the beginning of His ministry and had, in fact, been sent to earth for the express purpose of suffering and dying on the cross, I seriously wonder if I can support the statement above. My entire salvation depends upon Jesus seeking suffering. Jesus’ mission could only be accomplished if He suffered and died on the cross. Where does the Lord Jesus tell His disciples that they are not to seek out suffering? Chapter and verse, please.

What about Paul? Paul intentionally did things that provoked persecution and inevitably resulted in his suffering. In Philippi he cast out a demon that ended the merchants’ revenue with the slave girl. He must have known that this was going to result in his being punished and his suffering.

Paul continued his way to Jerusalem knowing that conflict awaited him there (Acts 20-21). His own people pleaded with him to turn back and to change his plans, but Paul steadfastly refused even though he knew that he would suffer. Would Paul agree with the statement that the Christian does not seek out suffering?

And then there is Peter. Peter was warned repeatedly that, if he continued with his preaching about Jesus in Jerusalem, he was going to be severely punished (Acts 4-5), and yet he never even slowed down. If the Jewish or Roman authorities needed to punish someone for preaching about Jesus, Peter was not hard to find. Also, his first epistle has as its central theme the perseverance of the believer in the face of suffering for Christ. Would Peter say that the believer does not seek suffering?

            In the Old Testament, evil kings and false prophets warned the true prophets that, if they did not silence their prophecy or change their message, they would be punished, and the true prophets remained true to the message the LORD had given them to proclaim. For example, more than once, Jeremiah suffered for the message that he preached, but he would rather be punished with the stripes of men than fail to obey the LORD and deliver His message.

            So, while these heroes from Scripture may not have sought suffering, the prospect of suffering was not a factor in their decision-making. They sought to be obedient to the LORD, regardless. That is the view that the Scripture supports.

SDG rmb 1/5/2021

But let’s take a step back for a minute. Maybe the problem with the statement is the statement itself. That is, maybe we are saying what we mean in a clumsy way. My next post will explore that possibility in PROBLEM #2. rmb

The godly will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)

In his last letter, the letter of 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul is writing to his beloved disciple Timothy his last words about life and ministry. Every verse of this epistle feels the weight of Paul’s urgency and sincerity. There are no words to waste and there is no time to lose. “The executioner awaits, so consider what I say.”

Perhaps the most prominent theme in this letter is the theme of standing firm in the face of opposition and suffering. Paul wants there to be no doubt in Timothy’s mind that, as he presses on in the gospel ministry, there will be pain involved. “Join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God (2 Timothy 1:8).” Paul repeatedly calls Timothy, and by obvious implication, calls all believers to suffer for the cause of the gospel. Toward the end of the main exhortations of the epistle, Paul makes a challenging statement:

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. – 3:12

I want to think about this verse for a moment. I am troubled by this verse, not because it talks about persecution, but because it requires persecution. Paul does not give a warning or admonition that applies only to pastors in hostile countries. He does not declare a fact that only affects a handful of missionaries who sail in uncharted gospel waters. Instead, Paul makes a statement that applies to ALL people in a particular group. “Those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus” is the group he has in mind. That includes me, and I suspect it includes you. Now comes the troubling part. All people in that group will be persecuted. But I am not being persecuted. Why am I not being persecuted?

One possible reason that I am not being persecuted is that I think I meet the conditions, when in fact I do not. That is, I think I live godly in Christ Jesus, but I am really kidding myself. I am just pretending. I am playing games. I do not believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). I am not presenting my body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). I am not striving to be holy, as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). I should be nervous if everyone in my spheres of influence, including pagans and the overtly ungodly, speak well of me and are comfortable hanging around with me. If I am not living godly in Christ Jesus, then I will not be persecuted. Satan does not waste his ammunition. Examine yourself (2 Cor. 13:5)! Make an honest assessment and repent if you are being lukewarm or timid or are shrinking back. Ask the Lord to give your faith a fire that merits persecution.

Another possibility is that I am misunderstanding persecution. It could be that I am experiencing persecution, but I do not notice it because my definition of persecution is inaccurate. For example, if I consider only martyrdom or imprisonment to qualify as persecution, then I will miss the more subtle forms of persecution like social rejection, job discrimination, ridicule, being shunned or avoided by others, and things like these. Be alert for more subtle kinds of persecution.

There is a third possibility, and that is that Paul is speaking in hyperbole. What I mean is that Paul is using the word all in the sense that every single disciple of Christ is willing to accept persecution as part of the price to follow Christ. We must accept that being persecuted is normal for the Christian and that others will reject me and hate me solely because I am a Christian.

“Persecution is one of the marks of a converted man.” – J. C. Ryle

SDG                 rmb                 1/4/2021

To fulfill the Scriptures: Thoughts on Christ’s advents

“How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled? But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets (Matthew 26:54, 56).”

            When Jesus was being “betrayed into the hands of sinners (Matthew 26:45),” His disciples attempted to defend Him so that His arrest would not happen. But Jesus told them to put their sword back into its place and consciously allowed Himself to be taken away. Why did He do that? This was done because the Scriptures, written centuries before, must be fulfilled. Not the smallest letter or stroke could pass from the prophecies about His passion and His crucifixion until all was accomplished (Matthew 5:18). In a sense, Jesus was not free to conduct His arrest and crucifixion any way He wanted, because these events had already been scripted in the Law and the Prophets, and the Scriptures must be fulfilled. To know the events that lay before Jesus as He gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) we would need only to carefully study the pages of the Old Testament to see what the prophets had written.

            The point that I am making is that the Scriptures, as the Word of God, will certainly be fulfilled. Every prophecy about the Lord Jesus will be accomplished because these prophecies have been etched forever in God’s Word and are, therefore, manifestations of God’s truth. This has direct bearing on our understanding of Christ’s first advent and especially on His second advent.

AS THE FIRST ADVENT, SO THE SECOND COMING

            As all the Scriptures’ prophecies about Christ’s first advent were fulfilled by the Lord Jesus in the events and circumstances of His earthly life, from His conception to His birth to His earthly ministry to His suffering and crucifixion to His death and resurrection and to His ascension into heaven, so all the prophecies about His Second Coming must necessarily be fulfilled before He will return.

            God’s prophets and His faithful people carefully examined the Scriptures to anticipate Christ’s first advent (1 Peter 1:10-12; Simeon in Luke 2:25-35; Anna in Luke 2:36-38). In the same way, Christ’s people rightly examine the Scriptures to anticipate His Second Coming and to wait eagerly for His return (Hebrews 9:28), when He comes to judge the earth (Psalm 96:13; 98:9) and to bring all His people to heaven.

            In this way, we can get a right perspective on the study of “eschatology,” also known as “last things” or “end times.” It is for the purpose of anticipating our Lord’s glorious coming and for the goal of increasing our eagerness that we carefully study the prophecies of the end-times that God has placed in His Scriptures. As we eagerly anticipate Christ’s coming, our strength to persevere is increased. The prophecies of the time before our Lord’s return include severe testing of the church through persecution and trial. A hope that is fixed on heaven and an eager anticipation of our soon-coming King will hold our feet firmly on the Rock.

            In Matthew 24, it is clear that the Lord Jesus expected His disciples to look forward to His return. He tells them of the events of the distant future (“Behold, I have told you in advance.” v. 25) so that they will know that He is the one who will bring these things to pass, and He tells them, “When you see all these things, recognize that He (the Son of Man) is near, right at the door (v. 33).” It seems to me that Jesus wanted us to be excited about His return, and He put all sorts of prophecies into His Word so that we would have a reason to get excited.

            The Lord has given us His Word, the Bible, so that we would know all He has chosen to reveal to us about the future and about the return of our glorious King. All the prophecies concerning Jesus’ return are “the things which must soon take place (Revelation 1:1).” All the Scriptures about our Lord’s coming will certainly be fulfilled, and when we see all these things, we know that He is right at the door. We therefore study the prophecies of the end-times to glorify God and to strengthen our resolve to persevere.

SDG                 rmb                 12/22/2020