Are we unwilling to suffer for the gospel? (Col. 3:3)

POST OVERVIEW. An exhortation for disciples of Jesus to accept suffering and persecution as a necessary price to pay for the privilege of proclaiming Christ.

One of the prominent themes in the New Testament is the suffering of those who follow Jesus. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, our Lord made clear that His disciples would be expected to suffer in this world. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). To the faithful church at Smyrna, the risen Jesus Christ commanded that they “be faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10). In writing to the suffering church scattered throughout modern-day Turkey, Peter declared that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). That Jesus’ church would be expected to suffer for His name sake is not surprising since Jesus Himself suffered to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). The faithful prophets of the Old Testament were hunted (consider Elijah), were mocked, imprisoned, and threatened with death (like Jeremiah) as they proclaimed the word of the LORD. The apostles and prophets of the New Testament were often under intense pressure to compromise their message and to be silent, yet they preferred to suffer and die rather than shrink back (Hebrews 10:38-39) and compromise. It is plain from virtually every book of the New Testament that the church of the Lord Jesus in the world is expected to suffer and to persevere through suffering to obtain the crown of life (Rev. 2:10).

In light of the Bible’s clear message regarding promised suffering and the certainty of persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), it is troubling that the western church, even the true church that has not apostatized, seems to consciously avoid suffering. My view is that the church in America has been lulled into a degree of softness. We are not only unprepared for suffering, but, more than that, we are also unwilling to suffer shame for Jesus’ name (Acts 5:41). Being unprepared to suffer is perhaps understandable since disciples of Jesus have never really been persecuted in this country. But being unwilling to suffer is an entirely different matter. Believers in America seem to still believe that we can remain true to our crucified Savior and remain true to the gospel of salvation without having to suffer. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that there exists a nuanced way to tell the world that they are perishing and need to repent, and this search for a gentler message is motivated by a fear of suffering for the gospel.

THE DISCIPLE OF JESUS HAS ALREADY DIED

The many references to suffering and to courageous perseverance in the Bible are placed there to stoke the furnace of our courage and to quench the fear of man. One of the most profound thoughts expressed in the Scriptures is stated very simply in Colossians 3:3.

For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.Colossians 3:3

Paul states here that the disciple of Jesus “has died.” The apostle is speaking figuratively of the death that you have died in the new birth. “Our old self was crucified with Him” (Romans 6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). But, while Paul is speaking figuratively of the death of our old life and the death of the old man, that death is nonetheless real. The disciple of Jesus is dead to the fear of death because we have already died. And, if the fear of death has died, then how can there still be fear of other suffering that we might endure for the name of Jesus?

Paul can serve as our example here. Paul had no fear of the future or of suffering or of the threats of man because Paul had already died. And how can you threaten a man who has already died? The same is true for us. We have died with Christ and therefore can never die again. To put it in terms of persecution, we are physically vulnerable but spiritually safe. Of course, we are not to welcome or seek out suffering. We are to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) because we desire for our ministry for Jesus to last as long as possible, but the length or the comfort or the safety of our gospel ministry is never to restrain our boldness or to constrain our proclamation. We have died and been raised with Christ (Romans 6:4) and can therefore “go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:13).

So then, as those who have already died and as those whose “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3b), as those whose eternity is forever established (see Phil. 3:20 – “our citizenship is in heaven”), let us run the race with joy and abandon as those who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. – Phil. 1:21

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 1/21/2023                   #614

Suffering and tribulation in the book of Revelation

POST OVERVIEW. A survey of the book of Revelation considering the instances of suffering (“tribulation”) in the book and planning for our response of perseverance.

Spectacular! Awesome! Terrifying! Amazing! Glorious! These are words that readily come to our minds as we read through the book of Revelation. This portion of Scripture contains some of the most breathtaking images and events in the entire Bible. In fact, because these vivid images and these clashes between the forces of evil and righteousness capture our attention, it is possible to miss one of the most prominent features of Revelation, namely, the suffering of the church of Jesus Christ. But once we begin to examine the book through the lens of suffering, and specifically the tribulation of the church in the world because we follow Jesus, we realize that the suffering church is a prominent theme in Revelation.

EXPERIENCING TRIBULATION AND REQUIRING PERSEVERANCE

At the beginning of the book, as John introduces his prophecy in Revelation 1:9, he already speaks of “tribulation” (Greek θλῖψις – thlipsis) and “perseverance” (Greek ὑπομονή – hupomonay).

I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Let’s explore these words for a moment. The word here translated as “tribulation” is a common New Testament word. It is usually translated as “tribulation,” but can also be rendered “affliction,” “oppression,” or “distress.” The overwhelming majority of uses of this word refer to the church or to a specific believer suffering for their faith in Jesus. And this is its use here. John the apostle, as “a partaker in the tribulation,” is writing to his fellow partakers in the tribulation. The message is clear: if you would be a witness “of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” then you must be prepared to be a fellow partaker in the tribulation. Affliction, distress, and tribulation are simply an expected part of being a follower of Jesus. If you would follow Jesus, you should expect to suffer.

Tribulation necessitates perseverance. What does John mean by “perseverance?” “In the NT, this is the characteristic of a man who is not swerved from his deliberate purpose and his loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings.” Also implied in this word is the idea of ongoing and patient endurance. In other words, “perseverance” means remaining fixed on the mission or purpose or goal in the face of trials and sufferings, even sufferings that are persistent and that show no signs of abating.

Now, since John begins his prophecy with references to tribulation and perseverance, and since he implicitly encourages and exhorts his fellow partakers in the tribulation to persevere in their testimony of Jesus, it could be argued that one of the main purposes of Revelation is to encourage believers to persevere and be faithful until death (2:10), regardless of their tribulations. Revelation contains much about the suffering church, but if the church expects persecution (2 Tim. 3:12; John 15:18-20) and if the church is steeled to persevere, then our tribulations pose no threat.

INSTANCES OF SUFFERING IN REVELATION

With our study of tribulation and perseverance as a background, we will now survey the occurrences of suffering in Revelation.

  • We have already seen Revelation 1:9 where John himself is a fellow partaker in the tribulation. In war, officers are not exempt from death. Just so, in the gospel advance, apostles are not exempt, but rather serve as examples.
  • The church at Smyrna (2:8-11) is one of the two churches not called to repent by our Lord. Smyrna is a suffering church (2:9-10) who is called to be faithful until death (2:10).
  • In Revelation 6:9-11, we encounter “those who had been slain because of the word of God and because of their testimony” (see 1:2, 9). These souls are told to rest for a little while longer until the full number of martyrs is completed. These believers had already persevered even to a violent death and there were others who would also be faithful until death who would join them in heaven. But notice that their suffering yielded a white robe (6:11).
  • We meet the two witnesses in 11:3-12. These two represent the persecuted church that is faithful even in the face of intense opposition. They faithfully finish their testimony and then are overcome and killed by the beast (11:7). The world rejoices in their deaths, but that celebration is short-lived as the witnesses are taken up to heaven in the cloud.
  • The next chapter, chapter 12, is all about the activity of the dragon (Satan) as he pursues and persecutes “the woman,” who represents the oppressed church. “The woman” flees into the wilderness to hide from the dragon (12:6, 14) and appears to avoid direct persecution by her flight. This chapter shows that there will come a time when believers will be hunted and pursued, but the Lord will protect them.  
  • The tribulation of the church becomes intense and overt in chapter 13 as the beast and the false prophet (“another beast” 13:11) rise to power. In addition to blasphemies against God and a desire to be worshiped, the beast also “makes war with the saints and overcomes them” (13:7) and puts many in prison (“captivity”) and kills many with the sword (13:10). Then the false prophet (“another beast”) “causes as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (13:15) and prevents those who do not have the mark of the beast from buying (food) (13:17).
  • Next, we see the kings of the whole earth gather together under the leadership of the beast and the false prophet (16:13-16) for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty. This is Armageddon (16:16). Although the interpretation of this passage is quite complex, the basic idea is that the forces of evil, led by the beast, are gathered together for the annihilation of the church. We see this same picture in 19:19 and in 20:8-9.
  • There is suffering during the thousand years, as well (20:4-6), for there we see “the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and the word of God” (see also 1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:11).

Thus we see that, in the book of Revelation, the church militant is the church in tribulation, but we are exhorted to persevere and be faithful until death (2:10) and by so doing, we will receive our reward, the crown of life (2:10).

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 1/19/2023                   #613

Revisiting imprecatory psalms and imprecation

POST OVERVIEW. Another consideration of the imprecatory psalms and the other acts of imprecation in the Old Testament. This article once again evaluates whether imprecation of enemies is still a weapon in the disciple’s armory and, if not, why not. Other posts on this same topic are Posts #500 (3/8/2022), #503 (3/11), #502 (3/15), #505 (3/18), #509 (3/30), and #514 (4/6) back in March and April of this year, and Post #563 (8/26/2022).

DEFINITION OF IMPRECATION

The first thing we need to do in this revisiting of imprecation is define what we mean. In the Bible, “imprecation” is when a believer calls on God to curse or destroy his enemies. So, in the “imprecatory psalms,” the psalmist (often David) is in distress and his life is being threatened by enemies, and in response, the psalmist cries out to the Lord to give him relief by cursing or punishing or judging the psalmist’s enemies. The question that needs to be answered with regard to imprecation is, “After the first advent of the Lord Jesus, is the believer still allowed to imprecate (call down curses on) his enemies, or has that forever changed with the coming of Jesus?” At the end of my Post #514 (4/7/2022), I wrote this conclusion:

“And so we conclude our study of the imprecatory psalms. We have seen that these psalms which called down curses on the enemies of the righteous are no longer useful to the disciple of Jesus. Jesus Himself commands His people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, which renders an imprecatory psalm obsolete. But also, since we are to be wise ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), we realize that imprecating others is a poor strategy for sowing the gospel.”

In a later post on this topic of imprecation (#563, 8/26/2022), I concluded:

“Thus, the sanctioned New Testament response to persecution and affliction appears to preclude any retaliation, revenge, or imprecation of enemies. We would thus conclude that the disciple of Jesus is allowed to lament the suffering and to groan underneath it, and to long for the day when God will judge the wicked and set all injustice right but is not to imprecate his enemies. Rather, he is to trust the Lord with the administration of all justice and is to endure the suffering in the strength that Christ supplies.”

STILL MORE THOUGHTS ON IMPRECATION

All my study of imprecation has consistently led me to the conclusion that the disciple of Jesus is not to curse or to ask God to curse his enemies, but is rather to endure the persecution and the suffering. This is clear and incontrovertible. This is what the New Testament teaches.

THE FINAL QUESTION TO SETTLE THE MATTER: It seems to me, however, that the discovery of this New Testament doctrine requires a further step to fully settle the matter. That is, why is the disciple of Jesus not permitted to call down the LORD’s curses on his enemies when the Old Testament saints could do this?

As we explore this question, we begin by acknowledging that the solution is somehow tied to Christ and His death on the cross. The challenge, then, is to discern how Christ’s death on the cross has silenced the imprecatory psalms and removed them from the believer’s arsenal. The Lord no longer hears the believer’s imprecatory prayers because Jesus Christ has died and rendered all our imprecation of earthly enemies trivial by comparison. In the ultimate act of injustice, Jesus has died and yet our Lord “uttered no threats nor was there any deceit in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:23).

Not only has our Lord demonstrated for us that imprecation is no more, for He uttered no threats in His death (1 Peter 2:23), but He has also commanded His disciples to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27-30). Thus, the imprecatory psalms are obsolete, like the day of atonement and the cities of refuge. These psalms are part of the old covenant when the LORD would demonstrate His power by vanquishing His peoples’ enemies and when His people would call upon Him to rescue them physically. But under the new covenant, Jesus the Messiah has come and has already rescued His people. “It is finished” (John 19:30). Now that our Lord has accomplished His atoning work on the cross and has been raised from the dead as first fruits of all those who will rise on the last day, physical threat and physical death have lost their sting (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:54-55; etc.). Because of the resurrection, the disciple of Jesus no longer fears those who kill the body (Matt. 10:28). Instead, we love and pray for our enemies because our enemies may be of the elect (like Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9). One of my persecutors today could be worshiping the Lord Jesus with me next Sunday.

Under the old covenant, enemies were hated (Hinted in Matt. 5:43; explicitly stated in imprecatory psalms). The sons of Israel often asked the Lord to destroy their enemies and to rescue them from physical danger. But in the new covenant, the Lord Jesus has now vanquished sin, our greatest enemy, and He has rescued us from death. Because of Jesus’ victory on our behalf, we no longer hate our enemies, but instead we proclaim to them our message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20).  With the giving of the Great Commission, the disciple of Christ is no longer focused on sustaining his own physical life but has instead fixed his eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) for the purpose of proclaiming the good news to friend and foe alike.

ENJOYING THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS

But now, on this side of the cross, we can enjoy the imprecatory psalms because they point forward to that time when our great Savior would render all our imprecation meaningless and unnecessary. As the day of atonement (Leviticus 16) and the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) pointed unerringly to Christ in His first advent, so the imprecatory psalms also point to Christ as the One who, by His death on the cross, will rescue us from the most fearsome of all our enemies, sin and death, and will thus set us free to love our enemies and plead with them to come to faith in the Lord Jesus. We can enjoy these psalms because they remind us that Christ has died and risen from the dead and has thus rendered all cursing of enemies obsolete.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 12/12/2022                 #599

Reading “Revelation” #4 – Principles to consider

POST OVERVIEW. One ofa series of posts giving principles for reading and interpreting Revelation chapters 4-20, which is the most difficult section of the book. This fourth post of the series deals with general principles to keep in mind as you approach the interpretation of the book. Previous posts in series: Post #590 (11/21), Post #592 (11/26), Post #593 (11/28)

SERIES DESCRIPTION. The book of Revelation is probably the most difficult book of the Bible to interpret correctly, and the main difficulties of the book are in chapters 4-20. Because of these interpretive difficulties and because many Bible teachers have offered conflicting and bewildering ideas about what the various passages of Revelation 4-20 mean, many earnest believers know just enough about the book of Revelation to be confused and intimidated by it. To clear up some of this confusion, in October 2021, I published my book, The Last Act of the Drama: a guide to the end times.

Now, a year later and before the 2nd edition of that book, I want to offer to readers of this beautiful prophecy a series of posts giving principles and guidelines for how to understand and interpret Revelation so that the book becomes a delight instead of a burden.

Interpreting the complex visions of Revelation 4-20 is made more manageable when the reader understands both the purposes for the book of Revelation and principles for navigating the text. Purposes and principles are KEY CONCEPTS which place much-needed limitations on the reader’s options for interpretation and thus reduce the feeling of intimidation. In the last post (#593, 11/28/2022), we had explored four purposes for Revelation. In this post, we will go on to look at general principles about the book.

PRINCIPLES

These principles are really just general ideas or truths about Revelation that help the reader understand where the boundaries of interpretation lie.

PRINCIPLE. Because Revelation is the last book in the inspired canon, it is the book in the Bible that is most “dependent” on the rest of Scripture. By that I mean that the events and actions and characters in Revelation must harmonize with and be consistent with all the other teaching of the Bible. There cannot be a conflict between the timing of an event in Revelation and the timing of that same event in other books of the Bible. For example, we know from Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of John that the general resurrection of all believers occurs on the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; also, 11:24). Therefore, in Revelation, the general resurrection of all believers must occur on the last day.

Because of this principle, a given interpretation of a passage in Revelation must be examined to see if it conflicts with an existing text of Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture. If a conflict is discovered, the interpretation must be rejected and replaced by one that removes the conflict. All Scripture is God-breathed and the Holy Spirit does not breathe out conflict.

PRINCIPLE. There is nothing profoundly new in Revelation. Remember that Revelation is the last book of the Bible and so it functions as the last book of the Bible. This means that, in this book, we are “landing the plane.” We are pulling together all the threads of the tapestry to show that the masterpiece was always an integrated and cohesive and intricate whole. Revelation is drawing the story to its intended ending and resolving all the plots. Many references and allusions are made to the Old Testament to reveal how these prophetic foreshadows are now fulfilled in the glorious return of the Lord Jesus, in the glorification of all His saints, and in the terrible judgment of all the reprobate. Therefore, in Revelation the persistent question is, “Where have we seen this before?” and is not, “What does this new teaching mean?” Again, there is nothing profoundly new in Revelation.

PRINCIPLE. Revelation presents no new biblical doctrine. This flows as a corollary from the previous statement. The last book of the Bible is not the place to put new doctrinal teaching.

PRINCIPLE. The book of Revelation presents no new major events. All of human history has already been presented in other biblical books. There is no major new event or era which was excluded from the previous sixty-five books of inspired Scripture that suddenly appears in Revelation. But, when I say that Revelation presents no new major events, I do not mean that it presents no new events at all. Remember from our previous study that one of the purposes of Revelation is “to fill in the blanks.” There are many details of the 42 months and even of the last day that require the introduction of minor events. The trumpet warnings (Rev. 8-9), the casting of Satan into the abyss (Rev. 20:3) and then down to the earth (Rev. 12:9, etc.), the persecution of the church by the beast (Rev. 11:7; 13:7), the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-16; 19:19; 20:9), even the period of the 42 months itself (Rev. 11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5) are all details that fill in blanks, but these minor events fit into what we already know of history without requiring an entirely new timeline.

Human history between the advents is already set: the risen Jesus ascended after commissioning the church and now sits at the Father’s right hand (Psalm 110:1) awaiting the time of His return. The church is gathering in the elect as she perseveres as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16). The church is proclaiming the gospel, baptizing those who believe, and teaching them to obey Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20). This will continue until the last day when the general resurrection occurs and Jesus returns and the reprobate are judged. Then comes the new heavens and the new earth. That is the flow of biblical history and has been the flow of the grand drama since human history began. Revelation, as the last book of the Bible, is not the place to introduce some new history.

PRINCIPLE. There are no major characters in Revelation whom we have not met before in Scripture. We have known the dragon (Satan, the devil, the serpent) since he tempted Adam in the garden. Of course, we have known about the Lord Jesus ever since we were told about the serpent-crusher in Genesis 3:15. Jesus has been foretold, He has been Incarnate, He has accomplished His work by dying on the cross for His people, He has been raised from the dead, and He has ascended. In Revelation 5, He enters heaven as the returning, victorious Lamb and in Revelation 19:11-16, He returns to earth on a white horse to tread out the wine press of the wrath of God the Almighty. So, we know the Lamb.

In Revelation 13, we meet the beast, but he is simply the final and most vivid manifestation of the antichrist, the human embodiment of wickedness and evil. We have met him several times before. He is the little horn (Daniel 7:21-26), the small horn (Daniel 8), the prince who is to come (Daniel 9:26-27), and the despicable person (Daniel 11:21-45). We have seen him as Gog, the chief prince of Meshech in the land of Magog (Ezekiel 38-39) and we encountered him in 2 Thess. 2:3-12 where he appears as the man of lawlessness.

The point here is that there are no new major characters in Revelation.

This consideration of principles will be continued in the next post.

SDG                 rmb                 11/29/2022                 #594

Reading Revelation (Part 2): The constraints

POST OVERVIEW. The second in a series of posts about ways to read the book of Revelation that make it less confusing and intimidating. This post discusses the constraints that are on Revelation which limit its possible interpretations. (Also, see previous post #568 which was on the purposes of the book of Revelation.)

INTRODUCTION. Reading the book of Revelation is a challenging task for any disciple of Jesus. The visions the apostle John relates to us in Revelation are strange and spectacular, and trying to make sense of the visions and then put them into some coherent picture is difficult work. But, while acknowledging the difficulties involved, I believe the challenge of understanding the book of Revelation is eased considerably when we understand how to read the book. In these posts I hope to offer some principles for approaching Revelation that will make the book much less intimidating.

CONSTRAINTS ON REVELATION

Having discussed the purposes of Revelation in our previous post (#568), we now turn our attention to the constraints that are placed on this last book of the Bible. It is probably unusual to think about a biblical book as being “constrained.” Of course, in a sense all sixty-six books of the Bible are constrained, because they all must harmonize with each other and agree with each other, particular in terms of doctrine. In that sense, each successive book of the Bible is more “constrained” than the one before it. But Revelation is constrained not only by the fact that it is the last book of the Bible and must harmonize with the sixty-five books that preceded it, but also because the book functions as a summary and a conclusion to the entire story line of the Bible, tying up loose ends and filling in blanks to make the entire scriptural masterpiece complete. This places constraints on Revelation that restrict (“constrain”) the way we can interpret the contents of the book, as we will see.

Some readers seem to approach Revelation as if it existed independent of the rest of Scripture and is filled with wild new ideas and events never before encountered in the Bible and disconnected from the rest of the God-breathed books which precede it. This approach, however, is exactly the opposite of what is the case. A significant portion of Revelation consists of quotes of previous Scripture or of obvious allusions to characters and events and prophecies from the Old Testament. Revelation could serve as a final exam, testing disciples of Jesus to see how well they know their Bibles. “Can you recognize the allusions to the Old Testament in this chapter (whatever chapter that is)? Having recognized the allusions, can you identify their Old Testament reference? Book, chapter, and verse?” And this characteristic of Revelation, that it is packed with Old Testament allusions, is the very thing that “constrains” Revelation in what it can say.

Let me try to give an example. Consider the concept of the last day. Revelation is constrained in its teaching about the last day. Why? Because the last day, “the day of the LORD,” “that day,” the day of judgment, etc. has been part of biblical revelation, in explicit prophecy or in implicit “types,” in virtually every book of the Bible. The flood in Genesis 6-8 foreshadows the last day. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 foreshadows the last day. In uncountable places in the Old Testament the last day is mentioned or implied. Then finally in Malachi 4, the last chapter in the Old Testament, the prophet teaches more about the last day. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 4:1). In the New Testament, Jesus talks about the last day many times during His earthly ministry, and Paul and Peter and John and the author of Hebrews also write about the last day in their inspired writings. So, when John receives his visions in Revelation, the events of the last day and the characters involved in the last day are very well known and our interpretations of these visions is constrained by all the writing about the last day that preceded them.

SUMMARY. So, when reading Revelation, remember that this last book of the Bible is constrained by its requirement to harmonize with all the inspired writing that has preceded it. Therefore, it is best to read the book with an eye to seeing which previous events are being concluded here. “Armageddon,” foreshadowed in Ezekiel 38-39, is concluded in Revelation 16, 19, and 20. The evil man (antichrist), whom we meet in Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 11, and in the man of lawlessness of 2 Thessalonians 2, is consummated and concluded in the beast of Revelation 13. The persecution of the church, sent out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16), is culminated in the tribulation we see in Revelation 6:9, 20:4, 11:7, 13:7, etc. Most significantly, the return of the Lord Jesus in power and glory, mentioned and implied many times throughout the Scriptures, is completed in the Rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:11-16. Remember, Revelation is constrained, so we read the book with the eye for seeking conclusions and consummations.

SDG                 rmb                 9/10/2022                   #569

Do not be surprised by persecution (1 Peter 4:12)

INTRODUCTION. This fairly long post is a consideration of the New Testament’s prominent teaching on persecution and how we, as American disciples, can respond to it when it comes.

One of the young women at our church has taken a stand for Christ at her school and has thereby placed her job at risk. Her school wanted all the teachers to affirm the school’s LGBTQ and pro-abortion stances and this teacher refused. Praise the Lord that she refused! But her stance has definitely jeopardized her job. In fact, it would be an answer to prayer if she does not lose her job. Suddenly, her faith in Christ has become much more expensive.

NEITHER UNEXPECTED NOR SURPRISING

Which brings up an important subject. It seems that in America, disciples of Jesus are often surprised when following their crucified Savior, the one who was despised and forsaken of men, suddenly becomes painful or expensive or risky. This is very curious to me, not that a follower of Jesus would suffer some form of persecution, but that being persecuted for their faith would come as an unexpected surprise to any disciple of Jesus. The New Testament, start to finish, is full of declarations and examples announcing to the believer that persecution and affliction will certainly come upon them simply because they follow Jesus. Some of the best-known passages follow. Even a cursory reading of these makes it unambiguously clear that persecution and hatred from the unbelieving world should be expected, and the question is not “if” persecution will come, but “when” and “how.”

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

COMMENT. Paul is preparing Timothy to take over his ministry of the gospel, so he tells Timothy of the persecution that will be coming to him. Paul states categorically that Timothy will be persecuted. In fact, the only way for Timothy to avoid persecution is to for him to not desire to live a godly life. This, of course, is not an option, because all believers “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). All true disciples will be persecuted, and “all” means all.

1 Peter 4:12 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.

COMMENT. In Peter’s letter to believers experiencing the fires of testing, he takes time to explicitly state the case about persecution. Do not be surprised by any fiery ordeal, as though it is something strange. It is not strange; it is normal. Fiery ordeals (like persecution and affliction) are normal parts of the Christian life which the Lord brings in for our testing. The Lord brings an ordeal to test our faith and to prove that it is the genuine article. Instead of groaning in the unexpected pain, rejoice that you have been considered worthy to suffer for Jesus’ sake.

1 Thess. 3:3, 4so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.

COMMENT. Again, as Paul writes to these new believers under the heavy artillery of intense persecution, his primary encouragement is for them to stand firm. There is little of what we would call sympathy or empathy. For the apostle Paul, the issue is obedience. Will these professed disciples of Jesus in Thessalonica endure their appointed affliction and continue to profess Christ, or will they collapse under the pressure and make a shipwreck of their faith? As Peter has said (above), we are destined for this. Persecution and affliction are our appointed duties. Therefore, the true disciple will stand firm.

Matthew 10:16 (10:21, 22) – “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”

COMMENT. Anyone who knows anything about sheep and about wolves knows that what Jesus describes here is a dangerous situation for the sheep. Sheep are defenseless, slow, frail, docile animals, the very definition of the word “prey.” By contrast, wolves are vicious, cunning, fast, and strong. They travel in packs, relentless predators in pursuit of their prey. And Jesus sends His new covenant disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves. It seems almost a death sentence. Sending sheep into the midst of wolves would be akin to something extreme like telling His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him.

The gospel mission requires that Jesus’ disciples are willing to go wherever He sends them as sheep in the midst of wolves. (“We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” – Romans 8:35) Not all will be killed for their faith, but some certainly will (Matt. 10:21). Not all will be scourged (10:17), but all will be hated because of Jesus’ name (10:22). And despite these dangers and threats, the disciple obeys His good shepherd (John 10) and goes out into the midst of a world of wolves, proclaiming from the housetops (Matt. 10:27) that men should repent and turn to God (Acts 26:20). Persecution is real for sheep among wolves.

John 15:18-20 – “18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”

COMMENT. Jesus is in the Upper Room giving His apostles, and by implication, His new covenant church, final instructions for life on mission before His crucifixion, and part of the necessary instruction has to do with the persecution His church will experience. Jesus’ message in these verses is clear: “The world hates you and they will persecute you.” While possibly unsettling and uncomfortable, these words are certainly unambiguous. Jesus leaves no room for misunderstanding, and it is the naïve and foolish disciple who is caught by surprise when the world reveals its true colors in hatred and persecution.

These are just some of the more prominent examples of the New Testament’s predictions of the persecution and hardship that will come upon disciple’s of Jesus just because they follow the King of kings. So, it would seem that believers would expect affliction to come.

THEN, WHY ARE WE SURPRISED?

But in America, it is easy to miss even these blatant messages and to overlook or downplay our promised persecution. Despite these scriptural billboards, we are often shocked when our alienation from the world produces painful consequences. So, why are we still surprised, even with all these promises?

Perhaps the most significant reason is the messages that believers receive from pulpits in America. The overwhelming majority of preaching pastors in America will not deliver a single sermon in their preaching lifetime on persecution. Ever. For the pastor, sermons on persecution are not popular with most congregations, so it is best to avoid them. Also, it is possible the pastor doesn’t really believe in persecution, so why would he tell his congregation about it?

Another factor is the idea that real persecution will never come to America. For those pastors who do preach on persecution when their text demands it, many of them will also add a phrase like, “Of course, persecution has not come to America yet.” This phrase is said such that the congregation can relax, secure in the knowledge that, not only has persecution not come to America yet, but, if we play our cards right and continue to behave ourselves as decent, quiet, law-abiding Christians, it probably never will. This is dangerous thinking, because, if we consider Paul’s teaching in 2 Tim. 3:12 (see above), the fact that we are not experiencing persecution in America can only be attributed to the fact that we are not “living godly in Christ Jesus” or because we are not vocal enough in our witness for Jesus that the world feels a compulsion to silence us.

But I think also a disciple can be surprised by sudden affliction because, even though they were prepared to suffer and expected that their bold witness for Jesus would draw enemy fire from the world, the timing took them off guard. With the woman who I mentioned at the top of this post, she knew that her biblical view of human sexuality and her view that abortion is murder were in conflict with most at her school, but she did not realize that her Christian values could put her job at risk. The world’s hatred of Christ was suddenly vented on her. So, in America, even devoted disciples can be stunned when Christ’s words are suddenly manifested in real life. And, for right now, these sudden but not life-threatening attacks from the world will be more economic and psychological than physical. A missed promotion. Losing a job. A rejected application. Lost relationships. Ostracism, alienation, loneliness. But the severity will increase, because the Scriptures call for it and the Scriptures must be fulfilled. There will be imprisonments and scourging. There will be oppression and violence and death.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

In the face of these promises of persecution and affliction, what should the disciple of Jesus do? As in all matters of faith and godliness, the believer is to see the example that Jesus gave us, that we should follow in His steps. “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). And we are to continue boldly “pressing on toward the goal for the prize” (Phil. 3:14), not letting our promised persecution derail us, but rather enduring the suffering the Lord allows as we continue on in obedience.

SDG                 rmb                 8/31/2022                   #564

Calling down curses: a New Testament perspective

INTRODUCTION. This post considers the topic of imprecation of enemies, asking the question whether imprecation is a spiritual tool of the New Testament disciple of Jesus.

Back in March-April of 2022, I had written a six-part series of posts considering the topic of the so-called “imprecatory psalms.” In the Bible, “imprecation” is when a believer calls on God to curse or destroy his enemies. So, in the “imprecatory psalms,” the psalmist (often David) is in distress and his life is being threatened by enemies, and in response, the psalmist cries out to the Lord to give him relief by cursing or punishing or judging the psalmist’s enemies. The question that we sought to answer in our six-part study was, “After the first advent of the Lord Jesus, is the believer still allowed to imprecate (call down curses on) his enemies, or has that forever changed with the coming of Jesus?” At the end of the sixth post (#514, April 7, 2022), I wrote this conclusion:

“And so we conclude our study of the imprecatory psalms. We have seen that these psalms which called down curses on the enemies of the righteous are no longer useful to the disciple of Jesus. Jesus Himself commands His people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, which renders an imprecatory psalm obsolete. But also, since we are to be wise ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), we realize that imprecating others is a poor strategy for sowing the gospel.”

If you would care to read through all six posts, they are Posts #500, 503, 502, 505, 509, and 514 back in March and April of this year. The key word “imprecatory” should get you to them.

IMPRECATION REVISITED

This week, my wife began a study of the book of Habakkuk with a group of ladies and, because of the content of the first chapter of this book, the subject of imprecation of enemies was discussed with vigor in their Bible study. Afterward, my wife and I talked about imprecation and I decided to revisit this topic and see if my views had changed. The rest of this post is a record of today’s musings about imprecation. (NOTE: Because of time constraints, I have not reviewed these thoughts and placed them in order.)

Observation: I do not believe there are any New Testament examples of imprecation.

THEORY: Imprecation of enemies was apparently allowed in the Old Testament, but the teaching of the New Testament has replaced imprecation with prayer for enemies, forgiveness of enemies, and endurance of the persecution and suffering by the saints.

When persecution and affliction for the name of Jesus come upon the disciple, the disciple simply adds perseverance and endurance to his other daily spiritual duties and disciplines and continues to press toward the prize.

For those being persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5:10-12), it is okay to flee (Matthew 10:23), but it is not okay to fight. You are allowed to run, but you are not allowed to retaliate.

When Stephen is being stoned to death in Acts 7, he offers no imprecation of those who are killing him. Instead, he asks the Lord not to hold the sin of his murder against his murderers (Acts 7:60).

The church in Thessalonica was experiencing persecution when Paul wrote his two letters to them, but there is no hint of any imprecation against their persecutors in the letters. In 1 Thess. 2:14-16, the Thessalonians “endured the same sufferings” as other churches, and in 3:3-8, Paul reminds them that “no one would be disturbed by these afflictions (because) we have been destined for this (3). For we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction (4).” Paul told them they would suffer affliction and commended them for standing firm (8), but it is evident that he never told them how to defend themselves or retaliate. Why? Because the disciple of Jesus is called to stand firm, but not to retaliate.

In 2 Thess. 1:4-10, when the church is experiencing withering persecution, Paul reminds them that the Lord Jesus Himself will repay their persecutors on the last day when He returns in blazing fire. Again we see that the New Testament believer is to endure affliction now and entrust judgment entirely to the righteous Judge, the Lord Jesus.

In the New Testament, the disciples of Jesus accept persecution for Jesus’ sake as part of the cost of being His follower (1 Thess. 3:3-8). They may flee (Matt. 10:23; Acts 13:50-51; 14:5-7; 17:10, 14), but they do not organize themselves into an armed force. In fact, they even do very little to defend themselves. Disciples of Jesus do this because they are relying entirely upon the Lord to defend them. He is the one who will deliver them from their distresses and afflictions and so they wait for Him. Ultimately, Jesus’ disciples persevere in tribulation (Rom. 12:11) because they are waiting for Him to rescue them on the last day when He descends from heaven with a shout. The point is that Jesus is my Defender and I will trust Him to lead me through any circumstances and any affliction such that “with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).

Philippians 3:10 – “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and THE FELLOWSHIP OF HIS SUFFERINGS.” Paul desired to know “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.” But how can this stated desire be fulfilled if, every time the Lord brings affliction and persecution into Paul’s life, he immediately prays for God to bring judgment on his persecutors and to bring relief from his affliction? Obviously, Paul did not do this. Rather, the apostle “rejoiced in his sufferings” so that he was “filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). Here there is no suggestion of any imprecation of persecutors, but instead there is an acceptance of the fact that suffering for the name of Christ is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The book of Revelation has several passages that give light to this question of imprecation of enemies. In Revelation 6:9-11 we see the souls of the martyrs underneath the altar crying out to the Lord, “How long, O Lord, holy and true?” These have been “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne,” and they want to know when God is going to avenge their deaths. They were told to rest for a little while longer until the rest of the martyrs would join them. Again, no imprecation against their murderers is suggested, and more martyrs will join them, for the Lord has ordained that the full number of martyrs will be killed.

In Revelation 11:7, we are given a scene where “the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with the saints and overcome them and kill them.” Once again, we see that suffering persecution is an expected part of being a follower of Christ, even to the end of the age. The picture here is not one of brave saints fighting against the beast and being outmatched, but of defenseless sheep being slaughtered by the beast because of their bold witness for Christ (see Romans 8:35, where “we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered”). This exact scene is also presented in Rev. 13:7, where “it was given to the beast to make war with the saints and to overcome them.” In this destruction by the beast, the Scripture gives no hint of imprecation.

Although the context of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is not persecution, Paul’s attitude toward suffering and affliction in this passage is instructive. Paul is given “a thorn in the flesh” and three times asks the Lord to remove the thorn. The Lord replies that His grace will provide him (and thus, will supply any believer) with all he needs to endure the trial. “My grace is sufficient for you.” “Most gladly, therefore,” Paul will boast about his weaknesses (12:9). Indeed, he is “well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties” (12:10) for Christ’s sake. Note that Paul does not complain or whimper about his affliction, which might be the equivalent of imprecation in persecution, but is well content and boasts of his weaknesses. In the same way, then, in persecution we remain well content in the Lord and we most gladly endure, rejoicing that we are considered worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts 5:41).

CONCLUSION

There is certainly more that could be said, but I think the summary is this: In the New Testament, it seems that, at every possible opportunity to meet affliction and persecution with imprecation of the persecutors, the people refuse to do so and, instead, resolve to persevere and to endure through the affliction and, in many cases, pray for the very ones who are persecuting them.

Thus, the sanctioned New Testament response to persecution and affliction appears to preclude any retaliation, revenge, or imprecation of enemies. We would thus conclude that the disciple of Jesus is allowed to lament the suffering and to groan underneath it, and to long for the day when God will judge the wicked and set all injustice right but is not to imprecate his enemies. Rather, he is to trust the Lord with the administration of all justice and is to endure the suffering in the strength that Christ supplies.

SDG                 rmb                 8/27/2022                   #563

New covenant warfare (Matthew 10:16-42)

The gospel of Matthew is the gospel of the King. Matthew portrays Jesus as the promised Davidic King, the Messiah who has come to fulfill all of the Lord’s promises to Israel. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus establishes the characteristics of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven and describes the nature of the kingdom itself, declaring that He has come to fulfill the Law and to bring in a righteousness far superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees. The Sermon, then, gives us the principles of the new covenant.

Now in Matthew 10:16-42, Jesus, like the commanding officer of a great army, tells His disciples about the warfare of the new covenant. This post is mostly about this warfare.

First, however, we need to understand what is going on in this chapter. In Matthew 10:5-15, Jesus sends out His apostles with the message to Israel (10:5-6) that their Messiah has come. “Go announce to Israel that the Lord has now fulfilled all His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Messiah is here! Embrace your King!” Since all the promises of the old covenant have now  been fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah (Romans 15:8), the old covenant can be closed. This is the significance of Matthew 10:5-15. Notice that this message is just for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and is only for this specific time. In the words of Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” The old is gone, the new has come.

Observe, though, that the message of Matthew 10:16-42 is of a very different nature. First of all, although it is not explicitly stated, Jesus is now addressing a different group of people. As we stated earlier, in this section of the chapter Jesus is speaking as the new covenant King, the commanding general who is addressing His troops. The new covenant has been inaugurated, the war has begun, and Jesus is now talking to all His disciples of all the time between the advents and explaining to them what the campaign will be like. This message is to disciples from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, declaring to them that the war will be long and there will be casualties, but the victory is certain.

The new covenant campaign will also be more costly than the old, requiring more commitment. As in Matthew 5:10-12 in the Sermon on the Mount, so Matthew 10:16-42 makes clear that being associated with Jesus the Messiah will bring upon you the rejection and the hatred of the world. Even before Jesus gives His troops a clear description of their mission, He presents to them the cost of following Him. In essence, He is saying, “If you want to be My disciple, you must understand that I am only accepting those who are willing to follow Me to death. Yes, I have a grand mission for you that will bring you joy and that will end in heaven, but first I need to know if you will submit to Me and follow Me wherever I lead. My mission will require you to be like a sheep in the midst of a pack of wolves. It will involve hostile courts, scourging, death, and being hated by all just because  you love Me. You will need to endure persecution. I am not bringing peace on the earth but a sword, such that My disciples will be killed with the sword of men even as they proclaim to them the word of life. My mission will create many enemies for My disciples, even in their own households, and there will be those who lose their life for My sake” (a collection of the various warnings in 10:16-39).

“Now you have a decision to make. Understanding the cost, will you take up your cross and follow Me? Will you lose your life for My sake? When I receive your reply, we can talk in more detail about the mission to which I am calling you.”

APPLICATION. Although inaugurated two thousand years ago, the new covenant warfare continues essentially unchanged to this day as the church goes out, sheep in the midst of wolves, to call sinners to repentance. Our King is still calling into His kingdom those who will follow Him to death. Jesus’ disciples still accept “tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword” (Romans 8:35) to accomplish our Commander’s Great Commission of making disciples of all the nations.

One day there will be a trumpet sounded and we will hear the voice of the archangel. One day, heaven will be opened and behold, a white horse, and He who sits upon it will be Him who is called Faithful and True. One day, the warfare will be over, and the wolves will be gone forever, and we will be before the throne with other disciples which no man can count praising the Lamb. But until that day, we obey our King as we press toward the prize.

SDG                 rmb                 8/25/2022                   #562

Drive your roots deep and let your voice be heard

INTRODUCTION. Some comments about the need for disciples of Jesus to be firmly rooted in Christ and to boldly proclaim Him in these end times. Firm roots and a bold voice will prevent the follower of Christ from being overwhelmed by the rising evil of our age.

There is no place for the disciple of Jesus to hide anymore.

If your spiritual desires are to maintain a low profile and to be anonymous and to whisper some religious platitudes under your breath, then the last thing you want to do in this day and age is to be a disciple of Jesus. (John 15:18-20; etc.)

In the past, the American church-goer could be rewarded with respectable friends and people for their children to marry and connections for their business interests. “Being a Christian” was just part of the majority American culture, part of the American dream. In that halcyon bygone time, Christians did not proclaim the gospel to non-Christians. Christians typically went from birth to death without ever telling a single non-Christian anything about Jesus or sin or heaven or hell or how Christ had transformed their life and their eternity. Their faith was closely held, a private thing, a secret known by their friends at their church. And for a long time this sort of harmless, secret, nice, voiceless “Christianity” worked just fine and these Christians got all the benefits of the blessed life.

Meanwhile, the Great Commission languished and Christ had few witnesses and the evil of the world continued to fill the void. And yet even in this, Christ was building His church and the gates of Hades were not prevailing against it (Matt. 16:18).

But the days when “being a Christian” was part of the majority American culture are now far behind us, a small speck in the cultural rear view mirror. Whether the American dream still exists is debatable, but it is clear that America has become hostile to the person who openly follows Jesus. As a result, only a robust, vigorous, active, persevering, bold, joyful, vibrant faith will be of any help in these last days.

If your faith is only nominal; that is, if yours is a “faith” that goes through the outward motions but has no real substance, your masquerade will be shattered by the persistent and pervasive evil of our age. A nominal faith will be revealed as a sham and will be useless for you and for the kingdom of God.

But what if your faith is a genuine saving faith, but is weak or joyless or tepid or hesitant or wavering? In this time when evil and lawlessness are rising unabated and the righteous are vastly outnumbered by the ungodly, a weak, wavering, shrinking-back faith, even if genuine, will prove to be a useless faith. If your light for Jesus is to shine before men (Matt. 5:16) and if you would be Jesus’ witnesses in the world (Acts 1:8), then your devotion to Jesus must be placed on the lampstand (Matt. 5:15) and the truth of the gospel must be proclaimed from the housetops (Matt 10:27). A faith that remains in the closet to be retrieved for a few hours on Sunday will avail you nothing. Jesus will have disciples who are fully and unconditionally devoted to Him until death (Luke 14:26-27), or He will not have you at all (Matt. 10:32-33; 12:30). Therefore, if you examine yourself (2 Cor. 13:5) and see that your faith is hesitant or wavering, you should begin immediately to drive your roots deeper into Christ.

WHERE WE ARE IN HISTORY

On the timeline of world history, in the unfolding of great world events, the “thousand years” (Rev. 20:1-6) of relative peace for the ingathering of the church have drawn to a close, and now the testing and the cleansing of the church ingathered has begun. The devil has been released from his prison (Rev. 20:7), “having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time” (Rev. 12:12). His time is short and he is not playing games. We are now in Satan’s hour and he is bent on proliferating evil and destruction, and on fanning sin into a blazing inferno. Therefore, those who do not take a bold, firm stand against him (Eph. 6:10-18) and who do not persevere in a robust, overt righteousness will simply be swept away by the flood of wickedness.

The Lord has released the devil (Rev. 20:3) and is allowing him to test His people (Revelation 11:7; 13:7) to see who will shrink back (Hebrews 10:38, 39) and who will stand firm (Rev. 2:10). We are in an evil time, but it is evil that most plainly reveals righteousness, and the darker the darkness, the more brilliant the light.

CONCLUSION

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warned about the circumstances of the last days:

1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power. – 2 Timothy 3:1-5

It is my opinion that we are in these “last days” and that Christ will come soon to rescue His oppressed church. But even if I am wrong, the “difficult times” Paul described are certainly upon us and those who love righteousness must persevere in the face of growing opposition. This means the disciple of Jesus must earnestly seek the Lord and must drive their spiritual roots deep into the saving soil of Christ.

SDG                 rmb                 6/20/2022                   #545

The martyrs under the altar (Revelation 6:9-11)

INTRODUCTION. This is the first post in a series about persecution. Since our Savior, Jesus Christ, suffered persecution, we as His followers know that we will also be persecuted. The Christian is called to suffer persecution simply because they are a disciple of Jesus. This series looks at some of the Bible’s teaching on this subject.

Persecution is uniquely Christian. For while ethnic groups may be oppressed and afflicted for who they are, Christians are oppressed, maligned, and afflicted for what they believe. Those who are citizens of one country may be hated and attacked by citizens of another country, but disciples of Jesus are hated and attacked simply because they are disciples of Jesus. The point is that the suffering of persecution comes upon believers because believers associate with Jesus, and the world hates Jesus. So, persecution is a uniquely Christian experience.

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also. – Rev. 6:9-11

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MARTYRS

In this passage in Revelation 6:9-11, we encounter the martyrs, those who had been slain because of the word of God and their testimony. These had paid the ultimate price for their allegiance to Jesus.

Since the earliest days of the Christian church, persecution has been a normal part of following Jesus. Our Lord Himself said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). Taking up a cross means preparing for your own death. Jesus also said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Even though Jesus spoke these words over two millennia ago, His words have proven true. His followers are persecuted, and some are persecuted to death. Since Stephen was killed in Jerusalem (Acts 7) as the first martyr, the followers of Jesus have understood that being a disciple may cost you your life. What is remarkable is that the possibility of martyrdom has never deterred people from coming to Jesus for salvation. The true disciple understands that whoever believes in Jesus cannot die (John 11:25-26), so there is no fear in losing their physical life for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 10:39).

Now, as there were martyrs in the days of the early church and there have been martyrs throughout the gospel age as the church has been gathered in, so this scene near the end of the age shows that there will continue to be martyrs until the end. In the time of this scene, the earth is being made ready for the return of the Lord Jesus, history is drawing to a close, and end times prophecies are being fulfilled. And still we see persecution and martyrs. What this means is that, to the very end of the age, the true followers of Jesus will continue to willingly suffer and even die rather than deny Christ.

THE PERSECUTORS CONTINUE

By the way, this also means that those who hate Christ and who hate Christians will continue to persecute disciples of Jesus until the end of the age. For Jesus to declare that, for at least the next two millennia, His disciples will continue to count their witness for Him as more valuable than life itself is a remarkable prophecy. But to also declare that the world will continue to persecute and even kill His disciples over that same two millennia time period is even more amazing. Note that the world’s hatred of Jesus and of His disciples has not gone away over two thousand years. The martyrs willingly die and the persecutors eagerly kill.

Returning to the text, then, we see the souls of those who had been killed for Jesus’ sake (6:9). These souls then cry out to the Lord, asking how long He will refrain from judging and avenging their deaths (6:10). This cry is not imprecatory, for the souls of the slain are not calling down unusual curses on the wicked, but they are calling out to Him to render justice now. “We know that, at the end of the age, You will judge the wicked and avenge our blood on the unrighteous. O Lord, let Your judgment be now!”

But the Lord is going to delay His justice. He is not going to judge the earth now, because there are more martyrs who must be killed (6:11). The Lord knows that exact number of those who will be martyred and, until we reach that number, the justice of the final judgment will be delayed. So, disciples of Jesus will continue to willingly give their lives and the haters of Jesus will continue to persecute and kill His disciples. So, there will be martyrs until the end of the age.

A MARTYR TAKES TWO WILLING PARTIES

As I was reflecting on this passage about the martyrs and about their Holy Spirit-given faith and courage, something occurred to me that had escaped me before.

What is a martyr? A martyr is someone who is killed by another because of a radical difference in ideology. That means that a martyr cannot act independently. You cannot martyr yourself. A suicide bomber can blow themselves up independently, but they cannot thereby become a martyr. There is a big difference between suicide and martyrdom.

But what we have seen is that there will be martyrs for the entire gospel age all the way to the end. This Scripture in Revelation 6 is not just prophesying what believers will do for the entire church age, namely, willingly surrender their lives for “the word of God and the witness they had borne,” but also saying that the unbelieving world will continue to violently hate believers to the point of killing them for the entire church age. For a martyr requires two willing parties: one person willing to surrender their life for Jesus, and another person willing to kill that person because of Jesus. For both parties, Jesus is the issue. For the martyr, their testimony for Jesus is more valuable than their physical life, and for the murderer, their hatred of Jesus is great enough to warrant killing another human being. That is profound.

SDG                 rmb                 4/4/2022                     #512