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

Those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:12)

The Scripture is very clear that persecution should be expected by the follower of Christ. This is stated in numerous places in the Bible, but perhaps the clearest is 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

WHO ARE THESE WHO DESIRE TO LIVE FOR CHRIST?

Who are these men and women “who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus”? The following is not an exhaustive list, but it does present some of the prominent characteristics.

Their lives proclaim that they live for Christ. These people are “tall blades.” By that I mean that they faith is not a private affair hidden under a rock. Rather, their faith is evident in everything about them. If you are looking for a Christian, these are not hard to find.

The light of Christ shines out of them (Matthew 5:16). This is related to the trait above. They let their light shine before men.

They bear much fruit (John 15:5), meaning that their life is rich in good works (Ephesians 2:10). These people are intentional in focusing their energies and their resources in channels that are going to commend Christ and the gospel and that will do good to others.

It is evident that they love the body of Christ. Their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ is almost tangible.

These men and women spend time in prayer and in reading God’s word.

In summary, these men and women are born-again followers of Jesus.

EXPECT PERSECUTION

Because these are born-again followers of Jesus, these men and women joyfully accept persecution as an expected part of following Christ. Jesus Himself promised His disciples, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Our Lord also told of the blessing that comes to those who are persecuted.

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

Jesus left us an example to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). He accepted the cross and uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to God the Father, who judges righteously.

Jesus’ apostles clearly told us to expect heat and hatred from the world. Peter wrote, “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” (1 Peter 4:12). And so we as followers of Jesus accept persecution as a stamp of authenticity. As J C Ryle wrote,

“Persecution, in short, is like the goldsmith’s stamp on real silver and gold. It is one of the marks of a converted man.”

THE HEAT IS INCREASING

And so, as we see those who hate Christ rising to places of power, and as we watch out religious freedom being systematically demolished and our ability to worship our God specifically attacked, we must be sure our resolve to persevere to the end is firmly established. Only a very few years ago the idea of severe persecution or martyrdom in America would have been absurd, but no more. With only a little bit of imagination, we can see that what used to be a prayer for far away people has become a real possibility here.

As I was considering my own possible martyrdom and wrestling with an encroaching fear, I went to the Scriptures to again find God’s assurance and peace. Again, 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

We will all be persecuted, but we will not all be persecuted in the same way.

Some of those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be martyred as they persevere to the end. They will experience the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4-6) and will be among the dead in Christ who will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16) in the Resurrection. Their persecution was unto death.

And some of those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will die before the Resurrection but will not die as martyrs. They persevered to the end, but they were not killed for their faith. They will experience the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4-6) and will be among the dead in Christ who will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16) in the Resurrection. Their persecution was not unto death.

And some of those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be alive and remain until the coming of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17). They will persevere to the end and, in the Resurrection, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. Instead, they will be changed (i.e., glorified; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52) in the Resurrection. Their persecution was not unto death.

Those are the three possible outcomes for the true believer, and they all three end in heaven. If we persevere to the end, our eternity will be glorious.

SDG                 rmb                 9/4/2021                     #431

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