24. Suffering Under Persecution

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 24 : Suffering Under Persecution

Acts  8:1    On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

There is no doubt about it that the early church suffered real opposition, but the truth is that that opposition has carried on around the world in varying intensities for the two thousand years since and, as we said in one of the recent meditations, it is said that in 70% of the countries of the world today, persecution takes place in some form or other.

Now we have touched on this subject more than once already, simply because it occurs in Acts a number of times, but this time we will seek to consider it in more general terms under several headings.

First, the Reason for Persecution. As we noted in the previous meditation, Jesus came into the world as the Light of the World and the Gospel writer John declared of him, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5) Light and darkness just don’t go together. Later on he recorded Jesus saying to his disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (Jn 15:20) The apostle Paul warned Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) What we tend to forget is the verse that follows: “while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (v.13)

The implication is that persecution comes from those who are deceived, who are self-centred, godless and unrighteous and who are shown up by believers, and are therefore hostile to anyone living a godly life. Jesus, warning the church at Smyrna, shows Satan as the one causing persecution: “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days,” (Rev 2:10) but by using the word ‘test’ implies, as is shown in Job 1 & 2, that Satan can only do this by God’s permission, and he does it for a specific reason, to test, try and purify the church. When we wonder at the fact that God allows persecution, we see he is giving Satan leeway to act, and the marvel therefore is that He restrains Satan so much of the time, for Satan is a destroyer and would love to destroy the entire church, but is stopped by the Lord.

Second, the Fact of Persecution. Whether we call it persecution or opposition, it is seen in the book of Acts again and again. We see it in 4:1-3 when Peter and John were put in jail by the temple authorities for preaching Christ. We see exactly the same thing happening again in 5:17,18 when the apostles were jailed over night by the religious  establishment (although released by an angel). They were rearrested and eventually flogged before being released (5:40). Later Stephen was opposed by the Jews of a local synagogue (6:9) who took him before the Sanhedrin with false accusations (6:12-14), the end outcome of which he was stoned (7:57,58). Following this general persecution broke out against the church (8:1) and Saul went after the Christians (8:3) to put them in prison. After Saul was converted and started to preach Jesus, the Jews conspired to kill him (9:23). In Acts 12 we find Herod intending to persecute the church and has James put to death and Peter imprisoned (12:1-3).

Once Paul started his missionary journeys we see opposition again and again, and most times it is from his fellow Jews: in Pisidian Antioch (13:45,50), in Iconium (14:5), in Lystra (14:19), in Philippi (16:19-24), in Thessalonica (17:5-9), in Berea (17:13), in Corinth (18:12,13), in Ephesus (19:23-), although occasionally it was from others who felt challenged by what Paul was saying and doing and who felt threatened.

Third, the Wonder of Persecution. This is not so much about the fact that it happens, but that the disciples, apostles and church generally carried on in the face of this. Anyone with an open mind must be challenged over the way that, despite sometimes the most terrible of opposition from the authorities – later it was less the Jews and more the Roman authorities – with people being mistreated in every way possible. Although the writer to the Hebrews may have been writing about an earlier period, what he said certainly applied also to the early church: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Heb 11:35-38) Listen to the apostle Paul’s own testimony: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned.” (2 Cor 11:24,25)

In the face of all this, any thinking person must consider, what is it that makes these people go through such awful things for their faith and at the very least the answer has to be, because they utterly believe that all they have been taught about God and Jesus is true. Of the original twelve apostles, Judas committed suicide leaving eleven and of those eleven, ten were put to death for their faith, the apostle John being the only one to die of old age, but not before he had also been persecuted and sent to the prison island of Patmos for some time. The apostle Paul, who we may suggest was Gods replacement for Judas, also died for his faith after many years of opposition. All of these men testified: we have seen Jesus, we saw all he did, we heard all he taught and we are utterly convinced he is the Son of God, the only one who brings true salvation for sinners. Such was their conviction that it drove them on until eventually they suffered violent death for it. Their motivation was what they had seen and heard (see 1 Jn 1:1-3). Similarly Luke’s motivation for writing his Gospel and then Acts was all he had been told (Lk 1:1-4), and it utterly convinced him. Thus it has been down through the last two thousand years, that millions of others have heard and responded and then found, “He is alive! It IS true!”

With such an incredible motivation we end this series.

20. Ungodly Opposition

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 20 : Coping with Ungodly Opposition

Acts  5:17-20    Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

We have, of course, already in previous meditations had to deal with the subject of being in conflict with the Law as a Christian, but here we’ll focus the subject on opposition that comes from other believers. From our perspective this opposition is ungodly. We know the apostles were called and sent by Jesus, the Son of God, and we know they are energised and motivated by the Holy Spirit. Thus anyone positively opposing them is acting in an ungodly way. Indeed we know the opposition here is wrong because we are told it was motivated by jealousy.

Yet there is something here that we tend to forget, and it is that the people opposing the apostles were Sadducees and although we tend to give them a bad press, and although it may well be that among their numbers there were those who acted out of purely political motives, there were surely others who sought to be devout men of God. That we believe they were sincere but sincerely wrong is probably not in dispute; that they thought they had the welfare and best interests of the people of Israel uppermost in their minds is also probably not in dispute – but they are opposing the will of God!

We have already seen the anointed apostles declaring that they must obey God rather than man, but that can be a weapon for what can become unrighteous behaviour. We have also seen them declaring that they can do no more or less than declare what they have seen and heard, and that’s fine.  That much is clear.

But how do we respond to such people, those who are against us and at odds with what we believe? This is no mere academic subject for at the time of writing this particular series, in recent days the media has been full of reports about upheavals within the Anglican church in respect of women in leadership and allowing gay men (or women) in positions of leadership. Now this meditation is not about either of those subjects but on how we, as Christians, cope with what we see (from our own individual standpoint) as the ungodly stance of those who disagree with us.

Just within the last few days I was sent a link to a blog where the writer wrote almost belligerently about his particular stance on these matters. What saddened me, apart from his severe lack of handling the word of God properly, was this ungracious, crusading and hostile spirit that came through that clearly declared that anyone who held a view contrary to that which he was espousing was clearly wrong but even more, a bigoted idiot.

I was put in mind of the writings of Dr, Francis Schaeffer (now deceased) who wrote about how he had been involved in schisms in the earlier part of the twentieth century in the USA, when conservative believers had separated off from liberal believers. He observed how there had been great hostility between the opposing parties and, looking back on it, he now deeply regretted his own heart in the matter, saying how we must learn to disagree gracefully. Jesus came, we are told, “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14) and we would like to think that the Holy Spirit is making us the same. We must remember, therefore, to ensure we balance truth with grace.

Jesus teaching is revolutionary: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, `Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Mt 5:22) and “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Mt 5:44) and “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Mt 7:1,2).   Each of these verses challenges us about how we think of others and, in this context, especially about those with whom we disagree. We may appear to win an argument, but it can be at the cost of the person we are supposed to be in Christ.

When the apostle Peter said, Show proper respect to everyone,” (1 Pet 2:17) he didn’t mean just those we agree with, he meant everyone, and that verse follows his call to submit to authorities and is then followed by that incredible instruction to slaves: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh,” (1 Pet 2:18) and goes on to explain that it is commendable to suffer for doing right, even as Christ did. We need to understand, as we’ve said before in this series, that we are not called to respect wrong behaviour, but we are called to respect people for who they are, those made in the image of God and, sometimes, those called to particular roles in society that are worthy of respect.

The apostle Paul had the same ideas in mind when he wrote, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else,” (1 Thess 5:15) and this must apply as much to speech as to actions. In respect of speech, Paul taught, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col 4:6) I like the way the Message version puts it: “The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”

The account of what happened to the apostles is delightful: an angel came at night and let them out. That simple! And he tells them to carry on doing what they have been doing – in public. A closing thought: suppose the apostles had derided and demeaned the authorities, suppose when they were being imprisoned they had shouted threats at them, “God will get you!” Suppose they had acted arrogantly and belligerently; do you think God would have sent an angel to let them out? Do we perhaps fail to see the power of God exercised by the Holy Spirit in and through us, because we do not exhibit the Spirit of Jesus? May we ensure that we are not only full of truth, but also full of grace?

38. Hated by the World

Meditations in 1 John : 38 : Hated by the World

1 John  3:11   Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.

I almost passed this little verse by but then was caught by one word – “if”. I have noticed a tendency in Christian circles sometimes that veers towards a martyr complex – the world is against us.  But that isn’t always true – but it is sometimes and there ARE grounds to believe it. Let’s check them first.

We find Jesus speaking these words: Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Mt 10:21-23)  That certainly looks bad! But actually the context seems to indicate he is speaking of the last days when things will get worse. Yes persecution is mentioned but again, I suggest, it fits that specific period more than any other – although as we will see it does fit other times as well. The last sentence of those verses indicates that when it does reach that time his coming will be speedy – they won’t even have enough time to travel throughIsrael. Seen in Mark 13 it is even clearer that it refers to the last days just before he returns.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:10-12). Now in those verses we get a further clue as to why people might be against us – for our righteousness, and by that I take it to mean that our righteousness will show up their unrighteousness and that will evoke hostility in them.

At the Last Supper Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: `No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name.”  (Jn 15:18-21) Note again the word “if”. There will be times when they do and times when they don’t. Here Jesus notes that the reason for opposition is himself. Satan is against Jesus and so if we are his followers, Satan will be against us, and will raise opposition against us. So yes opposition and even persecution are likely experiences of the Christian but, as I just observed, not always!

Consider when Jesus was exercising his healing ministry. At those times people thought he was wonderful. When he fed the five thousand, they even wanted to make him king. When he arrived at Jerusalemon the last week they heralded him as their champion. Oh yes, people will be for us when we do the works of God that bless them. Indeed Jesus taught, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) There are times when we are doing the works of God that people will see them, be blessed and will praise God. I am always amazed at the Queen of Sheba’s response to Solomon in 1 Kings 10:1-10. She praises God for what He has done in and through Solomon. Clearly when Jesus was eating with the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, they were blessed by him. Shortly after Pentecost we read about the church, that they were, “enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:47)

Listen to this amazing record of the life of the earliest church: “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5:12-16) The general people were blessed by what was happening; it was awesome (literally) but that didn’t stop them coming to the source of God’s blessing, the church, to receive of God. Hallelujah!

66. World Persecution

Meditations in 1 Peter : 66: Worldwide Persecution

1 Pet 5:9b because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

We have commented a number of times in these meditations that there is a danger of picking a verse out of context and thus missing something of the significance of it in Peter’s mind. For instance today’s verse starts with a ‘because’ indicating that it flows on from the previous part of the argument: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” The part of the verse we are considering today thus becomes a reason or support for why we should resist the devil. What this does, is link Satan with all forms of persecution. He is the one behind all such sufferings of the church by persecution.

Of course the apostle John saw Satan’s influence when he wrote, the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19).  By that he did not include us, but he is quite clear on Satan’s influence on the unbelieving world. We noted in the previous meditation that Satan is also referred to as, “the ruler of the kingdom of the air(Eph 2:2) and, “the prince of this world”. (Jn 14:30/ Jn 16:11) again suggesting his strong influence over the minds of men.

So, says Peter, recognise that his activity is the same the whole world over. This isn’t something that just you are suffering. We often have a tendency to think that our experiences are unique. They are not. Christians throughout history and throughout the world have received opposition in the form of outright persecution. Although there are sometimes feuds between rival religions or sects around the world, the unique opposition that the Christian Church receives should suggest to those who are open and searching that there is something more in Christianity that raises the ire of the ungodly.

It is not that Christians are pious or arrogant; it is that they are good and godly. Their contribution to the welfare of the world over the last two thousand years is unique. It wasn’t atheists or Moslems or Communists or Hindus who were working to create hospitals, provide education, organise workers into unions, and generally work for the poor, it was Christians. The record is very clear and undeniable. So what is it that upsets the world? It is that they are good and they are godly and they dare to speak about the possibility of a living relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

But in this paragraph above we have also admitted another reason why the Christian Church receives opposition so much: they stand out as opposition to some of the big power blocks of the world – other religions such as Islam or Hinduism of the Middle East, or the ideological communists of China. In China the numbers of the Christian Church vastly outweigh the numbers of the members of the Communist party who are a small minority in that massive nation. As Communist party numbers go down, over the past thirty years the numbers of the Christian Church in China have been escalating at a furious pace. No wonder the Community party in power is fearful. It is exactly the same as we find in the Old Testament happened to Israel in Egypt: the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them. Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” (Ex 1:7-11) In the minds of the ungodly, the increasing numbers of Christians is a threat to be opposed. The fact that it is a sea of goodness that is growing in the land of China is of no consequence to the fearful Communist authorities.

Similarly in such places as India or Saudi Arabia, Hindus and Moslems feel threatened by a faith that is not filled with fear, a faith that doesn’t demand rule keeping and a faith that appeals to the poor and weak. For these reasons (and perhaps many more) the twentieth century and now the twenty-first century has been no different from the rest of Church history. People have been killed, homes have been burned down and people thrown into prison, simply for being Christian believers.

And yes, we know who is behind it and we are called to resist him. What are the weapons we are to use against such enemies: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:44,45)  There it is! Love and prayer! Of course we may add to that, that which has been mentioned so often in these studies, goodness and good works that bless people and glorify God. They may upset the ungodly but they may also reveal Him to those who are onlookers. Despite what happens, may we reveal our loving Father by the way we live?  Amen?

56. Suffering Again (2)

Meditations in 1 Peter : 56: Suffering Again (2)

1 Pet 4:15-16 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

Righteous suffering or unrighteous suffering; that is what these two verses are about. Oh, not more on suffering and persecution, you might be thinking. I’m afraid yes, because that is what Peter does – he says more about it, more to help us. We said in the previous meditation that suffering and persecution are the ‘the elephant in the room’, being there in the background of Western Christianity, there but ignored mostly.  But for Peter it cannot be ignored for it is a very real element in the life of the early Church.

Back in chapter 2, speaking about slaves and the possibility of them suffering unjustly, he said something similar to what we now find here: For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?” (2:19,20) i.e. it is good to bear up well under persecution when you have done no wrong, but if you are suffering because you have done wrong, there is no credit in that!

So now, in these present verses, he says something very similar. He sets up two groups of people and differentiates between them. The first group is made up of those who have done wrong: a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.” Each of these people interfere with and harm others, from a murderer at one end of the spectrum to a gossiping busybody upsetting people at the other end. Frankly, he implies, these people deserve trouble. There is nothing commendable about getting into trouble for doing wrong.

Now we may think that this is a very minor bit of teaching but I wonder how many times Christians are unwise or foolish in their speech or behaviour and were not being Christ-like, but then bemoan the fact that they have received opposition or censure? How many times have we spoken arrogantly into the world and then been surprised when we have received hostile reactions in return? This is, in fact, a very significant piece of teaching and Peter says similar things elsewhere. Do you remember back in chapter 3 he said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Pet 3:15,16)  That is a very significant teaching. Be ready with answers when you are questioned but make sure your answers come in gentleness and with respect so you give people no grounds to judge you, and if they do it will be them who are in the wrong, not you!  We really do need to think about these things when the scripture exhorts us to be salt and light. The way we do it is crucial!

But he moves on: “However” i.e. by contrast, if you get opposition and suffer simply for being a Christian, that is something else! “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed.” The implication in the light of what has just gone is, shame on you if you do wrong when you say you are a Christian, but if you are living the Christ-life, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14) and you then get opposition, you do not need to feel bad, you do not need to feel ashamed. You haven’t ‘let the side down’, you have just received opposition from the enemy which is opposition to goodness. As we saw previously, it happened to Jesus and so it will happen to us. When it does (as long as you have given no grounds for it) don’t feel ashamed or guilty or bad about it. People get upset when they are shown up.

When Stephen started his final speech it was recorded, “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15) That was amazing. However, examine Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost and Stephen’s denunciations in chapter 7 and we find a distinct difference. Both men brought the truth and Peter saw tremendous fruit, but Stephen hit them in the face with their failure and gave them no time to think through the truth of what he was saying. His ‘in-your-face’ challenges simply stirred their unrighteous anger. Was he wise in doing it like that? Saul (who became Paul) stood there unmoved and it was only a direct encounter with Jesus that changed him. The account of Stephen is there in all its clarity, but is it there as a lesson on how not to do it, I wonder?

There is a difference between holding onto your beliefs in the face of challenge, and stuffing them down someone’s throat ungraciously. Peter’s earlier words about speaking with gentleness and respect, linked in with our verses above, should perhaps give us some grounds to think carefully and honestly. May we do that!

 

50. Abused

Meditations in 1 Peter : 50: Abused for Goodness

1 Pet 4:3,4 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do– living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.

“There’s nothing like a cured smoker,” they say, “for going on at smokers.” Now oddly, in these verses it is exactly the opposite. It would be the smokers going on at those who have given it up! Throughout this letter Peter has been encouraging the Christians he’s writing to, to hold fast to the faith – especially in the face of persecution – and to live righteous lives. Again these verses start with a link word, ‘for’. He’s just said that we should consider ourselves “done with sin” (v.1) and not live the rest of his (our) earthly life for evil human desires.” (v.2).

When he says, “For you have…” it’s like he might say, “After all, you have spent enough time in the past wasting away your life in bad ways…” That is the thrust here. All of the things he lists are things linked to the senses and unrestrained use of the senses, a wrong use of them. This is not how you should live is the underlying sense of these things. When he uses the words, “you have spent enough time in the past,” it is like he is gently chiding or reproaching them for having lived like that, in ways that they should now know are unrighteous and ungodly. As we said above, there is this sense that he’s saying, “you frittered away your life and wasted your life living like that, so you should never even think for a minute of drifting back to that sort of lifestyle. This is yet just another reason for staying away from that sort of life – you’ve been there, done it, known it does you no good, and just wastes or fritters life away. Don’t think of going back there!

This same sort of thinking is in Peter’s mind in his second letter when he warns about people who would lead his readers back to that old lifestyle: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.” (2 Pet 2:21,22) This is the sense that is behind our verses today. But in this present letter he’s been dealing with a variety of ways that we receive opposition and even persecution, and so he finishes with a recognition of how the world that they have rejected now responds to them.

They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. The world doesn’t understand why it is that you have rejected that lifestyle that they are still wallowing in. They have never realised their plight or if they have they have pushed the thought away. No, they have decided that they will make indulging the senses in a life of unrestraint, their life, and they cover up their inner emptiness by so doing. On the outward side they appear to be having such fun – although to see them next morning is another story which is mostly not told!  No, they make like they are having such a wonderful time while all the while they are covering up an inner emptiness. They feel insecure and alone and seek to cover it up by a wild lifestyle. They try to convince the rest of the world that they are having such a time in their freedom. Of course for many this so called freedom is in fact slavery, for they cannot get out of it and dare not get out of it.

So from their life of excesses they look upon their ‘puritanical’ friends who have turned their back on it, and think them strange. Why are these Christians such killjoys, is what they think; how weird they are! In their blindness they cannot see the love, the joy and the freedom that their Christian friends are experiencing, the goodness of life that they are enjoying without any artificial stimulants. No, the more you look at the two contrasting lifestyles and the more you honestly face the outworking of both of them, the more obvious the folly of the old lifestyle becomes.  But of course those trapped by it cannot see it!

But it goes further, because not only do they think it strange that you have given up that lifestyle, deep down they feel you show them up and you play on their conscience and make them feel even worse than they did before, and so have to work even harder to convince themselves and everyone else what a good life they have. And so, deep down they feel resentful about what we have done and so out of defense they attack us with words, they heap abuse on us as Peter says. They denigrate and seek to demean us in this effort to cover up their guilt.

Oh yes, if you have never understood this before, please understand it now. These are the dynamics of what is going on here. Realise these things and you will realise that you never want to go back there.  Now there is a danger we need to face before we finish.  It is the danger of inadvertently crossing the line. Oh, says our modern Christian, I would never be intodebauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing.” Very well, but be honest. If you are a party person, how often are you on the verge of this? Really, how near this lifestyle are you? A man was once walking along a road alongside a field fenced by an electric fence. Inside this large field was a cow inching under the bottom strand of the fence to get the grass just out of reach while not being electrocuted. When there is a whole field of enjoyable grass, why live right on the edge? If we are doing this, we need to examine our inner self and see that we are not letting Christ minister to all our inner needs so we don’t need to boost them artificially. It is a valid concern, I believe, in modern Christianity. Please think on it.

42. Be at Peace

Meditations in 1 Peter : 42 : Be at Peace

1 Pet 3:13-15 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.

The ways of life are very obvious when you think about it. For example, if you want a life of trouble and difficulty all you have to do is be nasty to people, cheat on them, lie to them, deceive them, be spiteful to them, steal from them, do your work badly, fail to pay your debts, borrow but never give back and so on. If you are a student you skip classes, never hand work in and be casual about your learning.  If you are married you be unfaithful to your partner and be unpleasant to your kids. Now all that is so obvious that you might wonder why any of us do any of these things. Surely we want a good life, a life without stress? So why do people act like this? Because of the stupidity of sin!

Peter is painting a very different picture. He is putting up some pointers to help us live the good life and has just used the Old Testament to act as a guide. He assumes we want a life that is peaceful and free from upset. OK, he says, Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” i.e. do good and that will stop most people from being nasty to you. People don’t feel threatened generally by goodness so they won’t attack you. If you constantly do good, you are not going to attract hostility and upset.

But Peter is a realist and he knows that in the world in which we live, although it is generally like that, there will be people so given over to the enemy that they will come against you: “But even if you should suffer for what is right.” This suffering means persecution and opposition from others; that is clear by what follows. Yes, as good as you may be there will be those along life’s way who will oppose you, just like they did Jesus for his goodness. But look what he goes on to say:But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” How will you be blessed for suffering persecution?

He doesn’t say but perhaps he has in mind his master’s teaching: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:10,11)  Yes, Jesus taught that you were blessed in such circumstances because it showed that you were a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and as such heaven will reward you. That reward may be a sense of peace that passes understanding or it may be a sense of the Father’s approval or it may be His blessing that brings further goodness into your life.

But then he seeks to reassure us: Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” This would appear to be a quote from Isaiah: “do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear.” (Isa 8:12,13) i.e. do not fear the plotting and scheming of people. The only one to ‘fear’ is God because He is all-seeing and all-mighty. We live, as children of God, under the watchful eye of our Father and He will provide for us and protect us: “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psa 121) That IS the truth. We would do well to memorise that psalm for it reminds us of the truth.

Then Peter takes the Old Testament teaching and brings it up to date: But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” The Old Testament was ‘fear the Lord’. The New Testament was ‘Jesus is Lord’. They are the same things expressed at different times with different levels of revelation. Today our submitting to God is expressed through our submission to His Son, our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. So today, when we are facing opposition and wondering how we will cope, remember that Jesus is Lord and is seated at his Father’s right hand ruling in heaven over all things.(see Eph 1:22, 1 Pet 3:22, Rom 8:34, 1 Cor 15:25, Psa 110:1). Faith means we respond to these truths and the outworking of it will be peace. We will live in peace and live out peace. Yes, sometimes there will be opposition but Christ will be there and his grace will be sufficient as he works out all things for our good. Rejoice in this and be at peace in this! 

33. Opposition (2)

Meditations in 1 Peter : 33:  Coping with Opposition (2)

1 Pet 2:21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

This is the hard side of the Christian life, the side that most of us in the West prefer not to think about. We will in the next meditation go on to look in detail to how Christ acted but for now we must just focus on the fact that he suffered and we are also called to suffer for the Gospel. Remember Peter has just said about slaves, if you suffer for doing good….” This is not self-inflicted suffering; this is suffering because we are Christians.

Now to get balance we have to note that it isn’t always like that in life and there are also times in the New Testament when the church found favour with the world: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.” (Acts 2:46,47). Indeed, it should be our purpose to win favour by our good lives, as Paul said a similar thing to the slaves in Colosse: “ Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” (Col 3:22).  Yet the truth also is that there will be times when the world around us will be hostile to us because we are Christians.

Jesus laid out this teaching very clearly to his disciples: “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.” (Lk  21:12-19).

Now there are some crucial points in this. First, note, “This will result in your being witness to them.” i.e. when you are hauled before authorities see this as an opportunity to testify to the Lord. Second, note the Lord’s provision: “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Wow, that is positive!

Why will people oppose us? Listen again to Jesus’ teaching at the Last Supper: “I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: `No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name.” (Jn 1519-21). Ultimately all opposition we receive as Christians is because of Christ. The enemy is against him and against us as his representatives.

This teaching goes right back to the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” (Mt 5:10-12) yet there it is expanded to remind us that all of God’s servants throughout time have been opposed. But, says Jesus, you will be blessed when you are persecuted and we are to rejoice in such circumstances because (implied) it shows we are part of God’s family, doing God’s will.

The nature of this persecution is made even more clear in John’s Gospel: “So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:16-18) Jesus was ‘working’ on the Sabbath because his Father was working and that upset the religious ideas of some. Then we he associated himself with his Father that upset them even more.

Our call is to do the will of God as the Holy Spirit leads us. Sometimes that will upset people (see Acts 4). When we associate ourselves with our Lord that will sometimes also upset people. We are not to be purposely antagonistic but if our simple declarations spoken gently bring hostility simply because of the content – despite the delivery – then so be it!  That is our calling.  But remember it is a calling that brings the grace of God with it. He will enable and He will look after us. Those are His promises.

51. More on Patience

Meditations in James: 51:  More on Patience & Perseverance

Jas 5:10,11    Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

The temptation to give up is sometimes a very strong temptation. We have a poster which includes some of the following lines: “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centred. Love them anyway….. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway…. People really need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway….. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got ANYWAY.”  Whoever originally wrote those words knew that sometimes life in this world is tough but we have to decide to keep on anyway. To give up is to let Sin and Satan win. To give up is to be trampled on and to lose wonderful possibilities of a better tomorrow.   When we’re tired, feeling jaded, worn out, and the enemy seems to jeer at us, he’s trying to get us to give up. It’s a strong temptation, but Paul wrote: No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it. (1 Cor 10:13 Message version) The words of that verse tell us a) our temptation is common to life, b) God won’t let you be pushed further  than you can cope with and c) He’ll be there to help you.

James has just said, You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near (v.8), the ‘too’ referring to the example of the farmers he had just spoken about as having to wait patiently for their harvests. In the face of unrighteous people or, even, of having to struggle with our own unrighteous attitudes or behaviour and sometimes failing, the temptation to just give up is often strong. Hence we need these words of encouragement: be patient and stand firm and now these words about the prophets. Look what James says.

“Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” The subject of his concern is having patience, waiting for God, or God’s grace, to turn up when we are suffering. If you want an example of how this worked out, he implies, look at the Old Testament prophets. He goes on,As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.” In the teaching of the day, the prophets were revered for their loyalty and faithfulness to the Lord. Despite the opposition they received, they hung on in.  The reality is that despite what was thrown at them, they survived and were triumphant.

You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.” James then cites the particular example of Job who persevered in the face of lots of bad things happening to him.  Yes, the enemy afflicted him but the end of the story was God blessing him and restoring him to what he had known previously – in fact twice as prosperous as he had been before! (Job 42:10).

“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.The fact that tough things happen in this world, doesn’t detract from the truth about God’s character. He is still full of compassion and mercy. He is still a God who feels for His people and is moved by the plight of His people.  Remember Moses’ first encounter with the Lord: The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.” (Ex 3:7,8). Compassion is a heart moved by plight. God doesn’t stand afar off when we are going through tough times. No, He is right there and He feels and understands all we are going through and is there working to bring good through it (Rom 8:28). More than that He doesn’t assess every situation and say, “Oh well, they deserve it!” and leave us to it. No, He knows our frailty and despite our stupidity, so often, He comes and rescues us. It is an act of pure mercy. Not deserved but nevertheless given.

Yes, James knows that living in this world brings both opposition from other people and opposition from sin that we struggle with. He knows that we struggle with the temptation to give up, and so he encourages us to persevere, patiently waiting for the Lord to turn up and intervene. He cites working illustrations – farmers – and spiritual illustrations – Old Testament prophets. Having to wait and be patient is a familiar thing, a normal and natural thing in this Fallen World.  So his word comes: hang on! But it’s more than that; it is, hang on – because God WILL turn up, as surely as harvest does and as surely as He did for His prophets of old. So look up and look around. The Lord is coming for you in your situation!

Approval

Readings in Luke Continued – No.6

Lk 4:14,15 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

There is a time in the early life of the Church when Luke recorded, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46 ,47). It was a good time when the blessing of God was clearly on the Church. After the Ananias and Sapphira affair it took on a different slant: “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.” (Acts 5:13). It has been said that in the early centuries of the life of the widely scattered Church in the Roman Empire, when an emperor decreed a persecution of the Christians, local Roman leaders warned the local Christians of what was to happen so that they could flee for however long it took for it to blow over, so well thought of were they in their communities. We are called to be salt and light and as such we can be a blessing to the community in which we live.

For the time being, in these early days, Jesus received the praise of everyone. He started his ministry teaching in synagogues and obviously all that he said was well received. He is, after all, the Son of God with the wisdom and grace of God and his teaching would be exemplary. However the approval he seems to be getting is almost the lull before the storm; it is about to change, but we’ll have to wait for the next meditation to see that. So far Jesus has merely affirmed the truth of God’s word, for that is what he would have been doing in the synagogues for they were primarily teaching places, where the truth of God’s word was conveyed to the local population. So far he has not said anything that will bring a challenge. So far he has simply been acting as a teacher of the Scriptures and so far that has been very acceptable.

This preliminary phase of his ministry is uncharacteristic of what followed, because soon he would declare himself, soon he would be performing signs and wonders, and soon he would be seen as a threat to the religious establishment – but none of that has happened yet. Writing this in the early part of 2008, I believe that many churches in the United Kingdom at least, are in a similar position. Having found ourselves relegated to the fringes of society, we have heard the word of the Lord to go into our communities with acts of good works. There, many of us are well thought of, and we often receive the praise of community leaders for the acts of service we perform in this needy land.

There is going to come a time, I suggest, when as more and more doors are opened to us and more and more hearts are opened to us, that we will speak the Gospel into more and more hearts and will see a harvest that is greater than has been seen for a long time. It will be at that time that we will find ourselves moving into the second phase of Jesus’ ministry, when opposition arises because we become a challenge and a threat. The larger part of the book of Acts records the hostility and opposition that the early church received as the Gospel was proclaimed. Various Roman emperors issued decrees against the Christians because they threatened the deity that such emperors dared to proclaim. Indeed early Christians were called atheists because they did not believe in the Roman gods.

John, in his Gospel, records that Jesus was full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). In this early phase that grace was seen and appreciated. If was only as the truth was brought to bear, that more and more, that appreciation was eroded by the religious leaders.

That raises a question for us in the Church today. Are we well thought of before we preach the challenging Gospel? There are two negative approaches or outlooks to be considered. First, that we say and do nothing and are totally unnoticed. This is the church that is completely ineffectual by inaction. The second alternative is that we simply blast the Gospel at whoever we meet without having earned the respect of the listeners and are largely rejected as religious freaks. This is the church that is ineffectual by insensitivity and ignorance. Now I add ignorance, because it suggests that we have not learnt from Jesus. A careful observation of Jesus will reveal that he went first performing signs and wonders with great healing, doing good for needy people. He also mixed with the needy and the sinners and accepted them where they were. It was only subsequently that the convicting words of truth came and caused either a harvest of salvation or opposition.

Yes, John in his Gospel describes all these acts of power as ‘signs’ pointing to God, but they would have also warmed and melted the hearts of people towards him. When you have just healed someone of a serious illness, they feel good towards you! They are willing to listen to you. Jesus was using the power of God to do good and to open hearts to hear the truth. Some accepted it and some didn’t.

Thus today, it is a valid question to ask, are we doing the same? We may not have the same power that was flowing through Jesus, until God moves in sovereign power through us, but we may seek Him for that and get ready. In the meantime, we do have His grace to be people who bring blessing and goodness into our communities to open doors and open hearts. It is only the preliminary stage, but are we actually doing that? It bears thinking about.