15. The Place of Adjustment

Wilderness Meditations: 15. The Place of Adjustment

Acts 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria

But:  OK, so I said that study no.14 was the last one in this series, but one thing about the Internet is that it allows you to add further material to what you have already put there. I thought it was, until two thoughts appeared on the horizon of my mind today which called to have a place here, that seem to speak strongly into the present day. Then came another; I think the Lord wants to say something to us. So, we’ll extend the series and I will be wise enough not to say they are the last ones. I think they are, but who knows……

Knowing the Times: It was the men of Issachar, who were described as those “who  understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” (1 Chron 12:32) so perhaps we should start by looking at the times we are in. It is the Autumn / Fall of 2020, and the Pandemic has come, gone, and come again. We experienced lockdown, it was eased, and now as numbers of infections are rising again, lockdown is occurring in various towns and cities around the UK. It’s happened in England, Wales and Scotland. The future is as uncertain as ever. We have characterized this time as a wilderness, a place where we would not naturally wish to dwell, a place of unknowns, a place of limitation.

Watching Church: And it has been a place where Church has had to change. The Internet has played a bigger role in church than ever before. Someone asked me only the other day what I felt about the uncertain time ahead where scientists and the government (behind closed doors) are speculating on the number of deaths doubling in the months running up to Christmas. Concern is rising again. In the US the pandemic news has been submerged by rumblings about the Presidential election in November and more recently by the horrific fires down some of the western states. Uncertainty continues to reign in many places, it seems.

Unexpected Changes: So the first of these two additional thoughts focuses in on the accounts of Philip in Acts 8.  That chapter starts, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.“ (v.1) I see a number of my Christian friends in the States getting wound up about not being allowed to hold services indoors. That anti-authority outlook, that also ignores the science of the pandemic, has the privilege of not being in a part of the world where authority says it is illegal to be a Christian! But it was persecution that got the church moving – all except the apostles and they nearly got left behind in what God was about to do within that situation (see later when Peter and John had to go and see what God had been doing without them – v.14!). Let’s not say that God made the persecution happen, and I won’t say God made the Pandemic, but let’s simply note that He carried on working despite it and, yes, maybe within ways that the persecution / pandemic brought about. Jesus had, after all, said that that they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) So step one is that persecution has the church fleeing from Jerusalem into Judea and further north into Samaria.

A Wilderness Place:  Now there is nothing in the text about Samaria being a wilderness as such, but for the average Jew, the Samaritans were definitely off the grid of acceptability. I don’t have time and space to cover this in detail but simply to remind us of the surprising conversation Jesus had had with the Samaritan woman at the well (see particularly Jn 4:9). Think of whatever group of people you don’t feel comfortable with and there is your equivalent. The only reason Philip went there is the persecution in Jerusalem. He and many others had been forced out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t ‘his land’, these weren’t ‘his people’ and they didn’t believe the same things he believed and didn’t act like good Jews (even now Christians, even more different) acted.

Bang! So here he is in this ungodly place but something in him has him sharing with some of them about Jesus being the expected Messiah (v.5). He attracts a crowd and then, pow, stuff starts happening. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed, or lame, were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (v.6-8) We aren’t told initially what the ‘signs’ were that he performed or how it came about – that is irrelevant, and God will do it in a different way with you – but it is spelled out as the verses continue. Healing and deliverance ministry in a big way! No wonder there is great joy in the city! Now here’s something. If I was a betting person (and I’m not) I would bet that no longer does Philip feel this is a wilderness experience. Now he will be so caught up with what God is doing through him that he’s just filled with joy and, I suspect, praying, ‘More Lord!’ He no longer cares about this being a different land, an alien people!

And Us?  Can you see the parallels? The Pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone. We have been rubbing shoulders (well at a social distance!) with people we’ve not been comfortable with before and doing things we had never thought about a year ago.  Many of us have viewed the Pandemic / Lockdown as an alien time, and so it is, but that does not make it a time when God cannot move. We need to adjust our thinking, especially if it carries on through Autumn and Winter. Persecution or Pandemic? It doesn’t matter. Give God your space and dare to cross spiritual boundaries while still adhering to the Law, and then watch out, God might be turning up!

55. Care for the suffering church

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  55.  Care for the suffering church

Heb 13:3   Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Prisoners for Faith: Be under no illusion, when the writer says, “Remember those in prison,” he means those who are there for their faith, not those who are there because they are criminals. The first three centuries were centuries of persecution that came and went in waves. The apostle Paul, as he eventually became, was an early instrument of persecution: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”(Acts 8:1-3) The early chapters of Acts show us that the main apostles found themselves in prison, simply for declaring Jesus, more than a few times. Around the world today there are countries where Christians are either banned completely or severely persecuted. The call of this verse is never to forget those fellow believers who are in prison for their faith, and please understand that means people who are there simply because they are Christian believers, and there are many of them today.

Already earlier in this letter, the writer had referred to the difficulties of living as a Christian in those early decades of the first century: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Heb 10:32-34) It was a very real problem for the early Christians, as it is for Christians in certain parts of the world today.

Jesus’ Teaching: Jesus referred to such people when he challenged his followers to be caring: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35,36) Indeed his words in the wider context of that passage were quite strong, implying that if we didn’t care for such people, there was a question mark over our faith

The Body of Christ: The apostle Paul, while not directly speaking of persecution, may have had such people in his mind when he spoke in that famous chapter on ‘the body of Christ’, the Church, when he said, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) I have a story so bear with me until we get to the punch line.

The Example of One Man: I happen to have the privilege of having as one of my best friends in the world, an American pastor, now retired, who Skyped me in the UK, back in 2005, I think it was, and said, “I would like to run something past you that has been with me for some time, and see what you think.” He proceeded to share with me that he was certain God was calling him to go and demonstrate at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, on behalf of the persecuted church in China. He was aware it could mean he might end up in prison for ten years for doing what he had in mind. To cut a long story short, he painted slogans calling for release of Christians in prison, in several hotel rooms, videoed them as he did it and had it on the Internet to show it was real, and had a publicity team back in America running press conferences publicizing what he was doing. (He also left money in the hotels for the rooms to be repainted afterwards).

Having got it on the internet, he then went out into the countryside outside Beijing, where he lived under cover for the two week of the Games, so as not to interfere with them, and then on the last evening after the closing of the Games, he went out into Tiananmen Square where he started crying out loud for three quarters of an hour for God’s people to be released – the secret police in the area didn’t know what to do with him.  All this was being recorded back in America because he had a cell phone on him with a live link to the USA. The sound of this all happening, coming through a receiver in the USA, was eerie, as he carried on a running commentary, sharing the Gospel with tourists on the Square, and then carrying on crying out for the church until eventually he was escorted off the square and taken in a car through the back streets until the sounds of him ran out. He was interrogated for twenty four hours and then expelled from the country unharmed. Smart Chinese!

I think it was two years later he felt a similar call to get into Iran and stand outside the most famous prison in the capital of Iran and again in a similar recorded manner call for Christians imprisoned there to be released. He was taken into the prison, interrogated for twenty four hours and then deported.

Quite some time later after each demonstration, he received contact from the persecuted church in both China and Iran and the message was the same: we are just so grateful to you for publicizing our plight. Prisoners from the prison testified, the word spread through the prison that there was this American demonstrating on our behalf and it lifted our spirits and we were all given fresh hope.

Now I am aware that there are other individuals and organizations who give their lives for the persecuted church and I tell of this one simply as an example. The need is real and the church worldwide needs YOU today to remember this call: “Remember those in prison.”   There are many ways you can do it. Contact help organizations through the Internet, write to prisoners, pray for them and so on. The biggest enemies are indifference and the “too busy” syndrome. Persecution around the world is getting worse. Speak up for those  who are suffering before our voices are silenced. This verse is as valid as any other in Scripture: “Remember those in prison.”

46. What a Testimony!

Meditations in Hebrews 10:  46.  What a Testimony!

Heb 10:32   Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.

The writer to the Hebrews has warned and cajoled his readers again and again. They are clearly living in perilous times when the pressures upon them all had been great. For those of us living in the West, where for the most of the time life is comfortable as a Christian, it is difficult for us to comprehend the strength of the pressure upon the early believers in that first century after Christ.

The Great Contest: The writer now refers to life in that period as “a great contest”. There were many others competing for the truth and some of them – the authorities with the power – used persecution to try to hold down the Faith. Yet, he says, they had ‘stood their ground’ and held on to their beliefs and (mostly) their lives.  The apostle Paul in his famous spiritual warfare passage in Eph 6 said, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes, “ (Eph 6:11) and later added, “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then.” (Eph 6:13,14)  These Jewish Christians had done just that:  “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.” (v.32)

The Opposition they overcame: He then reminds them of the level of opposition that had overcome: “Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (v.33,34)  Note the four things they had done as they had stood against early opposition.

  1. Publicly Opposed: “publicly exposed to insult and persecution – there was nothing hidden about the opposition they received, it was outright and obvious. They were derided and physically opposed as well.
  1. Empathized with others Opposed: “at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.” But it wasn’t just them. The Gentile believers obviously went through the same thing and these Jewish Christians had stood alongside them, encouraging them.
  1. Stood alongside those imprisoned: “You sympathized with those in prison.” Their hearts were with their brothers and sisters who the authorities threw into prison for their faith. The apostle Paul had been doing this in the early days (see Acts 8:3) and Herod had also done it (see Acts 12:1) but it had already happened from the earliest days of the new Church (see Acts 5:18, 16:23,)
  1. Lost Properties: “joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property.” Obviously part of that persecution they endured meant having their property confiscated, and this they had coped with as part of all that was happening to them, but not just coped, they had known the joy of the Lord as they suffered.

The Big Picture:  How had they coped? It was “because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (v.34b) There are early echoes here of what will come up again in the hall of faith in Heb 11. They had stood knowing the reality of their inheritance, knowing that what they had in Christ was better than any earthly fame, wealth or possessions.  This was another of those times when seeing the bigger picture helped them cope with the specific difficulties at the moment.  Later on in chapter 12 he will give another: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” (Heb 12:2) Jesus had seen the big picture and looked beyond the Cross to what would follow it and that helped him cope with the whole awful experience of the Cross.

The Exhortation: Remember, this is all part of his encouragements-warnings-challenges that keep coming to these people  So here it comes again: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (v.35,36) See yet again, an exhortation followed by a reason. The exhortation is “do not throw away your confidence”.  i.e. don’t let go of the truths you have learned in which you now stand secure. Hold on to them. And why?  What reason does he put forward as yet another encouragement to them to stand?  You “will be richly rewarded…. You will receive what he has promised.” Both on this world and in the life after death there is much more to come. Much more of our inheritance to receive but it can only be received by those who will persevere and hold on to the will of God.

He then gives a final encouragement: “For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one (or the righteous) will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” (v.37,38 quoting from Hab 2:3,4) Again it is a reminder of God’s expectations of His people. Then he finishes the chapter with a faith declaration: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” (v.39)

In these verses we have seen a remarkable testimony of these early Jewish Christian believers who had stood in the face of persecution. Indeed their testimony was one of the means of encouraging them to stand firm and press on. It is good again and again to remind ourselves what God has done for us. Reminding ourselves of our testimony is a good way of stirring faith in us for today. Again and again this writer has sought to do that for these believers.

He is now going to do it by expanding this last thought to consider the testimonies of many of the saints in the Old Testament period who stood by faith. Now we have covered chapter 11 in a 49 part series called ‘Focusing Faith’, the first 37 parts of which  take us through chapter 11. Out next study will, therefore, pick up on in Chapter 12.

5. The Apostle’s Frustration

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians :

Part 1:   5. The Apostle’s Frustration

1 Thess 2:18   For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again–but Satan stopped us.

Now I have always marvelled at this verse, and still do. Here is Paul who had fled Thessalonica in the face of persecution and had longed to go back and see them again – and again – but had been hindered and stopped in doing that – and he blames Satan. Now I’ll tell you why I find that strange: it is because when I have studied Satan in the Bible I see that he is a fallen angel with power but he only has it because he is granted it by God and God only allows it to further His overall purposes. Indeed I have observed that God uses him to reveal men’s hearts, to bring judgement on unbelievers, to bring discipline to believers, to subjugate unbelievers, to maintain humility in our lives, to develop faith & righteousness in our lives, to bring about trials whereby we can be rewarded, to teach us how to fight and to demonstrate God’s power over the enemy. Those are clear reasons revealed in Scripture why God tolerates Satan. (Let’s face it, He could wipe him out with a single word and we could claim that would be justice!) He uses him!

So the question arises, why did God allow Satan to hinder Paul from getting back to Thessalonica?  Well before we answer that, let’s look at what else he says about his frustration. They have clearly been on his mind: We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember… your…” (1:2,3) But it goes way beyond that for in chapter two after he has made his comments about how they had been when they were with them, he really opens his heart: “But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” (2:17)  It had not been long (“a short time”) before he felt a concern for them and made attempts to get back there. He had an “intense longing” and therefore “made very effort” to get back. That is strong, purposeful language.

But he carried on, “For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again.”  (2:18)   Perhaps some of the others hadn’t had such strong feelings but he certainly had, which is when he shares the reason, “but Satan stopped us.”   Having failed himself to come back, and realizing it wasn’t going to happen, they talk alternative measures: “So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” (3:1-3) Now that is interesting because if Timothy could physically get back there, surely Paul could. There must have been reasons why Paul could not leave wherever it was he was writing from.

Trying to piece together the apostle’s journey we find from Thessalonica he went to Berea (Acts 17:10) and then on to Athens (Acts 17:15). There he was joined by Silas and Timothy and according to this letter Timothy was then sent back to Thessalonica to check on them. Paul then moved on to Corinth (Acts 18:1) and it was to there that Timothy came with the news of the Thessalonians (Acts 18:5) that we find being referred to in this letter: “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” (3:6)  He thus presumably wrote this letter in Corinth. Now of course we know from the letter to the Corinthians that Paul received both opposition and encouragement there (see Acts 18:6-10) and ended up having to stay there for a year and a half (Acts 18:11) but while there received even more opposition from the Jews (Acts 18:12,13) Now of course we don’t know when in that year and a half that Paul eventually realised he was just not going to be able to get back to the believers in Thessalonica and so wrote this letter.

So now we begin to see the agency that Satan used that Paul was blaming – the unbelieving Jews in every place whose hostility rose up against him wherever he went. Now our question, why did God allow him to do this begins to get an answer. The price God pays, if you like, for allowing Satan access to His world is that he captures the minds of unbelievers. Thus the apostle John was able to write, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19) Unless God overrides the free will that he gives every person, then Satan is going to be able to stir up and use the minds and lives of ungodly people. The book of Job shows us this very clearly when he clearly stirs up the ungodly to come and destroy Job’s family and possessions.

As Paul clearly shows us in the verses we have to live in a battle, a fallen world where the enemy has access to unbelievers and uses them to seek to thwart the work of God through His people. From our perspective sometimes this seems very frustrating as we long for one thing but are hindered getting it. Indeed Paul went on, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” (3:10) We have to say he didn’t get an answer to that prayer, or if he did it was, “No!” He never, it seems managed to get back to them.  Was his ministry thus a failure? Definitely not! The used him in Athens and Corinth and so on, just simply not back in Thessalonica, but in many ways they seem, to be getting on quite well without him! Timothy, at least, had been back there and no doubt encouraged them and had in turn been encouraged and brought a good report back to Paul in Corinth. Does God always give us everything we ask for? No. Does that mean we are failures and wrong for asking? No. It just means we are in a battle in a fallen world and the Lord deems it best that we go other ways. Rest in that and rejoice in it. He IS Sovereign even though at times it seems Satan is getting his way. If he does, it is still within the plan of God. Our question has to be, what next?

3. Persecution

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 1:  3. Persecution

1 Thess 2:2   We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition

Again our starting point must be the historical record of what happened in Thessalonica when the apostles shared the Gospel there: But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.” (Acts 17:4-10)  At some point – and we have discussed previously that it was probably longer than three weeks after they got there – the Gospel is having such effect that the religious Jews of the city start a riot aimed at the apostles AND the local Christian community.  Jason is obviously a local who has a house and who lives there and the brunt of their anger is focused first on him. So great is the tumult that the church considers the safest thing is for Paul and Silas to be smuggled out of the city at night.

Now when we come to the letter itself, we find that a big thing is not made of it and yet persecution and opposition is mention no less than five specific times and one implied time. Let’s take them in order in the letter, first the implied one where Paul speaks of “your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3) Knowing the historical background as we do we are not surprised when Paul speaks of endurance because you endure when the going gets tough. As we’ve noted previously, and is seen here, they are enabled to endure – to ‘hang on in there’ – by the hope that they now have in Jesus. Hope is always about the future and our hope is always threefold: a) our hope of meeting him in eternity when we die and b) our hope that he will be working out his plans and purposes for us while we are still on this planet, and that will be for good and c) our hope that his grace in the form of his holy Spirit within us will always be sufficient to carry us through whatever tomorrow holds.

Now on to the first of the specific references: “in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (1:6) Severe suffering! The only suffering we know about is that suffered by the believing Jews from their unbelieving fellow-Jews, or the general hostility from these Jews that the new Gentile believers encountered. Anyway, despite this opposition they received the word gladly and with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. In adverse circumstances when under enemy attack, our resource is always, initially at least, the Holy Spirit within is, the Spirit of Jesus, God Himself.

Moving on through the letter Paul later says, “We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.” (2:2) This is an interesting comment because the subject of persecution falls on Paul as much as on the Thessalonians in that he speaks of the struggles that they had had in Philippi, as well as the opposition they all received in Thessalonica.

A bit later in the letter he focuses it back on them: “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. (2:14-16) The Jews generally, even though they had been the core or foundation of the early church, had been the greatest source of opposition to the Gospel. Perhaps it was their fear that the Old Testament and the Law would be cast aside. They were the ones who opposed Paul, not the Romans and not the local peoples mostly.

In the next chapter we find, “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (3:2-4) Trials and persecution were seen by Paul as natural parts of the Christian life. Obviously when the Gospel was first presented there and people turned to Christ, as part of the general teaching, Paul had warned that opposition comes when the Lord blesses. The enemy is never happy about it!

Finally, a few verses on he says, “Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.” (3:7) That again appears to reflect more on the apostles than on the church in Thessalonica. The apostolic ministry brought with it opposition, hostility and outright persecution, but now Paul hears the good things that have been continuing in Thessalonica and, he implies, that makes it all worth while. That is the truth: when God blesses, the enemy so often rises up in reaction through the unbelieving world, but nevertheless the fruit of salvation and being able to lives changed for the good, makes it all worth while. Press on, and look for the fruit!

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.

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!

67. Assurance

Meditations in 1 Peter : 67: Assurance

1 Pet 5:10,11 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

And so we come to Peter’s closing comments in this letter about suffering. Again we must note that there is a context for these verses. There are distinct links from these verses to the ones that precede them. Verse 10 starts with “And”, suggesting a continuation of thought. There is the phrase, “after you have suffered a while” which links this with the previous thoughts about suffering. Previous chapters had more to say on suffering and persecution but the previous verses warning about Satan’s activities, had reminded us that, your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” Now what is important to note is that although we may resist the enemy, sufferings still come, and it is about this that Peter seeks to bring this final assurance: God WILL restore you! But there is much here to be understood.

First, note his description of the Lord: “the God of all grace.” In the context of what follows this must mean the God who provides all the grace you need. Grace as a provision of God for our daily lives is simply His ability conveyed to us to enable us to cope and overcome. But God doesn’t aimlessly provide this resource for us; He does it for a purpose: “who called you to his eternal glory in Christ.” Now this has at least two meanings. First it can mean God who called you to share in His eternal glory, or share in His very being. Now that is certainly true for He has made His home in us when He placed His Spirit within us. Remember Jesus said of the Spirit, “you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (Jn 14:17) and then Paul taught, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16) So God’s glory resides within us, but He is an ongoing resource to help us live out our relationship with Him.

But there lay be another meaning to this, “who called you to his eternal glory in Christ.” It also means who has called is to an eternal life with Him, which starts here today and continues on forever. So we are participators in a life that goes on and on, and while on this earth we need His continual resourcing to uphold us and maintain us against the enemies attacks that we have already referred to. For that glory to continue to shine in us, despite the things that come against us, we need His continual supply of grace.

That supply is necessary because of the suffering that is implied in,after you have suffered a little while.” Despite all that has been said so far in these recent meditations, we still may not take in the truth here: Christians DO suffer and they suffer persecution. Jesus warned the church in Smyrna, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev 2:10) Jesus KNEW this was going to happen and wasn’t going to stop it! It was coming as a test of their faith that would abound to God’s glory!  This does happen to Christians!

For the Christians that Peter was writing to, he was confident that, God … will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” They were going to come through this. Now we have to acknowledge that that isn’t always the outcome; there are sometimes martyrs. Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:59,60) and James was killed by Herod (Acts 12:2). It is not for us to say what the outcome of persecution will be. Our call, as Jesus said to the church in Smyrna is to “be faithful, even to the point of death.” If persecution comes and God brings us through it, we win. If we die and go to heaven, we win! This does require us to have a Biblical view of eternity and of death and heaven.

Peter then concludes, To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” When he says, “to him be…” he is saying, understand that He has this and so declare it and glorify Him with it. His is the power. God has the power, all power, for He is Almighty. There is no limitation to His power so if He so decrees, none can stand before Him. But, understand this: it is His power to use as His wisdom decrees. So sometimes He uses His power to bring us through the persecution here on earth, and sometimes He uses it to bring us to Him in heaven.

Why is Peter finishing with this? He finishes with it because he wants us to live at peace in the face of whatever comes our way, secure in the knowledge that the Lord is sovereign and He will move on our behalf in whatever way is best for us. We can rest secure in His love knowing that His wisdom is perfect and His power is sufficient to achieve whatever it is that He has on His heart to achieve through us! Whenever – and always! Hallelujah! Can we rest in that? May it be so!

 

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!