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!

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?

58. Witness & Sharer

Meditations in 1 Peter : 58: Witness & Sharer

1 Pet 5:1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed

Peter now seems to move on to speak to specific groups within the church at large. The word ‘elder’ here should not be thought of as referring simply to an old man, but in fact to the role of a leader in the church. We note reference to them a number of times in the New Testament, for example, “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” (Acts 20:17) to whom he gives the charge, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28,29) Thus we see the designation, ‘elder’ and their role as ‘overseer’ or ‘shepherd’. In fact this is exactly the same as Peter does here in the first two verses of the chapter: To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers.” (1 Pet 5:1,2) We’ll consider the shepherding role of function the next meditation. The role of the elder we thus see is to be a shepherd or overseer of the flock, one who watches over and guards the flock. However, Peter is going to focus on one particular facet of that function as we shall see in a moment.

But note first that Peter describes himself as “a fellow elder”. In this he identifies himself with them. At the beginning of the letter he had written differently: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” (1 Pet 1:1) establishing his authority. Now, however, he comes as a fellow-servant. He knows what it is like to be a leader in the local church; he knows the burdens and the struggles that go on in this servant role. I maintain that no one who has not been in full-time ministry as an elder of the local church can know the burdens and the pressures. The true local shepherd carries the flock on his heart twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Peter identifies with these men.

But then he gives them a twofold designation: “a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed.” The first part of that sentence, “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” may have two meanings in Peter’s mind. One can’t be sure. The fact that he has been speaking so much about suffering and has already spoken about us sharing in Christ’s sufferings (see 2:21, 4:1,13) may indicate that when he speaks of a witness of Christ’s sufferings, he also means a witness who has been a partaker of those sufferings, i.e. a witness who has not merely watched or known about them, but who has entered into them! But he also may have in mind the fact that leaders are to be upholders of the truths of the Gospel and at the heart of it is the death (suffering) and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see, for example, 1 Pet 1:3-5,10-12,18-23).

The apostle John saw himself as such a witness obviously, when he wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life.” which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1 Jn 1:1-3)  This is all the language of a witness and Peter reminds leaders that this is to be one of our primary roles.

But there is more to the calling of an elder for the second part says, “and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed.” Now does this mean the glory of God that will be revealed at the end of time when He makes all things new or is there something more? I believe there is something more and it is for the present. I suggest that it means, when we fulfil our God-given role as leaders, enter into and are witnesses to the wonder of the Gospel, then we will know the wonder of being part of the ongoing plan of God which will be revealed so that the glory of God is seen on the earth. To quote again one of those verses which has cropped up more than once in these meditations: let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). When we allow the Lord to lead us, inspire us and empower us, the things that we find ourselves doing will reveal the Lord and His glory. His goodness and love and grace will be seen in us and in what we do and we will experience something of His glorious presence – today!

The work of the Son is to reveal the Father’s glory. Jesus said, This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (Jn 15:8) and “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” (Jn 14:12,13) There it is: the Father is glorified when we produce much fruit by continuing to do what Jesus had been doing. As we do that we share in the glory that is being revealed. It is all His but we experience it. How wonderful!

 

55. Suffering Again (1)

(We pick up again the studies from 1 Peter)

Meditations in 1 Peter : 55: Suffering Again (1)

1 Pet 4:12-14 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.

There is a phrase that has crept into usage in recent days which is applicable here. It is reference to “the elephant in the room”. Essentially it means there is something massive in the background that is there but which we are ignoring. Persecution is like that in the Western world. In the Western world, in which I live and write, we know very little of real persecution. Yes, there have been cases of people being told that they will not wear a cross while at work and other silly things like that.

That is silly from both sides – silly from those who impose such mundane and petty strictures and silly from those who give credibility to such people by getting upset about it. Yes, there has been the nurse disciplined for praying over a patient, but again we are moving into the silly zone. Let’s recognise that there is a godless majority out there but the call to us to be salt and light means that we display goodness in such a manner that it takes the breath away! Goodness, when it is seen, won’t be just the occasional act but will be a way of life that creates envy!

All of these things are shown for their insignificance when you come across many places in the world where there is outright persecution of anyone deigning to be a Christian and, even more, seeking to share it. Persecution is alive and well throughout the world even if some of us in more liberal nations escape the brunt of it. For us it tends to be abuses of so-called tolerance in the name of political correctness; for them it means death or imprisonment.

It is like that now and it always has been. In the early centuries of the life of the Christian Church, persecutions came and went at the dictates of the current Roman emperor. Some were terrible, some less so. In Peter’s day it was alive and well. In fact he was on the rough end of it at one point (see Acts 12) and the belief that his life was ended in crucifixion also testifies to it. But he is a realist. He had heard his master speak on it and so now he sees it as part of life:do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Wow! That’s a poke in the eye for self-concern. Someone today might say, “Stop crying. What do you expect?”   Yes, real persecution is painful. There is nothing romantic about persecution. When people were burnt at the stake that was painful! Yes, the grace of God was there for them to cope, but it was still painful and horrible!

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ basic teaching: “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 5:11,12) i.e. where you are persecuted remember you are part of the great family of God that has always been opposed by unbelievers. And, 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.” (Jn 15:18-20) i.e. as Jesus’ servant they will hate you because they hated him.  It was part of the teaching of the early leaders. Paul and Barnabas taught, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) and Paul warned Timothy, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12).

But Peter comes with a very positive attitude, the same attitude as Jesus: “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed,” i.e. don’t get down about it but recognise and rejoice in the fact that you are sharing in the same experiences that Christ himself had. Even more than that, when you overcome (by his grace) and come through it, when he is revealed (either in it through you, or when he returns) you will have great joy. It’s tough while it lasts, but it will bring a harvest of joy eventually.

But he pushes this positive attitude even further: If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you,” i.e. when you suffer these insults and worse, you will find that God’s very presence will be there for you and you will experience His glory in the power of His Spirit.  The Lord will not leave you alone. As many have been able testify, when they walked through their darkest hours, the presence of God was the most real that they had ever experienced. This is the Lord who said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb 13:5 & Deut 31:6) and who makes good His promise, especially at times of pressure from the enemy in the form of persecution. He is there and His grace is sufficient. Hallelujah!