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28 February 2019

Persecution, Suffering and Discipleship

The Crucifixion - clipart.christiansunite.com
          Citizens of western-style democracies enjoy religious freedom and conversion to Christianity rarely results in real personal costs. The “right” to practice religion without interference from the State is considered sacrosanct; something to be defended at all costs. But is this outlook what the New Testament expects?
          This “freedom of religion” conditions Christians not to expect to suffer for the sake of the gospel, and to guard zealously against any perceived threat to that “freedom”; if necessary, to resist violently threats and assaults on said “rights,” real or imagined.           In contrast, the Apostle Peter warned believers not “to be surprised by a fiery trial as though a surprising thing were happening” (1 Peter 4:12). Trials test a Christian’s faith and prove it is “much more precious than gold that perishes even though it is proved by fire, that you may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revealing of Jesus” (1 Peter 1:7).
           In sufferings believers “fellowship in Christ’s sufferings” and ought to rejoice, for at the revelation of Jesus from heaven the faithful will stand and “rejoice with exceeding joy!” If a believer is “reproached for the name of Christ,” he is “blessed because the Spirit of the glory of God is resting upon him.” To suffer “as a Christian” is a great honor and glorifies God (1 Peter 3:14, 4:12-16).
          To endure suffering faithfully for the sake of the Gospel is “thankworthy with God.” Indeed, Christians have been called to this very thing “because Christ also suffered in our behalf, leaving behind a pattern that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).
          The Apostle Paul forewarned the Thessalonians that they would suffer tribulation, something to which they were “appointed” (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4). By faithfully enduring persecution they “became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus in Judea” that previously suffered persecution by non-believing Jews.
         Indeed, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Persecution and tribulation are the expected “norms” for the life of the disciple. If genuine persecution is rare or nonexistent, perhaps Christians ought to ask “why?” Something foundational may be missing from their call to be disciples.
          Jesus instructed his disciples to “rejoice and leap for joy” whenever “men hate you, and ostracize you, and profane you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22-23). Disciples reviled and persecuted for Christ’s sake should “rejoice and exult,” for their reward in Heaven is great (Matthew 5:10-12).
          Rather than complain or respond in kind to persecutors, disciples of Jesus are to rejoice and count their blessings when put upon for his sake. They will receive great rewards that more than compensate for temporary losses. To be selected by God to suffer for His kingdom is among the highest honors a Christian can hope to obtain.
          Christ’s disciples took this teaching to heart. When the Apostles were hauled before the Sanhedrin, beaten and ordered to cease and desist, rather than respond in anger or fear they went their way “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). The verb translated “counted worthy” is in the passive voice, signifying that someone else counted the apostles worthy to suffer, for God is the one who deemed them worthy to suffer for His kingdom.
          When Paul and Silas were beaten and shackled for preaching the Gospel, they did not despair or vent rage at their unjust punishment but spent the night “praying and singing hymns to God.” They rejoiced because they were counted worthy to suffer for the kingdom (Acts 16:23-25). Paul would later exhort the churches at Rome“to exult in your tribulations” (Romans 5:3).
         To the Philippians, Paul wrote not to be frightened by opponents of the Gospel. Their opposition was “a token of their destruction but also of your salvation from God.” Disciples have been “granted in behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for his sake” (Romans 1:28-29).
          The Greek verb rendered “granted” or charizomai is related to the word translated “grace” (charis). It means to “graciously give, grant as a favor, freely give, grant.” It is the same verb used in Romans 8:32: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?”
          Paul considered suffering for the Gospel not only a great honor but also a gracious gift from God. He equates it with the grace to believe that God grants to believers. Attitudes like this can only come from a heart enlightened by Jesus and God’s Spirit; they are contrary to the ways and wisdom of this world (1 Corinthians 1:17-25).
         The understanding of Christian suffering taught by Peter and Paul was derived from the teachings and example of Jesus. Jesus was and is the ultimate example of enduring unjust suffering in obedience to God (Philippians 2:6-11), an example and a paradigm of how to react to persecutors.
          Isaiah prophesied that God’s Suffering Servant would be “oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, Matthew 26:63, 27:12-14). He would not “wrangle or cry aloud, nor would anyone hear his voice in the streets; he would not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:19-20). This stands in sharp contrast to loud protests often raised today by Christians at the slightest perceived threat to their “rights.”
          Jesus exhorted disciples to “love their enemies, to pray for those who persecute them,” and to extend mercy to enemies. Mercy shown to foes is precisely how a disciple emulates the Heavenly Father and becomes perfect as He is (Matthew 5:38-48). This also contrasts with the indignation often expressed by Christians toward critics and opponents.
          Jesus was the only truly righteous man ever to live. If anyone deserved respect for “civil rights,” he did. But he came not to be honored but “to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Rather than assert his “rights,” in obedience to God he died a horrific death on our behalf, even when we were still “enemies” of God. This is the ultimate example of what it means to be a disciple (Romans 5:10).
          When an armed mob came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword and “smote the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear.” Jesus did the unexpected. Rather than join Peter in an act of self-defense, he rebuked the hot-tempered disciple and commanded him to sheathe his sword. He instead healed the man’s severed ear, one of the very men who came to arrest God’s righteous servant and His anointed king (John 18:10-12).
          Interrogated, beaten and reviled before the High Priest, Jesus reviled not in return (Matthew 27:39, Mark 15:32). When suffering on the cross Jesus prayed to his Father “to forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Though he suffered horrifically at the hands of evil men, Jesus “did not sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth, when reviled he did not revile in return, though suffering he did not threaten, but instead surrendered to Him that judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:22-23).
          In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul explained how “until this present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked and buffeted, and are wanderers and toil, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless, being persecuted, we hold on, being defamed, we beseech” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13). When evil is perpetrated against believers they must not respond in kind.
New Testament teachings on suffering are contrary to contemporary beliefs about inviolable “rights” that must be respected at all costs. The man who wishes to follow Jesus must daily “take up his cross and follow after him.”
          Refusal to do so is to be unworthy of Christ (Matthew 10:38). Rather than fight for one’s “rights” the true disciple must “deny himself, take up his cross” and follow the same path Jesus did (Matthew 16:24). Genuine self-denial is if anything the voluntary giving up of that which is a person’s by right. This includes the loss of property, liberty, and life itself.
          Reacting to persecution by rejoicing is not natural. When struck men instinctively strike back. The insistence that individual “rights” be respected, the instinct to go into self-defense mode when one’s “rights” are violated, is an attitude embedded in western culture. Nonetheless, it is contrary to scriptural teachings and the pattern set by Jesus.
          Christians are called to emulate him. Though contrary to this world’s wisdom, the true disciple is graciously granted the great privilege and honor to endure insults, hatred and even persecution on behalf of Jesus Christ. Protests, boycotts, insults and civil disobedience by Christians are diametrically opposed to what Jesus taught and did.
          Because Christians do not endure real persecution in democratic countries, they ought to consider whether they are being robbed of eternal rewards and honors from God. Put another way, we ought to ask why “we have not been counted worthy to suffer for his sake.”

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