Christianity 201

February 11, 2019

Redeeming the Irredeemable

Today we’re back for the second time at across Awakened to Grace, which features the writing of Joy Bollinger. Click the title below to read at source and then explore other articles on her site.

January 26, 2017

Keep Calm and Carry On: The Letter to Smyrna

by Clarke Dixon

Convert to another religion, pay a heavy tax, or die? Which would you choose? This is a choice which many Christians have had to make as ISIS spread its evil. We do not face that kind of pressure in North America, but we do face subtle pressures that can gnaw away at our passion for Jesus. There is the pressure to choose materialism as a worldview. This is not materialism meaning a love of things, but a way of looking at the world that will not admit the supernatural. And if we will not be materialists, well then there is a pressure to affirm every religion as equally valid. Such pressures are subtle, but they are there.

Pressure on Christians is nothing new. In fact in our second letter of Revelation chapter two we read of a Christian community under pressure.

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. Revelation 2:8-11

What pressures are the Christians in Smyrna under? In the Roman way of doing things, emperor worship was expected, as was fitting into a society which had many beliefs and practices that went against the Christian way of life. Stick to your, or rather Christ’s, principles, and you could find yourself estranged from the majority, shunned as odd and stupid, and your business boycotted. This may be behind the reference to the Christians in Smyrna being in poverty in verse 9. As an aside, whenever we Christians are the majority, we do well to remember the “Golden Rule” of Jesus in the area of economic opportunities.

Due to some wise decisions from Rome, some religions could get a pass and be lawfully different, as happened at times for the Jews. But here is another side from which there is pressure against the Christians. The Roman officials often thought of Christians as being a sect of Judaism, and hence Christians could also enjoy some peace. However, if the Jews turned on the Christians, they could be out in the cold and would need to fend for themselves. That will not be easy when they consistently claim that “Jesus is Lord,” which means of course that Caesar is not. You can think of it this way; it is as if the Jews are travelling through Roman territory on a bus. They are allowed to do this safely so long as they remain on the bus and don’t disturb the locals. Some of the Jews on the bus realize that the driver of this bus is, and has been all along, Jesus, and so become Christ followers. Some don’t like that and throw the Christ followers off the bus. Actually they throw the Christ followers under the bus. This explains why at least some of the Jews in Smyrna are referred to in a not-so-nice way in verse 9: “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” These particular Jews are actively working against the God they profess to love and serve. So with pressure from Jews and Romans alike, what are the Christians to do? What are we to do with the pressures we might face today?

First, do not fear: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (verse 10). Fear has its tightest grip on us when we do not know what to expect. But we know what to expect.

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. . .” John 15:20

“Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Tim3:12

It should never surprise a Jesus follower when pressures come. It does not surprise God. He knows about it: “I know your affliction and your poverty” (verse 9)

Second, remain faithful: “Be faithful until death” (verse 10). Jesus gives us the example:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.  Philippians 2:5-8

Third, look to Jesus. He is described as “the first and the last” (verse 8). What a contrast between He who has all eternity in His hands and those who have their hands on the Christians for only “ten days” (verse 10). Whether we are to take those as being ten literal days or as symbolic of a set time, it is a limited, and very short time in comparison to eternity.

Looking to Jesus, we are also to know that He “was dead and came to life” (verse 8). If the Christians in Smyrna face death, they can know that Jesus faced it first. And remember how that turned out in the end!

Fourth, look to what lasts into eternity. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (verse 10). This is not the crown of a king or queen here, but the crown given in ancient times to victors in athletic games. Being killed for following Jesus is not the end of life, but the completion of a race. Celebrations come next.

Further: “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death” (verse 11). The second death refers to complete removal from the presence of God and the removal of all the blessings that come from His presence. While the Christians in Smyrna ought to be full of hope, their persecutors ought to be full of fear. We are reminded of the words of Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 

Fifth, be ready to die, not kill. While this is not stated explicitly, we should note that there is not a hint in this letter to Smyrna of “you will face incredible pressure, so get ready to fight.” In fact there is not a hint of this attitude anywhere in the New Testament. Being faithful to Jesus means dying, not killing. You might justify killing in the name of a nation; for example, killing for the common defence of people who could happen to be from all kinds of religious backgrounds. But violence in the name of Jesus, or for the sake of Christianity is not an option for the follower of Jesus. Where it has happened, there have been complexities around the forces of history and confusion around the separation of Church and State, or lack thereof. Jesus carried a cross and not a sword. He encourages the Christians in Smyrna to do likewise.

Is there an increasing pressure on Christians in Canada to be less passionate about Jesus? It is not the first time Christians have faced pressure. May we not fear, but instead remain faithful, looking to Jesus, looking to what lasts into eternity, and resisting every urge toward violence.

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)


Weekly C201 contributor Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Read today’s and other sermon summaries at his blog, or go directly to this article via this link.

November 23, 2015

The Suffering Church

Today’s thoughts are from a North Carolina author who came recommended to us. Matt Capps posted this sermon excerpt in September, but it seems even more timely with each passing day. There is a link to watch the sermon in full; click the image to read at source. (This is one of a series on The Church in Exile.)

Matt CappsThe Suffering of the Church (1 Peter 3:13-4:6)

This is an excerpt from a sermon I recently preached at Fairview Baptist Church. You can watch the whole thing online.

In John 17, Jesus prayed that the Father would protect his own from the evil one. But, he did not pray that we would be removed from this world, and by implication – the suffering of this world.

We will suffer in this life. Suffering is comprehensive, and is a no respecter of persons. While the Bible covers various ways to suffer in this life, this passage is specifically concerned with distinctively Christian suffering. In other words, suffering that may come to us precisely because we are Christians.

Suffering will drive us to our knees, and at the same time it can be a powerful reminder that Jesus is King. Through suffering God brings us to Himself. Consider the words of 1 Peter 3:13-15

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”

Peter is preparing the church, not just to endure suffering – but to find in their suffering an opportunity for witness.

You can imagine that some of the Christians in which this letter was first directed to had seen the suffering of their fellow believers, and fear of that suffering had the potential of halting their desire to publicly live out their faith.

But Peter responds with strange wording – “suffering brings about blessing”. When the world sees that you are – to use the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9:

  • Afflicted in every way, but not crushed.
  • Perplexed, but not driven to despair.
  • Persecuted, but not forsaken.
  • Struck down, but not destroyed.

They think, what is it with these people? What is this hope that is within them? This hope is a frame of mind achieved by setting apart – literally, sanctifying – Christ as Lord.

Our courage is born out of a belief that Christ is king even when things look hopeless. Moreover, in Christ we have a sure hope in the coming blessing. Hope is not wishful thinking, but true faith under pressure. Assurance of our future resurrection in Christ will not only give us courage and comfort, but will also put those who revile us to shame.

When you suffer, suffer with hope. This is the Blessing of Suffering for Christ. In suffering, we can find an opportunity for witness. In suffering, we also realize that God is bringing you to himself.

January 15, 2015

If Acts 9 Were Your Story, My Story

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This is an article that appeared in the summer at Persecution Blog, part of Voice of the Martyrs. I felt it important to share here. Click the title below to read at source:

November 9, 2014

Rejoicing in Persecution

 NIV I Peter 4:12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

This morning at church we observed the International Day of Persecution. When we think of some of the news stories we’ve been tracking in the last few years, even more so the last few months, and especially even in the last few weeks, it may seem odd that IDOP organizers chose the theme “Rejoicing in Hope.”  Rejoicing?  Here’s an explanation:

Rejoicing in Hope

Romans 5:1 – 5 

Through him, we have also obtained access by faith
into this grace in which we stand,
and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Today, Christians in regions of the world face some of the worst persecution in history. It is difficult for Canadians to imagine the day-to-day sufferings of those who live in countries where religious freedom is not regarded by their governments or neighbours. Imagine facing threats of false accusation and imprisonment, injury and harm to you or your family, attacks on businesses and homes, and even threats of death–all because of your faith in Christ?

Rejoicing in Hope IDOPHow do our brothers and sisters cope with such conditions? How can their faith remain strong when it costs them so much? God alone empowers them to do so. We are humbled and encouraged as we witness their courage and obedience.

Often we ask, “What can we do to help them?” What does God call us to do? We can be the tool He uses to encourage them through our prayers. Many are the testimonies from persecuted believers who say they find hope knowing that their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world raise a voice of prayer for them—praying that God give them strength and protect them. They find hope knowing that we have not forgotten them.

This year’s theme for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is: Rejoicing in Hope based on Romans 5:1-5.

“… We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

For every Christian, regardless of our circumstances, hope is found in the promise that one day we shall see Christ face-to-face. Knowing that death will not be the final word gives us great “Hope.” Ultimately, we shall see suffering replaced with rejoicing, and receive our greatest reward when Christ ushers us into eternal life with Him and says “Welcome home, my faithful servant.” For many of our persecuted brothers and sisters who are imprisoned or who constantly live under the threat of death this is their one focus—this is their “Hope.”

“… We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”

The world does not understand suffering the way a Christian believer does. “How can you rejoice?” they ask when faced with difficulty, hardship and persecution. We know that it is through our suffering that Christ promises to create in us his likeness—his traits of endurance, character and hope through the work of the Holy Spirit. Hearts honed and refined in the fire of suffering are deeply imprinted with his likeness, and understand how suffering is used in its development.

“… Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

The persecuted often ask that we pray for one thing specifically: that their hearts be filled with love for their persecutors. Loving our enemy as Christ loved us leaves a lasting testimony with those who hate the Christ in us and seek to harm us. Many have come to Christ in the face of this kind of inexplicable, undeniable, selfless Love. It is the stamp of the Holy Spirit on the heart of a believer, to love those who hate us, just as Christ loved us.

This year, we remember and identify with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering because of their devotion to him. We ask God to protect them and give them courage and perseverance in the face of harm or attack. And we open our hearts and dedicate ourselves to follow their example—to “Rejoice in Hope” in the midst of suffering. We ask that God’s Holy Spirit will do his work in the hearts of his children, to make us more like Christ.

John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 

September 22, 2012

Pray For Them, Yes; But Pray What Specifically?

NLT II Tim 3: 12 Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.

It was one of those big outdoor festivals in the late ’70s. The speaker was Larry Tomczak, and for the purpose of making a point that day he was deliberately misquoting scripture:

“Yes, and some who endeavor to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” 

Some?

No, it doesn’t say that. And people started yelling up what it does say from the crowd: “All, all, it says ‘all.'”

I never forgot that day, even to this day when I watched this

I had to be somewhere, but I had a few minutes in the car, and I immediately fell into a familiar pattern, “Lord, I pray for the people suffering under religious oppression right now that you would deliver — “

And then I stopped.

Deliver them? That’s the typical North American or Western European response. Get me the heck out of here.

But when you talk to people who have dealt with religious persecution that can mean torture, imprisonment or death, they never ask that we pray for deliverance, but that God would give them the grace to endure it and the presence of His Holy Spirit in the middle of it.

Psalm 23 talks about going through tough circumstances:

MSG Ps. 23: 4a Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.

Our interpretation is “Even though I walk around the valley of the shadow of death…” 

To which the crowd should yell out, “Through, through, it says ‘go through.’

June 3, 2012

The Great Empowerment for The Great Commission as Prayer Pattern

Okay, a long title today…

Acts 1:8 NLT But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Growing up in Toronto, Canada in Sunday School, our teachers tried to make this somewhat applicable by changing it to, “You will be witnesses… in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the uttermost parts of the earth.”  If you grew up in Chicago, it would be “…in Chicago, in Illinois, in the United States, and the farthest parts of the world.”  Then they would draw concentric circles showing the geographic destinations; and perhaps, maybe in the upper grades, a more astute teacher would reconfigure the verse to suggest that the first destination is the people only you can reach: Your immediate and extended family, your neighbor, your co-worker, your friend.

But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the verse wouldn’t be interpreted that way by the audience that heard it spoken.  Samaria, would mean the place you don’t want to go to.

But Samaria would not be seen that way by those receiving the great commission. In Judea they will like me and receive but in Samaria we have a mutual distrust and dislike for each other. Samaria is the place you don’t want to go to. Your Samaria may be geographically intertwined in your Jerusalem or your Judea. Your Samaria may be at the remotest part the earth and it’s your Samaria because it’s at the ends of the earth.

Your Samaria may be the guy in the next cubicle that you just don’t want to talk to about your faith, but feel a strong conviction both that you need to and he needs you to. Your Samaria may be the next door neighbor whose dogs run all over your lawn doing things that dogs do. Your Samaria may be the family that runs the convenience store where you rent DVDs who are of a faith background that you associate with hatred and violence. Your Samaria may be atheists, abortionists, gays, or just simply people who are on the opposite side of the fence politically. Your Samaritan might just be someone who was sitting across the aisle in Church this weekend.

[At this point I’m reminded of the tongue-in-cheek Scott Wesley Brown song, Please Don’t Send Me To Africa.]

…This morning however it occurred to me that there is a place where it would be appropriate to use the concentric circles: In our prayer lives. Most of our prayer petitions are so centered on our family; I believe the phrase is “Us four, no more.”

We need to make the needs of the greater world part of our prayer life.  I want to use the phrase, we need to “pray big,” but Will Davis has already used that phrase for his series of books.  Here’s the publisher’s precis of the first book:

Do we test the Holy Spirit’s patience with prayer that asks nothing of him? This might sound surprising at first blush, but most people have experienced being at a prayer meeting, in church, or (gasp!) in their own personal prayer time and hearing prayers like this: “God, bless Tom” or “God, just be with Sue in her need.” Will Davis Jr… calls believers to a more risky and rewarding practice of prayer. Pray Big teaches readers how to pray with biblical, pinpoint accuracy. In other words, it teaches them prayers that get things done. From audacious prayers for miracles to mundane prayers about lost car keys, Davis takes the reader from a point of weakness to one of boldness. As a result, readers will want to pray more, they will see more results from their prayers, and they will be emboldened to ask God for everything he has promised them.

There have been several recent books written about “praying big,” and I’ve referred to three of them on this blog and at Thinking out Loud:  Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick, The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson, and Spirit Rising by Jim Cymbala.

But as important as it is to ask God to increase our faith, I think we need to think about the concentric circles and pray wide.  (Or for you American football players, pray long.)  We need to take the verse above from Acts, the verse that tells us we will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the command to “go into all the world and share the gospel;” and use its geographic model — JJSR, where R=rest of the world — and use it as our prayer pattern.

I’ll be the first to admit that we struggle with this as a family, but help is available through websites that will keep us abreast of what’s going on in areas of hunger and persecution.

We need to broaden our prayer horizons.  We need to pray wide.

~Paul Wilkinson

April 15, 2011

Remember the Persecuted

This is an edited version of a post by Stephen and Brooksyne at Daily Encouragement which I strongly suggest you read in its original form.

“But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them” (Mark 13:9).  “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).

Persecution has long been a part of the life of the church practically from the beginning, though it’s difficult for many of us to identify with our persecuted brethren around the world.  This is especially true if we live in free countries where we haven’t yet experienced persecution. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember”. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). I have memorized this verse and I earnestly desire that God would help me to live in daily prayerful remembrance and intercession for my persecuted brothers and sisters. Frankly, the Holy Spirit convicts me in this regard that I am not more concerned and moved by their plight.

I am thankful for “prison ministries” and we normally use that title to describe ministry to those imprisoned for crimes they have committed, but this is not what the writer of Hebrews had in mind in this text.  He is surely speaking of those who were imprisoned specifically due to their obedience to Jesus Christ.  In many countries of the world this is still happening today.  Just yesterday I read about 200 Christians who were rounded up and imprisoned for their faith. Scripturally, we are called to remember them.

We are also to remember those “mistreated”.  In my judgment the NIV uses far too mild a word here.  The KJV states “suffer adversity” and the literal Greek word “kakoucheo” means “torment.”  It is used only one other time in the entire NT, also in Hebrews referring to persecuted believers through the ages, “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented.  The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:37,38).

Imagine with me being in the early church when Hebrews 13:3 was first read. You intently listen as your pastor solemnly reads the letter from the esteemed apostle.  A short time before this you had heard this exhortation, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). You look around and note not only those present, but those who are missing. No, they’re not at a game or the mall or sitting home reading the Sunday cartoons. They’re not even sick.

You look around and see Martha and her children.  Her husband is imprisoned for his faith. You look over and see James whose tongue has been cut out attempting to silence the gospel message that fell from his lips.  Jude is missing; his whereabouts unknown but many suspect he was killed.

You really have no problem identifying with the missing since you know you could be next.  The cost of being a disciple of Jesus is very great.  The sense of the call to “remember” is not that they had forgotten but a solemn reminder of the cost of discipleship. This is a present tense experience for many. I merely consider the brutal treatment of believers in Saudi Arabia and so many places in the world especially where the Muslim religion dominates.

One of the most gratifying aspects of this online writing ministry is the ability to share a message of hope and encouragement with those in spiritual isolation. We regularly get email replies from readers all over the world. We recall a message from a believer living in one of the most notoriously oppressive countries of all. In his email he shared how he had made a soundproof room so he could pray. Most of us cannot imagine living under such danger and confinement.

When the letter to the Hebrews was written very likely the recipients actually knew someone undergoing persecution.  Perhaps they could put a family member’s face on the suffering or had even suffered themselves.  Few of us reading this Scripture passage can identify with the writer, but the early church surely could.  Paul wrote many of his letters from prison.  He recounts his sufferings in some detail in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.  The early church watched and wept as the budding preacher Stephen was stoned.  They grieved when James was put to death with the sword.  Persecution did not stop with the closing of the apostolic age.  It actually intensified at times and one of the most severe times was early in the fourth century.

All throughout the church’s history our fellow believers have endured persecution.  The 20th century is considered to be the most severe in terms of sheer numbers.  And now, early into the 21st century, it seems that this persecution is intensifying even more.

Let us pray and “remember”.  We are called to seek to identify with these believers, “as bound with them” and “as being yourselves also in the body.” As I seek to identify I consider the unwavering faith required if I were to face persecution and even execution as I persevere in my profession of faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord.

Stephen & Brooksyne Weber

December 3, 2010

Great News! Tim’s Out of Jail!

Today’s post, from Jon Swanson at the blog, 300 Words a Day, is a reminder of how the Bible never ceases to reveal itself to be a living book, with so many details awaiting our consideration!

That’s really good news, right? That Timothy was released from jail?

Of course,  many people have known that for a really long time. In fact, as long as people have been reading the book of Hebrews, they have known that Timothy is out of jail and is on his way somewhere.

I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. (Hebrews 13:23)

I, on the other hand, did not know that he had been released. Truth be told, I never knew that he had been arrested. I had no idea.

I knew, of course, that when Paul, who had mentored Timothy, wrote one of his instructional letters to Timothy, he reminded Timothy of all that they had been through. Paul said,

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:10-13)

I knew that, but I had never noticed that Timothy, apparently, had been through the whole process himself.

Why am I making such a big deal of Timothy’s release? A couple reasons.

1. Because I’ve spent some time reading the Bible, talking about it, teaching it. For all I know, I’ve probably taught some or all of Hebrews. And yet, there are things that I just haven’t noticed.

2. Because once noticed, this little observation connects with and fleshes out a picture of Timothy that I hadn’t thought about before.

There is a lot, I’m discovering, that I have to learn about what’s written here…

~  Jon Swanson

 

The persecution and suffering of those who took a stand for Christ wasn’t limited to just Paul and a few others, but perhaps was more common to the entire early church.