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TEXT: I Peter 4:12-19
SUBJECT: Gospel Changes #56: Persecution
The subject of today's Bible reading is suffering for Christ. Peter begins by telling us that suffering is part of the Christian life, every believer's life, and that instead of resenting it or compromising our witness to avoid it, we ought to rejoice in it, because by sharing in the suffering of Christ, we will also have a share in His glory.
When suffering for Christ, we're tempted to feel forsaken by God, but argues the contrary: it is then that we're most attended by The Spirit of Glory and the Spirit of God.
When suffering takes the form of ridicule and exclusion, we're tempted to feel ashamed, but again, it ought to have the opposite effect, causing us to glorify God in this matter.
Now, of course, not all suffering is equally Christian. Suffering for Christ is something we ought to be proud of, but suffering for our own sins and stupidity? There's no glory in that--and we mustn't confuse the two.
Life before the Second Coming of Christ is not meant to be easy; it's a time of testing, and not everyone will get a passing grade. But, united to God through faith, we will pass the exam, and because our future is sure in Christ, we're urged to commit our souls to Him in doing good.
This is Peter's doctrine of Christian suffering, but he didn't make it up himself. Every line echoes what he heard from Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, and what he saw Him do on Mount Calvary.
Other than Jesus Himself, no one understood Christian suffering better than the Apostle Paul, who assumes that it's a necessary--and big--part of every believer's life. Some will suffer more, some less, but we've all got some to shoulder--
All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
We must though much tribulation enter the kingdom of God.
In his wonderful hymn, Am I a Soldier of the Cross, William Cowper mocks the fond hopes we all cherish--
Must I be carried through the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
and sailed through bloody seas?
I respect and sing the praises of Christians who suffer for God, but I'd rather reach Heaven by an easier route. Of course, there is no other route. God has predestined us--not only to salvation, but also to affliction (cf. I Thessalonians 3:3).
Compared to many places in the world, the persecution we're subject to is rather mild. In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim who converts to Christianity--or tries to convert another Muslim to it--has committed a capital crime, and, if convicted, will have his head cut off in public! Our friend, Jose Gandara, was put into a work camp in Cuba for the crime of being a Christian. Christian Jews are often refused the right to return to Israel. An Atheist Jew is welcome home, a Buddhist Jew is fine with the authorities, but not a Christian!
At the moment, you're not likely to have your head cut off for having a Bible on the dashboard of your pickup, or fired for praying over your lunch, or deported for going to church.
But, if you live a distinctly Christian life, some people won't like it. And some of them will make it hard on you. You might not get the promotion you were looking for. You might get left off the invitation list. Friends might start feeling awkward around you. Neighbors will talk about you behind your back. And unbelieving family members can be extremely mean and hateful and sarcastic.
The connection between the Christian life and persecution is not hard to spot. The reason the world hates or despises Christians is because it hates and despises Christ, in Whose Image we are being re-made. I John 3:1--
Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us that we should be called the children of God. Therefore, the world does not know us because it did not know Him .
God is not a vengeful Creator, taking pleasure in human suffering. He wants the best for us. But, because most people don't know Him, they mistake His good will for hatred and cruelty. His Law is like a fence to protect us. But they see it as a cage to trap us. His Gospel is proof of His Universal Love and mission to save the world, but they take it as narrow-minded thing, meant to exclude people from salvation.
They feel the same way about us. When I was a boy, serious Christians (like my parents) were sometimes called fanatics--for such 'extreme' behavior as going to church every Sunday and tithing!
Now, they're more likely to be called intolerant, judgmental, haters, busters. Why is this? Let's not kid ourselves: some of the criticism is true. But much of it isn't. By 'intolerant' they mean we believe there's a difference between right and wrong and between truth and untruth. Let the Christian state his views ever so delicately, if he affirms the differences, his intolerance will not be tolerated and his judgmentalism will be heavily judged. In some small way, the world treats us the way it treats our Father in Heaven--and not insofar as we're unlike Him (that deserves to be criticuzed) but insofar as we are like Him!
Nobody enjoys the persecution. To avoid it, we're tempted to trade in Christianity for 'niceness'; the offense of the cross for political correctness.
How do we stand strong for Christ?
The Law won't do it and neither will peer pressure.
Only the Gospel empowers us to be bright lights in a world that prefers the darkness. How? Here's what I thought of:
In the first place, the Gospel tells us what our persecutors are. Are they 'the bad guys'? Yes, they are. But they're not only that. They're also victims of the devil, about whom Paul says--
The god of this world has blinded their eyes, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ who is the Image of God should shine upon them.
Blind men should be pitied, and that's what the loud mouths against Christianity are--blind. The Law says, You shall not set a stumbling block before the blind or curse the deaf. But this is what we do when we return hate for hate, contempt for contempt, ugly words for ugly words.
In the second place, the Gospel tells us what our persecutors may become. Saul of Tarsus was the wickedest and most effective persecutor who ever lived. Until Jesus stopped his mad career and made the one time enemy of the church into most devoted friend. He saw his life as an example of Christ's mercy--and a pattern for those who would later believe.
The next time, you're tempted to mouth off at the lady at work who doesn't approve of you, or to sulk over her bad behavior, think of her as a future sister-in-Christ, and fellow saint in the Presence of the Lord.
In the third place, the Gospel reminds us of what we used to be. Hateful and hating others Paul says. We're no better than the people who mock at Christians; if God hadn't saved us, we might have been worse than they are. Remember that.
Most importantly, the Gospel enables us to accept persecution by its glory far outweighs the suffering. Few have lived lives harder than Paul's, but he called it--
This light affliction, which is but for a moment, working in him an eternal weight of glory.
So what if somebody snickers! Your sins are forgiven! So what if you don't get the promotion! God accepts you. So what if they cut your head off! You're going to Heaven!
We will never feel the insignificance of our suffering for Christ until we feel the significance of Christ Himself. And this is felt, only as we meditate on the Gospel.
The Gospel changes everything. Even persecution. Amen. Praise the Lord.
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