Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How Should We Live When Suffering for Christ (Part 1 of 6)

The following is the unedited text (in six parts) for a sermon I will preach this Sunday.

Last week we looked at Peter’s encouragement and instruction regarding how we should live in light of Christ’s imminent return. In doing so, we considered what the Christian’s perspective, duty, and goal should be as he or she anticipates the Lord’s return, which can come at any moment.

This morning, as we study 1 Peter 4:12-19, we will try to answer the question of how we should live when suffering for Christ. I enter into this message and this subject fully aware that many of the concepts we will discuss this morning are utterly foreign to the vast majority of American Christians. We do not define suffering the way Christians do in most parts of this sin-stained world. I believe many (not all) American Christians have a rather shallow, self-centered, privileged, even wimpy view of Christian suffering.

Now, this is not to say that maybe many of you here this morning have not suffered in various ways. The likelihood is that at least some of you have suffered physically and emotionally at sometime in your life. Many of you have suffered personal loss, having experienced the death of a friend or loved one. Some of you may have lost a job during your life because of unfair treatment by a co-worker or employer.

Nothing I say this morning will minimize or trivialize these kinds of suffering. But our focus this morning is going to be on a different kind of suffering. This morning we are going to focus all of our attention on suffering real persecution as a result of living a life and speaking truth that brings attention, honor, and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Why do most American Christians not face this kind of persecution (at least not yet)? The reason is that they don’t live their lives or open their mouths in such away as to bring about the rancor and negative attention of a lost and dying, Christ-denying world. Most American Christians pose no threat to this present society’s sinful, headlong, downward spiral because they are not living lives that are truly set apart for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Since those of us here who profess to have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ should be living lives that bring glory to Christ, we should continue to live in such a way, even in the face of the worst kinds of persecution. So, how should we live when suffering for Christ?

For one, we should not be surprised when persecution and suffering comes our way. We should live with an attitude of authentic joy, seeing the suffering as a blessing from God. We should continually practice self-examination to make sure our suffering is a result of right Christian living and not a result of the sin in our lives. And, we should commend ourselves to the wonderful, matchless care of God.

Don’t Be Surprised When Persecution Comes
Let’s begin by taking a look at the very first word Peter utters in this morning’s passage. He refers to his readers as “beloved.” This word “beloved” comes from a Greek word we talked about last week—agape. Peter used the word “beloved” earlier in his letter. In 1 Peter 2:11 we read: “Beloved, I urge you as strangers and aliens to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.”

Before Peter launches into yet another difficult teaching, he reassures his readers that what he is about to say to them, he says with a deep, “other-minded,” abiding, sacrificial love for them. He assures them that he loves them with a genuine, Christ-like love. Every word Peter pens in this passage is underlined with a love that is motivated by a sincere desire to seek God’s very best for his readers—his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Having reaffirmed and asserted his love for his readers, he immediately gives them a command. He tells them not to be surprised at the fiery ordeal among them. Peter’s words are somewhat prophetic. It is likely that Peter wrote this letter not long before the Emperor Nero began his brutal persecution of Christians, throughout the Roman Empire. A particularly gruesome and evil aspect of the persecution is Nero’s use of live Christians as human torches to light his gardens at night.

Peter’s message is, sadly, opposite of what many Christians will hear from pulpits in America. Today, millions of Americans are being told that they should be surprised if they suffer for the name of Christ. They are being told that if they do suffer it is because they lack faith. They are being told that instead of expecting times of suffering, they should expect God to abundantly bless them with their every desire—with health, wealth, and prosperity. Such false teachers are crippling Christians, not only in the United States, but also around the world—particularly Christians on the African continent.

Ten-Four Ministries supports a missionary and evangelist in Liberia. His name is John Wright. John has told me, on several occasions, that itinerant preachers, pushing an unbiblical “health, wealth, and prosperity” message are literally robbing the people in his country—taking their money while leaving them with false hope.

Since Christians are being told to expect health, wealth, and prosperity; since Christian are being told to expect their best life now; is it any wonder that they avoid suffering at any cost? And the best way to avoid the suffering that comes as a result of persecution is to keep your mouth shut about Jesus Christ and to do whatever you can to blend in with a fallen, sin-stained world. Sadly, Christians, particularly in America, have become quite good at this.

Again, Peter does not simply suggest that his readers ought not be surprised when they face fiery trials. He commands them not to be surprised. Why? It is because if they are truly living sold-out, unashamed, authentic, joyful lives for Christ, they should expect a negative reaction from an unbelieving world. Peter could make such a loving demand of his readers because it is what he was taught by His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus taught Peter this:

“From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’

“But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's.’

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” ~ Matthew 16:21-26

Jesus also taught Peter this:

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets.

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” ~ Luke 6:22-28

And let’s not forget what Peter wrote earlier in verse four of this chapter. “In all this, they [unbelievers] are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). The word “malign” is translated from the Greek word blasphemeo. The word literally means to blaspheme, to slander or defame someone, to speak evil of them.

John MacArthur adds:

“Ancient sources, both Christian and non-Christian, provide ample evidence that it was Christians’ reluctance to participate in many conventionally accepted amusements and ungodly civic ceremonies, and their refusal to engage in idolatrous, immoral functions that caused unbelievers to hate and revile them. That led to unjust persecution and suffering for righteousness sake.”[1]

Peter does not mince words, here. The trial Peter is talking about, the persecution to which Peter is referring, will, at times, make you feel like you are being burned alive. The Greek word translated as “fiery” was also used to describe the smelting process, in which metals are repeatedly melted and skimmed in order to remove impurities.

Trust me, if you are boldly proclaiming the Law and the Gospel, and if you try to live your life in such a way as to make no effort to be a “closet Christian,” there are times when you are going to feel the heat.

[1] MacArthur, John Jr: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary—1 Peter. Chicago : Moody Publishers., 2004, pp. 229-30.

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