Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How Should We Live When Suffering for Christ (Part 2 of 6)

I am not a prophet. Nor do I play one on TV. But I truly believe that a time is coming, and is already on its way, when it will actually cost something to be a Christian in the United States.

During last week’s message (I think it was during the second service.), while sharing the Law and the Gospel, I quoted a verse in which we are told that the effeminate and homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Do you realize that I could be arrested for citing that verse in certain places around the world? Do you realize that there are people in the United States who are trying to enact laws that would make the mere mention of such verses from a pulpit a criminal offense?

If you are expecting the world to get better before Christ’s return, if you are expecting our country to return to its Christian roots before the Lord returns, if you are expecting a day to come when an unbelieving world will accept us as followers of Jesus Christ and treat us well; then I must lovingly tell you this. You are thinking foolishly and you misunderstand what the Bible teaches about the times leading up to Christ’s imminent return.

It is not with an ounce of pessimism that I say this. The world is not going to get better. It will only continue to get worse. Society will continue to strive toward and embrace every form of depravity. The name of God will continue to be maligned. The ruling authorities will continue to work toward eliminating the mention of Christ from the public discourse. And here, in the United States, it will eventually cost something to be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.

Frankly, I look forward to that time. I pray for the persecution of the American Church. Why? I pray this way because it will be as a result of fiery trials and persecution that pretenders in the church (false converts), from the pulpit to the pew, will be burned away. Like the smelting process in which intense heat causes impurities to rise to the surface so that they can be skimmed away, persecution will reveal the false converts in our midst. They will skim themselves away as they leave the church, denying Christ in order to avoid discomfort, leaving only the authentic and purified Body of Christ.

Not only should Christians not be surprised when suffering brought on by persecution comes their way, but they also should not see it as something strange, foreign, or out of the ordinary. If we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are truly proclaiming the Law and the Gospel and are setting ourselves apart from the rest of the world by refusing to participate in anything in which we would be embarrassed to participate if Jesus were standing or sitting next to us, then, according to God’s Word, being on the receiving end of the animosity and disdain of unbelievers is inevitable and should come as no surprise to us.

Nestled between these two seemingly difficult commands is an explanation that, at first glance, may appear negative. But it’s not. It should bring us comfort and confidence in our Lord. Peter writes: “ . . . which comes upon you for your testing.”

Why should we not be surprised when persecution comes? Why should we not look at persecution for our faith in Christ as a strange thing? It is because we should see persecution as a necessary test of our faith from a loving God.

Listen to the Word of God.

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” ~ Romans 5:3-9

“But you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me! And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” ~ 2 Timothy 3:10-12

Live With an Attitude of Authentic Joy
In light of the reality that persecution will come to those who are genuine followers of Jesus Christ and who are openly living and proclaiming a life redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, how should we live? Well, for one, we should live with an attitude of authentic joy.

Peter writes in verse 13 and 14 of our passage: “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

Jesus’ half-brother, James, affirms in his letter what Peter says in these two verses.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing . . . Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” ~ James 1:2-4, 12

Peter begins verse 13 with an interesting phrase: “But to the degree.” What Peter is doing with this phrase is helping his readers to understand that their level of faithfulness here, on earth, in the face of real persecution and suffering, will have a direct impact on the eternal rewards they will enjoy in heaven. Minimal faithfulness equals minimal, eternal reward.

It’s important to note that Peter is not at all referring to salvation. Enduring persecution saves no one. But those who are truly born again followers of Jesus Christ will enjoy greater rewards in heaven if they prove (to God, not to themselves) to be faithful servants of the Lord, regardless of the personal, earthly cost.

Peter then goes on to qualify that first phrase in verse 13 by writing, “that you share the sufferings of Christ.” Simply put, to the extent that the Christian experiences the same kind of persecution and suffering Jesus Christ endured on earth, their faithfulness will be rewarded when they reach heaven.

Again, Peter learned this from the greatest of teachers—his master, his Lord, his Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus said:

"If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” ~ John 15:18-21

I think many Christians are confused on this point, particularly in the United States. Because, by and large, most American Christians have never truly experienced persecution, they wrongly define the term. Real persecution, in the name of Christ, will be the kind of persecution Jesus actually experienced during his earthly ministry.

Remember, Peter used the word “degree” at the beginning of verse 13. Not every follower of Jesus Christ will be called to suffer as Christ did during His passion. Not every follower of Jesus Christ will be called to suffer to the point of death, for his or her faith in Jesus Christ. But Peter wants to make sure that his Christian readers had a right understanding of what persecution is.

If you are experiencing, or if you ever do experience real persecution, what you are experiencing or will experience is or will, to a degree, resemble the suffering Jesus experienced. Jesus suffered ridicule, slander, false accusations, threats of violence, actual physical violence, unjust punishment, and death. He suffered these things because of what He said about Himself. This is very important. He suffered because of what He said. He claimed to be God. He did not claim to merely be a prophet, a good teacher, or a good man. He did not claim to be an earthly, governmental or military king. He claimed to be the King of kings and Lord of lords. And He accepted and received the worship of the people.

The reason most Christians in America have difficulty defining biblical persecution is because they have never experienced biblical persecution. And the reason they have never experienced any degree of biblical persecution is this. They have never said anything—in the face of ridicule, slander, false accusations, threats of violence, actual physical violence, unjust punishment, and death—that would bring about such persecution.

If the statistics are true, statistics that tell us that more than 90% of those who profess to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior have never shared the gospel with anyone, then the reason why most American Christians have never experienced the kind of persecution Jesus endured and the kind of persecution many Christians in other parts of the world presently endure should be obvious.

Sadly, too many American Christians are sinfully keeping their mouths shut and are not proclaiming the Law and the Gospel because they know that if they do it might cost them something. Sadder still, more often than not, the cost they are counting is not the cost that Jesus, His disciples, and many Christians around the world have paid over the last two thousand years. What they count as the cost is nothing more than the cost of inconvenience and comfort. Maybe they say to themselves, “If I speak up or speak out for the Lord Jesus Christ, if I make a stand or actually live as Christ would have me live, people might not like me, or I might have to find another way to entertain myself. That’s too high a price to pay. After all, when push comes to shove, my happiness in this life is more important than living a holy and blameless life before Almighty God.”

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