Why It Is Important to Identify with the Persecuted Church: 3 More Reasons


In my prior blog post, I noted that there are at least 5 reasons all Christians should identify with persecution. First, the New Testament says that all Christians will be persecuted, and the persecution could take several different forms, from the mild mocking and name-calling to the more severe imprisonment and execution. Second, Christians are united in one body. Thus, attempts to distinguish between those who are “really” persecuted and those who are not introduce artificial division in the body of Christ.

All Christians Face PersecutionThis leads to the third reason all Christians ought to identify with persecution: Unity in the body of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, there is a constant urging for Christians to live in unity. Jesus famously prayed for us all to be one (John 17:19-20ff.). In John 17:23, He asks the Father to perfect us in unity so the world might know the reality of His appearing.

Christians who have the Spirit of Christ have also a longing for unity within the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul manifested this reality to the church at Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul urged the Ephesians to preserve the unity of the Spirit. He continued further to say that the work of the church is directed toward building up the body of Christ “until we all attain the unity of the faith.”

On this basis of unity within the body of Christ, the writer of Hebrews commands Christians to “Remember the [persecuted] prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body” (13:3).  The connection between persecution and the unity of the body of Christ is unmistakable. It is as plain as it is well-pictured by the human body itself. If you have a leg injury, it impacts your entire body. Drop a 10 lb. weight on the little toe of your left foot, and your entire body will respond accordingly (even if not appropriately).

So it is supposed to work within the body of Christ. There is a unity of the body which insists that the persecuted be noticed—that they be “remembered” as though we were actually in the prison cell with them. We are commanded always to identify with suffering saints in unity within the body of Christ.

Fourth, Christ is present in the midst of the persecuted—and what Christian does not long to be where Christ is? Christ, of course, is always present with His people, but the New Testament emphasizes several occasions in which Christ distinctly promises to be in the very midst of His gathered people. Christ promises His presence when His people gather together to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:20). He is present when His people gather to worship (1Corinthians 14:25). He is present when His people are making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20). He is present when His people minister to other Christians in need (Matthew 25:40, 45). And He is present when His people are suffering persecution.

Consider the conversion story of Saul. In Acts 9, Saul—breathing threats and seeking vengeance against followers of Christ—is suddenly confronted on the Damascus Road with the reality of the living Christ. When Christ appears to Saul, He asks him a curious question:

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?

Notice, the Lord does not ask why Saul is persecuting the church or my people. Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting Me?”  Jaroslav Pelikan explains it this way,

“Saul—together with the long line of his descendants—may have supposed that he was attacking the miserable adherents of a wretched fringe movement (14:22); but here the ultimate target of the rage and the violence (28:31) identified himself as none less than ‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

Christ is clearly one with His suffering saints. Our Lord undoubtedly cares for all humankind, but He must hold particular affection for His very own children who are harshly abused for the simple reason that they belong to Him. The martyred saints have no problem making the connection. In Revelation 6, martyred saints are pictured as being in the presence of Christ crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

And the answer they are given, apparently, is that the Lord will indeed avenge their blood on the heads of those who persecuted them, but He must first wait until the full number of martyrs is complete. One gets the sense from Revelation 6:11 that the reigns of history are at least partially held in reserve until an appointed persecution is complete. At which time, Christ will free His white horses to ride upon the clouds descending upon the earth to exact perfect justice against those who opposed Him by persecuting His body (Revelation 19). What Glory!

Finally, the fifth reason all Christians ought to identify with the persecuted is that the persecuted are blessed people! According to the New Testament, the kingdom belongs to the impoverished and the persecuted (see the first and eighth Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3, 10). Does it sound strange to call persecution a blessing?

It’s a strange and hard thought for my American Christian ears to hear, but it is true nonetheless that persecution is considered a blessing in the New Testament.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your China Christians persecuted persecution blessing matthew 5reward in heaven is great for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (James 1:2).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 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.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Failure to identify with the persecuted represents a failure to recognize the blessed life in Christ. Surely, more than a few health-and-wealth, prosperity prophets have hauled in tons of followers and loads of cash by promising their hearers a “blessed” life. We know how wrong such preaching is, but are we altogether right about what it means to be blessed on Jesus’s terms?

Identifying with persecution may help us realize what abundant life really is as promised by our Lord. Don’t all Christians long for the abundant life Jesus said He came to give? Somehow, that abundant life includes both persecution and blessing. May the Lord grant us faith to embrace and receive all that He has to offer us.

Making Unity Stick in the Church Body


I am not a fan of preaching that calls for people to chant or clap or do certain things to prove that they are listening. However, I understand that such interactive responses can be helpful to make a message stick and to keep the audience engaged. Maybe it’s a personal preference issue, or maybe there is biblical, theological warrant for my concern. Either way, I am not personally comfortable with interactive gimmicks during the Sunday sermon.

sticky sermon activity unity illustrationI do understand, however, that there are occasions for preaching and teaching which allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience. Classroom settings, Wednesday night Bible studies, or conference sessions could be places that allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience.

For those worried about the charge of being unbiblical for using interactivity as a vehicle for communication, I would encourage a quick review of the prophets—especially Ezekiel. The writer of Hebrews may have had Ezekiel in mind when he opened his great letter by saying in former days God spoke through the prophets in many portions and in many ways. Surely, God spoke through Ezekiel in some bizarre ways.

Ezekiel had to act out the siege of Jerusalem. He had to pack a bag and go on a trip to demonstrate the reality of Judah’s upcoming Exile. He was required to bind himself with ropes to teach the people of their impending bondage. He was required to bake his bread over a flame fueled by dung in order to demonstrate the poverty awaiting God’s people. There is no lack of dramatic flair in the book of Ezekiel. The message for God’s people was severe. Drastic measures had to be taken to make the point plain. For Ezekiel, this meant drama and interacting with the people in unconventional ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Ezekiel gives us warrant to do whatever we want in a worship service. There are limits and parameters to pulpit activities. Again, I am not advocating lying forty days on your side with your arm bared before your people the way Ezekiel had to do it, but I am saying in some contexts it may be appropriate to “act out” a part of your message or to introduce an easy activity to make your point plain to your people. Allow me to offer an example.

In a particular message on a Wednesday night, I was hoping to get across the point that we too often fall prey to comparing ourselves with others and, thus, judging one another with human motives rather than seeing one another as God sees us. That point can be made from several different places in the New Testament (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:1-4; Romans 15:1ff.).

On this particular occasion, I was teaching from Ephesians 2, that great passage in which Paul exalts the unifying power of Christ, who is able to break down all the barriers and dividing walls that we artificially overstate. To feed our fleshly pride and pretend that we are superior to others, we proudly build walls of division around educational levels, annual income, managerial rank, neighborhood of residence, color of skin, or type of music. We separate based on whether we like motorcycles, bull-riding, or beer drinking. The sinful human heart can build a wall out of just about anything.

In Ephesus, there was still a problem of wall-building in this predominately Gentile church. Paul reminds them (2:11-12) that there was a time they were excluded—until Christ obliterated the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. On the basis of Christ’s work, the church at Ephesus could reasonably expect to dwell in unity with all believers—regardless of ethnic heritage (4:1-6).  My dilemma in light of this great instruction was how to make this truth stick with us after the message ended. Here is what I decided to do.

I had everyone stand up and look around them—particularly noticing all the differences in the congregation gathered. Some folks were tall; others were short. Some had on very nice clothes, others rags. Some folks had white skin, others black or brown. Some folks were old, while others were young. There were gray-haired folks with brown eyes; brown-haired folks with blue eyes; and blond-haired people with green eyes. A few of the people had red hair with either blue or hazel eyes.

All the distinctions were noticeable and very real. We could have divided into groups if we had so desired. But, of course, that was not our desire. The desire we were pursuing was the desire to be united in such diversity. How could this diverse group of people see themselves as one body? How could we help but notice all the differences?

After folks had enough time to notice all these differences, I asked them first whether they noticed any differences within the congregation. Of course, everyone noticed a great many differences. Second, I asked them to imagine this same group of people assembled outside in the parking lot.  Then, I asked the group to imagine what differences would be visible from a jet flying overhead.

Our congregation was situated such that, on occasion, jets flying to the airport made their landing approach just overhead. From one sticky sermon illustration unity one faithof those jets, all the people in the parking lot looked the same—more like ants than humans. The truth is, from high above everyone looks the same. The variances which we think make us so different from one another are barely visible from the window of a jet.

If we can see such a radically different perspective from the window of a jet at 30,000 feet, how much more can God see a different perspective from heaven above!  What this interactive illustration demonstrates is that we overplay distinctions between us when we maintain a merely human perspective on life. If we somehow could see ourselves the way God is able to see us from an eternal, divine perspective, we would likely see the barriers and dividing walls broken down.

This idea is captured in a ministry of which I am aware called Vision Beyond Borders. The ministry focuses attention on needy people abroad, stating that Christ’s view from the cross was a vision beyond borders. We artificially accept the boundaries built by prejudice and by practical political concerns, while Christ died with a view of saving people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The New Testament encourages us to be leaders in breaking down the artificial walls which tend to rob us of fellowship with other sinners saved by grace.

When I had the people sit down again, I did so with the reminder that even sitting down causes some of the distinctions to diminish (height for instance is not as noticeable while seated). The main point of the illustration—a point which was cemented by the interactive illustration—was that the distance between us is major only when we fixate on ourselves. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, we get a different view altogether. The distinction between us and Christ far exceeds any distinction we notice between ourselves in our pews. Christ is highly exalted—the name above all names, the one seated at the right hand of God. If our attention and affection remains focused on Him, then our barriers and divisions will begin to disappear, proving to have been no more durable than the morning fog which dissipates under the heat and light of the rising sun.

One Nation Under God


The official motto of the United States is more than lip service to ward off the wrath from a potentially vengeful god.  The motto is what I would call a fence, a paradigm for the existence of human institutions and the humanity benefitting from them.  This point—the significance of a corporate, unified belief in the supremacy of the God of the Bible—is underscored this week by Dr. R. Albert Mohler’s response to the cover article from Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. 

 

In his reply, Dr. Mohler points out that the idea of freedom of conscience depends on a greater reality than man if the concept is to mean anything.  Mr. Meacham had argued that America’s unifying force is not any specific faith; rather, the unifying force was a commitment to freedom, particularly including freedom of conscience.  Yet, the bare notion of freedom is insufficient.  On what grounds might one claim to have the right to freedom?  Why not rather assume one has the right to exercise freedom so long as his freedom does not undermine the well-being of the state?  Indeed, is it not the case that freedom is able to exist only insofar as its limits are understood?

 

For example, one may be free to play football.  In his playing football, he is free to run as fast and as far as he wishes.  However, there are other free players on the field, too, who wish to stop him.  Not only that, there is a prescribed area in which the player must run, or he is ruled out of bounds and his play is stopped, along with his freedom to run the football.  The player would not be free to play football if there were no boundaries to the field.  Without sidelines and goal lines, football is not a possibility.  Without boundaries, we have no freedom.  To put it another way, unfettered freedom is nothing short of chaos.  No one has unrestrained freedom of conscience, nor should he.  For freedom to flourish, boundaries must exist.  Boundaries provide the rules of the game by which maximum freedom for the individual and the society is realized.  The question, then, is not whether there should be freedom of conscience, but who decides the boundaries of freedom in America?   

 

The wisdom du jour would have us believe that the boundaries must not be provided by God for this would artificially and prejudicially inject religion into an otherwise non-religious sphere of political machination.  Yet, is this the truth?  The founders—many of whom were not Christians—did not shun the God of the Bible in determining the contours of our freedom.  They referenced Him specifically in the declaration of our freedom—the Declaration of Independence. 

 

The founders of the United States understood that Christianity provided a foundation for freedom and conscience in a way that other religions (like Islam) could not.  As Dr. Mohler says, “Though the founders included those who rejected the Christian Gospel and Christianity itself, Christianity had provided the necessary underpinnings for the founders’ claims.”  Claims to freedom require foundations somewhere beyond the individual man or woman in order to avoid a disintegration of social order into mass chaos, where every man does what is right in his own eyes.  

 

Democratic freedom—the kind of freedom that comes from majority rule—will prove (as it has in the past) to minimize freedom and maximize tyranny.  If we are one nation under God, then there will be one God to whom all men must answer, regardless of rank, title, or power.  In other words, when an understandable and knowable God exists who judges all men impartially, then all men can be said to be under the authority of that God’s law ultimately.  Law and order is made possible by the Lawgiver and Orderer of all things—God, meaning the Judeo-Christian God.  Mr. Meacham and many like him are unwilling to yield this point, apparently thinking that if a nation allows God to stick his divine foot in the door, then soon he will own the house and enslave everybody within it.  Again, this is not at all the case.  Our gravest danger comes not from letting God in, but in keeping God out.  Do you doubt this?  {Part 2 still to come}

Cowboy Church


Ok, I am probably going to get in trouble with my family here, but I have to get this out in the open.  Even though my nephew (PBR professional bull rider) is a member of a cowboy church, I don’t think I like the idea of cowboy church.  Maybe that isn’t the right way to say it. 

I do like the fact (as this story reports) that people are coming to Christ who otherwise would not attend a worship service.  I also like the fact that people don’t feel they need to dress differently just to go to a worship service.  There is something genuine and real about the Marlboro man dropping his saddle and sitting with his boots on holding a Bible.  I like that; it is a masculine picture (something churches need more of, for sure).

However, I also grieve at how our churches are disintegrating like the culture around them.  As Christians, do we really have to subdivide into social groups?  Isn’t the gospel supposed to break down the barriers and the dividing walls?  Paul seems to think so in Ephesians 2.  The gospel is not smaller than “cowboy” or “generation X” or “generation Y.”  The gospel is larger than these social concepts.  What I think we should see is a bull rider, doctor, nanny, hispanic housewife, and black athlete all singing the same praise song to Jesus Christ at the same time.  O, for a thousand tongues to sing our great redeemer’s praise [all together, united, at the same time].