Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"I hold the keys"

Fear is a powerful thing. Recently I read a disturbing novel about a young missionary who traveled to Japan during the height of the brutal persecution of Christians that took place there in the early 16thcentury. Captured and thrown into prison, it is not the actual torture that causes this young man to contemplate giving up his faith, for his captors do not subject him to the unspeakably horrible suffering that he knows others have been tormented with or which he hears others experiencing outside of his cell. It is the fear of suffering that afflicts him and feeds his doubts. Eventually, he succumbs to his fear and renounces his faith.

The book of Revelation was written for believers facing the imminent threat of persecution. Some were already suffering for their faith; others knew that it was coming. Much of the persecution that Christians had faced prior to this time had been at the hands of mobs instigated by religious leaders. At times, the Roman government had actually served as an unintentional protector of Christians. But towards the end of Nero's reign, the Christians found themselves in tension with the political powers of the empire as the emperors made the decision to allow Christianity to be accused of being an illicit superstition and subject to state prosecution. This only deepened with the reign of Domitian, when Christianity came to be labelled not only an illicit religion but actual “atheism”.

When John received this revelation of Jesus, he was being punished for being a religious and political rebel. He had been deported to the island of Patmos "on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (1:9) and knew that the churches in Asia Minor for which he had oversight were also undergoing trials of varying degrees.

It is evident that Revelation was written to provide the churches with what they most needed: a revelation of who Jesus Christ is. God's priority is not so much to answer the questions that His people may have as to why they are persecuted as to give them a revelation of Himself. This is what they need most. In this final book of the Bible, Jesus is revealed as the one who is in the midst of the churches, as one who is in control of history and who will soon bring history to its conclusion. He reminds them that He, and not their persecutors, holds the keys to death and Hades (1:18). In 1:12-16, we read, “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp stands, and in the midst of the lamp stands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

High priestly, kingly, divine, all-seeing, steadfast, awe-inspiring in power and eloquence, in control of the past, the present and the future, with power in His words and promises. And wonder of wonders, He turns His face, full of grace and glory, towards us, not to terrorize us but to free us so that we too can shine with His light.

This is the God who stands in the midst of His people in their day of trial. There is only one way to overcome: by having a clear vision of who Jesus is, rooted in His revelation of Himself. A Jesus conjured up in our own imagination, tailor-made for our own convenience or perceived needs will not do, only the Jesus who has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. Only this Jesus can raise us up and say, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1: 17-18).

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Understanding persecution from a biblical perspective

A helpful place to begin when trying to define persecution is to see how the term is used in the Scriptures themselves. The Greek and Hebrew words often translated as "persecute" typically carry a sense of serious violence, aggression and hostility or the threat of such. There is an intent to injure and is carried out in a hostile, antagonistic spirit. In such passages as Jer.29:18 and Ps. 71:11-13 to “persecute” carries with it the idea of "to follow after or pursue." The Greek word dioko and its derivatives used in the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 5:12; Acts 22:4; 1 Thess. 2:15) has virtually the identical meaning of "pursuing or driving away." The term thilipis, means to "oppress or afflict" (Matt. 24: 9; Acts 3:14; 2 Cor. 1:5; 4:10).

Word studies, however, serve best as a basis for further study rather than as the foundation for defining what persecution is.

A large part of the problem of defining persecution has to do with a common misunderstanding as what exactly it is. To many, persecution conjures up images of extreme violence, martyrdoms, imprisonments and torture. They think of what they imagine the early church went through or the church in the former Soviet Union. Immigrants to Canada think back to their own experience in their homeland and while they may have faced societal discrimination and the like, they took it in stride as everyone else did and saw it is just a part of life; unpleasant perhaps, maybe even annoying or slightly humiliating, but hardly persecution.

Two points need to be made:

First, it is worth remembering that persecution on a country-wide scale has been rare both now and throughout history. In most countries, violent persecution tends to be focused in specific, often remote, areas where religious tensions have been enflamed for one reason or another. Hence, believers in one city may never experience violence for their faith, while in another location Christians are being beaten and driven from their homes.

Second, persecution as a term needs to be understood in its biblical sense. Persecution in the Bible manifests itself within a broad spectrum ranging from mildly hostile to intensely hostile actions. These actions range from ridicule, restriction, certain kinds of harassment, or discrimination on one end of the spectrum to torture, imprisonment, ostracism, or killing on the other (see Matthew 6:11-12, Luke 6:22; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; James 1:2 and others.

persecution copy

Persecution, hence, from a biblical perspective, must be understood to encompass actions spanning the full range of hostility whether they are violent, physical, psychological, or social. We cannot define persecution strictly on the basis of the level of harm it might cause or the level of hostility in which it occurs. To do so would be inconsistent with Scripture. The issue that missions like The Voice of the Martyrs must consider is at what point on this spectrum do we see our involvement as necessary?

To summarize, we need to see persecution as the Bible sees it, within a wide spectrum of hostility. It need not involve violence, although it may. This is not to say that all persecution should be treated as equally grievous. Nor is all persecution a violation of our basic rights as a human being. To be despised, hated, and ridiculed is not a violation of one's rights, as unpleasant and unjust as these things are.

Significantly, understanding persecution in a biblical sense helps to include the Western Christian's experience in what it means to follow Jesus. Understanding persecution as only including violent acts often leads us to conclude that Western Christians are never persecuted, only those in the two-thirds world. Understanding persecution to include a wider spectrum of hostility makes it obvious that even Western Christians can and will experience persecution if they faithfully follow Christ, even if it is of a milder degree. The biblical passages on persecution then can become more meaningful for us and we can properly apply them to our present situation. For example, the various biblical texts that speak of rewards to those who were faithful in the face of persecution may seem out of reach to us if we understand persecution primarily as suffering violence for Jesus. With little opportunity to suffer in this way, how are we to ever receive these rewards? Understanding persecution in a broader sense makes these promises more applicable to us and should motivate us to greater faithfulness to God in the midst of our own situation.

Such an understanding of persecution should do nothing to cheapen the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. It should, however, help us to see the Body of Christ as one Body; not a Persecuted Church and a Free Church. We are all the Persecuted Church and our calling is to reach out and minister to those who are suffering violence and loss for Christ's sake since we are one Family. There is no need to prayer as to whether we should help our persecuted brothers and sisters. The question, if we are to be true to scripture, is not if we should help but how. If we are not suffering together, we are standing together with those who are suffering (Hebrews 10:32-34).

Hence, persecution might be best defined, from a scriptural perspective, as any unjust action by authorities, individuals, or crowds of varying levels of hostility perpetrated primarily on the basis of religion and directed at Christians, resulting in varying levels of harm (ranging from ridicule, restriction, certain kinds of harassment, or discrimination to torture, imprisonment, ostracism, murder, and execution) as it is considered from the victim’s perspective. (see Charles Tieszen, “Towards redefining persecution” International Journal for Religious Freedom Vol 1:1 2008: 76). Ronald Boyd-MacMillan suggests a similar (though simpler) definition: Christian persecution is any hostility experienced from the world, as a result of one's identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitude, words, or actions (from Faith That Endures. Revell, 2006: 114).

Persecution typically arises because of a difference that comes from being a Christian that the persecutor will not tolerate. When faced with situations where is difficult to determine whether this is a situation of persecution or general suffering, it is often helpful to ask, "If a person had other religious beliefs or would change their religion to the majority religion of the country, would things get better for them? Is this persecution or group specifically suffering because they are Christians?" If the answer is "yes," then it seems that this would be a situation where persecution is taking place. If the answer is “no” and that they would be suffering regardless of what they believe in, then the situation is likely one where persecution is not taking place.

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To whom will you compare God?

In Isaiah 40:18 the prophet asked, "To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare Him to?" Every religion in the world is, in a sense, an attempt to answer this question. What is God like? What can we point to and say, “That is God!”

To the people of God, Isaiah’s question was rhetorical. There simply is no one to whom God can be compared; no image (mental or physical) that will adequately reflect His being. Any image is inevitably misleading.

With the revelation of Jesus, this abruptly changed. Suddenly God supplied His own image. The question "To whom will you compare God?" suddenly had an answer. Those who want to see what God is like can see Him in Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15 Jesus is called the image or icon of God, the representation that God has chosen to reveal Himself to man. In even more explicit terms, the author of Hebrews 1:2-3 writes that Jesus is the "exact imprint” of God’s nature and the radiance of God’s glory. Jesus is the exact reproduction of God. When you look at Jesus, you see what God is like. Those who want to know what God is like can see Him in the person of Jesus.

But what do people see when they look at Jesus? What kind of God does He reveal?

In Isaiah 53 we read, "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. . . .” By coming and living among us, Jesus took on all aspects of what it meant to live in a fallen world. As He saw the suffering of people, his sympathy was so intense that he actually felt their pain and weaknesses. He saw the burdens that many carried, and He stepped under the load with us and helped carry it (Matthew 8:17).

Jesus continues to do that with His people today, especially those who suffer persecution because they follow Him. When Israel was in bondage in Egypt, God not only saw their plight and heard their groaning (Exodus 2:24) but Isaiah 63:9 says "In all their affliction He was afflicted." When the Lord struck down Saul of Tarsus on the dusty road to Damascus, He asked, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4). In this statement, Jesus declares His solidarity with His Church when they suffer for His sake.

When His people suffer, He suffers. Our God does much more than merely watch over us. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He does more than feel sorry for us; He gets involved. As Deuteronomy 31:8 says, "The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you; do not be discouraged."

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The Jesus we need to see

The book of Revelation provides us an insight on the various challenges faced by churches undergoing persecution and the godly instructions given to them by the Head of the Church Himself – Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is important to recognize that the book was written in a particular setting to a specific group of churches (Rev. 1-3) to encourage those going through tribulation and persecution in the later part of the first century with a revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1).

Applying its contents to contemporary Christianity, Revelation calls us to be sensitive to the voice of God. It encourages us to accept His evaluation, welcome His counsel, and respond to His reproofs. At the time of the book’s writing, things were changing for Christians in the Roman Empire. While the Church had initially enjoyed a measure of tolerance by the Roman authorities, this was no longer guaranteed. And what started earlier as attacks by religiously motivated mobs had begun to escalate to a state-supported persecution.

When John received this revelation of Jesus, he was being punished for being a religious and political rebel. He had been deported to the island of Patmos “on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). As he languished in exile, he also knew that the churches in Asia Minor for which he had oversight, were also undergoing great trials. His heart went out to them.

So did Jesus’ heart and consequently John receives a revelation from and of his Lord, written to provide him and the churches of Asia Minor with what they most needed: a revelation of who Jesus Christ is. As we see it throughout the Scriptures, God’s priority is not so much to answer the questions that His people may have as to why they suffer as it is to give them a revelation of Himself during these times. In this final book of the Bible, Jesus is revealed as the One who is in the midst of the churches, and as the One in control of history who will soon bring it to conclusion by ushering the complete reconciliation of creation with its Creator. Foundational to this is the revelation of Jesus given in chapter 5. Weeping as he recognizes that no one in this fallen world is worthy to open a scroll, John is told to stop weeping and to behold the Lion of Judah who is worthy. Expecting to see a mighty lion who has conquered sin through strength and power, John looks and instead of a lion he sees a lamb, bloody, bruised, and wounded, looking as if it had been slain. And John understands that this is the One whom the persecuted need to see. Victory is not achieved through strength or power, but through suffering and sacrifice, even until death. It is not the Lion that the persecuted need to see; it is the Lamb.

God’s victories are still won in today’s world not through strength, power, and brute force; they are seen in the lives of those who follow the Lamb, even to the point of death.

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Grace to suffer

The believers to whom he was writing were facing societal rejection and increasing hostility because of their faith in Christ. It is important to him that they understand the core of what he is trying to impress upon them and so Peter concludes his letter with the words: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it” (1 Peter 5:12). For these persecuted Christians, Peter knows that the key to remaining overcoming is firmly standing on the grace of God.

Although often overlooked by many Bible commentators, grace is a predominant theme in 1 Peter. However, the way the apostle defines grace is slightly different and more expansive than our normal understanding of the term – God’s free and unmerited gift that is usually associated with the gift of salvation in Christ. A careful analysis of 1 Peter 2:19,20 leads us to gain a fresh understanding of grace as God’s enablement to endure suffering due to one’s faithfulness to God.

Seeing grace in this light is not entirely unique in the New Testament. Paul, in Philippians 2:29, wrote about the believers there receiving God’s grace not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for Him. Paul was telling the Philippians that they had initially been given the grace of salvation, and then fresh grace was given to them – the grace of suffering for Christ – through their participation in the battle to advance the cause of the Gospel.

Such understanding implies that suffering for Christ is a gift of grace, to be embraced with as much gratitude and joy as the gift of salvation. Therein lies the secret why the early church considered suffering for the sake of Christ as a privilege and joy (Acts 5:41). Obviously, suffering unjustly and enduring is viewed by the world as tragic and might even be considered as heroic. But from God’s perspective, those who suffer for the cause of Christ and endure are simply recipients of His matchless grace.

Upon hearing about persecuted believers around the world, Christians living in the West often say that they would not be sure if they could go through persecution and suffering for their faith and persevere. Enduring suffering for righteousness, however, is not dependent upon one’s courage or strength. There is an important catch however; you and I are likely to respond to persecution in a manner consistent with how we are living out our Christian life now. If we are currently walking in faith and responding to God’s grace, we can be assured of God’s presence and grace if and when we are called to suffer for His sake.

Those who originally read 1 Peter 5:10, must have been very encouraged to read: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who had called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” This is the only place in the New Testament where God is addressed as “the God of all grace.” Our God is the source of all grace and divine power, supplying help to His children for every need and occasion. Peter assuring these persecuted believers that God will:

  • restore them in the areas where they break down and fail;
  • confirm them, giving them the inflexibility and support needed to withstand the temptations to deny Him without toppling;
  • strengthen them to resist Satan and to endure even to the point of death without falling; and
  • establish them, giving the believers a firm foundation so that they will not be swept away.

Though Satan seeks to destroy, God takes his actions and turns them into the means by which He graciously develops His character into the lives of His people. Grace is seen as God’s work of transforming His child through persecution and suffering into a sacrificial giver to others (just as He is), equipping them to be involved in the cause of Christ and the Gospel.

Just as there was no glory without Christ’s suffering, so it is with His people. Suffering never thwarts God’s purposes. Indeed, God knows no other formula of accomplishing His purpose of transforming a rebellious and fallen world but that of self-sacrifice and self-giving. And He wants to weave His story into our story, recreating us as cross-carrying disciples of the message of the Gospel.

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Asking the right question

The fundamental question to ask when reading the book of Job is the most obvious one; the question

that most of us ask when going through trouble and the one that Job, himself, asked. “Why? Why am I suffering? What have I done wrong?”

The key to understanding the suffering of Job lies in God’s evaluation of this man. From the start, Job is described as being a blameless and upright man (1:1). This is an important detail to remember when you read this book. Whatever happens to Job in this story, it is not because of sin in his life or a lack of faith. The language used to describe Job is that of a man who is following God in obedience and trust.

Additionally, Job's life is described in idyllic terms; this is a man with everything going for him. Whatever happens to him is also not because of bad choices that he has made or because he was on an uncertain financial footing.

In 1:6, the scene shifts from earth to the courts of heaven. There we find Satan coming before God to tell Him all of the sinful things that God's people are doing on the earth (1:6-7). When the apostle John describes Satan in Revelation 12:10 as the accuser of our brothers, it is Job 1:6-11 and Zechariah 3:1 that he draws the description from. Satan, it appears, is given access to the presence of God where he stands and makes accusations against God’s people.

Hearing Satan’s allegations, God points to Job as an example of a man who defies such indictments. Unwilling to concede, however, Satan seeks to cast a cloud of suspicion on Job’s character. He declares that Job loves and serves God for strictly selfish reasons. "Take away all that makes his life comfortable and safe," Satan sneers, "and Job will deny You."

Knowing Job’s heart, God permits Satan to attempt to prove that his accusations are true and it is in this context that we are to understand Job’s suffering. The answer to the question as to why Job suffers is, quite simply, because he is a righteous man. He loses all that he has; his wealth, his livelihood, his children, his home because of his loyalty to God, even though he is completely unaware of the fact. He becomes diseased. He loses the respect of his wife. He is forced to live outside of the city in the garbage dump, an outcast from society. He is utterly destitute. Yet, Job maintains his trust in and dependency on God (1:22-22; 2:10) despite his ignorance as to the real reason for his afflictions.

We sometimes forget that Job did not have our perspective. God allows us to peer through the cracks of the curtain into the courts of heaven and to overhear the conversations between God and Satan. Job did not have this privilege. We must recognize that we, too, may find ourselves in Job’s position of not being privy to the reasons for our afflictions. With suffering there are often shadows, unanswered questions, and things that we will never understand this side of eternity. The focus of this book is found in chapter 28:1-18 in which Job acknowledges that only God knows why things are the way they are. There are things going on which we may never know about. There is often mystery with suffering. But, to reflect our Saviour’s words, will there also be faith (Luke 18:8)? In our afflictions, will we exhibit a trust in God who may not answer our "Whys"?

As many of us would in similar (and even lesser) situations, Job earnestly wanted to know the reason for why he was afflicted so severely. He asks for an explanation but when God responded in chapters 38-41, He did so, not with answers to the reasons why Job suffered, but with a revelation of Himself. By revealing who He is, God reminded Job that the primary quest for the believer in the face of unjust suffering is not an explanation for the question "Why?" but an answer to the question "Who?" While “Why?” is a question that will be asked, “Who?” is the question that needs to be answered. Job was reminded of God's power, His wisdom, and His control over creation. In effect, God’s answer to Job was, "This is the kind of God I am. I know what is going on and you do not. Your life is still under my control and care. Will you trust me?" And this answer was supposed to be good enough for Job. Is it good enough for you?

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Bruised and Bruising

Several years ago, the topic of spiritual warfare was a hot commodity among evangelicals in North America. Seminars, tapes, and books flooded the market, promising “victory over the darkness” both external and internal. At the time I was a pastor in southern Manitoba and I remember being slightly amused by the amount of ink being spilled on the topic and concerned that so much that was being taught had so little biblical grounding.

Years have passed and so has the surge of popularity in most circles. But the central truth that this movement hit upon was true; Christians are in a spiritual war, although I would suggest that the battle is not nearly as complicated as many of the “experts” suggested. There is an age-old daily struggle going on between the children of the kingdom and the children of the devil which began back in the Garden, shortly after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.

Exposed and challenged with the reality of their disobedience, both Adam and Eve look for someone to blame. As we see in Genesis 3:12-13, the man blamed the woman (and, indirectly, God), the woman blamed the serpent and the serpent, as one of my seminary professors liked to say, didn’t have a leg to stand on. In reality, Satan had beguiled the woman, the woman had listened to the serpent, and the man had listened to the woman—but no one had listened to God. As a result, God issues a prophetic word of judgment and deliverance to the serpent (verses 14-15), the woman (verse 16), and the man (verses 17–19). To the serpent the Lord says, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock, and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:14-15).

Notice that God does not say that nature is cursed because of the serpent, but that he will be more cursed than the rest of nature. He is condemned to humiliation and ultimate defeat under the victorious offspring of the woman. Satan, God says, will be defeated by the offspring of the woman. In verse 20, following their expulsion from the Garden, Adam gives his wife the name Eve, which means "Living One", being derived from the Hebrew word for "life." Adam knows that mankind's hope is in her offspring. From Eve will come life.

But this life will not come without a struggle; the offspring of the woman will be bruised in the process. The solution to man's suffering because of sin will come through suffering. The heel will be struck. In the process of crushing the serpent, the heel of the woman's offspring will be bitten. The setting is that of conflict between the serpent and the woman, which is echoed in Revelation 12. From the third chapter of Genesis we see the basis for the coming persecution of God’s people. The price of reconciling creation to its Creator will take place in a context of suffering and conflict. Hence, we should not be surprised when we see that the price for our sins was paid for through the sufferings and death of the Son of God. We are, likewise, not surprised when we see that taking that Good News to others costs His messengers their lives, as they take up the cross and follow Him in suffering and death. Christ's cross is necessary for the propitiation of the gospel; the disciple's cross is necessary for the propagation of the gospel. The world will be hostile to the message of God's victory over Satan.

With this in mind, consider the questions asked by R. Arthus Mathews on page 13 in Born for Battle, a book available from The Voice of the Martyrs:

The history of the saints in every age is one of conflict. The pathway the disciple treads as he follows his Lord is one of certain warfare. At this point, let us ask ourselves some serious questions:

  • Am I expressing the enmity God put between the devil and the church's Head? Or, am I seeking detente, coexistence, and peace through compromise?
  • Am I available to my Lord as a willing instrument, ready for his use in his warfare?
  • Am I aware of the teaching of Scripture about my part in the spiritual conflict?
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Made in the image. So what?

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Genesis 1:26

One of the most meaningful studies that I have had the privilege to engage in recent years has been on the scriptural significance of being created image of God. I have come to appreciate the fact that human beings, by their very nature, are bestowed with God-given rights to respectful treatment, equality, diversity, communal relations, and freedom of belief. Human rights, rather than being opposed to a biblical worldview are a fruit of one. It is no accident that countries that have historically been influenced by a strong Christian worldview have consistently maintained the highest levels of religious liberty for its citizens. There is a reason why Christians believe that human beings should be treated with respect; they are created in image of God (cf. Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). No other religion has such a high view of humanity. Yes, we are sinful and fallen, but the person next to you still bears the divine image by creation, however marred it is.

However, for some the idea that we should defend the rights of others seems to be somehow unspiritual, perhaps even unbiblical. They rightfully point out that Christians are called to give up their rights just as Christ did in His incarnation. Witnessing followers of Jesus Christ fight for their personal rights (especially with each other) has brought disrepute upon the Body of Christ. Rather than saying “See how they love one another,” the watching world has more often been able to comment, with a smirk, “See how they fight one another.” Seeking to remedy this unfortunate situation by presenting a positive, alternative witness to a skeptical society, some Christians have concluded that we have no legitimate rights to fight for.

It is helpful when considering these things to remember that there is a distinction between private and public rights. Privately, Christians are not to take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism has no place in the life of the Christian. It is the God-given right and obligation of the State, however, to uphold the laws of the land. There are times, however, (probably more often than we are comfortable admitting) when the call to follow Christ and to conform to His image requires that we voluntarily put aside our rights. We may have the right to life and freedom, but the biblical Christian accepts that it may cost him his freedom or even his life to take the gospel to others. This does not presuppose that these rights are not legitimate. Giving up illegitimate rights can hardly be considered a sacrifice. And others can (and perhaps should) uphold them even if we don’t or can’t, just as we must defend the weak and oppressed and to speak on their behalf even if they have chosen to give up their rights for the sake of the gospel.

The Bible is also clear that it is appropriate, at times, for Christians to stand up for their rights as citizens. Paul did so on several occasions (Acts 16:37; 22:24ff; 25:10-11). It is worth noting that even Jesus defended Himself at one point during his trial (John 18:23); not to protest his suffering but as a testimony of his innocence. The question to ask is, “What will advance the purposes of God’s kingdom more, renouncing or upholding my rights at the time?” The answer is not always the same.

In the same way, exemplified by our Creator's willingness to allow false beliefs to continue unpunished for the present, Christians are to uphold the right for the individual or the group to be wrong. Christians should find proselytism to be an abhorrent perversion of evangelism. Religious coercion through threats or promises of material benefits is a violation of an individual's God-given right to choose one's own belief system, even if it is incorrect, morally repugnant and inconsistent with the general and special revelation of God in nature, scripture, and Christ. When Christianity has been faithfully practiced, its followers have allowed religious practice contrary to their own to continue so long as it does not violate the basic rights of others (e.g. child sacrifice, sexual or mental exploitation). This does not, of course, negate the importance of apologetics and evangelism. As God's image bearers, we are also His messengers, seeking to restore mankind to a rightful relationship to its Creator. Reflecting His image, we seek to win men and women to Christ through persuasion and sacrifice, not compulsion. And we will respect the rights of others to be wrong if they insist in holding on to their beliefs and rejecting the message of life and liberty.

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Destined to suffer

"Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed." (Luke 2:34)

It is obvious when we read passages like Luke 2:34 that Jesus' rejection and death, foretold from the time He was dedicated as an infant in the temple, was part of God’s predetermined plan of reconciling the world to Himself. What surprises some to learn is that the suffering and rejection of Christ's followers is equally a part of this plan. This is clearly seen in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 3:3 where Paul reminds the believers in northern Greece that God’s messengers were "destined" to suffer affliction for their faith (3:3) and this is exactly what had happened to Paul and his colleagues (3:4).

Because of their historically controversial nature, many Christians avoid discussing the biblical doctrines of election and predestination. I can understand this desire to avoid controversy that has too often ended with harsh words, misrepresentations, and, in some sad cases, ridicule. But this should not keep us from looking at doctrines that are very much scriptural and from seeking to understand them. Like all doctrines, these two have significant applications for the life of the believer, particularly in reference to the resistance to the gospel that the messenger of God faces.

While I recognize that not all will accept my definitions and much more could be said than what I will address in these few words, it is my understanding that election is the choosing act of God in which He determines whom He will entrust with certain responsibilities and privileges. The focus of election is on the people whom God has chosen to be the instruments of His purposes. Election, however, is not merely a title or a position. Election is for privilege and responsibility.

Predestination, on the other hand, is the planning act of God in which He determines what privileges and responsibilities the children of God will enjoy and do in order to accomplish His purposes and how they will do it; what He will do for them and what they will do and become. The focus of predestination is on God’s plan and purpose. The emphasis is not who the objects of predestination are but what are the elect predestined to.

Before creation, God predestined Himself to be mankind’s Saviour through His Son and determined to choose all who accept His work on their behalf to join Him in His plan to bring the blessings of this act to all people everywhere (Genesis 12:3). Through Israel, the plan of God, determined before the creation of the world, found its expression in time and space, unfolded and reached its fulfillment in Christ. After Jesus' ascension, this gospel was taken to all nations, according to God’s plan, and it became clear who God’s chosen people were; all those who trust in Christ. This is God's good news and reveals the mystery that God desires all nations to be His chosen people. This is the message that the elect are commissioned to share with all people everywhere. Jesus said that He chose his disciples so that they would be fruit-bearing messengers (John 15:16), a witness through which others might be saved.

As they bring this blessing to the nations, made possible because of the death of Christ, His chosen people follow in His footsteps and suffer together with Him in accomplishing His purposes of reconciling the world to God. Thus Paul can say that, like Christ, we are destined to suffer for the sake of the gospel (1 Thess. 3:3-4). This is part of the predetermined plan of God. God’s destiny for man could only be accomplished in Christ. He knew that the price for man’s salvation would be the death of His Son. He also knew the price of taking this blessing to the nations would be the death of His adopted sons and daughters. But in His wisdom, God knew that this was the only way that the world could be saved and all nations reconciled to Him.

The question that stands before you and me is this - what am I doing to fulfill my predestined purposes as one of God's elect? What characterizes my life; sacrificial love for Christ and His priorities, or conformity and indifference to a dying world? Do I read about how God is working through His rejected, persecuted people around the world and respond by falling on my knees pleading with God how I might stand together with them in this God-given task? Or is my response primarily one of thankfulness that I do not have to make such sacrifices for God? Am I actively occupied in pursuing the eternal purposes of God, at great cost to myself, or am I a bystander watching God's purposes unfold without ever really getting involved?

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A life well lived

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

As Paul closes his letter to Timothy, he draws upon rich Old Testament imagery as he reflects upon the fact that he will soon be martyred for Christ. The phrase "I am already being poured out as a drink offering" is a reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system where wine was poured in the altar (Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7) presented daily (Ex. 29:40), on the Sabbath (Num. 28:9), and on feast-days (28:14). In Numbers 6:16-17, we see the drink offering as part of the peace and grain offerings which were voluntary acts of worship, expressing one's gratitude to God for His goodness and for the fellowship that the worshipper enjoyed with God after having dealt with sin through the sin offering or trespass offering and committing himself completely to God through the burnt offering.

In the Jewish worship prior to the destruction of the temple, the worshipper would lay his hand on the sacrificial lamb he had brought to the tabernacle or temple, confessing his sins. He would witness the lamb slain, and the blood sprinkled over and around the altar. Then he would see the animal skinned and its body cut in pieces, placed on the altar and consumed in the fire of God's wrath. In response to this atoning sacrifice, by which he was assured of his acceptance with the Lord (Lev. 1), he then would offer a grain offering (Lev. 2) as symbolic of his whole devotion to the reconciled God who had atoned for his sins. Then, in the drink offering he would lift up a cup of wine and pour it out over the ashes of the lamb and the grain, to express his hearty concurrence with all that he had seen and offered, as he witnessed, by faith, what had transacted between the Lord and him - his heart poured out in gratitude to God's glory of all mercy, love and forgiveness.

It is this joyous sense that we find in Paul as he finishes his life. God has used him to proclaim the message of reconciliation between God and man, made possible by the sacrificial death of His Son. He has lived out his life as an act of sacrifice before God of commitment in response to that sacrificial death and now, at the end of his life, Paul sees his martyrdom as the drink offering being poured out as a final act of worship. Then, like the worshipper at the tabernacle/temple, he would depart. His service of worship will have concluded well.

To come to the end of one's life knowing that you have accomplished the task that God had called you to do is one that all of God's servants should strive towards. To know that you have lived your life as a sacrifice to God, giving life to others in the process; surely this is the kind of life that will receive the rewards of heaven. What a contrast to the all-too-common sentiment expressed by many at the end of their lives; "If only I had had more time. If only I had done more for God. If only my life could have counted for more. If only I could do live my life again, I would do it differently. If only…."

This is not Paul's sentiment, however, as he switches metaphors in verse 7 to that of a fight and a race. He says that he has fought a good fight and finished the race. He has "kept the faith." He is now ready to receive his reward, a crown of righteousness (verse 8); one given not because of his own righteousness because of his total reliance on the finished work of Christ on the cross for him. As Paul looks ahead to his "homecoming" he knows that it is God who has delivered him and it will be God who will bring him safely to his destination (4:17-18). Therefore, to God goes all of the glory (4:19). And that is the key to a well lived.

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A theology of persecution and discipleship (an overview)

It is well recognized by those who work among persecuted Christians that few attempts have been made to develop a biblical theology of persecution. Most attempts consist of selected texts arranged thematically which, while helpful and better than nothing at all, fail to reveal the extent to which suffering for righteousness is addressed in the biblical text. Much of the problem, it seems to me, comes down to a failure to adequately consider many of the scriptural passages on suffering in their context. For example, it is rarely recognized that the New Testament authors are not overly concerned to answer the question of suffering in general (i.e., suffering due to living in a fallen world). That such suffering occurs is recognized but most of the New Testament passages that address suffering do so in the context of suffering for righteousness and not because of sin or because one lives in a fallen world. But in many of the classic books on suffering, this type of suffering is hardly ever stressed.

This is to be expected, I suppose, since most Christians in the West have little or no experience with persecution per se. In our quest to make the biblical text applicable to daily life, the tendency is for Western preachers and teachers to misapply these passages to situations of general physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering because the biblical texts that speak to suffering for righteousness cannot readily be applied to a setting where there is little or no persecution. Unfortunately, this misapplication is subsequently turned around upon the text itself in future readings. Hence, the application influences future interpretations, resulting in the typical Bible student in the West never even suspecting that the biblical texts that deal with pain and suffering might be dealing with suffering for righteousness' sake rather than suffering because of sin. This also influences how Western Christians view and deal with those who suffer for their faith in other societies. We fail to recognize that persecution is normative for the follower of Christ historically, missiologically, and (most importantly) scripturally.

There is a clear scriptural link between persecution and discipleship. Indeed, there can be no discipleship without persecution; to follow Christ is to join Him in a cross-carrying journey of reconciling the world to the Father. That this journey is set in the context of conflict, self-sacrifice, and suffering is alluded to as early as Genesis 3:15 when the Lord affirms that Satan's judgment, accomplished through human instrumentality, will bring deliverance to the offspring of the woman, but it will take place in a process of bruising and pain. All of this comes into focus with the coming of Jesus Christ, the revelation of the triune God. Through Christ, we see, among other things, that sacrificial love is in the very nature of who God is. To suffer and die to accomplish His Father’s purposes was not to be unexpected; Jesus could not be God and do anything but. Weakness, suffering and sacrifice are God's modus operandi. This is how God accomplishes His work: not through strength or compulsion but through love and invitation. As so, the Servant of God suffers and dies, as do those who follow Him. This is to be expected; this is God's way of reconciling the world to Himself. A cross-centered gospel requires cross-carrying messengers. God has determined to save the world by the foolishness of the cross of Christ and by the foolishness of the crosses of His children whom He has chosen and called for this very purpose. He will be consistent in using this unique method until He achieves His final goal. God will thus bring the nations to Himself by the sacrifice of His obedient Son followed by the sacrifices of His other obedient sons and daughters.

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