Monday, 4 November 2013

of Persecution and the Sugar-Coated Gospel; Part 2


I remember back in the day when I served as a pastor that I tried to maintain a preaching plan that covered a wide spectrum of Bible books, themes, and doctrines (including those that didn’t fit well with my denominational biases). Why? First of all because they’re there in the pages of our Bibles, and secondly because I believed (and still do) that it is easy to get stuck in the rut of only speaking on the popular and denominational-friendly Scriptures while ignoring the rest.

Obviously there’s much more discussion in the Bible than only the verses and pet doctrines that we’re comfortable with. I believe that topics such as the persecution of the church and the heresy of sugar-coating the Gospel are a couple of such topics, and as such, it would be irresponsible of us to not at least discuss them now and then. After all, as I just said, they’re in the pages of the Bible, so it’s probably safe to assume that God wanted them there for a reason.

This post is part two of a two-part series. If you haven’t read part one yet, you may want to read it first here before continuing on with this one.

All too often we hear of how another brother of sister has fallen to the evil one. Instead of “Preaching the Word” as Paul instructs in 2 Timothy 4, all too often folks will buckle to popular demand and say “what their itching ears want to hear” (see: 2 Timothy 4: 2-4). All too often we bow not to the Lord God who created the heavens and the earth, but rather we bow to the god of pragmatism; if it works to bring in the people, it is good. By default, then, if it doesn’t work to bring in the people, it must be bad. As a result, we begin sugar-coating the Gospel to make it palatable to the masses that we wish to befriend and attract.

Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not suggesting that church growth is bad (unless by that we’re referring to institutionalism as opposed to the Body of Christ). Obviously we want the church to grow (again, the Body; not the institution); Christ Himself commanded it. But I do not believe that our Lord would have us to grow the church at the expense of preaching and teaching the truth as unfortunately is often the case, by only sugar-coating the message of the Cross.

In part one of this series we began by looking at 2 Timothy 3: 10-11. In this second part I want to consider the next two verses.

“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3: 12-13; NIV)

A life committed to following Jesus Christ, to truly following Him, will not be easy. Is it your desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus? Of course it is! Do you want to serve Him with more than just words? Absolutely you do! Do we want to serve Him with all of our being, with all of our hearts? A resounding no-brainer, Yes we do! Unfortunately, here comes the nasty part. If that is really our desire, the Bible says that we will be persecuted.

They persecuted our Lord and they persecuted Paul, as we’ve seen in Part 1 of this post. They have persecuted many other believers over the ages, and if we think that we are somehow exempt because we live in the North American 21st century, we only kid ourselves. As true followers of Jesus Christ (as opposed to pseudo-followers), the question is not whether or not persecution will come, but rather to what extent and how frequently it will come. But come it will if you love the Lord and seek to do His will.

C.W. Ellison in Roger Greenway’s book, Discipling the City, said: “Currently, it is estimated that approximately 250,000 Christians are martyred annually throughout the world; that figure is expected to increase to 500,000 by the end of the decade” (incidentally, my version of that book was printed two decades ago in 1992). Are modern Christians exempt from persecution? Certainly not, and according to at least this source, it will only get worse. Do you believe it? Only the naïve downplay all such talk.

Jesus said in John 15:20, “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” While this truth was written in a day and age very different from ours, and to a people very different than you and me, it is a truth that transcends all time. Despite the differences, what remains the same is that anyone who wants to, as Pederson says, “live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble” (The Message).

Following Christ was often a very costly decision for the early believers. Often folks paid the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. I remember touring Europe over 40 years ago with my family when I was only 11 years old. One of the places we visited was the infamous Coliseum in Rome. I remember noticing how the Coliseum floor had long since fallen through exposing the ruins of what was once an elaborate network of underground rooms and passageways. I remember my father sharing a church history lesson on the lions and soon to be martyred Christians who may have been in those very rooms and corridors. Ever wonder what it must have been like to undergo such an atrocity as being fed to the lions? I cannot even begin to imagine.

The point is that our decisions to live it all out for Christ could very well be costly ones. It’s not easy to be different, to try to be set apart, or holy. Taking a stand for what we believe could lead to alienation by family and friends. It could cost us promotion opportunities at work. It could even cost us our work. We’ve all seen or heard of individuals who have been shunned by others because of their Christian beliefs. Perhaps it’s even happened to you. Sometimes it seems to me that today society gladly accepts any religion or faith (or even cult), so long as it is not Christian; or at the very least, so long as we sugar-coat the stuff that society doesn’t like or fit into their humanistic mantra.

Yet we are indeed fortunate here in North America that we don’t face situations like those faced by the early Christians in Rome, or even today in many other third-world countries where Christians are still regularly persecuted for their faith. “Sign this and renounce your faith,” they’re told, “and you can go free.” In other words, sugar-coat it to take the offensive parts out. Yes, we are fortunate here, but that does not mean that it cannot (or will not) happen to us one day as well. Even not considering martyrdoms past and present, the fact remains that we still do face many struggles related to our faith. Ironically, sometimes they’re even from within the church.

For years we subscribed to National Geographic. In your mind’s eye, I would like you to picture something I saw in one of its issues. Picture a man by the name of Eric Valli, a professional photographer. He is dangling by a nylon rope from a 395-foot cliff in Nepal. Nearby on a rope ladder is another man, Mani Lal, doing what he has done for decades; hunting honey. Here in the Himalayan foothills, the cliffs shelter honeycombs of the world’s largest honeybee. (See some great pictures here)

At the moment, thousands of them are buzzing around both men. Lal, a veteran of hundreds of such attacks, is calm. Not so Mr. Valli. Describing that moment in my National Geographic magazine, he says: “There were so many bees I was afraid I might freak out. But I knew if I did, I would be dead. So I took a deep breath and relaxed. Getting stung would be better than finding myself at the bottom of the cliff.” He overcame his fears and won a photo competition for his efforts.

Fear, including the fear of persecution, can send a person plummeting to destruction. Some believers, fearing the stings of persecution, testing, and temptation, may have compromised their faith and slipped from the lifeline of Christ. Is such a thing even possible? Many Christians are divided on this possibility. I suspect that this is perhaps one of the reasons why the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, teaches us to fear God alone.

The adversaries are, according to our text, spelled out in verse 13. They are the evil men, the impostors, the unscrupulous con men who want nothing better than to exploit the faith by sugar-coating it. Paul ran into such characters constantly. We, likewise, run into the same type of people today who seem to have made it their life’s ambition to discredit and sugar-coat Christianity. Take a stand for Christ, I mean really stand for Him no matter what the cost, and see if there is not some individual or group who doesn’t persecute you in one way or another.

So where do we go from here? Well, for one thing, it’s not all gloom and doom.

Let me share part of an email I received just days ago from a dear couple my wife and I know well. They shared about how they were reading through Samuel again when they came upon the part where David hid from Saul, right in the heart of Philistine land. The lesson they came away with (and shared with us) was that as Christians, it is possible for us to hide even in the enemy camp and be perfectly safe because we know who we are in God. I liked that. Do you know who you are in God?

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13: 5-6; NIV)

Remember, Jesus said: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13; NIV). So stand firm; no sugar-coating the Gospel.

Remember too that, we may not know what tomorrow holds, but we know Him who holds it. For me, that is good enough. Can we rest in that?

Photo Source: Unknown (via Facebook)

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