Sunday, 3 November 2013

of Persecution and the Sugar-Coated Gospel; Part 1

Back in 1888, Charles Spurgeon said, “Everywhere there is apathy. Nobody cares whether that which is preached is true or false. A sermon is a sermon whatever the subject; only, the shorter it is the better.”

In his book Ashamed of the Gospel, John MacArthur Jr. said of Spurgeon’s day that, “the church was drifting away from the purity of the Gospel. Instead of boldly proclaiming the truths of Scripture, Christians were candy-coating the Word, being careful not to offend anyone. As a result, Christianity’s influence in nineteenth century England was severely weakened.”

I would like to suggest that this may even truer today than it was in Spurgeon’s day.

Paul had just finished describing some of the characteristics of godlessness that would occur in the last days when he turned to commend his friend and student Timothy. He said,

“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from them all.” (2 Timothy 3: 10-11; NIV)

Timothy had learnt well. In Peterson’s paraphrase of the New Testament, The Message, he writes, “You’ve been a good apprentice to me.” Timothy learnt a great deal from Paul. He learnt all about Paul’s teaching, about his way of life, about his purpose, and about faith, patience and love. Barclay said that Timothy was a “disciple,” which would have meant that Timothy would have physically followed alongside Paul, through thick and through thin. It would have meant that Timothy would have mentally followed Paul, diligently following his teaching. It also meant that Timothy would have spiritually followed Paul, not just to understand, but also to carry out the same ideas.

Paul writes about the things that happened to him in places like Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What happened to him in those places? In Antioch you will recall that the Jews stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, so much so that they eventually shook the dust from their feet and went to Iconium. In Iconium the Jews once again stirred up the Gentiles so much that there was a plot to stone Paul and Barnabas. Fortunately they heard about it in time and fled to Lystra. In Lystra some Jews who had come from Antioch and Iconium once again incited the crowds. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, thinking that he was dead.

Timothy learnt from Paul what it meant to suffer persecution. In 2 Corinthians 11 we have recorded for us some of Paul’s sufferings. He had been imprisoned, flogged, and exposed to death. Five times he had received the forty lashes minus one. Three times he had been beaten with rods, he had stones hurled at him, and three times he had even been ship wrecked. Paul certainly had more than his share of suffering, trials, and persecutions.

Why do I mention all this? I see Paul’s charge to Timothy as a sort of warning flag for the Christian. Do we think Paul was at the receiving end of all this by being popular? Do we think that he was worried about what people would say or think or whether they would be offended by his message? I don’t think so. He had a message to preach and, popular or not, he preached it.

I mentioned that Spurgeon was once concerned that Christians of his day were candy-coating the Gospel so as not to offend anyone. We need only to look at the state of the Church of England today to see how candy-coating the Gospel weakens the church. MacArthur suggests that Christians today are doing the same thing, only perhaps worse. In looking at the liberalization of many church groups today, sometimes I’m tempted to agree.

I remember someone once saying to me that when they have company over, especially if there are non-Christians among them, the Bibles get put away. When I asked why, I was told that it was so as not to offend anyone.

What are we afraid of? Could it be that we are so afraid of offending people that we inadvertently end up offending God? I wonder. Consider what Paul says in Galatians 1:10, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” The problem is that it is impossible to please people and God at the same time. Paul knew it, he didn’t care what people thought, he chose instead to please God, and was persecuted for it. Likewise, I suspect, that if we choose to really please God as opposed to people, we’ll be persecuted for it too. Are we ready for that?

But even this side of heaven there is a bright side. We need to remember that sometimes the most severe weather produces the most beautiful flowers. Consider some of the great people throughout history. Thomas Edison, probably history’s greatest inventor, is said to have confessed that his deafness was a great asset to his concentration. It was while George Matheson was undergoing his own trial of disappointment that he produced one of the greatest Christian hymns, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” And what about John Bunyan? It was during his imprisonment in Bedford’s jail that he found time to write one of history’s most read books, The Pilgrim's Progress.” And who could forget that classic story of Joseph’s tragic life; hated and sold in to slavery by his own brothers? But, as is so often the case, what was meant for evil God turned into good. The result? Joseph became the savior of his people at a time of drought and famine.

The point is that history is full of trials and tribulations out of which arose some great things. So too with Paul; despite his persecutions, look how much of our New Testaments are attributed to him.

Is there perhaps some greater good that can come out of your trials and persecutions? All I can say is, don’t rule out that possibility.

I look at this passage from 2 Timothy and I wonder, what about me? In trying to evaluate my own life, I ask myself, what about me? Have I learned my lessons well? Will I too be able to stick it out when the going gets tough? Have we all learned our lessons well enough? Are we to be commended as Timothy was commended? Will we be able to see our trials as opportunities for God to do something great though us? Or have we become guilty at times of sugar-coating the Gospel to give people what they want to hear instead of what God wants them to hear (2 Timothy 4: 3-4)? What will folks say about us when the going gets tough? I wonder.

(To be Continued in Part 2)

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