A Gathering Storm is Approaching: A Storm of Persecution and Suffering for God’s People – God’s Church in America

jssfrngBetween 55-57 A.D. in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, the Apostle Paul wrote:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are afflicted, hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed. We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Seven chapters later, in 2 Corinthians 11:23, Paul continued, “I have worked harder, been put in jail more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death, again and again.”

Introduction

Have you noticed that topics like “persecution” and “suffering” are not frequently emphasized in the modern 21st century church? So-called “seeker-friendly” churches don’t want to offend or turn away their visitors, so they water down the hard truths of the Bible — forgetting that “the cross of Jesus Christ” will sadly always be offensive to those who are looking for excuses not to believe. Many churches are fearful that they might lose their “tax-exempt” status, so refuse to get involved with anything that might be “controversial” or “political.” These churches, in Washington state, refused to allow signatures to be gathered on their church property for the I-1515 petition. .As you may be aware, I-1515 (concerning transgender bathrooms) did not have enough signatures to be placed on the ballot this fall.

When I went to seminary, I began to read theology books — and discovered there was very little on “the theology of suffering.” As I became more and more aware of the suffering of the persecuted church worldwide, I began to wonder how well our future pastors were being prepared to preach about and help their congregations deal with suffering and persecution. Glen Penner, the leader of Voice of the Martyrs, Canada, realized the need for more teaching on the Biblical perspective of persecution and suffering and (in the midst of his own battle with terminal cancer), wrote a book entitled The Theology of Suffering. Similarly, the Chinese Christians, many of whom have been martyred or imprisoned for their faith under communist rule, have developed their own teaching on the suffering the true believers have to endure as they risk all for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the modern church pastors’ lack of teaching explains some of the weak preaching in the pulpit, but what can excuse the obvious concern for their own “personal peace and prosperity” when there is a battle raging for the souls of individuals and a nation?

What a contrast the modern church is with the life of the Apostle Paul and the early disciples of Jesus Christ.

Paul continues the narrative of his own persecution and suffering in Acts 14:19,20,

Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was shipwrecked..A night and a day I spent in the deep..In dangers from rivers, robbers, my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, in the city, in the wilderness, dangers on the sea; dangers among false brethren. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food. I have been cold and naked.

We must ask ourselves, as the culture becomes increasingly hostile to evangelical Christians and pushes us to the margins of society, “Do we expect and are we prepared to suffer persecution for our faith?”

The Apostle Paul expected, was prepared, and lived his life from his conversion, expecting persecution. You will recall the account in Acts 9. Paul, himself chief persecutor of the early Christians, fell on his knees, on the road to Damascus, as he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?”

Paul, trembling, asked, “Who art thou, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes. The Lord then gave Paul instructions to go in to Damascus.

In the meantime, Ananias, a leader among the Damascus believers, protested, terrified, when in a vision he was instructed to go to the street called Straight where Saul was, but the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! For he is a chosen instrument of mine to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.

So Paul knew that his life would not be an easy one, as we’ve just read from the scriptural accounts. As you may recall, Paul eventually ended up in Rome, as Caesar’s prisoner, where he wrote his book to the Philippian church. Caesar Nero would be his executioner. Paul was prepared, he knew it was coming. He had been told that he would suffer much. In Second Timothy 4:6, Paul wrote, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.”

What lessons can we learn from this courageous man whose only purpose in life was to glorify Christ?

Paul wasn’t afraid, rather he tells his beloved Philippians as they also face similar suffering and persecution, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord!” (Phil. 3:1) And he doesn’t say it just once or even twice, for in Chapter 4 he reiterates, “Rejoice in the LORD always; again I will say, rejoice!”

Paul delighted in Christ his Savior, and I think his secret is found in the words, “in the Lord.” Paul was imprisoned when he wrote Philippians, as Caesar Nero’s prisoner in Rome about 61 A.D. Though he was in prison, he would still “rejoice in the Lord.” No matter how dark the circumstances of life might be, God’s word assures us that it is always possible for the Christian to “rejoice in the Lord.”

A wise Christian of many years ago said, “Christian joy is a mood independent of our immediate circumstances. If it were dependent on our surroundings, then, indeed, it would be as uncertain as an unprotected candle burning on a gusty night. But Christian joy has no relationship to the transient setting of our life, and therefore, it is not the victim of the passing day. The days are as changeable as the weather, and yet the Christian joy can be persistent.”

Can this “joy” yet be persistent when only the scaffold and the executioner are there to face a “faithful Christian” in the 20th  (or 21st) century? The last day on earth for Dietrich Bonhoeffer was April 8, 1945, the first Sunday after Easter. This condemned pastor, martyr, prophet, and spy was to perform the offices of a pastor for the other condemned men. He prayed and read special verses for that day, “By His stripes we are healed,” (Isaiah 53:5) and “Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercies we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” He then explained these verses to everyone. From Eric Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer, we read the following: Witness Payne Best wrote, “Bonhoeffer spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought.” He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said “Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.” These words “Come with us” – for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold. We bade him good-bye. He drew me aside, ”This is the end,” he said, “but for me the beginning of life.”

The camp doctor at the Flossenburg execution site had no idea whom he was watching at the time, but years later, he gave the following account of Bonhoeffer’s last minutes alive, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Back to our earlier question: Can the Christian’s joy yet be persistent when only the scaffold and executioner are there to face him?

Jesus Christ, he who never leaves us nor forsakes us, was surely with Pastor Bonhoeffer during all of those terrible days of incarceration as Hitler’s prisoner, and though we have much less of an historical record of Paul’s final day on earth, we know that Christ was likewise present with Paul when his last day had arrived at his Roman dungeon. The Praetorian guard, executionary detail, probably said something like, “Come with us,” and then accompanied him on his final journey across Rome to the Ostian Gate, then outside of Rome for a few miles toward the Port of Ostia, and finally to the place of execution where he was beheaded. It was now 67 A.D. and Emperor Nero had just set the penalty of death for being a Christian.

We can imagine that as the sword (or axe) was being prepared by the executioner, Paul would have been making a last statement, probably similar to his recently penned words to Timothy (2 Timothy 4: 6-8), “The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Jesus Christ was with Paul “all the days,” beginning from Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road, when he heard Christ’s voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Christ was with Paul on the prosperous days, the days of adversity and the day of execution.

And so is Christ with us as believers “all our days.” Days when the funeral bell is tolling, and our hearts are breaking … and days when the “wedding bells are ringing” and hearts are lifted. In the days of blessing and in the days of suffering and persecution. All the days: The day of life, the day of death, and finally the Day of Judgment, called the Bema, when each of us as believers will stand before our Savior Jesus Christ, to “..be recompensed for our deeds in the body, according to what we have done, whether good or bad.”

Brothers and sisters, our joy is independent of all things on earth, because its source is in the continual presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.

As we as Christians face the “gathering storm” of suffering and persecution here in America in 2016, will the cares and concerns of this world, or our natural human desires to “fit in,” or “not make waves,” cause us to compromise God’s principles and hence, deny Christ? As the political season is upon us, not only the Presidential position but the courts, school boards, governors, representatives, senators, and other key leaders will be on the ballots. So many, ambitious for these positions, do not honor the God of the Bible. Recently in an interview one of the candidates professed to be “personally against abortion,” but said that in the public arena he supported “a woman’s right to choose.” Since 1973 and the inception of Roe v. Wade, 45 million babies have been murdered. God will not bless a nation with blood on its hands. The “right to life” is not a choice, it’s the gift of God.

Jesus knew that following him would come with a cost. “The servant is not greater than the master.” The path of the cross is the “way of suffering.” (Via Dolorosa) He warned His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God’s service. And, these things they will do to you, because they have not known the Father nor me. But, these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them.” Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. We must be prepared for this hatred, for “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12).

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