In light of the brutal murder of 21 Christians in Egypt this weekend, I received a good question yesterday about suffering: “How do we apply the passages on persecution when we in the West don’t have much of it?”
Here are some examples of passages that are commonly referred to:
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Philippians 1:29)
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12)
““Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)
As a pastor my life is characterized by an incessant longing for people to taste and see the goodness of God’s grace in the gospel. I pray for it, plan for, organize events to promote it, and even dream about it. I want to see the gospel come to our city and our church. I want evident gospel renewal.
In Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, there is a memorable scene where a large cask of wine is dropped and broken in the street. The cask had burst like a walnut shell and gushing all over the stones in the street. Dickens goes on to write:
All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine. The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them, had dammed it into little pools; these were surrounded, each by its own jostling group or crowd, according to its size. Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers. Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths; others made small mud-embankments, to stern the wine as it ran; others, directed …
“And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together.” (Mark 14:53)
At the trial of Jesus we have him being led to the chief priest. Here we have a very ironic scene that is both historically and theologically charged.
In the Bible we understand that everything ultimately points to the person and work of Christ (Lk. 24:26-27, 44-47). The Old Testament is laden with shadows pointing forward to the substance which is Christ (Col. 2:16-17). As question 19 in the Heidelberg Catechism say, “God began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise; later God proclaimed it by the holy patriarchs and prophets and foreshadowed it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally God fulfilled it through his own beloved Son.”
So here in this scene we have Jesus standing before the high priest. Or, we might say, the substance (Jesus) standing before the shadow (high priest).
I recently asked one of our younger children to do a job that required some detailed clean-up. In the course of explaining the job as well as the steps to complete the job, I was interrupted. “I know. Dad, I know.” Everything I said was punctuated with “I know.” It was like a Baptist church hitting you with Amen’s after everything. Then I let them do it. It was a disaster. Things didn’t get put away, they actually got misplaced. Instead of the table being cleaned the floor became messy. Upon coming back to check on the situation I asked, “What happened here?” The answer, not surprisingly, “I don’t know how to do that.”
In the church we have a lot of impediments to growth in godliness. We live in a sinful world, have imperfect preachers, have trials and tribulations, and a relentless enemy who endeavors to be the stick in our spokes at every turn. But there is one great impediment to growth, this is the impediment of thinking that we already know everything. Let’s call this person “Mr Know-it-All”.
Mr Know-it-All does not really think that they have to learn anything. They are already there. They are, in effect, unteachable.
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20-22)
The final words of the first chapter of Job are extremely powerful, but they are particularly so when considered in light of the entire chapter. It is clear that Job is a very blessed man and a very godly man. In the midst of this God permits an onslaught of affliction. In a brief period of time Job’s family and property were raided by marauders, fire, and a windstorm. His kids were dead and his business destroyed. Here at the end of the chapter he is mourning this tragic day.
Our family recently moved to a new home in a new neighborhood. We lived in our previous home for over 10 years. During those years our family saw four children born, major medical trials, a church planted, and a plethora of daily events that produce a range of reactions. Whatever the situation I would always tend to find myself in the same place, leaning against a wall in the family room looking out our back window. This spot proved to be extremely versatile. It was there that I wept for fear, excitement, regret, answered prayer, and joy. Now we live in a new home, in a new space. My familiar wall and view are not there. Sometimes I catch myself roaming about the house like Noah’s raven looking for a place to land. I’m sure the time and space will come.
As a believer do you have a place in the Bible that you return to for particular gospel encouragement? Is there a Scripture that is so versatile that it is able to meet and greet you in every one of life’s events?
An interesting thing happens when we watch a movie or read a book. We are able to simultaneously live amid two realities. On the one hand, we are wrapped into the movie or the book. We lean forward in our seats, clench our fists, perhaps even shed a tear or two.
But, at the same time, we know that it is not real. After all, we paid for a ticket to the show! Regardless, we can effortlessly live between what is real and what is fantasy. In the wisdom and kindness of God’s creative design, we can enjoy refreshment amid our daily life while still living in it. It is something of a recreational vacation without having to travel.
And, we don’t really feel the tension, we certainly don’t ask questions–we just enjoy the entertainment benefits.
I’ve observed a similar dynamic with the Christian life. We know that we sin—even as Christians, we sin. We know also, that God is holy. We have these two realities side by side: our sin and God’s holiness. Do you feel the tension? These two realities don’t seem able to coexist.
How can they?
The Scriptures teach that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). This is a staggering fact. He, the unchanging, ever-perfect, always good God–gives gifts to imperfect, weak, needy people.
Why does he do it? Well, one could rightly say, it is because he has abundance and we are needy. This is true. God needs nothing and we need everything. However, his giving is more than a cold, mechanical, divine donation. God gives because God loves. He loves us. And, his giving is the overflow of his love in sharing himself and his creation with us.
What does it mean to say that someone is totally depraved? In short it means that humanity is dead in sin. We are neither willing nor able to merit God’s favor by acts of righteousness for we are all unrighteous (Rom. 3:10-19, 23; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 1:21; Tit. 3:3). This does not mean that people cannot do any good things–there is relative good (i.e. helping the old lady across the street)—however, we cannot and do not do good things before God apart from Christ. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, we by nature are prone to hate God and neighbor, and daily increase our debt.
I have noticed that many people speak of depravity in terms of what we do. In explaining depravity of man they talk of homosexuality, murder, slander, etc. I don’t think this is helpful. Instead of speaking first of what we do we should instead speak of who we are. We are depraved, therefore we do sinful things.
“It’s not that complicated.” How many times have you said this to someone? How many times has someone said it to you? If we’re honest–too many to count (on both accounts). Our ability to overthink and over-complicate our tasks is like spam for our productivity. Consider how free you feel when a task is simplified, steps are outlined, and a plan is in place.
Let’s remember that our clutter is not limited to the task lists of business or the home. We often overcomplicate our most basic responsibilities as a Christian. Consider evangelism for example. Here are some of the things we say and do to complicate this: