November 10, 2013

The Purpose of Suffering in Spreading Christ's Name

Speaker: Bret Rogers Topic: Persecution Passage: 1 Peter 2:21, 2 Timothy 3:12, John 15:20, Acts 14:22, Mark 8:34, John 12:24–25, Hebrews 13:3

Sermon from Selected Texts by Bret Rogers, Pastor
International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
Delivered on Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Sunday morning, September 22, in Pakistan, members of a Taliban offshoot attacked a historic church in Peshawar, killing more than 80 and injuring more than 150, when two suicide bombers detonated their vests inside the All Saints Church. Five hundred worshipers were sharing a meal on the grounds of the church that morning…It was the deadliest attack on Christians in Pakistan ever (VOM).

A few weeks ago, in Eritrea, a group of 185 Christians had gathered for a prayer meeting in a suburb of Asmara, the capital city. While praying for their country, security forces raided the building and arrested everyone in the group, including around 80 women and children. Many were later released, but were sternly warned not to meet any longer and they were forced to sign an agreement indicating they would not meet again. Anyone who refused to sign the agreement are still detained today (VOM).

About the same time of these arrests in Eritrea, one sister by the name of Wehazit Berhane Debesai, who was in her thirties, died from pneumonia, following a year of imprisonment in harsh conditions, where she was denied access to medical treatment because she refused to denounce her Christian beliefs (OD).

Christians Still Suffer

Christians still suffer. And as has already been mentioned, today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, where we join thousands of other churches scattered around the world to remember and pray for our brothers and sisters experiencing persecution—especially those in areas where the persecution moves beyond verbal ridicule or a cold shoulder to imprisonment and torture and death. Today we remember and pray for Christians like our thirteen-year-old sister, Victoria, in northern Nigeria who watched her brother and her daddy die on a Sunday morning, after a group of men interrupted their singing and filled their fellowship with gunfire. We want to pray for many other people suffering just like Victoria. And just following the sermon and a short video clip, we’re going to devote a portion of our time to praying for those suffering persecution.

But before we enter that time of prayer, I want us to consider God’s purposes in the suffering of his people. We’re not going to look at just one passage of Scripture this morning, but a host of passages that help us understand God’s purposes in the suffering of his people as they spread Christ’s name to the ends of the earth. The central question that comes to people’s minds when they read these stories—the cry of the human heart when we look at the suffering and martyrdom of other Christians is “Why?” And I want to point you to a few places in Scripture this morning that helps to answer at least some of that “Why?” question when it comes to Christian persecution. Now, I’m not going to pretend to answer all of that “Why?” question; some of those answers are hidden from us in the eternal counsels of God. But, I will take you to a few places in Scripture where God, in his wisdom and kindness, has revealed some of his purposes to us in the suffering of his people.

I want to be clear, here. The suffering of God’s people is not merely happenstance; it’s not merely the coincidence of Christians living in a hostile world. Christian persecution happens according to God’s will and design for the gospel to advance through a suffering church. Matthew 10:16-18, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake.” That’s the persecution; here’s the divine design behind it: “to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”

First Peter 4:19, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Revelation 6:9-11, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” Christian persecution happens according to God’s design for the gospel to advance through a suffering church. God is not less in control when his saints die than when he keeps his saints alive. Nothing in the universe escapes God’s authority and control, including the persecution of his people. But why do they suffer like this? Why are they persecuted? I want to point you to at least six purposes God has revealed to us when it comes to the suffering of his people.

A Few Clarifications

But before I get to those, I need to make at a few clarifications. The first clarification is that the particular suffering I have in mind this morning is the hostility and ridicule and violence that rises against a Christian pursuing what honors Christ at all costs. In other words, we’re not just talking about the suffering one might encounter for simply “being American” or “being Western;” we’re talking about the suffering one encounters for being in Christ, for belonging to Jesus. We’re not talking about the flack you get for being a “good ol’ boy;” we’re talking about the flack you get when your morality is explicitly grounded in the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Bible often refers to this as suffering “for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10; 1 Pet 3:14) or persecution “for the sake of [Jesus’] name” (Acts 9:16; Phil 1:29) or the risking of your life “for the sake of the gospel” (Acts 15:26; Mark 8:35). Much of what I say about God’s purposes in suffering can also apply to all our suffering in a general sense, but today we’re focusing on the particular suffering related to the uniqueness of our testimony and our public allegiance to Jesus at all costs to us.

The second clarification is that we can have a tendency to think of the “persecuted church” as an entity that’s separate from us—it’s something over there in Afghanistan or North Korea or Mauritania or Laos or Belarus, but that persecuted church is not really part of us. But I want you to consider more seriously that if you belong to Jesus, then you belong to the brothers and sisters experiencing more intense persecution for the faith. You belong to them because you share in the blessings of the same gospel, you share in the same Spirit, you share in the same mission, and you share in the hope of the same kingdom of God. Our identity as Christians is bound up with them in the same household of faith and the same brotherhood (cf. 1 Pet 5:9). And so in the same way that Jesus left heaven to identify with your flesh for your good, Heb 13:3 commands us to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” We are commanded to identify with their brutal sufferings and their tears and care for them accordingly as part of us.

A third clarification: in an age of increasing terrorism—where there is a growing pattern of religious martyrdom like suicidal bombings in the name of radical Islam—I need to clarify that Christian suffering and martyrdom is not the pursuit of death and it does not aim at taking lives to advance the gospel. Christian suffering and martyrdom pursues love even when it means somebody else takes your life. While history sadly proves otherwise, Christians should not take life to advance the gospel, but offer life while laying down their own. When the world dishes out hatred, lies, and violence; we, just like our Savior, respond with love, truth, and self-sacrifice.

Fourth and last clarification: when we look in just a moment at God’s purposes in the suffering of his people, we’re not doing so merely for the persecuted church out there. We’re looking at God’s purposes in the suffering of his people to understand authentic Christian discipleship, period. Yes, it is true even within Scripture that some Christians will suffer more than others (e.g., John 21:18-23), but suffering for the sake of the gospel is just as much our calling as it is theirs. Just think of the number of places in Scripture teaching us that suffering and persecution is a normal, even expected, part of the Christian life. Jesus taught the disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). In Acts 14:22, Paul strengthened the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Second Timothy 3:12 says, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Peter even says that such suffering is our calling. First Peter 2:21, “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.” Jesus and the apostles assume the normal lifestyle of all Christians includes interaction with and opposition from a world hostile to the gospel. The only church the New Testament knows is a suffering church, because there’s a cross we all took up to enter that church. We broke off our love affair with the world and surrendered our lives to a Lord who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) or “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right: “The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but [the cross] meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Looking at the purposes of suffering in the spreading of Christ’s name is not merely to help us think about the brothers and sisters out there, but to prepare the brothers and sisters in here. This sermon is preparation for the sufferings bound up with the basic Christian life, the pursuit of godliness, and the advance of the gospel. I listen when the Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, who suffered fourteen years of imprisonment and torture says, “The role of preparation for suffering…must start now. It’s too difficult to prepare yourself for [suffering] when the Communists put you in prison” (Wurmbrand, “Preparing,” 46). Part of our preparation is remembering that when we suffer for the sake of the gospel, we’re not suffering because things are out of control, or because we must not be called, or because God is not near, or because God must be punishing us, or because everything is just meaningless under the sun. No, when the saints suffer for the sake of the gospel, God has purposes for us to remember in the spread of Christ’s name; and they help us to endure the suffering with patience and trust. What we need most in the times of suffering is not all the answers, but a God we can trust. These purposes help us understand God and his ways in Christ, so that we might learn to trust him now.

Six Purposes for Christian Suffering & Persecution

So, let me now point you to several purposes God has for Christian suffering in the spread of Christ’s name. In fact, we’re going to look briefly at six of them; and each of them relates to and builds on the other.

1. A purpose of Christian persecution is to spread the church’s witness strategically.

One purpose of Christian persecution is to spread the church’s witness strategically. I get this from several places in the Book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And sure enough, in chapter 2, the Holy Spirit does come, the apostles preach in Jerusalem, and the church begins to grow. But it’s not until chapter 8 that we get any kind of outward movement to the nations—to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. And here’s what Luke says scatters them in 8:1-4 (p. 916).

This comes just on the heels of the Jews stoning Stephen to death: “Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.” Little did we know at the beginning of Acts that when Jesus said “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria” that persecution would play such a role in relocating the saints right where God wanted them—in Judea and Samaria, proclaiming to them Christ.

Luke mentions this again in Acts 11:19-20: “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” We’re going to the ends of the earth now, because of God strategically scattering the church’s witness through persecution. And the persecution doesn’t just scatter the church and leave them scared. They go on to proclaim the word—where did that boldness come from?

2. Christian persecution emboldens the church’s witness.

Second, Christian persecution emboldens the church’s witness. We see this implicitly in the way those who are scattered go on preaching the word; but we also see it explicitly in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that he writes them from prison. Phil 1:12-14 (p. 980), “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Again, we see that one of the purposes for persecution is to spread the church’s witness. The whole imperial guard has heard, and everybody knows why Paul’s in prison. Now verse 14: “And [on top of that] most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” These are the Christians back in Rome who aren’t in prison while Paul is in prison under the Roman authorities. Paul’s imprisonment doesn’t cause them to run and hide; it actually gives them confidence and more boldness to speak the word without fear.

Has it ever occurred to you that whenever you hear a story on the internet or read a news release from a ministry like Voice of the Martyrs or receive the prayer inserts once a month when we pray for the nations and the persecuted—has it ever occurred to you that the persecution you read of happening out there is meant to embolden you in here¬? Our hearts have a very difficult time interpreting things that way, especially when we’re sitting in the comforts of America. We’re usually intimidated by authorities putting people in prison for the gospel, not emboldened to preach it all the more. Our minds begin racing to everything we will lose in this world instead of everything we will gain in the age to come. That’s not true freedom; that’s bondage. So, to help free us from that bondage, the Lord also has purpose number three.

3. Christian suffering keeps our longings in the right age.

Third, Christian suffering keeps our longings in the right age. You’re not emboldened to proclaim the gospel by the fact that another brother or sister is merely wearing chains; you’re emboldened by the fact that another brother or sister is wearing chains while still hoping in the resurrection. That’s why Paul tells us later that his longing is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead (Phil 3:10-11). Suffering, especially torture and death—or even worse, the torture and death of your loved ones—puts us face-to-face with the reality of death and the temporary nature of this life. And the question you must answer is, “Do I really believe God raises the dead? Did he really raise Jesus Christ from the dead and will he really raise me? Is he really bringing his eternal kingdom or not?”

That’s what persecutions and hardships even taught the apostle Paul. Paul is not a super-Christian; he’s a man like us whom the Lord had to sanctify through the crucible of suffering. Listen to Paul spell out God’s purpose in his own persecution. This is from 2 Cor 1:8-10: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. [And here’s the purpose.] But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril [i.e., once before in Asia], and he will deliver us [i.e., again in our journies]. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again [i.e., at the resurrection].”

This is how works in his people through suffering and persecution. He means it for our holiness; not for our destruction. He uses it to remind us of the resurrection hope of the gospel, that because God raised Jesus from the dead our lives are not bound up with this present age but with an age that is to come. The world will threaten us with cold prison cells in Siberia, dark retention rooms underground, a whip across your little boy’s back, the poisoning of your food, or subjection to a shooting squad—we may very well despair even of life itself, but not for nothing. God does it to keep our longings in the right age where we will enjoy the Treasure of all treasures, Jesus Christ.

4. Christian persecution displays the value of Jesus Christ.

That’s a fourth purpose God has for Christian persecution, to display the value of Jesus Christ. What I mean is that the value of something is measured by what we’re willing to give in order to have it. Consider Jesus’ parable of the treasure in the field: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). Where do we see the worth of the treasure displayed? The worth of the treasure is displayed in that the man sells everything he has in order to make it his possession.

The same is true of the Christian life: God displays the worth of Jesus Christ to the world when his people are willing to give up everything to have him, even their own lives in this world. Let me just point you to one place where this really shines through, Heb10:34. I’ll begin in verse 32: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property [why?], since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” When you have a better possession and an abiding one in Jesus Christ, the comforts of this present age cannot hold you in bondage. The temporary thrills of the American dream—living life for a job, make a little money, start living for a car, get yourself a house, wife, kids, and a dog, then retire to play golf—those things cannot enslave you, such that when the threats rise of stripping them from you, even unto death, you can still sing of your greater possession in Christ.

In a world of fleeting pleasures vying for everyone’s attention, God means display through the suffering of his people that Jesus surpasses them all. The nations must be helped to see the value of Jesus Christ, not simply through an occasional thank you at the dinner table or even our regular attendance to services on Sunday, but in the self-sacrificial living and dying of his people.

5. Christian suffering exemplifies the way Christ loved us.

That leads us right into a fifth purpose for Christian suffering, namely, we suffer to exemplify the way Christ loved us. That doesn’t mean we exemplify Christ’s atonement for sins. Only Jesus’ death can atone for our sins. He alone is God’s one and only Son; he alone humbled himself to take on our humanity; he alone is without sin; he alone drank the cup of God’s wrath unto death; and he alone can give us an alien righteousness to stand before God on judgment day without fear of hell. Not a single one of us could or ever need to exemplify Jesus’ atoning death. Rather, Jesus’ atoning death is what liberates and motivates us to imitate his love. The nature of his love was that he laid down his life for our eternal good with God the Father. 1 John 3:16 says, that “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us”—that is, for our benefit with God.

The Bible says that we are to follow in Jesus’ steps. Christians are to lay down their lives for the eternal good of others in God; and that only comes with suffering and self-sacrifice. When we live this way, we authenticate with our lives the message of Christ’s love we preach to others. This is much of what is behind Paul’s words in Col 1:24. Paul writes there, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? If we know his death is truly a saving death—that there’s nothing lacking in what it achieved for sinners, that it is totally sufficient to forgive the sins of all who believe—then what could possibly be lacking? What is lacking is the visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to the world; and God intends for that visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to be filled up through the afflictions of his own people.

Think of it, when Christians love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, when Christians entrust themselves to a faithful Judge despite the ridicule they receive, when Christians do not repay evil with evil but overcome evil with good, when Christians return to a village the third time with grace and love after being chased out and stoned, the self-sacrificial love of Jesus goes on display through his people again and again. This is why Paul could speak of “always carrying in [his] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10). We see the same life in 1 Pet 2:20-23: “…if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 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. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

God designed Christian suffering to exemplify the way Christ loved us. Nothing about our lives belongs merely to us; even our own bodies are set apart for God to do with them as he sees fit in helping the world see his love in Jesus Christ more clearly, even when that means death. But such a thought that God might even use us to suffer for his name should cause our hearts to faint ultimately. Will we be tempted to panic? Yes. Will we be tempted to raise the white flag under the severity of circumstances? Yes. But there’s one more purpose for suffering we should cling to when the fiery trials come upon us.

6. Christian suffering magnifies Christ’s all-conquering love.

Lastly, God designed Christian suffering to magnify Christ’s all-conquering love. The saints we will pray for in a few minutes are magnifying the all-conquering love of Christ, because their lives bear witness that our Savior’s all-conquering love cannot be thwarted by death. That’s what the end of Rom 8 is all about and what makes it such a precious text for a suffering church. Let me read Rom 8:35-39 over you to further solidify this reality in your hearts: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That passage is not promising that the love of God in Christ will keep us from suffering, but that the love of God in Christ will keep us through suffering—indeed, the suffering will make God’s love in Christ shine all the more brightly. When nothing can overcome his loving grip on you—not even torture and death (Jesus proved that when he walked out of the grave on your behalf)—then every risk-taking journey to preach Jesus among hostile people becomes opportunity to make the strength of his love visible.

When purposes like these are hidden in your heart, then you’ll be able to say to Communist investigators what Pastor Joseph Tson said to them in the 80s. Get this. After daily threats of death were leveled against Mr. Tson, Mr. Tson responded like so:

“Sir, let me explain how I see this issue. Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. Here is how it works. You know that my sermons on tape have spread all over the country. If you kill me, those sermons will be sprinkled with my blood. Everyone will know I died for my preaching. And everyone who has a tape will pick it up and say, ‘I’d better listen again to what this man preached, because he really meant it: he sealed it with his life.’ So, sir, my sermons will speak ten times louder than before. I will actually rejoice in this supreme victory if you kill me.”

What do you do with a man like that—if you kill him, then Christ’s name is magnified through his blood; you don’t kill him, then Christ’s name is magnified through his preaching? Apparently, Mr. Tson found out another officer had said, “We know that Mr. Tson would love to be a martyr, but we are not that foolish to fulfill his wish.” But listen to how Mr. Tson even responded to that:

“I stopped to consider the meaning of that statement. I remembered how for many years, I had been afraid of dying. I had kept a low profile. Because I wanted badly to live, I had wasted my life in inactivity. But now that I had placed my life on the altar and decided I was ready to die for the gospel, they were telling me they would not kill me! I could go wherever I wanted in the country and preach whatever I wanted, knowing I was safe. As long as I tried to save my life, I was losing it. Now that I was willing to lose it, I found it.”

May God give us the grace to see and respond likewise.