November 8, 2015

Suffering Loss with a Better Possession in Our Sights

Speaker: Bret Rogers Topic: Persecution Passage: Hebrews 10:32–39

Sermon from Hebrews 10:32-39 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on November 8, 2015
International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

We’re spending our time here in light of today being the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. After the sermon, we’ll join in a season of prayer for the persecuted, and my hope is that this passage gives you much to pray through for yourself and for the persecuted.

Four Clarifications on the Persecuted Church

I do want to clarify a few things, however. Persecution is sometimes a tricky subject, because Christians aren’t the only ones who experience religious persecution, and they’re not the only ones with a theology of martyrdom to advance its message—I think the recent events with groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have made that clear for all of us. So, I want to be careful with what we’re talking about.

The first clarification is that the persecution I have in mind is the ridicule and violence that rises against a Christian for pursuing what honors Jesus. We’re not talking about persecution for being American. We’re talking about the suffering one encounters for belonging to Jesus. The Bible calls this suffering “for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10), or persecution “for the sake of [Jesus’] name” (Acts 9:16).

A second clarification: in an age of increasing terrorism—where there’s a growing pattern of religious martyrdom like suicidal bombings in the name of radical Islam—I should clarify that Christian martyrdom is not the pursuit of death and it does not take the lives of others to advance its message. Christians pursue love even when it means somebody else takes your life. Church history will sometimes prove otherwise; but biblical Christianity doesn’t take life to advance the gospel; it offers life even when our enemies crucify us for it.

A third clarification is that we can have a tendency to think of the persecuted church as an entity besides us—it’s something in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Laos or the rest of the non-Western world…just not here. But if you belong to Jesus, then you belong to our persecuted brothers and sisters. You share in the blessings of the same gospel, you share in the same Spirit, and you share in the same mission. And so in the same way that Jesus left heaven to identify with your flesh for your good, Hebrews 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 identify with their sufferings and tears and loneliness, and we care for them as part of us.

Which leads to one final clarification: when we look in just a moment at Hebrews 10, we’re not doing so merely for the persecuted church out there. We’re looking at Hebrews 10 to understand Christianity, period. Normal Christianity includes opposition from a world hostile to Jesus (cf. Acts 14:22; John 15:19; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 2:21). Hebrews 10 is not a picture of a radical form of Christianity versus a more quaint form of Christianity; Hebrews 10 is a picture of Christianity, period, in its radical treasuring of Jesus. This sermon is to prepare you to suffer. As Richard Wurmbrand once taught us, “It’s too late to prepare for suffering when the Communists throw you in prison…Nobody resists who hasn’t forsaken the pleasures of this world beforehand.” So, with that in mind, let’s turn now to our passage. I’ll begin reading in verse 32...

32But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35Therefore don’t throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” 39But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Hebrews: Jesus & Perseverance

To this point, the writer of Hebrews has spent a lot of time unpacking the person and work of Jesus Christ. We need a new Adam; the world we live in is a wreck, because of the first Adam’s sin—and Jesus Christ is our new Adam (2:5-9). He comes to make the world right again. We need a faithful King to defeat our greatest enemies of sin, death, and the devil—and Jesus Christ is that King (1:3, 13; 14-15; 10:13). God is putting all enemies beneath his feet as we speak. We need a Priest to represent us and to take away our sins and to restore our broken relationship with God; and Jesus Christ is that Priest (1:3; 7-9). The sacrifice he offered on the cross reconciles us to God.

The writer of Hebrews unpacks the person and work of Jesus like this. But another thing he does is fill his letter with exhortations to keep the church clinging to Jesus. He knows the teaching of Jesus that only the one who endures till the end will be saved (Matt 24:13). He says that much in verse 36, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” No endurance, no reception of the promise (cf. Heb 10:27, 38-39). He knows these things. He feels the severe consequences of letting go of Christ.

Which is why he’s so serious when he looks into the life of this church and sees them wavering. You remember hanging on the monkey-bars as a kid, and you feel your fingers getting tired, and one by one they start coming lose. He sees this happening to the church. Their grip on Christ is starting to give way.

Internal Passivity & External Persecution

And part of it’s because of their own apathy. They’re growing passive in their walk with Christ (2:3; 5:11); lazy in the fight against sin (6:12); drifting away from the gospel (2:1); coasting with the comforts of their affluent society (4:14; 10:26). That’s part of it. The other part of it’s because of persecution. Enemies are doing terrible things to them to persuade them to forsake Jesus—maybe things like I read about this week…soldiers beating your children bloody to get you to forsake Christ; men putting starving rats in your jail cell at night so you can’t ever sleep; prison guards using excrement as jelly on your toast in the morning.

So there’s internal passivity loosening their grip and external persecution telling them, “Just let go of Jesus already!” And you can see him addressing both sides of the problem in our passage. He addresses the internal passivity. For instance, verse 32, “Recall the former days”—don’t just sit there and sulk; use your mind; engage your remembrance of how faithful Jesus is to you. Or verse 35, “Don’t throw away your confidence…you have need of endurance.” You can feel him pleading with the church to come out of its apathy and engage in proactive, passionate pursuit of Jesus.

Then he also addresses the external persecution. But look at the way he does it. He has just finished warning them severely in verses 26-31—basically, “don’t spurn the Son of God and go to hell.” And then he says, “but” in verse 32. It’s his pastoral way of coming in after a firm, severe warning—to come in and say, “But I know that’s not true of you, brothers and sisters. You know you don’t want to spurn the Son of God. You know why? I’ve seen your endurance before. And I want you to join me in recalling those days, because those days had a Treasure at their center. And I don’t want you letting go of that Treasure.”

A Lot of Suffering for the Church

So what did those former days include? Two things—a lot of suffering for the church, and a better possession in their sights. Let’s take them one at a time and then see how the two are related. To begin, we see a lot of suffering for the church.

Verse 32, “Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened [he’s speaking about their conversion there], you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” So conversion to Christianity doesn’t mean security in the world, it means suffering in the world—“you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” There’s a word picture here—“You got in the arena with suffering and put up a great fight,” is the idea. The sufferings had even come in different forms.

Personal sufferings

For instance, we see personal suffering. Verse 33, “sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction.” Reproach has to do with verbal abuse. Maybe an example would be the crowds who crucified Jesus and the robbers who were crucified with Jesus—they reviled Jesus, wagging their heads and mocking him on the cross (cf. Matt 27:39-44).

The other word, affliction, has more to do with different kinds of physical abuse—like imprisonment and beatings with rods and depriving individuals of basic necessities like good shelter and food (2 Cor 6:4; Phil 4:12-14; Col 1:24; Heb 13:3). I read some of Richard Wurmbrand’s book this week, Tortured for Christ, and read of how his persecutors would leave them out in the cold till they nearly froze to death, and then they’d bring them back inside to thaw them out—and do it repeatedly.

Partnership sufferings

And then we also see partnership sufferings. This is suffering that rises, because you choose to identify publicly with the others in your church who are suffering. End of verse 33, “and sometimes being partners with those so treated.” And then he explains in verse 34 what he’s talking about: “for you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.”

Let’s pretend for a moment. Let’s just say that things keep going south in our society, and a few folks in this church end up in jail. And you know they’re lonely and you find out they’re not being fed well either, and you feel the pain with them. Right? When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. We feel their pain and their hunger and their loneliness, and we want to show compassion, we want to go visit them.

But you know that if you go public with your partnership, people are going to find out and they’re probably going to make your life miserable. Maybe they don’t put you in jail, but they start plundering your property. When you hear, “plundering your property,” don’t just think they stole your wallet out of your car, or smashed your iPhone, or bypassed your identity-theft protection. When you hear, “plundering your property,” think confiscating all your belongings and sending you into a life of poverty, where nobody else wants to hire you except for unjust purposes—and there’s no filing for unemployment benefits.

That’s the cost these Christians were facing, as they became partners with those in prison. This isn’t changing your Facebook icon to identify with someone; partnership means losing your face. Please take note of this compassion—ready to give it all up if it means taking my sister a sandwich in jail, or sitting and praying for a few minutes with my brother behind bars. It’s the compassion that says, “You know, that guy sometimes got under my skin in care group, but I’m going to be the hands and feet of Jesus to him, even if it means a Molotov cocktail sails through my kids’ window tonight.” That’s the idea here with the plundering of your possessions in the path of compassion.

A Better Possession in Our Sights

But even that’s not giving enough credit to the remarkable grace at work in the lives of these believers. One word makes all the difference, joyfully—“you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” This is where we see a better possession in their sights. I read over this passage with a couple of brothers this past Tuesday; and when I finished, one of them looked up broken and said, “Man, I get mad when somebody steals my parking spot.” And I had to admit to him, “Yeah, I’m right there with you—convicted and in need of grace.”

A joy that points to a supremely valuable possession

We get upset when things are taken away from us—and taken from us, not because we’re sharing the gospel with a lost world, but just taken from us. We get upset when things don’t go the way we wanted them to go, even when it has nothing to do with our Christian interaction with the world. That’s way far removed from what this passage is teaching us. This joy points us to a supremely valuable possession.

This passage isn’t just pressing us into a life where we don’t get mad about that kind of stuff anymore. It isn’t even pressing us into a life that merely puts up with loss because of our faith. It presses us into a life that rejoices when others say all kinds of evil about you, to quote Jesus (Matt 5:12). It presses us into a life that sings when you’re released from prison and beaten (Acts 5:40-41). It presses us into a life that joyfully accepts the plundering of our property (Heb 10:34). This is Christianity.

I want to be like this, and I know you want to be like this. I’ve talk with many of you. You see where you are in relation to this passage. It exposes where your treasures really lie. That’s what God’s word does—it’s sharper than any two-edged sword; it discerns the intentions of our heart (Heb 4:12). You can look at this and see where you need to be, where you need to grow, what you need to give up.

But let me say this: we won’t get anywhere unless we have the same Treasure that these people had. And that takes conversion. The only way that you can joyfully accept the plundering of your property is if you know that you have another possession that’s worth way more than all your stuff. The joyful acceptance of loss comes when a superior possession is in our sights and treasured in our hearts.

That’s the cause of their joy in verse 34. If you asked, “How does anybody joyfully accept the plundering of their property in the path of compassion?” the end of verse 34 gives us the answer: “since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Joy in suffering loss comes only when you know that you have a better possession that trumps all other possessions. It’s not saying the losses won’t in some ways grieve you; but it is saying the losses will be incomparable to the joy you have in the better and abiding possession. The joy says something about the superior value of the better possession. It’s so valuable that you can still sing from fullness even when everything in this world is stripped away. I want that possession!

Jesus Christ in God’s presence, the possession of all possessions

So, what is this superior, joy-producing-in-the-face-of-suffering possession? The writer of Hebrews tells us what the better and abiding possession is; and I’m going to summarize it for you, and then show you where I got it. The possession that dwarfs all other possessions is Jesus Christ in God’s presence in his unshakable kingdom.

This word, “better”—a better possession—has regularly been applied to the person and work of Jesus throughout Hebrews. Jesus has a better name than the angels in heaven (1:3). He gives us a better hope by giving us access to God (7:19), because his blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel—namely, forgiveness (12:24). He establishes a better covenant (7:22) for his people who will participate in a better resurrection (11:35) and then go on to live in a better country (11:16). All throughout, Jesus is at the heart of everything that is better. So I take Jesus to be at the heart of this better and abiding possession.

And when we possess Jesus by faith, Jesus brings us right into God’s most holy presence. That’s been impossible for any human since Adam fell into sin. We’re all dead and separated from God. But now Jesus does it for us—he brings us into God’s presence. Look at 6:19-20, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.” Jesus entered God’s presence as a forerunner, and being a forerunner means you have others coming behind you. It says in 2:10 that Jesus is going to bring many sons to glory with him. So we inherit Jesus in God’s presence.

Then, to top it off, we enjoy Jesus in God’s presence in a kingdom where we can never lose him. This is Hebrews 12:26-28: “At that time [God’s] voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken…”

You know why the kingdom of God can’t be shaken? Because its designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11:10, “[Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” God is infinite in wisdom and knowledge and power. When he builds something, it lasts. It can’t be shaken. That’s not true of worldly kingdoms. They can be shaken, but God’s cannot. And if his kingdom can’t be shaken, then the rest you find in that kingdom can’t be shaken, and the joy you find in that kingdom can’t be shaken, and the riches of that kingdom can’t be shaken, and the peace in that kingdom can’t be shaken, and your relationship with God can’t be shaken—nothing about it can be shaken! That’s where I want to be, and this too is part of the possession, Hebrews is telling us.

Possessing Jesus means true freedom to love

The superior possession, then, is Jesus Christ in God’s presence in his unshakable kingdom. When you have this better and abiding possession, the comforts of this present age cannot hold you in bondage. Freedom to spend the bulk of your life kicking back with ESPN and Netflix, while people are perishing around you, is not true freedom, America. Living for a job so you can support your hobbies and your bucket list till you die is not true freedom, America. That’s bondage to possessions that are inferior to Jesus. “We’re far too easily pleased,” as C. S. Lewis would put it.

When the possessions of this world control you—that is, they excite you too much when you accumulate them, or they suck away your joy when they’re taken away, or they keep you from obeying Jesus’ commands—that’s bondage. Freedom to live and to show compassion comes when the superior Treasure in Jesus Christ arrests your soul, such that when the threats rise of stripping all these Western comforts from you, you sing! Such that when you set Christ up against the cost of partnering with your brother in prison, it’s easy to go out.

Only one possession truly matters, and he is Jesus Christ. Jesus + nothing = everything. Everything – Jesus = nothing. If you’re not a Christian, I would ask you to please consider Jesus. Stop looking at the church, pick up a Bible, and read about the infinite worth of Jesus, and then set him up against any earthly possession, and he will win every time. He is the radiance of the glory of God. He is infinite in worth and value and beauty. He died to bring you into God’s presence. And he rose from the dead to establish an unshakable kingdom. Don’t find your sense of worth and your meaning in life in stuff, in your job and your money and your fancy yard and your kids and your sports. Those things are all made and will be shaken. Find everything in the person of Jesus. And that goes for all of us, not just our non-Christian friends.

We, too, must understand that only one possession truly matters in life. Don’t put too much value on the wrong things—the things that can be shaken. Invest yourself in the better possession of Jesus Christ and his unshakable kingdom. Let the sufferings of this present age shake off your attachments to this world, and let them all—even when that suffering comes from the hands of your enemies—let those sufferings remind you of the greater treasure you possess in Jesus. Saturate your mind with the Bible, so that you’re not deceived by sin and this world that will say otherwise.

If you want to prepare yourself for suffering, treasure the person of Jesus; he is more than enough. Make yourself so rich in Christ that you have everything to give for the sake of others. That’s my only call to you this morning. Make yourself rich in Christ. Pour over his word. Study him together. Declare his excellencies. Soak in his truth. Keep a vision of his glory in front of you. Walk with him in prayer. Live so your kids see he’s everything to you. Say these things to one another—“Don’t throw away your confidence…he’s too precious!” He’s the only possession that matters, and he’ll be enough for you in suffering loss.

A Truly Beautiful Bride

I’ll close with a story that Richard Wurmbrand tells in Tortured for Christ, and then we’ll pray together for ourselves—that God would change our hearts to treasure Christ like this—and we’ll pray especially for the persecuted church—that they will cling to Christ as their better and abiding possession. Anyway, the story goes like this…

One of our workers in the Underground Church was a young girl. The Communist police discovered that she secretly spread Gospels and taught children about Christ. They decided to arrest her. But to make the arrest as agonizing and painful as they could, they decided to delay her arrest a few weeks, until the day she was to be married. On her wedding day, the girl was dressed as a bride—the most wonderful, joyous day in a girl’s life! Suddenly, the door burst open and the secret police rushed in.

When the bride saw the secret police, she held out her arms toward them to be handcuffed. They roughly put the manacles on her wrists. She looked toward her beloved, then kissed the chains and said, “I thank my heavenly Bridegroom for this jewel He has presented me on my marriage day. I thank Him that I am worthy to suffer for Him.” She was dragged off, with weeping Christians and a weeping bridegroom left behind. They knew what happens to young Christian girls in the hands of Communist guards. Her bridegroom faithfully waited for her. After five years she was released—a destroyed, broken woman, looking thirty years older. She said it was the least she could do for her Christ. Such beautiful Christians are in the Underground Church.

You know what? Such beautiful Christians will be in this church too, when Christ is treasured like we’ve spoken of today. I’ve walked with you, some of you for ten years now. You’re not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. Let’s pray for this sort of beauty to characterize us. Let’s pray that God change our hearts to treasure Christ above all. When he’s beautiful to us, then we’ll sing too when we’re persecuted in the path of compassion.

And let’s pray especially that those who are persecuted would keep clinging to Christ. I’ve sat across the table from a brother in Central Asia—I’ve seen the tears in his eyes when he realizes the cost of following Jesus. And I’ve seen the tears in the missionary’s eyes as they showed him that Christ was better that acceptance by his friends and better than his college scholarships and better than his family. Pray for perseverance and strength to love, and for help in treasuring Jesus amidst suffering loss.

Let’s do that now in clusters of about 4-6 people. Use the blue insert as a prayer guide. If you’re not a Christian, you don’t have to participate. But I’d encourage you at least to share that with someone during this time. And if you’re a member of Redeemer, spend this time welcoming and talking with our non-Christian guests about questions they may have. But let’s take the next 15 minutes or so to pray together, and then Wes will come close us at the end for the offering.