Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Persecuted Church

Today is the fourth day in our 41st week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures* today are:  Jeremiah 38, 39, 52; 1 Peter 2

I love the Feedjit widget on this blog.  It's located in the right hand window.  If you click on it, you can see all the places around the world, where people who read my blog live.  There's virtually no place on the inhabited earth where I haven't had people visit from.  As a result of this global diversity, I can't presume that my readership will all share the same things in common.  For instance, American Christianity looks quite a bit different from the church in China.  Some of the things that I write about are decidedly American, in scope and experience.  Other things have a broader application.

Today's Old Testament and New Testament scriptures talk about suffering for the sake of doing good.  Americans are blessed in that our political structure (for now) provides freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unjust search and seizure, and other liberties that empower the church to continue its mission.  Many other nations around the world don't offer such freedoms to their citizens, and the church is forced to move underground.  

When I say that Americans are blessed, that is an understatement.  In fact, we are sometimes clueless to the plight of persecuted believers worldwide.  It has been calculated that more Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined. And we're on track in the 21st century, to beat the last century's record.   Besides the extremes of genocide and martyrdom, Christians in every nation have known persecution of one kind or another.  In some places, this persecution has involved imprisonment, torture, maiming, and economic sanctions that leave Christians in poverty.  Americans who haven't lived through these horrors can't truly appreciate what countless believers around the world experience, all for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of doing the right thing.  We may experience workplace discrimination, teasing on the playground, or social stigmas because we stand for Jesus--but these are really nothing compared to the sufferings of many.   

No matter where you live, if you're a Christian in the world today, then it's likely that you're living a counter-cultural lifestyle, when compared to those who live around you.  North America and Western Europe, which used to be founded on the principles of Christianity, can no longer be truly called "Christendom."  The church is growing fastest in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, yet true Christianity is still not the dominant cultural force in most of the world.  Most believers live in what might be called a "pre-Christian" or "post-Christian" culture, but any way you slice it, is decidedly "un-Christian." Peter wrote to Christians who were living in a pagan society when he said:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority,  or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.  Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.  Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.  For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.  But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.  To this you were called,because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”  For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:11-25).

Not only is Christianity counter-cultural, but the tactics Peter gives us are counter-intuitive.  

When sinful desires "wage war" against your soul, Peter's solution isn't "Give the devil a black eye."  He simply says, "abstain."  

Submit yourself to every human authority.  Even those that have the power to punish you when you haven't done anything wrong.  Submit even to that.  

Suffer, even as Christ suffered.

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4).

Our weapons that change the hearts of our oppressors are kindness, prayer, purity, setting a good example by doing good deeds, and living lives that are beyond reproach.  

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).

In Jeremiah 38:1-13, we read about how the prophet was mistreated and left for dead, but how he was rescued by someone who had a conscience:

Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehukal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said,  “This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’  And this is what the Lord says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’”

Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.”

“He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.”
 So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.

But Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate,  Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him,  “My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.”

 Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek the Cushite, “Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.”

So Ebed-Melek took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern.  Ebed-Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, “Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.” Jeremiah did so,  and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.

Do you find yourself in a similar position to that of Jeremiah?  Falsely accused, misunderstood, persecuted, and abused, do you feel like you're sinking so deep in the mud that you might die?  Pray for God to provide an Ebed-Melek for you.  If you live a holy life, people will see the goodness of God that lives in you.  When you suffer persecution, God will provide someone who has a conscience, to be in the right place at the right time, to bring you aid.  

Do you find yourself in a similar position to that of Ebed-Melek?  Can you render assistance to someone who has been wronged for doing good?  Maybe God has put you in just the right place at the right time, to give them your aid.

Remember to pray for the persecuted church.  By your prayers, you touch the heavenly realms.  Things happen when we pray.  Even from the comfort of your home, you might be able to be an Ebed-Melek for someone in need.

*Scriptures taken from the NIV

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