Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Comfort in Times of Persecution

There is much meaning in our golden text today and all of it relevant to Christians today.  Those of us watching the world see the way the wind is blowing.  Already any who call on the name of our Lord Jesus in many parts of the world face severe persecution and even death, as is reportedly going on in Syria today.  But what about those of us in Western lands where the right to worship as we choose is traditionally respected?

Those lands are becoming increasingly secular, and just as happened under the secularism of the French Revolution those calling on the name of Christ are increasingly coming under attack.  We’re already mocked as out of touch with society and unenlightened.  As society pushes us into the margins while it celebrates the losing from all moral restraint laws are promulgated to marginalize us even further and even punish us for taking a stand for God’s standards.

On campus, Christian speech is relegated to hate speech and students taking a stand for God’s way receive failing grades or even find themselves put out of school altogether for their stand.  Hate speech laws are used to silence us, as in the case of a minister in Canada who was punished for the act of posting a billboard with a quotation from the Bible on God’s position on homosexuality.  A couple was fined in New Mexico for declining to take a job memorializing a gay commitment ceremony, something which wasn’t even legal at the time.  Yet that didn’t matter, punishing the couple for standing up for Godly morals was more important than little things like legality.  The same for another couple who refused to let an old church building they owned be used for a gay wedding, and one could go on.

The fact is that we who call upon the name of Jesus Christ, whether wheat or weeds, are now coming under a secular government intent on bringing all under its thumb and allowing none to question the new orthodoxy motivated by Christophobia.  That means one thing, persecution.  Many are in shock that this could take place in a land where freedom of religion is enshrined in its foundation document.  Others now fear this new development.  Could it happen to me?  When?  How?  Yet God’s word gives us plenty of reason to have comfort as we watch events unfold.

Our golden text at 1 Pet. 5:10 gives us assurance and explains the purpose of persecution.  We are assured that after undergoing suffering God will, “restore, confirm, strengthen and establish” us.  Yes, he will restore our equilibrium, confirm our calling in him, strengthen us through our suffering and establish us strong in his truth and way.  The thing is that we aren’t really perfect or ready at our calling for the role God has called us to.  We are nothing more than raw material needing further work before we become fit for his purpose for us in heaven.  We need to be purified and then strengthened for our job up there, which brings us to the first picture from the scriptures which comes to mind.

As the time for the writing of the Old Testament drew near the prophet Malachi was inspired to write a prophecy which is quite applicable to our subject:

"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. (Mal 3:1-3; ESV)

Fuller’s soap is a mineral which used to be used to bleach fine linen to a pure white color.  It is also kind of harsh, it had to be to get that sought after pure white.  But the one we seek here is the picture of the refiner in verses 2 and 3.  The refiner mentioned is generally recognized to be the messiah whom we know to be Jesus Christ.  The “sons of Levi,” or the tribe of Levi, was a type for the household of faith in the Gospel age.  So the picture presented to us is that of our Lord Jesus refining those of us called by God to his Church.

Recall that we wrote earlier that we are all raw material.  Even is the raw material is natural gold, it still has to be removed from what little base material which clings to it and then refined by the fire to the point that all impurities are removed and the gold is pure.  That is what persecution and sufferings are, they are the fire which our lord uses to purify us and make us into the finest of gold, fit to be members of his heavenly bride as well as co-rulers in his kingdom.  Just as gold undergoes adversity to reach its purity, so must we.  But there is another biblical picture which applies.

In Revelation chapter twenty-one we are presented with the wondrous picture of the New Jerusalem descending out of heaven.  Of course it is the Church, and one part of the awesome spectacle is drawn to our attention when it tells us “And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald…” (Rev 21:19)  We are informed that the twelve foundations of the holy city are garnished, or adorned with all sorts of precious stones, something which no picture of the scene we’ve seen really shows.  Since the foundations are the Apostles, the precious stones decorating those foundations are likely members of the church, thus we are in part likened to precious jewels of the finest of work.

In our teenage years we had the hobby of lapidary.  That means we worked and polished valuable stones.  The stones had to be cut, then ground down to their rough shape before being polished, which was done by more grinding down of the stones with finer and finer grades of material until they had that shine so smooth one could see themselves in it like a mirror.  Well does that illustrate the process of turning those called to heaven into those fines and precious jewels which adorn the City of God!

Just like the precious jewels which start out as rough stones, our Lord uses adversity to shape and polish those rare finds into the best of jewels.  In the literal process of lapidary as much as half of the stone or even more may be lost in the process.  The idea is to remove all of the extraneous material and flaws we have as imperfect human beings to reveal and accentuate the beauty within.  That means for us revealing our character flaws and grinding them away until we become ready to fit in the place in the Church which is reserved for us at our calling.  However, we must cooperate in that process if we want to be set by our Lord in that place.

Sufferings, including under persecution is that polishing process.  Far from fearing it or trying to put it off we should welcome it, as James pointed out in his letter to our ancient brethren (James 1:2-4).  Now that doesn’t mean we are to seek out extreme persecution, we are allowed to flee that if a way out is available which does not compromise our Christian principles.  We are also permitted to challenge laws which criminalize our Christian freedom, such as hate speech laws and requirements which compromise our Christian principles in lands where there still is some semblance of justice, as some are doing even now.

Even in lands where such open official persecution doesn’t exist we may still find ourselves persecuted socially.  In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his listeners:

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Mat 5:10-12)

Yes, we may undergo the suffering of having our good names slandered by those who hate the truth for our stand for our Lord.  That is no trivial matter, as anyone so slandered can tell us.  More and more right here in the United States of America secular forces are marginalizing Christians and equating them with crazy people and hateful fanatics.  We are being driven out of the public sphere and towards the underground.  The media from news to entertainment portrays us in ways which amount to lies.  Those who take a Christian stand often find themselves mocked and slanderous rumors spread about them.  While such things aren’t nearly as pervasive here as they could be, it looks like they are well on the way to getting worse.

In that last quotation we also find how the Lord wants us to react.  Just as James wrote his brethren to “count it all joy,” Jesus told his disciples and others to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad.”  Why should we do that, and how can it help us as things get worse.  Paul gave us a reason:

If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.  (Heb 12:7-11)

Remember the point in the golden text about confirming?  When we undergo our refining and polishing God confirms that we are indeed his children, a part of the household of faith with whom he is dealing.  That is a wonderful reason for rejoicing and submitting to those sufferings the same way Jesus did, without complaint.  That knowledge also helps us to endure and even use such trials as tools to help in our own molding by finding and rooting out any flaws the trials may reveal to us.  Paul acknowledges that those trials may be hard and burdening at times.  Yet he also reminds us that afterwards they bear peaceable and wonderful fruit.

So in conclusion, as we see things getting worse it is not ours to fear for the future.  Never forget that the future will get bleaker for all at this point as mankind descends further into the darkness.  As a consequence the world will hate us even more.  So persecution we are to expect persecution as even nominally Christian lands abandon any pretense of following the way of the Master and turn on those who do.  How hard and burdensome such trials may be we do not know for sure.  However, we shouldn’t let ourselves worry over it.  Everything is in God’s hands and he assures us that whatever he permits to befall us is for our good (Rom. 8:28).  So we should move forward and work in harmony with our Lord and Master secure in that fact and assured that what comes our way he will help us and comfort us in our time of trouble.