Over the last couple of weeks, we have been considering the inner and outer man and the qualities Paul is exhorting us to develop which will transform our churches. From v14, Paul turns his attention and thoughts away from relationships within the church, towards how we respond to people who are not sympathetic to us. HOW do we respond in the face of persecution?
We have had Rod Whiting from Open Door speak to us recently about the suffering church. It is a fact that TODAY in 2022, 360 million Christians live every day in societies which are hostile to the Gospel. Christians are, demonstrably, the MOST persecuted group of people on the planet.
Most nations which openly and structurally persecute Christians are, generally speaking, not in the free west. HOWEVER, that does not mean that Christians do not feel pressure to capitulate here in what is laughingly described as the free world. A great many more Christians live in superficially free western societies which are as best indifferent to and at worst intolerant towards those who hold to Biblical values. Here in the UK, it seems, there are regularly news items about Christians who are being sacked or sued for refusing to capitulate to modern ideologies. A couple of examples are the Christian guest house which was forced to close because it refused to accommodate someone who wasn’t married (that was a few years ago now), the Christian baker prosecuted for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding (Ashers in N. Ireland), an NHS nurse was sacked for wearing a cross and praying for someone. There is ‘anti-conversion therapy’ legislation currently being put through parliament and which could mean that a Christian who offers prayer and support to someone struggling with their sexuality could be breaking the law and arrested. In Scotland, the Scottish Assembly is creating laws which mean that if you speak out traditional Christian views on marriage and sexuality in the privacy of your own home you are breaking the law and could be prosecuted (I don’t know if it has yet been made law, or is just being proposed, but either way it shows the intention of the Scottish Assembly and their attitude towards those who hold to Biblical values). Even where there is no outright persecution, there is massive manipulation and pressure. I don’t know many Christians who haven’t had to face some form criticism and ridicule from those around them (including family members), or had to defend themselves from verbal attack simply because they believe in Jesus and go to church.
This is just the start guys. And I don’t like sounding like a ‘nay-sayer’, but persecution is coming to the UK like a freight train.
The good news is this.
- Persecution will filter out those people we might describe as ‘culturally Christian’. Those who go to church from habit, or tradition, or because they see it as a place as business or for some reason other than because they have made a conscious choice to follow Jesus. It will very quickly (as they say) separate the men from the boys.
- In every nation where persecution is strong, both currently and historically, the church grows. It also grows at a rate we can only dream of in this country.
- Jesus is with us and He has overcome the world we live in, ‘In this world you will have troubles, but be of good cheer – I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33)
When persecution arrives, how do we respond ? I used to think that we should not focus on persecution because it would discourage us, that what we should do is focus on Jesus, focus on what He is calling us to do and, as my parents would say, ‘cross that bridge when we get to it’. I don’t think that now, we must be ready for it. Jesus certainly predicted persecution for His followers, He said they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. He also said take heart, I have overcome the world. In the garden of Gethsemane, He knew what was coming, but and in his prayer He came to the place where he said to God ‘not my will but yours’. because the Bible suggests that in order to act, it is good to ‘determine in our heart’ what we will do. There is a proverb (not a biblical one!) which says, ‘dig a well before you need water’. If we haven’t determined in our hearts what we will do when it comes, if we haven’t already decided, we run a really high risk of capitulating.
The thing is, when people attack me, I have a number of responses which I’m tempted to make. I want to hit back, I want to run away, I want to justify myself. At the very least, I want to rant at them! Remember, though, that as Christians, our response is none of those things, if we want to rant, we should rant at God — the Psalms show us that. Paul gives us a number of other things we should do.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
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 12:14–21).
Paul suggests some responses that we should make towards people who oppress us …
- Bless others (v14).
- Don’t take revenge, leave the results to God (v17, 19).
- Live at peace with people (v18) (cf. blessed are the peacemakers).
- Take care to be sure YOUR life honours God – whatever anyone else does (vv15, 16, 17).
live a life of Blessing
Bless those who persecute you (v14)
What does it mean to bless someone. There are three distinct types of blessing…
God to Man. When God blesses someone he bestows good on them. E.g Genesis 1:22 God blessed them saying ‘be fruitful and multiply, or Abraham, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing(Genesis 12:2). It might also carry a sense of setting apart, so God ‘blessed’ the sabbath and set it apart for example (Genesis 2:3). In Matthew 5:3–12, Jesus famously declares a number of different blessings under different circumstances …
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Note that there is a reward not just implied, but specifically identified … great is your reward in heaven (Matthew 5:12)
Man to God. E.g. Genesis 24:48 where Abraham’s servant describes, I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham. The psalmist again and again uses the Phrase bless the Lord. In all cases, ‘blessing’ the Lord is a description of worship, exaltation and praise.
Man to Man. Lastly, there is a meaning in blessing where we are called to bless one another. Clearly, we are not in the place of God whereby we can give the kind of blessing God gives to man, and neither should we bless others in the same sense that we should bless God. HE is the only one we worship. Blessing from man to man is most clearly seen in Jesus’ teaching. In the sermon on the mount, probably the most famous sermon in history -. Jesus says this: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43–48).
Luke’s reporting of is says, But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:27–31).
People quite often speak about the ‘golden rule’ which is, do unto others as you would have them do to you. It’s right here – the words of Jesus Himself. But that’s not all Jesus says. For Christians the golden rule is the baseline, not the target!
Do unto others as you’ll have them do to you is the minimum pass requirement, it’s a C+ average, it’s a ‘barely passed’. It almost falls into the ‘what good is it? — even the pagans do that’ category, or implies ‘I’ll only be good to you if I get something out of it’ (you being good to me). In other words, the heart of the action is not the benefit of the other person, it is one’s self, which is not the way of Christ. Being a Christian raises the bar on being just a good member of society, we are called to ‘go the extra mile’ we are to be different. Significantly different.
The way we do that is by blessing people. Even when, or especially when, they are persecuting us. It raises the bar from only blessing those we like or who like us, to blessing everyone, EVEN IF they are opposed to us. In today’s conflict-ridden society, we would be significantly different if we really did this.
Leave it to God.
Do not take revenge … but leave room for God (v19)
As a general rule, people are NOT very good at leaving the results to God. Right back at the start, God makes a promise to Abraham (I will make you a great nation), and Abraham takes his wife’s servant to have a child because he couldn’t see how else God was going to do it. In effect, he tried to give God a helping hand – and look how that turned out (descendants of Ishmael and the Jews, descended from Isaac, are mortal enemies and have been for centuries. Moslems are just the last in a very long line).
I have met loads of Christians who have prayed for all sorts of things and then tried to make it happen by their own efforts rather than leaving it to God. That’s not to dismiss the basic rule of ‘does God expect you to be the answer to your own prayer?’
When it comes to people who hurt and upset us, we are all prone to want to see those who hurt and upset us get their comeuppance, and the temptation to retaliate is very strong.
The trick is to understand WHY it is best to leave things to God when people persecute and hurt u. Here are a few thoughts I believe might help.
The supreme example
of how to react to persecution is Jesus, Although He DID stand His ground on occasion (we have accounts of His arguments with the Pharisees when they tried to trap Him with clever arguments, or when they criticised Him. In fact at one point he calls them children of the devil) ultimately, His example is found prophesied in Isaiah 53 (the passage which describes Jesus as a lamb to the slaughter, He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth Isaiah 53:7), and demonstrated when He was arrested and questioned. The Gospel writers all record that Jesus was silent before His accusers.
Jesus tells us not to fight back.
We’ve already noted this verse, when we were looking at blessing, but it’s relevant here.But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:27–31). Praying for and blessing people who persecute us is something Jesus commands us to do.
The fight, ultimately, is God’s, not ours.
Jude 1:9 records that even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”. James 4:12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?, in other words, James is saying ‘who do you think you are?!’
Exodus 32:33–34 The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 in today’s passage, It is mine to avenge; I will repay. Isaiah 33:22 tells us the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is he who will save us. My point here is that if WE take it upon ourselves to take action against those who persecute us, we are claiming for ourselves something which is God’s prerogative and not ours.
Justice WILL come to them!
There are often reports of people who have got away with some form of crime. An example would be Jimmy Saville. After his death, reports came out about his using his position of influence to systematically engage in behaviour which is not only immoral but also illegal. Had he been alive when they came out his certainly would have been arrested and there would have been a massive court case. It is likely that he would have spent the rest of his life in prison. But he was dead. Had he got away with it? If you are an atheist, the only answer you can offer is ‘yes, he did’. There is no comfort, no justice for his victims. However, Christians believe that we are held to account for deeds performed in this life even after death.
In his vision which is written down in Revelation, the disciple, John, writes this, I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12–15). John’s vision should bring comfort for everyone who has ever suffered at the hands of someone who, it seems, has got away with their evil deeds. Whatever we’ve done, and however much we think we’ve escaped, it’s recorded and we will be judged by God Himself—that is true for EVERYONE, Christian and otherwise. The comfort for Christians is found a few verses later, anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15) — our names ARE written in the book of life .
Live a life of peace
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (v18)
Jesus says, blessed are the peacemakeers (Matthew 5:9), and James 3:18 says that, peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness.
Peace is major quality that we all need today, especially with all of the uncertainty of this life and never knowing what is going to happen next. Watch the news and you will see conflict everywhere—political conflict, ideological conflict, religious conflict, wars and rumours of wars. Jobs are not as secure as they used to be. You never know when the company you work for may be bought out and your job will be gone in a flash. Watch the news and you are bombarded with stories about violence against children, about domestic abuse, a huge proportion of marriages are still ending up in divorce. We are all forced to constantly live under the threat of future terrorist activity, never knowing when or where the next attack will come from — there has never been so much need of peace today! But peace is not just an absence of conflict, it is so much more than that, at it’s root, peace includes things like,
- The presence and experience of right relationships (i.e. it’s not about not having bad relationships, it includes having good ones!)
- The tranquility of soul – inner peace. Jeremiah 16:6, and in Matthew 11:29 Jesus says take my yoke.., both refer to this thing called rest for your souls
- Then there’s a sense of well-being and fulfilment that comes from God and is dependent on His presence. So many Christians struggle with this, yet we are called to be people of peace in the midst of a conflicted world.
The quality of peace should be one of the main qualities that you should try and develop in your life. Without the peace of God operating in your life, you could become very easily rattled, shaken, tormented, and knocked right off your game in the Lord the first time any kind of adversity should ever come your way.
Jesus is the PRINCE of peace (Isaiah 9:6 — For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.) and He can bring us peace!
We must remember that like nearly everything else in life, the solutions God offers are not the same as the solutions the world does. If you want inner peace, My peace I give you you – not as the world gives … John 14:27
- the world’s solution is—get rid of the thing that you are finding difficult. Follow your heart, learn the truth that ‘you are enough’, read any number of self help books or listen to their podcasts, and you won’t miss it. The solution to your unhappiness, to your lack of peace lies within. If you simply make personal changes, up to and including surgical procedures to reveal the ‘authentic you’, then your life will be peaceful and fulfilled.
- God’s solution is not found internally. It is wrapped up in a message we call the gospel. Follow the prince of peace, take his yoke on ourselves and we will find real, lasting peace.
When we proclaim the message of the gospel, we are proclaiming a message of peace, only we can show to others the true peace which is to be found in our relationship with God. The essence of witness is seen in our ability to find peace in the midst of conflict, to seek peace with an enemy (why else do you think Jesus chose a Samaritan for his parable?), and to take selfless action to gain it? When we do that, we are walking in Jesus’ footsteps. He came to bring peace to humanity even while we were still enemies of God:Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation (Colossians 1:21–22). We CANNOT fully proclaim this message if we are constantly in conflict—with each other and with the world.
Clearly, we are in a war. The longest war in history. It started in Genesis 3 and it’s still going on today. So far it’s been a 6,000 year war, but our enemies are not the people around us. Our enemy is described by Paul in Ephesians 6 – a very well known passage For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
And we fight this enemy in a different way …
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3–5).
Other people are NOT our enemy, so we can live in peace with them. AND even when we fight evil in this world, we fight it in the realm of the mind, not the physical realm (demolishing arguments, taking thoughts captive, and making them obedient to Christ).
Honour God – whatever anyone else does
We all have a tendency to compare ourselves with others. From childhood, a justification for wanting to do something is ‘everyone else is doing it’. The basic rule for our faith is this: Your faith is yours, no one else’s, you cannot save anyone else with your faith, and no one else can save you by theirs (I’ll set aside what Paul says about the faith of parents covering their children in 1 Corinthians 7:12–14v for the moment).
Here are a few verses to encourage you to follow God for yourself. Warnings against looking around at others.
Commandment 10, Exodus 20:17 says, You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Luke 15 (prodigal son). The older brother is upset and goes outside. Why? Because he is comparing his lot with the party his father has thrown for his brother. He says, All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends (Luke 15:29). the father’s response? you are always with me and everything I have is yours. In other words, there’s no need to compare yourself with your brother, there is no competition, there never has been!
John 21:20–22 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me, I don’t need to explain that one.
True Christian living is about identification, not comparison. Paul says, mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice. Puts me in mind of Jesus’ words in Luke 7:31–35 (echoed in Matthew 11:16–19)
To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread n or drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
But wisdom is proved right by all her children.
Who is Jesus describing? The generation of Jews who were looking for messiah and missed Him!
Paul wraps up what he has said with one sentence …
Romans 12:21 do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Perhaps it would have saved a lot of time if I’d just read that out!!