Last week we talked about how the hard times which come our way as Christians are powerful opportunities to grow in Christ and unique chances to prove our faith to a lost world. But many verses of Scripture speak of a very specific kind of struggle which the Christians of the early church were experiencing—trials which came as a direct result of their love and obedience to Christ. Trials which threatened their reputations, their way of life and their very lives.
For the first 300 years of the early church, there were intermittent times of severe persecution alternating with reluctant tolerance. During the more severe rises of persecution, they suffered extreme tortures and ridicule, imprisonment, loss of property, and horrid executions. They became social outcasts and often had to meet in secret. Christians were often more despised by the people of society than the government making them easy targets for blame and persecution.
Christians suffered under a false charge from Emperor Nero—the aftermath of the great Fire of Rome in 64AD, purposefully chosen for false blame, because they were already so despised by the majority of the people. The Annals, written about by Cornelius Tacitus, a senator and historian of the Roman Empire (Born 56AD, died 120AD) Don't just focus on the persecution, but the reasons for it—the outright hate and animosity towards Christians from the people as a whole, the guilt placed on them by society. And the scope of persecution and the hatred by the common people, written about by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, author and governor of Ancient Rome (Born 61 AD, died 113 AD), corresponding with Emperor Trajan about how to deal with the Christians under his authority, because he is having to kill so many. Christians were seen as stubborn, rebellious, troublemakers who were quickly growing and spreading and ad to be stopped. Yet even here, they had proof of the harmless lifestyle they led. And lastly, listen to this Roman lawyer and theologian, Tertullian (Born 115AD). Writing as a convert from paganism to Christianity, to a hostile audience, in defense of the persecuted Christians of his time: Tertullian, Apology, 50.
These writings describe early Christians as people who prayed for the Emperor, obeyed the law, cared for the hurting and sick, met privately and harmlessly, and acted loving towards all. How did they become such a persecuted group? Because they were seen as a threat, first to the Jewish religion 0Ttreatening their way of life); they were seen as a threat to the pagan gods of Rome; rumors spread of cannibalism and incest (due to Communion and loving brothers and sisters in Christ); because even though they loved, accepted and served those around them, they could not partake of the worldly ways of life (making the masses see them as intolerant haters of men); because they would not follow any law that forced them to break God's Laws and Principles (such as worshiping the emperor as god, etc.). Stop and seriously consider the reasoning you've just heard. Is it not horrifyingly familiar to the pattern that we see arising today? Is it not the exact reputation Christians seem to be building? With the same justification for hostility? We are seen as the intolerant ones of society—the bigots and haters who judge everyone simply because we cannot indulge in the mainstream moral choices and lifestyles, even if we are showing love and acceptance to others as we ourselves refrain. We are seen as troublemakers and even lawbreakers because we are persuaded by our faith not to participate in lifestyles and legalized sins that are embraced by the culture, and we are often ridiculed and attacked most passionately by those with religious motives because we threaten their way of life: the atheist groups who believe such ignorant talk of a Creator should be silenced, the progressive movements which often claim we do not represent the real god of love and twist our love for God and men into apparent hate and discrimination for not embracing the ways of the world. The comparison is undeniable; the progression from here, very predictable. We say we see the signs that we are nearing the end, and yet dread and hope this doesn’t come. The biggest reason for persecution is not the list above, but that they reject the one we represent, so it had to come. We must accept that within our lifetimes, our faith may cause us to become public disgraces that everyone dislikes (seen as haters); we may suffer discrimination in being hired or owning businesses; we may have friends and family that turn on us as bigots; we may be excluded socially by many people; we may even be targeted for harassment or violence; we may suffer legally for not supporting laws that are against God; we may have rules placed upon the church, causing us to change how or where we meet for worship; we may even have other churches to attack us publicly for our beliefs. Some of these things are already occurring in lesser degrees; some of these things are brewing under the surface even now.
Based upon God's Word, and the examples His church left for us in Scriptures and history, how are we to handle the winds of change that are clearly blowing in our culture? How are we to act in a society that has begun to tolerate our beliefs and our very presence with more and more hostility? Scriptures are very abundant and very clear about this exact situation. Should we be shocked just because we are becoming disliked and less tolerated? First of all, we have enjoyed an unprecedented and small area of protection from the persecution that most have received, even in modern times. But now that we are seeing this change, we cannot let it shock or scare us. We can’t just keep crying, “foul ball!” and remain angry and offended all of the time. Listen to those who began to see the same things in the early days after Jesus' resurrection: 1 Peter 4:4; 1 John 3:13; Mark 13:13; Hebrews 12:3; John 15:18-21. First, we must get over the shock of these changing times and accept where we are now—Scriptures promised it, and accept that people are doing what is natural if they do not know Christ. Get passed thinking we deserve different, and decide upon our course of action in response. Second, we must understand that how we face these changing times of increased hostility will be some of the greatest days of God's joy over us, and in our rewards from Him in Heaven that we will ever experience. We are literally to consider it a blessing and honor that we are being misrepresented and called evil for our good today: Luke 6:22-23; Matthew 5:11-12; 1 Peter 3:14, 16-17. Do you see how perfectly this describes the growing trend of lies and misrepresentation about our hearts and motives right now, today? Third, understand that even in all of the hostility, these people are not our enemies. They are people infected with the same sin as us. They are people that do not know the Truth about Christ or their worth to Him. They are people worthy of being won for the King at any cost. This may be our chance. You have to drop the desire to return hostilities and not only refrain from anger and retaliation, but genuinely care for and love them in a real and practical sense: Matthew 5:44-46; Romans 12:14. And never condemn or reject someone for their sins, loose living or different lifestyle if they don't know Christ. Be the greatest, warmest person you can be to them. It is only the sins of those who know Him that we can judge. Fourth, as you choose to love with all your heart, refuse to back off on your beliefs in God's Word; refuse to be silent or sheepish about how much God means to you. That does not simply mean you won’t refuse Him if asked—that means you will lovingly live for Him, and speak about Him in a world that needs Him desperately: Acts 5:40-42; Peter 3:15. Lovingly, but unapologetically tell how loving and deserving He is of our worship; how much they are worth to Him; how His ways are built on love not hate; and His Wisdom in life is far superior to what the world has taught us. The world desperately needs this knowledge. Last, just as the early church won the hearts of society with their love in the midst of rejection and persecution, so will we. Not in retaliation and strife, but how we suffer and love in opposition will be the greatest truth that Christ is real to the whole world. Not in our intelligence, or in how well we debate, or how fiercely we respond, or in how closely we can live and relate to the world's ways. We are coming out of generations of relaxed and comfortable Christians, but that absolutely does not mean that we are weak in faith or heart. It simply means we are untried. This generation will very probably be called upon and tested like no other generation in American History, to live out our faith in opposition. Now is not the time to be neutral in what you believe—you will have to decide. It’s not the time to look for ways to continue living how you want in front of the world, rather than pursue righteousness. Now is the time to determine once and for all what you will do with Jesus Christ. To live more separated and passionately for Him than ever before. To draw nearer to Him so that any suffering we do can truly be in joy. Now is the time to learn to let Him love and work through you, because you can't do it in your strength. We have the Lion of Judah just waiting to live powerfully through us. Unfortunately, that Lion has lain dormant and asleep in many of us, but the increasing pressure and persecution may be just what we have needed to awaken the Sleeping Lion within. Commit your life to Him in such a fresh and powerful way, your love is apparent and unstoppable. Will you stand for Him?
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