Friday, August 19, 2016

Persecuted Christians – 1 Thessalonians 2:14



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYyNrgkKf6o
For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews. (NIV)

Christians don’t usually go around looking for someone to persecute them. Certainly whole churches don’t usually do that. However, persecution is at the very heart of following Christ. Jesus made it clear that people who follow Him will not necessarily have a glorious stress-free life. He said that His followers must deny themselves and take up their crosses daily (Luke 9:23). We hear a lot about God wanting the very best for us, and that is true. However, God’s best for us is not necessarily glamour, riches, fame, popularity, or power. 

The first part of following Jesus is denial of what we want and seeking His kingdom before our own (Matt 6:33). The second part is taking up our crosses. When Jesus said this, it must have been a total shock to His listeners. They lived at a time when the Romans used the cross as the most torturous means of execution possible. Some people would survive several days before dying. Every day, we must have the attitude that we are on the same path as a condemned criminal. We should have nothing in this world that keeps us from giving our lives to follow Jesus. 

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10 NASU)

While Jesus explained the cost of discipleship, He also explained the results of self-denial. There is stress and seemingly, inglorious lives when denying self, but Jesus called it a blessing. The blessing is being part of the kingdom of heaven. Being part of the kingdom of heaven is so important that it is worth the troubles brought on by persecution. We Westerners don’t really understand what persecution really is so we must rely on what the Bible says about it, what history has shown us, and what our brothers and sisters in other countries are undergoing. We trust that Peter provided reliable information about persecution when he said the scattered church rejoiced in their trials because they knew that it would bring glory to God when His kingdom would be revealed in Jesus (1 Peter 1:6-7). James urges us to consider these trials as pure joy (James 1:2). Persecution may come, but we are blessed when we understand the bigger picture that this life isn’t all there is and eternity will make the troubles worth it (2 Cor 4:16-18).

Suffering from Countrymen

We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. (1 John 3:12 NLT)

Why do people persecute Christians within their own cultures? It started with Cain and Abel. Paul said that the events in the Old Testament are an example to be used for our instruction (1 Cor 10:6). Cain and Abel serve as a vivid example of why Christians are persecuted. The principle that they demonstrate is that when people live righteous lives, those who do not get really upset. “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ … among those who are perishing. … we are the aroma of death leading to death” (2 Cor 2:15-16 NKJV). They don’t want to have the constant reminder (aroma) that their lives are filled with evil and that their ultimate destination in eternity is hell, so they do what they can to eliminate the source of their irritation. For Cain it was simple, he killed his brother. For other people in our lives, it is more complex. We have laws and cultures that make it more difficult. So they work hard to change the laws. Like Hitler, they eventually get to the point where they can declare those who are living righteously enemies of the state. 

More recently, Russian passed a new anti-terrorism law that prevents Christians from evangelizing in any location other than in an authorized church or religious site. “The amendments, including laws against sharing faith in homes, online, or anywhere but recognized church buildings, go into effect July 20 [2016].”[1] The really sad part of this law is that it is part of Putin’s overall plan to strengthen Russian nationalism by supporting the Russian Orthodox Church in opposition to all other denominations.[2] The frightening part is that he is suppressing Protestant Christianity in name of anti-terrorism. The logic is that anything that undermines nationalism is terrorism. When people want to oppose the Gospel they will find any reason to persecute their own countrymen. 

Anti-Semitism 

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. (Acts 9:23-24 RSV)

Paul is often call anti-Semitic because he often refers to “the Jews” who tried to kill him, persecuted the church in Judea (1 thess 2:14), and opposed the Gospel during much of Paul’s ministry (Acts 13:50, 17:5, 18:12, 20:3). Many gentiles who call themselves Christians since then have mounted persecution against anyone of Jewish heritage based on a few verses like this and verses like John 19:12 where “the Jews” intimidated Pilate into having Jesus crucified. They also use Peter’s first sermon to his fellow Jews as he blamed them for killing “the Prince of life” (Acts 3:15 ), Jesus. These fanatics call Jews “Christ killers.”
Regardless of how Paul was treated, whenever he went to a city, his first stop was at a Jewish Synagogue (Acts 17:1-2). While he recognized the persecution from the Jews, his heart’s desire was for them to turn to Jesus for salvation (Rom 10:1-4). He said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (Rom 9:2-3 ESV). Rather than blaming them, he wants them to embrace Jesus. 

When Paul speaks of being persecuted by Jews and the churches being imitators of the churches in Judea, he is not inciting revenge, instead, he wants us to have a heart that yearns to see our persecutors saved. Anyone who calls himself a Christian and participates in any kind of persecution, whether it is anti-Semitism or homophobia, is in direct disobedience to God’s Word. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45 NIV). A clear implication of His command is that those who become persecutors are not sons of God and their salvation is in question.


[1] Kate Shellnutt, Gleanings, “Russia's Newest Law: No Evangelizing Outside of Church”, Christianity Today, July 8, 2016, 1, accessed August 16, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/june/no-evangelizing-outside-of-church-russia-proposes.html
[2] Ibid.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Word of God – 1 Thessalonians 2:13


And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (RSV)

This is a marvelous passage on the Word of God. What does it take to be a believer? We must receive the Word, which we hear from other; we must accept the reality of it as God’s Word and not men’s; we must let it work in us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:1, 14 NASB)

The Bible uses the Greek word logos to identify Jesus as God (John 1:1, 14). It also uses logos when it refers to Scripture (Matt 15:6) or preaching the Word of God (Luke 5:1; Acts 13:46). Jesus said the disciples would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). What happened is described in Acts, as it refers to the Word of God as a dynamic moving of God throughout Jerusalem (Acts 6:7), Samaria (Acts 8:14), Judea (Acts 11:1), and then beyond (Acts 13:46). The results were, “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24 ESV). It is obvious from these verses that the Word of God is more than just words written in a book or the speech of some great orator. The Bible clarifies that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12 NIV). It is the power and person of Jesus to accomplish His will in the lives of people. It will accomplish His desire and achieve the purpose for which He sent it (Isa 55:11). 

Received
 
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name. (NASU)

When we talk about receiving the Word of God, we should understand that we are doing more than picking up a book and reading it. We are doing more than listening to a sermon based on the Bible. We are letting the very Son of God into our lives. Sure, many people have Bibles and go to church every Sunday but never receive the Word of God. The concept of receiving a person in the times of Jesus is probably different from what we think today. John wrote in 2 John 10-11 not to receive deceivers. He said, “Do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (NKJV). In 3 John 5-8 he encouraged help for itinerant Christian workers by receiving (NKJV) them or supporting them (ESV) and aiding them in their journey. John says that doing so makes them fellow workers. In the Old Testament, an old man took a traveling Levite and his concubine into his house rather than let them camp out in the town square (Judg 19:20-22). Verses 21-22 says that they ate and drank and made their hearts merry. Receiving even strangers turned into fellowship. Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” (Rev 3:20 NLT). 

When we receive the Word of God, we are also receiving Jesus Christ. As these verses indicate, receiving Jesus, who is the Word of God, we must do more than just pack Him or it away someplace and forget about it. We must support Him in the sense that means we need to agree with His purpose, mission, life, ways, and be obedient to what He says, which is the Word of God. We must be helping those who spread it. Since Jesus is also the Word of God, we should be able to have fellowship with Him through the written Word. If you don’t believe it, you certainly can’t receive it.

Heard

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? (Rom 10:14-15 RSV)

Hearing the Word of God is a lot more than physically receiving the sound waves on our eardrums, converting that to electrical stimulations that our brains then decipher and register as words. Hearing God’s Word can come through sight by reading God’s Word (John 20:31) or by sign language. It can come through the sensation of touch as a blind person reads by using brail. Who knows if the future use of computer technology may be able to convey the Word of God directly to our minds? While the first understanding of hearing God’s Word is listening, hearing goes beyond simply hearing. 

However God’s Word reaches us, it takes people to deliver it. People preach the Gospel in many ways just as we hear it through many ways. Some are traditional evangelist or preachers, but Paul wasn’t limiting being sent to them. Since the beginning of the Christian Church, people have been using various means to tell others of salvation leading to godly living by preaching, writing, and lately through movies, radio, television, websites, blogs, and vlogs. He has sent all of us to reach others because a disciple isn’t a disciple until he makes other disciple by teaching them and therefore, Jesus command applies to all of us (Matt 28:19-20).

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. (James 1:22 NASB)

The concept of hearing when it comes to the Word of God and salvation is better understood by the word, heed. While heed is a synonym of hear, it conveys the need to take action or apply what we have heard. Proverbs 10:17 says, “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life” (ESV). 

There are two very vivid examples in the Old Testament that are examples of the polar opposites of people hearing the Word of God. The negative example is of King Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 36:23-26. God told Jeremiah to write a blistering condemnation and judgment of Judah and Israel unless they would repent (Jer 36:1-3). The scroll eventually was read to the king who cut off columns from the scroll and burned it as it was read (Jer 36:23). What was their reaction? “The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes” (Jer 36:24 NIV ). Tearing their clothes would have been a sign of repentance leading to God’s forgiveness. Instead, God pronounced a judgment on the king and his attendance. He had Jeremiah rewrite everything and added even more to the condemnation (Jer 36:29-32).

There are several examples of kings responding in positive ways when they heard God’s Word. One that is a great example is Josiah. He became king when he was only eight. At twenty-six, he had the priest repair the temple and clean out the abominations that were left there by his father and grandfather. The high priest found the Book of the Law in the temple and had it read to Josiah (2 Kings 22:1-10). “When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11 NASU). The king inquired of God about what he had heard. The calamities for Judah’s abandoning God were still going to come, but not in Josiah’s time because he humbled himself before the Lord. Josiah then tore down the altars and idols in both Judah and Israel and reinstituted the Passover celebration (2 Kings 23:1-25). “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” (2 Kings 23:25 NKJV). 

These two examples apply to us. They tell what we can do when we chose to hear the Word of God. We can obey or disobey. There is no middle ground. If we don’t obey fully by turning to Jesus in faith and repentance as Josiah did, eternal calamity will come upon us. If we do, we have the assurance of eternal life. “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT).

Accepted

There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. (John 12:48 NIV)

A lot of people misunderstand what it means to accept the Gospel or to accept Jesus as their Savior. They think that all they need to do is believe, recite a prayer, and then go back to business as usual. As Jesus indicated in John 12:48, there is a direct relationship to accepting His Words and accepting Him. If you do not accept His Words then you are rejecting Him, just the opposite of accepting. 

Accept means “to take something that is offered, e.g. a gift or payment” (Encarta Dictionary). This is clearly shown in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NKJV). In this case, the wages have already been earned by sin and that is death. We don’t have an opportunity to accept or reject the payment; it is forced upon us. However, the gift is something that we have to accept. Since it is a gift, we must take that which is offered or it doesn’t belong to us. It isn’t like the wages of sin. The gift is eternal life, but it is wrapped up in Jesus Christ. To accept the gift, we must accept the Giver who took the payment of death for us and implies all that is necessary to receive Him as stated above. 

Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man … And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man … (Matt 7:24, 26 RSV)

Accepting Jesus also means accepting what He has said and that means living them out. Jesus compared those who follow His Word to a wise man who built his house on “the rock.” It survived the storms just as we survive the storms of life because we have built our lives on Jesus who is “The Rock.” The foolish people are those who ignore Jesus’ Word. They may have prayed “the prayer,” served in their church, followed all the rituals, and think they are saved but their lives have no foundation and the storms of life destroy them. Their last challenge, death, will not take them into the kingdom of heaven because they have not known Jesus as demonstrated by not obeying Jesus (Matt 7:21-23). 

Reality

We know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” (1 Cor 8:4 ESV)

The Word of God is the basis for all reality because there is no other God. Science is not a god even though many people have made it their god. While an idol has no real existence, science is a bit different in that it does help describe our physical world. However, when science declares there is no God, it becomes an idol for those who believe that. God’s Word clearly described the idols of the past as the creation of craftsmen. They couldn’t speak, feel, or hear. They couldn’t even move unless someone moved them (Ps 115:4-7). They had to be nailed down otherwise they would fall over (Jer 10:4). 

Does science or any other philosophy teach us about reality? What is real goes way beyond the physical world. Science pretends that the only things that matters are the things that we can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Yet God’s Word tells us that there is a realm beyond these. The world speaks of those who perceive this realm as having a sixth sense. Anyone who has the Holy Spirit living in them by faith in Jesus Christ should be able to perceive this spiritual world through God’s Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Furthermore,  we should understand the reality that there is a battle going on trying to keep us from understanding this realm, “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” (Eph 6:12 NIV). What science perceives as reality is temporary and when we place more importance on that than the eternal reality of God and His kingdom, we are the poorer for it. Rather, we should fix our eyes on the eternal because, “the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18 NKJV).

“BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER.” And this is the word which was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:25 NASU)

Reality is wrapped around the Word of God. Jesus is the Word so what He says never goes away. The Gospel will never go away and Jesus said that the only way to enter this reality (the kingdom of God) beyond our five senses is to know Him. We have to come to the Father through Jesus (John 14:6). When we do, we will eventually be part of a new reality where the current physical universe will disappear (2 Peter 3:10) and be replaced by a new universe (Rev 21:1). In that universe, God will live with us and the physical and spiritual realities will be combined; there will no longer be death or sorrow but God will be present with us and wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:3-4). 

Unfortunately, there is also another part of that future reality that is called the lake of burning sulfur. It is where those who have rejected Jesus will end up for eternity (Rev 20:15; 21:8). This is the reality that will happen regardless of what people think (philosophies) or perceive by their five senses (science). However, the decision we must all make before we die is whether we want to be a part of that future reality in harmony with God or in the lake of fire. It only comes by knowing Jesus.

Work

So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55:11 RSV)

The work of the Word of God, meaning both the Bible and Jesus, accomplish everything that God the Trinity desires. Working through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Word gave Himself up for us to pay the penalty for our sins by making atonement and taking that penalty on Himself. That is the physical manifestation of the Word accomplishing the purpose of the Triune God. God’s spoken and written Words provide us with eternal life when we accept them and believe in Jesus (John 5:24). Working though the Holy Spirit, His Word sanctifies us because His Word is the truth (John 17:17).

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge;  the word that I have spoken will judge him  on the last day. (John 12:48 ESV)

Since God’s Word accomplishes everything according to His purpose, we can’t ignore the clear teaching that another work of His Word is judgment. Think about this. God came in the person of Jesus Christ and verbally, face to face with His disciples, spoke about eternal life and judgment. Rejecting all that Jesus said by rejecting Him will accomplish one thing at the end of a person’s life. God will bring up Jesus’ words and use them to condemn those who rejected Jesus. He made it clear that eternal life is in what we do with Jesus. If we do not honor Jesus, we do not honor God the Father (John 5:23). Will God justify and call guiltless a person who does not honor Him? If we honor Jesus by letting His Word work in us to save us and mold us into the people He wants us to be, we can be assured we will be saved.