Oct 162015
 

The world was not worthy of themThis week I’m going to finish looking at the last beatitude about being blessed when you are persecuted. We have now spent 4 weeks on this subject, previously looking at the Old Testament prophets, the early church and now this week, I’m going to look at Christian persecution right up to the modern day.

The title of this blog is taken from Hebrews 11:38 where the writer to the Hebrews is recounting the many people who suffered for following God. In this blog I want to honour our brothers and sisters who are absolute heroes of the faith. Some will be more well known, whilst others, no-one has heard of and they suffered in secret, but I am convinced that right now they are not regretting one moment.

As I was researching this subject I was actually quite amazed at the extent of major persecutions directed at whole people groups, across the world and throughout history. Far too many that I could do justice to in one short blog. So I’m going to pick out just a few that have inspired me.

Gelasinus

One of the shortest journeys from conversion to martyrdom was a chap called Gelasinus from the second century AD. He was in a play which was lampooning baptism. As He was thrown into the water as part of the sketch he emerged and said “I am a Christian for I saw an awesome glory in the tub and I will die a Christian.” This so enraged the audience who were there to mock Christianity that they took him outside and stoned him.

William Tyndale

One of the reasons we can all own a bible was due to the sacrifice of people like William Tyndale. He was passionate to see the bible translated into English so that it was accessible to everyone, but at the time this was illegal. Tyndale had to flee England and spent most of his life in hiding because the English authorities were searching for him. He was eventually caught by an act of betrayal from someone who pretended to be his friend. He was executed by strangulation and burning at the stake in 1536 because he believed that; sins could be forgiven, the gospel was enough for salvation and that everyone should have free access to the bible.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who stood against the evil Nazi regime during the second world war. His writings have since become very influential. He was vocally opposed to Hitler and his evil regime and as you might expect this put him in great danger. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. He was then transferred to a Nazi concentration camp. After being allegedly associated with the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was briefly tried, along with other accused plotters, including former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), and then executed by hanging on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide.

Jim Elliot

Was one of five missionaries trying to reach the Auca indians in the Amazon rainforest and share the love of Jesus with them. They had made initial contact by plane but on their second visit on January 8, 1956 they were slaughtered by the Waodoni warriors (an Auca tribe) who had been lied to about the group’s intentions. The other heroes who were slaughtered that day were; Nate saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming and Roger Youderian. Amazingly, Elizabeth Elliot (Jim’s widow) reached out to the tribe that had killed her husband and saw many converted. A supreme example of forgiveness and love.

Wang Zhiming

Between 1966 and 1976 the Cultural Revolution in China brought an onslaught against all that was ancient or venerated in Chinese life. The young Red Guards who led the campaign sought to break free of the past and to create a revolutionary society that was utterly new. Religion must be destroyed. Churches were closed and Christians were forced to meet secretly.

Wang Zhiming was one of many Christians who were persecuted during this time. Many were sent to camps, were denounced or beaten. In May 1969 he and other members of his family were arrested. Four years later he was condemned to death. He was by then an old man of sixty-six.

Wang Zhiming was executed on 29 December 1973 at a mass rally of more than 10,000 people. Immediately afterwards many Christians, rather than cowering in fear for their own safety, instead remonstrated with the prosecuting official of the red guard.

Janani Jakaliya Luwum

Was the archbishop of the Church of Uganda from 1974 to 1977 and one of the most influential leaders of the modern church in Africa. He was arrested in February 1977 and died shortly after. Although the official account describes a car crash, it is generally accepted that he was murdered on the orders of then-President Idi Amin.

Mathew Ayairga and the 20 other Coptic Christians

I doubt there are many of us who have not seen the picture (Which is the header of this blog) of the shocking images of the 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in their orange jumpsuits about to be beheaded for their faith. This was from February this year and shows that the persecution of Christians is not only still happening but intensifying. The reason I have mentioned Matthew was because he was the only one from Chad (the others were from Egypt). He was originally a non-Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be killed.

This blog has been in honour of the men and women who have laid down their lives just like their Lord did and who are now at rest in the presence of their saviour. Their blood has been a seed that God is using to sweep many into His kingdom. His church will prevail, Hallelujah.

Oct 092015
 

Persecution in the early churchThis is now the third week on persecution and I’m sorry if you find it all a bit heavy, but this is an important subject. This is the last section on ‘the beatitudes’ which is a part of the ‘sermon on the mount’. Jesus must have thought this subject important because the last two beatitudes both cover the subject of being persecuted.

Jesus wants us to know that we shouldn’t be surprised when we are persecuted, but also that He will be with us when it does happen. Last week we saw that the majority of the Old Testament prophets were either murdered or persecuted in some way. This doesn’t stop with the Old Testament though. Right at the start of the New Testament we see John the Baptist who was considered as the second Elijah, the last of the Old Testament prophets and as you are probably aware, he was beheaded and his head served up on a platter.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this is such a big subject within Christianity, because the one we all follow was persecuted and suffered more than anybody else. If we are to call ourselves Jesus’ followers, we should expect to follow Him in suffering too. Jesus himself described the path we walk on as narrow (Matthew 7:13) and not many will choose it. It may be a tough path in the short term but beyond this short walk of suffering are eternal rewards for those who endure it. The pearl of great price is greater than any lesser pearls which offer more comfort.

The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” implying that the martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. This certainly seemed true of the early church which exploded in growth through persecution. In the years immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection the church grew and then spread rapidly through persecution. This was not without cost though as it was believed that pretty much every apostle was murdered in some way or another. Just as we looked last week at historical evidence outside the bible for what happened to the prophets, there is varied documentary evidence about what happened to the Apostles and it does make rather grim reading.

The first person to be martyred after Jesus, was Stephen and he wasn’t even an Apostle, but he was an amazing character. Stephen was killed by stoning and he was an amazing example of calmness and peace in the face of severe hostility (see Acts 7). The following list contains the dates of death and what was believed to have happened to the Apostles?

AD 44-45 James – was put to the sword under Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2)

AD 54 Philip – was tortured and crucified by hostile Jews

AD 60-70 Matthew – was beheaded at Nad-Davar

AD 63 James (Jesus brother) – was thrown off the top of the temple and just to make sure was then clubbed

AD 64 Peter – was crucified upside down

AD 67 Paul – was beheaded in Rome under emperor Nero

AD 70 Andrew – was crucified on an olive tree at Patrae in Achaia

AD 70 Thomas – was thrust through with pine spears, tormented with red-hot plates and burned alive

AD 70 Nathanael – was flayed and then crucified

AD 70 Matthias (Judas’ replacement) – was stoned while hanging upon a cross

AD 72 Judas (the other one!) – Beaten to death with sticks

AD 74 Simon the zealot – Widely travelled and was martyred but unclear how

AD 95 John – The only one to have died a natural death although it was reckoned that he survived being boiled alive and then lived the rest of his life in exile.

The majority of these persecutions and especially up to the destroying of the temple in AD 70 were by the Jews. After this and as the gospel spread throughout the Roman empire, the Romans took over as the major persecutor of the sect they called ‘the way’. The first documented case of organised and supervised persecution of the Christians in a specific area in the Roman Empire was by Emperor Nero. In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, This fire was huge and it is estimated that it destroyed 70% of the city. There were strong rumours that Nero had ordered this fire so that he could have some nice new buildings in his own style and the population wasn’t happy. To divert attention from himself, Nero put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Christians, who were viewed with suspicion anyway and they were systematically persecuted. The stories are horrific of Christians being used as human torches to light up the royal palace and other despicable acts.

This was just the beginning though as persecution amazingly caused the church to grow ever stronger. The main problem was that the various emperors considered themselves to be gods and they didn’t take kindly to people refusing to worship them.

The persecutions continued in waves over centuries but they culminated in what was called ‘The great persecution’ under the emperor Diocletian at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. It all started with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy. The persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face immediate execution. Over 20,000 Christians are thought to have died during Diocletian’s reign. One of the most prominent martyrs during the Dioclecian persecution was Saint George (England’s patron saint), a Roman soldier who loudly renounced the Emperor’s edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes claimed himself to be a Christian by declaring his worship of Jesus Christ. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods; he made many offers, but George never accepted and was subsequently tortured and decapitated.

One of the most famous martyrs of the early church was Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna in 155AD. Polycarp was believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle John. In that year, Roman soldiers were sent to arrest him. He was such an amazing man that before they arrested him they were invited in to supper and several of them were even converted as they heard his fervent praying. As he was being prepared for execution, Polycarp is recorded as saying, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” Polycarp was then burned at the stake and was pierced with a spear for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. On his farewell, he said “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”

I’m going to take one more week on this subject as I particularly enjoy church history and I think it is important to honour those heroes of the faith who can inspire us to face everything that the world throws at us. They are dying proof that God will be with us through all the trials of life.

Oct 242014
 

Fruit of the spirit faithfulness As I was considering this subject and thinking about what “faithfulness” looks like and the qualities required, dogs immediately came to my mind. Most people who know me, know that I don’t particularly like dogs. I’m not keen on the barking, the jumping up, the licking and the general smell of them. But the one thing I do admire about them is their unswerving faithfulness. Maybe it was the Lassie films I used to watch as a child (for those of you too young to remember, Lassie was a Collie dog who got into all sorts of adventures, for example rescuing children or finding his way back home after a long journey). That dog was faithful and I have read of many more (another that comes to mind is a dog in Argentina, who after his owner died sat by the graveside for 6 years!). http://www.dogheirs.com/larne/posts/1880-faithful-dog-refuses-to-leave-his-owner-s-graveside-for-six-years

In humans, “faithfulness” has always been a rare quality. In Psalm 12:1 David exclaims in exasperation:

Help, LORD, for no one is faithful anymore; those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.”

And again from his son, Solomon:

Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6)

And the apostle Paul voiced his frustrations to the church in Philippi in Philippians 2:19-22.

I am sure that even in your church there have been people who have let you down. Nowadays it would seem that most people have forgotten the meaning of the word “commitment”. It’s a quality that nearly everybody likes and admires in others, but when it comes to working to produce this fruit in ourselves, well, that’s another matter.

Something that happens to me regularly is a lack of response (one way or another) to emails I send containing specific requests (despite receiving “read receipts). Another one Liz and I have found frustrating is a lack of response to party invitations we have sent out for our children’s birthdays over the years. I notice more and more that it’s a quality which is becoming increasingly rare in our society.

Faithfulness goes against the very essence of the ‘me’ culture. It seems that the overriding attitude in people’s minds is to consider themselves first over and above considering others, or even not considering others at all. This lack of faithfulness is probably most clearly seen in marriages where couples bail out as soon as the relationship doesn’t suit them anymore. Sadly, dogs have put us to shame.

It will not surprise you to hear that, as with all the fruit of the Spirit, faithfulness comes from the very character of God Himself. As you can imagine, there are dozens of verses in the bible which speak of God’s faithfulness. Here are just a few:

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations”. (Deuteronomy 7:9)

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. (Psalm 86:15)

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful”. (Hebrews 10:23)

God proves His faithfulness over and over again throughout every page of the bible and also in our lives. By His Spirit He is now making us faithful and the more time we spend with Him, the more we will be like Him. Jesus embodied this faithfulness by coming to earth, living as a man and going all the way to the cross. Now that is faithfulness!

In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 we see the kind of faithfulness that God is looking for. One of the key verses in this passage is verse 23 where the master commends one of the faithful servants. He says “‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” Notice that the master was not looking for success, just faithfulness. This is the same as God; He wants you to be faithful with what you have, no matter how small. Remember how Jesus commended the woman who put two small coins into the offering? That was all she had! It wasn’t about the money; it never is. God doesn’t need our money, He is constantly looking for faithfulness. That dear old lady in Calcutta, Mother Teresa, said simply “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful”.

There is so much to say on this subject but I will just touch on a few thoughts that have occurred to me:

It is actually quite useful to search for words that are similar in meaning to faithfulness, in order to give us a broader idea about this fruit. Think about words such as; fidelity, loyalty, constancy, devotion, reliable, dedication, commitment, allegiance, dependability, trustworthiness. Sounds great doesn’t it? But as I said before, the Godly way to think about faithfulness is not to look for it in other people, but to be faithful ourselves first. Our faithfulness should never depend on anybody else. God is faithful unconditionally: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13)

The sermon on the mount shows us that faithfulness is more than just outward appearance and nodding agreement; it is a heart attitude. For instance, the bible says not to commit adultery, but Jesus defines that as not even looking at a woman lustfully. Faithfulness in marriage is far far more than just not sleeping with other people; it’s about serving and preferring your spouse, no matter how they respond. Faithfulness is a quality that keeps going no matter how it is treated. Our marriage partner should be the person we treat best out of everyone. (I have witnessed some people treat strangers much better than they treat their partner. Treat strangers well, but treat your partner better!)

Here are just a few suggestions to help us seek God in order to increase this fruit in our lives. (We must not forget that it’s not through our own efforts or willpower; these things come by The Holy Spirit as we spend time with Him. However, we still have to play our part). So, how faithful are we being in the following:

  • Obedience
  • Studying God’s word
  • Prayer
  • Giving
  • Using your talents
  • Serving others
  • Dealing with sin

Let me finish with a sobering question for you to ponder this week: if everyone in your church was as faithful as you, what would your church look like?

 October 24, 2014  Posted by at 12:00 pm faithfulness, Fruit of the spirit No Responses »