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 022015
 

Persecuted prophetsBlessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

The prophets of the Old Testament had a pretty tough lot. I am full of admiration for them but I certainly wouldn’t have like to have lived in their day, or swapped places. For starters, God made them do some pretty unpleasant things as they acted out the people’s rebellion towards God. Hosea was told to marry a prostitute (Hosea 1:2), Ezekiel had to lay on his side for 390 days and cook food over poo (Ezekiel 4:4) and Jonah spent 3 days in a fish’s stomach (although he could have avoided that one if he’d done what he was told)

Chapter 11 of Hebrews tells us just a few things that happened to the prophets in the Old Testament…

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated of whom the world was not worthy wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35-38)

The bible doesn’t record everything about the lives (and deaths) of the Old Testament prophets, but what it does reveal, added with some extra biblical manuscripts, is that they indeed lived pretty tough lives.

One ancient book containing quite a lot of information, was called ‘The lives of the prophets’. Being an ancient book, it cannot be proved as entirely reliable but was apparently compiled from various oral and written sources and its stories are repeated in Christian and Jewish manuscripts.

The book begins by explaining its basic purpose, which was to provide The names of the prophets, where they were from, and other basic information about them. The prophets with the largest books are first: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Followed by the 12 minor prophets and then others (who didn’t have books named after them) Nathan, Elijah, Elisha and others.

I’m just going to list these prophets very briefly and what was believed to have happened to them.

Isaiah. It was reported that he was the prophet who was sawn in two under the evil King Manasseh of Judah. A tradition is preserved that the miraculous powers of the waters of the Pool of Siloam (see John 9) were initiated as a result of Isaiah’s prayer.

Jeremiah. Having escaped death several times previously, Jeremiah was later stoned to death by “his people” at Taphnai in Egypt and buried in honour near Pharaoh’s palace, because his prayers had delivered the Egyptians from poisonous snakes and other plagues. His relics were reportedly moved to Alexandria and placed in a circle around the city, which was consequently likewise protected from asps and crocodiles.

Ezekiel. This great prophet is said to have died in Babylonia where “the leader of the Israelite exiles” killed him after being reproved for worshiping of idols. That was one explanation, the other was that he was killed by an unidentified member of either the tribe of Dan or Gad, who had blamed him for cursing their children and flocks.

Daniel.This prophet was apparently unmarried, a “chaste man,” whom the Jews of his day believed to be a eunuch. He is reported to have died of natural causes and was buried with great honour in the royal tombs of Babylon.

Hosea. Not too much was known about his life but it was believed he died of natural causes.

Micah. Was reported to have been killed by Joram of Israel, the son of King Ahab, but this is unlikely as Micah lived more than a century after Joram’s reign. They were probably confusing him with Micaiah, who was indeed a thorn in Ahab’s side (1 Kings 22:1)

Amos.This northern prophet was tortured severely by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, against whom Amos had prophesied. He was then mortally wounded with a club by Amaziah’s son. Amos was able to make his way back to his own district of Tekoa, where he soon died and was buried there.

Joel. Died in peace and was buried in the territory of Reuben.

Obadiah. Not too much known.

Jonah. He reportedly lived during the time of Elijah. The fact that the text here mentions Elijah’s resurrection of a widow’s son may be the source of a rabbinical tradition that this child was Jonah. In any case, after his time at Nineveh, Jonah traveled with his mother and lived among the Gentiles, feeling embarrassed because, “I spoke falsely in prophesying against the great city of Nineveh.” Returning to the land of Judah after the famine of Elijah’s day, Jonah buried his mother near Deborah’s Oak and was himself buried in the cave of Kenaz, the relative of Caleb.

Nahum. Probably based on the Book of Nahum’s prophecies concerning Nineveh, Nahum is described as Jonah’s successor as God’s prophet of doom to that city. Nahum predicted that the city would be destroyed by fresh water and an underground fire. Unlike the embarrassed Jonah, Nahum spoke truly, as the author reports that the lake which surrounded Nineveh inundated it during an earthquake, and a forest fire spread to the upper city. Nahum, too, died in peace and was buried in his own district.

Habakkuk. This prophet fled from Jerusalem in the face of Nebuchadnezzar II’s advance and lived in exile “in the land of Ishmael.” He later went to Babylon, where he was acquainted with the prophet Daniel.

Zephaniah. The book which bears his name is very briefly summarized and it is reported that “he died and was buried in his field.”

Haggai. This prophet came from Babylon to Jerusalem, as a youth and witnessed the rebuilding of the Temple. He was buried in honour in the tomb of the Jewish priests.

Zechariah. He returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia as an old man and became a very active prophet in the holy city. It was he who named Shealtiel’s son Zerubbabel and blessed him. The text claims that Zechariah had earlier prophesied the victories of Cyrus the Great of Persia and his role in allowing the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem. He died at a great age and was buried near Haggai.

Malachi. A man of great piety and physical appeal, Malachi was given his name, which means angel, not by his parents but by his people. His prophecies were always confirmed on the same day by an angel of God. He died, apparently of natural causes, while still young.

Nathan. It was Nathan who taught King David the Law of Moses. He foresaw that David would sin with Bathsheba but was hindered from warning him by the Devil. Nathan died of natural causes when he was very old.

Ahijah. Hailing from Shiloh, Ahijah predicted that Solomon would sin against God and warned the king concerning his foreign wives. He also warned Jeroboam I not to “walk deceitfully with the Lord.” He was buried near the Oak of Shiloh mentioned in the story of Hosea.

Joad. This is the name given to the prophet of 1 Kings 13, who was attacked and killed by a lion after he rebuked Jeroboam I concerning the unauthorized altar at Bethel.

Elijah. Described as a descendant of Aaron, Elijah’s father, Shobach, had a vision of angelic figures wrapping his child in fire and feeding him with flames. Interesting considering how he was ‘taken’.

Elisha. As in the case of Elijah, some manuscripts summarize his activities as described in the Bible. At his death, Elisha was buried in the northern capital of Samaria.

Zechariah son of Jehoiada. This Zechariah was the high priest’s son who denounced his cousin, King Jehoash of Judah, and was immediately stoned to death in the Temple courtyard. He was buried with his father Jehoiada.

I’m going to spend one more week on persecution and next week look at some of the men and women throughout history who have suffered for their faith. There are some extraordinary characters.

 October 2, 2015  Posted by at 12:00 pm Persecution, The sermon on the mount No Responses »
Sep 252015
 

PersecutionBlessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Notice this is not just talking about being persecuted, but being persecuted for the right reasons. That is you do what is right, no matter what.

Did you know that it is reported that 80% of religious freedom violations in the world today are directed against Christians. We are easily the most persecuted of any religious group. Also, the majority of these go unreported. It is estimated that throughout the world, 2 Christians are being killed every single hour.

Many people consider that Christianity is a crutch for the weak, but it actually takes great courage to follow Christ.

In the relatively comfortable west, we are far less likely to suffer real persecution, although some subtle forms can make us feel very uncomfortable and marginalised. But in other parts of the world it can get a lot tougher. As Christians we need to show solidarity and support to our persecuted brothers and sisters by praying for them regularly. We are after all, the body of Christ.

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)

Even though we may not experience physical intimidation, if we are serious about our faith, it is inevitable that at some point we will experience some form of persecution, which could be in the form of pressure or repression. In fact it is promised in the bible;

Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others (2 Timothy 3:12) (contemporary English version)

When you are being persecuted or feeling under pressure, it is important to remember the following 3 things;

1. Opposition can make you more like Jesus

Jesus was hated by many people

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18-20)

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19)

Opposition means that you are doing something right

If you’re abused because of Christ, count yourself fortunate. It’s the Spirit of God and his glory in you that brought you to the notice of others. If they’re on you because you broke the law or disturbed the peace, that’s a different matter. But if it’s because you’re a Christian, don’t give it a second thought. Be proud of the distinguished status reflected in that name! (1 Peter 4:14) (message)

2. Opposition will deepen your faith

It’s much like the muscles in our body which strengthen when we stretch and strain them.

so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:7)

3. You will be given eternal rewards

God blesses those who are persecuted because they live for God: the Kingdom of Heaven will be theirs! You will be blessed WHEN people insult you, and 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.” (Matthew 5:10-12) (NLT)

Finally I’m going to refer to Rick Warren again, who has suggested 6 things to consider in the whole realm of persecution

1. Don’t be surprised

Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked when you go through painful trials that are like walking through fire, as though something unusual is happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12) (TEV)

2. Don’t be afraid

The antidote to fear is to be filled with God’s love;

“If you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it, so don’t be afraid and don’t worry! Instead, worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.” (1 Peter 3:14-15) (NLT)

The key is to focus on God, worship instead of worry!

3. Don’t be ashamed

Never be embarrassed for standing for the truth

“It is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Instead, thank God for the privilege of being called by his name!” (1 Peter 4:16) (NLT)

You don’t need other people’s approval to be happy

“Take a firm stand against Satan and be strong in your faith. Remember that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are.” (1 Peter 5:9) (NLT)

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17)

Whatever you do in life, there will be someone who doesn’t like it. If you are rebelling, God won’t like it, if you are doing good other people won’t like it. It’s best to do the things that please God rather than other people.

4. Recognise the source of the opposition

It’s very important to realise that Satan is the one behind all opposition we experience. He is the one influencing people against us.

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. (Revelation 12:10)

Satan hates God and so it follows that he will naturally hate God’s children. He can’t hurt God and so his focus is on hurting us instead.

“We’re not fighting against human beings, but against wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly realm . . .” (Ephesians 6:12) (TEV)

“Stay away from stupid and senseless arguments. These only lead to trouble. God’s servants must never quarrel. (Instead) be kind to everyone . . . and be patient. Be humble when you correct people who oppose you . . . they’ve been trapped by the devil, and he makes them obey him, but God may help them escape.” (2 Timothy 2:23-26) (Contemporary English Version)

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23) (NIV) They called him every name in the book and he said nothing back. He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right. (message)

5. Refuse to retaliate

You are behaving most like Jesus when you don’t attack or fight back

“Never pay back evil with more evil . . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. And never avenge yourself. Leave that to God, who has said, ‘I’ll be the judge and I’ll take care of it.’”(Romans 12:17-19)

“Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19) (NIV)

We need to understand that sometimes, suffering is God’s will. It is a mystery, but we have to entrust ourselves to His grand plan.

6. Respond with a blessing

It’s not just refusing to retaliate, turn it on its head.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

Jesus: “Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek.” (Luke 6:27b-29a)

That sort of reaction is the most powerful form of witnessing, because it proves that God is real. Nobody has that kind of self-control

Next week I’m going to look at what happened to the Old Testament prophets and how they suffered for doing God’s will, but for now I want to leave you with a thought provoking quote from the one man who died for his faith, Jim Elliot:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

 September 25, 2015  Posted by at 12:00 pm Beatitudes, Persecution, The beatitudes, The sermon on the mount 1 Response »