LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

The last few postings dealing with persecution didn’t come out of the blue. There’s concern in the air about what’s happening to Christians around the world. In America so far, we might feel relatively safe, but that’s an illusion. Our government already has shown hostility toward Christianity in several areas, one such being the prohibition, upon pain of court-martial, of the use of the name of Jesus Christ by military chaplains. Another is its unjustified linkage of committed Christians with hate speech and terrorism.

At the same time as our government appears to be singling out Christians for marginalization, the Christian community itself appears to be falling away into moral laxity, patterns of self-centered worship, a rejection of the authority of Scripture, and even unbelief.

The combination of these two factors is causing some to question the future of Christianity, even to wonder whether its doom is imminent. The reality is that the current persecution of Christians may well be the most healthy thing that could happen to the Christian community, not only in America but throughout the entire world. The Church typically has stagnated during times of religious comfort and thrived in times of persecution. There’s a reason for this: throughout the Scripture of both Testaments God makes it crystal clear that a quality He desires in His people is selfless nobility. During the good times it’s all too easy for us to back off from that ideal into a more comfortable and less demanding existence. In today’s America the state of our Churches, of our children and, most glaringly, the rejection of God from the public square furnishes plain evidence that we’ve gone way too far in a direction away from nobility.

While persecution is not a foreign concept to Christianity, it is not something to be sought after. In John 21:18-23, the risen Christ communed with several of His disciples, making it plain that what happens to individual Christians is a matter for God alone to decide. He did so by foretelling the future of Peter, who was crucified, and of John, who, despite being incarcerated on an island of exile, was eventually released and permitted to live his life to its natural end.

“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst where thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thoushalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee where thou wouldest not. This spoke he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved, following; who also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, who is he that betrayeth thee? Peter, seeing him, saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me. Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. Yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”

God asks for faithful obedience to His will above all. If God wills the persecution of an individual, He will supply the Holy Spirit to strengthen and comfort the victim during the ordeal. If, on the other hand, an individual decides to glorify God on his own, he is allowed to do just that, being bereft of the comfort offered by the Holy Spirit as a result. We all know how that kind of thing ends – not well. An example of a hasty rush into persecution, reminiscent of Peter’s denial of Christ as a result of his attempt to stand up for Him on his own, is offered in a passage in the Letter of the Church of Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium regarding the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, which took place in 155 A.D. The introduction to that letter, as given in the book Early Christian Fathes, edited by Cyril C. Richardson, shows an interesting insight into that difficulty.

“But certain overly zealous brethren of the Church seem to have offered themselves voluntarily – a thing that church leaders were diligent in warning their flock against, for one could never tell how extensive the fury of persecution might develop from one single instance of indiscretion. One of these volunteers, named Quintus, is described as a “Phrygian.” It has been suggested that he was possibly known to the church in Philomelium, and that he belonged to the fanatical sect of Montanists, often called by the orthodox Christians “Phrygians,” from the province of the origin of the sect. The Montanists did not look askance at voluntary martyrdom, but rather encouraged it. The Montanist movement did not arise, however, quite so early as the time of these events; though it must have drawn its initial strength from fanatical, enthusiastic elements already existing within the Phrygian Christian communities.”

The result of that voluntary act is given in the letter itself:

“But a Phrygian, named Quintus, lately arrived from Phrygia, took fright when he saw the wild beasts. In fact, he was the one who had forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily. The proconsul by much entreaty persuaded him to take the oath and offer the sacrifice [to Caesar]. For this reason, therefore, brethren, we do not praise those who come forward of their own accord, since the gospel does not teach us to do so.”

While persecution is not something that one should seek, it certainly is not alien to Christianity, nor should it ever be a cause for abandoning or denying Church or faith. Jesus Christ Himself set the example, and He clearly stated that what happened to Him also would happen to His followers:

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad; for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:10-12

“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.”

John 15:18-20

[to be continued]

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