Practical Proverbial, from 2 Timothy, 20 March 2019

So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.   2 Timothy 1:8 (NIV).

Dear fellow believer, we’re going to suffer for this.   You and me, because we boldly say, “I believe in Jesus,” are going to suffer.   In just these last few days, hundreds of Christians have been murdered by Muslims in several African nations.   In Iran, a pastor was recently detained and will serve 10 years hard labor for talking about Jesus.  Churches in China are being torn down by their communist government.  Here in the good old USA, the Federal government is actively trying to tear down a war memorial in Maryland because it’s the shape of a cross.   In schools, universities, and work-rooms everywhere, talking about Jesus is a no-no while words about the NCAA brackets and Game of Thrones are encouraged.

Let’s be real:   ‘suffering’ in America, for now, is pale compared to the persecution our brothers and sisters face overseas.  That simply means the physical pain hasn’t reached our shores yet.   Don’t be daft about it, my friend:  it’s coming.   Disaster, like grace, can come on us in an instant.

Because that’s so true, we shouldn’t be ashamed to be followers of the one true God.   We should be proud to follow Jesus, proud to let Him work through us.   We have become ‘captive’ to His Spirit and are prisoners of His good news.   He holds the keys to our ‘captivity’ and loves us enough for us to stay in His confinement as long as we so wish.  Fall under the love and gaze of the King of Kings and you’ll want only to remain prisoner in His presence.

But make no mistake about it.  It’ll cost you.   This world, fallen and rebellious to Him, will make you pay for professing your belief in Jesus Christ.  The Romans, at the behest of the Jews (and then later on their own) imprisoned and abused Paul before eventually executing him.  All for following Jesus.   All for the rebellion of saying “no, I believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”   It happened in the past.   Even here in peaceful America, it can – and will – happen again.

You and I will be made to suffer for this belief, for this thing that is protected under our Constitution’s first amendment.   We will emotionally suffer, economically suffer, physically suffer.  In time (and it could happen quickly) the things (like worship) that we think are protected could change and a world hostile to Christ will turn against Him by targeting you.

When that happens, friend, let’s celebrate.   Let’s smile in the face of the adversity, turn the other cheek while standing up for our faith, and be prepared to meet Jesus when our government does to us what Paul’s did to him.

For further reading:   Mark 8:38, Ephesians 3:1, 2 Timothy 9.

Praise to You, Lord Jesus, that I may suffer for You.

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Practical Proverbial, from 2 Thessalonians, 13 August 2018

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 (NIV).

Have you noticed that Paul likes flowery benedictions?   He does this in most of his letters; why?  Simple:   praise and encouragement.

In these verses, (as you can see) that theme of encouragement is especially prevalent.  Think about it:  in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he spent considerable time teaching about patterns of living in a pagan world (which was what Asia Minor largely was).   In this second letter, Paul used his time to talk about the end of times and the persecution that would happen.   Persecution was a subject his friends in Thessalonica would understand because they lived in a Roman world hostile to the nascent Christian faith.  Their city was a cosmopolitan trade hub, the largest city between Rome and Byzantium and they saw first-hand the worst the Empire could offer.  They were familiar with the brutality lashed out against anyone who ‘made waves.’   And they were familiar with people who had known Jesus of Nazareth personally, had seen and heard Him, in person and had followed Him and His teachings in the few short decades since He departed.

If you or I lived in first century Asia Minor, we might need some encouragement, too.

That’s why Paul moves to end his letter this way.   He gives praise to God, stating the reason we should do so (“who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope”), then prays encouragement over the reader (the rest of the verse).

By the time Paul ministered to the new church in Thessalonica, that city was already almost 400 years old; today it is nearly 2400 years old and is the second largest city in Greece.  His friends there understood that they would need to praise God and be encouraged in the time to come because persecution would indeed come.   Within 20 years, all the apostles except one would be murdered (including Paul), and the church scattered.   Those who held onto believing in this Jesus would need to focus on praising Him in adversity while being encouraged by constantly learning and re-learning the truth of His encouragement.

Two millenia later, have things really changed?  Thessalonica is still a major city.   Some people still follow Jesus while most of the world does not.  People overseas are still dying for Christian faith and people here are blacklisted for it.  And the gospel is still on the move, teaching about God’s grace and His eternal encouragement of how His eternity matters most here and in the here to come.  I’d say Paul’s flowery benediction has served well.

For further reading:  Philippians 4:20, John 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:1.

Lord Jesus, thank You for these words you inspired Paul to share.   Let them encourage people to faith in You today.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 12 March 2018

In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.  1 Thessalonians 3:4(NIV).

This is a theme we’ve talked about here many times before:  when you believe in Jesus, you will be persecuted.   You’ll lose friends.   You’ll become alienated from family.   You may lose your job, your home.  If you become a believer in Jesus and you expect your life to be peaches and cream, brother (or sister), you need to be prepared.  Jesus Himself told His disciples – and us – that those who hate you hated Him first.   That those who follow Him will be persecuted but also blessed.  Paul spoke squarely with his friends.  He didn’t varnish this truth for them, he didn’t downplay it.   When you care about someone, you speak the truth to them, and Paul spoke Jesus’ truth.

Put yourself in first century Asia Minor and consider how they might have viewed things.  You have befriended a renegade in this man Paul.   You know his past, that he was once a Jewish Pharisee who, himself, violently persecuted followers of this Jesus.   In listening to him you know him to be a learned man, a man well-versed in the words of the Pentateuch, and the hymns of David, and the accounts of the prophets.  You have been told how he oversaw the murder of Stephen, one of Jesus’ early followers.   You have heard his account of how Jesus met him on a road to Damascus and transformed his life.  You know how he is in conflict with the leaders of the local synagogue (all synagogues in fact) as well as the local government authorities, representatives from Rome and Athens both, and that he is an argumentative though persuasive firebrand.   And you have seen the look in his eyes, the look that combines determination, regret, peace, and something else that you can’t quite nail down.   Whatever it is that gives Paul that look, you want it for your own life.

To get that look means you have some serious choices to make.   The people around you insult this new sect, deriding it as lunatic fantasy.   A man walking around after he was dead?   The Messiah murdered by the people He came to save?  Love your enemies when your enemies want you dead?  Yet there’s something about Paul’s words, something about the peace of this Jesus, that is calling to you, speaking to you in a place deep inside all you know to be true.   In a world where we seem destined for pain and trouble, the words of Jesus, told by this eccentric tentmaker, talk to the very core of your being.  To accept them means turning your back on everything you’ve ever known and that carries great risk.

My friend, in 2000 years, what has changed?

For further reading: John 15:18, Luke 6:22, 2 Timothy 3:12, 1 Thessalonians 3:5.

My Lord, I will follow You no matter the cost.

 

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 2 March 2018

For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.  1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 (NIV).

Oh wow…so much to unpack.  Let’s not let ourselves get wrapped around some concepts that aren’t easily understood.   Instead, let’s speak plainly:   Paul isn’t being anti-Semitic.   He isn’t ‘hating’ on all Jews, but is rightfully condemning those with ungodly intentions.   In doing so, he denounces all sinners.  The people who were the subject of his remarks were, of course, the Jewish priests who both crucified Jesus and then persecuted His followers.  But one cannot read Paul’s words of love in this and other books and conclude that he was anti-Semitic or advocated anti-Semitism.   Paul didn’t hate the Jews:   he hated that they were antagonistic to Christ.   In some ways, he probably hated that he had once been part of that persecution.

In these verses today, Paul is reminding us that those who turn their backs on God displease Him.   They are hostile to believers and whatever believers say and do.  In their doing this, they are heaping up sin after sin on themselves, not just for their self-focused lives or meanness to others but because these things are meanness and sin against God.   In doing this, they are incurring the wrath of God, namely damnation.   They separate themselves from Jesus, possibly for eternity.  This is by choice, not because anyone forced them.  It’s not on God:  it’s on them.  As C.S. Lewis once said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside.

Saying “I believe in Jesus” sets you apart in this world, and it paints a target on your back.  People who don’t believe will separate themselves from you even as you separate yourselves from unbelieving behaviors (if not unbelieving people).  Your “illogical” acceptance of the supernatural will set you against anyone who embraces the easy path of believing other things.  The “establishment” doesn’t believe what you do, and they will come after you.    Plain speaking about matters of the heart can become common sense to you as you see that there is no real love apart from the love of Christ.

Paul experienced these things just as we do.  When he called out his fellow Jews for murdering the Christ, he was persecuted.   History has labeled him an anti-Semite for doing this.   It simply isn’t true.

For further reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Galatians 1:22, Acts 17:5, Luke 24:20, Acts 2:23, Acts 13:45, Matthew 23:23, 1 Thessalonians 2:15.

Lord, always remind me to never hate people You love.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 26 January 2018

We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.  1 Thessalonians 1 Thessalonians 2:2.

We the people tend to remember daring acts of bravery.   Remember the Alamo; remember Pearl Harbor.   We remember times when people do heroic things worthy of memory.  You’ve (hopefully) heard the accounts of people in our world today who are being persecuted for believing in Jesus.  That may seem like something from our distant past, like we of the ‘modern’ world have learned to live beyond such savagery.   But the fact is that we haven’t.   Just last week I read a story about how the communist government in China tore down a large church.  The people who worshipped there are under surveillance, and it’s a good thing to assume quite a few have been questioned or arrested.   Just for believing in Jesus.

And did you know that it is a crime that carries a death sentence to publicly declare or preach faith in Jesus in Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Pakistan?   In Mauritania, Libya, Morocco, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh it is illegal to declare yourself as a Christian.   In the workplace in many cities and states of America it is officially frowned upon to minister to others or even profess your faith (to be fair, not just faith in Jesus, yet faith in Jesus seems to be tolerated least of all).

Outrageous treatment?   To be sure.   Suffering for the faith?   In many places in our world today, yes, this happens.   Stand up for Jesus?   No, that isn’t tough at all…

Those who dare to share the gospel in the face of this treatment are heroes.   Indeed, it is energizing and invigorating to stand up for Jesus in the face of people who oppress you.  It demonstrates courage and a belief in human dignity to act in ways that show the fruit of His Spirit, then to stand up and tell just why you do what you do.   People remember that kind of thing, and I dare say most of them remember it with respect.

Read through Scripture to the end and you know that the end of all things is already foretold.  Evil will be vanquished.   God will once and for all destroy evil and relegate Satan and all who reject God to the terror of everlasting existence away from Him.  Yet before all that happens we are told things will get even tougher for believers.   Tough times are coming; you can even feel it in the air, and people are watching.   What will they see you do?   How will you be remembered?

For further reading: Acts 14:19, Acts 16:22, Philippians 1:30, 1 Thessalonians 2:3

Lord, thank You for preserving me through oppression and persecution.   Be the steel in my spine and put Your words in my mouth when people challenge me to deny you.

 

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 22 November 2017

 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  Hebrews 13, verse 13.

Jesus earned “street cred” by dying outside the city walls.   That wasn’t the intention of the Jews who murdered Him.   They wanted to discredit Him, to consign Him to a place with the worst of society.   The Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to death wanted to erase the memory of Him so that He would soon be forgotten.  To do that, they reasoned that having Him executed as a common criminal would cause people to abandon following Him.   By branding Jesus as a criminal worthy of death, they would so disgrace His name that people would be repelled by even the mention of it.  Within a few years nobody would remember this evangelist from Nazareth.

With anyone else, it might have worked.   After all, there is only a small handful of names we actually know out of the billions of people who lived before, say, one thousand years ago (maybe even one hundred years ago).    The people we know of (like Jesus) earned fame or honor.   Who even knows the names of condemned prisoners from Phoenicia, Babylon, Athens or Rome?   Do we know the names of the men crucified with Spartacus?  Without using Google, who are the people on death row now in Idaho?   Can you name anyone shot for cowardice during the Mexican War?   We don’t know the names of these men because they’re lost to history.

We don’t know their names because we don’t want to.   They died in disgrace.   They died in ignominy and dishonor.   You, me, and our friends don’t want to be associated with their dishonor and disgrace.  It’s like adulterers in church:  nobody wants to be associated with them because we feel like, if we are, we’ll be tainted by their sins.   It’s a stupid, highly irrational feeling even if it is a constructive psychological defense mechanism.

It’s also ungodly.   What would Jesus do?  Not that.  Jesus ran to the cross.   He wrapped Himself in the dishonor and ignominy.  Jesus knew that His sacrifice would bring glory, honor, and love to the Father.  THAT is our better example.

Luke quoted Christ in saying that each of us who wants to really follow Him must deny himself and take up his cross daily.  We must willingly, even gleefully, run outside the camp and pick up the weapon of our own death.  We must embrace the disgrace.  And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that human disgrace for faith in Jesus is worth more than all the treasures in the world.  Joy in being persecuted for believing in Jesus is the street cred of faith.

A few years ago I read the Left Behind books.   I’m not a millenialist, so I didn’t accept the rapture/7 years tribulation idea; to me, getting mixed up in the how & when details of the end of time misses the miracle of being called home to heaven.  But one scene from one of the books (I don’t remember which one) stuck with me.  In it, one of the main characters is talking with a condemned man who is on his way to the guillotine.  The man is about to die for not taking the mark of the Antichrist and instead of being hesitant about it, he is joyful.   Imagine that:   the man is about to be murdered for what he believed and he is enthusiastic about it.   He’s ebullient, joyously embracing the disgrace of dying for the one you love.   And I don’t even remember the character’s name.

But that’s just a book.   The truth of it is that that this happens here and now.   It’s been happening for real to Coptic Christians for years.   It happens wherever ISIS rules.   It still happens in Communist China, and Cuba, and Islamonazi Iran.  A watered-down version of the persecution even happens in American universities and American corporations.  I am challenged regularly online for words like these, and I have lost friends over my faith.   The best response when that happens?   Joyfully thank God and press forward.  The world thinks it’s a disgrace to believe like this.  Embrace the disgrace and advance against an enemy that has already lost even when it costs you everything.

For further reading:  Luke 9:23, Hebrews 11:26.

Lord, let me embrace the ‘disgrace’ of serving You, of loving You, of faith in You.   Teach me and uphold me to better serve you in the world.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 29 August 2017

Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.  Hebrews 11, verses 35-38.

Read through these verses again and you get a, well, Biblical feeling about them (pun intended).   Then read through them again and consider that, somewhere in the world today, there are people who are being mistreated, persecuted, and tortured for believing in Jesus just like these church forebears thousands of years ago.

You and I read about that on the Internet, but it’s true.   In Sudan, people are tortured for being Christian, for denying anyone but Allah.   In Iran, you can be executed for being a Christian.   Ditto in North Korea (or any communist country for all that matter).   In Cuba you can still be thrown in prison for saying you believe in Jesus (but, then again, Cuba is still a communist dictatorship).   Same in the People’s Republic of China (also still a communist dictatorship).   In Saudi Arabia, if you’re a Christian (or any non-Muslim for all that matter), you can be punished with instant death for trying to enter the holy mosque near the Kaaba.

Being tortured and dying for what you believe goes a long way back.   But look at the benefits.   Indeed, consider ONLY the benefits of believing.  Jesus or the world?   Jesus wins.

Only Jesus can bring you back from death because only He has done that.   Only Jesus can give you true peace inside, true calmness of your Spirit.  That’s here and not, not just some day.  Only Jesus can steel your spine to face down agonizing death because only in Jesus can you have full assurance that physical death is only a tiny passage into eternal life.

That’s not to say that living your faith is rosy or even easy.  I wonder if that’s not a disappointment for many folks who say they believe.   They are looking for something that takes away the hurt, the difficulty, even the pain of things that happen in life and when Christianity doesn’t instantly do that, they walk away disappointed.  Who knows when we got away from the idea that following Jesus could be tough?  Somewhere along the way, (especially) we in America began to serve up a Christianity that was light and easy, an egg-white omelette of faith if you will.

That isn’t the faith Jesus advertised.   He said that, if we wanted to follow Him, we would have to take up our cross and walk with Him daily.   That means we would, every day of our lives, have to stand against the world, against our nature, against even those who love us but don’t love Him.   That means we would have to carry our instrument of death with us everywhere we go until, at the end of all things, we are nailed to it.    When Jesus taught from the Scriptures, he taught from the accounts of the Old Testament heroes who died for their faith but died IN their faith.  For them, there was no death at all, but only that passage to something far better in paradise.  Death in the service of the Lord was an honor, maybe even a duty, but not a burden.

They understood that the God of their fathers was loving, just and true.   That He kept His promises.   That He was all He said He was.   They understood that, even in a century-long life, time here on earth is short.   The men and women of ancient days who died for Christ in their faith seemed to know something we have misplaced.

Here’s the hard part:  what are you willing to do to get it back?

For further reading:  1 Kings 17:22-23, 2 Kings:4:36-37, Jeremiah 20:2, genesis 39:20, 1 Kings 19:10, Jeremiah 26:23, 1 Kings 1:8, 1 Kings 18:4, Luke 9:23.

My Lord, forgive me when I fail You.  Thank You for the blessings of enduring hardship in service to You, in faith in You.   Let my sufferings be a good witness to others and strengthen them.