‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.’Luke 21:12-13
These verses are taken from the Gospel for this Sunday, Luke 21:5-19. In this account, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple which occurred in 70 AD. It also features a bit of eschatology (a big word meaning the end-times) in which Jesus describes some of what we will witness and experience as the world as we know it approaches its end.
Stepping aside from eschatological prophecies now, I return the focus to the verses I opened with. The one that highlights the purpose of persecutions. Jesus makes it clear that the time of testing and imprisonment isn’t to subdue, but rather, to give us an opportunity to testify. This reminds me of the famous declaration of Tertullian, a second-century theologian who wrote in the early days of Christianity, before the Reformation of the 1500’s. Tertullian wrote ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. That was over 1700 years ago. Tertullian wrote this having recognised that imprisonment, persecution, threats, and endangerment, far from silencing Christians, fired them up to proclaim the Gospel of Christ even more stridently and even encouraged others to join the faith. The endangerment of life and limb strengthened their resolve to do as the apostles had been instructed in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus had] commanded’. Persecution fanned the flame of their passion, it fanned their fervour for Christ.
Yet today, we shy away from persecution. We pray that our troubles will end; we ask God to take us out of our woes. We do not do as Paul boldly declared in Acts 21 when he was warned not to go to Jerusalem for fear of what the Jews there would do to him. We do not say, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’ We do not resolve as Jesus did in full submission to the will of the Father when He prayed on the Mount of Olives, ‘yet not my will but yours be done’ as recorded in Luke 22. While we pray it in the Lord’s prayer, perhaps we pray it with our mouths only, and not really with our hearts.
I do not necessarily mean physical death, but death to the extent that we must determine to turn our backs to the world if we are to pursue the heavenly kingdom and, therefore, achieve purpose. As Jesus said in Matthew 6, ‘No one can serve two masters; for [you] will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ Serving God means that we must despise the world in a manner of speaking. We must be convicted that there is no greater purpose than to worship God and to worship God in spirit and in truth.
So, yes, serving God does mean that we will be exposed to many afflictions. The good news, as Psalm 34 encourages is that the Lord rescues us from them all. Afflictions are a part of our human sojourn. They are the consequence of the fall of humanity (think here of the Garden of Eden). Afflictions cannot be avoided. But there will be victory for those who endure to the end by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Friends, as Christians and proud followers of Christ, let us acknowledge just as Paul encouraged the church in Corinth that we will be afflicted in every way, but not crushed. We may be perplexed, but not driven to despair. We will be persecuted but never will the Lord our God forsake us. We will be struck down (many times), but not destroyed. The walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ cannot be a walk that is free from passion, as Christ endured His passion. The walk of a Christian is one that celebrates our afflictions. Why, because our afflictions keep us humble. They remind us of our indisputable reliance on God to endure whatever may come our way. Our trials convert our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh so that we may continuously yield to the will of God, and love our neighbours. In other words, our trials bring us closer to purpose. Finally, our trials stretch us to the point of being mature and complete, lacking in nothing as James wrote to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.
Now, admittedly, what I am saying here is foolishness and veiled to those who are perishing, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1st and 2nd Corinthians. It is foolishness because the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the glory of Christ.
Their blindness notwithstanding, let us declare our faith with even deeper and more unshakeable conviction. Let us accept the cross we have been assigned, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us safely through. Let us not run away from the pilgrim journey that we have been called to walk. Let us stand up for Jesus, put on the armour which God has given us, declare God to be the Almighty, Eternal and Ever-Living God. Let us rejoice in our afflictions for our God will bring us through. And let us do all this standing on faith, abounding in love and rejoicing in hope.
To God be the glory!