Friday, May 31, 2019

Christians are Persecuted Severely Worldwide: Ancient Thessalonica to the Modern Era

Did you know that today in our modern world Christianity is the number one most persecuted religion in the world? Christians face murder and death for their faith every day. A great deal of persecution occurs in the following countries: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, India, China, and the Philippines. According to the Daily Mail a UK newspaper, “245 million Christians now suffer 'high levels of persecution' in 50 countries, a rise of 30 million from last year.” Additionally, they wrote, “the Middle East is witnessing the 'decimation of some of the faith group's oldest and most enduring communities' and called for 'urgent government support'.” Mr. Hunt the united states foreign secretary commented, “I think we've all been asleep on the watch when it comes to the persecution of Christians.”

It’s interesting that the book of 2nd Thessalonians was written so long ago; in fact, it was the apostle Paul’s second letter that we have. A.D. 50 is the year that Paul wrote this letter. And now it’s 2019, so 1,969 years later. Nothing has really changed. Christians are persecuted around the world today, just like back in Thessalonica.

Paul wrote to the persecuted church saying: “Dear brothers and sisters, we can’t help but thank God for you, because your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing. 4 We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. 5 And God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering. 6 In his justice he will pay back those who persecute you.” -1st Thessalonians 1:3-6

Today we’re addressing the topic of what it means to be “In Christ.” And we’ll view this in the context of persecution and suffering. To abide in Christ for us will mean following Christ when people think we’re stupid. It’ll mean living for God when the television tells us we’re backwards bigots. It’ll mean believing the Bible when the news and the media and the universities and the public schools are telling us that the Bible is a lie, the word of God is false, and we’re evil, racist, and bigoted for believing it is true.

For Christians in China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, and other countries it means something much different. It means every day, waking up, and wondering if this is the day men will come to their door, and demand that they deny Christ, or die. It means wondering if armed men will storm into your church and gun down your congregation. It will mean wondering if the government is going to burst in and arrest you for loving Jesus. It’s wondering in China if a neighbor will turn you in for a cash reward. It’s true. It’s life and death to love Jesus in much of the world.

Now, suppose I lived in one of these countries that persecute Christians. And armed men came to my door. And they said, “Hey we know you’re a Christian. We have witnesses. We know your speaking to people about Jesus. Deny your savior, or die.” And he points a gun at my head.

If I were to deny Christ, would I still be in Christ? The answer to that question is no. Suppose they kill me anyway after I denied Jesus. Where would I go? I would not be going to heaven. I would be going to hell.

Can we lose Christ? Can we lose our salvation? The answer to these questions is yes. But it’s also true that God helps us to continue to “abide in Christ” and “remain in Christ.”

This is why we keep coming to church week in and week out. This is why we attend Bible study and small group. This is why we pray and study the Bible. We aren’t one and done. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of obedient faith. But we shouldn’t be afraid. We shouldn’t be afraid of “losing our faith.”

But we should be careful to obey God’s commands. We need not be afraid, or constantly disturbed by the fear of “losing our salvation.” Instead we should obediently live “in Christ” and obey God’s commands. Recognize that God is completely sovereign over all of reality. He is in charge. And He helps us to persevere in our faith.

Paul continues writing in 2 Thessalonians 1:5 saying, “All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”

Paul sees that the Thessalonian church is patiently enduring trials, persecution and difficulties. He’s watching this happen, and he’s pleased, because they haven’t given up the faith. They haven’t fled. They haven’t run for the hills. They are here to stay. They are Christians.

That is the evidence that Paul sees. He sees this as evidence that they will, in the future, be judged by God as worthy to enter into the kingdom of God. But who is doing this? Who is making them worthy? God is doing this. God did this in them, and God does this in us. How does he do this? He does this through trials, persecution, and difficulties. He preserves us in a state of salvation, so that we are abiding in Christ. To abide means to remain. To stay with.

Paul continues, “6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”

Think about what these people were suffering. They were under severe persecution. People were being arrested, families split apart, and Christians were being killed. Many of the survivors, of this church were probably wondering: Why is God letting this happen?

Have you ever asked the same question yourself? Why is God letting this happen? Doesn’t he see my pain? Can’t he see how terrible this is?

The emotions we feel, when we’re truly hurting, when we’re truly broken, are some of the worst feelings one can experience. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety much of my life. And in the past before I knew Christ, I experienced some of the blackest darkness one can imagine, truly dark states of mind. One just wants to stop feeling because of the way they feel.

We often wonder why young people will sometimes cut themselves, engage in self harm, or binge and purge food, and so on. Sometimes the emotional pain is so beyond words that we try to release it physically.

The dilemma is clear: God loves me, but, God who loves me won’t help me, He won’t relieve the pain as I suffer. Let me ask you this: Have you ever had to hold down a child why they got their blood drawn at the doctor’s office? At that moment as that child screams and cries and squirms it feels like the end of the world. It is like the apocalypse has personally come to that little room. And their dearest ally, their closest confidant, their own parent is the one who brought them there, and is now holding them down as they are jabbed with the needle.

There have been times in my life when I realized God led me into to the lion’s den. He brought me there for his purposes. The one whom I love, the one who saved me, who purchased me with the blood of his son, my protector, has led me into danger. And he has left me as the door shuts. And the lions growl.

Is it any wonder we are shocked and angry that God would let us feel such pain, and suffer such grief? But ultimately God is like the parent holding down their child as the doctor administers the blood test. This is for their own good, but from the child’s perspective it’s the end of the world. It’s chaos. It’s doom.

When God leads us into the lion’s den, and lets us stand there, alone, God already knows the lions will not eat us, he knows he has shut their mouth, and he can see the future, where we are resting in safety, freed from the lion’s den. But from our perspective it looks like the end of the world. But from God’s perspective, he has made use of our great struggle, to refine us, and mold us, and shape us into Christ’s own likeness. Like the blood test, it was for our own good. But like the child, we can’t see God’s perspective. Only God can see that. Which is why we have to trust him. Even as it seems the needle is diving into our arm, and we wonder if we might be drained dry… Still, trust God.

Remain in God. Remain in Christ. Because He loves us. He preserves us. He walks along side of us. We are part of his church, the body of Christ. He loves us. That’s the good part. But there is another part of this equation that we do need to address.

2nd Thessalonians verses 8 through 10: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.”

You and I have won the lottery. We’ve found the meaning of life. We’ve found the answer to everything. We’ve received Jesus Christ as our savior, our king, and our Lord. But there’s a whole world out there, that’s on its way to hell. Untold millions upon millions, out there in the world, who refuse to obey the gospel. They don’t want Jesus. They want to live in their sins. So many people! It dizzies me as I think about it. As I walk to the coffee shop, or drive to the bank, or stop at Wal Mart, I’m often haunted as I watch the people and all their faces, wondering if they will ever know Jesus Christ, and have everlasting life.

I’m a people watcher. If I go anywhere, I’m people watching. It’s absolutely fascinating. But it’s also quite troubling, because I realize so many of them don’t have Christ. They’re alone. And they just don’t care. They’re so wrapped up in the things of this world, money, good jobs, fast cars, sports teams, shopping malls, fashion & beauty, music, art, video games, whatever it is. They’re lost. I wish I could just stop and shout at the top of my lungs, “You all need Jesus! Stop what you’re doing! Get Jesus before it’s too late!” But I never do... I don’t want to make a scene. But the truth is I probably should. Because it may be somebody’s last chance on that day. If only I could do something. If only I could do more. I’ve got to do something. Time is running out.

How lucky are we? How blessed? I used to think to myself, “I’ve never won a prize drawing. I’ve never won a raffle.” Actually I have. I’m a Christian. I’ve found the meaning of life. I’ve found the fountain of youth. I’ve found the escape hatch from this broken sinful world. How blessed are we? Wow.

So let’s not screw this up. Repent and turn away from sins. Forgive your worst enemies. Discharge your duties as a Christian. Evangelize the lost. Pray every day. Read your Bible every day. Because we shouldn’t think we’re beyond falling away from Jesus.

If you want to remain in a state of salvation, then you need to continue in obedient faith in Christ. Several key words there: “Continue.” “Obedient Faith.”

In this I see three ways we can lose our salvation. 1. We fail to “continue.” We see this all the time don’t we? Someone stops coming to church. They just go back to their previous life. They stop praying, stop reading their Bible, and just leave. They abandon the Christian life. They’ve lost their salvation.

2. Sin. What’s the opposite of obedience? Disobedience. If we are disobedient to Christ, and we live in sins of the flesh, then we will lose our salvation. If we’re living in faith in Christ, but we’re living in sin, like alcoholism, drug addiction, gossip, gluttony, rage, divisiveness, or the various other sins talked about in the New Testament, then we’re in danger of losing our salvation, and we need to repent of sin (1 Cor 6:9-11). In the same way, if we aren’t evangelizing, serving the lost, meeting needs and so on, Jesus is going to find that we’ve been lazy servants, and that can also be a situation where we lose our salvation. (Matthew 25:31-46).

3. We renounce faith. Suppose a gun is put to our head, like the example we talked about earlier, and we deny Jesus? We renounce our faith. We’ve left aside faith, we’ve failed to confess Jesus, and we’ve now lost our salvation. I suppose we could always repent of this sin, but there is something final in a public renunciation. I’m not sure how that works spiritually, but something happens there that isn’t easily returned from.

But I don’t want you to live in fear of losing your salvation, because Paul closes chapter 1 of 2nd Thessalonians by writing, “11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So in conclusion today, we find that God makes us worthy of his calling, and his power brings our faith to completion in Christ Jesus. He guides us along the pathways of life. So we need only trust in God, and live obedient lives of faith. God will craft us through difficulties, persecutions, and trials into the likeness of Jesus Christ. In this way we can and will abide in Christ until the very last day. May God preserve us blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is our prayer today. Amen.