Evening Lament

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Blessed Lord Jesus,

Place your hedge of protection around me, Lord, for I am confused and afraid.

My strength fails me; my body aches; my children are yet lost; and it is night, when jackals run freely and the hyena contends with the lion over much carrion.

Have mercy on the children, Lord.

Spare me their voices in the night; spare me the weeping of souls forgotten and lost—be they familiar, near, and dear.

For the workman cannot save them from folly nor tell them what ears will not hear.

Yet, you God hear our prayers; your blessings blossom beyond measure daily.

Since the days of my youth, you have comforted me and given me life and hope and joy—to sing and dance and clap hands for the joy of your salvation which is near.

But now, let me rest securely until the new day awaits in morning sun with blessings and hope of rest with you, now and always.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Evening Lament

Also see:

Believer’s Prayer

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Persecution Gets Personal

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Honored are you when others revile you and persecute you 

and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

 (Matt 5:11)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Ninth Beatitude is the capstone Beatitude in Matthew, which repeats Eighth Beatitude emphatically, in content, intensity, and position. The parallel in Luke’s Gospel is even more explicit: “Honored are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22) One commentator interprets: 

The differences between Matthew and Luke reflect different settings in the Church’s mission. Persecution is a more general expression for the antagonistic behavior experienced by the Church in mission, while exclusion may well refer to the earlier, more specific mission within the synagogue setting. (Guelich 1982, 94) 

Notice the verbs—revile, persecute, slander—the emphasis screams at us, the tension with others is intensified and the object of this vitriol shifts from righteousness (in general) to me (specifically). Generic persecution has become a personal attack (Wilkins 2004, 211). Tension is amplified by the shift from the third person (they) to the second person (you) (Neyrey 1998, 168). This intensification comes on top of the repetition of the Eight Beatitude and on top of being the capstone Beatitude. The emphasis here simply screams.

The verb in Greek, revile, means: “to find fault in a way that demeans the other, reproach, revile, mock, heap insults upon as a way of shaming.” (BDAG 5316.1) The noun form means: “loss of standing connected with disparaging speech, disgrace, reproach, insult.” (BDAG 5318)

The meaning of these words was perhaps intensified by Jesus’ body language. Jesus looks his disciples in the eye and addresses them as friends, like a commander knowing that when the battle begins they will have his back—this is an intense moment (Rom 5:6-8). Yet, the commander-pep-talk analogy breaks down because the disciples ultimately do not have his back and Jesus knows that he goes alone to the cross. Nevertheless, the coming cross gives urgency and intensity to this discussion. The disciples will be left behind and they must deal with persecution and revulsion on their own, especially when it involves their closest family and friends.

Reviled is used biblically in several specific contexts:

1. She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach. (Gen 30:23)

2. If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity. (Lev 20:17)

3. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isa 25:8)

4. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. (Ps 22:6)

5. Then I said to them, You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision. (Neh 2:17)

The controlling idea in revulsion is to be left exposed to public ridicule for bareness, nakedness, or weakness. It is like a woman caught without clothes or a city without walls or, in a contemporary context, like the homeless person suffers exposure, ridicule, and abuse. Addicts and psychiatric patients may suffer similar abuse, but their exposure is less physical and more metaphorical.  Jesus cites several of the above messianic passages himself, as when he cites Psalm 22 from the cross (Mark 15:34).

In these passages, Jesus addresses disciples in a communal, honor and shame culture. The Beatitudes address common themes—poverty, hunger, and mourning—shared by disciples driven out of and disinherited by their families and communities (Neyrey 1998, 168–169). The three verbs—revile, persecute, and slander—involve similar social stigma and expulsion themes, only with more intensity.

In our own context, the intensity of the response in being reviled underscores the fundamental nature of our faith decision. Jesus says:

And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:12–13)

“Jesus assumes that such a shift of loyalties will result in significant relational fallout.” (Hellerman 2001, 66) 

Faith in Christ is not an incremental decision, as if we could approach God by tweaking our Sunday morning schedule, or giving more to the church, or occasionally improving our personal conduct. Faith in God is more like a wise guy renouncing the mafia or a rebel fighter responding to an amnesty program by laying down arms. Laying down arms requires a public ceremony where people on both sides notice. The public ceremony of baptism is celebrated both as sacrament of cleansing (baptism by sprinkling) and as a sacrament of death and rebirth (full immersion baptism) emphasizing the transition to faith.

The intensity of this transition to faith in the early church is often dismissed as merely an example of unity: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) While this passage is an example of unity, it is also emblematic of significant stress for the disciples, who would normally share such moments primarily with family. Absent family fellowship, the picture of unity here is like an alliance of street people watching out for one another during the winter in the face of intense deprivation.

Intense persecution marks one as a Christian, which also marks one for salvation (Rev 22:4).

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

BibleWorks. 2015. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.10>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wilkins, Michael J. 2004. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Persecution Gets Personal

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer of Praise

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God of All Wonders,

The heavens declare your glory and we are witnesses to it.

Our eyes have seen and our ears have heard of the splendor of your creation.

We give testimony to the love that you showered on us when Jesus died a cruel death in our place and for our salvation he rose from the dead.

How can our lips then be silent?

We are citizens of heaven and sojourners in this land.

Teach us, Lord, to testify in humility to your love for us; to abstain from the passions of this life that wage war on our souls; and to share your passion for our lives and salvation with gentleness and respect.

If we then should suffer, then may it be for your kingdom and your righteousness and not for our own sin.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to be salt and light.

In Jesus’ precious name and for his glory. Amen.

Prayer of Praise

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Believer’s Prayer

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Blessing Those that Persecute

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Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 

(Rom 12:14)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Increasingly even in America, Christians find themselves the target of isolation, discrimination, persecution, and shootings. Few will forget the shooting of young, female, high school student in 1999 for professing faith in Jesus Christ, yet it happened again in 2015.⁠1 During 2015 alone, a woman was jailed for publicly espousing Biblical views on marriage (Ellis and Payne 2015); a church was the site of a mass shooting (Wikipedia 2015a); and Christians were publicly beheaded by Islamic extremists. From the cross, “Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Like the crucifixion, persecution reminds us of who we are, who we belong to, and what we are about.

Who We Are

Persecution links our identity to Christ, as Jesus reminds us: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:12) Persecution for righteousness sake validates our faith and places us in the company of prophets.

Who We Belong To

Like the prophets, we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) and undocumented aliens here on earth, as the Apostle Peter writes:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet 2:10-12)

Honorable conduct and good deeds mark us as Christians so as the body of Christ people should see something different about us, especially in persecution (Isa 51:1).

What We Are About

Persecution is part of the mix of trials that we should expect to experience (Rom 8:34-39), as the Apostle Peter writes:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet 3:13-17)

Are we zealous for what is good? Do we suffer for righteousness sake? Persecution trains us to lean on Christ—the source of our goodness and righteousness— and not our own abilities, prejudices, and strength.

When Jesus teaches us about being salt, it is attached to a warning: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13) If we lose touch with Christ, we are like an unplugged vacuum cleaner showing potential, but no power—trampling is a good analogy for the persecution of a church that has lost its way.

Footnotes

1 http://www.CassiereneBernall.org. Also: (Saslow, Kaplan, and Hoyt, 2015).

Blessing Those that Persecute

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Rodney’s Prayer

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By Stephen W. HIemtra

Loving Father,

We give thanks for the life and death of Jesus who lived a humble life and bore our sins on the cross.

Help us to practice humbleness and hospitality with all people.

Help us to put on Christ’s righteousness and defend your honor, not ours.

Help us to pay our bills and our taxes, to turn the other cheek, to treat our enemies with love and respect, and to judge the actions, not the intensions, of those around us.

In all we do, help us to practice racial, ethnic, class, and gender equality.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, may conflict and bickering and gossip end with us.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Rodney’s Prayer

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Believer’s Prayer

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Christian Paradox

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He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, 

that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. 

By his wounds you have been healed. 

(1 Pet 2:24)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus teaches us to practice humility while pursuing righteousness even if we suffer shame, persecution, and death, as he did on the cross. Because death is the penalty for sin (Gen 3:3), Jesus’ righteous death on the cross allowed him to pay the penalty of our sin (1 Pet 2:24; 1 Cor 15:3) and his resurrection identified him as the son of God. This linking of sin to the penalty of death is critical to understanding Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man. Out of 189 verses in the Bible that use this term, 89 are found in Ezekiel, which refer to the prophet himself. The term in Hebrew literally means “son of Adam” (Ezek 2:1). In the more famous passage in Daniel 7:13, the Hebrew expression is the more familiar “son of man.”

Christ’s atoning death runs against our usual assumption that our debt for sin is, not against God, but against our neighbor. For example, discrimination, a form of persecution against our neighbor, results in tensions over racial, ethnic, class, and gender equality, as the Apostle Paul taught:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek [racial and ethnic equality], there is neither slave nor free [economic equality], there is no male and female [gender equality], for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)

Being one in Christ means that we model our lives after both Christ’s humble life and death so that humility replaces pride, discrimination, and persecution in our own lives, as evidenced in our treatment of others.

Modeling humility, Jesus offers many alternatives to violence in dealing with persecution, including:

1. Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt 5:39)

2. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44).

3. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matt 5:41)

4. Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matt 7:1)

5. …render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Matt 22:21)

Refusing to defend oneself (one’s honor) could lead to perilous outcomes in a first century legal context because one was expected to offer one’s own defense, but it is absolutely necessary if persecution is to become a ministry opportunity, as we are told:

But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. (Luke 21:12–13)

We see this principle illustrated firsthand when Stephen refused to offer his own defense before the Sanhedrin and chose instead to defend Christ (Acts 7).

Stephen was the first among many Christian martyrs (Foxe 2001, 10), but other early Christians risked their lives in living testimony through service, as during a plague in Alexandria in the third century Christians refused to abandon the city and remained to care for the sick. A recent example of such fearless service was seen among Christian doctors working during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Less  so with the AIDS epidemic (Kinnaman and Lyons 2007, 110).

A life of fearless service is possible because in Christ’s resurrection life follows death—the origin of Christian paradox.

References

Foxe, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Christian Paradox

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Righteous Suffering

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Then the LORD said, 

I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt 

and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. 

I know their sufferings (Exod 3:7).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Jewish experience of God frequently arises in the context of suffering. Moses suffered living as a refugee in the desert and shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep far from his home and family in Egypt. Exiled from Egypt, shamed by his own inept leadership, and fearful of legal prosecution for murder, Moses found himself before a burning bush in the presence of God (Exod 3:1), who called him for a new assignment: Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. (Exod 3:10) Egypt is in his heart and on his mind, but Moses does not jump at the idea of returning to Egypt because, having murdered an Egyptian, returning entailed obvious personal risk. Mitigating the risks are three important assurances that God gives to Moses which take the forms of His presence, His name, and His covenant (the Law).

Presence

The assurance of God’s presence is a blessing in the form of comfort, provision, and protection—things Moses lacked when he attempted to lead his people without God’s help. In revealing his presence to Moses, the uncertainty of the mission in Egypt is immediately reduced (Rom 8:31) and its success is assured: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12). God’s presence is further secured when God reveals his name, and, later, offers a covenant to Moses.

The Name

The assurance of knowing God’s name was no small deal in the ancient world. The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God gave Moses his name, he was, at a minimum, offering him a direct line of communication—personal prayer—with God.

 In Hebrew YHWH means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14–15). The implication here is that God is: A REAL GOD (one that really exists) with REAL POWER (sovereign everywhere, not just the local neighborhood). Local gods were the norm in the ancient world, in part, because leaders wanted to lay claim to their territories and to seek their intervention (typically through sacrifices) in the spiritual world (e.g. Judg 11:30–40; 1 Kgs 12:26–29). God’s interventions on behalf of Moses were not unusual from an ancient perspective, but what was unusual was that God traveled with Moses out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Covenant Law 

The covenant helped secure Moses’ experience of God presence because in the covenant God revealed his will to the people of Israel, something uncommon in the ancient world. Prayer is really difficult when one neither knows a god’s name nor what that god desires. God revealed to Moses that He was both a covenant maker and covenant keeper.

The covenant of Moses begins with a preamble: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod 20:2). The preamble makes clear that God cares about the people of Israel enough to intervene on their behalf and the Law instructs them on how to live in peace and righteousness, making God’s presence concrete in daily life.

In the Books of the Prophets, no one suffers more than Job even though he is a righteous man: There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1) Job is so righteous that even God brags about him to Satan: Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? (Job 1:8) To which Satan asks God’s permission to test him and God grants permission for Satan to take everything Job has away and to afflict him with horrible suffering (Job 1-2). In righteous suffering, Job feels a need to seek out and to rely on God, rather than his own resources, and, in his misery, to seek a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) Some believe that Moses used the story of Job’s righteous suffering to convince the people of Israel to leave slavery in Egypt, which would make the Book of Job the oldest book in the Bible (Geisler 2007, 189–195).

This redemption theme, of relying solely on God, is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When Daniel’s friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnace, as we read:

And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? They answered and said to the king, True, O king. He answered and said, But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods. (Dan 3:23-25)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to rely on God, it gives testimony to God’s glory. Jesus later ties righteous suffering to eternal life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39)

References

Geisler, Norman L. 2007. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Righteous Suffering

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer for Righteousness

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father,

We give thanks for the many blessings that you have given us.

Among these gifts are your presence, your name, your covenantal grace, and our salvation in Jesus Christ.

May we continue to be blessed and bless others (Gen 12:1-3).

Sanctify us in your righteousness that we might be fit stewards of your grace.

And if our sanctification includes persecution, grant us the strength to bear it with dignity and grace.

And may we ever remain in your love and share it with others until we meet you again in glory.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prosecute Righteousness

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Believer’s Prayer

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Prosecute Righteousness

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Honored are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

 for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For many Christians, persecution poses a perplexing question—“Why are good people persecuted?” (Graham 1955, 98)—to which the Book of James responds:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas 1:2–4)

The paradox of the suffering servant at the heart of the Christian worldview was first expressed by the Prophet Isaiah: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isa 53:11) In effect, what James is saying is that persecution for righteousness’ sake both shapes us in sanctification and marks us as disciples of Christ, who was himself persecuted unto death.

Here the Greek word for persecution means: “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute” (BDAG 2059.2) and it often associated in the Old Testament with a military engagement vigorously pursued (e.g. Deut 11:4). The Greek word for righteousness means: “the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness,  righteousness.“ (Guelich 1982, 93) As we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we expect others to persecute us, as scripture reminds us (1 Pet 4:16).

The injustice of Jesus’ persecution is noted by one of the other men being crucified (also Isa 53) as Luke’s Gospel records:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

Note that this story mentions both the idea of righteous persecution and the reward of heaven, as cited in the Eighth Beatitude.

Persecution (unto death) in the Old Testament begins with the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain kills Abel because God accepted Abel’s righteous sacrifice and rejected his own (Gen 4:3–9). Post-resurrection persecution in the New Testament begins with the stoning of Stephen who accused the Sanhedrin of false worship, persecution of the prophets, and murdering God’s Messiah (Acts 7:48–53). Persecution is likely also to be our fate, as the Apostle Paul reminds us:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Rom 8:35-37)

Persecution is often edited out of this passage in public readings, but it is fundamental to our life in Christ.

Jesus reminds us that a student is not better than his teacher—he was persecuted; we will be persecuted (Matt 10:24–25). But even in the midst of persecution, Jesus admonishes us to—“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44)—suggesting that persecution is an ministry opportunity.

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

BibleWorks. 2015. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.10>.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Prosecute Righteousness

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer for God’s Peace

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Holy and Gracious God,

In the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to separate ourselves from sexual immorality, impurities, sensuality, idolatry, and sorcery, fleeing from enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, and envy, refusing to engage in drunkenness and orgies.

Through the example of Jesus Christ, bid us to pursue the fruits of the spirit by practicing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:19–24).

Crucify the passions of the flesh that naturally grow in us.

May peace on your terms grow to become peace on our terms and may we share it with those around us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Peace on God’s Terms

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Believer’s Prayer

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