Living Testimony

Life_in_Tension_web“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…”
(1 Peter 3:14-15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The New Testament is full of a allusions to persecution which are mostly edited out when passages are cited in worship services and other uses.

For example, the citation above is normally cited entirely out of context as: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). The snipet is entirely upbeat and usually cited as the reason to argue apologetically for the faith. At least three things are missing when this is done. First, there is no recognition of the context of persecution. Second, there is no recognition of Peter’s admonition to speak “with gentleness and respect”. Finally, the verbal defend often highlighted entirely misses the point that the entire letter focuses on “lifestyle evangelism”—living out the faith, not talking about the faith, and only that one phrase mentions a verbal defend.

In fact, one could argue that practicing for a verbal defense is contrary to scripture, because Jesus says:

“And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12 ESV)

The tension that we feel with others over our faith is expected because of the work and power of the Holy Spirit manifested in our lives. Notice the order of events in this admonition:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)

It is the power of the Holy Spirit acting in us that leads us to become witnesses.

Because it is the power the Holy Spirit that leads us into this tension, it is neither our propensity to be vocal nor a desire to take risks that leads us to witness for Christ. The opposite is also true. It is neither our shyness in front of people nor our risk aversion that holds us back in witnessing for Christ—in our joy in salvation we want to tell the whole world! However, fear can quelch the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Barthel and Edling (2012, 101) note:

“When individuals in groups are motivated by fear of the opinion of other people (what others personally think about them) more than the fear of God, their hearts grow cold to the Spirit of God. Lacking God-consciousness, there is no restraining the motivation of the heart; only world passions and popularity with crowd control. This is common in church conflicts. Defensiveness, self-righteousness, and pride rule the day when people vien in to the fear of man.”

It is interesting that where we frequently pray for protection the early church prayed for boldness in their witness [1]. The problem facing the church of Laodicea, so common today, seems to have come later. As the Apostle John prophesied:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16 ESV)

Finney (1982,74-76) lists six consequences of quelching the Holy Spirit in our lives:

  1. Darkness of mind—the truth makes no useful impression.
  2. Coldness towards religion.
  3. Holding various errors in religion.
  4. Disbelief.
  5. Delusion regarding one’s spiritual state.
  6. Attempts to justify wrongdoing.

In this list we observe problems of tension with ourselves, with others, and with God. Fear of others, particularly persecution, leads us to abandon our faith both in God and in ourselves in a kind of downward spiral. Is it any wonder than in our times of timid faith, many are are burdened daily with debilitating anxiety and treated for depression even on sunny days? One wonders if increasing persecution is less about other people than it is about our own weakness and doubt—like a feeding frenzy observed among wounded fish.

Barthel and Edling (2012, 89) observe churches in conflict snapping to their senses when leaders are reminded of the need to remain God-centered and to reframe conflict around well-choice questions for reflection. Of course, this rings a bit like sound pastoral advice for us as individuals as well.

What is your favorite scripture passage?

[1] “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:29-31 ESV)

REFERENCES

Barthel, Tara Klena and David V. Edling. 2012. Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Finney, Charles. 1982. The Spirit-Filled Life (Orig pub 1845-61). New Kensington: Whitaker House.

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Persecution Can Be Transformative

Life_in_Tension_web“And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution
against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the
regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my grandparents’ home, every meal began with prayer and ended with a scripture reading. During my college years at Iowa State University, I used to travel to visit them on the weekends. At one point when it was my turn to pick a scripture passage, I read the story of Stephen. Well, sort of. I could not read the story without breaking out in tears…

The charge against Stephen was twofold:

“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV)

Stephen never disputed the charge and offered no defense. Instead, he accused the Jews of false worship and not keeping the law (Acts 7:48,53) effectively validating their charges. What drove them crazy, however, was when he reminded them of Jesus’ words during his trial:

“But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64 ESV) [1]

Jesus was paraphrasing Daniel 7:13. This was clear a claim of divinity. Stephen’s stoning was spontaneous and illegal under Roman law (John 18:31). Yet, it was approved by Saul (Acts 8:1). Persecution requires a persecutor.

By his own words, Saul was an zealous persecutor (Phil 3:6). Saul is introduced in Acts 7:58 with the execution of Stephen. In Acts 8 we are told that he not only approved of Stephen’s stoning, he led the persecution of the church in Jerusalem that followed (Acts 8:1, 3). Saul’s persecution is described with the word ravage (λυμαίνω; Acts 8:3) which suggests a path of self-destruction as in the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” (Prov. 19:3 ESV)

In leading the persecution of the church, Saul both assists in scattering the Jerusalem disciples to the regions of Judea and Samaria—fulfilling the commission of Christ in Acts 1:8. For example, we read: Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Acts 8:4 ESV). In doing so, at his worse Saul still acts as an unwilling, unknowing instrument of the Holy Spirit. However, when Saul sets his course to oppose Christ’s commission in the scattering by going to Damascus, he meets the risen Lord who, unlike in the case of Judas Iscariot (Matt 28:5), graciously prevents him from self-destruction. Even before his conversion, the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, accomplished God’s will and his own call (Acts 9:15-16).

A spiritual bond is formed between the persecuted and persecutors. Charismatics refer to it as one of the chains of Satan because turning into our pain is a clear choice to turn away from God [2]. Forgiveness breaks this bond and makes room for God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives (Rom 12:19). Interestingly, the Apostle Paul never forgot Stephen and mentions him in his speech before the Sanhedrin when he is arrested in Jerusalem in which recounts his own conversion (Acts 22:20). Was Paul God’s answer to Stephen’s prayer: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”? (Acts 7:60 ESV)

The Book of Acts reports that the Holy Spirit worked through persecution to establish the first gentile church in Antioch. We read:

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” (Acts 11:19 ESV)

The key word here is scattered (διασπαρέντες). The only other place in the New Testament where this word appears is in Acts 8:4: Now those who were scattered [by Saul’s persecution] went about preaching the word. The word suggests an action of the wind—in English we say scattered by the wind [3]. The word for wind in the Greek is pneuma (πνεῦμα). This word is also translated as Holy Spirit. The inference is that the Holy Spirit established the church at Antioch by means of persecution. Because the apostles remained primarily in Jerusalem at this point, God went ahead of them to establish his church in “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV), much like God has used the Pentecostal movement in our own time to reach much of the known world.

The implication here is that persecution is used by God to shake things up and to form not only individuals but also His church.

 

[1] Also see: Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69.

[2] Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane gives us a clear template for dealing with pain (Matt. 26:39-44 ESV).

[3] The allusion here is to Luke 8:5-15, The Parable of the Sower.

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Suffering Predates Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“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 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In both the Old Testament Books of the Law and Books of the Prophets, suffering and salvation are linked prominently. Reproach and persecution are amplied by the emotional distress suffered because it is frequently very personal.

In the Law, the story of Joseph stands out. Joseph was the first-born son of Rachel whose older sister, Leah, had had six sons and a daughter while Rachel was barren. The Bible records these words when Joseph was born:

“Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach.” (Gen 30:22-23 ESV)

Rachel was reviled by her sister, Leah, out of jealousy with a focus on her barrenness [1]. Because Rachel was also Jacob’s favorite wife, Joseph soon became Jacob’s favorite son. We read:

Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.” (Gen. 37:3 ESV)

Jealousy between Joseph and his brothers led them to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and to report to Jacob that he had been killed by wild animals (Gen 37). After suffering from the hands his brothers, being sold into slavery, and sent to prison, Joseph proved himself to be a hard worker, honest man, and able leader. He is later promoted by Pharoah to be prime minister and through God’s intervention saved Egypt and his own family from starvation during a terrible famine (Gen 38-45). In effect, the son who was reviled and persecuted became the savior of the family and nation.  Does this story sound familiar?

In both the case of Rachel and her son, Joseph, the primarily cause of the raproach was not righteousness; it was jealousy—jealousy over childbearing and jealousy over favortism.

In the Law, the story of Job stands out. Job is a righteous man persecuted by Satan (Job 1-2) but reproached by his friends who doubt his righteousness. For example, Eliphaz the Temanite asks: ”who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7 ESV) Likewise, Bildad the Shuhite calls Job a windbag and asks: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3 ESV) This raproach by Job’s friends goes on and on. It gets so bad that God himself gets angry at these friends and corrects their misconceptions of Job’ righteousness (Job 42:7).

In spite of the raproach of his friends and the loss of his family and fortune, God comes to Job’s rescue and rewards Job’s faithfulness. We read: “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10 ESV)

The raproach and suffering that we observe in the Old Testament arises, in part, because of differences in the ethical systems articulated. Three stand out.

First, one is righteous in keeping the law and unrighteous in breaking it. God rewards the righteous and punishes law breakers. This is, for example, the expectation of Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 4:7).  It is also the ethic displayed in Psalm 1.

Second, one is righteous in being wise and observing how the world really works. For example, we read: “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” (Prov 14:16 ESV) In effect, evil is not just bad, it is also stupid.  This is the dominant ethic promoted in Proverbs.

Third, righteous suffering is blessed. This lesson comes directly from Job’s experience, but we also witness this relationship in daily life. We sometimes call it differred gratification. Education and investment activities both work this way. The rub is that plans do not always work out—there is a risk of failure. However, the parable of talents teaches us that God rewards those who trust in him and punish those who refuse to (Matt 25:14-30).

As the saying goes, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.

[1] The theme of woman teasing each other viciously over barrenness figures prominently in conflict between Sarah and Hagar (Gen 16:4). It also is important in the story of the birth of the Prophet Samuel. There we read: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.” (1 Sam. 1:6 ESV)

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Persecution Gets Personal

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and
utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ninth beatitude is the capstone beatitude and it repeats beatitude eight emphatically. The parallel in Luke’s Gospel is even more explicit. The ninth beatitude also requires special attention because the first and last points in a list are in a literary sense the most important. The emphasis here is emphatic.

Tension with others is intensified in several dimensions. Notice the verbs—revile, persecute and slander (utter evil falsely)—replace persecute. And notice how the object of this vitrol shifts from righteousness to me (on my account). The tension here is intensified because what was generic persecution becomes a personal attack (Wilkins 2004, 211). The tension is also amplied by the shift from the third person (they) to the second person (you) (Neyrey 1998, 168). I suspect that Jesus was looking into the eyes of his disciples at this point. To use a military analogy, Jesus is like the commander who addresses his troops as the friends because he knows that they will watch his back as they go into battle.

The key verb here is revile (ὀνειδίζω) which 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)). Closely related is the noun form (ὄνειδος) of the word which means: “loss of standing connected with disparaging speech, disgrace, reproach, insult” (BDAG 5318). Revile (scorn, disgrace, reproach) 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 here is to be left exposed to public ridicule for bareness, nakedness, or weakness—like a woman caught without clothes or a city without walls. Notice that several of these verses are messianic passages cited by Jesus himself.

Understanding the full weight of what is being said is requires a word about cultural context. Jesus is addressing disciples in a communal, honor and shame culture. Neyrey (1998, 168-169) that the beatitudes address a common theme—the poor, the hungry, and the mourning—shared by disciples having been driven out of their families and communities. The three verbs—revile, persecute, and slander—point likewise to a social stigma and explusion—someone being disinherited and driven out of the family and community.

The passage about the early church in Acts often cited as 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)

—may actually have been time of significant stress for the disciples. Still, persecution marks one as a Christian and is therefore also a mark of 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.

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Blessing Those that Persecute

Life_in_Tension_web“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Increasingly even in America, Christians find themselves the target of isolation, persecution, and even murder. During 2015 alone, a woman was jailed for publically espousing Biblical views on marriage [1], a church was the site of a mass shooting [2], and Christians were publicly beheaded by Islamic extremists [3]. These were only the most recent events. Few of us will forget the shooting of Cassie Bernall at Columbine High School for professing faith in Jesus Christ in 1999 [4]. Persecution of the faith is part of everyday experience.

From the cross, “Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)

Persecution reminds us of who we are, who we belong to, and what we are about.

Who We Are. Jesus links persecution directly to our identity saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:12 ESV) In effect, persecution for righteousness sake validates our faith and puts us in league with the prophets.

Who We Belong To. We are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) and undocumented workers here on earth. 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 Peter 2:10-12 ESV)

If our identity is in Christ, people look at us differently expecting to see Christ in us [5]. If we behave like everyone else, then we bring shame on Christ and on ourselves.

What We Are About. Again, 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 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)

Persecution is part of the mix of trials that we should expect to suffer [6].

Persecution also helps us establish priorities. Poorly focused objectives divides scarce church resources to the point that almost nothing at all is accomplished. Persecution helps us focus on Christ’ mission, not our own.

When Jesus talks about us being salt, it is attached to warning. Listen again to his words:

“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 ESV)

Trampling is a good analogy for the persecution of a church that has lost its way. Its better to be persecuted for righteousness sake (1 Peter 3:17).

 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/07/politics/kim-davis-same-sex-marriage-kentucky-governor.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charleston_church_shooting.

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/19/africa/libya-isis-executions-ethiopian-christians.

[4] http://www.cassierenebernall.org.

[5] “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isa 51:1 ESV)

[6] “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for 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. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Rom. 8:34-39 ESV)

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Christian Paradox

Life_in_Tension_web“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 Peter 2:24 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we think of sin, we normally think of sin against our neighbor rather than against God. In fact, the story of the tensions of faith over the past century have mostly focused on reconciliation with our neighbor, not God. The tensions over racial and ethnic equality, classism, and women’s rights, for example, are struggles over the sin of discrimination against our neighbor—a form of pride displayed at the expense of that neighbor. The Apostle Paul said it best over two thousand years ago:

“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 [classism], there is no male and female [women’s rights], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28 ESV)

If our sin is against our neighbor, then what does that have to do with the atonement of Christ? Why would pursuing this righteousness lead to persecution?

In a strictly political sense, equality leads to instability. Why? Because no one is in charge. Everything is negotiated. Chaos is the natural outcome because personal and class interests are naturally in conflict and no one has the authority required to set rules and enforce law. Economists sometimes talk about competition as a transition to monopoly. Most people prefer security to equality—even if they think of themselves as democrats (small d). The more equality experienced, the greater the need for God!

In an unstable world, the swabbling would never stop. Revenge and counter-revenge have no natural end-point except death.

Jesus proposes specific alternatives:

  • “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 ESV)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).
  • “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matt. 5:41 ESV)
  • “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1 ESV)
  • “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21 ESV)

Refuse to defend your honor, even if you suffer shame. In other words, in all things be humble [1]. Instead of defending your honor, practice humility and pursue righteousness even at the expense of persecution and death. Evil is defeated on the cross because God himself has paid the penalty of our sin (1 Peter 2:24; 1 Cor 15:3). The resurrection vindicated the claim that Jesus is the Son of God [2].

In a context of humility, violence is avoided by refusing to pursue one’s rights and preferring to set a good example by being proactively righteous. This is not a strategy to dominant another person or for one group to dominant another, in part, because the other party (or parties) gets to choose whether or not to reciprocate. Quite the contrary, the other party (or parties) can simply chose to persecute or dominate. However, the possibility that an enemy will chose to become a friend is only logically possible if this strategy of humility is sincerely chosen.

Although Stephen was the first Christian martyr, many more followed. The only apostle that was not martyred was the Apostle John (Foxe 2001, 10). Outside of martyrdom, other Christians have given testimony through service at the risk of their own lives. For example, during a plague in Alexandria in the third century Christians refused to abandon the city preferring to remain and care for the sick. Have we followed their example?  (Kinnamen and Lyons 2007, 110).

Divine intervention is required to abandon one’s rights and live in service to others. While Christ’s resurrection points to his divinity, his life and his sacrifice point to God’s alternative. Dare we follow?

 

[1] Neyrey (1998) devotes his entire book to this subject.

[2] Jesus preferred to refer 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” ( בֶּן־אָדָם (Ezek. 2:1 WTT)). In the more famous passage in Daniel 7:13, the Hebrew expression is the more familiar “son of man” (כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ).

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.

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Righteous Suffering

Life_in_Tension_web“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 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For the Christian and for the Jew, the experience of God frequently arises in the context of righteous suffering.

Genesis begins the Bible with the creation account, but Genesis itself was written by Moses who encounters God as a refugee from his homeland and his people in the desert tending his father-in-law’s sheep (Exodus 3:1). As a man wanted for murder, Moses find himself in the presence of God consumed by grief over his sins and shamed by his inability to help his people. Here is a former prince of Egypt now tending sheep not even his own. Do you think Moses felt persecuted? Do you think that he suffered?

God gives Moses 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 ESV)

Moses is not anxious. Quite the contrary. He is wanted for murder in Egypt. Going to Pharaoh entails substantial and obvious personal risk. However, God offers Moses a number of assurances. Most important among these are the words: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12 ESV). In the midst of our own suffering God promises to be with us.

In the Law of Moses, God promises to be with us in the midst of suffering. God’s presence is manifested two other tangible gifts: the giving of the divine name and the giving of the law. With respect to the NAME, we read:

“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. And he said, Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exod. 3:14-15 ESV)

The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God freely gave Moses his name, he was offering him what we might call the power of prayer. And God’s covenant name was significant: YHWH which in Hebrew means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”. In common English, we might say: “I am the real deal”. The ancients were accustomed to gods made up by their leaders to serve their own political purposes [1]  A REAL GOD with REAL POWER was something entirely new.

With respect to the Law, the covenant of Moses begins with a reminder: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV). The laws that followed gave the people of Israel a clear picture of what God required of them. To our ears, this sounds like no big deal, but the problem faced by the ancients was not knowing who God was and what he requires. It is hard to pray to God if you do not know his name or know what he requires of you. Consequently, knowing God’s name and having his law may life an aweful lot easier and reduced anxiety levels dramatically.

In the prophets, suffering continues but something new appears. The Prophet Job is described as 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 ESV)

Job is so righteous that God even 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 ESV)

To which Satan asks to test him and God grants his request. Satan is given permission to take everything Job has away and to afflict horribly (Job 1-2).

What is interesting here is that the story of Job is thought to have been the oldest book of the Bible, written my Moses, and used to convince the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt. What is new here is the first evidence of the need for a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25 ESV) Even in his apparent righteousness, Job feels a need for salvation. Righteous suffering, whether by human taskmasters or Satanic oppression, pushes us to seek out and to rely on God rather than our own resources or on the law [2].

This theme of relying solely on God is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When his friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnance. 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 ESV)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to God, it becomes a testimony to others. This is the blessing.

The eighth beatitude is perhaps the most paradoxical: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV) How can we be blessed in suffering? The answer comes later in Matthew directly from the mouth of Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39 ESV)

This is the Christian paradox.

 

[1]  An example of this phenomena is found in the story of Jeroboam, ,the first king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) after rebelling against Rehoboam, the son of Solomon:

“And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah. So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-29 ESV)

[2] The Prophen Jeremiah writes: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34 ESV)

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Prosecute Righteousness

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The eighth beatitude continues our look at tension with others. Persecution is probably the most obvious form of interpersonal tension. Yet, it is sometimes more obvious to third parties than it is to us because we are prone to practice intense denial about such things. Denial is a strong component here, in part, because we have trouble admitting to ourselves that we are being persecuted and, in part, because of our tendency as Christians to think aspirationally. If we truly have the mind of Christ, we see others as Christ sees them—the person that God created them to be, not as they actually are.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:4-7 ESV)

James also provides important insight into our attitude about persecution:

“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.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)

In effect, persecution for righteousness’ sake is part of our sanctification. So we are sometimes strangely blind to the persecution that we experience and even surprised to hear about it. For example, Billy Graham (1955, 98) poses a somewhat paradoxical question: “Why are good people persecuted?”

Here the word, persecution (διώκω), means: “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute” (BDAG 2059(2)). Often persecute is used in the context of a military engagement vigorously pursued (e.g. Deut 11:4). Guelich (1982, 93) notes that the perfect participale form of the word is uniquely used here and no where else in the Bible and it suggests actual community experience, not a hypothetical possibility. The word, righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), means: “the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness, righteousness” (BDAG 2004 (3)). Where a would-be king might hunger and thirst to acquire a kingdom, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness and expect to have others hunger and thirst to persecute us. The Bible reminds us that being called a Christian was often associated with suffering and not always considered an honor (1 Peter 4:16) [1].

Jesus’ association of persecution with righteousness was prophetic. Luke’s Gospel records these words from the cross:

“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 ESV)

Notice that each of the elements of the eighth beatitude are present in Luke’s pericope: the idea of righteous persecution followed by the reward of heaven.

Religious persecution is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy for Abel’s sacrifice being accepted by God when his own was not. In effect, Abel was righteous while Cain was not so Cain persecuted his brother unto death (Gen 4:3-9). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was similiarly stoned for, among other things, pointing out the persecution of the prophets (Acts 7:52-53)[2].The Apostle Paul admonishes 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.” (Romans 8:35-37 ESV)

Jesus reminds us that a student is not better than his teacher. He was persecuted; we will be persecuted (Matt 10:24-25). But Jesus did not stop there. He admonished us to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44 ESV).

In doing so, we turn our enemies into our friends.

 

[1] “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16 ESV)

[2] “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:52-53 ESV)

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.

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Peace on God’s Terms

Life_in_Tension_web“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In order to extend shalom, one must find shalom. Shalom starts with God; works in our hearts; and then is extended to others.

The apple does not fall far from the tree: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt 5:9 ESV) In other words, peacemaking is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Out of our identity in Christ, we act.

Moving from theory in to practice is especially hard when it comes to peacemaking. Everyone one loves peace—on their own terms. Pax Romana was peace on Rome’s terms; Pax America is peace on Washington’s terms. In order to find shalom, we must seek peace on God’s terms. Shalom is a fruit of the Spirit, but the whole fruit basket is a package deal!

The Apostle Paul writes:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:19-24 ESV)

To find inner peace, two movements are necessary: throwing off sin (become holy) and taking on godliness (immitate God). Through the atonement of Christ, we are able not to sin. Through the example of the life of Christ, we are able to put on the righteousness of Christ (the fruit of the Spirit) which then spills over into our relationships with other people. This spilling over affects our relationships in the family, community, church, work, and the world (Graham 1955, 92-95).

The seventh beautitude influenced my life at a sensitive age. At age 19 on August 4, 1972, I wrote the following to my draft board:

“I can not fight in a war because as a Christian my highest duty is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I believe that life is the sacred gift of God which is to be honored and respected by all men. I believe that every man has a constructive contribution to make to humanity and that each man has the right to fulfill this destiny. I believe there is a beauty in all life and that we should use love, concern, and non-violent methods to solve our conflicts. I believe all men are of one indivisible whole and that each man’s life is important to the life of the whole. I must live in peace to uphold my faith.”

The Vietnam war ended on New Year’s Eve of that year so my draft number (13) was never called. However, my stand against the war spilled over into my family life and strongly influenced later career choices [1]. I predicated my pacifist stand on the belief that Vietnam was an unjust war and therefore Christian participation was not justified.

Choices such as mine divided the generations in the 1960s and 1970s, but did not lead to lasting peace in the world—success is seldom within our control. As Christians, our call is to be faithful and to model faithfulness [2]. We may not institute world peace, but like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) we can help the needy person who crosses our path [3].

 

[1] Neyrey (1998, 184) notes that it is this family context where Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34 ESV)

[2] Mouw (2010, 65) sees moral simplicity accompanied by openness to God’s grace as a path towards sanctification and cites the examples of Corrie ten Boom and Mother Teresa.

[3] Why is the Good Samaritan not called the Great Samaritan? He did what was necessary, not everything possible, to save a man’s life (Cloud and Townsend 1992, 38-39).

REFERENCES

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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

Mouw, Richard J. 2010. Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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

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Trinity of Peace

Life_in_Tension_web“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were
for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, Peace be with you.
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were
glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
(John 20:19-21 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we focus on the peace as reconciliation among feuding folks—relief of the tension with our brothers and sisters, we miss the significance of God’s peace breaking out throughout the New Testament. Remember that shalom (שָׁלוֹם) means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10002). In other words, it also implies healing, restoration, reconciliation, and salvation—a return to Eden. It is not just hello and goodbye, as it is often used in Hebrew. It is reminder of the covenant and God’s work among us. Shalom implies inner peace, peace with God, and peace between brothers and sisters.

If this interpretation seems far-fetched, remember the beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21) start with the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isa. 61:1-3 ESV)

Notice the inner peace referenced with the phrase: “bind up the brokenhearted”. This sounds a lot like comforting depressed people. Notice the peace with God implied in the phrase: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me”. God himself has initiated this mission of shalom. Notice the peace with brothers and sisters implied in the phrase: “to proclaim liberty to the captives”. In effect, we are witnessing a trinity of shalom breaking out.

Inner Peace. What could bring peace more quickly than physical and mental healing? Jesus’ first miracle after leaving Nazareth is in the synagogue in Capernaum (Peter’s home town; Luke 4:38) where Jesus drives out a demon out of a man (Luke 4:31-36). This happened repeatedly (Luke 4:41).

Jesus’ ability to heal transformed a person so dramatically that it was obvious just looking at them. For example, after healing the man with the unclean spirit in the Gerasenes, we see:

“And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.” (Mark 5:15 ESV)

Wow. What power in shalom! The man healed was immediately transformed also into an evangelist (Mark 5:20), much like the woman at the well (John 4:28-30).

Peace with God. These days many people take peace with God for granted. This was certainly not a first century view. Jerusalem was destroyed first by the Babylonians for idolatry [1] and later by the Romans, presumably for sin, refusing the listen to the prophets and killing them (Matt 23:34-47). Remembers that Old Testament prophets served to remind the people of their obligations under the Mosaic covenant—in other words, their sin. Consequently, when Paul writes:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5 ESV)

He is reminding the Corinthian church that Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross and only that sacrifice made peace with God possible. No sacrifice; no peace. If God would not spare Jerusalem because of their sin, why would he spare sinful Corinth? Or, for that matter, Washington or New York?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus can atone for our sin and bring us peace with God.

Peace among Brothers and Sisters. We normally think of peace in terms of reconciliation, in part, because peace on earth is so hard to obtain. Often cited in this context is Paul’s admonition:

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom 12:18 ESV)

The shalom of Christ is, however, more generous than simply offering the absence of conflict. Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John’s Gospel shows Jesus rescuing the wedding of an impoverished couple of newlyweds from social embarassment. Notice that Jesus’ generosity has two dimensions—quantity and quality:

“Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast. So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:6-10 ESV)

Notice the math here—six times twenty is one hundred and twenty gallons of wine. You might say Jesus gave them a truck loaded with wine! If that were not enough, the wine stewart—a local critic hired to maintain community standards—praises the wine’s quality! You might say Jesus offered them a named French estate wine when a mixed store brand was expected.

Shalom implies inner peace, peace with God, and peace between brothers and sisters. Jesus delivers so much more peace than we expect or deserve.

 

[1] “You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.” (Acts 7:43 ESV)

REFERENCES

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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