Pastor Leyrer

Text: 1 Peter 4:12-19 

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Dear Friends in Christ, If we thought the wholesale affliction of people for nothing else than their allegiance to Jesus Christ was a thing of the past, or if we do acknowledge it as a present day reality but choose not to dwell on it because it’s too unpleasant, this last year put the certainty of Christian persecution front and center. In fact, it’s become unavoidable as world events unfold.

Am I alone in still having a vivid mental image of 21 Egyptian Christians in orange jumpsuits being led to their execution by members of the radical Islamic group ISIS? Probably not.

Even sadder: that was just a sampling used as a publicity tool to create fear. A “60 Minutes” news report from 6 months ago tells us over 125,000 Christians in Iraq alone have been forced to flee their homes, or have had atrocities committed against them, or were executed on the spot if they failed to renounce their faith and immediately convert to the ISIS form of religion. Again, that was six months ago. Who knows what the numbers are now.

The Middle East is not the only place such things are happening. “Open Doors,” an international organization that tracks the level of Christian persecution throughout the world, lists 25 countries that rank as being either severe or extreme in their active mistreatment of Christians. The list goes up to 50 if you add the categories of moderate or sparse persecution.

The evidence is clear and the conclusions unmistakable: there are parts of the world where it is extremely dangerous to be a Christian. There are parts of the world where belief in Jesus Christ can bring a knock on the door in the middle of the night that can change one’s life in an instant.

While these sad and extreme examples heighten our awareness of this subject, the fact of the matter is that persecution against Christians in every part of the world has always existed and will always exist in one form or another.

Some places and ages may be better or milder than others (and thanks be to God, we presently live in such a time and place compared to other parts of the world), but of this we can be certain:  faith in Jesus Christ to one degree or another will always draw opposition, contempt, and oppression. That’s the essential lesson of our text for today as the Apostle Peter gives us some

STRAIGHT TALK ON THE SUBJECT OF PERSECUTION

Specifically what he talks about is

  1. Persecution as an expectation for the Christian
  2. Persecution as an opportunity for the Christian

12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

The people to whom Peter originally wrote these words were young in their faith and may have been confused about the Christian life. They knew, loved, and embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin. Their lives were full and robust in the personal security that the living Jesus was always with them. Just like us, they found their peace and confidence in what Christ accomplished for them through his life, death and resurrection.

But before too long they discovered their new found faith and joy brought them some other things as well. Things like opposition and persecution, which produced suffering. And it seems as though that surprised them.

So Peter needed to instruct them (and us) on the full scope and meaning of discipleship. What it boils down to is this: being a disciple of Christ creates internal peace. But it also creates external conflict.

You see, Peter was there when Jesus spoke these words in the upper room, and he simply wants to remind those he originally addressed and us of what our Lord tells us in John 15:18-20

18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…”

So when it comes to persecution – which, by loose definition means hostility or ill-treatment because of our allegiance to Jesus Christ – Peter says: expect it. Peter tells us to consider persecution as an expectation of the Christian life.

What that means for us personally is that we should not be surprised when our faith in Christ, or our belief that there is such a thing as truth – and it is found exclusively in the Bible, is not just challenged, but met with disdain or belittlement or the most condescending form of dismissal. 

We should not be surprised when we hear people refer to Bible believing Christians in less than complimentary ways, or when we find ourselves on the politically incorrect side of issues, especially those that pertain to matters of life or life-style. 

We shouldn’t be surprised when we are characterized as haters or intolerant or judgmental.

In fact, not only should we not be surprised, we should expect this kind of opposition. In those cases, the best we can do is put into practice something else Peter tells us earlier in this letter: answer with gentleness and respect and in a way that shows we know why we believe what we believe.

Yet, persecution in whatever form it takes has another side to it. It’s not all negative. Peter says persecution presents us with this blessed opportunity: it allows us to participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that we may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

In other words, when we suffer for our faith in Christ we draw into a closer relationship with Christ. Christ suffered for us on the cross; through persecution in whatever form it takes we mildly reciprocate by suffering for Christ. In some small way we experience for him what in a big way he experienced for us. The pattern of Christ’s life for us becomes the pattern of our life for him. And in the process our bond with him tightens. 

Peter goes on to talk more about this interplay between the expectation and opportunity connected with persecution. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

Point: when we willingly take flack for our Christian beliefs and make it clear that our allegiance is to Christ and Christ alone, we are able to fly our flag for Jesus and bring glory and honor to his name. The upside of persecution is the opportunity it provides for us to witness to the truth. 

When we stand tall and are unmoved in the midst of ridicule we make a powerful statement that there is something bigger and more important in our lives than just ourselves. And that, of course, is Jesus Christ, and the God of Truth, whose name we are not ashamed to bear.

Think of those Egyptian Christians. I don’t know the details, but it’s entirely possible they had a way out. The way out would have been to deny their faith in Christ and pledge allegiance to ISIS. But they didn’t. And now we rightfully consider them Christian martyrs who told the world that it is better to die and be with Jesus than to live and bring dishonor to his name. 

In the words of our text, they were not afraid to suffer as Christians, nor were they ashamed; by their actions they displayed praise in bearing his name. And they serve as examples for us all.

17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Peter reminds us that today we are one step closer to Judgment Day than we were yesterday. Our world is on a path. At the end of the path Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. As God’s people we know this, even if others don’t. And we also know that living for Christ in a world that doesn’t share our beliefs is sometimes hard and wearisome. Peter acknowledges that, so he ends with this final encouragement:

19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

Pretty self-explanatory, but what perhaps should not be overlooked is Peter’s reference to God as our faithful Creator. That introduces a wonderfully personal thought on which to end.

God is the Creator of each of us as individuals. That means that God knows us as individuals, and he also knows what we need. He designed us, and he is the One who wrote the personally customized manual for our lives. He knows how best we operate and what mixture or recipe of ups and downs, joys and sufferings, etc. is specific for each of us to reach our ultimate goal – life with him in heaven.

So we commit ourselves to our faithful Creator. We have seen his love for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. We know the depth of his love for us in the forgiveness of our sins. We rejoice in the knowledge that we are just pilgrims passing through and that our real citizenship is in heaven.

Until we get there, God asks us to represent him well, to do good, to let people see Jesus Christ in us. But when we do, today through Peter, God also tells us that we can expect opposition, just like Jesus did. And he tells us that shouldn’t surprise us.

He tells us this not to scare us, but to prepare and alert us so when the time of persecution comes, whatever strength it may be (strong, mild or somewhere in between), we may embrace each and every instance as an opportunity to share in the sufferings of Christ, fly our flag for Jesus, and bring glory and honor to his name. God grant it. Amen.