Are you familiar with the expression, "fat, dumb and happy"? I think that would be an appropriate description of the twentieth century American Church. We are fat- we have so much and appreciate so little. We need the same warning that God gave to Israel as they entered the promise land:
Deuteronomy 8:11-14 (NKJV) "Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, 12 "lest; when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; 13 "and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; 14 "when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage."
We are dumb- the depth of our understanding of God's word is 3,000 miles wide but only an inch deep. We have this idea that God wants us all healthy, wealthy, and trouble free. After all, we are Americans, and we have God's special favor.
We are happy- but only as long as things go our way. The idea of being persecuted for the Christian faith sounds outdated like something from the ancient past. We are comfortable, prosperous, and content in our biblical ignorance, and think we will never have to suffer for our faith.
How does what we see in our country square with what we read in 2 Timothy 2:12?
2 Timothy 3:12 (NKJV) Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
Is that true only for the saints who lived in the transition period? No! This is a truism for all saints who live a consistent, godly, Christlike Christian life. Living righteously in a world filled with evil men will bring persecution. This is why we are so often silent about our faith. We fear the insults, rejection, and persecution that comes from a world that hates Christ.
As Christians, we at times are verbally persecuted for our love for Christ. But this is easily avoided by keeping our mouths shut when we're around unbelievers. We know how to blend right in, so as to avoid the slightest persecution. This is very sad and dishonoring to God who wants us to be salt and light to the world in which we live (Matthew 5:13-16).
Because no one likes rejection, we often keep our mouths shut about our faith. Maybe we have even been made to feel like we should cower and hide because of what we believe. Folks, we need to be willing to suffer for the truth! Let's be bold in sharing God's truth. Yes, it will cause persecution, we may lose friends, we may be called names. But if these things back us down from sharing the truth, we need to be ashamed of ourselves. This is the response we should have:
Matthew 5:11-12 (NKJV) "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
When is the last time you rejoiced when people persecuted you? We may suffer here and now for what we believe, but we will be rewarded for it in heaven.
Do we have any idea as to what is going on with Christians in the rest of the world? Many are suffering and dying for their faith in Christ. This morning I want us to look at the subject of faith and persecution in an effort to strengthen and encourage us to be more bold in our faith, and to cause us to be in prayer for our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering.
When we think of Christians suffering for their faith, we often think of the saints of the transition period (Pentecost to holocaust) from AD 30 to 70. What I want us to see this morning is that believers have ALWAYS suffered for their faith when they lived righteously. The Old Testament saints suffered, the New Testament saints suffered, and Christians living today still suffer and die for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Let's look at what the scriptures tell us about the sufferings of faith. Hebrews, chapter 11 is a call to faith. In this chapter we are encouraged to live by faith, trusting God in every situation and circumstance of life:
Hebrews 11:6 (NKJV) But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
There is no way our life can be pleasing to God apart from faith. He is pleased with us when we trust Him.
Our life of faith begins when we trust Jesus Christ for our eternal salvation. Forsaking any goodness or merit in ourselves, we look to Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. All men are born spiritually dead, separated from God because of our sin. We do not deserve, nor can we earn our salvation, it is a gift of God's grace. Jesus Christ died to pay the sin debt of all who trust in Him. Once we have trusted Jesus Christ for salvation, we begin the life of faith. All believers have faith, but they don't all have the same amount of faith. There are degrees of faith, and we are to always be growing in our faith. How do we grow in faith? Not by time in service; you don't automatically grow. We grow by increasing our knowledge of God through a study of His Word. The more we know Him, the more we will trust him. Do you trust people you don't know? Of course not. That is why many Christians find it difficult to trust God, they don't know him very well. We must study the Bible if we're ever going to grow in faith. But study alone won't do it, we must apply what we know. As we study the Word of God and apply what we learn, we will grow in our faith.
Hebrews 11 gives us many examples of men and women who had grown strong in their faith, and because of their faith lived victorious lives. In our study of verses 32-35a of chapter 11, we saw the victories of faith. These believers overcame every imaginable type of adversity through faith. Samson defeated 1,000 men, David killed Goliath, all because they trusted God.
The dominant thought in all these examples is triumph over adversity - victory and accomplishment in spite of trial. This is one great side to the experience of faith, but there is another. And verses 35b-38 give the other side of the picture.
The rapid transition to the thought of unrelieved suffering is very effective. Faith is not always rewarded in this life. In my opinion, this is an even greater manifestation of the power of faith. Faith's power to enable those to suffer what other wise they could not have suffered. Here is a group of people that didn't gain great victories out on the battlefield. They didn't perform great feats for God, but in my opinion, these are the real heroes. They trusted God when the day was dark, when the night was long, the suffering was great, and when there was no deliverance for them at all:
Hebrews 11:35 (NKJV) Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.
Notice the transition in this verse, "Women received their dead raise to life again - and others were tortured." The transition is startling, from victory to torture. The word "tortured" if from the Greek word tumpanizo, which means: "to torture with the tympanum". This was a drum shaped instrument over which criminals were stretched and then beaten with clubs. The word means: "to be beat to death".
"...not accepting deliverance...." These people could have recanted their faith and denied God, and they would have been set free. But they chose torture over apostasy. Do you see the relevance of this to the Hebrew believers who were being tempted to apostatize from the faith and turn back to Old Covenant Judaism?
The case of Eleazer, recorded in 2 Maccabees 6 & 7, so strongly resembles what the writer says here that many feel that he may have had it in mind. The books of Maccabees are found in the Apocrypha, which is not inspired and was never part of the Bible. But it has been very useful as history of the four hundred silent years between the Old and New Testaments. 1 & 2 Maccabees, on the whole, are historically accurate and valuable.
Eleazer, a 90 year old priest, is an example of one who would not accept deliverance at the price of apostasy. 2 Maccabees 6:18 says, "Eleazer, welcomed death with renown rather than life with pollution" and "of his own accord advanced to the instrument of torture." This is the same Greek word, tumpanizo, that is used in our text.
The account of Eleazar's death is followed by that of the martyrdom of seven brothers and their mother. The brutal tortures they chose to endure, rather than renounce the truth and defile themselves by eating swine's flesh in order to gain their release, included tearing out the tongue, scalping, mutilation, and frying over flames (2 Maccabees 7:4). And the instruments used in an attempt to break the spirit of these and other martyrs were wheels, joint-dislocators, racks, bone-crushers, catapults, cauldrons, braziers, thumbscrews, iron claws, and branding irons (2 Maccabees 7:12). The martyrs died cruel deaths, suffering torture which they could have escaped had they denied their faith.
The text goes on to say, "...that they might obtain a better resurrection"- they refused to deny the Lord and accept release in order that they might obtain a better resurrection. The reference to a "better resurrection" is in contrast to the raising of the first part of the verse - "Women received their dead raised to life again:" The words, "raised to life again," are from the Greek word anastasis. It is the same word that is translated resurrection. The New American Standard puts it this way:
Hebrews 11:35 (NNAS) Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection;
I think that makes it a lot clearer. What is better than a physical resurrection? A resurrection to life with God; which is the same as saying regeneration or immortality. What good is physical life if you don't have spiritual life? Those Old Testament saints that were raised to life, died again eventually.
How could any one endure such torture when they could have escaped it? By faith, they believed God's promise of resurrection life. They were willing to die, because physical death was not the end for them.
Today, when we think of the word "martyr", we often conjure up negative connotations in our minds. For example, we may say to ourselves or out loud; "He or she has a martyr's complex." What we mean by that is that such a person seems preoccupied, even obsessed, with their own pain, suffering, hurt, or sickness for the purpose of getting other people to pity them, to feel sorry for them.
In other words, they use their real or imagined suffering and sickness by convincing themselves and others that they are such great people, because they are martyrs. In the eyes of others, such "martyrs" seem overly self-centered, manipulative, and display hypochondriac behaviors. They become so focused on their situation that they blow it all out of proportion - thus making mountains out of molehills. That's one negative example of martyrs.
When it comes to true Christian martyrs, that's more difficult to talk about since it violates our comfort zones; stirs up guilt feelings; makes us ashamed of ourselves; and may even convict us of our sins. I don't know if you're like me, but true, sincere Christian martyrs make me nervous! Why? Well, whenever I read about true Christian martyrs and the stories of their martyrdom, I get nervous, because their lives, along with the circumstances surrounding their suffering and death, reveal to me how much more committed they were to Christ than I am. These martyrs and their martyrdom stories draw me up short; make me realize how I have failed miserably in so many circumstances to be the kind of Christian that they were; to do the Christ-like things that they did; to speak the Christ-like words that they spoke. In short, these martyrs and their martyrdom convict me of my sins and tell me that I still have a lot of growing to do as a follower of Christ.
Hebrews 11:36 (NKJV) Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment.
"And others had trial of mockings"... The next time that we are mocked because our faith, let's remember that this was the mildest form of suffering which many who went before us were called upon to endure. The sneers and unkind words of the world are not worthy of comparison with the pain which other believers have had to bear. It has always been the lot of God's servants to be derided , reproached, and insulted:
Galatians 4:29 "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now."
And believer, if we are not being mocked, sneered at, scoffed at, it is because we are too lax in our ways, too quiet in our talk, or too worldly in our walk.
They also underwent "scourgings"- whipping; this was a common form of punishment and was usually inflicted before a martyr was put to death. Our Lord suffered this:
Matthew 27:26 "Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified."
The apostles suffered this also:
Acts 16:23 "And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison"
They also endured "bonds and imprisonment"- this has been the experience of God's faithful witnesses in every generation.
2 Corinthians 11:23 "Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent"
We need to understand that the prisons of those days were far different than the comfortable buildings in which criminals are now incarcerated. Look at:
Jeremiah 38:6 (NKJV) So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the king's son, which was in the court of the prison, and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire. So Jeremiah sank in the mire.
Jeremiah 38:11-13 (NKJV) So Ebed-Melech took the men with him and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took from there old clothes and old rags, and let them down by ropes into the dungeon to Jeremiah. 12 Then Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, "Please put these old clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes." And Jeremiah did so. 13 So they pulled Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the dungeon. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.
This gives us some idea of what prisons were like. Jeremiah was beaten and thrown in prison, because he boldly declared the Word of the Lord. God's children were thrown into dark and damp dungeons below the earth, unheated, unpaved, unilluminated, and with no bathrooms because of their testimony. Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown in prison:
Acts 16:23-24 (NKJV) And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
The writer of Hebrews goes on to say:
Hebrews 11:37 (NKJV) They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
" They were stoned"... this was the fate of many of the prophets. Jesus said in:
Matthew 23:37 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee "
Stoning was the fate of Zechariah:
2 Chronicles 24:20-21 "And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you. 21 And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the LORD."
Stephen, the first New Testament martyr, was stoned, and so was Paul, but Paul survived and continued to preach.
They also "were sawn asunder" there is no record in Scripture of anyone being put to death in this way, though tradition tells us that Isaiah's life was ended in this manner. That some of God's children perished in this way is clear from our text. Suetonious records that the emperor, Caligula, often condemned persons to be sawn through the middle.
They also "were tempted" the word "tempted", standing as it does between the more terrible physical sufferings of being stoned and sawn asunder, on the one hand, and slain with the sword on the other, has perplexed many, and some have tried to substitute some other word or remove it entirely from the text. It is probably best to leave it as it is and suggest that one of the worst tortures was not that of the body but of the conscience; when the torturer would offer the victim opportunity to recant and thus obtain his freedom. This would test their true priorities; were they spiritual or physical? Or when they were tempted by those of their own household who would beg them to denounce their faith and save their lives. Or they might have been tempted to question God's goodness or justice. Yes, temptations can cause real sufferings.
They also "were slain with the sword"- I want you to notice a contrast here. Back in verse 34 we have been told some through faith "escaped the edge of the sword", but in verse 37 some through faith "were slain with the sword". Elijah escaped Jezebel's vengeance, but other prophets of the Lord were slain with the sword at that time. So too in the apostolic age, Herod Agrippa killed James, the brother of John, with the sword (Acts 12:2 ), but when he tried to do the same thing to Peter, Peter escaped. By faith one lived, and by faith the other died.
It's great to be able to get up and quote Scriptures such as:
Psalms 34:7 "The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them." 17 "The righteous cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles."
That's wonderful, and God does that, but sometimes He chooses not to deliver the believer from suffering. God doesn't always raise a person up from a bed of sickness. While some are healed, there are thousands today who are in the hospitals, thousands lying on beds of pain. Strong faith trusts God in the midst of suffering and death. In Job 13:15 Job said, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him." That's strong faith.
The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, "They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented ....39 they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." The language is vividly descriptive of the savage indignities and severe hardships which men and women of the faith have been willing to endure rather than deny the truth by which they have been liberated. Like Jesus, they were despised and rejected of men. Their faith cost them everything, but as Jim Elliot put it, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose."
One cannot think of these verses today and not notice the contrast with the so called "health-and-wealth gospel." For the person whose faith is strong, material comforts mean less, and spiritual values mean more. The people of God may often be poor and despised, but their faith opens to them riches of spirit which the world has never known.
38 "(Of whom the world was not worthy:)"- the world wasn't worthy of them. They were outlawed as people who were unfit for civilized society; the truth was that civilized society was unfit for them. They might have cried with the Psalmist, "Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter."
Faith in God carries with it no guarantee of comfort in this world; this was no doubt one of the lessons which our author wished his readers to learn. But it does carry with it great " recompense of reward" in heaven.
Verses 39 & 40 are a closing summary:
39 "And these all, having obtained a good report through faith"... This takes us back to the opening statement of the chapter:
Hebrews 11:1-2 (NKJV) Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.
It is by faith that we please God. Believers, quite often when we see someone suffering we think that God is punishing them, that they must have done something wrong, but note carefully that these all obtained a good testimony. God's approval is compatible with physical suffering and persecution.
The text says they "received not the promise:"- What promise?
Prior to the destruction of the temple in AD 70, "eternal life" was a promised future hope, not a present possession. The promise was eternal life, resurrection life in the presence of Jesus Christ.
40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. Perfection consists of being resurrected. It's receiving our eternal inheritance. The Old Covenant saints did not receive their resurrection until the church was perfected. Prior to AD 70 and the return of Christ, nobody entered the presence of God:
Hebrews 10:36-38 (NKJV) For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: 37 "For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. 38 Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him."
Now, you might be thinking, "All that martyr stuff was back then, believers don't suffer today." I think many folks believe this, because they are so unaware of what is going on in the world outside the United States. Many today are suffering and dying for their faith.
Last May a Hong Kong Christian and businessman was arrested by the Chinese authorities on charges of "assisting an evil cult." Li Guangquiang, 38, was arrested after being caught trying to deliver 16,000 Bibles to a Christian sect called the "Shouters," a house church movement numbering about 500,000. Li has also been accused of transporting about 17,000 Bibles in April. The Shouters is one among many house church organizations that for decades has refused to join the state-controlled church, therefore labeled as an "evil cult" by the Chinese government. Groups like the Shouters have also been outlawed because of their contacts with western Christians.
Li was arrested in May and indicted in December. Two other Chinese Christians are also being charged in connection with the illegal transporting of the Bibles. The two are Lin Xifu and Yu Zhudi, both who are leaders of the Shouters.
The South China Morning Post (January 8, 2002) reported that President George W. Bush has taken a personal interest in the detention of Li and has ordered US diplomats to take up his case. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy was quoted as saying, "Reports of a crackdown on religious practitioners in China are deeply troubling. We call upon China as a member of the international community to meet international standards on the freedom of religious expression and freedom of conscience."
In court, in the city of Fu Qing, Li was charged with ''using an evil cult to damage a law-based society.'' The reference to an ''evil cult'' can result in Li receiving the death sentence.
In another high profile case in China, house church leader, Gong Shengliang, was arrested and was sentenced to be put to death on January 5. Gong was granted a reprieve from his death sentence after the case attracted attention from human rights groups and U.S. government officials. According to the news agency, "Compass," Gong had been given a death sentence in a December 18 secret trial in Hubei province on charges of "complicity in rape" and "leading an evil cult." Gong is the leader of the 50,000 member "South China" house church movement.
The following is a summary from excerpts translated and paraphrased from a letter ICC received from 3 Ethiopian Christians describing the horrendous ordeal of torture, terror, and torment they have been through at the hands of an official at the Bremen deportation prison in Jeddah. The 3 Ethiopians are Baharu Mengistu, Tinsae Gezachew, and Gebeyehu Tefera. The torturous treatment was in retaliation for a petition sent to the Ethiopian consulate in Jeddah describing their situation in the Bremen deportation prison in Jeddah. The 3 Christians were never charged, but sources say they were arrested due to their Christian faith:
On January 28, 2002 by order of the Bremen Prison Commander Major Bender Sultan Shabani and with no hearing, trial, or process of law, we were illegally subjected to severe punishment and physical abuse. Being suspended with chains, each of us were flogged 80 times with a flexible metal cable, and also severely kicked and beaten with anything that came into their hands. This was witnessed by over 1,000 deportees.
Our bodies are wounded, swollen, terribly bruised, and with great pain. Baharu's kidney may have been damaged and he is passing blood with his urine. When we reported to the prison hospital for treatment, we were slapped and told to come back after we were dead. It seems as if we were brought to Bremen Deportation Prison to be tortured and tormented to death.
"One Ethiopian-Yemeni named Ahmed is the primary instigator of all of this. He is an extortionist who has for a long time been intimidating and threatening Ethiopian Christians working in Jeddah. If they will not pay him blackmail money, he invents serious false charges such as having blasphemed Islam, and reports it to his connections with the Saudi authorities.
"Ahmed has been doing some work for the Bremen Prison during this time, and has been continually threatening us, and anyone who comes to visit us. He tells visitors that he will put them in prison also the way he did us. We believe he is also the mastermind behind the delays for our deportation using his connections with prison officials.
"A few days before this incident, we sent a petition to the Ethiopian Consulate in Jeddah, with copies to government offices in Addis Ababa, various media sources, and international human rights organizations. In this letter we described our present situation. We have now been imprisoned for 6 months for being followers of the Christian faith, having never been formally charged with anything.
"Finally about 4 weeks ago, Governor Prince Abdul Majid decided on our deportation after much pressure from several governments and international human rights organizations. By the way, we believe this governor had no knowledge of our recent beating and torture and needs to be informed of this incident. Since then we have been transferred from the Sharafiah Prison to one deportation facility for a few days, and then to this inhumane deportation cell of the Bremen Prison.
"The room we are in is only 11.5 X 30 meters, with at times up to 1,800 men of all nationalities crammed into this tiny space. There is no furniture - no space to lie down except for short naps taken in shifts on the floor. About 80% of the inmates including us have been infected with contagious diseases. Some have AIDS. The toilets are overflowing. The food is not clean. When we complain, we are chained and handcuffed as punishment."
I don't think you could find a greater contrast between the twentieth century American church and the church in the rest of the world than in the area of suffering. As we study the New Testament church and the church around the world, and examine the attitude and perspective which they have toward persecution, we should be ashamed.
Why does God allow Christians to suffer? What is its purpose in our lives? I'm sure we could find several reasons why God has his people suffer, but I think the foremost reason is found in the last half of verse 9 of:
2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (NKJV) For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,
That is hina, a purpose clause. It is during the times of suffering and persecution that we learn to trust in God.
What can we do for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are suffering and dying for their faith?
2 Corinthians 1:10-11 (NKJV) who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, 11 you also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many.
We can pray for them. If that seems trite to you, then you do not understand the nature of prayer or the power of God.
Hopefully, this message has been a wake up call for us. We are much too complacent and timid in our faith. We have the water of life and the world is dying of thirst. May we boldly proclaim the glorious gospel of the blessed God. We have the truth, let's pray for the boldness to share it, no matter what the cost. If our boldness brings persecution, it will only cause us to trust more in God and better equip us to minister to others.
Trust Him, believer, in all of life's circumstances. Faith pleases God!
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