Well one thing is for certain as I look around me in the Western world. Christians haven’t yet resisted to the point of shedding their blood. Lots of ink perhaps. Even a few tears of impotent rage. But blood? We’re a long way from that.
Yet the way some are behaving in the current cultural battles you would think we had! Sadly, even the lightest touch of suffering is bringing out the worst in too many of us.
Recall these words from Hebrews 12:4ff?
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Two points to make:
- The writer is linking the persecution that his audience is experiencing as a struggle against sin. It is a purifying process to discipline them.
- The writer is pointing out that they haven’t had it so bad yet. If in fact they follow a Saviour who did shed his blood, then they’re a long way off from that.
It’s as if the writer is telling those Christians who are considering it all too hard, to get over themselves. To considers it normative for followers of Jesus to expect trouble from the culture. To consider such trouble to be a purifying process, and to expect that it will get worse.
The goal of such trouble of course is not simply struggle and bloodshed in and of itself. Look what the writer goes on to say:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:11)
So, question: Could the sudden bout of hostility towards the Christian faith from the influencers of Western culture be both a disciplining process, and a training step towards a deeper, more costly discipleship? Could those of us well-fed on the white-bread of comfort actually be in need of a harvest of righteousness, sown, fertilised and watered by trouble? Is that a trade-off many of would even consider worth making?
I mean seriously, it’s not like it’s been all that costly for us in the past couple of hundred years has it? And it’s not as if in the good times we stored up very much for the bad times. We’ve definitely been grasshoppers and not ants. We spent it all in the good times – that’s why they’re called the good times!
I’m writing this in response to a growing trend in which, as the culture turns against Christianity in the West, people seem unable to comprehend that this might actually be happening. That it’s being allowed to happen. Or, more to the point, that God would allow it to happen. And that somehow it’s not supposed to happen. The outraged shock that it should happen to us! In this time. In this part of the world!
Here’s the problem. As we start to realise it is indeed happening, too many of us are going are going to be darn well angry about it. We wouldn’t think of picking up Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now” at the Christian Bookstore, but our attitude betrays the fact that we’re part of the script.
Our anger is leading us to demand that it go back to the way that it was. We’re going to expect that the exile will be over in about two years, just as the false prophets predicted, rather than the full 70 years that the godly prophets predicted. But maybe folks, this is it. And that’s not a white flag admission. Let’s stop eulogising Christians in orange jump suits getting their heads cut off on deserted beaches, if we can’t even cope with the idea of getting our tax exemptions cut off in leafy suburbs.
Hebrews is written into the context of the umbrella of protection from Rome being removed from the sect of Christianity. For decades Rome had sanctioned the followers of Christ because they saw it as an extension of the Jewish faith. Now that umbrella was being taken away as the church came under increased scrutiny from a state power that viewed it with more and more suspicion in another early round of what became an intensely focussed persecution.
In chapter 10 the writer reminds his audience of an earlier day (perhaps referring to a time when all Jews were forced to leave Rome due to an internal argument about the Christ, or perhaps to later, more sporadic looting of Christians by Roman authorities). Whatever it is, he says, recall those earlier days…
32 … after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
Joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property. Their actual property. Not their tax exemptions, not their right to have Scripture in schools, not their right to have the Bible view of marriage sustained by the authorities. Hebrews reminds us we have “better and lasting possessions”. We will only joyfully accept the confiscation of our property – whatever that may be in our context – if we truly believe we have better and lasting possessions. We will begrudge the tidal shift against us and our place at the cultural table if we don’t. The proof we truly believe what we say we believe will be evidenced by joy in the midst of persecution. Or not.
Now we are free to stand up against such confiscations and declare that it is wrong to do so. We are definitely – in the West at least – free to do that. However we are not free to grumble when such confiscations take place, but rather we are free to do as the apostles did when they were flogged for sharing the gospel. They left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”(Acts5:41). Counted worthy of it! Could we even comprehend that Jesus counts us worthy of going through suffering – whatever that looks like – for the sake of the Name, his name, the greatest name in the universe? Oh, and there’s that “joy” word again. It’s a defining feature isn’t it?
A final question about Hebrews 10:35. Just what is their “confidence” supposed to be in? The state? The right to freedom of expression or freedom of faith? The Hebrews audience was on the verge of losing all confidence in the state, and they’d already experienced – and were about to experience again – the loss of faith freedoms.
Their confidence was to be in Jesus, and just as he suffered now and received glory later, because he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (1Peter 2:23), so they were to follow that pattern. The resurrection of Jesus was proof of his glory, and vindication of his righteous suffering. His resurrection is also proof of our final glory, and our ultimate vindication.
I am grieved by the way our culture has junked the gospel. It’s tough even attempting to share the gospel with a post-Christian angry world. Yes, the beautiful world being pushed by the cultural elites is a mirage that will one day collapse in on itself. But, no, we may not live to see that collapse. We may go to our graves unloved and unmourned by the culture; our vision of the good life under King Jesus not vindicated or revered by a shiny, gleaming godless culture that is rising up around us.
But one day it will crumble and fall and we will rise! We will rise from our graves vindicated and loved by that King, who will tell us to enter into our joy! (Matt 5:23). Let’s make that joy our joy now.