Christian Persecution is a Badge of Honour
Intro: Well morning friends, visitors and those joining online. My name is Matt Johnson and today we continue our study of 1 Peter still thinking about Christian suffering. But today, the THEME OF SUFFERING gets dialed up slightly further – as it moves from 1) general suffering because of unjust authorities, 2) to actual persecution because the world hates Jesus and his followers…
Prayer: Well today we are thinking about Christian suffering and Christian persecution. And as many of you know – one of our mission organizations that we support with prayer is OPEN DOORS – which helps the persecuted church worldwide. Sadly, the statistics for Christian suffering and persecution are getting considerably worse, not better. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic (2019) Open Doors estimated that 260 million Christians worldwide lived with what they call “very high” OR “extreme” levels of persecution in 2018. That’s 260 million Christians worldwide – prior to the pandemic suffering “VERY HIGH” or “EXTREME” levels of persecution. Post Coronavirus (end of 2021) the estimate was now 309 million Christians worldwide living with “very high” or “extreme” levels of persecution. That is a 50 million increase in Christian persecution in just 3 years. But its worse, because end of 2022, Open Doors reported Christians with very high or extreme levels of persecution has now passed 360 million. In just 4 years we have gone from 1 in 12 Christians worldwide to 1 in 7 Christians worldwide suffering extreme or very high persecution.
Every day, 13 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith; 12 churches are destroyed; 12 Christians are imprisoned and; a further 5 Christians are abducted or disappear. For much of the church’s existence this has been normal. This is still normal for many Christians today.
Shortly after finishing Bible college – I read this book “GOD’S SMUGGLER”, by Brother Andrew (Slide 2). It’s a book that has a special place in my memory. For the first time in my life – I began to see what real, courageous Christian faith looked like for so many people around the world.
Brother Andrew is the Christian man who started “OPEN DOORS” in 1955. At that point he was simply loading up his VW Beetle with as many Bibles as he could – and then driving into Eastern Europe – behind the Iron Curtain. At this point – Communism reigned supreme in Eastern Europe and Christianity was illegal. So smuggling Bibles into Eastern Europe was incredibly dangerous. Yet, Brother Andrew would completely load his Volkswagen Beetle with boxes of Bibles and then drive them into the USSR.
At the checkpoints into Eastern Europe – soldiers would search the cars and arrest everyone found smuggling Christian literature. Brother Andrew says that as he came up to these checkpoints his prayer would always be (ENTER); “Lord you made blind eyes see. Now I pray, make seeing eyes blind”; and God did. No one knows exactly how many trips Brother Andrew made into the USSR, but it was not insignificant. Every time he faced death. Every time seeing eyes were made blind. When the Iron curtain finally came down – brother Andrew started smuggling Bibles into China and the Islamic Middle East – with the same real threat of death.
In these stories I began to see – that in some contexts Christians should NOT submit to the governing authorities. In these contexts of Christian persecution I also began to see a type of courageous Christian faith that was reminiscent of the Old Testament stories. I found in the Open Doors literature a type of Christian faith that I had not witnessed in the Western Christian church.
Point 1: Christian Persecution Tests and Refines our Faith – in a Good way
Show: 1 Pet.4:12 (READ)
Explain: Please note that Peter says we shouldn’t be SURPRISED or think it STRANGE if Christians suffer for Jesus. That’s the general idea. Christian’s suffering for being Christians is actually the normal. The sinful world hated Jesus and put him to death, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the sinful world hates Christians and wants them gone.
Over the past few weeks Peter has explained that in this fallen world we should mentally prepare ourselves for suffering, and especially unjust suffering. Sinful people in positions of POWER AND AUTHORITY (whether governments, bosses at work or even husbands in the home) will often use their power in evil ways that hurt and oppress others. This is to be expected because people are absolutely depraved. But in this context Christians need to continue doing good – in both favourable and unfavourable circumstances. In all circumstances Christians need to do good, not evil.
Now much of this suffering comes simply because people in positions of authority are EVIL AND UNJUST. That is – they are simply SELFISH and GREEDY FOR POWER, MONEY OR FAME. But lurking in the background of this selfishness and greed is actually an anti-god, anti-Christ spirit – that sometimes comes to the surface. That is – the evil authorities are not just evil, they are actually opposed to God, God’s King, God’s people and Gods ways. And this is what is beginning to emerge in today’s passage. ITS NOT JUST TALKING about suffering at the hands of an unjust authority. It is beginning to touch on blatant, actual persecution simply for being a Christian.
Show: Slide 5; 1 Pet.4:14 & 16
In both these passages we see that suffering is coming because they are followers of Christ, because they are Christians. A fiery ordeal is testing the Christians in Northern Turkey.
Now in the past some scholars have suggested THE FIERY ORDEAL was literal because NERO was burning some of them alive in Rome. We know that after Rome burnt to the ground in 64AD, the Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and between 64-68AD there was huge Christian persecution. During this period many Christians were burnt alive, thrown to the lions and forced to fight each other in the Colosseum. Peter and Paul were also killed by Nero during this period.
But fact is 1 Peter is probably written around mid 50’s AD, long before Nero turned Christians into street-lamps at night. So, it is more likely that the language of fiery ordeal is METAPHORICAL. We know that in the Old Testament, the prophets often spoke about trials and sufferings in this world as a metaphorical fiery furnace. (Slide 6; Deut 4 & Isa.48). In most Old Testament passages we see that the fiery furnace is a METAPHOR for any affliction or hardship that tests our faith. But we also know that occasionally (in periods of intense persecution and apostasy) the fiery furnace can become LITERAL – as in the days of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Sometimes the period of testing becomes an actual fiery furnace.
Illustrate: Paul Johnson was telling me on Friday that the most amazing part of his recent trip to Europe was standing on a cross in the pavement in Oxford-England. The cross marks the spot three great Christians were burnt alive for their faith. In 1555 – 3 Anglican bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley & Thomas Cranmer were burnt alive by Queen Mary because they refused to renounce their Protestant faith. Paul told me he stood on the very spot and silently prayed; “Lord give me the faith of these great men.”
Apply: When we examine Scripture – the THINGS God tests in fiery ordeals is our hearts, our minds and our obedience. You may think of it as a testing of your faith. Will you remain faithful with heart, mind and hands in periods of extreme stress; or will you commit apostasy?
The question of “Christian apostasy” in fiery ordeals isn’t really addressed until we get to 2 Peter 2. But it is hinted at in this passage today. Peter says A) it’s hard for the righteous to be saved and B) he leaves a real question-mark hanging over those who do not really obey the gospel. What will the outcome be? THE APOSTLE PAUL plays with the same idea in 1 Corinthians 3 – where he tells “Christians” to be very careful how they build their lives upon the gospel (using gold, silver and precious stones instead of wood, hay or straw) – because everything will ultimately be tested with fire. Then Paul suggests many Christians who have built foolishly – may barely survive as those escaping through the flames…
Now thankfully, it’s NOT our perfect faith that saves us. Its Jesus’ perfect faith and obedience that ultimately saves us. You may recall that in 1 Peter 2; Peter wrote (Slide 7; 1Pet.2:6). Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s house and we are encouraged to put our faith in him for SALVATION. Peter tells us – those who trust in Jesus (the cornerstone) will never be put to shame. But simultaneously, Peter told us that as living stones we need to carefully align our lives with the cornerstone. Now this passage in 1 Peter 2, actually comes from Isaiah 28:16 and Isaiah tells us one other thing of significance. (ENTER; Isa.28:16). Notice – Jesus the cornerstone – was tested himself in the metaphorical fiery furnace. Jesus called it a baptism that distressed him (Lk.12:50). An unpleasant baptism he had to go through. A baptism of fire.
So Jesus went through affliction and suffering (beyond anything we can comprehend) and yet his faith and obedience withstood the test. Jesus’ faith was tested and proven genuine. And it is Jesus’ faith and obedience that ultimately saves us and takes us to heaven – when we put our faith in him. YET, NONETHELESS as living stones we are called to be very careful how we build – because ultimately everything is going to be tested in the fires of affliction to see if it is real.
Point 2: Christian Persecution proves “something” of your Faith & Holiness
Show: 1 Peter 4:13-16 (READ)
Explain: Well Peter now tells us to REJOICE if we suffer because we are Christians. There are only two places in the entire Bible where followers of Jesus are called CHRISTIANS. Verse 16 is one of them. It says; “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God.” Christians should EXPECT AND REJOICE in suffering – because it kind of shows we are a bit like Jesus.
But Peter says A) if you are suffering as a Christian – it doesn’t automatically mean B) it is Christian suffering or persecution. As Christians we have to understand that most of the time we suffer simply because we are a sinful annoying idiots. Peter kind of encourages us in verse 15 to ANALYSE OUR SUFFERING. If we are suffering because 1) we’ve murdered someone or 2) stolen something or done something 3) criminal – that is not Christian suffering. If you are suffering because you meddled in other people’s affairs (and they then got angry) that is not Christian suffering. That is just suffering for being an idiot. THE TRUTH IS most Christians do not suffer because they are super righteous and holy. Most Christians suffer simply because they are still stupid sinful idiots.
If you analyse you’re suffering and realise it’s coming from sin and stupidity – you shouldn’t REJOICE. You should REPENT. If your suffering is coming from stupidity – you shouldn’t PRAISE GOD, you should PRAY FOR FORGIVENESS. The point is – 9.4 times out of 10 I’d say our suffering in this world still comes from recklessness, not righteousness. So we really need to do a humble, thoughtful assessment – of our suffering.
If we anaylse our suffering and see that it really is coming because of our allegiance to Jesus and our holiness – then we should REJOICE; then we should PRAISE God. But why? Why should the unpleasant experience of Christian suffering lead to joy and praise?
Well if we are truly suffering for Jesus’ name and suffering as a Christian – it means we are suffering because the world sees something of JESUS – IN US. You’ll notice end of verse 14 – it says that if we really are suffering as Christians it means – the Spirit of glory and the Spirit of God resting on us. Now the defining mark of God’s Spirit is HOLINESS. The Spirit is called the Holy Spirit for a reason. God’s glory is His holiness, His otherness, His splendour and beauty. And if the world is actually attacking you and persecuting you (for no other reason) than they see God’s glorious, beautiful Spirit in you – then rejoice and sing your lungs out. Sing because there is some evidence of God’s beauty and glory in a wretched sinner like you. That’s a miracle. True Christian persecution means the world is beginning to see something of God in you. It’s not that they don’t like you. It’s that they don’t like God’s grace, God’s holiness and God’s truth in you.
Apply: Christian suffering that truly comes from righteousness and holiness and devotion is A MARK that you are becoming a mature Christian. You may recall Jesus words in the sermon on the mount; “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:10). Now this doesn’t mean we should go looking for PERSECUTION. It means we should ASPIRE to be so righteous, holy and faithful to Christ – that the world begins to turn on Christ, in us. And if the sinful world can see Christ in us – (and is persecuting us accordingly) then we can have confidence the kingdom of heaven is ours. If we are truly being persecuted for Christ, we must be the real deal. JESUS SAID “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If we are persecuted for Christ it means we are passing through the fiery ordeal of this world with flying colours. But if we live in a really depraved, sinful, idolatrous society and everyone still likes us – we have to ask ourselves is there any evidence of Christ in us? If we are not really suffering for Christ (in a really depraved, idolatrous society) what does this say about our righteousness and holiness? Perhaps we need to repent and get a bit more serious in living for Christ?
Point 3: Christian Persecution proves we have Courageous, Genuine Faith
Show: 1Pet.4:17-19 (READ) Well these words kind of suggest Christians are already in THE FINAL JUDGMENT of the world. This fallen world is like a fiery furnace and the church is already being judged. THE FIERY FURNACE is already judging and testing whether Christians have real faith. And the FIERY FURNACE is already burning up the dross of pretend believers in the church. In the afflictions of this world – Jesus is already sorting the sheep from the goats. As the temperature in the fiery furnace begins to rise – true Christians prove genuine and the goats begin to fall away.
But even for genuine, authentic Christians – remaining faithful is not easy. (GOSPEL) What we are trusting in – (in testing) is that Jesus has really paid for our sins as he died on the cross. We were guilty of sin and deserving of God’s damnation. So we were fearful of coming into God’s presence – whether dead or alive – for we feared His judgment. But Jesus paid for all our wrong-doing so that we can have forgiveness. IF WE BELIEVE Jesus died for us, repent of our sin and live as best we can for God’s glory – God promises to save us and take us to heaven when we die. Then after Jesus died for our sins – he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven – to prove he really has the power to give us the very things he promised. But as we actually face the fiery furnace and the real prospect of suffering and death – our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection is tested…
Both in affluence and adversity the fiery furnace of this world tests our mettle. In some ways AFFLUENCE is a bigger test of our faith, than ADVERSITY. We’ve had the test of affluence in the western church for many years – and I suspect that it has created many lukewarm Christians with very mixed and confused loyalties. It now looks like the western church is about to start experiencing adversity (at least at a higher level, than we’ve experienced for a long while) and I’m not confident that the modern church is made of the right metal.
Now one of the first things the apostle Peter told us in this letter is; (Slide 12; 1Pet.1:6). The trials of this life – are proving that our faith is genuine. And each time we pass a test – we can grow in confidence that our salvation is secure – because salvation is ultimately based on genuine, authentic faith. Hypocritical, pretend Christian faith will not save you. But faith that is proven genuine by the trials of this world is saving faith. So if you are ultimately put to death for your Christian faith – (as Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were in Oxford in 1555) you can be sure you are going straight to heaven. NOTHING PROVES your faith is genuine more than martyrdom.
Apply: So in such circumstances Peter tells Christians in the very last verse (Slide 13 – READ – 1Pet.4:17). As you can see this literally says those who are called to suffer for Christ should literally COMMIT THEIR SOULS OR SPIRITS to their faithful Creator – and stand firm in what is good. The idea of committing our spirits to the Creator actually harks back to the FIRST TWO MARTYRS in the Christian church. As Jesus died on the cross – he cried out “Father into your hands I commit my spirit”. Then Stephen in Acts 7 as he is stoned to death by the Sanhedrin for his loyalty to Christ, he cries out “Jesus receive my spirit.” And then, just as Jesus prayed “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, so Stephen prayed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7;59-60). That’s doing good even in the midst of death. In the midst of unjust suffering and martyrdom could you pray like Jesus; “Father forgive them for they know not what they do?” (Lk.23:34).
The point is – the trial and tribulations of this life are either proving the genuineness of our faith – TRUE OR they are proving the genuineness of our faith – FALSE. It is in this sense that we must press on towards the Celestial City of Heaven – working out our salvation with fear and trembling. We shouldn’t fear suffering and death. But we should fear that fleshly part of ourselves that tries to avoid suffering and Christian persecution by denying Jesus and his call to live holy lives. READ `1 Peter 4:19 – READ.
 13 Christians killed every day in the world because of their faith – Vatican News; Over 360 million Christians suffering persecution in the world – Vatican News; 1 In 8 Christians Persecuted – Open Doors