Thursday, January 17, 2008

Persecution 101

Last time we sat in on the apostle's first missions training session. Their class continues as Jesus points out the downside of preaching the Kingdom.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." (Matthew 10:16-23)

Why does there always seem to be a down-side? Try to imagine what is going on in the minds and hearts of the twelve as they hear these words. Jesus has just told them they will have the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, even raise the dead! But even this will not be enough to satisfy some people. They will be hated, put on trial and scourged! Scourging is no slap on the wrist! Metal shards woven into the strands of the whip tear the flesh away from the bone. This, they are told, is what it will cost you to declare the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

No wonder they are encouraged to walk such a fine line - "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." Even in this Jesus turns the world upside down. Since the garden of Eden the serpent has been looked upon as the lowest of the low, but now Jesus declares that in the new kingdom there is even something to be learned from such as this. But don't learn too much, lest the adversary hold us to account for that. The shrewdness we learn from the serpent must be tempered with the peace of God, represented by the dove, lest any should declare we mean them harm.

But there is hope even in this, "he who endures to the end will be saved." We will hear him say this again before the gospel is over; it will be echoed in John's Revelation in the phrase "to him who overcomes..." Paul will echo the same in his first letter to the Corinthians - we must finish the race to win the prize. Endurance, it would seem, is the key. It is not enough to simply begin - we must finish, we must endure. But not on our own strength, for on our own we could not succeed. He gives them more hope - the Spirit of your Father will speak through you. Our heavenly Father does not give us a task without giving us the means to accomplish it.

Even so, the task is never ending. "When they persecute you in this city flee to another." Don't stop, don't give up, move on - endure; because "you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." This enigmatic statement has troubled believers for two millennia. Was Jesus referring to His resurrection? Or are there even today cities in Israel that have never heard the Kingdom Gospel from the very beginning? Or are the cities of Israel any city, anywhere, that Jews call home? Whatever it's meaning, one thing is for certain - the task started by the heir is not complete, and will not be complete until He himself returns, and so we continue for the one "who endures to the end shall be saved."

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 10:24-33)

There is a scene in one episode of the science fiction series Babylon 5 in which Vir, an aide to one of the alien ambassadors, is being dissuaded from seeking an audience with a group called the Techno-mages by the spectre of a house-sized monster with extremely large fangs and claws. The rotund diplomat holds his ground, refusing to be intimidated. Eventually the illusion is removed and a spokesman for the group says, with a hint of respect, "You do not frighten easily", to which Vir replies, "I work for Ambassador Molari; nothing much frightens me anymore."

So it is with the fear of the Lord; it is a matter of perspective. The curse of small minded people is to be obsessed with the details. They are so busy focusing on the object of their fear they cannot pull away to see the bigger picture. Here Jesus encourages the twelve to do just that. If they are to be the heralds of the Kingdom of God they must learn to see beyond the immediate, to pull their gaze from the purely physical and catch a glimpse of the heavenly. They must learn that death is not an end in itself, as final as it may appear to be. What are the threats of those who oppose the kingdom compared to the majesty of the one who rules it? This then is how we conquer the fears that assail us in this world - with the fear of God - which is the beginning of wisdom. (Psalm 111:10)

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 10: 34-30)

I had a terrible time with this passage when I first became a Christian. Likely because I was reading a more literal translation which reads, "Unless a man hates his mother and father he is not worthy of me." Tough to wrap your head around that, especially when you consider how important family was in the cultures of the 1st century. Eventually I figured out that what Jesus was talking about was a love so great that all other loves appeared as hatred by comparison - hard to imagine a love that strong. And yet, we see this happen time and time again. My own mother never understood why I followed God in any way other than the way she taught me. She never once came to hear me preach, or tell stories, or sing. In her mind rejecting the tenants of her faith meant I had rejected her. It is this that Jesus warns us about. The greatest enemies of the kingdom will often be those we love the most.

“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”

'Nuff said. Till next time - Shalom.


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