Acts 14:19-28 – Strength through Suffering

William Ellery Channing quote

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and persuaded the people to turn against Paul. So, they threw stones at him and dragged him out of the town. They thought they had killed him. But when the followers of Jesus gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he and Barnabas left and went to the city of Derbe.

They also told the Good News in the city of Derbe, and many people became followers of Jesus. Then Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. In those cities they helped the followers grow stronger in their faith and encouraged them to continue trusting God. They told them, “We must suffer many things on our way into God’s kingdom.” They also chose elders for each church and stopped eating for a period of time to pray for them. These elders were men who had put their trust in the Lord Jesus, so Paul and Barnabas put them in his care.

Paul and Barnabas went through the country of Pisidia. Then they came to the country of Pamphylia. They told people the message of God in the city of Perga, and then they went down to the city of Attalia. And from there they sailed away to Antioch in Syria. This is the city where the believers had put them into God’s care and sent them to do this work. Now they had finished it.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived, they gathered the church together. They told them everything God had used them to do. They said, “God opened a door for the non-Jewish people to believe!” And they stayed there a long time with the Lord’s followers. (ERV)

The Apostle Paul and his traveling companions went on three missionary journeys in the New Testament book of Acts. “Mission” is more than an activity the church does; it is an expression of the church’s identity. To be the community of the redeemed is to embrace and embody the grace and love of Jesus in proclaiming in both word and deed the good news of restoration to God in Christ.

What is good news for many is bad news for others, that is, those for whom are ensconced in power and take advantage of their position to maintain the status quo. Paul was much too radical for them, as he persistently spoke truth to power when needed – not to mention that his effectiveness as a missionary caused a religious, social, and economic impact wherever he went.

It only takes a few rabble-rousers to gin up an angry mob, and Paul saw his share of them. He sometimes escaped unscathed. Yet, in other situations, Paul was beaten or stoned, sometimes being left for dead. So, how does that square with a God who sees all and is able to protect all, especially his own devoted followers?

Paul and his missionary coterie were forthcoming about the nature of following Jesus. Here are a few various translations of their words to new believers (Acts 14:22):

Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. (ASV)

If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles. (CEB)

We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom. (CEV)

We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (NIV)

It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God. (NRSV)

Through many afflictions we must enter into God’s Kingdom. (WEB)

The various English words used to translate the original Greek word accurately depict what Paul was talking about. My own translation of the verse is:

It is through a lot of varied stressful adversity that we must enter the rule and reign of God.

Paul was doing so much more than explaining his own suffering. He saw his experience as paradigmatic for all who would follow Jesus. For it was Christ himself who exhorted people to count the cost of discipleship:

“Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…. Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:27, 33, NIV)

In doing the very thing which Jesus asks, the Christian life becomes pressurized from those who do not wish to see us:

Proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18, NIV)

Yet, we also have words from the Lord Jesus about how it all shakes-out for us when we deliberately and unflaggingly follow him with steadfast commitment:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, avoid you, insult you, and slander you because you are committed to the Son of Man. Rejoice then, and be very happy! You have a great reward in heaven. That’s the way their ancestors treated the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23, GW)

Adversity quote

Late in Paul’s life as he reflected on his missionary journey experiences, he said to his young protégé Timothy:

You know about my persecutions and my sufferings. You know all the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—the persecution I suffered in those places. But the Lord saved me from all of it. Everyone who wants to show true devotion to God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:11-12, ERV)

Christian faith is strengthened through the stress, pressure, and adversity of facing hardship through utilizing the words and ways of Jesus. So, receive these blessings from the Apostle Paul today:

And God’s peace, which is so great we cannot understand it, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7, NCV)

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:33, NLT)

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (Galatians 6:18, NRSV)

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes of Jesus

Sermon-on-the-Mount
A Bengali depiction of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, 
    for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, 
    for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
    for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, 
    for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, 
    for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, 
    for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NIV) 

Just as God’s Law was given on a mountain (The Ten Commandments) so the law was restated on a mountain by Jesus (Sermon on the Mount). I believe that arguably one of the most important and impacting portions of Holy Scripture are the Beatitudes of Jesus, which serve as the foundation to all of Christ’s teaching. These Beatitudes are not simply a random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval from God. They intentionally build upon each other and describe true righteousness.  

Blessed are the poor in spirit.   

This Beatitude is the spiritual base to the Christian life.  Most of the original crowd listening to Jesus thought they were on the outside of the kingdom, on the margins of true religion. Instead, Jesus told them they have a place as poor and pitiable people. To be “poor in spirit” means one is a spiritual beggar who recognizes they have nothing to offer God. It is seeing oneself, one’s sin, and one’s life as spiritually bankrupt apart from God. Beggars have no ability to strike deals; they have nothing to leverage with; and, realize they deserve nothing. Beggars do one thing continually: they beg. The proud person would never be caught begging for anything. Yet, the humble spiritual beggar constantly prays because they need God! They discern that without God there is no hope. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the penitent and not the proud. 

Blessed are those who mourn. 

This is the emotional response of acknowledging one’s spiritual poverty.  Grief and lament have a central place in Christian theology and life. To avoid it, work around it, or short-circuit its process is to refuse Christ because there is no righteousness apart from mourning over sin. Crying, weeping, and even intense tears are important and necessary. To experience personal grief over one’s sins and the sins of the church and the world is a Beatitude of Jesus. You neither need position, power, privilege, nor pedigree to be a mourner. All can mourn. This is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are the meek. 

A meek spirit is the result of realizing our poverty of spirit and practicing grief and lament. At the heart of what it means to be meek is a spirit of non-retaliation. When we are flat on our backs before God, there is no place to look but up. Thus, there is no ability to look down on others. To be meek is to be broken before God. A meek person takes personal responsibility for their attitudes and actions. The meek have no need to retaliate, even when egregiously wronged, because they fully entrust themselves to God alone who judges the living and the dead. Ironically, brokenness is the path to righteous wholeness. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble/meek end up longing for righteousness. This is much more than just desire; this is the recognition that without God I will not make it. I cannot be righteous without Jesus. Simply put, righteousness is a right relationship with God and others. That is what happens when a person is meek. Such a person knows she cannot make things right by herself; she needs help, specifically, God’s help. If we ever have the thought that we can live most days of our lives without God, we do not yet know true righteousness. People who understand their great need for Jesus are easy to spot. They crave and devour God’s Word as their daily food; and they cannot stop blabbering on about Jesus. 

Sermon on the Mount
A fresco of the Sermon on the Mount on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel.

There are three practices of living that arise from being filled with God’s righteousness.  They are the next three Beatitudes of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. These cannot be conjured up by our own will. They organically grow within us and are freely expressed because of what God is doing in our lives. You cannot force them any more than you can force a stalk of corn to grow on your terms. Instead, you work with the unforced rhythms of God’s grace and allow his righteousness to take root in you. Below the soil the activity of spiritual poverty, mourning, and humility takes place. Then, when the plant breaks the soil and flowers, it produces mercy, purity, and peace-making. 

Blessed are the merciful.  

Mercy begins with a disposition of the heart that seeks to be generous. Mercy is a loving response to someone or a group of people in misery. We accept them and help them because we ourselves have been there. Mercy looks for ways to come alongside others and help, rather than pile expectations and burdens on others without mentoring them in the ways of God. 

Blessed are the pure in heart. 

Purity also results from true righteousness. A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it is filled with worms, it isn’t going to be worth much. Legalistic righteousness is concerned to look good, is obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions. Conversely, the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for his use. 

Blessed are the peacemakers.  

Peacemakers are people who find themselves caught in the middle and want to live righteously with the mercy and purity that God has provided for them. Peace is only realized through peacemakers. It seems we all desire peace, yet, peacemakers are hard to come by. It’s a tough gig. Peacemakers exist through being characterized by the earlier Beatitudes. To achieve peace, one must first be at peace with God and self – which is why we need the cross of Jesus Christ. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.  

When a person lives in this righteousness as presented by Jesus, there will be persecution. Folks who are offended by even slight criticisms are usually the ones who are privileged and in power. They have not yet learned the ways of Jesus. Pettiness is nothing more than a sign of unrighteousness. Yoking up with Jesus, following him, and living into his words and ways has always been risky and dangerous. The Beatitudes of Jesus are not characteristics that lead to power, prestige, or possessions, but likely just the opposite. 

The former Pope Benedict XVI, explained Christ’s Beatitudes this way: “The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes – the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in their right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in their suffering. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and humanity inaugurated by Jesus.” 

Those who are in Jesus Christ become living beatitudes, walking, talking blessings to the world.  Those who live with Jesus in his kingdom have a destiny to be witnesses to another subversive, yet wonderful, way of life, where the last are first and the greatest are the least. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace. 

Revelation 11:15-19 – It Will Not Always Be This Way

The World
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” –Abraham Kuyper

At the sound of the seventh trumpet, loud voices were heard in heaven. They said,

“Now the kingdom
of this world
belongs to our Lord
and to his Chosen One!
And he will rule
forever and ever!”

Then the twenty-four elders, who were seated on thrones in God’s presence, knelt down and worshiped him.  They said,

“Lord God All-Powerful,
you are and you were,
and we thank you.
You used your great power
and started ruling.
When the nations got angry,
you became angry too!
Now the time has come
for the dead
to be judged.
It is time for you to reward
your servants the prophets
and all of your people
who honor your name,
no matter who they are.
It is time to destroy everyone
who has destroyed
the earth.”

The door to God’s temple in heaven was then opened, and the sacred chest could be seen inside the temple. I saw lightning and heard roars of thunder. The earth trembled and huge hailstones fell to the ground. (CEV)

The book of the Revelation was a vision given to the Apostle John late in his life.  At the turn of the first century, Christ’s Church was facing a great deal of difficulty and hardship.  Christians were in the minority; looked at with suspect; misunderstood; often persecuted because of false information.  In short, all the kinds of things that Jewish people currently face and have faced for millennia were true of the early believers in Jesus.

Therefore, the purpose of the vision to John was not to give slick preachers a reason to craft elaborate prophecy charts about what’s going to happen in the future.  Instead, God was concerned for the welfare of his people.  The vision was meant to bring  encouragement that this present hard situation will not always be this way.  The danger and adversity will not last forever.  There is a day coming when God’s judgment and benevolent rule will reign in its fullness.  In other words, our prayers will be answered that have been offered for centuries: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

God did not want his beloved children to succumb to discouragement and lose heart.  So, the vision from John assured them that all will be made right.  Jesus is Lord, and his good rule will have the day.  Yes, we currently live in a world profoundly touched by sin and death.  And because of that we feel pain and must endure the hardships of things like COVID-19 and economic woes. It is possible to observe it all and experience its effects and fall into despair, and, so, give-in to unhealthy ways of coping with the circumstances around us.

We graciously have been given a glimpse into how all of history will shake-out in the end.  That peek into what’s coming ahead is meant to bring us needed encouragement, steadfast hope, and patient endurance.  There is coming a day when our own personal and local expressions of grief and lament will give way to praise and gratitude to God.  And that incredible praise will explode with all believers, past and present, along with all creation, proclaiming together: “Lord God All-Powerful, you are and you were, and we thank you.  Now the kingdom of this world belongs to our Lord and to his Chosen One!  And he will rule forever and ever!”  Amen, and amen.

Click Hope in God to gain some encouragement from singer and songwriter Ken Medema.

John 15:18-25

            Jesus suffered as a man on this earth.  He was persecuted.  He was hated.  He was killed.  Although we readily recognize these facts as believers, somehow we still seem surprised when we follow Jesus that there are people who downright dislike us.  Jesus clearly said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  Emotional, psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse can and does occur against God’s people who seek to walk in the ways of Jesus.  There was a time in the first few centuries of the church that becoming a martyr for one’s faith was welcomed as living into the imitation of Jesus Christ.  Even many modern day martyrs for Jesus around the globe have counted it a privilege to suffer as Jesus did.
 
            This all sounds quite strange to Westerners who tend toward the notion that if we do everything with excellence and effectiveness that there will be no reason to be persecuted or to suffer.  But the reality is that Jesus promised that in following him, there will be those who seethe with hatred toward us.  We are not above our Master.  If he suffered, we will, as well.
 
            Thomas a Kempis, writing over five-hundred years ago to clergy students, captured the essence of Jesus when he said:  “Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention.  Such occasions are aids in keeping us humble and shield us from pride.  When people ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek his judgment.”
            Almighty God, thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, on my behalf.  Just as he suffered for me, I willingly suffer for him, since his infinite grace has delivered me from sin, death, and hell.  I only ask to be found faithful at the end of the age when he returns to judge the living and the dead.  Amen.