Acts 7:54-8:1 – Humility and Hubris

A 10th century depiction of Stephen’s martyrdom

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (New International Version)

Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, or Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by the people of God.

They weren’t simply unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council truly believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if it were upholding God and God’s Law.

The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora. Many believers in Jesus now found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.

I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying.

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.

Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.

Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with metaphorical stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.

So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to hermeneutical hubris in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses it’s authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.

And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.

Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.

Insisting, for example, that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. 

What I am stating is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).

Far too often churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.

The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.

Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was death and diaspora.

Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin.

Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 15:16-25 – On Facing Hatred

 The Face of the Savior by Noehani Harsono

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” (New International Version)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus suffered on this earth. He was hated, persecuted, and killed. Although Christians readily recognize this, somehow we still seem surprised when, following Jesus, there are people who downright dislike us. 

Yet, Jesus clearly and unequivocally stated that we ought to expect persecution. Emotional, psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse can and does occur against God’s people who seek to follow the words and 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. It was considered a privilege to imitate Christ in his suffering and death.  Even many modern day Christian martyrs around the globe have estimated martyrdom as an opportunity to experience solidarity with their Savior.

God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. (Philippians 1:29, CEB)

This kind of thinking may sound quite strange to Westerners who tend toward the notion that, if we do everything with excellence and effectiveness, then there will be no reason for persecution and suffering. 

However, the Christian reality is that Jesus promised his devout followers that there will indeed be those who seethe with hatred toward us. We are not above our Master. If he suffered, we will, as well.

So, the question is not whether we can or ought to avoid suffering. Rather, our consideration needs to be how we will respond to the inevitable persecution of verbal violence, physical violence, or both – not to mention the various forms of discrimination, abuse, and oppression we might face.

“They gave our Master a crown of thorns. Why do we hope for a crown of roses?”

Martin Luther

First off, there is no honor for any Christian suffering because of one’s own stupidity or obnoxiousness. If we face persecution because we have initially made others suffer through our bullhorn presentations of the gospel, or metaphorically clubbing groups of people with oversized King James Version Bibles, then whatever consequences come are of our own making and have nothing to do with being united with Christ.

And second, paying no attention to the real human needs of people locked in poverty or dismissing the body as secondary to the soul is a gross misrepresentation of Christ – not to mention the sheer ignoring of multiple books in Holy Scripture which point to caring about such things.

If, however, we endure abuse because of being humble, merciful, gentle, pure in heart, and an unflinching peacemaker amid conflict, then we can enjoy the smile of heaven. If we communicate good news with grace and compassion, seeking love-laced words of truth, along with genuine acts of mercy – and then are repaid with unmerciful oppression from prideful persons – then we understand the type of hate Jesus faced.

We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope. (Romans 5:3-4, CEV)

The genuine article withstands the test of adversity. It doesn’t fall apart in the vigorous agitation of the first washing. People who oppose Christians with persecuting words and actions need to discover an authentic believer who is ready and willing to absorb the hatred, repackage it as love, and along with the gospel of grace, gift it back to the persecutors as an offering to God.

Experiencing the hatred of others is not the worst thing which could ever happen. Knowing Jesus better is of utmost value – even if, at times, comes through the worst of circumstances.

God, who shows you his kindness and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. (1 Peter 5:10, GW)

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.

Matthew 5:10-12 – Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness

Painting by Hyatt Moore

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even! —for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. (The Message)

No matter our vocation or avocation, what we do, or don’t do, what we say, or don’t say, we will not avoid insult and persecution. Just ask Jesus.

The issue is not if we will suffer but why we suffer. The Apostle Peter devoted his first epistle to helping Christians deal with their suffering. He made his point clear about suffering: 

If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:15-16, NIV)

That’s Peter’s way of saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  We will endure abuse, in some form, from others. So, let’s make sure it’s for being characterized by Christ’s Beatitudes, and not for being obnoxious.

Christ’s followers take up their cross and share with him in the world’s hatred directed toward us. This kind of living is blessed and receives the approval of God.

What is persecution?

Persecution is not only physical abuse. It is also verbal abuse, ridicule, slander, discrimination, and generally making one’s life harder just because of a commitment to Christ. Persecution is not necessarily a sign of doing something wrong. It could be that something right is being done. 

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote what has become one of the best-selling Christian books of all-time, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas had the right perspective on the subject of persecution:

“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 men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment.

Therefore, we should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement. It is when a person of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that they best understand the overwhelming need for God, without whom we can do nothing. While enduring these afflictions they take themself to prayer with sighs and groans; they grow tired of this life and wish to be undone in order to live with Christ. It is in such times of trial they realize that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Insult, negativity, and verbal abuse can trip us up and discourage us. It doesn’t feel good to be disliked. Trouble and conflict is something most of us would like to avoid, as much as possible.

We might be able to steel ourselves for a large persecution against denying Christ and would be willing to die a martyr’s death to hold on to our faith. Yet, conversely, we may:

  • Crumble in a heap if we think someone is mad or displeased with us.
  • Worry that our lives will get complicated and difficult if we uphold the righteousness and justice of God.
  • Be afraid of others who might think bad of us if we showed mercy by standing with the unpopular person or if we actively and overtly engage in peacemaking.
George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

It is the “small” abuses which can cause us so much grief. We are determined to stand tall when the bullets of blatant, oppressive, and systemic persecution comes. Then, when the gun is thrown at us, we may flinch, duck, and fret over one person being upset.

Back when I was a kid, I watched old reruns of the original Superman television series. In more than one episode, Superman stood tall and faced the person peppering him with bullets. Then, when the bullets ran out, the villain threw his gun at Superman, who then promptly flinched and ducked the gun!

It is not our job to ensure that everyone is happy – it is our business to do God’s will and to embody Christ’s Beatitudes. Our calling as believers in Jesus is not to worry about what people (including family) are going to think if we live a humble, righteous life of mourning over the world’s sins, exhibiting a meek and gentle spirit, standing for grace when others want blood, refusing to defile our hearts with impure thoughts and actions, and standing up to do something about the injustice around us.

How and why do respond to persecution?

            The proper response to persecution is joy! There are two reasons why we can face persecution and come away glad instead cringing and discouraged:

  1. Because being characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus brings heavenly reward. Show me a person who puts all their eggs in the earthly basket, and I’ll show you a person who is never satisfied and constantly unhappy. Show me a person who lives to please God and pursues the blessing of Christ, accepting any flak from others, and I’ll show you a person who is inwardly rejoicing that they are a Christian, loved by God, and counting it a privilege to suffer for the Name of Jesus. (Acts 5:27-29, 40-42)
  2. Because we are in good company. God’s people throughout history have endured the same kinds of sufferings and received a Christian purple heart award. We are not just to face persecution with a stoic, grind-it-out mentality, but with rejoicing! (Hebrews 11:36-40)

Who does the persecuting?

            The ones who persecuted the prophets were religious folks. I wish I could say the worst persecution I ever received was from evil people who live ungodly lives. However, the most insult, hardship, and slander I have ever endured has come from the lips and the efforts of people who claim the name of Christ. The reason abuse happens is because there are people not characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus, so they become the persecutors, instead of the persecuted. 

            All the sufferings and hardships of Jesus, all the persecution he faced did not come from the world, but from his own people, including a person from his inner circle of disciples. Although the church, throughout its history, has done immense good, it also has had a chronic problem of shooting its wounded.

Far too many people have adopted a legalistic form of righteousness that focuses on outward conformity and myriad rules and regulations. Abundant grace is needed. Not judgment.

Conclusion

If we are persecuted, let’s make sure it is because we are advocating for others who need mercy and are facing injustice; addressing the brokenness of this world through specifically Christian lenses; and desiring the applause of heaven.

See if you can hear the Beatitudes in what the Apostle Peter, had to say about persecution:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21, NIV)

Be like-minded and sympathetic. Love one another. Be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,

“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.

 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12, NIV)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14, NIV)

May you know the blessing of solidarity with Christ through the afflictions of this present life.

Luke 6:27-31 – Love Your Enemies

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” NIV)

“Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying to yourself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to harm you: not by angrily lashing out at you, lusting over you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you.’”

–Frederick Dale Bruner

Here are a few rhetorical questions, considering the astounding words from Jesus to love enemies: Have you ever had someone not like you?  Offend you? Purposely say or do things that upset you? I once had a next-door neighbor who was plain mean. Once, when my dog accidentally strayed into her yard and left a package, she picked it up and placed the package directly in front of my backdoor. 

When such things happen, it is tempting to respond in kind with the same behavior as the obnoxious person.  Many of us have sly passive aggressive tendencies of getting back at others when they do or say offensive things, and we consider them an enemy.

The situation with my neighbor was frustrating, yet quite benign. It is an entirely different matter trying to love someone who has deeply hurt us. Their words of malice or actions of abuse are evil, and we naturally seek to defend and respond by hurting them back. This is no trite saying of Jesus to proclaim that we are to love the enemy. It will be hard to love a villain apart from the grace of God, and Jesus knew what he was asking of us.  He does not ask of us anything that he himself has not already done.

We are often pleased with ourselves if we love our family and friends, because even that is a struggle for us, at times. We need to treat all people with respect and kindness, even active love, because that is what God does.

Jesus did not say anything new in calling for neighbor love. The Old Testament clearly says to do so: 

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18, CEB)

Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say to hate your enemy. However, over time, the idea became popular that if we are told to love our neighbor, then we must hate our enemy (who is not our neighbor). Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion to that parable is that everyone I encounter is my neighbor, and so must be shown mercy when they are in need. (Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus let us know that when we walk in the way of love, we will sometimes be treated harshly by the world (Matthew 5:10-12).  When that happens, Christ says we must not exact revenge or retaliate. Even more, we are to respond with overt gestures of love, rather than simply ignoring them.

We are to pray for our enemies. It is hard to hate someone or a group of people when we are devoted to praying for them. Pray the Spirit would open their eyes so they can see the error of their way. Make sure to leave the judgment to God, for that is divine business, not ours.

We are to love because God loves. To love those who offend us emulates God’s benevolence. When we love our enemies, without expecting anything in return, we imitate God’s character as children of God:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He did not love to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. (Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG)

If we have no love for our enemies, then we are no different from them. Christians are to be distinctive because of the way they treat others, especially outside the faith. We are to model our lives after God’s love, not by the standard of niceness to those who are nice to us. God does not expect us to live as followers of Jesus by only showing reciprocity, that is, just giving back to those who already have given something to us. Instead, we give even when we are persecuted. We do this because God shows no distinction in the distribution of sunshine and rain. Showing basic respect and goodness to all people, no matter who they are, can be God’s rain and sun toward others.

“To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine. To love as God loves is moral perfection.” Alfred Plummer

Grace, undeserved kindness, is not something we can just conjure up, as if we might will ourselves to love our enemies. It is not natural – it is supernatural, and so must come from a supernatural Being. 

During World War II, a Lutheran pastor, imprisoned in a German concentration camp, was tortured by an S.S. officer who wanted to force him to a confession.  The pastor did not respond to the torture.  His silence only enraged the officer to such a degree that he hit the pastor harder and harder until he finally exploded and shouted at him, “don’t you know that I can kill you!?”  The pastor looked him the eye and said, “Yes, I know – do what you want – but I have already died.”  At that point, the officer lost power over the pastor.  All of the officer’s cruelty had been based on the idea that the pastor would hold onto his life as his most valuable property and would be willing to give a confession in exchange for his life.  But with the grounds for his violence gone, torture had become a ridiculous and futile activity.

Our human relationships may easily become subject to verbal violence, bitterness, and destruction, when we make enemies of each other and treat people as properties to be defended or conquered instead of precious gifts to be received. If we have nothing to defend, then we have no enemies who can harm us.

Jesus, Prince of Peace,
you have asked us to love our enemies 
and pray for those who persecute us.
We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, 
may all people learn to work together 
for the justice which brings true and lasting peace.
Holy Spirit of God, we ask you for the strength and the grace to love those who harm us, that we may shine as beacons of Christian light in a world of revenge, retaliation, and darkness.

We pray for those who have hurt us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who hate us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who insult us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have stolen from us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who will not hear us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have hurt our church.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.  Amen.