March 26, 2000

REJOICING UNDER FIRE

“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.”  Matthew 5:11-12

Pastor Mehdi Dibaj did something so awful that he was thrown in prison and sentenced to death.  His crime?  Becoming a Christian.  In Iran’s capital of Tehran, where he lived, Muslim militants saw his faith in Christ as an awful offense, and the offense got even worse when he became a pastor and guided other people in the Christian faith.  For more than ten years Pastor Dibaj sat in prison, often on death row.

Another pastor, Bishop Haik, of the Assemblies of God, led an international campaign to save Pastor Dibaj’s life.  Somehow the campaign succeeded.  Mehdi Dibaj was unexpectedly released from prison.  However, Bishop Haik, who had worked so hard for his release, disappeared three days later.  Before long the authorities announced he had been murdered and showed a picture of the corpse.  His family was never allowed to see the body.

A few months later, a pastor who succeeded Haik as head of the Iranian Protestant Council disappeared.  His body was found with several gunshot wounds to the head.  Around the same time, Mehdi Dibaj himself vanished.  He soon turned up dead.  He died less then six months after being freed from prison.

During his ten-year imprisonment, Pastor Dibaj had written  his son, “I have always envied those Christians who all through church history were martyred for Christ Jesus our Lord.  What a privilege to live for our Lord and to die for him as well.”

These Iranian pastors were murdered just a few years ago.  About nineteen centuries earlier, in the year 116, Ignatius, a Christian leader who had been personally taught by the apostle John, was on trial before the Roman emperor Trajan.  Ignatius spoke of having Christ in his heart.  The angry emperor ordered that Ignatius be chained, taken to a Roman stadium, and fed to wild beasts as entertainment for the crowds.  When Ignatius heard this, he cried out with joy, “Thank you, Lord, that you have decided to honor me.”  Ignatius was attacked by the animals, who devoured everything but his bones.

Polycarp, a fellow minister and friend of Ignatius who had also learned at the feet of Jesus’ apostle John, was soon put on trial as well.  Seeing Polycarp was an old man, the Roman official in charge urged him to make it easy on himself.  Polycarp could go free if he would simply swear by Caesar as a god and reject Christ.

Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong.  How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The governor threatened, “I’ll throw you to the beasts.”

“Then bring on your beasts,” replied Polycarp.

“If the beasts don’t scare you,” warned the governor, “I’ll have you burned.”

“You try to frighten me with the fire that burns for an hour,” answered Polycarp, “and you forget the fire of hell that never goes out.”

As wood was being stacked around him for a fire, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, thank you for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that I may be among your martyrs.  I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you.”  Soon he was dead.

Why would ancient Christians and modern Christians count it a privilege to die for Christ?  Well, they believed the words of Jesus: “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” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Jesus’ first followers took those words to heart.  The apostle Peter told his fellow Christians:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice that 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.  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 4:12-19).

There’s nothing noble about suffering for doing bad things; you’re just getting what you deserve.  But when you suffer for trusting and obeying Jesus Christ, you have reason to rejoice.

Does that sound odd?  Why be glad about being persecuted and even killed for your faith?  Well, we’re going to see some strong reasons for rejoicing under fire.

If you’re a Christian and you face mockery, discrimination, and violence, the Lord says not to seek revenge against your enemies.  Don’t resent them or feel bitter toward them.  Don’t even feel sorry for yourself.  Instead, rejoice and be glad!

What kind of advice is that?  Are Jesus and his followers weirdoes who like pain? No, pain hurts; God’s people don’t like pain a bit. Why rejoice, then?  Do Christians like to offend other people and feel superior to them?  No, true faith doesn’t enjoy having enemies or gloat at being better than others. The first Christians wanted their opponents to share in the joy of Jesus and his salvation (Acts 26:29), and they grieved over those who rejected Christ (Romans 9:1-3).  Still, even though they didn’t enjoy pain, even though they longed for their enemies to become friends of God, Jesus’ followers rejoiced amid pain and persecution.  They spoke of being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Let’s consider three good reasons for rejoicing under fire. First, suffering for Christ puts you in good company.  Second, suffering for Christ is good for you.  Third, suffering for Christ is good for God’s kingdom.

In Good Company

Let’s look first at the good company persecuted Christians are in. At first glance it may appear they’re in bad company.  People around them may see them as losers and treat them with contempt and cruelty.  During the early days of Christianity, a critic named Celsus sneered that Christians didn’t have “any culture or wisdom or judgment; their aim is to convince only worthless and contemptible people, idiots, slaves, poor women, and children … These are the only ones whom they manage to turn into believers.” Still today Christians are often despised.  In secular countries Christians may be mocked as mindless morons or as weaklings who need a crutch.  In communist countries they may be treated as criminals who threaten public wellbeing.  In places dominated by Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, Christians may be treated as second-class citizens or even as enemies of God who ought to be killed.

In India, for example, the caste system of Hinduism says that the poorest, most miserable people ought to suffer for sins they’ve committed in previous lives.  The lowest outcastes, the untouchables, are seen as the very bottom of the barrel.  More than half of India’s untouchables are Christians.  One Christian, Sister Rani Maria, had a heart of love for the poor. She organized self-help groups, credit co-ops, health classes, and leadership programs.  In 1995 three men dragged Sister Rani from a bus on which she was riding.  Outside the bus, in broad daylight, before the eyes of onlookers, the three men stabbed her more than forty times.  She died beside the road.  Her attackers were identified as fanatical supporters of India’s ruling party.  One major official in the party once described Christians as “stray dogs.” However, even if Christians are seen as stray dogs, outcastes, untouchables, even if enemies view them as belonging in the very lowest company, the fact is that Christians under fire are in very good company indeed.

They are in the company of Jesus himself.  Jesus faced all sorts of insults and threats.  Some sneered about his lack of education.  Some said he was crazy.  Some said he was wicked.  Some called him a threat to sound religion and public order.  Some insisted he was demon-possessed.  Jesus’ enemies eventually arrested him, mocked him, spit on him, tortured him, and executed him as a criminal. So if you are mocked or mistreated for following Jesus, don’t be surprised.  Be glad you are in such excellent company.  As Jesus once put it, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). “If the head of the house has been called [the prince of demons], how much more the members of his household” (Matthew 10:24-25).

Suffering for righteousness puts you in the company of Jesus, and it puts you in the company of God’s prophets and apostles. If people exclude you and attack you, you should “leap for joy,” says Jesus. “For that is how their fathers treated the  prophets” (Luke 6:23).  If nobody ever opposes you, you’re in bad company. “Woe to you when all men speak well of you,” says Jesus, “for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).  Do you want to fit in with phonies who always take the easy path and go with the flow?  Or do you want to join the good company of holy prophets and apostles who face opposition because they openly stand for Christ?

In Hebrews 11 the Bible describes heroes of faith who “were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:35-38). Most Christians don’t have to suffer to that degree, but everything you and I do is done in the presence of this great cloud of witnesses, headed by Jesus himself. One reason for rejoicing under fire is that you are suffering in fellowship with Christ and in the good company of holy men and women.

For Your Good

A second reason for rejoicing under fire is that your troubles turn out for your good.  It doesn’t seem that way at first glance, of course.  How can it be for anyone’s good to be under attack, to suffer, or even be killed?

Consider Justin Martyr, a Christian who lived from the year 110 to 165. Facing persecution, Justin said, “You may kill us, but you cannot harm us.”  A Roman official scoffed, “If you are whipped and have your head cut off, do you really think you will go up to heaven and be rewarded?”  Justin replied, “I don’t just think so; I know so.  I’m absolutely convinced of it.”  Then, because Justin and his fellow Christians refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, they were whipped and beheaded.

When Justin said, “You may kill us, but you cannot harm us,” he was echoing Jesus. “They will put some of you to death,” said Jesus. “But not a hair of your head will perish.  By standing firm you will gain life” (Luke 21:16-19).

When Justin declared his certainty of heavenly rewards, he was again echoing the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Christians are people who focus on eternity, who know there’s nothing better than heaven and nothing worse than hell. “I tell you, my friends,” Jesus declares, “do not be afraid of those who can kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will tell you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5). So don’t fear anything but God’s wrath, and don’t seek anything but God’s blessing. It’s far better to die for Christ and go to heaven than to deny Christ and go to hell.

Suffering for Christ is good for you because it leads to heavenly rewards.  Jesus says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life… He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death [hell]” (Revelation 2:10).  “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord… they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (Revelation 14:13).  This confidence of eternal happiness in heaven has motivated martyrs in the Bible and through the ages, and it still motivates persecuted Christians today.

Suffering for Christ is good for you because your final destiny is heaven, and it’s also good for you because it confirms your faith.  The Bible says, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).  Scripture doesn’t say just a few here or there but “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus.”  Scripture doesn’t say they might be persecuted; it says they “will be persecuted.” So if you never encounter any troubles for being a Christian, it’s questionable whether you are a Christian at all.  It’s questionable whether you’re any different than sinful, unsaved people around you.  But if you run into difficulties because of your faith and obedience to Christ, it confirms that you really  belong to him. Persecution takes different forms: mockery in school, pressure at the office, resentment from lukewarm churchgoers, or violence from non-Christians. But whatever form it takes, when you come under fire for following Jesus and hold on to Christ in the face of hostility, your faith is confirmed.  The Bible says trials come so that your faith “may be proved genuine” (1 Peter 1:7).

As your faith is proved genuine under fire, it also becomes stronger.  It’s often said of physical fitness, “No pain, no gain.”  Much the same is true of spiritual fitness.  A faith that is flabby becomes firmer and stronger each time it is pushed to the limit.  A runner who keeps pushing to point of exhaustion gains the ability to go further and further without wearing out.  The hard workouts build up endurance.  So too, hardship builds up spiritual endurance.  The Bible says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2)

The strongest, most joyful Christians are often those who have suffered most. This isn’t meant to glamorize persecution or to excuse cruel persecutors.  Persecution is painful and persecutors are committing great evil.  But Christians know God turns pain to our profit and brings good even out of evil.

The first Christian martyr after Jesus himself was a man named Stephen.  He confronted some of the people who had killed Jesus and told them they were wrong.  As Stephen spoke, the Bible says his face “was like the face of an angel … 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” … While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:54-60). Stephen was willing to die because he saw beyond his attackers to the throne of Christ, and he knew he would soon be enjoying unending happiness with his Lord in heaven. The pain of the stones could not match the delight of seeing heaven open to him. And so, rather than hating his enemies, Stephen felt sorry for people who didn’t know such a wonderful Savior and didn’t know the way to heaven, and he prayed that the Lord forgive them.

The angry mob that killed Stephen was led by a young man named Saul.  Stephen’s prayer for his enemies was answered when Saul later repented and became a Christian.  He changed his name to Paul and became a great missionary.

Paul ended up facing fierce persecution himself.  In Paul’s final days, when he was about to be executed for his faith, he  faced death with the same confidence Stephen had displayed. Not long before Paul’s head was chopped off, he wrote from his death row dungeon, “The time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…  The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.  To him be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8,18). If you’re a Christian, you can rejoice under fire because in this life God uses trials to build up faith; and in the life to come, the Lord gives marvelous, everlasting rewards to those who have suffered for righteousness’ sake.  It all turns out for your good.

Good for God’s Kingdom

A final reason to rejoice under fire is that suffering is good for God’s kingdom. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a great leader in the church, and it might have seemed as though God’s cause would be weakened by his death.  But Stephen’s death accomplished more than his life.  Indeed, Stephen’s killer, Paul, eventually became even more effective in ministry than Stephen had been.

After Stephen’s death, persecution spread and the Christians were scattered.  But did that harm God’s cause?  No, wherever they went, the Christians told people about Jesus (Acts 8:4, 11:19-20).  The gospel went far and wide, reaching more places than if the persecution had never happened.

When Christians were burned or beheaded or fed to animals in front of bloodthirsty Roman crowds, it might have seemed a sure way to prevent anyone from wanting to become a Christian.  But for every martyr who died, there were thousands in the crowds who watched and wondered how people could face death with such joy and courage.  Amazingly, as more and more Christians were killed, more and more people became Christians.  This led to a familiar saying among Christians: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

When someone suffers for Jesus, it honors Jesus enormously, for it says, “Jesus is worth more to me than life itself.”  And when Christians give this testimony, it makes non-Christians wonder whether they are missing something by not knowing such a Savior.  Consider China.  In the past fifty years, Christianity has grown more quickly than it did in earlier times when Chinese authorities mostly tolerated or ignored Christians.  Or consider the shootings of some teenage Christians in the United States.  Those dead and wounded young people have done more to draw non-Christians to Christ and inspire Christians to greater commitment than if they had lived long, healthy lives.

Sometimes persecution comes not just from those outside but from those inside, from religious leaders who follow their own agenda and resist the truth of God.  But when unfaithful leaders persecute those who are faithful to Christ and the Bible, the result is often that the church is purified and God’s true people become more faithful.  John Huss was burned by the church of his day for teaching that salvation comes through faith in Jesus and not through priestly rituals.  William Tyndale was strangled, and his body was burned, for translating the Bible into the language of the people.  But death could not silence the truth, and a great Reformation followed. What the Bible says of Abel, the very first person in history to be murdered for honoring God, can be said of every martyr: “By faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

When Christians die for their faith, Satan doesn’t win; he loses (Revelation 12:11).  Murdered Christians go to reign with Christ, and their testimony leads others here on earth to take their place and keep spreading the gospel.

If you love Christ and his kingdom, you will be glad whenever his cause advances, and so you will rejoice under fire because you know that your suffering is good for his kingdom.  The way to overcome evil is not to fight back with weapons of violence and revenge but with weapons of righteousness and love.

Time and again, some of the greatest gains in God’s kingdom have come through suffering and death.  The foremost case of this is the death of Jesus himself.  Jesus’ death was a decisive defeat for Satan and the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15).  The cross is not a sign of defeat but of victory.  On the cross Jesus achieved the salvation of countless people and set in motion the redemption of God’s whole creation.  The death of Christ was a once-for-all event that paid for sin and decisively broke Satan’s power.  When Christ’s followers suffer, they’re not saving the world in the same sense Jesus did, but by sharing in Christ’s suffering, they bring the power of Christ to bear on the world around them, and they advance the Lord’s kingdom.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Theirs is the good company of the kingdom.  Theirs are the good rewards of the kingdom.  Theirs is the good growth of the kingdom.  In such great blessings, rejoice and be glad!

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.