Suffering

A Ready Defense: Lifestyle Apologetics?

D Fence 2In 1 Peter 3:15 the Apostle Peter writes,

“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you . . . .”

This  verse is often used as a proof text of sorts for the biblical practice of what is known as apologetics.  Apologetics can be briefly defined as the “reasoned defense of the Christian religion” (Classical Apologetics, R.C. Sproul, John Gertsner, and Arthur Lindsley, p.13).  It is a reasoned or rational defense – that is, making a case for the logical coherence, rationality or reasonableness of the Christian faith.

Notice where Peter tells us to start – by honoring Christ the Lord as holy in our hearts. What does that mean? It means that we resolve to put Jesus Christ first in our hearts, to give Him preeminence above all other things in our thoughts and affections. And Peter specifically instructs us to set Jesus apart in our hearts as the Lord. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates this verse helpfully as “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts . . . .” We are not just to sanctify Christ in our hearts or set Him apart in general, but to set Him apart in our hearts “as Lord.”

In other words, we need to set our hearts firmly on the truth that our faithful Savior Jesus Christ is Lord, that He (and only He!) is even now ruling all things at the right hand of God the Father. Why is that so important to our witness or apologetic toward unbelievers? The key, as usual, is found in the context of the verse. In v.13-14 (the verses immediately before v.15) Peter writes,

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,”

The context of the whole passage is suffering for the name of Christ. We are not to be afraid of our enemies, the enemies of the name of Christ. We are not to allow suffering for His name to cause us to fear or be troubled. Sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn’t it? So what is the solution? What is the Christian’s antidote to the fear of man? It is the fear of the Lord! Many commentators believe that in v.15 Peter is actually quoting or alluding to Isaiah 8:12-13, which says,

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”

The context and main point are more or less the same here, aren’t they? At times it may seem like the whole unbelieving world is out to get us. But when we fear that there is a “conspiracy” against us, we are thinking that our enemies are actually in charge, causing all things to work together against us, for our harm. But who is actually in control of all things? The Lord! The “LORD of hosts” (v.13) is the One we are to “honor as holy.” He is the One who should be our only fear and dread.

The fear of the Lord is the antidote to the fear of man. And when we set Jesus apart as Lord in our hearts, we will rest secure in the knowledge that He alone controls our destiny, and not a hair can fall from our heads apart from His will (Matthew 10:30). It is the Lord who makes all things (even our suffering for His name) to work together for our good (Romans 8:28). And that is where a truly biblical apologetic must start. A ready defense of the faith must always start with sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15).

We may not all be called to or gifted for making an intellectual or philosophical defense of the Christian faith against skeptics, atheists, and idolaters, but we are all called to make the kind of ready defense that the Apostle Peter primarily has in view here – setting apart Christ in our hearts as Lord, obeying Him even when it leads to suffering, and being willing to tell others that the Lord Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope that is within us, even in the face of suffering or persecution.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow (The Context of “Fear not” in Matthew 10:31)

Many of us take great comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:29-31, and rightly so.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Matthew 10:29-31)

But what is the context of that promise of God’s sovereign, fatherly care of His children?  Look at the preceding context in v.27-28:

What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

He is primarily speaking of believers testifying to Jesus Christ and spreading His teachings.  Sometimes that testimony comes with a price – persecution.

What about the following context?  Look at v.32-33:

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Again, it is clear that the context is speaking in the name of Christ, testifying to His gospel.  That often brings persecution, sometimes even to the point of physical death.

Why are we not to be afraid?  Because persecution (and even martyrdom in some cases!) will not come?  No.  We are not promised that we will be shielded from persecution.  In fact, Scripture often seems to promise us just the opposite! (See John 15:18-21; 2 Timothy 3:12.)

We are not to fear because nothing can cut us off from the love of our heavenly Father in Christ Jesus (v.33; Romans 8:31-39).  Nothing.  And we are to rest assured that, whatever happens to us (especially in the ministry of the gospel!), it is all within the sovereign and loving control of our Heavenly Father.

So take comfort in the fact that if you are in Christ, you are greatly loved and valued by God (” . . .you are of more value than many sparrows. – v.31).  And take great comfort in the fact that not a hair can fall from your head apart from His will (v.30).

But remember those promises all the more when you are at work in any way sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Worthy to Suffer?

In Acts 5:17-40 the apostles are arrested (and re-arrested after a miraculous rescue), questioned (to put it mildly), threatened with death (v.33), and were then beaten before being released.

All for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How did they respond to that treatment?  Did they run and hide?  Did they stop preaching the gospel (or at least tone it down)?  No.  Their response is one of the most amazing things that you will see in the Word of God:

Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (Acts 5:41-42 ESV)

They did not just willingly endure it. (That would have been amazing enough!)  They did not just grit their teeth and bear it.  They rejoiced!

Why were they able to rejoice?

You want proof of God’s unshakeable love toward you in Jesus Christ?  Do you want evidence of God’s infinite mercy, forgiveness, and complete acceptance of you in Jesus? You won’t find it in comfort and ease. (Although that is often where we seek it.)

Strangely enough you will find it in the world’s rejection of you; the world rejects believers because it recognizes the family resemblance to Christ!

So what is the key to being willing to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus? What would it take to make us not only willing to suffer for the name of Christ, but to actually REJOICE over it & count it an honor? It takes the gospel.  It takes faith in the good news of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

When we really understand the gospel, we will understand that God has perfectly, completely, and eternally forgiven all of our sins in Jesus Christ; we will understand that we are so radically accepted and loved by God all because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, that nothing else matters but Jesus and the glory of His name.  Jesus suffered humiliation and shame for us.  He laid aside His glory that we might be saved (Philippians 2:1-11). He suffered dishonor for our sakes at the hands of sinful men that we might share in his glory (Romans 8:18-30).

It is an honor to suffer for the One who loves us like that!

The Victorious Christian Life? (Part 2)

Becoming a Christian does not mean that we should expect life to be a rose garden, or at least not one without its fair share of thorns.  Much of what we see in the book of Acts clearly shows us that from the earliest days of church history, faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ has very often come at a steep price – persecution, even martyrdom.

The Apostle Peter himself (who was imprisoned for the sake of the gospel more than once in the book of Acts and was eventually martyred) writes,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

So persecution should not come as a shock to us.  But it often does.

In Acts chapter four we come to the first instance of persecution in the history of the early church.   And it is the first instance of many.  And, of all things, it was occasioned by the miraculous healing of a man who had been born with crippled legs (Acts 3:1-26).  The first thing that we see in chapter 4 is that not everyone was happy about the healing of the crippled man and the preaching and teaching that came along with it. Acts 4:1-3 says,

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.

So the religious leaders at the temple finally had enough! Verse 3 literally says that they “laid hands upon them.” Why did the “priests, captain of the temple and the Sadducees” forcibly arrest them and throw them into prison?

First, (as v.2 tells us), they were “greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people.” It doesn’t just say that they were annoyed at the content (i.e. preaching the resurrection), but that they were teaching the people, period (!).   And where were the Apostles doing all of this teaching and preaching? The temple!    As far as the priests and Sadducees saw it, the apostles were nothing but uneducated, common men” (v.13) who were intruding upon their territory.

But Peter’s lack of formal theological training and education were not the real reasons for  the opposition from the priests and Sadducees.  Later, when the Apostle Paul came along (from the ranks of the Pharisees, no less!), he would suffer similar persecution despite his learning and expertise in the Old Testament. So some persecution will invariably come from those who see their own religious authority or influence threatened.  In our own day it may even come from within the church.

Not only were they teaching the people and drawing crowds away from the Jewish religious leaders in the temple, but they were also “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead (4:2).   And that is the second reason that they were arrested. Their teachings were primarily about this very same Jesus that had been crucified about two months earlier!

No wonder it drove the Sadducees crazy! The Sadducees in particular did not believe in the resurrection. They were, in a sense, the theological liberals of their day – they were the anti-supernatural, rationalist teachers of the Jewish religion. They were on one end of the Jewish theological spectrum, while the Pharisees were on the other side of the spectrum (the religious conservatives, so to speak). But even though the Pharisees were much more conservative and believed in the resurrection, they too opposed Jesus Christ time and time again.  That should be a lesson for us as well – it isn’t just the so-called liberals who reject Jesus Christ in unbelief, but also religious conservatives as well. Self-righteousness comes in all shapes and sizes.

The third reason for this persecution becomes apparent in a subtle way in v.13. It says, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” What is Luke saying? He is saying that in the Apostles they saw a resemblance of Jesus Christ. His influence upon them and likeness in them was obvious. They hated Jesus Christ enough to kill him by crucifying Him, as Peter reminds them in v.10. So when they see the likeness of Jesus in His followers, it brings out that same irrational hatred all over again!

And this should not be a surprise, should it? Jesus told His disciples that they should expect nothing less. In John 15:18-21 Jesus said,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.

On account of His name. There is the rub, isn’t it? What did the priests and Sadducees ask of Peter and John?  They asked (in v.7) “by what power or by what name they had healed the crippled man. Remember what Peter said to his accusers? In v.10 he says, “ . . .let it be known to all of you and to all of the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by him this man is standing before you well.” (Sounds like the man who was healed may have actually been thrown in jail with them!)

So the victorious Christian life is not one that is devoid of suffering or persecution, but one of faithful, patient enduring of it for the name of Jesus Christ.  That is counter-intuitive, isn’t it?  It doesn’t sounds like victory at all, but it is.

The book of Revelation in many ways, is primarily about the persecution of the church and her ultimate victory. In his classic commentary on Revelation, More Than Conquerors, William Hendriksen writes,

In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil. It is full of help and comfort for persecuted and suffering Christians. . . .The theme is the victory of Christ and of His Church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The Apocalypse is meant to show us that things are not what they seem. (p.7-8)

Many of us freely admit that we often find the book of Revelation difficult to understand. But our problem with understanding this magnificent book of the Bible may have less to do with a lack of academic instruction or skill in interpretation, and more to do with the fact that we, by and large, do not really suffer that much for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The church that willingly endures suffering for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ has little difficulty understanding (and drawing comfort from) the book of Revelation! The book of Revelation assures us of our future, ultimate, and lasting victory.  It assures us of the victorious Christian life, just maybe not the kind that we are used to hearing about.

The Fine Print of the Prosperity Gospel (The Victorious Christian Life? – Part 1)

contract-587273_1920Winning.  Somehow Charlie Sheen made that word famous just by just saying it (not by actually winning anything himself).  Legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  And as one of my friends used to jokingly tell the youth at our church, “2nd place is the 1st loser.”

The victorious Christian life – what is it? In what way is the Christian life to be conceived of as “victorious”? (Just as importantly, in what ways should it not?) What does the victorious Christian life look like? Does it mean a life of ease? A carefree life? Living the so-called good life?

When you think about the so-called “victorious Christian life”, chances are that pretty good that you do not think about the lives of the apostles as depicted in the book of Acts (or, for that matter, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).  After all, they always seemed to be getting tossed into prison, beaten, or worse.

There are some in the church today who teach a twisted version of the “victorious Christian life” that bears no resemblance to the teaching and examples that we find in Scripture. They teach that the believer in Jesus Christ should know health, wealth, and prosperity. And they would say that if we do not experience those things, then there is something terribly wrong. You can probably see why such a message would prove to be quite attractive. You can see why those teachers sell so many books. They preach and teach that believers should have the very best of both worlds, both this life and the one to come.  Who wouldn’t want that?

But that is a far cry from the biblical picture of the Christian life.  It is not the example that we see in the earthly life & ministry of Christ.  Jesus Himself said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).  And, as far as earthly comforts go, the disciples in the book of Acts did not fare much better than Jesus did.   They were constantly being arrested for preaching the gospel.  They were threatened, imprisoned, beaten, and even killed.

Not only that, but the Scriptures tell us in no uncertain terms that such an idea is not only wrong-headed, but actually contrary to the faith itself!   In 1 Timothy 6:6-10 the Apostle Paul writes,

“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

So far from being a worthy goal for believers, Paul warns us that such a worldly version of the gospel is actually the road toward ruin and the path away from the faith altogether.  And there Paul exposes the fine print (so to speak) of the prosperity  gospel – not only is it not the way to have the best of both worlds (as it claims), but it is actually the way away from the faith, and the way of “ruin and destruction.”

Paul speaks of the real victorious Christian life in the closing verses of Romans 8, where he writes,

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39, ESV)

So according to Scripture, our real & lasting victory is in the Cross of Jesus Christ, in His death in our place to pay for our sins, His resurrection, His ascension, and His intercession for us at the right hand of the Father.

As strange as it may sound, our victory is not to be found in avoiding hardships, persecution, or even martyrdom, but in the fact that we are in Jesus Christ by faith and that none of those things can ever change that.  Our victory is that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus!

So you had a bad day?

The book of Job is truly one the most amazing stories in the entire Bible.

And the first thing that probably comes to your mind when you think of Job is suffering.

Now we often think to ourselves that suffering must mean that we have done something wrong. (Just like we often mistakenly think that when things are going well for us, we must be doing something right.)  But why did Job suffer the way he did?  Did he deserve to suffer that way?

Yes and no.

Yes, is the sense that all suffering & misery in this life is the result of sin.

Yes, in the sense that, as sinners, we all deserve misery. (And, truth be told, it is a wonder of God’s grace that we do not suffer more than we do.)  As the Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us:

Q.19  What is the misery of that estate wherein man fell? A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever”

But no, in the sense that Job was not subjected to the extremes of suffering that he was because of some particular sin(s) in his life.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  Look at what the LORD says to Satan:

“Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8)

So Job got “volunteered” for this particular trial, not because he was doing something wrong, but because there was no one on earth who served and feared God quite like him!  Think about that for just a minute.

And so Job was about to have the bad day to end all bad days.  He had such a tragic day, that his very name has become synonymous with suffering.  Everyone else’s suffering is invariably weighed against his for comparison’s sake.

What happened?

In v.13-19 he loses pretty much everything – his possessions (livestock), servants, and all of his children!  And the reports of these tragic losses came one right after the other.  Twice the text says, “While he was yet speaking, there came another . . . .”  One person’s report of Job’s loss wasn’t even finished when the next one started!

And what was Job’s reaction?  How did he respond?

“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” (Job 1:20)

He worshiped.

He mourned, he grieved, but he worshiped the LORD in the midst of all that was happening to him.

And then he uttered some of the most well-known words in the entire Old Testament:

“And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”” (Job 1:21)

And in case we missed the point, the writer tells us, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (v.22)

Does suffering keep us from worshiping?  Do we mistakenly charge God with wrong in the midst of it?  There are no easy answers or hollow platitudes in the book of Job.  But what it does tell us is that no matter what happens, “Blessed be the name of the LORD” (v.21).