Hello, and welcome back to our series on Spiritual Warfare and Missions (SWAM). If you missed the first couple of posts you really should click here to read them first. And be reminded that this series is based on the book by Jerry Rankin and Ed Stetzer called Spiritual Warfare and Missions.
Last week we talked about Satan’s strategy to keep people groups hidden. When we focus on geopolitical nations (Canada, Cameroon, Colombia, Cambodia) we miss the fact that there are many distinct ethnolinguistic people groups that probably won’t be reached by an evangelistic crusade. Keeping these people groups hidden is a strategy used by Satan to prevent God from receiving the glory He is due.
This week we will see that Satan also uses persecution of believers and the church to diminish the glory God receives.
The chapter begins with the telling of a movement among South Asian Muslims. Reports indicated that some five hundred thousand Muslim background believers had been baptized. A research project was begun to try to verify the numbers. They found that entire villages and extended clans had become Christ-followers. They met with house church leaders and found these multiplying groups were functioning as authentic New Testament churches in gathering for worship, practising the ordinances, and witnessing and ministering in their communities. They traced the reproduction of these simple gatherings of believers and the process of discipling new converts. As the research was compiled, the data reflected about four hundred thousand Muslims who had actually expressed their commitment to follow Christ through baptism. But the numbers were continuing to grow as their witness was spreading through three people groups.
A distinguishing mark of this movement, though, was the persecution against these believers and their steadfast refusal to recant. Many of the leaders of this movement have been martyred, yet the movement continues to grow. When someone’s religious worldview is empty ritual and following the cultural traditions of society, the hope of salvation provided by the God of love is irresistible. A life transformed by Jesus is a powerful testimony that cannot be restrained. But when people see that the Christian faith is not just a religious choice worth living for, but a conviction worth dying for, suffering and death become a powerful witness of the truth.
It is apparent that Satan doesn’t understand the power of suffering as a testimony that powerfully authenticates a Christian witness. It goes back to his being deluded by the cross. Conspiring to influence Judas to betray Christ and working through the envious hearts of Jewish religious leaders to have Him crucified, Satan thought he had won. Instead, the suffering and death of Jesus empowered the kingdom and assured Satan’s ultimate defeat. The Bible makes it clear that persecution will accompany proclamation of the gospel in a world hostile to a Christian witness and will be used by God to advance His kingdom.
“Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life,” (Mark 10:29-30). Jesus prepared His disciples and followers for this certain response to their witness because their witness stood in stark contrast to the sinful ways of the world. “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,” (John 15:19-21).
Just as the suffering of Jesus resulted in God being glorified through redemption being provided for a lost world, God is glorified through the faithfulness of those who suffer persecution for their faith. But also His divine providence uses it as a powerful testimony to advance His kingdom. Paul saw the reality of this paradox in his ministry in Ephesus. Receptivity to the gospel and an open harvest will inevitably be accompanied by adversaries and opposition (1 Corinthians 16:9).
Jesus told us that we should not be surprised by opposition and the fact that they would be rejected, reviled, hated, and persecuted for standing up in identification with Him. Peter reminds us that we cannot hope to stand firm in our faith as a follower of Christ without it involving suffering. “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking. . .so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God,” (1 Peter 4:1-2). Peter had just put this in perspective earlier. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps,” (1 Peter 2:21).
Believers who are persecuted have a choice - to live for their own safety, comfort, and protection in denying the faith, which would be sin, or to deny themselves for the sake of Christ with the consequence of suffering.
We need to debunk the prominent myth that the safest place to be is in the centre of God’s will. Certainly, obedience to God’s will is the only place for a Christian, but that does not assure us of physical comfort, safety, and security. God has not guaranteed the believer exemption from suffering and opposition. He does promise to bless us, empower us, and protect us, but His primary concern is not our safety and avoidance of suffering and inconvenience but His glory in and through our lives. The Bible clearly teaches us that God is glorified through our faithfulness and obedience even in times of suffering for our faith.
Christian history is full of examples of Christian martyrs, those who died violently and prematurely because of their faithful witness. Many of these are notably recorded by John Foxe in his book Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Some include in their identification of martyrs the massive numbers of Christians who have been killed in communal or ethnic violence. They died because they were Christians, but far fewer have been killed because of persistence in an open witness for the faith that could have been avoided. The Bible identifies them as having been worthy of participating in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.
Susan Bergman, in her book Martyrs, makes the distinction: “Martyrdom occurs when a person is required to deny Christ and live, or confess Him and die. Under such duress, the martyr freely chooses death over life - a death that seals a life’s belief - in order to act as a witness to the truth of Christ’s claims and to his or her own faith.”
So Satan approaches it in two ways. Not only does he perpetrate persecution on believers but he convinces Christians that their highest priority is to avoid suffering and danger. Our safety and security is more important than the world knowing Jesus, so we avoid going to dangerous places where we might get arrested or even killed, and God is again deprived of His praise and glory among people who do not have the opportunity to know Him.
Remember, God’s primary purpose is to be glorified in our lives and exalted among the nations. Risking danger and suffering is sometimes necessary for that to happen. Certainly, it will not happen without a willingness to suffer for the sake of God’s glory among the nations.
We forfeit God’s blessing as well as an opportunity to glorify Him when we try to avoid opposition or offending anyone by our witness in a way that would bring repercussions. In the Beatitudes, Jesus reminded us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:10).
That persecution and martyrdom are predicted and necessary evils that are allowed in God’s plan to establish His church and inaugurate His kingdom on earth is certain. God is using the persecution perpetrated by Satan and his minions to serve His sovereign purpose to expand, purify, strengthen, and multiply His kingdom.
“For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured,” Hebrews 13:11-13.
So let’s go!