The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV).
“Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelations 1:3-5a NIV).
Revelations – Day 10 “The Witness Driven Church”
Let’s be honest.
We aren’t in any danger of having to stand before a Roman official and be told to worship the emperor with some incense and words of loyalty on pain of death. Obviously. But let’s also acknowledge that there are still places in the world today where Christians are persecuted and killed for their faith. The International Institute for Religious Freedom estimates that about 3,000 to 5,000 Christians are killed for their faith every year, sometimes more.
When it comes to significant persecution, around 360 million Christians each year suffer for their faith, which is one in seven believers. In addition, approximately 16 believers are killed daily. The Center for Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) puts the number much higher between the years 2000 and 2010 because of the civil war in the Congo which had strong religious violence at its core. They estimate that ten percent of the deaths are directly due to religious persecution. With those numbers included, the average number of martyrs during those ten years was closer to 100,000 believers killed each year.
Of course, it isn’t always easy to define what we mean by “martyrdom” in the context of a civil war. Isolated incidents of abduction, persecution and death are much easier to track. It is also hard to evaluate whether the believers who had “significant” persecution had any choice in the matter, or whether their witness was one of love “towards their enemies.” After all, the transformative power doesn’t come only from dying for your faith but rather living with love and faith in your heart under the threat of persecution and death.
Even in Roman times, not everyone who stood before the authorities gave a “true and faithful witness” unto death. Some insisted on becoming martyrs which invalidated their witness. Many others recanted and went home in safety. It even became an issue in those early years whether a pastor could give communion if he had renounced Christ before the authorities. Were they even believers? Should they be allowed back into the church? Do they become the focus of evangelistic efforts once again? Not every situation resulted in a witness for the gospel neither then nor now.
Still, there are some famous stories of true “living martyrs” in our modern world. I am reminded of the story of Jim Elliot, one of five people killed while trying to evangelize the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador. These people were also called the “Auca” Indians which, when translated, means “savage.” They had no written language and therefore no access to the Bible and the good news. So, a team of Wycliff missionaries, including Jim Elliot, arrived in the jungles of Ecuador to provide that service. It was called Operation Auca.
When they first arrived and were setting up their base nearby, they were approached by some friendly Huaorani people who were checking them out and then later by ten warriors who immediately killed Jim Elliot and his other companions on January 8, 1956, when they went to greet them. Obviously, they didn’t have much of an opportunity to witness to these “savage” Indians nor to demonstrate much in the way of love.
But others did. Elizabeth Elliot, his wife, decided to continue his work together with the son of the pilot that was also killed.
Can you imagine?
How in the world do you decide to go back into that jungle and take up where others had been killed just for being there? What fear there must have been, and what faith. There is no reason to believe that the same thing couldn’t happen to them just as well. But these family members and fellow missionaries were compelled by love, not hate, and certainly not by fear. Not that they weren’t scared. They were but they went anyways.
Elizabeth Elliot wrote two books about what happened, but the upshot was that these Huaorani Indians also could not believe that these people would be so stupid as to return not for revenge, not with guns, not in force to bring them to justice. It was unexpected. It made no sense in the context of their animistic beliefs and warrior like culture.
It was love pure and simple and it transformed these people into new believers by the power of the “living martyrs” who ministered to them – both those who died and those who did not die. It sounds an awful lot like the book of Revelations and the threat of persecution and death by the Roman authorities. The ones who died empowered the ones who did not die in their continued witness under the threat of persecution. It was a communal witness, a church-wide witness that made all the difference, not just the individual deaths of the martyrs.
So, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the book of Revelations does not apply to believers today. That depends on where you live and whether your neighbors are antagonistic to your faith or not, just like in the early church. The argument is from the greater to the lesser. If this is how you must live and act in the “greater” or more extreme situation, then you must also act the same way in the “lesser” situation. The attitude is the same. The faith is the same. The love is the same.
Jesus warned them right from the start in the Sermon on the Mount that persecution and suffering is part of a disciple’s life.
“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” (Matt. 5:10-12 NIV).
Apparently, Jesus is talking here about being persecuted by their own people, the religious leaders of Israel, who also “persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The people understood that Jesus was against the teachings of the Pharisees and his very presence, as the Messiah, put the Sadducees at risk of losing their power and authority.
But it is also important to note that this persecution was “because of righteousness” and “because of me.” So, if you follow my teachings, Jesus is saying, you will find yourself at odds with the prevailing religious culture. And if you follow me as the Messiah, you are also in danger from the Romans not just the Jewish authorities.
And don’t think for a moment that these people didn’t understand the implications of listening to this rabbi and accepting his claims to be the Messiah. Luke, in the Book of Acts, tells us an interesting bit of history that puts a lot of this into perspective.
The apostles, including Peter, had been arrested and put in jail by the Jewish authorities. When the Sanhedrin was ready to judge them for their beliefs, the guards could not find them in the jail. They had miraculously escaped and were teaching the people in the courtyards of the temple. They were quickly arrested again and finally brought before the Sanhedrin to hear what they had to say. Peter gave a quick speech claiming that the Sanhedrin was responsible for crucifying the Messiah and that God had given the disciples the Holy Spirit. Both claims were intolerable of course. “When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death” (Acts 5:33 NIV).
That was when the rabbi, Gamaliel, intervened.
“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:35-39 NIV).
We don’t know anything more about Theudas, but Judas the Galilean is mentioned by Josephus, the Jewish historian. He was fed up with paying taxes and gathered around him a bunch of people who were ready to revolt. He may have been the precursor to the zealots but that is a bit of speculation. The point is that these were not peaceful times and certainly not safe for anyone claiming to follow the Messiah, neither from the Jewish authorities nor from the Roman officials. Neither one took kindly to revolts of any kind.
Gamaliel convinced the Sanhedrin to let these apostles go but they were still flogged with the “forty lashes less one” which was no joke. And they were ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus. What was the response of the disciples? They “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41 NIV). And did they obey the Sanhedrin? Of course not. “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42 NIV).
Christianity is a religion of conviction. You leave your ancestor worship, you put away your other idols, you become exclusive in your loyalty to one Master and Lord. This was strange in the ancient world and set families against each other.
Jesus warned his disciples about this, even in the context of the Jewish religion much less the Roman world.
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” Jesus asked his disciples. “No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53 NIV).
This doesn’t sound like a Jesus, meek and mild, who spent his time playing with the children, healing the sick and preaching hope to the people. It sounds more like a Jesus, who was a warrior-messiah, using the weapons of love to bring people into the kingdom of heaven. Becoming a follower of Jesus was the point of division. Loyalties now change and old authorities are no longer recognized or followed. If Jesus is just another “addition” to your life, together with Monday Night Football, or a new hobby, there isn’t much danger of division or disagreement. The applecart of your life is not upset, and things can go on, largely unchanged.
Going to church, by itself, is not likely to cause problems at home or at work. But start spending time and money and other resources on spreading the gospel and see what happens. Start talking about the eternal destiny of those who are not saved. Start talking about the priority of Jesus in the lives of his people, which we are calling radical discipleship, and see what happens. Even with all of your good intentions, even with grace and love in your heart, you will get into trouble. It is the nature of radical discipleship.
When Jesus becomes your highest authority, above friendship, above family, above even yourself, people become concerned and start to push back. That’s to be expected. It doesn’t matter if you lived in the early church or the modern church, the issue is the same, the loyalty to Jesus above all is the same, and the reactions of those who do not believe will be the same.
Even when you think it is only about you and you start to put away your old idols that occupied your time, resources and focus and begin to make Jesus your “all in all,” spending time with him, spending money on ministry, spending your focus on the church, then your family will react. Of course, they will react. You can’t assume that it is entirely a personal matter. It affects others around you. Your relationships will change. Your friends will disown you. You will be challenged. Pure and simple.
So, the first principle of suffering for the sake of Christ has to do with the dangers of a new loyalty, a new commitment, a new conviction that starts to transform your life in practical ways. By definition, that decision to follow Christ above all, above family, above patriotism, above self, is bound to create problems.
But the second principle of suffering for the gospel comes quickly behind since a key element to that transformation is your new priority for spreading the gospel. It doesn’t really matter how you go about it, whether you do it by yourself or part of a ministry team. It doesn’t matter if you preach or whether you serve, that has to do with your gifts and opportunities. But somehow, some way you are focused on the spreading of the gospel and that is downright offensive to a lot of people. It scares them. It demands them to response. It claims they are ungodly and full of sin (who appreciates that?) but most of all, the Holy Spirit may be convicting them of sin, and they don’t like it one bit.
Pastor Rick Warren is famous for his book, The Purpose Driven Life, and rightly so. It is a great book and has been very helpful for a lot of people, believers and non-believers alike. Not everyone knows that he wrote another book as well called The Purpose Driven Church, which is equally as good.
But I would like to suggest a better name for that book that isn’t just about “purpose” but about “witness.” I would call it The Witness Driven Church because there is really only one purpose for the church in the kingdom of God – to witness to the transformation within resulting in the evangelism and discipleship of the nations.
I used to ask my kids why the sun came up every morning and they would look at me confused. Then I would remind them what Peter said in his letter to the churches. Scoffers were already saying back then “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” We might be tempted to agree with them. After all, it has been more than two thousand years now.
“Do not forget this one thing, dear friends,” Peter said in response. “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8,9 NIV).
Every day the sun comes up is a testament to God’s patience and his desire for everyone to be saved. It’s as simple as that. There are no other purposes at work in the world or in the church. We must be a witness-driven church using whatever programs and ministries, bright ideas and crazy things we can come up with.
Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he ascended into heaven made it clear what our focus should be as a church and as individual believers.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18b-20 NIV).
There are a lot of ways to do this work that Jesus gave us to do and that is what is meant by the different “purposes” and “emphasis” of different churches.
At the same time, it isn’t really about the programs and the ministries that we so often associate with specific churches but about the people. It is the people with transformed hearts that do the different ministries that make the difference. It is the witness of the people who live life in intimacy with Christ, in loyalty, purpose and identity with him and his purposes and priorities, that the Holy Spirit uses to impress the truth of the gospel on the hearts of unbelievers.
And that is what the book of Revelations is trying to remind us of. It is about the people. Not just about individuals but about the community of believers in spiritual unity, living life together based on confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Living out the truth of the cross in their daily lives, in their relationships, in their walk with God in every situation.
It is certainly about spiritual disciplines since they help you to know him better and follow him closer. But it is even more about spiritual gifts and the way of the cross. It is about a transformed character which comes only from a focused loyalty to Christ that we call radical discipleship.
We are used to defining “intimacy” with Christ in terms only of devotions and prayer, but Jesus talked more about loyalty and getting rid of idols and living a life that truly, in practical ways, made him the most important thing. That loyalty is counterculture. It breaks down selfish tendencies and gets rid of petty distractions.
Like romantic love, it can get you into trouble, bring you into conflict despite your best efforts to “live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 NIV). It is a loyalty that does not allow for emperor-worship, or self-worship, or any other idol other than Christ. In the same way that falling in love and making a vow of marriage to someone will change the direction of your life and result in new life, new joys and new purpose, so it is with Christ and more so.
Didn’t you find it strange that Jesus would talk about the rewards waiting for those who were able to “overcome” as simply more intimacy with him in this life and in the life to come? He promised a “crown of life” to those who were martyred. Those who “overcame” their fear, their distractions with wealth, who needed to get real instead of playing games and maintaining their reputation for being “alive,” for those who needed to get back to their first love, for those who had to decide whether they were hot or cold, Jesus promised more of himself.
That’s it? Yes, and those who are filled with the Spirit of God want that above all, so it makes sense that it would only motivate those who were already believers. After all, it is a relationship. We all want more from our spouses, our children, our friends. Love demands nothing but expects everything. We know that already and we are happy to comply. The question is whether or not we really “love” the Lord (or learning to love him and wanting to love him more).
He would “give them the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” He would “give some of the hidden manna,” and “the morning star,” which was simply himself. Love is its own reward just as evil is its own punishment.
Your reward is more of Jesus, more intimacy, more knowledge, more communion. After all, you will be more focused on him and working together with him for the redemption of mankind. It only stands to reason.
But there is also more glory in the process. As we work together, as our faith increases, as we see him transforming lives through our witness, we are also changed. We develop a new character, a new glory that we share with him.
He would reward them with a “white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” He would “write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God, and I will also write on him my new name.” This new name represents a new character, a new glory that those who follow Christ in radical discipleship and stay true no matter the cost would get.
And it is not just for individuals but for churches and communities of believers who make up this “new Jerusalem” that is in the process of “coming down from heaven” and making its presence known on earth.
So not only do we get more intimacy with Christ, but we also share in this new character that is truly glorious as we work together in ministry. But there is also one more thing to be added and that is more influence, and an even more effective witness than ever before. You will receive authority and leadership within the community of the saints to lead others into this same path of radical discipleship.
He would give them “authority” and allow them to sit on his “throne,” both of which speak to sharing in Christ’s authority, power, and purpose of spreading the gospel. We have a significant role to play and that thrills our hearts like it did for the disciples at the very beginning. He would make them “a pillar in the Temple of my God” giving them a position of leadership to support the community of believers. And they would be “dressed in white” and be “acknowledged before my Father and his angels.”
Our significant role, authority and purpose is closely connected to that of Christ. We overcome and sit down on his throne, “just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne,” Jesus said. They will “walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” They will receive authority to “shepherd” the nations “just as I have received authority from my Father.” Jesus made redemption possible, but we are his witnesses and share in the suffering and glory of building the new Jerusalem here on earth.
We not only follow in his footsteps as we “pick up our cross daily” (Luke 9:23 NIV) and follow him, suffering together for the spread of the gospel and sharing in the glorious character of God, himself, who fulfills his justice with his love, a practical expression of his heartfelt love for his people. We also follow him in his example, in the way that he walked this path of suffering and glory.
Peter tells us that “since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin” (I Peter 4:1 NIV).
He goes on to say that “to this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2: 21-23 NIV).
It isn’t enough only to endure or be patient but to bear witness. It isn’t only about suffering for the sake of the gospel but also how you suffer. To be that kind of witness, to have that kind of character of Christ does not just show up at the last minute when you need it (although God is gracious and will give you strength). Rather it is something that is forged in a daily carrying of our cross, a daily witness of the transforming work of Christ within, in the daily context of ongoing ministry. That is how you “overcome” and become “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:31 NIV) through Christ who strengthens you.
And what do you get?
More intimacy with Jesus. More glorious character like Christ. More influence over others to lead them in the path of radical discipleship. Is it even possible to “grow in Christ” without being involved in his great redemptive rescue mission? It is the ministry that is the crucible within which we grow. It is in the moments of temptation overcome that the refining fire of the Spirit is felt. Without that ministry context, spiritual growth is haphazard at best, non-existent at worst. To have the “mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16 NIV) is to have his attitude, his purpose, his priorities as our own.
Paul claims that we are “co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17b NIV). And just in case you were wondering whether Paul was excited by that prospect, he adds his own opinion as one who has had to endure persecution and suffering and ultimately death for the sake of the gospel and the name of Christ. “I consider that our present sufferings,” Paul said, “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18 NIV).
So, there you have it. The conviction and loyalty that comes from the transformation of the heart by the gospel will cause division on the one hand and the urgency and exclusiveness of the gospel itself and your participation in spreading it to those you love will cause resentment, disagreement and discord on the other. Suffering for the sake of Christ and suffering for the sake of the gospel. And this is the normal and necessary consequence of those who follow Christ as his disciples. Call it radical discipleship if you must but it is what Jesus expects from those who follow him.
But we have been saying that not all suffering is suffering for the gospel, but suffering for the gospel can become a part of all suffering. That, too, is true.
Obviously, we can suffer for many reasons. Cancer and disease strike many Christians as well as non-Christians. Car accidents can seriously hurt or kill believers as well as non-believers. We all must face death. We all must face the death of loved ones and experience suffering ourselves or in the people we love. No one is exempt. Sometimes we even suffer from our own sin, our own addictions, our own decisions, and risky behavior. Sometimes there is no one to blame but us. That is not suffering for the gospel.
On the other hand, all suffering can become a witness of the transformation within depending on how it is handled. It is not simply a question of endurance, as we have said, but the “endurance of love” that continues to love others that hurt you. You may not be suffering because you follow Christ or are spreading the gospel but just because you are vulnerable or weak or have something that they want. Or perhaps simply because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it is simply the friction of life lived together as sinful and selfish human beings living in an evil and rebellious world. Sometimes it simply doesn’t make any sense at all. But the question is how you respond.
You may not be able to control everything that happens to you but you can control how you respond. If you respond with faith in God and love towards your enemies, you are imitating Christ and you have transformed creational suffering into redemptive suffering for the gospel.
It doesn’t happen automatically. It may take confession or repentance to demonstrate that love if you were at fault. It may take forgiveness and true reconciliation to demonstrate that love if the other was at fault and even if they don’t confess and repent. It may take a kind and gentle heart. It may take courage to go back to the Huaorani Indians and continue to minister to them. It may require a faith that does not fall into resentment, bitterness or rancor. It may mean that you lose money or time.
But every kind of suffering can be transformed into a suffering for the gospel through your witness. Every kind of evil can be transformed into good through your witness.
That, too, is the message of the book of Revelations and the letters to the churches. Jesus calls us to repentance. He tells us to wake up. He exhorts us to “open the door” and let him in. He encourages us to go back to “our first love.” He expects us to stop hiding behind a “reputation for being alive.” He wants us to become useful spiritually, either hot or cold, and not to be indifferent and “lukewarm.”
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline,” (Rev. 3:19 NIV) Jesus says.
Do we believe him? Can we accept his rebuke? Can we bear his discipline? Or do we run away and hide in the bushes of our justifications and rationalizations that help us avoid radical discipleship at any cost. Whether we are like the Nicolaitans and want to collaborate for peaceful co-existence or get theological, like the prophetess of the church in Thyatira, in order to give a biblical rationale why we should try to avoid any kind of confrontation with the world.
Not that we are offensive or lacking in grace. Far from it but the gospel by its very nature and our conviction and loyalty to Jesus above all will always be interpreted as “confrontational” by the world and they will, no doubt, blame us for our intransigence while they persecute us, hurt us and generally make our lives miserable.
In fact, if Jesus feels the need to rebuke and discipline his church to get them ready for an effective witness no matter what form the persecution takes, then it must be serious indeed. If it took his death on the cross to save us, then we need to take sin and evil seriously as well.
And this is not only for the “super” spiritual or the “righteous” leaders or the “courageous” missionaries like Jim and Elizabeth Elliot. This is about Antipas, the first martyr of Asia. This is about the pilot’s son who also goes back with Elizabeth Elliot to “love” the Huaorani Indians into the kingdom of heaven. This is about you and me, believers who sit in the pew, who show up and call themselves disciples, who are the rank and file of the church and each one a “prophet, priest and king” in the eyes of Christ.
What each one of us must do is “evaluate” their hearts instead of “assume” their salvation. If you have the Spirit within, certain things will be true and certain things will come to pass. You can’t avoid it only embrace it. Now that you have the “divine eyes” of God’s perspective on your readiness for ministry, how can you ignore his call to wake up and repent. Now that you have the “divine ears” to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, how can you be deaf to the call to radical discipleship.
It isn’t about conspiracy theories. It isn’t about a worldwide cabal taking over the halls of power and leading the people astray. It isn’t about putting your faith in any given politician who will save you from these evils. It is always and only about Christ and the “intimacy” and “identification” we have with him, his mind, his purposes, his priorities. He is our Savior and sin and evil can only be transformed by him through his word and our testimony or brought into judgment by God, Himself, when he is good and ready.
What we cannot avoid is the reality that we must suffer with him in order to be co-heirs together with Christ and therefore also share in his glory, his character, his joy. Anything less than that does not deserve the name of disciple.
The Desert Warrior