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Posts Tagged ‘persecution’

In my last post, I showed that in Revelation, holding tightly to the “word of God” and the “testimony of Jesus” (or similar phrases) will possibly lead someone to death.  This was a reality for John and his readers, one they were encouraged to face with perseverance (see 13:10).

It would be wrong, however, to think of this message as lacking in hope, although it would certainly be hard to stomach.  So I want to look at the message of hope given in Revelation, lest anyone think Revelation is all bad news.  But let’s heap the grim realities a little higher, first.

Below is a chart showing the connection between faithful testimony/witness and the prospect of facing death because of it.  It’s important to know that testimony, witness and their related words come from the same Greek root.  So whereas we might not make the connection in English (or if we do, it’s purely thematic), there is a linguistic tie-in for these verses.  I’ve underlined the portion about the testimony and italicized the death/persecution references.

 

Following Jesus, the faithful witness, unto death

“Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead” (1:5; cf. 3:14)
“Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city” (2:13)
“the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9)
“when they (2 witnesses) have finished their testimony, the beast… will attack them… and kill them” (11:7)
“they triumphed…by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11)
“the dragon…went off to make war against the rest of her offspring- those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (12:17)
“the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (17:6)
“I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God” (20:4)

 

A couple things to notice.  One, Jesus is the faithful witness par excellence, who was killed for not turning his back on the truth.  And while Antipas is the only other person referred to as a “faithful witness,” the theme is seen clearly in these other references, where people are killed because they will not recant their witness.  You can’t get more faithful than being marched to death for what you believe and proclaim.

So, to repeat the point: if you remain faithful to your testimony about Jesus, there is a decent chance you will be killed for it.

But there is a message of hope in Revelation, and it shows up in places other than the final chapters.  Notice that Jesus is called the “firstborn from the dead.”  That is, he is no longer dead.  Jesus wasn’t just the faithful witness who paid the ultimate price for his faithfulness; he is the faithful witness who won the ultimate victory.  His resurrection guarantees that death does not have the final say over his life.

Nor does death have the final say over the lives of Jesus’ followers.  That is the message of hope.  Those who follow Jesus will participate in his victory over death on the last day.  All of the persecuted groups in Revelation (the souls under the altar; the 2 witnesses; the 144,000; etc.) await the day of their resurrection and the New Jerusalem.

Part of the goal of Revelation is to encourage its readers to remain faithful witnesses until the end of one’s life.  Of course, for John’s original readers and many other believers around the world being a faithful witness might cause that end to come sooner than it otherwise would.  But just as death is guaranteed (by one means or another), so is resurrection promised to those who belong to Christ.  Yes, the war waged by the dragon and the beast are real and terrible.  But it is temporary.  Resurrection- life in Christ- is eternal.  While Revelation presents a grim picture of the world, underlying the entire message is the hope of Jesus’ faithful witnesses experi

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I’ve said before that I think Richard Bauckham’s little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is the best book I’ve read on what is generally regarded as the most perplexing book in the Bible.  He packs a lot of great information into a relatively small space, offering the reader solid judgments on almost every page.

But, he suggests an odd viewpoint (in my opinion) on the reason why John was on Patmos to begin with.  While the traditional view has been that John was exiled on Patmos, Bauckham presents the possibility that John went there specifically to receive the Revelation that God was about to give him.  So, when John says he “was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” he isn’t referring to being punished for those two things at all.  And if you look only at 1:9, this stance has some merit.

But when you look at those two phrases, “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” as they are used in Revelation, it’s hard to come to this conclusion.  See below for how those phrases are used.  I’ve italicized “the word of God” and underlined “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (or something like it, all quotes from the New American Standard).

1:2 [John] who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw
1:9 I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus
6:9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained
12:11 “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.
12:17 So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
19:10 Then I fell at his feet to worship him. But [the angle] he said to me, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
20:4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

The first instance is still in the introduction of the book, so we don’t see it expounded just yet.  It does, however, set the stage for what is to come.  You’ll see here that almost every instance of these phrases give reason for suffering or are connected to it.  The exception is 19:10, when the angel is speaking to John.

So, we see the “souls under the altar” in 6:9 had been slain because of “the word of God” and their testimony, and the dragon in chapter 12 wages war on those who maintain their testimony of Jesus, and those in chapter 20 were beheaded because of their testimony.  John, in his self-introduction in 1:9, tells his readers he is their “brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation.”  Given the usage of these two phrases in the rest of the book, I find it hard to see this as referring to anything other than John being exiled or imprisoned on Patmos.

Or let’s look at this from a different perspective, of John the pastor and his readers.  Put yourself in the place of his readers (if possible).  You’re facing persecution for your faith, or at least strongly tempted to compromise by all the Empire has to offer (for these two themes, see here).  In reading/hearing Revelation, you’re given a realistic portrayal of what will happen to those who cling to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  You understand that those two things (which aren’t really two separate ideas) will quite possibly lead you to your death.

Then you go back and see at the beginning that John uses those two phrases of himself, who is your apostolic authority and Spirit-empowered prophet.  But for him, maintaining the word of God and the testimony of Jesus leads him not to death, but to a Mediterranean island that was not, contrary to popular opinion, a backwater deserted Gilligan’s island, but a populated, secure destination.

And he has the right to call himself a “fellow partaker in the tribulation?”  It would seem to me to be a pastoral blunder on John’s part, one I have trouble believing he’d make.

The traditional view, that John was exiled on Patmos, is best supported by the rest of the book.  When people hold tightly to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus in Revelation, they are not rewarded with tropical vacations or personal retreats.  They run the risk of losing their very lives.  Only the densest of John’s original audience could have come away from this book with a different understanding, and John, if he truly was exiled, knew it was a strong possibility for himself.

However, that doesn’t mean that despair wins in Revelation.  The hope of those who faithfully testify to Jesus Christ will be the subject of my next post.

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Scattered Thoughts on Acts: Part 1

I recently taught a short class on the book of Acts, something I rarely teach on.  I thought I would post some random thoughts that popped into my head, some (all?) of which will probably only interest me.

Herod, Agrippa, or Herod Agrippa

One of the potentially confusing aspects of the gospels and Acts is the use of “Herod,” which refers to 3 different men (unless I’m missing one).  The first is Herod the Great, who was alive when Jesus was born, but died soon after (see Matthew 2, where one of his sons, Archelaus, is also mentioned).  His son, Herod Antipas, is mentioned in the gospels as the one who had John the Baptist killed, as well as making an appearance in Jesus’ trial (Luke 23).  Then there’s Herod Agrippa, known as Agrippa I in non-biblical sources (“Agrippa the Great” in Josephus), who was responsible for the death of James, the brother of John and Son of Zebedee, and intended to have Peter killed as well.  He ultimately was stricken down (Acts 12).  All three of these men are referred to simply as “Herod” or “King Herod” in the Bible.

What I didn’t know was that the King Agrippa of Acts 25-26 is Agrippa II, the son of Agrippa I, the last in the line of the Herodian dynasty.  I wonder why Luke doesn’t simply refer to him as “Herod” like the rest of them.  The reason I find it interesting is that it seems the choice of the biblical writers to call the first 3 guys “Herod” was intentional and perhaps idiosyncratic, since extra-biblical sources generally refer to them using more distinct terminology.  So why wasn’t Agrippa II given the (dubious) honor of being called “Herod” like the rest of them?

Time & Dates

The narrative books of the Bible generally have an awkward way of portraying time elapsed.  That is, they will sometimes breeze over long stretches of time in a short amount of space, then dedicate a prolonged portion of the narrative to a shorter span of time.  I don’t have a problem with this, of course, because the authors have certain people and events they want to highlight and others they don’t.  It’s the author’s (or, you know… God’s) call.

Acts is no different.  The book as a whole covers nearly 30 years of history, ending around 62AD, but starting either 30AD or 33AD, depending on when you date Christ’s death & resurrection.  The first 9 chapters or so take up only 3 years or so (either 33 or 36).  Chapters 10-20 get us up to 58AD, give or take a little.  Then the final 8 chapters cover only a 4 year span. 

Persecution

It’s interesting to note that persecution in the book of Acts helps propel the spread of the gospel.  It’s after Stephen’s death that many were scattered and the gospel is spread outside of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria (8:1).  Even Paul’s mission to Rome (representing the “uttermost parts”) is accomplished by his arrest and trial in Jerusalem and Caeserea.  What strikes me about all this is that the assumption held by the early Christians was that you share the gospel wherever you go.  Circumstances were secondary influencers (if they influenced decisions at all). 

We see this, of course, in Paul’s letters, too.  In Philippians, Paul mentions that the whole praetorium guard has heard the gospel (Philippians 1:13).  Why?  Because jail is simply a new church planting ground.  In the same way, Phillip didn’t hide or sulk when he had to escape Jerusalem in Acts 8.  He went with the plan to bring the gospel wherever he went- no matter the circumstances.

The Martyrdom of Stephen

I jotted down some quick notes on Stephen’s trial and death, noting the similarities to Jesus’ trial and death.  Here’s a quick list I came up with, with references in Acts and Jesus’ life:

  • His opponents couldn’t stand up to his wisdom (6:10; Luke 20:26, 40- see also Luke 12:11-12, 21:15)
  • Trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin (6:12; Luke 22:66-71)
  • They produced false witnesses to testify against him (6:11-14; Mark 14:55-59)
  • Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses, the Temple, the Law and God (6:11-14, Matthew 26:57-65 & other places)
  • Stephen accuses the people of not truly following the Law, killing the prophets, etc (7:51-53; Matthew 21:33-46, 23:29-36)
  • “Son of Man at the right hand of the Father” echoes Jesus’ words (7:55-56; Luke 22:69)
  • Stephen gives up his spirit (7:59; Luke 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God not to hold their sin against them (7:60; Luke 23:34)

Anything I missed?

It should be no surprise that those who choose to follow Jesus really will have to follow Him (Luke 9:23).

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Most of us understand that the book of Revelation predicts and expects persecution for its readers.  The assumption is that John’s readers were under the constant threat of death for their testimony of Jesus Christ.  Basically, this viewpoint goes something like this: if you don’t worship the emperor, you will be killed.

Ian Boxall, in his commentary on Revelation, takes a slightly different route.  He doesn’t deny that there is some persecution going on, but he sees it strictly as local and not really involving Roman authorities.  “The internal evidence of the messages to the seven congregations (Revelation 2-3) suggests a rather mixed picture.  …actual or impending hostility is referred to for some (e.g. 2:9, 13; 3:9)… there is no clear indication that suffering is at the hands of Roman authorities, or involves formal legal precedings” (p12).

Instead, Boxall, and many others, note that the call not to compromise is just as strong in Revelation.  Within the messages to the seven churches, we see condemnations of “Balaam” and “Jezebel”- OT figures who caused God’s people to stray.  In other words, John’s message is for them not to fall into the trap that these false teachers are laying.

This, of course, has implications for persecution:  “If Revelation is not primarily written to comfort the persecuted, it nevertheless represents a rallying cry to Christians to place themselves in a position in which they might find themselves being persecuted” (p13, Boxall).  If John’s readers are able not to stray, they should expect persecution.

I appreciate Boxall’s attempt to balance, though I have to wonder if he’s overstated his case.  I’m not sure what the Beast of chapter 13 represents if not the powerful oppressor standing against God’s people- making war and conquering them, according to 13:7.  Even the harlot of chapter 17, the seductive power of the comfort the Roman Empire provides, drinks the blood of the saints (17:6). And when Rome is judged, she is judged “with the judgment she imposed on you [the saints]” (18:20).

But the connection with bearing testimony for God and the threat of death is undeniable in Revelation.  Jesus himself is the faithful witness who was put to death (1:5).  Keeping in mind that “testimony” and “witness” are from the same root in Greek, we see how Jesus sets the stage for God’s people in this way.  Read 2:13, 6:9, 11:7, 12:11, 12:17, 17:6 and 20:4- all of them combine the notions of faithful and enduring testimony and the reality of death for that testimony.

John’s original readers dealt with the reality that they were called to compromise their testimony (side note: I’ve noticed that we always word it “compromise our faith,” which indicates to me that we’ve internalized something that was intended to be a public evidence, but that’s another post for another day).  For many, if they did not denounce their exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ, they could lose work, be imprisoned or end up in a colosseum face-to-face with a lion.

But they were also tempted to compromise by enjoying the pleasures that Rome offered- this is especially strong in chapters 17-18.  Why “rock the boat” and cause problems?  Why not keep your mouth shut and enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life like everyone else in the Roman Empire?  When she is destroyed, “the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury… will weep and mourn over her” (18:9).  Would John’s readers be among those who mourn her destruction and the comfort that came with her, or would they rejoice in God’s judgment of her wickedness (18:20)?

So both of these realities- persecution and compromise- are undeniably present in Revelation; Boxall states their connection well.  If one chooses not to compromise, they may face brutal persecution.  John is calling his readers to remain faithful in their witness, even if it means death, in the face of these twin realities.

Does this have anything to do with us?  I think it does.  I mentioned this in teaching the other night, and I keep coming back to it.  I have to wonder if we (by “we” I mean American Christians, since that’s where the vast majority of my experience comes in) focus on the persecution apparent in Revelation because it enables us not to face the compromising aspect of Revelation.  The fact is that we are inundated with temptations to compromise in our culture.  We live in an affluent society where you can pretty much have what you want when you want it. We tend not to notice these temptations (do we not have ears to hear and eyes to see?).

There’s a certain wicked wisdom in using pleasurable temptation rather than persecution to make God’s people ineffective.  It is a powerful tool.  The truth is that you can put a gun to my head and threaten to take my life if I don’t deny Jesus, and I will stand firm, I’m sure of it.  But if you parade by me, day after day after day, the siren call of comfort- power, acceptance, money, home, sex, cars, etc- I am much more likely to compromise my witness.

Perhaps the American church isn’t facing the beast, but we are facing the harlot.  The question remains, will we be a faithful witness?  May we hear the message of Revelation and overcome.

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As promised in part I, here are some further reflections on suffering, with a specific eye to some categories.  After having a weekend to think this post over, the word “categories” might overstate my true intentions.  I really have a distinction in mind, since categorically speaking, all suffering is the result of sin, be it mine, yours, or Adam and Eve’s.  One may pigeon-hole the various kinds of suffering that fall under this umbrella any number of ways, but I’m mostly interested in distinctions among them.

The main distinction I wanted to point out in this post was what I might call ordinary suffering and faith-suffering.  Put differently, we could say that all people suffer to some degree; it is the way of our fallen world.  There is also suffering that is a direct result of one’s choice to followed Jesus.  The promised persecution and self-denial that Christianity entails is a special kind of suffering, and it seems to me that is what is most often in view when the NT epistles interact with suffering.   The best known examples are found in James 1 and Hebrews 12.

Here, the suffering is specific to the cost of being a Christian, and the purpose is framed in terms of strengthening one’s faith.  Here again we have an important consideration when praying amidst suffering, which I made in part I: our first priority is for God’s glory.  We oughtn’t be so hasty, then, praying that the persecution of Christians in China should stop.  Rather, like Paul in 2 Thessalonians, our prayer is that those persecuted stand firm, and God is glorified.

This is not meant to even hint that our hearts shouldn’t break for those who suffer for the name or Jesus, or that we have no desire be for their peace and well-being.  My point is that there is a greater good, nay, the greatest good, and that is for God to be glorified, and His Word faithfully proclaimed.  Should we pray for religious persecution to end in China?  Absolutely!  It’s evil and we therefore resist it and wish for its demise.  But, said demise shouldn’t be the only thing for which we pray.

One other very important aspect of suffering worth bringing to the fore is that  properly understood, it can point us to God.  I believe that instinctively, all humankind recognizes that suffering is not the way it’s supposed to be.  Pain is painful because the body is telling us that something is wrong.  Your head shouldn’t hurt like this, your arm oughtn’t be broken.  Something is not the way it’s supposed to be, and demands attention.  The same can be said for emotional suffering.  It hurts to be lied to, to lose somebody special, to be the object of fun, because things aren’t meant to be that way.  Humankind naturally expects good.  Even the liar feels betrayed when s/he is the victim of a lie.  The “bad” news that occupies the bulk of reporting is news because evil and suffering are intrinsically curious; they are out of the ordinary.  “Father Loves His Son” is not a headline; that’s normal.  “Father Abuses His Son” is a headline, because it’s abnormal.

The fact that there is so much suffering in the world points to the fact that something is fundamentally wrong, and humankind’s best efforts have yet to fix it.  For as much as our technical prowess has relieved countless millions from pain, it has equally inflicted pain upon countless more.  Enter the omnipotent, omni-loving God who since the introduction of suffering has stopped at nothing, (sending His Son to be tortured to death inclusive), to restore things to the way they should be.

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