Thursday, May 19, 2011
Persecution, Power and the Gospel - Paul's Ministry Model
Last year I watched a video that documented the persecution of Pakistani Christians by Muslims. I can’t help but compare the witness of those Pakistani Christians with the western church’s aversion to suffering and it’s efforts to promote a more palatable gospel for fear of offending the audience. The contrast is startling - the American church’s quest for acceptance and favor vs. the boldness of the Pakistani in the face of hatred, hostility and death. I wonder which is more Biblical?
Listen to Paul’s perspective - “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation...” (Rom. 1:16 ESV); “...we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles...” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The Jews killed Stephen and James (Acts 7,12). Paul and Barnabas were attacked, stoned and fled for their lives in Iconium (Acts 14); Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16); caused a riot in Thessalonica and had to leave Berea when trouble makers followed them there. (Acts 17)
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus resulted in rioting by the followers of Artemis (Acts 19) and a riot followed his appearance in Jerusalem where he was arrested (Acts 21). He told the Corinthians that he was “...afflicted in every way...persecuted...struck down...” (2 Corinthians 4:8 ESV). To what end? “Through suffering, these bodies of ours constantly share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” Then he reiterates his point, “Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be obvious in our dying bodies.” His suffering for the gospel was to the benefit of others - he goes on to say, “So we live in the face of death, but it has resulted in eternal life for you” (2 Cor. 4:10-12 NLT).
What is the lesson for the American church from the early church and the persecuted Pakistanis? The power is in the gospel message, “Christ crucified” - it’s about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). It means being reconciled to the fact that we have been warned in advance that the gospel will be opposed, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you...Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:18-20 ESV)
Paul echoed Jesus’ word, “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 12:12 ESV) When Christians faithfully suffer persecution for the gospel, there is an opportunity to see something that is an enigma to the world - the supernatural life of Jesus Christ visible in the life of the believer. Therein is the power. Christ is lifted up. He becomes preeminent - not the personality, prominence, charisma, stage presence, eloquence, or intelligence of man. No need for compromise, gimmicks, enticements or any other human effort to make the message more attractive. Evidently Paul faced that temptation, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom...” but he held fast, “...but we preach Christ crucified...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22,23 ESV) Paul put it this way, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord...we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:5,7 ESV) Paul relied on the power of God not the cultural relevance of the preacher.
The blood of the martyr, not an accommodating message, will always be the seed of the church. History teaches us that the success of the gospel has never depended on the cleverness or ingenuity of man, nor taking the path of least resistance in its proclamation. Again, we can do no better than follow the Pauline example - “...since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13:3,4 ESV)
He revealed his secret to these same Corinthians, linking suffering/weakness and God’s power. As they ministered in the midst of affliction in the province of Asia, he writes, “We were crushed and completely overwhelmed, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we learned not to rely on ourselves, but on God who can raise the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8,9 NLT) What a contrast to the American church’s quest for relevance by dumbing down the gospel. The success of gospel ministry has never been determined by its acceptance or popularity any more than the notoriety, prominence, power and prestige of its preachers. The longer I preach, the more I realize that what God does is far more important than what I say as I step out of His way. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30 ESV)