The Unpopular Promise
Written by Pastor Jim Law
In recent days, many of us have followed with great interest the story of the Sudanese woman, Mariam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death. Her crime? She was found guilty of apostasy because she converted to Christianity from Islam. In addition to the death penalty, she was also sentenced to receive 100 lashes for adultery for marrying a Christian man.
Giving her story global traction has been the presence of her children with her in prison, a 21 month old boy and her daughter who was born in prison last month. Thankfully, we have received encouraging reports of an appeals process and it is expected that Mariam will be released soon.
Christians have always been comforted by the promises of God found on the pages Scripture. We treasure these promises as they strengthen faith and resolve and give to us hope to press on.
However, there are some promises that we would like to ignore. The promise of persecution is one we would like to put on the shelf, but if we would follow Jesus Christ faithfully, we are promised suffering and persecution in this life.
My ministry was inaugurated in some of the roughest sections of New Orleans. In 1989, I pastored a church in St. Bernard parish and on one particular day I was involved in neighborhood evangelism. As I was talking with a man in his front yard, I heard yelling behind me. I turned and saw an enraged man coming at me yelling obscenities and wielding a knife. He spewed hateful and profane threats and promised that he would cut me in pieces.
I had never met this man before, and I had every inclination to believe that he was committed to do what he said he was going to do! As his rant escalated, I remember him quoting to me the church father Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and you are getting ready to see some of that blood.”
This moment will always be a blur to me, but I said to him with quivering lip that I was here on orders from Jesus Christ and that there was nothing he could do that would keep me from being faithful to him. Needless to say, my conversation with the other gentlemen was interrupted. By God’s grace, all I remember was backing up slowly and walking down the street while he remained.
This was a huge moment in my Christian life that took me directly to the teaching of Jesus in the final hours with the disciples. The apostle John captures these moments in the upper room discourse of his gospel. John 13-17 takes us to a number of scenes and tender moments that rightly fall into the proverbially category of “the best of times and the worst of times.”
It was the best of times because Jesus displayed his love in special ways by washing their feet and calling them “friends.” The disciples heard in clear terms, not parables, of the hope and riches of the Father’s house and that he would be preparing a place for them.
It was also the worst of times because they learned one among them was a traitor, and if that wasn’t enough, Jesus revealed that he was leaving and they would not be going with him. Additionally, he promised that they would experience heartache, suffering, and persecution because of their allegiance to him.
The apostle Paul wasn’t in the upper room, but his statement is consistent and leaves no confusion, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12).
What are we to think of this unpopular promise? Paul wasn’t speaking hypothetically. He knew well what it was like to receive 39 lashes and what it was like to nurse the wounds after being beaten with rods. Indeed, he bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus.
Apart from the physical abuse, Paul suffered great burdens for the churches. In essence, he was told by the Corinthians, “You are ugly and you can’t preach.” I don’t care how spiritually mature you are such comments take their toll.
There is a difference between being salt and light, which is our calling, and alienating others because of our bad behavior and obtuseness. The life expectancy of a prophet was not long, and such a prophetic ministry has been given to God’s people in this world.
Often we are silent. Like the Arctic river, we are frozen over at the mouth. We allow our back problem to muffle our witness. We allow the yellow stripe of our cowardice that runs down our backs to silence our lives for Christ.
Persecution is an unpopular promise for the western church, but for many of our brothers and sisters in this world, it is the air they breathe. When persecution comes, many are not released, and they don’t walk away. They die. With resolve, they die for him who is worthy of our best.
Isaac Watts asks a number of piercing questions in his classic hymn followed by a strong resolve which should be our own:
“Am I a soldier of the cross, A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease?
While others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?
Sure I must fight, if I would reign, Increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word.