The Gift of Suffering: The Purpose and Pleasure of God in Persecution

Bethlehem 2016 Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders | Minneapolis

Well, if I had to rename my topic, I would title it now, “The Pleasure of God in Persecution.” It’s not an easy topic to talk about. It costs you something. It cost me something in preparation. It’s going to cost us something to hear about and think about. It’s costly. It’s one of those things that doesn’t leave you with a spiritual swagger, but a spiritual limp, because what you see in this topic is that what’s wrong with the church for us to even have to hear think it not strange.

We say that because we don’t really know Jesus if we think that’s strange, because this message about persecution is not a conference on suffering where we want to talk about suffering because we want to make much of suffering. It’s about Jesus and he is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. And if we know him well, we’ll hear much like C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, he’s not safe. He’s good, but he’s not safe and he’s not tame.

So, we need to hear right at the outset: think it not strange and think him not safe. But this is good. This is good to talk about. Because he’s not safe, but good, we can say goodbye to earthly comforts and illusions of earthly security and safety. It’s good to remember right at the outset that what this will cost us is everything. Cost us our control. Why do we think that we can control Christ when we follow him? He’s in control. And because he’s not safe, but good, he doesn’t lead us in safe paths because it’s for his sake. Jesus is the point of persecution. We don’t seek out suffering for the sake of suffering because we want to make much of suffering. Persecution is not the point. It’s so not the point, but it is a pointer to the glory of Christ given for the sake of Christ.

The Giftness of Faith and Persecution

Let’s try to feel for a moment the giftness of persecution. Think it not strange, rather think it gift. Paul says in Philippians 1:29–30,

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

The word granted is especially pregnant with the concept of gift. It has been graciously given as a gift from God, not only for you to believe, but to suffer. And he encapsulates this by saying, “Don’t miss it. It’s for the sake of Christ that you’ve been granted this gift. And it’s for the sake of Christ that you’ve been granted this gift, not only of believing, but suffering.” And we read that and it’s a little bit like a pill, a hard pill to swallow, that gives a little bit of a gag reflex.

Because it’s very easy at first glance, first blush, for us to look at this text and say, “Well, I can understand saving faith is a gift. I understand that. That’s something that when we’re given faith and eternal life and the ability to lay hold of Christ, yeah, we’ll thank him for that. We’ll hug that real close. That feels like a real gift.” But then you see not only to believe but to suffer? That feels more like a gag gift, feels more like a white elephant gift. “What? Is this a real gift? Is this something that you’re really pleased to give us?”

And let’s feel the problem of that for a moment, shall we? What father here would give a gift like that to your children? What father would be excited about the giftness of this? What father would say to their little child, “I got a great gift for you today. I arranged a play date in the backyard with a pack of wolves”? Jesus says that. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16).

And we ask, “Why do I got to be the sheep? It’s not a fair fight. Now sending us out as Sherman tanks to smash the wolves. Why can’t we be the wolves? And they, God’s enemies, be the sheep for the slaughter? Why? Why do you give that? And why is it actually a gift?” So, here’s my thesis. You can’t think of persecution in and of itself as a gift. What this verse says is that faith and persecution together are a package gift. That’s what he’s saying. It’s been granted to you not only to believe but also to suffer for his sake.

So what is the gift, the package gift, of faith and persecution? Why is it not a gag gift, but a real gift, a precious gift? Here’s a thesis. It’s a precious gift because it’s a parable, together, pointing to something of infinite preciousness, namely the death and resurrection of Christ. That’s what faith and persecution together form this parable for the sake of Christ to make him shine, to make him known. What happens always in the darkness is when the flame of saving faith is burning, the darkness wants to douse it, wants to put it out, wants to kill it. And what happens in that moment when saving faith is flaring up and the opposition is doing everything that they can to kill it and then they can’t?

That’s resurrection power. That’s what that is. It’s not the intensity of our willpower that keeps us believing. It is the death and resurrection of Christ. What happens when these all-attempts come at you to kill your faith and your faith doesn’t stay in the ground, but rises up? What happens before everyone is that they see when your faith can’t be stomped out, they see that the object of your faith can’t be stopped.

He’s risen and reigning. That’s what it says. And it’s a miracle. And that’s why Christ shines. Adrian Rogers said, “We have no reason, no right to be believed if we can be explained.” This can’t be explained apart from the death and resurrection of Christ. That’s what Paul’s saying. And therefore, this gift puts the death and resurrection of Christ on display for the world to see, and for the Christian to take heart when their faith in the deepest possible pain won’t die, keeps rising up.

Death and Resurrection on Display Through the Cracks

So what I want to do is I want to show that this is the case. One of the clearest places where Paul makes this case and uses this parallel phrase for the sake of Christ is in 2 Corinthians 4. Let me just read 2 Corinthians 4:10 first. Who are we? What’s the story that we’re living? “We are always,” what a word, “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” That your story? That’s what’s always happening, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus. Why?

So that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10–11)

God is giving the gift of saving faith and persecution. He’s always giving us over to death so that the life of Jesus would shine with resurrection power. This is our story. And that’s why Paul can say, backing up to 1 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure” — the gospel, the glory of God in the face of Christ. We have in our hearts, we have this treasure in jars of clay, fragile earthenware jars, cracked pots “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” If we were perfect pots, it would conceal the treasure. The cracks are what reveal the power is not us. It’s coming from somewhere else.

Therefore, it’s so encouraging to realize, “Well, wait a minute, if the power’s not from us, then the pressure’s not on us. We just keep walking in obedience to Christ and he keeps shining by upholding our faith, no matter what you go through, knowing that he’s there.” In what follows, he gives this picture of what we are given over to death, what that looks like in our weakness, but then what resurrection power looks like.

Second Corinthians 4:8, “We are afflicted in every way” — there’s weakness — “but not crushed.” There’s resurrection power. “We are perplexed” — weakness — “but not driven to despair.” Resurrection power. “We are persecuted” — weakness, death of Christ — “but not forsaken.” Resurrection power. “We’re struck down” — weakness — “but not destroyed.” Resurrection power.

All of those as a package are there so that death and resurrection, God’s greatest story, would be your story, would be what you live. And he’s pleased with that. Does that make sense? He’s pleased with that. And therefore, the Christian has, as their very birthright, entrance into God’s story, to live it out, to follow in his steps.

The Bible’s Plot Twists

I think one of the reasons why we have a hard time with this is it’s easy to miss the big plot twist in the Bible sometimes. As you’re reading along, you forget. “Why are we so at home in America?” It’s because we’re not at home in the Bible. We’re not standing on the US Constitution as citizens of heaven. We got a different Constitution and we should be at home in this word telling us what to expect, telling us where we are, what time is it, what story are we living.

The Promised Land Plot Twist

Here’s a little bit of a plot twist. When you follow the story of God’s people, you remember the way that God saved the people of Israel. They were overpowered, persecuted, enslaved to a more powerful nation. But God persecuted the Egyptians with powerful plagues so that the Egyptians were persecuted and overpowered. And the children of Israel were spared from that in the land of Goshen.

That’s what it looked like for God loving the children of Israel. But God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he could fully put on display his glory and make his name known through ten plagues showing his power over the false gods of Egypt. Then after Pharaoh finally consented to let God’s people go, he changed his mind and he pursued them. And the Israelites were going to be destroyed by the superior power of Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen. But then Moses speaks up in Exodus 14:13. Moses said to the people,

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. (Exodus 4:13–14)

And God did. He parted the waters. The children from Israel go over on sandals on dry land. And then the Egyptians try to pursue, the waters come crashing back and God’s people are spared, God’s enemies are killed. That looks like the storyline. That looks like the way God cares for his children, not by letting them be killed, but by killing their enemies. But this salvation was external. It wasn’t internal. It didn’t change the hearts of the Israelites at all.

In fact, they were still a hardhearted, stiff-neck, rebellious, disobedient people. Moses kept telling them that over and over — a message of self-esteem: stiff-neck, hardhearted, rebellious, disobedient. They refused to trust God that he would fight for them again in the promised land like they’d just seen him fight for them. They refused to enter. God’s swore in his anger that they wouldn’t enter his rest in the book of Numbers as a gruesome fulfillment numbering all of those rebels at the beginning and fulfilling it at the end, numbering them. They’re all dead.

God kept his gruesome word. They died outside of the promised land. Moses died outside of the promised land, but before he did, he warned a new generation of Israelites about to enter the promised land. Think about the pep talk, like Braveheart, “Freedom.” No, this is what he says. Here’s the pep talk. “The Lord’s not giving you a heart to obey him. You’re a stiff-necked and rebellious people.” He gave a stunning prophecy. He says, “You have been disobedient and rebellious ever since I knew you and now much more in my absence, at my death. You’re going to be even more disobedient than the generation that preceded you.”

In Deuteronomy 32:5, he went so far as to say they were no longer God’s children, but were a crooked and perverse generation, blemished. In both Joshua and Judges, you see the same thing emerge where God shows his favor upon his people by defeating the enemies, killing them with the power of the sword. And when God was displeased with his people, he allowed them to be persecuted and oppressed. He was displeased with their disobedience. And therefore, they were persecuted and overpowered by other nations.

The Messiah Plot Twist

We’re not talking about the pleasure of God in persecution here, but the displeasure of God in their persecution. And he would raise up a military deliverer who would then show God’s power by wiping out, defeating these enemies with the power of the sword. And so it’s no surprise that many people looked for the Messiah to be like that, that kind of deliverer, that kind of Savior. It’s not surprising, is it, when Jesus blasted two of his disciples for failing to see what was really there in the Bible?

He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27)

His message to them was very clear that day. “Why are you surprised that the Messiah should suffer? Can’t you read? Hasn’t this been clear? Hasn’t it been plain? Have you not been reading this book?” Have they not read Isaiah 53 and the suffering servant?

Why do they find it so strange, so surprising? It’s easy for us to look at them and say, “Yeah, they should have seen it, so clear in Isaiah 53.” But we are in an even different position, much worse for our Savior on that day to say, “Why are you so surprised by my suffering?” And Jesus has to come to us today and say, “Why are you so surprised by your suffering? Didn’t I tell you? Wasn’t it clear? It’s in red letters in some of your Bibles. You can’t see that?” We’re even talking about Isaiah 53 prophecy. “Who’s this is? Is he the Lord’s servant? Who is that? No.”

Is he saying it in red letters? You will be persecuted. A disciple is not above his master if they maligned the head of the household calling him Beelzebub. How much more the disciples, the followers? He says it so clearly. Matthew 10:22, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Matthew 10:24–25, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.”

Maybe what’s really surprising is that we’re surprised. And maybe the reason we’re so surprised is that we foolishly expect to be treated better than Jesus.

And we can’t say, “It’s enough for me to be like my master. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.” What do we think, “Follow in his steps,” means when you look at the feet with the nail pierced through them? We expect, don’t we, a different kind of life, an upside-down kingdom where the king gets killed and persecuted and maligned. That we’re following him, and he’s not safe. He calls us to go with him and we’re surprised that we would be maligned or afflicted or persecuted or have even the smallest part of what he endured. Do we want to be like him or not?

Where do we get our expectations? Do we get our expectations from our experience and the anomaly of America? Do we get our expectations from our experience? Or from every word that comes from the mouth of the living God? Is that what defines our experience? We do this thing with experience and disappointment where the disappointment is the line, the measurement between what you expect and what you get.

If your expectations are way up here and what you get experientially is right here, this is called disappointment. And so it really matters that you would be at home in the Bible to know what to expect. What should I expect? Jesus is coming. Not what I think I deserve, but what should I expect? Why would we think we’d be treated better than Jesus? That we’re somehow above him, his experience?

Paul said it as plainly as it can be said. Second Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” John Newton said, “Half of our trials are owing to the fact that we don’t think there should be trials, and we’re surprised by them.” That becomes a trial, the surprise. So don’t be surprised. Don’t think it’s strange. Think it gift.

Philippian Plot Points

I want to feel this plot twist a little bit with you. I want to feel the plot points in the story by just looking at two passages from Philippians, that thesis statement, Philippians 1:27–30, where we got Philippians 2:29. It’s been given to you, graciously granted, not only to believe for his sake, but to suffer. I want to look at that one, and then the second passage in Philippians 2:12–18, and let’s just have our expectations be set by being at home in this Bible.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27–28)

Citizenship in Heaven vs. Earthly Citizenship

Do you see the plot twist here? Even here? What he says in Philippians 1:27 is he says literally, “Only behave as citizens worthy of the gospel.” Politeuomai — that is a rare word. It only occurs one other time in the New Testament. And the body of Philippians starts with that word citizens of heaven, and it ends with the noun form in Philippians 3:20: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

We have the plot right in front of us that it is citizens of heaven engaged in a struggle with the citizens of earth, what revelation calls the earth dwellers. And in this struggle, and it’s there, and you’re being given over to suffer as part of your faith, what should we do? Should we stand firm and don’t be afraid and see the salvation of our God and watch our opponents be destroyed by the waters? No, it’s a reversal. Moses said, “Fear not. Stand firm. See the salvation of the Lord.” Paul says, “Stand firm. Don’t be afraid. It’s a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation. And that’s from God.”

And so right there, in these two passages, you have exact words connecting those two, salvation and that from God, and then you have four shared concepts coming together, standing firm, not fearing, salvation from God, destruction of enemies. But it looks different, doesn’t it? Now we’re the ones that go through the flood, but we’re not drowned. Can you imagine that? If we’re there at the exodus, people look like they’re winning, they’re going over on dry ground, looks like they’re getting off scot-free, Egyptians follow. What if the waves came over them and they didn’t drown, just got up?

Be resurrection power. And so Paul says, “What your opponents discover is that when they do everything to murder your faith and they can’t, they know they’re going to lose. They know that they’re actually fighting God and can’t win.” A church that would rather die than disown Christ is indestructible. They find out, what are we going to do? Kill them? That’s what they’re saying is their victory. And so when they do everything they can to kill faith and it keeps rising from the dead, it’s a sign to them of the Christian salvation and God’s destruction of them.

He fights for his new covenant people by raising their faith from the dead every day, all the oppression, all the affliction. That’s the first plot point I want to show. I want to show six more now in Philippians 2:12–18.

He continues the discussion and you can see it because he says in Philippians 2:12, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence.” See what he’s doing? He’s connecting the discussion that he had in Philippians 1:27: “Whether I come and see you or am absent.”

Come and see you. Philippians 2:12, “In my presence but much more in my absence.” He’s coming back to that discussion. Then he goes back to the exodus. He goes back to the difference between the old covenant people of God and the new covenant people of God, the difference in the story that we’re living between them and us.

Reversal of Expectations

Second plot point: notice the reversal of Deuteronomy 31:27 in Philippians 2:12. Remember what Moses said to those disobedient Israelites?

I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! (Deuteronomy 31:27)

“I’m the only one that’s been kind of restraining this. And when I’m gone, your rebellion is going to break loose at the seams.” Paul says the opposite. “As you have always obeyed, so now not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence.” The opposite of the people of Israel. That’s a miracle. I don’t know about you, but my kids are not more obedient in my absence than in my presence.

Here he’s saying, “You don’t need me to hold all of this together. There’s a risen Jesus on your side. And he’s going to make sure that as you’ve always obeyed, even in the flood, even in the fire, even in the affliction, even in my absence, he’s going to be there and you’re going to be more obedient. There’s going to be more power at work in you because Jesus is risen. He’s alive.” It’s a sign showing resurrection power. Or third sign, look at the relationship here between fear and trembling and what salvation is. Paul can say in Philippians 2:12, “As you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence.”

Fear and Trembling

Work out your salvation, your own salvation, with fear and trembling. What’s that? What’s the relationship? In Exodus 14, when God saved his people by destroying the Egyptians, there was these same two words, fear and trembling, but it wasn’t the Israelites who had it. Exodus 15 says the nations, the surrounding nations, when they heard that, were gripped with fear and trembling. It was never experienced by Israel. It was always on the outside. Paul’s saying now, “Part of your salvation, what’s happened in the new covenant is that now your fear and trembling is on the inside. God has done a work. He’s internalized this.” What you have is the fear of the Lord from the inside so that you don’t fear anything else. Fear and trembling is now in the heart. And he makes it so plain when he says that God does it in you.

See that in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Well, so here’s the fourth plot point. When you think about fear and trembling, salvation, what are you talking about? What is this weird picture? It’s the new covenant. Where else do you have the fear, that is God’s, put within us? That’s God’s good pleasure or rejoicing. It’s the new covenant:

I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:40–41)

Why do Christians not die? Our faith doesn’t die when affliction comes, is because God says, “I’m not leaving you here. Don’t make the wrong conclusion. Don’t think that these circumstances that are around you are saying that I’m not here.” The secret of joy, Elisabeth Elliot says, is not me in a different set of circumstances, is Christ in me. That’s the hope of glory. He hasn’t left me. And the proof is that I don’t turn away from him, even when everyone turns away from me.

I don’t need the applause of other people. I don’t need the pats on the back. I’ve got him. And this is a great opportunity in America right now for us to put this on display, by the way, because we live in a country where people are seemingly becoming more and more emotionally fragile. Have you noticed this? The kind of things that has to happen for people to feel safe and secure, like on a plane. You know how many different kinds of support animals people now bring on the plane? I just saw this. Actually, this is true. I’m not making this up.

There’s someone that brought a support turkey on the plane with them and had papers to authorize and approve it. A support turkey. I’m not trying to mock people’s pain. Actually, I’m trying to mock the support turkey, but not people’s pain. They’re so fragile, so worried, they can’t even get on a plane without bringing a turkey. And the world says, “Look at what Christians can go through only with Jesus. Never leaving them, never forsaking them.” The death and resurrection of Jesus will stand out.

Grumbling vs. Shining Obedience

Fifth plot point here: notice the reversal of the church and the old covenant Israel in verse 14. “Do all things without grumbling.” People of Israel in the wilderness were characterized by what? By grumbling (Exodus 16:7–9; 12; Numbers 17:20, 25). They did everything with grumbling.

And Paul says, “No, the church is different. Church is to do all things without grumbling.” If you believe Philippians 2:12–13 that God’s at work in you and what he’s working in you, he’s doing it with a bright, beaming smile. His good pleasure. If the testimony that we’re giving is that God is sovereign over all things, our God is in the heavens, he does whatever he pleases, and what he’s working in me is his good pleasure, we contradict it when what comes out is grumbling.

Nothing shines at that point. Let your light shine before people in such a way that they see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. No one ever asked a Christian the reason for the hope that’s in them when all they heard coming out of them was whining and grumbling and anger. “Look what they’ve done to our America.”

Children of God vs. Crooked Generation

Sixth plot point, notice the direct reversal between God’s children shining like stars and the old covenant Israel being part of the black backdrop. Direct reversal. Deuteronomy 32:5, “They have dealt corruptly with him. They are no longer his children because they are blemished. They are a crooked and twisted generation.” Paul shows the reversal by reversing the quote, Philippians 2:15, “That you may be blameless and innocent children of God.” “They’re no longer his children.” “You are children of God without blemish.” “They are blemished in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.”

They are the crooked and twisted generation. And so what he’s saying is that the church living out its story, following in the steps of Jesus, will look very different than it looked for old covenant Israel. They’re not grumbling. They’re not whining. They’re not complaining because they know God is pleased with what He’s doing and their light is shining. Now what does that mean? Their light is shining. They shine like stars. He’s quoting from Daniel 12:2.

It’s the only place in the Bible you get this exact expression. “Lights in the world are shine like stars.” Daniel 12:3 and Philippians 2:15 are the only places you have this phrase, “Shine as stars.” Daniel 12 declares what will happen in the latter days is that those whose names are written in the book of life, Daniel 12:1, the dead will be raised. Some will enjoy everlasting life. Others will go to everlasting contempt. And those who shine like stars, in Daniel 12:3, are the ones who, in Daniel 12:1, are written in the book of life and they’re raised up. And Paul can say, “Even right now, you are raised.” This is Ephesians chapter 2. “Even now already. Not yet.” There’s a day coming when there’s going to be resurrected bodies, new heavens and new earth. That’s going to happen.

But he says, “Even now, that’s true. You’re already raised up. You’re already seated with Christ in the heavenly places,” which is why, in 1 Peter chapter 1, he can say, “You are rejoicing with the joy inexpressible and literally having been glorified. You have a joy right now that’s not earthly. It’s heavenly and it’s a glorified joy, meaning you have a foretaste of glory now. Heaven’s in you before you’re in heaven.”

It’s not just as Spurgeon said, “A little bit of faith that can bring your soul to heaven someday.” No, it’s the faith that brings heaven to your soul today, so that you don’t need all of the earthly comforts. People say, “Why are you rejoicing in those circumstances that don’t look pleasant at all?” It’s because Christ has risen, and so am I. How are you going to explain that? People aren’t going to ask unless they cannot explain what they see. And that’s the joy that he’s talking about.

Paul as a Model

Then the seventh plot point here in Philippians 2, it’s an odd phrase. Paul shows that he’s a model of this. He’s not grumbling, even if he’s being poured out as a sacrifice, a sacrificial offering on their faith. He says, “He rejoices,” verse 16, “That in the day of Christ, I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” That’s the exact phrase we get in Isaiah 49:4 of the servant of the Lord, who does not labor in vain. And Exodus or Isaiah 53:12, the servant is poured out, same word we get for Paul saying, “I’m being poured out as an offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith.” What Paul is saying is, “Even if this is happening, even if I’m going to be totally poured out and die, I’m rejoicing. And I’m asking you to rejoice with me.”

What’s he saying? “I’m just following in the steps of the servant of the Lord. I’m living out his story. I’m following in his steps. What other story do you expect that I’d be leading as I follow Christ? So I ask you to rejoice with me.” If all of that’s true, then the question is, “Okay, so what? How do we actually live this out? How is this going to be made clear before all of the watching world?” Here’s the word of our testimony that should stand out so clearly: Jesus is alive. That’s what should stand out in a world that’s kind of like Night at the Museum where Jesus is a wax figure from history, and people study him in books. And so this lady’s doing her doctoral dissertation on Sacagawea, and she’s trying to find out stuff about him, but meanwhile, the night guard really knows her. And he doesn’t talk about her bookishly.

He talks about her like, “Oh, I can introduce you. I can introduce you to Sacagawea.” That the Christian has this direct firsthand, “Oh, I can introduce you to him. He’s not a boring, dry, dusty book from history. I just spoke with him this morning. He’s alive.” There’s a directness about that. And so what needs to happen is the exact opposite of what the people did in Ephesus where people heard Paul preaching, and they said, “Oh, well, let’s go out and do that. I adjure you by the Jesus that Paul preaches.” And you know what happened there. Demons beat him up.

Firsthand Witness vs. Secondhand Witness

And I really learned a lesson on that point about the difference between a firsthand witness and a secondhand witness. I can remember I was at a ski slope, and we were going to be going up, and my friend was next to me. And suddenly, just started stopping like this. And my friend just hit me on the arm and said, “Hey, did you see that?”

“No. What?” “Some guy just came over and just punched the guy that was running the ski lift.” Was like, “Did you see it?” “No way.” “Whoa. It was crazy.” We forgot about it and we’re doing our skiing and we were going down the slope. And I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, there’s a spot right there in the middle that doesn’t have any snow. But maybe if I just get going fast enough, I can go from this side of the snow to that side of the snow and keep going.” This was my first time skiing. I need to tell you that?

I’m speeding down, get to that point. And of course, my skis stop and I don’t, just keep rolling and hit a tree and just in agony. And my friend’s laughing at me. The next time down, I got him back. I said, “Hey, let’s race to the bottom.” I’d noticed there’s a large slush pile at the bottom. And he hadn’t learned to stop yet. Skiing, what do they do? They tell you to stop like this. Really? When you’re going fast, that’s the way you want to stop? You don’t do this thing? He said, “No, stop like that.” He’s still stopping like that. We get going down fast down the hill, and I stop much before it. He can’t stop, face plants right in the cold water. And now I’m laughing at him. I wasn’t a Christian yet.

And we go into the little — I don’t know what you call it — this ski club place there. There’s a cop there saying, “Hey, come with us.” We’re like, “Is there some law against being stupid? What did we do?” He takes us back and the cop says, “We think you may have witnessed an assault. You were the first ones here. Did you see anything?” My friend totally chickens out, says, “No, I didn’t see anything.” I’m like, “What?” And he saw a look on my face, and he said, “Did you see anything?” I hadn’t, but I remember what my friend said. I had enough of a guilty conscience that I tried to make it up for him and said, “Yeah, I saw it.”

And then he started asking me questions about it, questions that a secondhand witness couldn’t answer. I started sweating. And he said, “You know it’s your civic duty if this ever goes to court to testify.” I was so afraid. Thankfully, never had to. But I always remembered the difference between a firsthand witness and a secondhand witness. And the church of Jesus Christ will grow, and Jesus will be seen by the word of the testimony of firsthand witnesses. “Yeah, I know him. Yes, I can tell you all about him. Yes, He’s the one that I can tell you the most about. I love him more than I love anything else. I know him better than I know anything else.” That’s my life. That’s what firsthand witness feels like.

Second, when that happens, we won’t just give arguments, we’ll be an argument. When Jesus told Saul on the road to Damascus, “It’s me that you’re persecuting,” he’s saying there’s such a connection between Jesus and his church that when you persecute the church, Jesus shows up. “You’re persecuting me.” And he makes himself known. Persecution is the prerequisite for the startling display of resurrection power. We’re going to stand out when the person looks so weak and overpowered and just looks like they’re going to fold and be crushed and just such a fragile earthen jar, but they’re not crushed and they don’t shut up.

Exodus, it was, “Stand and see the salvation of the Lord. Lord will fight for you. All you got to do is be silent.” It’s the opposite now. Lord will fight for you. Stand and see the salvation of the Lord and speak up by the word of your testimony, telling what you believe. Now, there’s a few times where this kind of thing has happened in my life. And you realize holiness hurts. This is a hard thing.

But Jesus feels closer to you than it ever at any other point in your life. When you’re the most weak, the most vulnerable, and you don’t think you can go another step, and he shows up so that all that you really have is all that you really need at that point, in Jesus, your faith feels more alive than ever before. Everything’s taken away. All you’ve got left is Jesus and you’re like, “Yes, it’s true. It’s all that I need.” Those moments are precious, but they’ve been few in my life.

Stories of Persecution and Resilience from the Global Church

I want to just close by telling two stories that I’ve read in the book The Insanity of God by people who’ve really lived this in much more glorious ways than I have.

Persecuted church in China. The police come up to the believers there and say, “You got to stop these meetings. If you don’t stop, we’re going to confiscate your house and throw you out in the street.” Property owner responds, “Do you want my house? Do you want my farm? Well, if you want to, you need to talk to Jesus because it belongs to him.” The security police don’t know what to make of that answer, so they say, “We don’t have any way to get to Jesus, but we can get to you. When we take your property, you and your family will have nowhere to live.” And the house church believers say, “Then we’ll be free to trust God for shelter as well as our daily bread.”

“If you keep this up, we’re going to beat you.” “Then we’ll be free to trust Jesus for healing.” “Well, we’ll put you in prison then.” You can almost predict what’s coming. “Then we’ll be free to preach the good news of Jesus to the prisoners and set the captives free from their sin.” “If you try to do that, we will kill you.” You know what they’re going to say? “Then we’ll be free to go to heaven and be with Jesus forever.” It’s this game of chess where they make a move. “Okay, we got you cornered.” They say, “No, we’ll be free because we got Jesus.” “Well, we’ll do this then.” “Then we’ll be free because we have Jesus.” This is the story that stuck with me.

Dimitri was a Russian believer, persecuted for his faith, was the only believer in a prison among 1,500 hardened criminals. He said that his isolation from the body of Christ was actually more difficult than the physical torture, but there was much of that. His tormentors tried to break him constantly. And he pointed to two reasons why he was able to stay strong. Two things that he had learned from his father. This is discipleship.

Without these two disciplines, Dimitri says his faith would not have survived. For 17 years in prison, every morning at daybreak, Dimitri would stand at attention at his bed, face the East, raise his arm and sing his heartsong to Jesus, that Jesus was alive. 17 years in prison. And the prisoners, when the light was shining, the darkness tried to shut it up, douse it out, so they would bang mental cups against the iron bars in angry protests, throw food, sometimes even human waste at him to shut him up, but he wouldn’t. Every morning, he rose and he sang. And there was one other discipline too. Whenever he found a scrap of paper in prison, he would sneak it back to his cell, pull out a stub of some pencil that he found, and he would write on that little scrap of paper, as tiny as he could, all the Bible verses he could remember.

And after memorizing them again, celebrating them, he would put them up like his decoration, the only decoration in his cell, up on a pillar that leaked drips of water, so it would stay there. And the prison guards would come and see it and they would tear it down, look at it, and they would beat him mercilessly, but he kept doing it. Every time he’d find a scrap of paper, he’d do it, knowing the beating was coming. He didn’t care. Then one day, he said, “The Lord gave me the best gift of all, a whole piece of paper and a whole pencil next to it.”

Now, I’m thinking to myself at this point we’re in this story, “I got a whole Bible and he’s excited about a whole paper.” And so he takes it back and he, as small as he can, writes all the verses, all the songs that he can think of, front and back, puts it up there and says, “That looks like the best offering to Jesus I can think of. It’s all true. Even in prison, Jesus, you’re alive.” The guards come and see it, tear it down, look at it, and they realize that they can’t beat this out of him anymore, so they drag him away to be executed. And on the way, these 1,500 criminals suddenly stand at attention, faced the East, raised their arm, and sing the heartsong that they had heard Dimitri singing for 17 years.

And he said, “It sounded like the greatest choir in human history.” What do you think his captors are going to do at this point? Philippians 1:29 happened. Say, “Let go of him.” Looked at him with some shocked expression and said, “Who are you?” They already know his name. “Who are you?” He stands up and says, “I am a child of a living God, and his name is Jesus.” What were they going to do? They let him go, set him free from prison. And when the author of “The Insanity of God” was interviewing him, he just had one request. “Will you sing that song for me?” He said, he stood up, raised his arm. He said, “I didn’t know any Russian. I didn’t understand a word of it. I didn’t have to.”

Victory in Worship

What a different picture this gives believers for corporate worship, for what we do when we sing. This is a victory chant when we’re singing. You know this? I remember my favorite memory of awe of my high school basketball career is when I got my one and only career slam dunk. I’d stolen the ball, was actually a guard stole the ball, passed it to me. I was at half court. I had one guy to beat. And I went up for my one and only career slam dunk in high school. It rolled around a bit, but I think I got fouled, so I’m counting it a dunk. And suddenly, our fans start going, “Wow.” They’re just cheering nonstop. And suddenly, it was all silenced because the opposing fans started to chant, “Check the score. Check the score. Check the score.” And everybody, all the fans stopped on my side because they were right.

We had a minute left. We were 16 points down. There was no way we could win, but we felt like winners for a moment. And this is what Satan does. This is his deception. He comes in and he brings persecution. He’s like the lion roaring, seeking someone to devour, trying to scare believers. Lions don’t roar when they’re trying to sneak up on their prey. They’re trying to scare believers with suffering. In 1 Peter 5, it’s clear. And so he’s going to do these 360 slam dunks over the church, and you think we’re losing. And at that point, what needs to happen in our songs and in our preaching and in our lives is we say, “Check the score, Satan. Check the score. Christ has risen from the dead, trampling over death by death. Check the score. Check the score. He’s alive forevermore. You can’t win. You’re already defeated.”

From our souls, from our pulpits, from our churches, in our circumstances, we need to say to ourselves and to everyone else, “I know the score. Jesus wins. We will reign with him.” As we sing together, in closing, we will overcome. I want to sing with you. I want to roar with you. I want to hear us together, corporately at this conference, draw a line in the sand and say, “We know the score.”