Events around the world, in the last few years, continue to remind me of how lucky we are in this country.
After all, tensions are pretty high in many countries, particularly in places that are hostile to the Christian faith. There are many countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. There are also countries where trying to share the faith can result in the death penalty. And most of this sort of persecution does not feature in our daily news.
In contrast, in most parts of Australia, we have it so easy. Yes, even here, Christians may be persecuted. But most people simply think that Christians are a bit odd—because they don’t always conform. And many may feel they should act differently around Christians because of religious sensibilities. However, in contrast to what others face in the world, we are relatively free to come and go; free to exercise our faith. And at the same time, for the most part, feel safe in what we are doing.
2. Jesus’s Teaching
As Christians, and as Christians who live in Australia, then, Jesus’s teachings on standing firm in the face of persecution may not seem relevant to us today. After all, we don’t face the same kind of persecution as elsewhere. It’s much easier for us to stand up for what we believe.
However, what I’m going to suggest is, that Jesus’s teaching is just as relevant for us, as to those facing physical persecution. Because although in Australia Christians don’t usually face death for their faith, we do face attacks on our faith nonetheless. Attacks which may be more subtle, but still put pressure on us to deny God and to reject what we believe.
B. JESUS’S TEACHING ON PERSECUTION
Now, today’s passage stresses the importance of whole-hearted allegiance to Christ. And the passage features Jesus, who faced physical persecution himself, telling his disciples—three times—not to be afraid.
1. Solidarity with Jesus (26-27)
The first “do not be afraid,” centres around the thought that Jesus was not respected by the Jewish authorities. And if Jesus was not respected, and the disciples were true followers of Jesus, then they could hardly expect to be respected either. Just as Jesus was persecuted, so his disciples would be persecuted too.
Jesus’s message was one of solidarity, of the need to stand together with him, and to resist any pressure to give in to the ways of other men. He warned them that they would be plotted against. Indeed, that people would meet in secret to plot their downfall, and would do anything to divert them from their task. But regardless of that, Jesus said, they were to keep on proclaiming the things that he had shown them and taught them. They were to be true to their beliefs.
Yes, others might plot in secret. But eventually their plots would be revealed for exactly what they are. In contrast, they were to stand up and openly speak of their faith in Jesus and the message of salvation, no matter what the consequences.
Now can you imagine the problems that being a Christian means to those in countries where people are persecuted simply for being Christians, let alone standing up and proclaiming the faith. But the fact that Jesus said two thousand years ago to his disciples to expect persecution, means that we should not be surprised when we hear of it now.
But what about us, in our own society, in Australia? Well we may not face the same problems, but as Christian’s, don’t we face pressures of our own?
After all, what about family pressures? Pressures to conform with family life, and not to be the religious nut of the family? What about pressures to skip church, just this week, because there’s something more important on? What about the temptations to indulge ourselves, to stretch the rules, when we really should know better? And what about the pressures to conform to community attitudes, that it’s OK to do certain things, even things that are “legal” or are “not illegal,” even if our faith teaches us not to do them? And what about the pressure to keep quiet about the things that we see and hear, when we know we really should be standing up and speaking out?
Yes, physical persecution may be one way that Christian’s can be persecuted for having faith, but there are far more subtle ways. Indeed, any pressure to reduce a whole-hearted allegiance to Christ, is just as bad as any other.
A lack of physical persecution may sometimes mean that we become too lazy in our faith, too relaxed, take God too much for granted. And yet the temptations we face to deny Christ, in many ways are just as real as if we were facing physical persecution ourselves.
2. Limitations of Human Abilities (28),
The second “do not be afraid” centres around the mistaken belief that we will be safe if we don’t stand up for our faith. And it poses the question, “Is it better to upset men, or upset God?”
Indeed, Jesus taught his followers that the worst that their enemies could do was to kill them. They could do no more. On the other hand, God could do so much more. It is the future of our souls which is to be our primary concern, not the physical harm that any enemy may inflict.
And on this basis, Jesus taught, that the disciples had little to fear from standing up and being counted. Because if their eternal wellbeing was the most important, then that was in the hands of God.
When we consider this “do not fear” then, it makes little difference to whether we are being physically persecuted, or are facing our own subtle brand of persecution. The issue is the same. That is, what is more important: our family, friends, society and culture or our relationship with God? Which is the one that can give (or deny) us eternal life?
If we resist the temptations of our family, or friends, what is the most that we have to lose? Oh, sure, life might not necessarily be pleasant. But isn’t it preferable to upset family and friends, than to risk facing the wrath of God? When it comes right down to it, is it this life that is more important, or is it eternal life with God?
3. God’s Followers are Valuable (29-31)
And the third “do not be afraid” … Well, it’s a reminder of how important Jesus’s followers are to God. And in a sense, it’s a comparison between how much God cares, and how much anyone else can care.
Jesus told his followers, that if the heavenly father cares for the humblest of his creation—for even the most insignificant of his creatures—then how much more would he care for them.
Jesus gave an example of a sparrow. Now, sparrows were sold in the market place for food. They were small birds and could command only a small price. Yet, even though they ranked low in the scheme of things—they were of little importance—Jesus said that God takes notice of every individual little sparrow. And nothing happens to any of them without the involvement of God.
The point is, that God cares very much for his people. That he knows absolutely everything about us, even the number of hairs on our head (which must change several times daily). And if he cares that much, how can anyone compete with the attention that he gives us.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we will get an easy ride. But it does mean that we should consider our options. So, if we are tempted to conform to other people’s expectations—to buckle under the pressure to please our family, friends, workmates, or whoever—then we should first consider who it is that really cares, and who really has our best interests at heart.
Of course, that might mean that we miss out on some things which seem fun, or rewarding. And some people may get the strange idea that Christians have no fun. But that isn’t what this is about. Christians should have fun, but only fun that is wholesome and spiritually rewarding. But what it does mean, though, is that given the alternatives we should always consider who really has our best interests at heart.
4. Reward for Allegiance (32-33)
Then after Jesus had said three times “do not be afraid,” encouraging his disciples not to buckle under but to remain faithful to the faith, it’s not surprising that he concludes his advice with a warning.
Anyone who openly declares allegiance to him, he will acknowledge before God. But anyone who disowns him on earth, he will disown before the heavenly Father.
There are permanent consequences of rejecting Jesus. Hence Jesus’s final comment is, that those who reject him will suffer. But not some slight and temporary inconvenience, rather the eternal consequences of rejection by God himself.
Jesus’s teaching on persecution, then, is a very powerful message, and one we need to take very seriously indeed. It’s a dramatic message, and one that couldn’t, perhaps, be put in terms more black and white. Because whilst we may usually think of persecution in terms of physical harm, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that in many ways the subtle influences to conform to this world, are just as real, and just as dangerous to our eternal wellbeing.
So, events around the globe, only some of which are widely reported, should serve as a reminder of how lucky we are in this country. We enjoy a relatively peaceful kind of life. Christians in Australia do not face physical persecution on anything like the scale that many face around the world. But that doesn’t mean that Christian’s don’t face pressures, which have the same consequences. The danger for us is that we can become lazy, relaxed, and take God too much for granted, with the result that we can fail to stand up and be counted.
Now Jesus taught his disciples, that they needed to have whole-hearted allegiance to him. That they needed to focus on a place in eternal life with God, rather than get wrapped up in living in the present. He taught them that only God could really care; that no one else could care like he did. That only God had their best interests at heart. And he taught them that if they were faithful to him, then he would be faithful to them before God.
And that poses a challenge for all of us in our faith. After all, how do we cope with persecution? Not necessarily the physical persecution that we hear about with others. But how do we cope with the many subtle pressures to our faith, that we face in living in a country called Australia?”
Posted: 18th June 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis