The presence of death, pain, disease and evil is not a sign of God’s absence in the world, but the results of why God told Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. The prohibition to NOT eat of the tree was because God knew that humanity could never handle the knowledge of good and evil – and this has been shown throughout human history. God’s test to Adam was very simple – God basically asked Adam if he would trust God with the knowledge of God and Evil, knowing that God would always do what was right for Adam. But Adam said no – he wanted the knowledge. Suffering, pain and disease are the manifestations of a fallen world.
That is Paul’s point in Romans 5. One man’s disobedience caused all humanity to be condemned and the creation to be separated from God. The suffering, death, disease and pain which we encounter on the earth is the consequence of SIN. This is why God tells us to avoid it – to flee from it – to repent of it – and to believe in the work of Christ.
So, because of Adam’s decision to disobey God, all humanity died.
However, the great news is that because of Christ’s willingness to obey God, the grace of God abounds to many bringing life.
So when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, we are justified, that is, we have been reconciled with God and are now back in relationship with Him. And this can only happen as the result of a living union with Christ which leads us to a new life as Christ followers.
But entering into this new life with Christ means we are given a responsibility – a responsibility which each and every one of us here has – to declare the Gospel. What that means is that instead of Christians retreating away from the world and it’s pain and suffering, instead of trying to provide a safe place for us to live out the remainder of our lives, instead of insulating ourselves against the pain of the world, Jesus sends his followers back into the world with the TRUTH of who God is, what God has said and the promises God has given.
In other words, having been rescued from the burning building – God sends us back into the burning building to bring others out.
There is a misconception which is I think unconsciously assumed in the Church – that being a Christian keeps us safe physically. Jesus dispels this in the gospel reading. Christianity is not necessarily about keeping us physically safe.
Jesus says that he sends the Church out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Just linger on that image for a moment. Think about it. What do wolves tend to do to sheep? It’s dangerous – it’s perilous to be a witness for the gospel – we may get torn to shreds
Facing a world which has been separated from the goodness of the Father in heaven is not easy. It’s going to be tough.
In fact Jesus tells us here that we should expect three areas of attack for the Christian church: – v17 – organized religion; v18 government; v21 family.
Religion has always persecuted true belief – just look at the Apostle Paul – as Saul he killed Christians’. And of course, the the Gospels and the book of Acts gives us plenty of examples of how the religious establishment attempted to stop the gospel. We know that governments persecute Christians. But then there is family. Family members will turn on each other.
Jesus said that his words would bring division in the midst of families as some accept the gospel while others may be very opposed to it.
Now, the words Jesus is speaking here are both for the people listening and prophetic for future generations. Jesus tells us here that there will be a time when persecution will become so intense that disciples of Jesus will have no secure refuge until His’ return. And while that time may not be here yet, all persecutions of Christians and the Church throughout history are a dress rehearsal for what will come in the last days . Whether we are at the beginning of the end times or at the end of the end times is irrelevant to some extent – the end time persecution is the magnified event of what has always happened on a smaller scale to the church and followers of Jesus.
Jesus gives advice on how the church should act in the face of opposition, regardless of when and where it comes. Jesus says the church should be is shrewd as snakes, that is avoiding conflicts and not unnecessarily provoking their opponents while at the same time remaining innocent as doves – that is walking with integrity and truth.
Just how tough things might get for us is illustrated by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem at a time when the people had become secularized, following their own pleasure, being idolatrous and rejecting the ways and truth of God. And Jeremiah pronounced the truth of God and the consequences of rejecting God to this people.
Jeremiah’s prophetic visions made him a hated man. He almost stood alone against the tide of his countrymen and the religious leaders who all condemned his words and rejected his messages. The tide of opposition and persecution against him and his life wore down Jeremiah. Jeremiah was fearful. In fact, his ministry was, in today’s assessment, a failure. He converted no-one except his own servant. Jeremiah would have failed his annual review in every church in this country. He was rejected, his message was rejected and he faced reproach, derision and even the threat of death DAILY. To the point that this prophet decreed that he would NOT speak the message of God anymore. The pressure and the kickback was just to great.
But notice what happened when he decided not to speak of God. His heart burned. He could not physically keep it in.
Even this great prophet, in the face of the opposition, wanted to retreat and shut up – BUT HE COULDN’T! Why? Because he knew what was the truth – and the truth cannot remain silent. This is the tragedy of todays church – in the scriptures we have the truth – and yet much of the church is willing to keep silent because of the tide of opposition the truth will bring.
One of the biggest problems Jeremiah faced was that what he was prophesying was not coming true instantly – and because of this people were deriding him as a false prophet or a scare monger. Jeremiah pronounced that God would judge the people. That God would not stand by and see evil, injustice, idolatry and false priests thrive. Jeremiah preached this for 40 years – and for 40 years nothing happened – the judgment did not materialize. And the people came to believe that God would not do what Jeremiah said and so they accused him of being a false prophet.
We face the same issue today. We say “ The Lord is returning – get ready – turn to him” but people think just because he has not come back yet, he is not going to. The New Testament knew this would happen – 2 Peter 3:3 tells us that in the last days we will have scoffers saying Where is the promise of His coming?
What Jeremiah’s ministry was doing for the nation was important, but even more important was what Jeremiah’s ministry was doing for Jeremiah. He was learning to trust in God’s provision even in the face of opposition, suffering and pain. As we serve the Lord, our capacity for ministry should increase and enable us to do much more than we ever thought we could do because our trust in God increases.
Jeremiah didn’t preach because he had to say something but because he had something to say, and not saying it would have destroyed him. Paul had the same attitude: “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16)
Remembering the promises God gave him at his call, Jeremiah was confident that the Lord was with him and would deal effectively with his enemies.
To step into God is to step out for God and to go into the firing line. At the men’s book club at the beginning of the month I was told of a story of heroism regarding the event when a US helicopter crashed in Somalia. Two soldiers asked permission to be dropped into the area in order to protect the pilot. The General said “Do you know where you are going? Do you know I cannot get reinforcements to you for hours.” The soldiers said yes and the General gave them permission and they died protecting the soldier on the ground.
When we evangelize people and lead them to the Lord we need to say “Now, do you understand what you are doing?” “Do you know the ramifications of being a believer in Christ?” We have the promises and the power of the Spirit – but we also have the words of Jesus that we are sent like Sheep in the midst of Wolves. Are we willing to give that sacrifice for the Lord.
Understanding that Jesus deliberately sends us INTO a dangerous world should lead us to see persecution not as something to be feared but as an opportunity for gospel to be declared. Believers will be brought in front of kings and governments and courts and as that happens we are able to tell the Kings and leaders and judges the wonderful news of Jesus Christ.
So as we approach the end times we as a church will face opposition but also opportunity. In spite of attacks, rejection by our families, persecution from city to city and trials before leaders, we MUST remain true to our Lord.
And here is crux of the issue – when faced with intense opposition – when everyone is against us – when knowing that confessing Christ could or even will lead to our disadvantage, or our losing our jobs or our security or even our lives will we stand with Christ publicly? To stand publicly and boldly for Christ in the face of intense opposition shows that we fear God and God alone – and Jesus’ promise is that He will stand with us before the Father’s throne.
This is why our security as Christians must never come from the external things of the world like comfort, buildings, our health or even our traditions – these can all be taken away – destroyed or banned. Our security MUST always be in God himself. And we must learn this now while we enjoy relative comfort, freedom and security.
So, let me end with three exhortations to us this morning:
I exhort us all as Jesus’ followers that we should witness boldly, fearing no shame from our peers in this world – there is no reason for holding back. When Jesus says preach from the rooftops – it means preach from the place that people will hear you the most. Flat housetops above the streets provided easier hearing than the streets themselves.
Because God is the judge in the end, we should not fear even persecutors who threaten death. The choice is not between courage and fear but between whom one will fear more – Remember, Jeremiah was afraid – but he feared God more than the people who opposed him
Jesus makes a promise – disciples of Jesus can trust God’s sovereignty in their protection or their death. As Paul says, to live is Christ, to die is gain.
So, as God sends us as sheep amongst wolves be very BOLD in our witness – FEAR ONLY God, and no-one else and TRUST God’s promise to protect us, even in death.