~ For Those Who Persecute Christ ~
Jesus explained the different responses of people who consider Him and His words with a story now referred to as "The Sower of Seed" (Matthew 13:3-29). Yes, there are hypocrites in our Christian assemblies, along with false teachers who promote doctrines that are clearly in violation of Jesus' recorded message in our Scriptures. Among us are also what we call "babies in Christ," new followers of Him who are confused or insecure in their spiritual state and have yet to grow into evident Christlikeness and holiness through sanctification. There are also Christian Pharisees or legalists who cling strongly to the letters of Christ's words at the expense of Christ's Heart and Spirit and are just as annoying and damaging to other Christians as to non-Christians.
Throughout history and today there have been and are people who have killed and destroyed others and their cultures and land in the name of Christ and under the banner of churches and organizations. This, of course, is shameful, despicable, and painful to the Christ, requiring pleas for forgiveness.
These people do not inspire us or bear witness to Christ and His Gospel or Good News of redemption, though persecutors may point to them in condemnation of Christianity. In evaluating our cultures, religions, and heritages, we must compare the most exemplary, the most noble, the best with the best, not the best of one with the worst of another. We hold before us and the world our saints, our living and dead martyrs, above all our Lord in Christ; all Christians and the Christ persecutors have and continue to persecute regardless of their proclaimed reasons.
Those who persecute Christ and His servants, in word and deed, misunderstand much. "Turning the other cheek" does not mean Christians will not defend themselves or their loved ones. In Jesus' time (as in ours), a backhand slap to the face was a forceful gesture to humiliate the other. Why did Jesus specify "right cheek" (Matthew 5:39b)? In a culture where left-handedness was not permitted, the right backhand slap would always hit the right side of the other's face. The original Greek word for "strike" or "hit" in this verse is a verb meaning "to slap with the back of the hand" as an insult.
In verse 41 of the same chapter, Jesus teaches us to go two miles if we are forced to go one. This refers to Roman military law that permitted a soldier to "press a civilian into service" limited to one mile. The same legal term used in verse 41, in the original language, is used in chapter 27, verse 32, describing how a bystander named Simon was forced by the Roman executioners to carry Jesus' cross. If the distance had been more than a mile, Simon would have fulfilled his legal obligation and the Romans would have had to "press into service" another man, unless Simon volunteered to continue.
I wonder if Jesus paused
thoughtfully as He taught these principles of conduct, for He knew He would
face many insulting backhand hits, along with humiliating and excruciatingly
painful tortures that would rip His skin and muscles apart before He even
started His walk to the execution site. I'm sure Jesus knew someone would
have to carry that rough and heavy cross at least part of the way since
the soldiers could not have Him dying before the crucifixion. Jesus was
silent through the most brutal of humiliations as the God-Incarnate, just
as He taught. So were and are His fervent followers in the assault of humiliation.
With a word or a thought, Jesus could have blown Jerusalem apart and the entire Roman Empire with it. In fact, He provided a tiny hint of that power when He told the huge military force that came looking to arrest Him, "I am He," at which they were all knocked flat on the ground (John 18:6). Instead, Christ voluntarily carried the burden of our sins and the shame and humiliation sin harbors (Romans 10:11, Hebrews 12:2). Christians are free from the need or desire to reciprocate insult for insult, humiliation for humiliation. All the humiliation persecutors can maliciously vent upon Christ's brothers and sisters have already been endured and absorbed by our Lord for all time, and He continues to absorb it today, for whatever you do or don't do for the least and most unnoticeable brother or sister of Christ, you are really doing or not doing it to Christ Himself (Matthew 25:40, 45).
The Christ will cause the flood of humiliation and shame to wear out those who provide it and they will ultimately carry it on their own shoulders. Jesus taught a radically different response: to love and pray for our enemies and persecutors (Matthew 5:44). The Holy Spirit of Christ empowers and enables His servants and worshipers to love. What response can persecutors generate in the presence of prayer and love? Some have loved the Christ in return and became His. Others persisted wearily in evil, to the sorrow of Christ and Christians. Our martyrs die with prayers of love on their lips and in their hearts.
Our Lord told us we will be hated, persecuted and killed in all nations (Matthew 24:9). So we are not surprised that we have suffered and will continue to suffer as a people. Some ask, why does suffering need to be part of being Christian? We are mandated to love and obey God with all our being, and to love others, even our persecutors. Because the response by those motivated by forces and beliefs that are unloving is not love, we suffer. Having children means to love them and to suffer with and for them, as our heavenly Father does for us.
We are mandated by the Spirit of Christ in us to exercise compassion. Passion is an intense experience, so we refer to the incomprehensible suffering of Jesus just before His arrest as "The passion of Christ." Passion means the tearing apart of our souls. The "com" in compassion, like the "com" in "company," "companion," or "comrade," means "along with." In true compassion, I am with you, and my heart tears and bleeds with yours. My response is to act in love and healing as if you were me, so as your heart mends, mine does also. I believe this is part of what Jesus meant by "love others as yourself." As we love, people see that we are indeed the adopted children of God the Father, the Creator of all (Matthew 5:45). So our response to persecutors is the love of Christ, which will defeat, frustrate and transcend all the evil shot at us.
That is why Jesus tells us to not resist evil (Matthew 5:39). Again, as with "turn the other cheek," this doesn't mean we will let persecutors have their way. This doesn't mean we condone evil. It does mean if we resist evil or humiliation with a similar response, then we are placing ourselves in that arena and agreeing to those terms of engagement. We will not do that or make persecutors stronger by fighting by their rules and ways. Our Scriptures declare that though we are humans, our weapons are of God, resources of His kingdom with which persecutors are unfamiliar and unable to use or understand. The persecutors of Christians have been and will continue to be astounded by the love of our Christ in us for each other and for them and by our willingness and capacity to suffer in the name of our Beloved Redeemer.
Our Father prepares His children well for the life of holiness and the "narrow way." He doesn't punish us. That would nullify the Supreme Sacrifice of Christ of Whom John the Baptizer proclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" But like any good and loving parent, our Father disciplines, refines and sanctifies His children, so we are restored to His image and power (Psalm 94:12; Hebrews 12:5). And our Father often uses persecutors to do this important work, interestingly enough! So we do render them our thanks and love.
Psalm 73 echoes the wonder of many: Why are so many ungodly people evidently prosperous and enjoying "the good life"? Jesus never promised us that on earth. However, after many observations, finally in verse 16 the writer (Asaph) remarks, "But when I tried to understand this, it was too difficult for me. Only when I came into God's holy place did I finally understand what would happen to them." Those who persecute Christ would have to enter the holy place also to find out. But they are invited! The way, however, is through the Christ they persecute, for He is the Way, Truth and Life.
I am able to tell you this, however: Jesus said the father of persecutors is the devil (John 8:44). Sorry to say, they have a bad, unloving father who doesn't discipline them, but creates an illusion of power, success and righteousness around them. Jesus was referring to this when He asked our heavenly Father to forgive His executioners because "they don't know what they are doing."
We want our persecutors to join in the love and redemption of Christ and live forever in His perfect Kingdom. We all must be cautious, however, to not skip over an essential part of the faith-journey, as too many have and are thus weak in the faith or missed it completely. Yes, the resurrection of Christ Jesus is our most important and daily celebration, for we resurrect with Him and become reborn into the life of His Spirit and Kingdom. The death and cross, however, must be experienced first. Jesus proclaimed, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:34b-35, NIV). Jesus is not talking about physical gain or loss. (See the third chapter of John's book.) St. Paul explains, "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body" (2 Corinthians 4:11, NIV).
The persecutors of Christ are defeated already. Our saints testify to this. We don't strive to imitate or become like them. They wouldn't want that or be pleased at all. Together with the saints, apostles, martyrs and lovers of Christ, we strive, animated and empowered by the Father's grace and love, to be "conformed to Christ." Our journey in faith is one of wondrous, transcending and radical transformation, we in Him and He in us forever!
Christ asked one of the most fervent persecutors of Christians of all time, who became one of the most fervent servants and lovers of Christ and Christians of all time, "Why do you persecute Me?" St. Paul, then knocked to the ground and blinded by His power and presence, replied, "Who are You, sir?" (Acts 9:4-5). He learned, and embraced the invitation of the Spirit that is for all: Come! Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Revelation 22:17).
Whatever persecutors do, they will not make us stop loving them and praying for them, in the name of our Lord, in His Spirit and power. They may silence or kill us, which will only confirm and brighten the light of our spiritual joy. They will only drive us deeper into the Sacred Heart of our Beloved. No evil can penetrate the Holy of Holies, the love and spiritual joy that is ours in Jesus the Christ Who lives and reigns with and in our Father and the Holy Spirit forever!
Amen, which means "This is the truth!"
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © September 15, 2001
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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