Words We Stumble Over

“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” (John 16:1-4 ESV)

What an amazing statement… “I’ve said all of these things to you to keep you from falling away.” What things? “If you trust God, trust me too… If I go prepare a place for you then I will return to get you and take you there… Because I live, you also will live…” just go back and read John, chapters 14 and 15, again. He said all of those things to keep them from stumbling or falling when they face persecution.

Why would Jesus’ words keep them and, hopefully, us from falling or stumbling? Whenever we face difficulties, our first reaction tends to be “why me?” As a pastor, I’ve not only heard that question from many hurting people, I’ve even asked it myself. Our response tends to go like this, “God, I do so much for you and give so much to you why would you let these things happen to me?” We can even enumerate all of the sacrifices we’ve made or the ways in which we serve.

In essence, we begin to doubt or question God’s love for us. God, if you really loved me you’d give me what I wanted and not let me suffer physical pain or social humiliation. Yet, we really get upset if God sticks His divine nose into our personal business or life choices, don’t we? We want God’s blessings (blessings = personal achievement, financial success, or social recognition) but we sure don’t want Him interfering in our personal matters, like love and work.

But Jesus wants the disciples to recognize up front that God’s demands on their religious beliefs are deeply intertwined with their personal lives. That’s what all this talk of vines and branches is all about. Our religious beliefs and the resulting actions springing from them truly are our lifeblood. They are essential to life and everything else… “apart from me you can do NOTHING! (Jn 15:5b)” Somehow, we’ve compartmentalized belief, action, purpose and happiness and no longer recognize their essential connectedness. Let me elaborate a bit…

We educate our children in the basics of life, what my Mother used to call “the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic.” In other words, we teach them the basics they need to communicate, calculate and accumulate but we often neglect what they need to know to truly live. When we view the basics of life as those things that make us successful in the world and we neglect those things that prepare us for real life, and the challenges it brings, then are we truly

prepared?

Jesus wanted to make certain the disciples were prepared for the challenges ahead and that they wouldn’t fall away from the faith because of the “why me?” mindset. He wants us to hear and know these same truths. When we are submissive and obedient to the truths of God’s Word then we will be in conflict with our culture. It doesn’t matter where you live, if you are obedient to God you will be in conflict with the world around you. Why? Because our selfish desires and expressions of love do not match up with God’s desires and expression of love. But, Jesus says we must not let those difficulties and distractions get us off track or discourage us. We must stay focused on the promises he has made, trust him, never give up and don’t fall away or stumble.

There is growing hostility in our world towards biblical Christianity and true, active faith (see James 2:26). The hostility ranges from social rejection and intolerance of our beliefs to the execution of believers by radicalized terrorists. The early church experienced it in the deaths of Stephen (Acts 7) and James (Acts 12), and eventually all of the Apostles as they gave themselves in service to Christ. Hear these words… “Consider him [Jesus] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:3 ESV)

Jesus even points out that, “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” That certainly describes the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Stephen and James, but it also describes the deaths of Syrian, Coptic, Chinese, Eritrean, and many other believers today (https://www.persecution.com). Most of you who are reading or hearing these words have not and, most likely, never will face death threats because of your faith. However, for those who do, we pray for strength, courage and boldness in the face of these threats. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:10-11 ESV)

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14 ESV)

“Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9 ESV)

Please know that we pray for you and echo the words of the Apostles, stand firm in your faith and trust in the Lord. We also ask that you pray for us so that when our time of true persecution comes, as it most assuredly will come, that we may be found faithful and bold.

Finally, the saddest part of these verses lies in the words “whoever kills you will think he offers service to God.” I find this disheartening because they believe their actions of hatred and violence are offered up in service to God. While these words are certainly descriptive of the actions of radical terrorists who kill Christians in the name of Allah, it can also be descriptive of some who claim faith in the name of Christ.

While I find lots of biblical support for using governmental and legal means of protecting ourselves from persecution or violent responses to our faith (see Paul’s responses to Jewish retribution of his faith, Acts 22:25-26 for example), I can find no biblical support for violent, retributive actions or hatred towards those who might persecute or threaten us because of our faith. In fact, I find exactly the opposite: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-45a ESV)

I want to be very clear here and not cause any confusion, I am referring to a personal, retributive response to violence and NOT a legal, governmental response to violence. Every government has a God-given responsibility to protect and defend her citizens from domestic or foreign threats or enemies (see Romans 13:1-7). That is why governments institute and enforce moral and just laws and, when absolutely necessary, engage in war. However, as believers, we are called upon to react differently when we are personally on the receiving end of violent, evil actions. But notice, there’s a specific reason why Christ calls us to respond differently…

In the passage we are considering today, Jesus says they do these things because they’ve NOT known the Father or Jesus. They THINK they are doing service for God but they don’t even know Him. Why? How could you ever think you are serving God and not even know Him? Spiritual blindness. They love God, but only in their own way and NOT as He has revealed Himself. You can’t love God while rejecting Him or His Message/Messenger. I intentionally put those two words together… His Message and Messenger are the same. That’s what the Christmas Story is all about. Emmanuel, God among us. God dwelling with us, walking alongside us, speaking to us, teaching us, showing us God’s perfect will.

Consider this quote by Russell Moore: “We clamor for the kind of power the world can recognize while ignoring the very power of God that comes through Christ and him crucified. We’ve traded in the Sermon on the Mount for slogans on our cars. We’ve exchanged Christ the King for Christ the meme. And through it all, we demonstrate what we care about—the same power and self-leverage this age already values.” (https://www.russellmoore.com/2017/12/11/37949/)

Let me end with a simple question… do your actions, your faith, your words, your expression of love reflect the heart of God or your own?

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules… Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, 36 ESV)

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