Are You Prepared to Suffer for Christ?
1 Peter 3:13-17
March 6, 2005
Are you prepared to suffer for Christ? For most of us, the answer is no. For most of the Christians in the world, the answer is yes. “Christianity was born in a world of totalitarianism … it was not strange to be persecuted. What is strange historically, is that we are not” (John Piper). For the first 300 years, Christians had no legal protection in the Roman Empire. To become a follower of Jesus meant risking everything.
In many parts of the world, following Jesus means facing open persecution. Here are a few contemporary examples:
• Iran: March 8 (Christian Today) — A military court in Iran has sentenced Christian pastor Hamid Pourmand to jail for three years and has ordered his immediate transfer to a group prison cell in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison—a move denounced by international Christian human rights groups. Pourmand converted from Islam to Christianity 25 years ago. Since 1990, several ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity have been either assassinated or executed by court order, under the guise of accusations of spying for foreign countries.
• Eritrea: February 23 (Compass Direct) — 27 Sunday school teachers and students were arrested in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. They were apprehended during their Christian instruction classes on Saturday morning, February 19. Most of the students are young people, who remain jailed with their teachers at a local police station. As part of the Orthodox Church, the group has normally been exempted from the Eritrean government’s harsh crackdown against Protestant Christians, some of whom suffer imprisonment in metal shipping containers or underground cells for refusing to renounce their faith. Last weekend’s arrests make a total of 214 Eritrean Christians arrested by police authorities in the past two months alone.
• Nigeria: February 3 (Compass Direct) — Muslim militants pronounced a death sentence on five Christian students expelled from public schools in November for conducting an evangelistic outreach. The families of two of the students, Miss Hanatu Haruna Alkali and Abraham Adamu Misal, were attacked on January 26 when militants went to their family homes intending to kill them.
• Nigeria: March 4 (Compass Direct) — Muslim militants attacked the Christian community in Demsa village, Adamawa state, northern Nigeria, on Friday, February 4, killing 36 people and displacing about 3,000 others.
• India: March 10 (Christian Monitor) — Insurgents in India are threatening to start killing evangelical leaders Thursday, March 10, and “totally destroy” the country’s leading missionary organization unless it pays a ransom of $186,000 dollars to avoid the bloodshed. The terrorists say they will target US-backed Gospel For Asia and especially the organization’s five Bible Colleges, 70 Bridge of Hope schools, and over 750 Believers Church congregations in India’s troubled northeastern state of Assam.
• China: January 5 (Christianity Today) — Chinese authorities arrested prominent house-church leader Zhang Rongliang off the street in Zhengzhou, central Henan province, on December 1. The China Aid Association, a respected U.S.-based advocacy group, says the arrest “comes in the midst of a serious crackdown against the house churches.” Since 1974, Zhang has been held in detention five times, serving between 40 days and 7 years. Zhang has been incarcerated a total of 12 years and, according to China Aid, has been tortured with electric shocks. China Aid believes he is being held somewhere in Henan province. Zhang’s wife and children are in hiding. Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted that Zhang has diabetes.
As I prepared this sermon, I ran across another example from China. The January 31, 2005 issue of National Review contains an article called “With the Chinese Christians,” subtitled “Worshipers in a Dark Place.” Last September Beijing house church leader Cai Zhuohua was arrested by police from China’s Security Bureau. They searched his home and a neighboring building housing a printing press. The owners of the press had cooperated with Cai by printing some 230,000 Bibles and Christian tracts. The police confiscated those materials and arrested two young women who worked there. The women were later released. The police also arrested Cai’s older brother and his wife. All three are still being held incommunicado. The article reports that a young man from the congregation now leads the house church. He fears that Pastor Cai may be punished very severely. The article notes that Chinese Christians sometimes suffer a fate worse than imprisonment. “Some are sent to labor camps; others fall victim to the arbitrary brutality of rural officials, as Jiang Zongxiu did. Last June, she was arrested in Guizhou Province for handing out Bibles, and was later beaten to death by police” (p. 28). Meanwhile the young man who has taken leadership seems strengthened in his faith. “That we are able to continue under these circumstances shows that God is with us.” But that is not the end of the story. According to a news report on March 2, Pastor Cai was tortured into a false “confession” with electric cattle prods by his interrogators (Assist News Service).
How many persecuted Christians are there? “Most experts suggest there are about 200 million Christians worldwide who suffer persecution for their faith, with another 200 million to 400 million who face discrimination in some form simply for being a Christian” (Compass Direct).
We who live in freedom must pray for them. They are our brothers and sisters. We have more in common with them than with our unconverted American friends and relatives. Some of you will recognize the name of Graham Staines. Randy Alcorn tells the story:
On January 23rd of 1999, Graham and his two sons, Phillip (11 yrs.) and Timothy (6 yrs.), were murdered by a large mob of militant Hindus. They had gone to a Christian camp in the jungle, where Graham was ministering. At midnight the mob attacked, setting fire to the jeep in which Graham and his sons were sleeping. They were burned alive. When the fire finally cooled, they found the charred body of Graham Staines with his arms around the bodies of his sons … The response of Gladys and Esther was on the front page of every newspaper in India (with one billion people, soon to pass China as the most populous nation on earth). Gladys said, “I have only one message for the people of India. I’m not bitter. Neither am I angry. But I have one great desire: that each citizen of this country should establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who gave his life for their sins … let us burn hatred and spread the flame of Christ’s love.”
Many People were surprised when Gladys Staines decided to stay in India. She explained her decision this way:
“My husband and our children have sacrificed their lives for this nation; India is my home. I hope to be here and continue to serve the needy.” When asked how she felt about the murder of her dad, Esther, as a thirteen-year-old, said (in words that sound straight off the pages of the book of Acts), “I praise the Lord that He found my father worthy to die for Him.”
When do you find young people like that? May God grant us a generation of children, teenagers and young adults with that kind of faith and courage.
Let me ask you again: Are you prepared to suffer for Christ? I’m asking the question now so that when the time comes, you will have the answer ready in your heart. As we look into our text today, put this truth in the “sticky side” of your mind so you’ll have it later when you need it.
I. The Possibilities
Peter begins by presenting us with the two possibilities for Christians living in a hostile world. First, there is the possibility that we won’t suffer at all. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (v. 13). The answer normally is, “No one.” If you are truly eager to do good in the sight of God and man, you should have nothing to fear. And most of the time for most of us, that’s how life works out. When we play by the rules, we should live in safety and security. But that doesn’t always happen. That leads Peter to the second possibility. “But even if you should suffer for what is right” (v. 14a). In Greek this is a called a fourth-class condition, which means it describes a situation that is potential or possible. Doing right does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Verse 14 tells us that Christ may call us to suffer for doing right.
What do we do then?
II. The Instructions
We can summarize Peter’s instructions to Christians who suffer for their faith in five simple commands:
A. Cheer Up!
“But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (v. 14a-b). Peter uses the same Greek word for blessed that Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
B. Give Up!
“Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened” (v. 14c). This part of the verse comes from Isaiah 8:12 where the prophet speaks to the frightened people of Israel as the mighty Assyrian army threatens to overrun the city of Jerusalem. Vastly outnumbered, the people of God seemed in a hopeless situation. It was only a matter of time until the Assyrians defeated them. Isaiah’s message must have seemed crazy: “Don’t fear the mighty army you see arrayed against you. Though they have far more soldiers, you have something they don’t. You have Immanuel on your side.” You plus God equals more than your enemies plus anything else. So don’t be afraid when you feel surrounded. God is with you—always! Give up your fear, give up your fright, give up your worry, and give up your habit of being intimidated.
C. Lift Up!
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (v. 15a). Some translations use the word “sanctify” instead of “set apart.” The NLT translates the phrase this way: “You must worship Christ as Lord of your life.” Peter emphasizes that we must lift up Christ and worship him as our Lord, and we must do that even when it is not popular or easy. Chuck Colson commented that in the early church, if a person stood up in a public arena and cried out, “Jesus is God!” no one would be offended because the Romans and Greeks believed in many gods. To call Jesus “God” would not have seemed revolutionary or even risky. But if a Christian stood up and shouted, “Jesus is Lord and there is no other,” he would be putting his own life at risk. The Roman Caesars claimed the title of Lord, and this was a central reason why Christians faced persecution. They were willing to obey Roman laws, but they were not willing to call Caesar “Lord.” The same struggle over ultimate lordship explains much of the persecution Christians endure in various countries. In a totalitarian state, worshiping Christ as Lord can easily be seen as an act of treason.
The real issue is the Lordship of Fear versus the Lordship of Christ. Those who make Christ Lord need not fear what earthly rulers do to them. As the example of Graham Staines shows, this does not exempt us from the worst kind of suffering. We may suffer and our children may suffer with us. But if we set apart Christ as Lord, we can rest well at night, knowing that nothing can touch us that does not first pass through his loving, sovereign hands. This principle offers the only possible explanation for the long line of martyrs who loved Christ more than their own lives. Before trouble came, they settled it in their own hearts that only Christ matters. Ponder those three words for a moment. Only Christ matters. In light of eternity, could anything in this world matter more than Jesus Christ? Since this world is passing way, nothing we do or say, nothing we achieve, nothing we own, no fortune we may amass, no empire we may build, no glittering list of friends, none of it matters at all compared to our Lord. Only Christ matters. We need to hear this, to repeat it to each other, and to preach it and teach it to our children. We will never be ready for suffering until we lift Christ up and set him apart as Lord of all.
D. Speak Up!
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (v. 15b). The word translated “answer” comes from the Greek word apologia, from which we get the English word “apology.” But Peter doesn’t mean we should apologize for what we believe. An apologia was a legal defense given in a courtroom. You should know what you believe, why you believe it, and you should be ready, willing and able to explain what you believe to someone else. We get the modern term “apologetics” from this Greek word. We use the term “apologist” to describe people like C. S. Lewis, Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias. But Lewis is dead, and Josh and Ravi are busy speaking at big universities. That means we’re on our own! You are to be your own C. S. Lewis, your own Josh McDowell, your own Ravi Zacharias. You and I are to be like them—ready at a moment’s notice to explain what we believe.
That’s a big reason why we’re emphasizing the “Calvary 500” this year. We’re asking God to help us train 500 children, teens and adults to share their faith with others. We want to equip 500 people to do the work of an evangelist. As of this moment, we’ve trained 115 people, with more to come in the next several weeks. Can you imagine what will happen when we have 500 trained believers who are ready and eager to share Christ with others? This is a practical means of applying Peter’s message.
Note that he emphasizes not only what we say but also how we say it. We must be gentle. It’s the word for meekness again. It means to be winsome, kind and gracious in your dealings with the lost. You can’t argue people into the Kingdom of God. And you can’t swear at them and then say, “Don’t you want to accept Jesus?” It doesn’t work that way. We must be winsome if we would win some. And we must treat people with respect. Don’t ever confuse arguing with answering. If we don’t show respect for them, how will they ever show respect for us or for our message? People know when we are talking down to them or making fun of them or taking them lightly. Treat people with gentleness and respect, and they are likely to listen to what we have to say.
On a practical level, this means listening to people, paying attention to them, looking at them while we talk to them, listening for the details, remembering names, and letting them tell us about their spiritual journey. It also means that we don’t try to cram everything we know into one conversation. Most people come to Christ slowly, over a period of time, as they understand more and more of the truth. Better to give them bits and pieces than to try to force the whole message on them if they aren’t ready to hear it.
E. Shape Up!
“Keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (v. 16). This means living such a noble life that if people criticize us for the way we live, they have to tell a lie to do it. This touches some very down-to-earth issues:
Keeping your word,
Speaking the truth,
Practicing the Golden Rule,
Refusing to spread gossip,
Doing good work on the job,
Obeying the law,
Showing compassion to the hurting,
Sharing with those in need.
There are many malicious people in the world who spitefully use us and abuse us. Some people seem to hate anyone who isn’t as mean as they are. You probably know a few people like that. You may live with such a person. We can’t always avoid being around vindictive people who go out of their way to hurt us. But we can live such good lives that they have to lie about us in order to attack us. Don’t give anyone a reason to slander Christ because of the way you live. A saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus. Words whisper, actions shout.
III. The Conclusion
“It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (v. 17). It may be God’s will that we should suffer for doing right. If that happens, then let’s be sure we are suffering for the right reasons. Jesus suffered at the hands of evil men. The same thing happens to his followers in many parts of the world. Peter says this is better than to suffer because we have done wrong.
How does all this comfort us? The answer is not hard to find. We may die for our faith, but that’s okay. That’s all the devil can do to us. He has no other ammunition to use against us. He has done all he can do to Graham Staines and to his sons. Death is his final blow. But it’s not the end. Listen, Christian, can you hear the sound of laughter from the other side of the grave? They are singing over there, singing praise to Jesus who triumphed over death.
Will we be persecuted? Perhaps.
Will some of us suffer for our faith? Perhaps.
Will we be hauled into court? It has already happened.
Could we lose everything we have? It’s happening elsewhere.
Is that God’s will? Yes, for some. Perhaps for us.
Can our enemies kill us? Yes, some have already died.
What happens then? You wouldn’t believe it if I told you!
But it’s good news. The best news you’ve ever heard. They may kill us but that’s all they can do. They can’t touch the soul.
The most blessed and happy person is the one who has decided to follow Jesus. Normally that means we can expect long life and good days. But around the globe countless saints are suffering for their faith today. Following Jesus offers no guarantees about this life. But whether we live or die, God has promised to deliver us in the end. If you understand that, you are truly blessed. If your heart is set on earthly things—possessions, pleasure, financial security, business success, upward mobility or career advancement, then you are most vulnerable. Those things can be taken away so quickly. And you can be so easily hurt.
But if you give your life to Jesus and if you enthrone him as Lord, no one—not even the devil himself—can take that away from you. You are totally secure. So even in suffering you are blessed. You still have Jesus.
No one escapes suffering, but for the one who enthrones Jesus as Lord, suffering cannot touch those things that matter the most. Amen.