Persecution Without Fear

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 27, 2019.

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:16–33).

Of Jesus’ disciples, He chose and commissioned twelve apostles, sending them into the towns and villages of Galilee, preaching a heavenly kingdom message, working kingdom miracles, carrying out a kingdom mission of their King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the sole recipients of this ministry of peace would be “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 9:6), we might assume a ready reception of these messengers and their message of the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Who doesn’t like good news? Who wouldn’t rejoice at the sight of the sick healed, the dead raised, the leper cleansed, and the demon-oppressed cleansed? The apostles came with no expectations of financial support, requiring only food and shelter, and departing with a benediction of peace. Who wouldn’t embrace the gracious favor of this apostolic ministry?

Yet, since the Fall of mankind into sin, the pages of Scripture reveal that there are those who not only do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ but who hate it and seek to destroy it. These wolves use legal means, physical means, familial means, any means at their disposal in this earthly kingdom, to attack the disciples of Jesus Christ. Such tactics can naturally lead to anxiety, pain, heartache, and fear. Yet, in the face of such of such persecution, Jesus admonishes His apostles, and subsequently all of His disciples, to not fear amidst persecution. Since fear as a human emotion would seem to be the natural reaction to persecution, why would Jesus command such a difficult thing of His prophets, apostles, and Church? Let’s consider this question as we look more closely at this passage.

Persecuted Discipleship

Jesus sends His apostles “as sheep in the midst of wolves” with a warning: “Beware of men.” Yet, they were not commissioned, nor are we, as wolf killers. With the wisdom of the craftiest serpent and the innocence of the purest of doves, we go into the wolf-infested forest of this world neither naïve nor malevolent. As commissioned, the apostles were promised persecution, but with His warning and promise, Jesus also promised the Holy Spirit’s provision. When they needed to speak, He provided. What they needed to say, He provided. Relying on the Lord’s provision transcends all earthly anxiety.

As we read in the book of Acts, they would be delivered over to courts, testifying, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). They would be flogged in synagogues, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Christ]” (Acts 5:41). They would be dragged before governors and kings for Christ’s sake, so they could speak “about faith in Christ Jesus” and reason about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:24-25), and even preach “that the Christ must suffer and that, being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to [the Jews] and to the Gentiles “(Acts 26:23).

As Jesus promised His apostles, so we are promised persecution as His disciples. The apostle Paul encouraged young Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Speaking from experience, the Apostle Peter encouraged the Church not to be surprised at “the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). While only God knows the day of our trial and the degree of our suffering, may we, as John Calvin says, “be bold and courageous, that [we] may be always ready for martyrdom.” We are simply called to be faithful to the gospel and commissioned to carry to all nations until our Lord returns. But, it was not just the gospel message for which Jesus’ apostles were persecuted but also for being identified with Him.

Identified Discipleship

In Christ we find that the familial unity of baptismal water is thicker than familial blood. The apostles encountered what some of you have perhaps encountered; even our family can turn against us for identifying with Christ. Brother against brother, parents against children, children against parents, hatred even leading to death, unthinkable hatred, all for the sake of the name of Christ. Such heartache for being identified with Christ, even to be called a Christian, can lead to tough questions: Is it worth being a Christian even if it means losing my family? What if everyone abandons me; is Christ enough?

Looking soberly at all the things the world tells us to put our hope in, the Apostle Paul confessed, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil. 3:8-9a). We find, like Paul did, that when our identity is in Christ, it is enough. The endurance we need He supplies. The salvation He gives is by His grace. So integrally united are we with Christ, that the world sees us as they see Him.

If the world distorts Christ and His gospel, so they will distort us and the gospel that we share. The peace of Christ that we have is anathema to the world. If the religious zealots of Jesus’ day called Him the prince of demons rather than the Lord of glory, do you expect glory from this world? Yet, our identity is neither established nor sustained by this world. By God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone, our identity is in Christ alone

Christian, if you struggle with seeking your identity and worth in this fallen world, let me read to you some of the most freeing words: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus’ apostles were persecuted, and so after them other disciples, not only for their gospel ministry but even for their identity with Christ. Persecution did happen, does happen, and will happen, therefore how shall we then live as Christ’s disciples? We shall live without fear.

Fearless Discipleship

The psalmist declares confidently, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6). This is not unfounded confidence. Life apart from the Lord is sheer terror, whether realized or not. It is only because the Lord is on my side that I should not fear. It is in this confidence that our Lord commissioned His apostles, carrying the good news of the kingdom of heaven. As the gospel would be preached, those appointed unto eternal life would hear and believe. That which was once hidden by hearts of darkness would be revealed by the light of the Holy Spirit.

So glorious is the light of the gospel that we, like the apostles, carrying this “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), are charged with whispering it down in the cellars of this present darkness and proclaiming it on the housetops without fear. Let us fear not for the sake of this gospel, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Perhaps such a glorious message will bring persecution, but is there any greater reason to endure suffering than for the gospel of Jesus Christ? And, is there any reason to fear if it is for the sake of your Savior?

Perhaps you think, I don’t know that I have ever experienced persecution, and certainly not like the apostles, but I am afraid of it. Whether you experience persecution or not is among the secret things of God (Deut. 29:29), but fear is a common temptation. As such, there is a connection between persecution without fear and living the Christian life without fear. Because “God gave us a spirit not of fear” (2 Tim. 1:7), fear comes from the world, the flesh, or the devil. Fear of persecution, or any other tools of the world, the flesh, and the devil, is not of God. If fear is not of God, then what does not fearing teach us? Consider these three truths from this passage.

First, trusting in Christ when tempted to fear teaches us to look outside of our immediate situation and to eternity. Because we were created for eternity, that is our destiny. Yes, there are those who can kill the body, but they cannot destroy your soul. Furthermore, because God is working all things for the good of conforming us to Christ (Rom. 8:28-30), we need not fear the refinery of God’s providence. There is eternal purpose in what God is doing. So, look outside your immediate situation and to eternity.

Second, trusting in Christ when tempted to fear teaches us to rest in the sovereignty of God. Does a sparrow fall to the ground apart from God’s will? Is such a thing too trivial for God? If the psalmist rejoices, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3), so also should we rejoice, resting in this reality. If even the hairs of your head are numbered, is there anything outside of the sovereign will of God? As R.C. Sproul would say, “There are no maverick molecules.” So, rest in the sovereignty of God.

Third, trusting in Christ when tempted to fear teaches us to wait on God’s provision. If God provides for the little sparrow of the forest, will He not provide for His child? “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” So, wait on God’s provision.   

What then should be our response to these truths? First, we are not to fear the world, the flesh, or the devil but God alone. Martin Luther distinguished between a “servile” fear and a “filial” fear, the fear of an indentured servant for his master versus the fear of a child for his father. On the one hand God is the One who can “destroy both soul and body in hell,” but for those who are in Christ He is also our heavenly Father. To fear God, as we are commanded, is to have an awe and respect for His majesty while joyfully adoring Him as His children The Proverb teaches, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), so also it is the remedy for sinful fear.

Second, we are not to fear but to acknowledge our identity in Christ before men. Just as the gospel is a treasure to share, so also who we are in Christ is a beauty to behold, to be held forth. The greatest work of art in the most elegant of settings is rubbish compared to the radiance of the testimony of God’s grace at work in you. Always be prepared “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15), for the hope that we have is most glorious.  Acknowledging our Lord before the world testifies to not only whose we are but glorifies our Father who is in heaven.  

So, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32), and let us sing:  

The LORD’s my Shepherd,

            I’ll not want;

He makes me down to lie

In pastures green; He leadeth me

The quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again;

And me to walk doth make

Within the paths of righteousness,

Ev’n for His own name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk in

            death’s dark vale,

Yet will I fear no ill;

For Thou are with me, and Thy rod

And staff me comfort still.

A table Thou has furnished me

In presence of my foes;

My head Thou dost with

            oil anoint,

And my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life

Shall surely follow me;

And in GOD’s house forevermore

My dwelling place shall be.

(Psalm 23, Trinity Pslater)

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