While the Bible is filled with promises that make glad the heart of the Christian, there are promises, predictions if you prefer in this instance, which make the Christian heart step back. This is one of those: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12)
The spiritual dynamic behind this verse is simple enough. The world is not godly, moreover it hates godliness. In particular, the world hates those people who point to or speak of Christ. To the world godliness, Jesus-likeness, is offensive, it is putrid smelling, indeed, it is the odor of death to those who are perishing. (2 Cor. 2:15-16) Therefore the world will naturally hate Christ-likeness. Any and all who desire to live like Christ, to walk as he walked, to love as he loved, to hate sin and evil as he hated it, to love the Father as he loved the Father, to hold loosely to the world as he held it loosely, will be hated by the world. Jesus warned us, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)
From this internal hatred the world will act. It will want to eliminate those who are like Christ. That elimination will proceed through various stages. Mildly, they will dislike and avoid Christ-like people. More seriously, they will slander and belittle his followers. Even more harmfully, they will exclude, demote and terminate the employment of believers. Finally, they will harm, imprison and execute Christians. Persecution runs through these stages as the world gathers more boldness and gives full vent to its natural hatred. Each stage, from dislike to martyrdom is real persecution. We should understand them as such. The world’s hatred leads naturally to its persecution of believers.
We, of course, fear persecution. That is only natural and normal. We should not expect, even as those who desire to live godly lives, to naturally welcome or love persecution. God may grant us peace in the midst of persecution, even joy for being counted worthy of suffering for Christ, but the anticipation of suffering is humanly frightful. Even our Lord asked if his cup of suffering might pass him by. It is important to remember this, that we will naturally fear persecution.
This fear of persecution has a natural impact in us. We tend to shy away from being so much like Jesus that the world will want to hate us and persecute us. Rather than allowing Christ to shine through us, we intentionally dim his lamp, hiding it under a bushel, so that we may pass undetected through a world scornful of Christians. I am fond of repeating the story of the Christian freshman at a state university. When asked by his parents how things were going in his first semester he replied: “Really great, no one even knows I am a Christian yet.” Little comfort to his parents, presumably, even less to his Lord.
We will naturally fear persecution, however, we must not allow that natural fear to overpower what should be a greater desire—to be like Jesus. We are not warned that persecution follows those who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus so that we may avoid being persecuted. Far rather, we are told this to encourage us toward godliness by preparing us for the suffering that follows. Think of how shocked and discouraged we should be, had God told us: “Be godly and the world will reward you.” When in fact, we do find ourselves disliked and excluded for following Christ. How much more helpful our Master, Christ, has been to tell us this important truth, so that we might all the more desire to be godly while preparing for whatever shape persecution takes towards us. Forewarned is forearmed.
This is the way our Master went. He knew well the cost of living a godly life in this godless world. The world hated him, slandered him, excluded, harmed, imprisoned and killed him. And he calls us to follow him. We dare choose no other path. For to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of Christ. (James 4:4) We must choose our alliances carefully. The world and its desires do pass away, but whoever does Gods’ will, whoever lives a godly life in Christ Jesus, lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
It appears likely that more and more serious persecution awaits Christians in the United States. We have moved from grudgingly respected, to tolerated, to hated in less than a life-time. As my wife, Ann, who was a non-Christian in her early high-school years, says: “When I was young we hated Christians because they were good. Now the world hates us because we are bad.”
We face a daily choice, either to follow Jesus—desiring to live a godly life in Christ Jesus—or to avoid persecution. We cannot do both. We cannot do both.
Let us follow Jesus, ready for what we know is coming. For to follow Jesus is to find eternal life. When the causal disciples of Jesus began to realize that following him was going to mean difficulty, many of them turned aside. Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter spoke for every true believer when he replied: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68) Let us follow Jesus, desiring to live a godly life in him, becoming like him more and more, in both the power of his resurrection and, however hesitatingly, in the fellowship of his suffering. (Phil. 3:10)
Author: Rev. Dr. Tom Hawkes
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