March 20, 2012

Persecution Brings... Joy?

Reading through Acts, the motion is always forward. The story presses on with little pause. Immediately following the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7, persecution breaks out broadly against the church. Men and women are being dragged out of their houses and off to prison by the blindly zealous Pharisee named Saul. This scatters everyone except the apostles. Philip, one of the deacons appointed alongside Stephen earlier in Acts, goes to the city of Samaria.

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.  (Acts 8:5-8, ESV)

The gospel of Christ comes to the Samaritans in word and power, gaining a hearing with the people. God has a purpose in Philip's presence and preaching. Philip bears witness from Scripture and history -  Messiah has come!  It is said that 'the crowds with one accord paid attention' to what Philip was saying. You can almost see in your mind's eye the entire city, to a man, turning to face Philip and giving heed to his words. What a blessing God is pouring out on Samaria. Grace, mercy, and demonstrations of His mighty power to save. Philip calls them to faith in the risen Christ; calls them to repentance from dead works that they may serve the living and true God; calls them as Lazarus from the hopeless tomb of sin to the eternal-life-giving cross of Christ.

As the message of peace with God through Messiah sinks in, and the physical blessings of healing and deliverance are accomplished, the people respond in faith. A river of joy streams from the fountain of faith. Joy in their salvation. Joy in their deliverance. Joy in Messiah, the resurrected Son of God. Great joy in God!

Seeking to stamp out the church, Saul in his persecution of the church in Jerusalem, by God's providence, has become the sower of seeds of joy throughout the region. His every intent is evil towards Christians. His every desire is to destroy the works of Jesus Christ. And his every act furthers the glory of God in Christ.

What a fantastically challenging and encouraging word. Here in America many evangelicals are supremely comfortable, untroubled as we seek out 'the good things in life', and entirely ignorant of the great purposes God has in seasons of trouble and persecution. We pursue every opportunity to minimize risk, to cover all the bases, to always have a backup plan for our backup plan. And most of all, to keep our mouths shut. (I say this to my own personal shame.)

No matter... trouble will come. Persecution will arise. With it, opportunity. Can God be trusted to lead you through trouble, through perfect storms, through persecution? Can He be trusted when trouble begins, continues, and lands squarely on your life and those around you? Can He be trusted when stress bends you, twists you, turns you inside out? Can He be trusted when illness and disease ravage body, mind, and spirit? Can He be trusted when you are pulled out by the roots and forced by providential circumstance to resettle in another area, another job, another church, another family? Is He trustworthy when there is no immediate or obvious deliverance?

Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. He can be trusted. He is trustworthy. You and I, dear brothers and sisters, are called to live by faith in the Triune God. He will lead us through trouble, not from trouble. He goes before us, follows behind us, and upholds us in every way needed.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4, ESV)

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