Let’s make some points of application.
First, and this is a reminder from last week, if we are going to be persecuted, and we will be persecuted if we continue in our obedience to the Lord, let’s be persecuted for the right reasons. Let persecution come because of the good we do among the poor and the goodwill we build among our city’s regular joes and small businessmen. Let’s not rejoice in persecution because we run effective meme sites but because we have stolen the hearts of our community, especially the poor.
Second, let’s ensure not to waffle at the point of persecution. Let’s be certain we are prepared to share the Gospel as the apostles do here, in such a hostile context. It is easy to pound out your faithful testimony on the keyboard at home while everything is going well when it will cost you nothing. Are we really prepared for persecution? When was the last time you spent any protracted time in prayer wrestling with God over sin and the world? When was the last time you dedicated any time to pray for the lost? The president? Your local representatives? When was the last time you fasted from a meal, for a day, or for multiple days to focus on your soul, personal repentance, or for confessing the sins of your church or community? We do not always have to be in a season of conviction, repentance, and sorrow, but shouldn’t we be sometimes? Why is it that the Church is never in that state anymore? One of the beatitudes is “ Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5) How spiritually dull are we? The answer to that question would probably scare us. It is a mercy that the Lord only shows us a sliver of our disobedience. We would be overwhelmed if it were otherwise.
Let’s get practical for a minute about Christianity, persecution, and the spiritual disciplines.
Have you given when you couldn’t afford it? How you answer that question will tell you how you will give in the future poverty that persecution will bring. What will you do with all your time when they take your iPhone away? How tough will you be when the food drops to one bland meal a day? How will you comfort and preach the Gospel to yourself if they take the Bible away from you? Can you remember and recount Christ’s life? The parables? The Sermon on the Mount? John 14-16 on the work of the Holy Spirit? How will you share the Gospel with others in difficulty if you can’t share it with your own soul? Do you think I’m being a bit harsh with this line of questioning? Paul, writing to Timothy in a time when persecution was widespread, told him to,
2 Timothy 2:3-7
3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. 5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6 It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. 7 Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Many of the spiritual disciplines are merely practicing self-imposed difficulties. Fasting, periods of silence, praying all night, extended times of prayer, extended Scripture memory sessions, and periods of confession and repentance are all forms of self-imposed suffering. They have two essential purposes. The first, the primary purpose, is to give you a chance to put the Gospel to use. What I mean is to approach the Father. The means of grace are, in general, means of worship. They set your affections where they should be, on things above (Colossians 3:1). The means of grace disrupt your flow of life, draw you into worship, and remind you that you are a servant of God, not man, money, information, or some other idol.
The second purpose of the means of grace is to reveal your sin to you successively over time because of its enormity. The more you draw near to the holy Father, the more you need Christ to draw near. That is the feedback loop of Gospel sanctification. And this feedback loop places you more and more, by the grace of God (define means of grace), in control of your members, your body. An offshoot benefit of sanctification (spiritual control of your body and mind) via the means of grace is to prepare you to meet the challenges of persecution. You will likely not meet them faithfully if prayerlessness, overeating, over-indulging in entertainment, forsaking the poor, and neglecting Scripture reading, memorization, and meditation are more the rule of your life than the exception. I’m not saying this to shame us but to warn us. You may say I’ll depend on grace when the moment comes, but I would tell you that that is to “presume” upon the grace of God, not to trust in it. We must trust and serve God in times of peace first. Spiritual wisdom repents before the calamity, not during it.
If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you. 24 Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, 25 because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, 26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, 27 when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. 28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, 30 would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, 31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices.
Third, let’s preach a whole Gospel, not a partial one. The Gospel is not the life, death, and resurrection of Christ only. Even at this early stage, the apostles share about the resurrection, crucifixion, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. I’ve said in the past that I thought the most under taught doctrine in the modern Church is the ascension of Christ and its ramifications. I taught an entire small series of sermons on that subject early on in this sermon series in Acts of the Apostles, from chapter 1. But if you asked me about the most mistaught doctrine in the Church, I would say “the coming of the Holy Spirit.”
In our day, we have divorced the apostles’ witness from the witness of the Holy Spirit. How? If you acknowledge the facts that the apostles have declared, you are said to be saved without any thought to the Holy Spirit’s affirmation of the truth of a person’s conversion. Have we believed from the heart? Do we give any evidence of a new birth from heaven? Or Do we provide evidence of a “ticket punch oriented” Gospel where we acknowledge a set of facts to avoid the “possible” reality of hell? The Gospel cannot be a hedged bet. That is not faith.
We no longer use the Holy Spirit’s witness as evidence of the Truth of the Gospel. We don’t share the Gospel and then line up former sinners whose lives have been completely changed by the Holy Spirit as witnesses. Why? I suspect it is because of the hardness of our hearts and the low level of our corporate Christian progress under vastly more light than other generations possessed. Are both the apostles and the Holy Spirit witnesses or just the apostles? We, who have the Scriptures in multiple renditions and the mother tongues, as well as the teaching of the early church fathers, medieval churchmen, reformers, theologians, revivalists, etc., all at the click of a button, sit in a place of incredible light. We sit at such an advanced stage that we seem to have forgotten the simplicity of childlike Faith and dependence on the Holy Spirit in the little things that True Faith brings. Our obedience in the small things like giving, prayer, the use of our tongue, food, patience, complaining, etc., prepares us for use as holy vessels when there is much more on the line. Never forget that the apostles spent three and a half years living with Jesus. They were sleeping at an all-night prayer session with Jesus when He was arrested. They’ve been ministering (preaching & praying = essentially leading worship) daily since the Holy Spirit’s outpouring. They have become dependent and obedient servants. Their life and ministry reflect the power of the Holy Spirit, not just in their ability to heal but in their own personal transformationa. The apostles are different men. Those in Jerusalem who have encountered Jesus through them are also now different people.
Christ Jesus rose from the dead after having truly died. He ascended bodily and now ever lives seated at the Father’s right hand. He is crowned as the King of Heaven and Earth. He has poured out the Holy Spirit on His people. The words of the Twelve and the Holy Spirit’s Presence bear witness to the Gospel’s truth. The apostles cured limps and souls. The social capital they built was only partially based on the supernatural healing of the people. After the people were healed, they listened and were healed from so much more. The apostles want the rulers to know this too, so they start with the resurrection, not the crucifixion. The apostles were prepared to bear a faithful testimony (they spent time with Christ), equipped to bear a faithful testimony (the Holy Spirit was given to them), and they practiced bearing a faithful testimony every day (the used the means of grace/worshiped God) of their lives. If we plan to stand with them and for Christ in times of persecution in the future, we should prepare ourselves in the same way.
Thanks for taking the time to read the second essay in our “Burning Coals” series. Look for our third and final installment in series to begin Tuesday morning October 4th.
May God be with you!