by Bruce Mills
I was recently reading some of the stories of suffering Christians around the world that are listed on the Voice of the Martyrs web site (www.persecution.com). Those accounts of the things which faithful saints are experiencing for the name of Christ should cause each of us to pray for them and to realize that it is only by God's grace that we who live in the west have not had to undergo the serious forms of persecution that many of our fellow believers in the east experience on a regular basis.
But there are two things of which we can be certain because Jesus told us it would be this way: (1) Persecution is the normal response to any forthright Christian witness or public stand, and (2) We will experience persecution to the extent that we confront the world with Christ’s claims. The message of Christ is very narrow and exclusive, and our world’s desire for an all-inclusive religion of tolerance doesn’t fit well with the gospel. Those Christians who are willing to stand up and tell people that they are lost and on their way to an eternal hell unless they repent and turn to Christ in saving faith are going to suffer persecution for saying such.
It may be as subtle as being shunned and avoided by your neighbors and co-workers. It may be more direct, such as being told that you are not permitted to keep your Bible on your desk at work or to speak of Christ to fellow employees, even during free time such as lunch breaks. It may be that you are called derisive terms to your face such as “Jesus freak” or “Bible thumper.” But in many other parts of our world, it may mean imprisonment or even a death sentence if you speak of Christ or give someone else a Bible.
Persecution is never pleasant, but in John 16:33, Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” And in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:10-12, He said, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” So there is a promise of God’s blessing for those who endure persecution for His name. Persecution may separate you from a more lucrative worldly future or a more attractive image before the world, but persecution will never separate you from Christ’s love.
In Hebrews 11:36-38, the writer tells us what types of persecution the Old Testament saints endured for God’s name. He writes, "and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground."
The cost of faithfulness to God has always been high. In fact, in Matt. 10:37-39, Jesus raised the cost to a level to which many people are unwilling to pay. He declared, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.”
What was He saying? He was saying that Jesus Christ must be more important to you than even your family. You must be willing to reject your parent’s religion and turn your back on their desires for you if they conflict with submitting to Jesus Christ. You must be willing to turn your back on your children if it means choosing between them and Jesus Christ. You must be willing to die for Him or your profession of love for Him isn’t genuine. That’s what He means by that statement.
If a professing Christian turns his back on the things of God or lives a habitual, persistent lifestyle of sin, that is proof that he never belonged to Christ in the first place. Such people have not lost their salvation because they never genuinely possessed it. I was recently asked about the verse which says, “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Guess where that verse is found? It’s found in Matthew 10:33, right there in the same passage in Matthew where I quoted Jesus' statement about the cost of following Him. Those who deny Him here, He will deny before the Father because He never really knew them. They were never genuine believers.
Here’s what the apostle John said in 1 John 2:19 about those kind of people who come into the church and claim to be Christians for a while, but then walk away and abandon their claim to believe in Christ: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”
If the things of the world continually keep a person from the things of God, that person proves he is not a child of God. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, many thousands of people walked great distances to hear Him preach and to receive physical healing for themselves and their loved ones. At His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowd acclaimed Him as their Messiah and wanted to make Him king, but a few days later, the fickle crowd was calling for His crucifixion, and after His death when the cost of true discipleship became evident, most of those who had once hailed Jesus were nowhere to be found. In fact, according to Acts 1:15, there were only 120 followers left after His ascension.
In Luke 9 Jesus encountered three different men who claimed they were willing to follow Him. Luke 9:57—As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” That sounds like a wonderful statement. This guy was probably the first guy to ever sing the hymn, “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go.” But Jesus knew his heart, and so He said to him—verse 58—“The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” In Matthew’s account of this same event, he identifies this guy as one of the scribes, so he would have placed great value on comfort and respect, and he probably saw Jesus as his ticket to gain more of those things in the future. So Jesus tells him that He’ll have to give all that up to follow Him.
Then in verse 59, the Lord calls another man—And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” That man didn’t mean that his father had just died, but rather that he wanted to postpone commitment to Christ until after his father eventually died, at which time he would receive his portion of the family inheritance. Look at what Jesus told him in verse 60—But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” In other words, “Let those who are spiritually dead take care of their own fleshly interests; you focus on eternal matters.” As Warren Wiersbe puts it: “He was worried about somebody else’s funeral when he should have been planning his own!” You have to be willing to die for Christ.
Finally, there was a third man in verse 61—Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” Look at the Lord’s reply to him: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Someone might say, “Oh my, Jesus’ answer sounds so heartless. Why would He forbid someone to say goodbye to their family?” The problem with this guy was that his heart was looking backwards with devotion to his family rather than forward with devotion to the Lord.
There is nothing wrong with a loving farewell to one’s family. Elijah allowed Elisha to do that in 1 Kings 19. Elisha was plowing his field when Elijah called him into the Lord’s service, and Elisha asked if he could return home and kiss his parents goodbye. Elijah gave him permission, but reminded him that the call of God was upon him. So, in order to show that his heart was looking forward with total commitment to serve God and Elijah, Elisha went home, slaughtered the oxen he plowed with and sacrificed them. And he used the yoke and plow as the wood for the fire. That demonstrated his total commitment to not turn back. He served the meat to his family, then left and joined Elijah (1 Kings 19:20-21).
But in this man’s case, Jesus saw that his heart was not wholly with Him, and that he would be plowing and continually looking back, making his family more important than Christ. If you look backwards when you’re plowing, you will inevitably demonstrate that you aren’t a true plowman. In the same way, those who look backwards and make their family more important than Jesus, demonstrate that they aren’t true disciples.
In his commentary on these verses in Luke, the great Anglican bishop of the 1800s, J. C. Ryle, writes,
“…it is impossible to serve Christ with a divided heart. If we are looking back to anything in this world, we are not fit to be disciples. Those who look back, like Lot’s wife, want to go back. Jesus will not share His throne with anyone—no, not with our dearest relatives. He must have all our heart, or none.
So, only the true believer perseveres, not because he is strong in himself, but because he has the power of God’s indwelling Spirit. His perseverance does not keep his salvation safe, but proves that his salvation is genuine. Those who fail to persevere not only demonstrate their lack of courage, but much more importantly, their lack of genuine faith. God will keep and protect even the most fearful person who truly belongs to Him. On the other hand, the bravest of those who are merely professing Christians will invariably fall away when the cost of being identified with Christ becomes too great.
I challenge you to ask yourself, am I willing to sacrifice everything in this world, including my family and my own life, for the sake of Jesus Christ? Only those who are genuine believers can honestly answer that question in the affirmative.