I read an article this week in an EFC publication that reported that, “On August 16, Artur Pawlowski was arrested for sharing the Gospel with tarot card readers at the Fringe Festival in Calgary. Pawlowski told these practisers of "sorcery" that the Bible condemns these practices. Organizers of the festival asked him not to talk to the vendors and he agreed. But when he stayed in the park praying and reading the Bible, the organizers called police. The police arrested Pawlowski for obstruction and he was taken in a police car in handcuffs. He was also charged with trespassing and causing a disturbance. Amazingly, Pawlowski's brother videotaped the entire sequence of events.
“On the videotape Pawlowski can be heard explaining to the police that he emigrated from Poland so that he could enjoy rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Charter. He was to appear in court on September 7.”
“The CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press broke a story on August 23 that seems to date back to May. The Manitoba Human Rights Commission appears to have decided to review mission statements from all school boards across the province, after receiving "complaints." It took on the Garden Valley School Board for its 100 year-old mission statement that referred to the schools as a "partnership with home and church" in promoting Christian principles.
“Janet Baldwin, commission chairwoman, said in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press that she gave the school board a "little lecture" about human rights law. And ultimately told them that the reference to church and "Christian principles" creates a "poisoned environment" in the schools.
“This is a bit jaw-dropping. The language "poisoned environment" was used by the Supreme Court of Canada in a New Brunswick Case where a teacher who was a public holocaust denier created a poisoned atmosphere for Jews in the schools because there was evidence of a burgeoning neo-Nazi movement. It is also used when there is sexual harassment of a nature that the victim feels afraid to go to work. It is hard to believe that a mission statement promoting Christian principles could create a poisoned environment. The school board has responded that "100 percent of parents" have petitioned the school to have opt-in religious exercises before the school day starts.
“The human rights commission has not said that any "complaints" have related to the Garden Valley School Board. So, is this just a modern day witch hunt (where the "witches" are Christians)?”
These are just a few instances in which Christian perspectives and Christian people have been restricted in their expression of faith. Is this common? Is it increasing? What does it mean for us as Christians in the future? Will we have to learn to deal with persecution?
In our study of Philippians, we will examine Philippians 1:27-30 this morning. We have suggested in the last few messages that this letter is a friendship letter written by Paul to the church in Philippi. We noticed last week that Paul wrote to the Philippians about “what has happened to me.” In verse 27, the focus changes to what is happening to the Philippians. In verses 12-26 the dominant pronoun has been “I” and in verses 27 – 30 the dominant pronoun is “you.”
There are three concerns that Paul addresses in the larger section from 1:27-2:18. The basic concern is “the gospel” as he says in 1:27 and in 2:15 where he reminds them that they “shine like stars in the universe.” As people who must make the gospel of Christ known Paul indicates, in this section, that there are three things that are important in that responsibility. They are woven throughout this section. The first concern is that they be people who live worthy of the gospel, the second that they live in unity with each other and the third that they not be frightened by those who will oppose them. These three concerns are still critical for any church and any individual who is willing to take up the God-given mandate to make the name of Jesus known. Over the next four messages, we will examine each of these aspects. The last one we will examine will be the matter of being worthy. In the second last one we will take a little side trip to think about how Jesus came and carried out his ministry. In the next message, we will think together about the matter of unity and today, I would like to speak about how God’s children face opposition. The particular focus of the message today will be on 1:29 in which we are told that “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…”
This is a theme that is repeated many times in the Bible. We are citizens of heaven who are living on earth and, therefore, we will face suffering and persecution. Jesus himself indicated in John 15:20, “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” He said the same thing in other places.
Revelation 12 tells the cosmic story of God and His work in the world and the opposition of Satan. In the final verse, we read, “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” The war the dragon makes against “the rest of her offspring” refers to the persecution of believers.
In Philippians 1:27, Paul speaks about “contending for the faith of the gospel.” This is a recognition that as Christians we are in a battle. The word “contending” is a word that was used to speak of the battle which often took place in the Roman amphitheatre in which gladiators fought with each other or with wild animals. As Christians, who are citizens of the heavenly kingdom, but live in the earthly kingdom, we are in a battle and sometimes those in the earthly kingdom will oppose us and we will find ourselves in a battle for the faith.
In verse 28, Paul encourages them not to be “frightened in any way by those who oppose you,” indicating that there were those who opposed them. Then in verse 30 he says, “you are going through the same struggle…” The reason he mentions suffering is because it was a reality for the church in Philippi. This city, although a Greek city, was a Roman colony and, as such, had the special privilege of Roman citizenship. The display of such citizenship would have been important to the residents there, which included acknowledging that “Caesar is Lord.” As Christians, they were unable to say this because for them, Christ was Lord and that may be why they were persecuted.
Persecution certainly wasn’t something surprising for Paul. As we read on in verse 30, he talks about the “struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” The church in Philippi was planted by Paul and the story is described in Acts 16. As soon as the church was planted, there was opposition. One of the first experiences Paul had in Philippi was being arrested and spending the night in prison. Now he is in prison again because of Jesus and so is speaking about what he has personally experienced.
For many years, we have ignored these passages and the many verses that speak about persecution and suffering. We have not suffered. Life has been pretty easy for us. We have been aware that in other times in the history of the Christian church such suffering was a reality. We have been aware that in our own history, in my own family history there have been experiences of suffering for Christ. We have been aware that in other places in the world suffering is taking place, but it has not touched us and so these passages have been somewhat strange to us. That was not the case for the church in Philippi. They were experiencing opposition. It is beginning to change for us and so we need to recognize that this kind of an experience is not surprising.
Why in the world are God’s people opposed?
One reason is given in verse 28 where Paul says, “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God.”
Persecution is evidence that a line has been drawn in the sand. It shows that there are two sides and that there are people on both sides. On the one side, is God and all those who follow him. On the other side is Satan and those who follow him. On this earth, we are in Satan’s territory and will, therefore, experience opposition. Although Romans 12:18 says that we should live at peace as much as we can, when it comes to our relationship with God, there are some things we can’t compromise. Those are the things that will put us at odds with those who oppose Christ. Persecution reveals that line. From the eternal perspective, it affirms that we are on the side of God and will win and that those who persecute us are on the side that will be destroyed. Thus suffering for Christ serves the purpose of revealing those who belong to him and those who belong to the world.
Philippians 1:29 makes another striking statement about the reason there is persecution when it says “…it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”
If we dissect this verse a little bit, we can begin to understand the unusual and amazing thing it teaches us. If we read only part of the verse, namely, “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ to believe on him,” it makes perfect sense. It tells us that salvation in Christ is a gift. God has given those who believe in Christ a relationship with God in which we receive forgiveness and eternal life. What a blessing! We accept it gladly as a gift from God.
However, that is not all the verse says. It says that the gift we have been given from God, the grace we have received from God is not only to believe, but also the grace to suffer with Christ. What this says is that suffering is not an accident, not a sign of God’s anger, but a sign of his favour, a gift of his grace. One writer says, “suffering should not surprise or overwhelm them; it is rather evidence that ‘God looks upon you with favour.’”
How is suffering a gift of grace? I think that II Corinthians 4:11 gives us a good answer to that question. There we read, “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” The reason God has allowed us to suffer for Christ is so that God’s power can be revealed through us. Suffering drives us to Christ. When we suffer, we come to the end of our resources and we are forced to rely on Christ. When we suffer, the life giving, resurrection power of Jesus makes itself known in our lives. In that way, it is a gift of grace.
A third reason why we are persecuted is contained in the little phrase “on behalf of Christ” in verse 29. God has granted that in persecution we are closely identified with Christ. II Corinthians 1:5 says, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” The life of Jesus was a life of suffering. When we suffer because we are Christians, we share in His suffering and are closely identified with Him. If we love Jesus, as we looked at last week, this kind of close identification with Him will be a badge of honor. If we are that closely identified with Jesus in our suffering, we can begin to understand how it is a gift of grace to be persecuted.
Janet Epp Buckingham is the Director of Law and Public Policy for the evangelical Fellowship of Canada. She wrote, “Over the last several years there has been a marked increase in incidents of intolerance to religious perspectives in various public schools in Canada. In Saskatchewan, students were told that it was offensive to ‘pray around the flagpole’ and requested to stop. In New Brunswick, students in one class were instructed to write a ‘Christmas story’ but were told that it was ‘illegal’ to mention Jesus in the story. In an Ontario school, students were told that 100 years ago people believed in the Bible but that ‘no one takes the Bible seriously now.’ When a student objected to this, she was singled out as an out-of-touch oddity.”
We have been living in a bubble of exception, but that is changing, so we need to know not only that persecution is normal, not only that we are in enemy territory, but that this is a gift of God’s grace. We also need to know how to face what is coming.
In Philippians 1:28 Paul encourages them by saying, “without being frightened in any way.” The word for frightened is the same word as is sometimes used to describe an “uncontrollable stampede of startled horses.” This is the sudden fear of something which is only partly known and which strikes terror and a sudden reaction.
We have a distinct advantage because we know the enemy is coming. Therefore, there is no reason for sudden fright. We can have this perspective if we have the life purpose given in 1:21 where Paul says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” If we know that we are in God’s hands at all times and if we know that our eternal destination is secure, then we do not need to fear any suffering or persecution which may come upon us. Instead, we can glorify Christ whether by life or death.
Instead of becoming frightened, the Bible, in many places, encourages patient endurance. I Corinthians 4:12 says, “when we are persecuted, we endure it.” Jesus, “who for the joy set before him, endured the cross,” as Hebrews 12:2 says, is our example of endurance. He knew what suffering would accomplish and because of that joy endured it. It is like enduring getting your teeth cleaned or having surgery. It is hard to face, but you know that it will make things better and so you choose to endure it.
Such endurance involves patience. James 5:10 says, “…as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Consider Jeremiah who was put in a hole in the ground, who was constantly slandered, but who knew that he was doing God’s will and so was patient in all his suffering. Such a response is commendable for us as well.
We are encouraged to do even more than endure patiently, we are encouraged to rejoice in suffering. I Peter 4:13 says, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…” Why can we not only endure, but also rejoice in suffering?
We can rejoice because, as Romans 8:35-39 says, we can never be separated from the love of God. There is nothing that will happen to us that God does not know about and that is not within His loving purposes for us.
We can rejoice because as the rest of I Peter 4:13 says, “so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” The eventual outcome for those who endure is so great that it will make our suffering seem as nothing. If we remember what is yet to come, we can rejoice in our present suffering.
One of the questions which may come up as opposition of Christians increases is the question of whether or not we can defend ourselves. Paul did use his rights as a Roman citizen to defend himself on several occasions. In Philippi, after spending a night in jail, he was released, but when released, he confronted them by questioning their right to arrest and imprison a Roman citizen without good cause. In Jerusalem, he defended himself from the attacks of the Jews by appealing to the Roman laws.
Janet Epp Buckingham speaks about this in a recent article. She advises that “in Canada we have legal processes that are for the benefit of all in our society. We can use these processes to ensure that everyone in Canada enjoys religious freedom. It is not offensive to Canadian government authority to write a letter to a politician or even to start a legal action. There may be times when God calls us to refrain from taking action, however. This is where prayer and discernment within the Christian community are very important. And a particular note of caution is found in 1 Corinthians 6:1. Christians should not be taking one another to court. But this does not restrict Christians from using the courts to ensure that religious freedom is respected.”
When Paul indicates in Philippians 1:29 that it has been granted to us to suffer, “on behalf of Christ” it raises another issue. If we share in the sufferings of Christ it means that we ought to respond to suffering in the same way that Christ did. One writer says, “Through ‘death on the cross’ he not only ‘saved us,’ but modeled for us God’s way of dealing with the opposition – loving them to death.” Later in Philippians 3:10 Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
In an article in the MB Herald called Taking it on the chin, Dan Harder compares the reaction which many Muslims had to the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad and a cartoon which blasphemed Jesus in the campus newspaper of the University of Saskatchewan. He writes, “The response in Saskatoon was immediate. The Saskatoon Christian Centre issued a news release asking University of Saskatchewan president MacKinnon “to close The Sheaf and withdraw all public funding until the current editorial staff are dismissed.” Other reactions followed, including calls to boycott the university paper. In the end, the editor resigned although the cartoonist remained unapologetic.
“As I observed the outcry over the cartoon, I saw that the response from the Christian community was strangely similar to the response from the Muslim community about the cartoons offending their prophet. The Sheaf had put Christians in the position the Danish papers had put Muslims earlier and we were reacting the same. But should we have been?
“During his crucifixion, Jesus was mocked, spit at, crowned with thorns, and ultimately killed for something he did not do. Followers of Jesus can expect this type of behaviour from people who are not followers of Christ; it comes with the territory. The cartoon was in bad taste but was nothing new; Christianity has always been attacked and will continue to be. Christians cannot expect Christian behaviour from those who are not Christian. Rather, we must love them, and forgive them, even if an apology is not forthcoming.
“That’s what makes Christianity attractive, I think: we take it on the chin, we turn the other cheek.”
So far in my life persecution has been minimal. In many other parts of the world, however, suffering is present in the Christian church. In many other times in the history of the church, suffering has dominated the life of the church. So in the grand scheme of things, we have been living in a bubble of exception. It will not stay that way. Signs, as we have seen, are already indicating that changes are on the way. Will we be ready?
If we understand that persecution has always been a part life for Christians and if we understand that suffering is a gift of God’s grace that He has given and if we learn all that the Bible has to say about not being afraid, but enduring patiently and even rejoicing, if we learn when and how to defend ourselves and when to love our enemies, then we will be well equipped to face these times. The Bible is certainly not silent on this issue, so I invite you to study it and to be ready to love Christ even when persecuted.