The Passion of the Persecuted

cross-fire-redOn November 18, 1951, the United States Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, provided a collection of affidavits accusing the Communist Romanian government. He wrote that the peoples freedom of expression and the freedom of press have been “have been willfully, callously and systematically violated by the Romanian government.” That very same year, under the watchful eye of the Romanian government, Pastor Iscu, a Christian preaching in communist Romania was arrested. Pastor Iscu soon found out that the communist party does not take kindly to those who preach about Jesus. A communist officer approached pastor Iscu, deadening Pastor Iscu’s senses with blows to the body. The beatings continued until the Christian could not walk. He was placed in a jail cell to die. In his cell, Pastor Iscu, surrounded by other Christians, rarely spoke. When he did, pain shot through his body. One night as Pastor Iscu lay in bed, he saw, across his crowded jail cell another tortured man. Accept this man was the communist officer who had beaten him viciously and left him for dead. No one knew why this officer was now laying in the cell with them, but one thing was for sure, both he and the pastor had experienced the brutality of those who seek to stop Christianity. Then on Christmas eve, as the prisoners lay sleeping, the communist officer awoke. Though he was close to death, he could not find rest. His arm reached out grabbing a prisoner. Knowing that most of the prisoners were Christians, the officer begged “I have committed horrible crimes, I can find no rest, help me please! When Pastor Iscu heard the officers words, he motioned for men to carry him there. As he was placed beside the man who tortured him, Pastor Iscu reached out and placed his hand on the violent mans head. He said “You were young and you did not know what you were doing. I forgive you, as do all of the other Christians you have mistreated. And if we sinners, who have been saved by Jesus can love like this, how much more can he himself erase all the evil you have done to cleanse you fully, only repent.” That very night, a murdered confessed to the man he murdered and the murderer, who would die, forgave his punisher. The officer and pastor embraced each other as the officer repented of his sins. That night both men died in their jail cell, and that night both men went to heaven.

Passion is an incredible thing isn’t it? A deep love for something can drive your whole life. Many spend their whole life searching for adventure. If you’ve read the newspapers lately you may have seen that a hicker found the wreckage of renowned adventurer Steve Fossett. Fossett was an American businessman, aviator, sailor, and adventurer, and the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in a balloon. He made his fortune in the financial services industry, and was best known for many world records, including five nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth: as a long-distance solo balloonist, as a sailor, and as a solo flight fixed-wing aircraft pilot. On September 3, 2007, Fossett was reported missing. His plane had crashed in the hills of California. Fossett gave his life for adventure.

Many spend their lives searching for money. Money drives men and women to become everything they want to be. People desire wealth, fortune, fame, and everything that goes along with being a celebrity in our culture. Men will work overtime, neglect families, and wear their bodies out just to make more money. Money can consume a person and easily become a passion in life.

What are you most passionate about? Lately I have been asking myself “what does it mean to be passionate about Jesus?” As a believer, our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and goals should all be focused on Jesus. But what does this look like? I have been reading through the book of Acts over the last few weeks and many of the characters have sparked my attention, mainly, Stephen in Acts 6 and 7, and Saul in Acts 8 and 9.

What we find in the beginning of chapter 6 is the disciples have chosen a few faithful men of “good reputation” and “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to do some of the serving to allow the disciples to focus more on prayer and preaching. One of these men is Stephen. As Stephen was “doing many signs and great wonders”, certain men would come and dispute with Stephen about the signs he performed. They found out quickly that they could not stand against Stephen’s wisdom and Spirit. These men began, as the text says “inducing” men to say, “We heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God!” They sought to bring about an undeserved charge against Stephen because of his relationship with Jesus. This sparks a grave time in the history of the church, which has not yet ended. As we know, this situation continues all the way until the end of Chapter 7 where we find Stephen preaching and crying out to Jesus to save the people as they were throwing stones at him. As they did this, we find at the end of chapter 7 (v. 58) that the people who were murdering Stephen laid their robes down at the feet of a young man named Saul. According to the text, it’s doesn’t seem as though Saul had a hand in Stephen’s murder, but we do know that he approved of it. Then we get to chapter 8, which we find Saul is the frontrunner of persecution. As the Christians spread across portions of Judea and Samaria to escape persecution, Saul sought after them with the intent of throwing them in jail.

As we read the story of Stephen’s death, we can easily identify the passion of Stephen’s heart as Jesus. Jesus is whom Stephen lived by and Jesus is whom Stephen died by. Stephen’s sole passion was to make known the name of Jesus and he died doing it. A relationship with Jesus is guaranteed to bring many blessings, both good and bad.

Jesus Brings Hostility. We must come face to face with this. Our culture militates against righteousness. Our culture today is subtly trying to push Jesus out of our nation. There are multitudes of subjects that our culture demands that Christians not speak out about including abortion, marriage, homosexuality, gender identity, and children. These recent newspaper articles help clarify what is happening in our country:

  • Prayer taken out of public schools
  • Courthouse forced to remove ten commandments
  • Judge blocks school graduation prayers
  • Employees banned from saying “Merry Christmas”
  • “One nation under God” considered unconstitutional
  • Nativity scene banned from school plays
  • Military Chaplain disciplined for praying in “Jesus’ Name”
  • Suit filed over national motto “In God We Trust”
  • Judge orders city to remove “cross” from War Memorial

If you think persecution is not here, you are wrong, and it will only get worse. In the coming years ahead, I am confident it will get worse. It will become increasingly more difficult for you to live for Christ in the near future. I can promise that while things may look bad, God’s Word will still go forth and as long as we are faithful to God’s word, lives will be changed, because Jesus brings Salvation.

Jesus Brings Salvation. In the first three verses of chapter 8, we find Saul, a devout Jewish Pharisee who routinely persecuted and killed Christians, “ravaging the church”. In the middle of this persecution, we find two people who are led to Christ by another fellow brother named Phillip. We see that conversion is taking place, Christ is going forth, and the curse of sin is being rolled back, even in the mist of horrible persecution.

As chapter 9 opens, we find Saul going to the high priest and requesting for letters that will allow him to enter the synagogues of Damascus in order to secure their support in his efforts to apprehend the Christian fugitives and return hem to Jerusalem for trial. As Saul is one his way to Damascus, Jesus makes a cameo appearance from heaven that knocks Saul to the ground.

As Jesus speaks to Saul, it would be very hard to imagine how the words struck Saul. They were a complete refutation of all he had been. He had persecuted Christians for their “blasphemous lie” that Jesus was risen, that he was the Lord reigning in glory. Now Paul himself beheld that same Jesus and the undeniable proof that he both lived and reigned in glory.

From this point on, Saul says nothing. He is completely broken because of his sin. In persecuting the church, he had persecuted Jesus, the risen Lord himself. When Jesus disciples suffer, Jesus himself suffers. We find Saul in complete brokenness and helplessness after he meets Christ.

The certainty of seeing Jesus, turned Saul from Jesus’ most zealous persecutors to his most ardent witness. Isn’t this how salvation should be? Shouldn’t we come to Jesus completely broken and helpless? Before someone is able to come to Christ, he must come face to face with his sin. We must look at sin for what it really is. When we sin, we break God’s commands. We disobey God. We persecute Christ. We destroy God’s plan for our lives. We run from His authority. The truth is, we were all once a “Saul”, raging against God’s plan. We must look at our sin for what it really is and what it really does. What it really is: sinning against God, disobeying God, persecuting Christ. What it really does: Separates us from God and condemns us to hell. Salvation changes a person from death to life, from enemy to friend, from a “Saul” to a “Paul”. Even now, as believers, we live on God’s team, but often times, we live without the passion we should have; the passion that Jesus brings.

Jesus Brings Passion. When Paul meets Jesus, his life changes. He, for the first time, obeys Jesus. He goes to stay with Ananias like Jesus asked him to. He is baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit before he goes to be with the disciples. This is his discipleship process. He’s learning about Christ. His passion is growing for the Lord. When he first meets Ananias and the disciples, both didn’t believe such a person could come to Christ. They were very skeptical of Saul’s confession. This would be like Osama Bin Laden walking into our sanctuary today and saying “I’m a Christian now, I know Jesus”. We would all be skeptical. It was his passion that gave them evidence of his conversion. Saul’s life was changed! The persecutor has now become the persecuted. Saul’s passion had now become Jesus. Jesus had Redeemed His life. Titus 2:13 says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us”. What an incredible story. Redemption is key to our salvation. People want redemption and that is why we need a passion for people!

Saul flipped from one who was persecuting to one who was persecuted. He desired that all would know the incredible power of Jesus Christ change lives. He now sought to win people to Christ now instead of punishing them for knowing Christ. We too need to be very focused on this. Our passion for Jesus must drive us to win people to Christ. Jesus is our great redeemer, he who has given his life for us. We must show people that they need hope and that hope is Jesus Christ. This is why we do missions. This is why it is important to intentionally befriend lost people, so that they would come to Christ. Christ must drive our very passion.

But the one who was persecuted for us all was Jesus. He is the one who gave his life for Stephen, for Saul, for Pastor Iscu, and for each one of us evil sinners. Jesus is our ultimate example. He is our deliverer. He is our redeemer. Christ set the prime example for us all. He is the one to which we live for, the one who is our hope and glory. He is our passion.