In this morning’s sermon, we’ll be turning to Acts chapter 4 where we find the first persecution in the history of the church. It’s a mild episode compared to what’s coming.
In Acts 4, Peter and John are taken into custody overnight and interrogated the next day. In the next round, in Acts 5, the disciples are again jailed and questioned, and this time they are beaten. Then, as you may know, in round three, one of the early church’s most promising young leaders, Stephen, is stoned to death. In fact, after Acts 3, only three of the book’s remaining 25 chapters have no mention of persecution.
And so it has continued, in various forms, sometimes greater and sometimes lesser, throughout the history of the church, and around the world. Though Christians in this country have experienced quite an anomaly these last three centuries in the New World, we know the times, as Bob Dylan sang, they are a-changing.
It’s not lost on the leadership here at Cities Church that as we plant this new church in 2015, we do so in a dramatically more post-Christian day than we were born into in the 80s. In many ways, it is remarkable how far our society at large has moved beyond Christianity, and is increasingly becoming hostile to the basic, timeless beliefs of our faith.
So, at least in this country, we have a tendency to be taken off guard as things continue to shift and change. But these changing days should not surprise us. This is how Jesus said it would be, is it not? John 15:20: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” It all begins here with Jesus, and then becomes a regular refrain throughout the New Testament:
2 Timothy 3:12: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
1 Thessalonians 3:3–4: “you yourselves know that we are destined for this [persecution]. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.”
Acts 14:21–22: “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
If we take our cues from the book of Acts, and from the whole New Testament, persecution is not strange; it is to be expected. What’s strange is not being persecuted. It’s odd to believe the sort of things Christians do, and make the kind of claims we do, and not eventually ruffle some feathers. When we look today at Acts 4, we’ll see, staring us right in the face, one of the most controversial claims anyone can make in a day like ours.
So, to lead us into confession this morning, let me offer this one powerful passage, especially ripe for us at Cities Church, for our life together in the days ahead, and for the joy that we carry into them. We are not a dour people. We won’t whine and complain. We rejoice. These are good days for gospel advance. This is more and more like the first century, when our message spread like wildfire. I’ll read these verses over us, and offer for us a corporate prayer of confession, and then we’ll pause to confess our sins privately. This is 1 Peter 4:12–14:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
Father, forgive us for the many times we have bellyached and been faithless. Forgive us for ignoring and neglecting the truths your word so plainly teaches us about the Christian life in this age. They called your Son names; why would they not malign us? They killed him; why would they not insult us? Why would we think it’s our American right to be immune from affliction when our Savior, his apostles, and the vast majority of his church have endured so many afflictions? Too often have we grumbled, too often have we complained, instead of being blameless and innocent children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Father, please hear, please forgive.
And would you give the grace to this church to shine like lights in the world, to hold fast our word of life in the message of your gospel, to speak with truth and grace and joy. To fulfill our calling as those who laugh loudest at the scantiest portions because we have food to eat about which they do not yet know. Help us to be ready. Help us to speak. Make us not to be surprised at the fiery trial when — not if — when it comes as though something strange were happening. But give us the grace to be glad, rejoicing with joy inexpressible and filled with glory, counting it an honor to be insulted for the name of our dear Savior, who forgives us our fears and our cowardice and our sense of entitlement, and the many other sins we now confess.
See also the accompanying sermon, “The Name of Jesus.”