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I read an article this week in which Billy Graham warned American Christians to prepare for unprecedented persecution. Up until now it’s been fairly easy to identify with Christ without paying much of a price in this country. But that kind of freedom is unusual, both in the world and throughout history. According to Graham, the veil of protection around the American church is about to lift.
In the article, Graham was quoted as saying, “As a whole, our nation does not know what privation is. We do not know what sacrifice is. We do not know what suffering is. Suppose persecution were to come to the church in America, as it has come in other countries.”
“Since we have experienced little religious persecution in this country, it is likely that under pressure many would deny Christ. Those who shout the loudest about their faith may surrender the soonest. Christ strongly warned Christians that to follow him would not be popular, and that in most circumstances it would mean cross bearing and persecution.”
That’s sobering, isn’t it? But not surprising. The fascinating thing is that Billy Graham wrote that article in 1957, almost 60 years ago. And today we’re a lot closer to religious persecution in this country than we were back in the 1950’s.
The thought of increased Christian persecution in America can generate fear in our hearts, right? How will we handle the coming persecution? What would we do if we had to pay a price for our faith? Would we stand up for Christ or not? Should we be afraid of what’s to come and live in fear?
This morning we continue our series called Fear Not by looking at what Jesus had to say about persecution. We’re actually turning a corner today. For the rest of the series and the rest of the month we’re going to focus our attention strictly on Jesus as we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Jesus had a lot to say about fear and today we want to look at three of his “fear not” statements given in the context of persecution.
If you have a Bible turn with me to Matthew 10 (p. 681). We mentioned this passage in our very first teaching called The One Fear We All Must Have, but today I want to drill down a little deeper.
The context is found in Matthew 10:1 where we read, Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
Look at verses 5-6, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Drop down to verse 16, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.”
Look at verse 22, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
The disciples had been following Jesus for some time now. They had heard him preach. They had watched him cast out demons. They had seen him calm a life threatening storm. They were in awe as he healed the sick and raised the dead.
Everyday brought some new surprise, some new adventure with Jesus. And they were lovin’ it! They were in awe of his power. “Who is this man that even the winds and the waves obey him? Nothing like this has ever been seen in all of Israel!” It was amazing and the disciples had a front row seat!
But not everybody was lovin’ it. Not everyone was in awe of Jesus. Some hated Jesus. Some accused Jesus of being the devil himself and wanted him silenced. After he healed a demon-possessed man in Matthew 9 the Pharisees say, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”
Jesus was quickly becoming a controversial figure in Israel, a lightning rod dividing the nation. Everyone was developing an opinion about Jesus and they weren’t all good.
So now Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 10, “It’s your turn now. You’ve watched me drive out demons and heal the sick. Now I’m giving you the power and authority to do that. And get ready because you’ll be hated just like I’m hated and you’ll be arrested and even flogged in the synagogues.”
This is a significant turn in the ministry of Jesus. We’ve been talking about transitioning leadership here at Valley View. And we’re in that process. Well Jesus is entering his own transition phase. He knows he won’t be physically present forever and he wants to develop participators, not just spectators. So it’s time for the Twelve to step up, go out on the field and get in the game.
Do you need to get in the game? Do you need to step up? Some of you do. You’ve been in the stands way too long. It’s time to get in the game. Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers. He was then and he is now.
I can just imagine the disciples’ reaction, “Say what? You want us to do what you’ve been doing? You want us to take the heat that you’ve been taking? Jesus, it’s been great, loved every minute of it. Thanks for the memories, but we’re outta here!”
That’s the context for Matthew 10:24-31, the sending out of the disciples on their very first assignment without Jesus to hold their hand.
Look at verses 24-31, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household! 26“So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.
The first of three “fear not” statements is found in verse 26. Do not be afraid. Afraid of who? Afraid of what? Afraid of the religious establishment, specifically the Pharisees who were the most influential spiritual leaders in Israel. They were the ones who were calling Jesus Beelzebub.
Last week, we saw that the name Beelzebub literally means “Lord of the Flies.” It’s one of the names given to Satan. And the religious leaders were accusing Jesus of being Satan himself because he had power over demons.
They didn’t have a category for Jesus. They didn’t know what to do with him. They couldn’t deny his miracles, but they couldn’t believe he was from God either. So they called him Beelzebub, the devil.
And so Jesus tells his disciples, “Get ready. If I’m accused of being the devil you will be too. People will say bad things about you because they say bad things about me. But don’t be afraid because of God’s justice, truth will triumph in the end.”
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t be afraid because everything is going to turn out alright.” No. He says, “Don’t be afraid because in the end truth will triumph. Everything will be uncovered. Every secret will be made known.”
Wow! Now that might be something to fear! Most of us wouldn’t want our secrets made known, would we? But in this passage Jesus is not talking about our deep dark secrets, he’s referring to the love and loyalty of his followers. In the end, truth will win out. Justice will prevail. The integrity and innocence of his followers will be vindicated no matter what people have said about them.
Do you need that reminder this morning? If you follow Jesus you’re going to take some hits. Bad things are going to be said about you. False accusations are going to be made. Have you taken some hits for Jesus lately? From your family? From your friends? People at work? I know many of you have.
And as our Christian faith gets pushed more and more to the margins of our culture we’re going to take more hits. For instance, it’s not popular to say Jesus is the only way to God. That sounds arrogant, judgmental, and narrow minded. It’s the most politically incorrect claim Jesus ever made.
But if we believe the Bible we believe it’s true. And it’s not a statement Jesus made in arrogance to put others down. It’s a statement of compassion, a statement only Jesus could make.
Jesus can make the unique claim to be the only way to God because Jesus is a unique person. He is the God-Man. He’s 100% God and 100% man. He’s the only one qualified to die for our sin and open up the way to God to all who believe in him. That’s what this table is about today.
So Jesus says don’t be afraid you may be called names because of me, but in the end God’s justice will triumph.
Then he says it’ll get worse than name calling. Your very lives will be threatened. But don’t be afraid because of God’s power, he is greater than any man.
Look at verse 28, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Now this is a head scratcher. Jesus seems to contradict himself here. First, he says “Don’t be afraid.” Then he says, “Be afraid.” And then he says again, “Don’t be afraid.” So which is it? Should we be afraid or not?
Well, remember the context. Jesus is sending his disciples out like sheep among wolves and he doesn’t want them to be afraid of the Romans who might kill their body, which eventually would happen to almost all of them.
The Jews had no authority to kill anyone in occupied Israel, but the Romans could kill whomever they pleased. Rome was their biggest and most intimidating enemy.
But Jesus says don’t be afraid because of God’s power he is greater than any man. And the same God who is much more powerful than the Romans, who has the power to destroy both soul and body in hell, is the same God who cares for little birds. Fear him, not the Romans or anyone else. He’s the Father who cares for us more than he cares for sparrows that cost a penny. He even knows how many hairs are on our head.
We are to fear God and no one else. We are to take God seriously, the God who cares even for little birds and knows the hairs on our head. He is concerned about everything in our lives. Everything. So Jesus says, Don’t be afraid because of God’s love, he cares for every detail of our lives.
I love what Tom Wright says about this passage in his commentary. This is one of Jesus’ most striking promises about the detailed love and care of God. This is why we pray for a parking space on a busy street, for nice weather for an outdoor event, for lost keys or lost cell phones to turn up. God cares about that stuff! Of course, there are far more important things to pray for and we should be doing that. But if God really takes note of every single sparrow and every hair on our heads, nothing is too great for him to do and nothing is too small for him to care about.
Jesus is sending his first followers into the world on a mission, just like he sends us into the world on a mission. And he doesn’t want us to be afraid even in the midst of persecution. The disciples certainly experienced it. Most of them paid with their lives. And sooner or later we may experience it too.
But Jesus doesn’t want us to be frightened. He wants us to be prepared so he says, don’t be afraid because of God’s justice, truth will triumph in the end.
Don’t be afraid because of God’s power, he is greater than any man.
Don’t be afraid because of God’s love, he cares for every detail of our lives.
In Billy Graham’s article he lists “five ways to fortify yourself so that you will be able to stand in that day.” And they’re five things that we’ve talked about all throughout this series.
We’re going to give you the opportunity to meditate on Christ right now as we come to the Lord’s Table. We want to give you a chance to outwardly and publicly express your faith in him in the way he asked us to.
If you’re a believer in Jesus and are sure about your relationship with Christ you’re welcome to come to this Table. If you’re not sure about your relationship with Christ, I want to give you that assurance right now. I want to give you the chance to express saving faith in Jesus through the words of a simple prayer. There’s nothing magical about these words. This is not a formula, but they do express saving faith in Jesus. And Jesus said, “Those who believe in me have eternal life.”