October 27, 2014.
Sometimes I hear phrases along the lines of “if the world continues down the path its going, the church will be dead in a generation or two.” I must admit that I myself have been tempted to say similar phrases in the past without really thinking too much about it. It is true that the world seems to be growing more and more antagonistic against God and Christians, but I’m not convinced that we see this in it’s true perspective. In all honesty, this is probably one of the most tolerant times of Christianity (unless you count the medieval times when the church was in control of much of Europe, which I think is a different category in and of itself). Whereas it may be growing marginally less tolerant, we still haven’t really seen persecution in comparison to the early church or Christians who are in much less tolerant countries today.
But even in those countries where Christianity is against the law, or amongst the persecution of the early church, was there every really a point where the church actually faced extinction? How about in all of history? Was there every a point where the world of God was threatened not to prevail? I suppose the closest time to this would be early in Genesis with the story of Noah, with the record stating “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (cf. Genesis 6:5) But even with this story, God still saved a remnant that would carry on his word, and in the case of Noah and his family, the human race. When the Israelites hardened their hearts to the Lord, He still promised to save a remnant. A powerful statement is made in the book of Isaiah about the longevity of the word of the Lord.
“A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
The word of the Lord will stand forever, even in the face of trials. In fact, it would seem that history bears a remarkable pattern of those who are the Lord’s people when they are oppressed. I want to take two very distinct times in biblical history in which the people of God were oppressed and then see what happened because of this oppression, and perhaps apply it to our time today. We will begin in the book of Exodus where the children of Israel have become slaves of Egypt.
As you may recall from a recent post, the Israelites had been living in the land of Goshen in Egypt because Joseph had been placed as second in command over all of Egypt when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams about a coming famine. After many generations, there was a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph or the history of the Israelites and say them as a threat. Because of this threat, the Egyptians imposed heavy burdens on the Israelites lest they rise up against the Egyptians and overtake them in battle. The Israelites were oppressed into slavery. But there is a very interesting statement made in the first chapter of Exodus that I think is a principle that can be seen throughout history, even to today.
“Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong.”
We see where one of the strategies that Pharaoh tries to employ against the children of Israel to no avail. God’s hand was with His people, even though they were being oppressed. The interesting statement, however, is the one made at the very end of this passage. “And the people multiplied and grew very strong.” The more the Egyptians tried to keep the people of Israel down, the more they multiplied. Does that seem counter intuitive? It would logically follow that if a mighty nation like Egypt wanted to oppress a certain group of people and keep their numbers down out of fear, they should have been able to. Pharaoh sure did try to do this. But it didn’t work, as the opposite effect happened. The people multiplied and grew very strong.
When it comes to the will of God, no man can stand against it so as to stop it from happening, though many have tried. Persecution and hatred of God’s people has existed pretty much whenever there were people on earth who were not Jews, save for perhaps a few years in Israel’s golden age under the rule of King Solomon. Yet God always prolonged His people. This is seen throughout the ages even into the Christian age, as this is our next point where oppression has lead to multiplication.
When Jesus walked this earth with his disciples, it is obvious that they were persecuted by the leading Jews who did not like to see people of their number going out to follow Jesus. He was the Christ for whom they had been waiting for centuries, yet they didn’t see Him as the Messiah. They rejected Him, and His followers with Him. After His death and resurrection, the church was established and quickly began to grow. The persecution from the Scribes and Pharisees didn’t stop, however. All throughout the book of Acts we can see a story of persecution of the Early church. Not too much longer after this did Roman persecution of the early church begin, and if you think we have persecution now, I encourage you to study the persecution by the Roman government of the early church. It was far worse for Christians then than it is for us now in America. Though it is not impossible that we reach that state again, I don’t see that happening for a long time. But I could be wrong.
However, do you know what happened to the church amidst this persecution? It grew like wildfire. No one could stop her growth with persecution and oppression. Some would even say that the oppression simply fueled the growing flame, as I would tend to lean towards. In the midst of persecution, Luke records “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4) The church was not silent, nor did it let men define their boundaries. It is amazing how quickly Christianity spread throughout the known world in the first century. The gospel call had been sounded, and it was time to call the lost world to repentance. There was good news to be heard, and no amount of persecution could stop the good news. This concept follows well with God’s hand working with His people throughout history.
Even today, we see in countries such as China where Christianity is heavily oppressed that the church is growing rapidly, perhaps even more so than in the United States (I say perhaps only to make it sound better and because I don’t know the actual numbers, but I’m quite sure that the church is growing more rapidly there than here). The same seems to hold true for Africa. The word of the Lord will never fail nor pass away. We can be sure of that.
Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this. If oppression encourages the spread of the gospel, what does tolerance or even acceptance do to Christianity? In an ideal situation, it would allow it to spread more. However, this does not seem to be what happens in practice. We see in the first few centuries, it didn’t take long for Christianity to influence the Roman government, culminating in Emperor Constantine converting and making Christianity the national religion. Sounds like a victory, right? I’m not so sure it was. It was at this point that the church could really get comfortable where they were at and start to allow corruption to enter in. That’s not to say that false teaching had never arose before in some churches, but with the abolishment of Christian persecution, I believe a certain bond amongst Christianity began to degenerate. They were no longer being burned at the stakes for their belief. People were being paid to become Christians. True faith no longer was challenged. This lead to a stagnation of faith and opened the door wide for corruption. The devil did not miss his opportunity. I believe this to be what Paul was prophesying to Timothy about in his first letter:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
(I Timothy 4:1-5)
Without the oppressive environment, Christians no longer had to live out their faith. There was not as much of a present need to trust in God, so some stopped. Sure, they still claimed to be Christians, but without a test, they didn’t have to prove it by their actions. This lead to an overall apathy from a growing number of people, which allowed corruption. Obviously there were many more details that went into this departure from the true faith, but I won’t go into all of them here. The point I’m trying to make is that when we don’t have to live out our faith, then many of us simply won’t. That is one reason oppression helps to spread Christianity.
Now let me say here that I don’t believe that oppression is necessary to spread the Faith. As I said early, we shouldn’t need persecution to be strong in the Lord. We should need someone to tell us not to teach in the name of Jesus for us to teach in the name of Jesus. An accepting society should actually influence the spread of Christianity in a positive way. Unfortunately, that doesn’t often seem to be the case. I hope we don’t reach the point where the Lord decides that we need to be burned at the stake again to do the work He has called us to do. I hope that we rise up on our own to our calling. But I can’t say that something drastic won’t have to happen for us to wake up.
I assure you, the church will not die in the next couple of generations, nor will it ever die. The Lord will make sure of that. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the church in Rome:
“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
We may be persecuted even to the point of death, but the church will survive. The word of the Lord stands forever. It will go on, whether that be here or in another place in the world where the gospel is rapidly spreading.
However, if the church dies out in America, it won’t be because of persecution. It will be no fault but our own lukewarmness.
Suggested Daily Reading: Exodus 1, 13, 14, I Kings 19, Acts 8.
May the word of the Lord stand forever.