Encouragements for Christians When their Faith is Under Fire

God never promised that this life will be easy, but he promises to be with you in the fire.

The consequences of saying that you love and worship Jesus can be real and hurtful. Those who are close to you may even turn their back on you.  For many around the world there is pain and suffering.  There is ridicule and rejection.

Peter knew what it was like to experience persecution, hardships, and suffering for Jesus Christ. This gave him a raw, yet real palate for encouraging other Christians who are walking through the same fire.

1 Peter is an excellent book to read to be encouraged.  Here are a sampling of encouragements for Christians when their faith is under fire:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1:6-7)

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (2:2-3)

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” (2:7a-8)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (2:9)

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (2:13-15)

For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (2:20-21)

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (3:13-18)

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (4:8)

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. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (4:12-16)

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (4:19)

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (5:5-7)

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (5:10)

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build up

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You will notice that building projects are going up all over your neighborhood, so it is in your church. Building up never stops, but this is how it starts…

Could you imagine getting a personal letter from the apostle Paul? That’s what we peer into when we read the letter to Philemon. By the time Philemon got this letter (58-60 AD) Paul would have had a reputation. I am sure when Philemon got this letter his adrenaline was pumping and heart fluttering.

Paul wrote the letter while in prison at Rome. It is also where he wrote Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians. In fact, Philemon, lived in Colossi, which is modern-day Turkey. We do not learn much about him. What we know is from this letter. There was a church that met in his home. His son was a minister. And he must have had some wealth as he had a slave and likely he had others.

The bulk of the letter is about Onesimus—a runaway slave. We do not know a lot about Onesimus either, but what is known is that he ran away from Philemon and went to Rome. For whatever reason he was not able to hide or blend into the crowd and was caught and thrown into prison. In prison, he connects with Paul who is in prison too. Paul is there for preaching about Jesus.  Paul’s ministry isn’t stifled by his circumstances, rather Paul continues to proclaim the good news to a captive audience. Onesimus hears and comes to faith. As Paul learns Onesimus’ story he encourages him to reconcile with his master.

Thus the thrust of the letter is Paul pleading to Philemon to receive back Onesimus, not as his slave but as a brother in Christ.  Paul is an inbetweener. He is in-between both Philemon and Onesimus. Have you ever had to be an inbetweener?  Can you think of two people not in a right relationship with each other, but you are in a right relationship with both of them?  May this letter encourage you as an inbetweener.

The beauty of this story is that it is true story. While there are many stories about forgiveness in the Bible this letter is a living example of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11) or Unforgiving Servant (Mt. 18:21ff). It is an incredibly personal letter. Yet it is a fitting letter in a series of letters that Paul writes to churches, in which he mainly addresses divisions and relationships within the church.  Paul is aware that the number one thing that destroys the church, its mission, and the reputation of Christ is two believers living in unforgiveness. On the flip, two believers walking in forgiveness magnifies Jesus.

There are two types of people in the church that Paul often addresses. The first type of person TEARS DOWN. These people look for ways to cutdown others. They speak words that are discouraging, critical, and are quick to point out faults and failures. They are the kind of people you love to avoid if you are needing encouragement, but love if you are needing someone to empathize with your own critical spirit. The second type of person BUILDS UP.  They are the kind of person who encourages, sees the good, speaks truth in love, and has the knack of pointing you back to Christ.

Can you think of someone close to you who tears down or builds up? How would others describe you? Paul is known for building up people. He is a disciple of Christ who makes disciples of Christ, which necessitates one who will build up the church and those within the church. Paul’s letter to Philemon helps us to see what building up one another that looks like.

1. Give thanks to God for people and circumstances (v.4)

To give thanks is ironic considering Paul’s circumstances. Where is Paul again? He is in prison. What would that be like? Notice Paul doesn’t mope. He doesn’t curse God. He knew this would be a result of his calling and following Christ (Acts 9). Instead, Paul is engaged in writing letters of encouragement to others from prison. Also he is taking the opportunity to share the gospel and is leading people to Christ in prison. In fact, the gospel is reaching the ears of those in Caesars household (Phil.4:22).

Thankfulness is a choice. Gratitude is the attitude that gives fortitude to your faith. Would others around you consider you a thankful person? Are you thankful for the cards you were dealt? You might not have had a choice in the kind of family you your born into. You have learned that you cannot control the actions or words of your parents, spouse, children or friend. Maybe you’ve experienced someone walking out on you or you have felt the wounds of neglect or abuse. It is most difficult to chose to be thankful when you don’t feel it, but rather feel pain, abandonment or bitterness.

I am the son of two unmarried teenage parents. They married to appease their parents but the marriage only lasted a few years. I lived with my mother and observed a revolving door of relationships. I felt I had to be the responsible one. I would stay up late waiting for her to come home from her outings. My mother failed lived up to my high expectations. I thought if she’d just change to what I wanted things would be better. I had much self-pity. Even when my mom and I came to Christ I was still unthankful. I thought if only the church could fix my family. When I went to college I chose a college far away from home.  However, my sour feelings still followed me. After I finished college, I couldn’t find any other job alternatives, but moving back home with my mom and working with her. It was a summer of irony. God in His providence was giving me an opportunity to forgive as if to say, ‘Justin, If I you do not reconcile with your own mother. you will not be an effective agent of reconciliation to the world.’ It was true. I was about to go to South Africa on mission that fall. Living in unforgiveness could have derailed the mission and my faith. As hard as it was I sat down with my mom and thanked for working three jobs to support me while I was young. I thanked her knowing it was not easy to raise a young boy being only a teenager herself. I thanked her for loving me.

Beware of self-pity and pitying others. Can you hear those close to Paul saying? “Poor Paul. Why would God let such a person be thrown into prison?” Others might have mailed him letters saying, “Dear Paul, you know you could have avoided imprisonment if you just kept your mouth shut,” “You can’t save the world,” “Maybe prison is just God’s way of saying, ‘Take a break.’” It is clear from Paul’s writings that certain people were aiming to tear down his apostleship and most of them came from within the church. Isn’t that a shame? It’s a shame it also happens today. It might even be happening in your church.

It takes a mature Christian to look at difficult people and circumstances and say, “God is using this. God is eternal and sovereign. Everything he does or allows is good.” Do you believe God is using every person or circumstance to make you more like Jesus? What about those harsh or hurtful words? What about that hard thing that occupies your thoughts? God comes to you through difficult circumstance or difficult people. God is at work in the things we see as bad, ugly, painful or hurtful. Remember, God is for you!

If you need proof just survey the Bible. You will see dozens of examples of men and women gripped with gratitude despite unideal circumstances. Joseph was abused by brothers and falsely accused by Potifar’s wife, but in the end sees how God used bad for good (Gen. 50:20). Jeremiah preaches for 50 years and sees no one turn back to God, rather they drag him through the ditches. This weeping prophet hopes in God (Lam. 3). Then there is Job. Everything is taken from him. To make matters worse he has friends who give him bad advice and his wife encourages him to curse God or die, but in the midst of it he sees how God was making him like gold (23:10). Jesus himself was rejected, abused, abandoned, betrayed, and disrespected, yet forgave those who did not understand what they we doing to him. Each bore sacred sorrow, yet praised God.

Joseph Scriven grew up in Ireland. He faced many difficult circumstances in his life namely losing two fiancés before he was to be marry. In the midst of the hardship he went to the One who was most faithful. He put pen to paper and wrote ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’.

Like these examples you and I are in God’s university. The problem is it’s not a 4-year degree and then you pass. For some of us it is lifelong. Each person and situation is a unique subject to learn how God uses all people and circumstance for his glory and purposes in you. Chose to be thankful.

2. Build up others by focusing on the work the Spirit of God (v.5)

Why is Paul so thankful for Philemon? He sees God’s work in Philemon. He has visible characteristics of God that are manifesting themselves. If you are a follower of Christ you too are showing the world the powerful work of what the Holy Spirit can do with someone. For Philemon, the visible characteristics were his love for people and his faith in Jesus.

What would the person sitting next to you say are the visible characteristics you are displaying right now? Can you imagine what an encouragement that would be to have someone point those things out to you?  This is what the apostle Paul is doing with Philemon. He is building him up in Christ by sharing with him the ways he is seeing Jesus in him.

Are you this kind of person? Or are you critical of others, especially of people in your church? There are many excuses one can create for being critical of others. Criticism is almost thought of as a spiritual gift or strength. One can spend more time finding faults in others or shooting holes in the pastors message than looking for ways to build up the Body.

Do you recognize the name William Wilberforce?  William Wilberforce made it his lifework to abolishment of slavery in Great Britain. It was a seemingly impossible work that brought him much discouragement. Wilberforce was at the beginning of his career, but John Wesley (who was nearing the end of his career) caught wind of Wilberforce’s discouragement and jotted him a note just 6-days before his death. He wrote, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it… That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley”  Wesley had the right words at the right time to help his brother continue on the right path.

Paul focuses on the good he sees in Philemon. Paul has the right words at the right time to help his brothers continue on the right path. He focuses on the character of Christ in Philemon, namely his “love for the saints,” which will be the very character needed when he reunites with Onesimus.

3. Affirm others through prayer and fellowship (vs.6-7)

Philemon’s faith had already been active; but now wants it to be ‘effective’ in relation to Onesimus. It’s as if Paul says, “I have seen how effective your faith is within your house church. Now extend that same faith to your brother Onesimus.”

The world would say to Philemon, “Onesimus owes you. Make him pay. Mark him as a runaway the rest of his life. Make him feel the weight of what he did to you. Pour on the punishment. Tighten his chains. Don’t forgive him.” Doesn’t that sound miserable? Yet that is where we often gravitate, but there is no personal or corporate benefit to unforgiveness. Unforgiveness imprisons you to the past. It clings onto the pain. It feeds the open wound with anger, bitterness, retribution and other ungodly characteristics. Unforgiveness gives Satan an open door. It is a welcome mat to the devil. Unforgiveness hinders your fellowship with God. It simply paralyzes your walk with God. In fact, unforgiveness angers Him because it is opposite his redemptive heart.

Yet on the flip-side, forgiveness makes you most like God. It frees you from the past and produces other godly characteristics. It removes the ugly graffiti from your spirit and lets God shine. Forgiveness is a most visible expression of the gospel. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32) “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col. 3:13)

Philemon is a treatise on Romans 12:17-21 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul has been a recipient of Philemon’s faith and love, moreover, he has been a recipient of the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And he sees the image this would be to the world, the church in Colossi, and his brother Onesimus. Paul says, “Philemon, you’ve got all these great characteristics that God is working in you, continue in them bless ‘our brother’ Onesimus. Jesus has forgiven him and so must you. Whatever difficult emotions this fuels with you, remember that love and faith you have in Christ. Embrace Onesimus. He is coming your way soon.”

Paul’s letter to Philemon shares the basics or ABC’s of building one another up:

  • Affirm others through prayer and fellowship.
  • Build up others by focusing on the Holy Spirits work.
  • Chose to be thankful for people and circumstances.

The Spirit of God has likely brought to your mind a relationship that needs building up. Maybe, like Paul, you are an inbetweener. How do the examples of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus bring healing on your own journey with Christ? Which of the three characteristic of one who is forgiven do you need to work on today?

Barnabas: gospel encourager

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”…and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:22b-24)

Before we unpack those verses, let’s backup and gather what Acts says about Barnabas and in turn what we will gather is an blue print of a gospel encourager. Interestingly, in Acts 4:36, Barnabas didn’t enter the world with that name. His Levite parents gave him the name Joseph. It was later the apostles nicknamed him “Barnabas” or literally “son of encouragement,” which was a name he earned and owned. So what makes Barnabas or anyone a gospel encourager?

gospel encouragers are generous givers (Acts 4:32-37)

Luke’s first reference to Barnabas is an illustration of his generosity. He is so transformed by the gospel that he take action to spread it to others. He, among others, sell property and give the money to the church. Now in his day, property was ones greatest asset and retirement plan. For Barnabas, selling his property was not wasting his future, but investing in the gospel so that others might have a future with Christ. He lived in a way that showed he was free from money or things. Why? God trumped stuff. Barnabas was generous because his God was generous.

Are you someone who is free from money or things? Are you characterized as being generous? You probably know someone like Barnabas, a “son or daughter of encouragement”. Like you, Sarah and I have seen God provide for our family via Barnabases who have “sold their land” so we could go to the nations. We are so blessed to have many generous partners in the gospel (cf. Philippians 1:5).

gospel encouragers gravitate towards outsiders (Acts 9:26-30)

In Acts 9, Saul, becomes one of the most unlikely Jesus follower. After his conversion, he travels to Jerusalem to meet other followers. However, the whole church freaks out. It is Barnabas who helps the former terrorist of the church take his first steps into the church. Barnabas is the kind of guy you want in your church greeters ministry because he proactively encourages and engages with outsiders.

Don’t forget that your journey began as an outsider and “enemy” too (Romans 5:10). It is only through the gospel that you became an insider and friend with God. And it is by the gospel that you can find the greatest encouragement in life, both now and for all eternity. And top it off God uses people to be vehicles of His encouragement.

Who was your Barnabas? Who brought your inside the church? Mine were Mike Huseby and John Miller. They were the first men who encouraged me as a young Jesus follower. They showered me with love and Christ-like affection. They discipled me in the Word and encouraged me by creating opportunities to serve with them in the local church. I am eternally grateful they befriend me as a broken and messed up middle schooler!

Jesus was a great example of one who made friends with people on the fringe. He was a magnet to broken and needy outsiders. He lovingly gravitated towards outsiders. And you and I become more like Him when we see people as He sees them. Don’t underestimate the power of the gospel to transform outsiders. Who knows who the He might want you to befriend? Who knows who the Lord might use to build His church?

gospel encouragers see no boundaries to the gospel (Acts 11:19-23)

For the first time, in Acts 11, the gospel reaches the big city (vs.19-20). Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Think of it like Chicago compared to NYC and LA. It was nearly 10 to 20 times the size of Jerusalem and also more urban, pluralistic, and multicultural. A perfect place for the gospel to flourish.

History and perspective shows us that this was a wonderful thing, as you and I are the byproducts of the gospel spreading beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Judaism. Acts says that the church at Antioch was experiencing exponential growth. In fact, it saw the greatest expansion to the church since Pentecost. Therefore, the mother church in Jerusalem, decided to send a representative to Antioch. Not to see if their reports were embellished, not to see if their theology was orthodox, not to gain new church growth strategies, but to encourage the church, like a mother encourages her children.

Who does the church call? Who else, but Barnabas, the one-man-encouragement-committee (vs.21-22). Barnabas was an excellent choice to bridge the Greek and Hebrew members of the church. Having come from Cyprus, he was not a typical “Jerusalemite” Jew, and he already established a solid reputation for generosity and encouragement and, after all, what do new converts need more than encouragement?

When you need a word of encouragement who in the church do you call? Who is your Barnabas? Moreover to whom are you a Barnabas?  Ben has been my friend and Barnabas since middle school youth group days. What I still love about Ben is that he encourages me not in a way that strokes my ego, but in a way that challenges me, sharpens me, and points me to Jesus.

God created you for one another-ness and to encourage one another. Yet some Christians think that since they don’t have the “gift of encouragement” it gives them an excuse from being encouraging (Romans 12:8). Some Christians think a “critical spirit” is another gift of the Spirit, but the Christian army has a dreadful history of shooting down it’s own.

Are you someone who tends to be critical of the church? Do you crave the encouragement that another Christian is getting? Do you regard the ministry of others with envy or jealousy? Do you struggle with skepticism towards testimonies of God’s work around the world? Let it be known, almost all so-called constructive criticism towards the church is destructive criticism. There is such a thing as constructive criticism, but it is always saturated in a spirit of encouragement. That is what is to love about Barnabas. He arrives in Antioch, he sees the grace of God, rejoices, and cheers them on towards faithfulness (v. 23).

gospel encouragers mimic Jesus, the True Barnabas (Acts 11:24ff)

Luke’s living eulogy of Barnabas in verse 24 is moving and theologically pregnant. It should not be a surprise that the marks of a son of encouragement mimic the Son of God, the True Barnabas.

First, a son of encouragement is praiseworthy (“he was a good man”). Luke used this phrase only of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50). It’s not a phrase stroking Barnabas’ ego, as in saying, “Good job, Barnabas. He da man!.” Not that those compliments are wrong, but this phrase speaks to a greater goodness. Paul later writes that goodness is a fruit of Spirit (Galatians 5:22). And Jesus said that you can tell the type of tree by looking at its fruit (Matthew 7:16). What is hanging from Barnabas’ branches are good fruit produced by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, a son of encouragement is powered by the Holy Spirit and proven faith (“full of the Holy Spirit and faith”).6 The fullness of the Holy Spirit and faith is the root of Barnabas’ goodness. You don’t get the Holy Spirit because you are good, rather when the Holy Spirit takes over your life He infuses you with His goodness. Galatians 3:2 asks: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The assumed answer is “faith”. Then Paul asks, “does He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (3:5) And again the assumed answer is “faith”. Barnabas’ faith is from and through the Holy Spirit.

Third, a son of encouragement is productive in bringing people to Jesus Christ (“and a great many people were added to the Lord.”). Gospel encouragers full of the Spirit and faith usher people to Jesus.

Why was Barnabas so encouraging? He knew the “Father of mercies and the God of all encouragement” (2 Corinthians 1:3). He knew the All-Sufficient Encourager and it was His Spirit that changed Barnabas into a “son of encouragement”. Like Father, like son. Let us aim to be sons and daughters of encouragement too.

It was at that point that Barnabas likely thought to himself, “These people need to grow deep and wide. I know just the guy. I’ll go get him.” Thus, “Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul” (v. 25). The verb “to seek” used here indicates that Barnabas was going on a difficult hunt; nobody had a GPS read on Saul’s exact whereabouts. The last Barnabas had heard about Saul was that he was somewhere in and around Tarsus. So Barnabas went to seek Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.

The church and mission field need people who can take the ministry forward, but it also needs humble people who can spot the very people that God is calling. That isn’t always easy. Barnabas does a selfless thing. He didn’t decide to feather his nest. He didn’t desire to build an empire or church bearing his name. He didn’t become a celebrity disciple, pastor, or missionary. What he did was to give Saul a job.

“So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (v. 26). Up until this point in church history, Jesus followers had been called “people of the Way”. They were not known as Christians because the term was derogatory and mockery, but those in Antioch welcomed it as their identity. For the gospel has the power to bring together diverse people and erase biases or boundaries.

Being Barnabases is not about encouraging with warm and fuzzies. Gospel encouragement brings hope to the suffering and hurting (vs.27-30). Barnabases actively live out the gospel by helping people see how their situation fits into the bigger picture that God is painting.

It is your joyful commission to be a gospel encourager. How? By being a generous giver, giving abundantly, cheerfully, and sacrificially for the sake of the gospel. Second, gravitate towards outsiders, hospitable to the broken and needy. Third, see no boundary to the gospel because the gospel transcends culture or ethnicity. Fourth, mimic Jesus: good, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and bringing people to the Lord. Being a messenger of hope, never doing ministry alone, and humbly equipping others to serve the local church. How will you be a gospel encourager to someone this week?

How does gospel encouragement and communion mesh? One of the ways we encourage each other as Christians is gathering together. Like two burning hot coals, together they are encouraged, but separated they burn out quickly. In other words, to stay apart or to not relate with fellow Christians has the opposite affect to encouragement. It leads to discouragement.

”And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Communion as its name signifies is a community meal for mutual encouragement until Jesus returns (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). No matter if you are rich or poor, new to the faith or established clergy, we are all equals.  Communion is not about me and Jesus it’s about “we” and Jesus. That’s gospel encouragement.