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Suffering

Nero
Image source: Wikimedia

Peter continues addressing his persecuted, exiled readers (1 Peter 2:11) in today’s Bible reading. Last month, I commented on the historical context around the middle of the First Century. I mentioned Nero was the Roman Emporer at the time. Under Nero’s reign, Christians were persecuted far beyond what many of us can imagine today. “Pure evil” is the only way I can describe it without going into the ugly details.

And yet… Peter tells his readers to submit to every human authority. And lest there be any confusion, Peter says clearly that his command includes the “emperor [Nero] as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good.” (1 Peter 2:13–14 CSB)

So what does “submit” mean? Submit was a Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.[1]

Submission is not a bad word. In fact, no military unit can properly function without it. No marriage can properly function without it. No church can properly function without it. And no country can properly function without it. There has to be a chain of command. The pastor who married Amy and me said, “Anything with more than one head is a monster.”

Peter gives his rationale for his command in verses 12 and 15. “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good.” 1 Peter 2:12, 15 (CSB)

Did you catch that? Peter says the reason Believers should submit even to the evil Emperor Nero was so that God would be glorified. He adds that silencing foolish ignorance by doing good is God’s will. Well, you can’t argue with that!

Application

Most of my readers live in the United States and do not have first-hand knowledge of real religious persecution. However, readers in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes may know people who have experienced persecution. They may have even had to alter their way of doing life — especially church life — in order to coexist in a restrictive environment. I have friends who live in one of those restrictive countries and they have to be very careful in the way they communicate prayer needs back to churches in the US. In fact, they don’t even use the words “pray”, “church”, or “Jesus Christ” in their email correspondence.

But regardless of where you live, Peter’s instructions are clear: Submit to every human authority. Every human authority. You may or may not like your President. You may or may not like your Chancellor. You may or may not like your Prime Minister. But regardless of how you feel about your leaders, if you are a Believer, you are obligated to submit to those authorities (1 Peter 2:13-14) and to pray for them. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

[1] Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon 1995 : n. pag. Print.

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Image source: Wikimedia

In today’s Bible reading, Paul tells his spiritual son Timothy that Believers should pray for those in authority over them. He uses several Greek words for prayer, each covering a different kind of prayer. And he tells Timothy to pray “for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2 CSB) The emphasis isn’t so much on the kinds of prayers, but whom the prayers are to be for. He begins with “everyone” and immediately names the title of civil authorities. Yes, we need to pray for our church leaders, but that’s not Paul’s focus. Paul’s focus is on the civil authorities. Why?

In order to better appreciate Paul’s instructions to pray for those in authority, we must look at the historical context of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul wrote the letter around AD 63-66 after his release from house arrest in Rome. He is quite aware of the growing climate of Roman religious persecution. Nero is the Roman Emporer and he isn’t known for being friendly to Christians. Actually, Nero is known to have used Christians as street lights in Rome as their bodies were impaled and set afire at night.

It’s in this historical context that Paul tells Timothy to pray for civil authorities … including Nero. WHAT???

You may have seen social media posts decrying Christian persecution because a retail store employee was forbidden from telling customers, “Merry Christmas” or an HOA prohibited a Christian from displaying a manger on her front lawn. Now let me ask, in comparison to the religious persecution experienced by First Century Christians under Nero, how can we dare call these examples “Christian persecution”? We can’t because it isn’t.

Application

It seems that our political climate is as divided as I’ve ever heard of. When it comes to those in places of civil authority in our country, I confess, I complain a lot more than I pray.

You may really like the current President of the United States of America. Or you may think the President is unpresidential. You may think the President is a reprobate. You may feel the President is personally repulsive. You may feel the President is guilty of committing crimes.

I’m sure lots of people have voiced these opinions of most of our Presidents!

It really doesn’t matter who our civil authorities are, if you call yourself a Christian, you are obligated to pray for them. The same goes for those in civil authority on the State and community level. Paul says to pray for all of them. And so we must.

So what do we pray for those in civil authority?

For starters, pray for their salvation. Pray for their walk with God. Pray they live in integrity. Pray for wisdom. And pray for impartiality in enforcing, legislating, and interpreting our laws.

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I’ve said many times that when you see a word or idea repeated several times in a few Bible verses, it’s a pretty good sign that the word or idea are important. Well, in today’s Bible reading the word “comfort” appears nine times in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. That’s nine times in five verses! It’s safe to say that the theme of the first paragraph is “comfort”

The word translated “comfort” is the word we get one of the titles of the Holy Spirit, The Comforter. When the Bible calls the Holy Spirit The Comforter, it isn’t referring to something you throw on your bed to curl up with when it’s cold in the house.

The verb form of the word means to be called to come alongside, to encourage. The noun form of the word means encouragement, comfort, consulation.

Application

Paul says that God intends to use those areas where we have experienced comfort and encouragement to comfort and encourage other people. In other words, the places where you have received the deepest wounds and experienced the deepest healing are the very places where God wants to use you to minister to other people who are going through what you went through. God wants to use our scars as tools for healing in the lives of other people. Those things the enemy used to beat you down can be used to beat him down in other people’s lives.

In what areas have you experienced your deepest emotional wounds? Your deepest spiritual wounds? Have you ever considered that God wants to use you to bring to others who have experienced a similar blow?

For example, if you experienced a miscarriage, God wants to use the comfort you received to pour comfort and encouragement into the lives of others who have lost children, perhaps through miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, or abortion.

Perhaps you aren’t ready. Perhaps you don’t feel that you have the strength to bring comfort to someone else yet. Ask God to bring other people into your life who can encourage and comfort you so that your comfort can flow over into the lives of those around you.

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Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.
Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

Paul gives us a couple of verses in today’s Bible reading that are perhaps the most misquoted verses in the entire Bible. Many Christians believe — and take comfort — in the idea that God will never give you more than you can handle. But is that what Paul says? Is it what Paul means?

In a word, NO!

This idea stems from a root of self-sufficiency and sounds like the non-biblical statement, “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s non-biblical because it doesn’t appear anywhere in any translation of the Bible. Actually, this statement comes from Deist, Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Both of these statements find their roots in narcissism, the belief that “it’s all about me.” “The universe revolves around me.” “God is obligated to do what I ask Him to do because I’m a believer.” This last statement may not be spoken, but you can hear the murmur under the breath of someone who quotes the statement.

Let me say as clearly and as strongly as I can: God is not obligated to do anything for you, regardless of what you may do for Him. God doesn’t make deals with anyone, even His children. God is not a magical genie!

The fact that God has offered anything good to any fallen creature is a testimony of His goodness, His grace, and His mercy. Until someone embraces this truth, he/she will never fully appreciate the grace and mercy He offers.

What Paul does say in 1 Corinthians 10:12–13 is that none of us is immune to temptation. Hey, even Jesus was tempted! Why in the world would anyone think that they, wouldn’t be tempted? That idea is also rooted in narcissism.

Application

No, what Paul says is that if you think you’re immune to temptation, you better watch out! You will be tempted, but God always provides a way out. You can never say that you had no choice, that you had to fall into temptation. Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine” character couldn’t have been more mistaken: The devil can never make you do anything.

If you fall into sin, you and you alone are responsible for making that choice and not taking the way out that God provided for you.

I believe Martin Luther is the one who said, “I can’t stop the birds from flying over my head, but I can keep them from nesting in my hair.” Temptations will come. You have the choice whether to “cook the thought” and decide to take the bait of sin or to take the way out.

The next time you feel tempted, ask God to show you the way out. Sometimes — oftentimes? — the answer is to preach the Gospel to yourself and realize that your true fulfillment, your true satisfaction, your true happiness can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Would God give you more than you can handle? I would argue that He often does, otherwise, we would have little reason to press into Him, depending on His strength to make it through the storms, the hard times of life.

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In today’s Bible reading, Paul completes his statement of what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like as it applies to relationships with parents and children and with masters and servants (employers and employees in our context). He concludes the chapter discussing Spiritual Warfare.

Most believers think they’re being persecuted for being a believer when they can’t wear Christian-themed jewelry at work. Or they can’t wish “Merry Christmas” to customers in the checkout line.

Let me say this as strongly as I can: Most Christians (especially in the West) have no idea what real religious persecution is. OpenDoors, Voice of the Martyrs, and similar organizations give real examples of real persecution of real people. Check them out. (and pray for them)

Most of what believers call “spiritual warfare” isn’t.

So why would I make such a bold statement? Do I believe spiritual warfare doesn’t exist? Nothing could be further than the truth! Spiritual warfare is very real. Believers are victims of spiritual attack every single day. But most of what believers call spiritual warfare isn’t. Believers can be very nearsighted about spiritual warfare just like we are about “persecution”.

Most believers think they’re under spiritual attack when they get sick, or when they run out of money before the end of the month, or they lose their job, or when their car gets a flat on the way to church. Some of this may be spiritual warfare, but most of it isn’t.

Paul tells the Ephesians to put on the full armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Most of the armor is defensive; it protects you from attack from the front. But notice that there’s no protection to your back if you tuck tail and run in heat of the battle!

But there’s one key piece of the armor that isn’t spelled out as clearly as the others. It’s easy to see that the sword of the Spirit is an offensive weapon. But if you don’t see it in this passage, you completely miss the other offensive weapon!

Paul mentions it at the end of the list: the spear of prayer. Unfortunately, since he doesn’t spell it out like he does the others, it doesn’t make it to the picture hanging in our Sunday School classrooms and Children’s Picture Bibles. And not seeing this piece of armor in this passage prevents you from learning to use it in one of the key aspects of the very nature of the warfare!

Spiritual warfare is well, spiritual warfare. Things happening to you in the physical realm may or may not have a counterpart in the spiritual realm.

Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.” Ephesians 6:12 (CSB)

He begins the next sentence, “For this reason“. Because the war field is in the spiritual realm, we have to take up spiritual armor. A good friend of mine has rightly said, “You will never win a spiritual war with a fleshly weapon.” Elsewhere, Paul expounds on the nature of spiritual weapons.

For although we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh, since the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. And we are ready to punish any disobedience, once your obedience is complete. 2 Corinthians 10:3–6 (CSB)

Our weapons destroy strongholds, arguments, and anything else that rises up against the knowledge of God. We use our spiritual weapons in the spiritual places to accomplish spiritual purposes namely, to point our eyes to God so we can worship and obey him.

Getting sick, running out of money before the end of the month, losing your job, and getting a flat tire can happen to anyone: believers and unbelievers alike. What you do when those things happen is where spiritual warfare can occur. But most of the time, only believers are attacked spiritually when those things happen.

The spiritual warfare occurs when those things cause us to lose focus from thinking about God rightly, when they keep us from worshiping Him, and when they keep us from obeying Him.

Yes, spiritual warfare happens in spiritual places, and one of the battlegrounds is the mind of the believer. That’s why we need to put on the whole armor of God so that we can stand our ground. Note that Paul mentions standing three times in four verses. Standing in spiritual warfare must be pretty important!

Application

Whenever you feel that you are under spiritual attack, ask God if that’s what’s up. He’ll tell you. And if you are under attack, Paul tells you what to do: Put on the full armor, not just a few of your favorite pieces.

Catching a nail in your tire on the way to church isn’t spiritual warfare. But if that causes you to question the goodness of God in allowing it to happen in that place at that time, it is spiritual warfare. If it causes you to not thank God for His provision of a helpful stranger to change your tire, and if it keeps you from using the opportunity to share the gospel with him, yes, it is spiritual warfare.

So to deal with this spiritual battle in a realistic way,

  • You put on your helmet of salvation to protect your thoughts as think about God’s wise provision in the timing and location of this.
  • You grab your shield of faith to reject those attacks that suggest that God isn’t in control and that this flat tire caught Him off-guard.
  • You draw your sword of the Spirit and meditate on Bible verses you’ve memorized on the goodness and faithfulness of God; you use those verses to attack those thoughts questioning God.
  • You protect your heart with the breastplate of righteousness to keep your heart right before God in this battle.
  • You hold it all together remembering the truth that all of this is about maintaining your focus on Jesus, worshipping Him and obeying Him.
  • You put on your shoes to be ready to share the good news of peace with God with this stranger.
  • And you offer to pray for this helpful stranger; he may have a need for you to pray with him about. Also pray for the helpful stranger to respond to the call of the Gospel and you thank God for the opportunity to be His instrument of reaching out to this stranger.

God’s Word is very applicable in showing us how to win spiritual battles. If we will just step back to get our focus on God, worship Him, and obey Him.

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