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What in the World is Going On? // Persecution

John 15:19-20; Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:20

Tomas Lopez, a lifeguard at Hallandale Beach in Florida, was on duty when some frantic swimmers told him that there was a man who’d gone beyond the boundaries of safety and was drowning. He had ignored the signs that said, “Don’t swim out here. If you do, you’re at your own risk.”

Lopez went into action right away, and with the help of some of the other swimmers at the beach, he was able to pull the man to shore. The paramedics were called, performed CPR, and the man’s life was saved.

When Lopez turned in the incident report, he was shocked to discover he was fired. Yes, he was fired for saving a life! The company that employed the lifeguards said signs were posted which clearly communicated that if you go past a certain point, you’re on your own, even if you drown. As a result, Lopez was fired for going past those boundaries and rescuing the man.

This created quite a stir. Six other lifeguards that worked for the same company came to Lopez’ side and said to the media and the company, “If we had been on duty that day, we would have done the same thing. We would have swam past that sign and rescued the man. You owe him an apology.”

Do you know what the company did? They fired those six lifeguards as well! It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

What would you do? Would you break company policy to rescue a drowning life, knowing you’ll be fired and lose your paycheck? Or would you stand there and think, yep, he’s drowning but he saw the sign; he knows better; I’m not losing my job over this?

I would like to think that I wouldn’t care about a paycheck. I would go out there, rescue this man, even if he crossed the boundaries and was where he shouldn’t have been. And I’m guessing you would do the same thing, too.

I want to welcome you to the last message in our series called “What in the World is Going On?”, our Lord’s words on the future. In this series we’ve heard Jesus say a lot. We’ve explored some things that are easy to understand, some things that are more challenging about the future, and a lot of things we’re going to have to wait and see.

Jesus made one thing very clear to everybody– believers and unbelievers alike. In the last days which, remember, began the moment Jesus ascended to the Father and will end when He returns (we don’t know where we are in that continuum of the last days), there are going to be such things as false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars. There will to be earthquakes, famines and tribulation of all kinds. Jesus narrowed it down and said to His followers, “I also want you to know that there’s going to be persecution. You as My followers are going to be persecuted for your faith in Me.” And Jesus’ words were absolutely correct to this very day.

Let’s look at some of those words Jesus spoke about the persecution that His followers would face in every generation, including yours and mine. They come from John 15:19-20 (NLT). Jesus said,

“The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world…”

Christ saves us out of the world, sends us back into the world as His agents.

“… I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you.”

From the moment Jesus said, “… go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), there have been those who have opposed the work of Christ.

Think about it as a lifeguard; you see people spiritually drowning and proclaim the truth of Christ to them. The culture says isn’t the truth, and you’re going to get “fired” or persecuted. How wide would this persecution be? I came across a graphic from Voice of the Martyrs.

This map shows what’s going on in much of the world today. You can see the green parts identified as both areas where the faith is restricted and areas that are hostile to the faith. I’ve had the privilege of visiting many of these places. As we look at this map, it’s covered by a lot of hatred. There are a lot of people who are against Christ and those who follow Christ. There are people today, men and women and young people, that we support and are ministering to, who risk their lives every day for Jesus. They risk their lives by claiming to be Christians and especially by telling others how to become Christians. They’re always swimming beyond the cultural bounds, trying to rescue people who are drowning. And they are “fired for it.” They are ostracized, jailed, beaten and even killed for sharing their faith.

As North Americans, we look that map and it grieves our heart. We pray for those men, women, and young people, and we’re so thankful for the freedom we have as a nation to practice and proclaim our religion. However, I think the reality that is beginning to hit a lot of us is that we’re beginning to feel a bit of persecution. We’re beginning to feel pushback from the culture. It is nothing like what many other parts of the world face; I’m not in any way trying to say that we know what it’s like for them because of what we’re experiencing. However, I do believe we are going to see ratcheted increase in persecution in our own nation in our own time and, certainly, in the time of our children and our grandchildren.

Why is that? Why is our culture growing more hostile toward the practice and promotion of the Christian faith? Why are your children and grandchildren, who are attending public schools, facing increased pressure to conform to cultural standards rather than biblical standards? Why is it no longer acceptable to agree to disagree on certain moral issues? And why is it that a nation that was founded on Judeo-Christian principles is turning around and seemingly rejecting those principles?

No one has helped me understand this better than a man by the name of Dr. Carl Trueman. Dr. Carl Trueman is a believer. He is an intellect, a scholar and teaches Bible and religion at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He also held a very important and prestigious position at Princeton University for a time. He’s an esteemed church historian, and he’s written a book that has helped me tremendously. The name of the book is The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Dr. Carl Trueman. I’ll warn you; it is a four-hundred-page academic book. In my opinion, he’s done the best job of giving an analysis as to why we’re in the place we’re in in America today and why we as believers are facing increasing hostility, moving toward outright persecution. In fact, I contacted Dr. Trueman and let him know how much the book had impressed me and if there were notes he could share with me so that I could condense it all into this talk. He was very gracious in sharing some of his notes with me. I want to give credit to whom credit is due.

Another thing I want you to know is that what I’m sharing with you is not my opinion. It is not a wild vision from a televangelist. It is not a conspiracy. The analysis is coming from an academic, an intellect, scholar and researcher. Of course, I’m adding Scripture and my own personal thoughts and ideas, as well as what God has been stirring in my heart now for several months on this issue. I want you to see what is happening and why it’s happening, because unless we do, we can’t change anything. We can’t help our kids. We can’t help our grandkids. We can’t stay strong as a church, and we can’t make a difference in the culture.

Let’s get started. Dr. Trueman says there are basically three reasons why as orthodox believers we see things going terribly wrong in our culture and in our nation.

  1. The belief that human flourishing is found in an inner sense of well-being.

There’s nothing wrong with human flourishing. We all want to flourish. What we’re dealing with here is the source of that flourishing, and it comes from an inner sense of well-being. So I did a little investigation; what do people mean when they talk about human flourishing? I discovered that Harvard actually has a human flourishing program. I looked into it, and they have five attributes of what it means to flourish as a human being.

  1. happiness and life satisfaction
  2. mental and physical health
  3. meaning and purpose
  4. character and virtue
  5. close social relationships

I don’t know about you, but I like those five attributes. If I had all five going on in my life, or if you had all five going on in your life, we would have that sense of flourishing as well. But the question becomes, “If this flourishing comes out of my inner sense of well-being, what gives me that inner sense of well-being? Where do I get that from? What informs that? How do I arrive at that place?” As you’re going to see in the next couple of points, that’s where things are going wrong in our culture.

  1. A second reason why things seem so terribly wrong to those who have a biblical worldview is the belief that one should be able to act outwardly as one feels inwardly. Think about that for a moment. Honestly, I don’t always want people to act outwardly the way they’re feeling inwardly. And I don’t actually want to always act outwardly the way I’m feeling inwardly. How about you?

Let’s investigate his third reason why we’re struggling with what’s going on from a biblical perspective. It is:

  1. The belief that who you are should largely be a matter of personal choice, not the result of external pressure or imposition from something or someone else. To bring this into focus, let me use a simple illustration that came to mind. Think about parents who decide to raise their child with the idea that, “I want my child to be able to have anything they want. I want my child to be able to do anything they desire. And my goal in life is to not put roadblocks in the way of their desires and what they want to be and what they want to do, but my goal in life is to take the roadblocks out of the way.”

How do you think that child is going to turn out? And what do you think it’s going to be like for you as a parent? It is not a pretty picture, is it?  Now magnify that and think about a culture that is being driven with that same mindset and that same attitude, and you begin to get a picture of why it feels like things aren’t right. In fact, you know what? You don’t have to be an orthodox Christian. You don’t even have to be a believer in the Bible to sense that something wrong with this world. Like the question asked, “What in the world is going on?”

A lot of what is going on is being fed by a mindset and attitude that “I need to be my authentic self.” The Bible tells us that that part of our life, our authentic self, is not a pretty picture. It is not something that should be unleashed by the billions on the world. Look at these familiar words that God spoke to His prophet in Jeremiah 17:9:

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

Think about that for a moment. Think about your own heart. Honestly, if you know your own heart well, wouldn’t you agree? Yeah, it can be desperately wicked. I don’t always act and thank God. I don’t always act on what’s in my heart or what’s in my mind. But you and I both know that things are not well with our full authentic self.

Look what Jesus said in Mark 7:20 (NLT):

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”

Those words are part of the reason people were driven to crucify Jesus. Pharisees, who considered themselves so righteous, in essence what He’s saying is your righteousness is like filthy rags in comparison to the righteousness of God Himself. For God desires us to be righteous like He is, and none of us are capable of that. When you try to run a world without God, without a moral code, without an outside force and imposition, so to speak, you’re asking for trouble.

I want to share a couple of drawings with you. These come from a man by the name of Philip Rieff; he’s probably the greatest American sociologist we’ve ever had. He died in 2006. He puts them in word form. I’m going to draw it out, because it’s easier for me to understand. Even though he was not a believer—he was a mighty intellect—he gave us a gift as Christians of understanding the world and what’s going on and how important our faith is. He talks about three cultural worlds. These aren’t separate worlds in existence. They could be as three worlds in a timeline.

[Pastor Dale draws three circles to represent the three worlds.]

The first world is pagan.  [Pastor Dale writes the word pagan in it.] The person in the pagan world believes in gods, legends, and myths. Even though these gods and these myths aren’t always moral, they give a sense to this pagan of how to live their life. The gods and their laws, rules and their ways govern how the pagan exists. My parents saw this amongst the Stone Age people they ministered to. You can see this in Greek mythology as well. I know a lot of the Greek gods were very immoral. Their ways were crazy because they’re human personifications. But they offered a sense of structure. They offered a sense of what was permissible and what was prohibited.

Then, according to Philip Rieff, you enter a second kind of world. [Pastor Dale writes Christianity in the second circle.] This is not a world of gods but is a world of the God. That is, monotheism of which Christianity is the greatest example. We’ll draw a Christian as our example of a monotheist. We believe in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–one God in essence, three distinct personalities. Our belief in the God of the Bible has influenced Western thought more than anything else. Our laws, for instance, as a nation have been greatly influenced by God’s Word, God’s revelation, and God’s will in the Scriptures. We find ourselves governed from the outside, in our case as Christians, from God and His Word.

Rieff goes on to say is that a third world has emerged, the world of self. [Pastor Dale writes self in the third circle.] It’s the world of me. This world, he says, is no longer governed by any outside force. We deny the outside force. This world is governed by me and justifies itself by me. I justify myself by myself.  His term for this is “Deathworks,” the death of culture. It’s the death of humanity. When you live in a world like this, you end up uprising toward all the other worlds. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m going to justify myself by myself, I’ve got to get rid of any idea of an outside force, an outside code, or an outside moral that’s influencing my life.

That’s what we are beginning to see in our own culture—this idea of defiance and opposition toward the oppression of others who are pushing their ideas, their theology, their god, their way. The culture feels like that has to be thrown off so we can be our authentic self.

The problem we’ve learned from Scripture is that our authentic self is sinful, evil and corrupt. It leads to destruction, chaos and pain. We need an outside compass, and that compass is the Word of God and the force is God Himself. This is where we’re beginning to see a real sense of oppression and growing persecution because of the things that are taking place here in the U.S.

I want to read to you something that Rieff wrote. He said,

“No culture has never preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order.”

In other words, no culture has preserved itself where it hasn’t had some sense of order, sacredness, outside overruling it.

“There, cultures have not survived. The third culture notion of a culture that persists independent of all sacred orders is unprecedented in human history.”

In other words, we have not seen this before. Rieff was precent in this; he saw what was coming and knew that if we stayed on this trajectory it was going to lead to all matter of chaos and trouble.

Which begs an important question, How did we get here? By the way, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but there’s a paradox to freedom. In freedom when we say, “You’re free. You can be or do what you want to do,” you can abuse your freedom to the point that you have to have an outside force coming, or you end up with absolute lawlessness and chaos. The question is, Who’s that influence going to be?

I want to answer the question, “How did we get here?” It didn’t happen overnight. I want to give a brief philosophical history lesson. I don’t want to bore you, but I want you to understand this is something that’s been coming for a long time. We had the frog in the kettle. The heat has been turned up very gradually; we didn’t even know it. It didn’t happen last year. It didn’t happen this last election cycle. For a long time it has been generating, because the enemy, Satan, is the god of lies. It has been generated by intellects some of you have heard about in college and graduate school. You may have never heard about these intellects, but their philosophy, ideology, and social imagination have affected this world and especially our culture. We don’t even know it, but we’ve become captive to their ideas.

Allow me to introduce a few of them to you–a few of many. Let’s begin with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a Genevan philosopher, composer, and writer. He lived in the 1700s.

The idea he spread among the intellectuals of his day in the Romantic Period is that the self needs to be able to express itself without any alien forces being imposed on it by the society. Society needs to express its emotions and feelings and not allow the culture judge individuals by imposing rules, religion and guidelines on people. Rousseau believed the problem with the world is God, the Bible and Christians and the sense of purpose and the sense of meaning they inflicted upon the population. This is the fire that he lit, that ravished among the intellectuals of his day. These ideas began to be taught and conversed about in the upper echelons of academia.

Rousseau’s ideas have trickled down over time. It led to philosophers, some famous, some not so famous, to discuss things like, “How do I know I’m a conscious being? Is my consciousness and myself and the world around me, is that something that comes from within me? Am I the source of the consciousness of what’s around me? Or is my source, as Hagel says, of consciousness from you? Do I know myself by how you know me?”

Do you see where that’s going? If true consciousness is how I feel and think about myself, and if my consciousness is influenced by how you feel and think about me, are you feeling or thinking about me in any way that judges me? If you are, then I need to police your words. I need to create structure where you can’t say anything that affects how I see myself or feel about myself. No matter how you express it, whether in love, hate or anger, what’s important is how I feel about me and my ability to express me.

Let’s move on to Charles Darwin. If you think about it, the concept of evolution actually took away human exceptionalism. It made us like all the other creatures and removed the spiritual dynamic. Evolution feeds the idea of survival of the fittest. With that came the mindset, again, of “it’s all about me.” It’s what I can do to better myself, and how dare you do something to keep me from being all that I want to be. How dare you oppress me.

Another gentlemen, by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche, has probably had the most influence on philosophers, social scientists, scientists, theologians, artists and more. He had the whole concept that God dead. He saw God as wicked. He saw God as one who makes everyone weak, who keeps everybody suppressed and down, and religion along with it. Nietzsche believed we should reject God and live our lives as we please.

Nietzsche’s ideas take us to another man by the name of Sigmund Freud. A lot of Freud’s theories have been debunked since his days, but there’s one that has grabbed the imagination of the world. The idea that at our core we are sexual beings–from infancy onward we are sexual beings. His ideology, thoughts, philosophy and teaching has led to concepts that are now widely embraced. Let’s look at three of them:

  1. Human flourishing in its ideal form is identical with sexual satisfaction. This concept of human flourishing is about me being sexually satisfied whatever that means for me.
  2. Sex is a matter of my identity and not primarily activity.
  3. Sex is something you are and not something that you do.

These ideas are everywhere: in the media, politics, and in some religion. We see this philosophy in every form and fashion you can think about. We are sex obsessed as a nation. We see ourselves that way. It has come to define who we are.

God created us as sexual beings, but God from the outside has imposed on us, for our own sake, guidelines on how that sexuality is to be lived and practiced. However, we live in a culture that wants to push off what God has said and what God has done.

As I was thinking about these things, it reminded me of the story in Genesis 11 when the people, who were of one language, decided to build a tower to the sky. Genesis 11:3-4 (NLT) says,

They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region, bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves and a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.”

If you look at their words carefully, in essence what they were saying is, “Let’s create our own Eden.” Ezekiel tells us that while the Garden of Eden was a garden, it was also a mountain. So, they thought, “We’re going to create our own Eden, our own mountain, and we are going to rule ourselves. We will find human beings like us to govern us so that we can experience living life on our own terms.” In essence, that is what they were saying. And the same thing is happening today. We are hellbent on building our own Eden–our own mountain, so the speak–in the face of God, so to speak. Like a raised fist to God saying, “We don’t need your outside influence on us. We will live life on our own terms.”

So that leads to the question, What does that bring us to? What are the results of that kind of a mindset, that kind of an attitude in the culture? My friend Carl Trueman says something quite profound. When we have the idea that religion is oppressive, it can only eventually lead to persecution. In his writings, he says that:

“Behaviors that Christianity regards as illegitimate are now made into an identity society regards as legitimate, and therefore requires all its citizens to recognize for the common good… [for example] to object to aberrant or aberrant forms of sexuality ceases to be merely to object to certain sexual practices or proclivities. It becomes the denial of the selfhood of another in active political violence that makes Christianity not simply implausible but downright morally offensive, even politically seditious because it seems to threaten the common good.”

When the central moral teachings of Christianity become identified with acts of psychological violence and harm, we can expect religious freedom to become far more restricted.

How should we respond? That’s what I will finish with. I hope what you’ve seen so far is how we’ve gotten to where we are today, and what is fueling what we see as wrong in our world today.

  1. Recognize the depth and nature of the challenge that we are facing. This isn’t a small thing. For instance, “this is not a superficial blip or momentary aberration of American culture,” Trueman says. It’s a big deal. It’s here to stay for a while.
    • The fewer people who consider religion an important part of their lives, the fewer people will care about religious freedom. That’s huge.
    • The modern view of self is a result of a long and comprehensive revolution. It cannot be supplanted until an equally comprehensive revolution takes its place.
    • A world where orthodox Christianity is considered not just implausible but also immoral is a world that we will need to navigate in a manner, perhaps, not seen since the second century and the early church. The early church swam out of bounds to rescue people, and they were arrested for it. They were imprisoned, beaten, and put to death for it. But do you know that the second century church turned the world upside down? In the midst of all that, the church actually thrived and grew? The church didn’t get in trouble until it cozied up with the State—Constantine and afterwards. It is why corruption settled in. The days ahead don’t necessarily have to be bad days. They may be bad days in terms of how we’re treated and talked about, but they can be great days of spiritual thriving. We’ll talk about that in just a moment.
    • The church has been here before, and it thrived. The early church in the second century A.D.
  2. Know what you know and believe what you know. We’ve been talking about that over and over again. It’s why we’re ramping up our Next Gen ministry. That’s why we brought in Dr. Ken Castor to help build cohesiveness from the nursery through college. We want our students and parents to know what they believe and to be able to defend their faith against the ideas coming our way. We want them to understand questions about Christianity, the Bible and who Jesus is. We live in a world that wants to do one of two things. It wants to either 1) neuter God, so to speak, make God more culturally accepted, or 2) get rid of God altogether. Anytime you try to change God into a mascot for your ideology or get rid of God, you create a vacuum. It has to be filled with someone or something that becomes God; otherwise you end up in utter chaos. Eventually somebody has to come into the vacuum and put the log on, because you cannot have people living only by their emotions and desires.
  3. Don’t get preoccupied with the symptoms of a self-centered world. As Christians, we do that all the time. What do I mean by that? Don’t get preoccupied with all the sexual aberrations that we see going on today. It’s not worth it. It’s just a symptom of a deeper problem. Don’t get all caught up with cancel culture, critical race theory and QAnon and all these things occupy our minds, ideas, texting, emails, books, magazines and on and on. Those are symptoms. We need to get to the heart of the problem.
  4. Don’t become inward focused or hateful towards the culture. It doesn’t do any good. We are supposed to love the world like Jesus did. He gave His life that whosoever believes will not drown. “Drown”–that’s my paraphrase. Referring to our opening illustration, whosoever believes will not drown but have everlasting life. You can’t hate this world. You can’t circle the wagons against the world. We’ve got to swim out of bounds, knowing we might get fired for it, because people need Christ.
  5. Come to know others as Christ knows them—individuals created in the image of God—and treat them that way. That’s the heart of the issue. Get past the symptoms and get to know people. When we treat people the way Christ would treat them, that’s when they flourish, because all of us want to be loved. All of us want to know that we came from someone and something greater than ourselves, more than our parents. And we did; His name is God. He created us in His image, and He loves us. I have been so challenged lately to start seeing people the way Jesus sees them. Start behaving toward people the way Jesus behaved toward them. Speak to them the way Jesus would speak to them, no matter how different they are from me. Because when it’s all said and done, I’m a sinner like everybody else. The only difference is God found me and changed me. He sent me back to find others like me for God to change them, too. That’s what He’s called us to do.
  6. Be a loyal subject to the state to the extent that loyalty to the state and Christ are compatible.
  7. Accept that you will be persecuted when you cannot be loyal to the state because it contradicts Christ.
  8. Don’t forsake meeting together with other believers as a church. We need that desperately these days to hold each other accountable and build each other up. I’m praying and hoping we can regather in greater numbers and greater numbers soon. I’m hoping and praying that we’ll spawn off many micro-churches in communities, households and businesses, where you can gather as a church, if that’s where you want to be. But don’t live in isolation. Don’t live alone in the faith. You’ll be overcome, discouraged and deceived. We need each other. We need each other so we can present a picture to the world that is better than what the world is seeking. I think the world is seeking a different way because they’ve looked at the church and, honestly, these last few years we have not given them something to be excited about. With all our moral failures, all our political arguments, all our name callings, all the hatred that’s been going on, the devil’s done a number on us. We need to repent and step away from that, and become the church that Christ always envisioned us to be.
  9. Our greatest witness is when we remain faithful to the message of Christ and flourish in Christian community. That’s what He calls us to be, His witnesses. You see, Philip Rieff talked about three worlds. I think there’s a fourth world, and the fourth world is the kingdom of God established in our hearts. It is lived out within the body of Christ called the church and tastes a little bit like heaven on earth. It is far greater than anything–any human intellect, philosopher, or theologian—you can come up with. The world is desperate for that. I wonder if God is leading us into a time of persecution, allowing us to be refined and to withdraw us from the milk of the world to the meat of God’s Word and the presence of His Spirit. Then, we can go back once again into the world and be the hope it’s so desperately looking for. This is an opportunity for us to change the world around us.

Are you with me? If you are, then I want you to stay with me into our next series, because we’re going to talk about how to find purpose in uncertainty. We’re going to look at the life of Joseph. If anybody faced uncertainty, it was Joseph. If anybody lived in a pagan culture, it was Joseph. And yet Joseph rose up to be the second most powerful man in the world. I’m not saying you’re going to rise up to be the second most powerful man or woman in the world. But I believe God has a purpose for you and me in these days, and we’re going to uncover that together in a profound way.

*The book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman is highly recommended for further insight on this topic.