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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

“Away with the Atheists”

My goodness, how times have changed. One of our children was lamenting that her iPod only holds a few thousands songs and a certain number of videos. My wife and I looked at each other, remembering how we once conquered the world with a Walkman and a cassette tape “back in the day.” Remember when those who had tattoos were to be avoided, and those who had them would never be caught dead saying the word “church”? Now there exists a Church of Body Modifications. Did you know that in the early 1900’s doctors who studied so-called “diseases of the mind” were called “alienists?” Today we call them “psychologists.” The ancient Romans, who once worshipped a copious number of “gods” had a name for people who did not acknowledge Ceasar as “god.” They were called “atheists” and reserved the term primarily for Christians!

A Christian leader by the name of Polycarp lived about 75 - 155 A.D. When he was 86 years old, he was arrested by the Romans and brought to trial because he would not recant his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and offer sacrifice to Caesar as god. They nearly turned a lion on him (which was illegal, since that part of the “show” had already passed) then resorted to burn him instead. As preparations were made, eyewitnesses report that Polycarp looked at the tribunal and the crowd in the stadium, then looked into heaven and said, “Away with the atheists.” He not only had the right perspective, but also had the faith to stand in the face of persecution as a witness (literally, “martyr”). “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The New Testament book of Acts records an incident of faith and fortitude in the record often referred to as “The Defense of Stephen” in Acts 7. The word of God was spreading through Jerusalem and even priests were converting (6:7). “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). The people were stirred by his ministry, not to repentance, but to arrest Stephen because of the gospel. Acts 7:1 says he was questioned by the High Priest—the very same High Priest who stood against Jesus when He was arrested. Stephen responds with a 51 sentence reply to the accusation that through his preaching, he was speaking against all that Moses handed down, and that Jesus would destroy “this place and alter the customs.”

Stephen’s reply is not a defense for his life, but proof that the gospel was right. 48 of the 51 sentences are a summary of God at work and those who responded in obedience (22 sentences are direct quotes from scripture). The remaining three sentences reveal his very accusers as the ones who did not keep what they received from the Lord. Immediately after this, Luke records that Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed on the glory of God while his accusers rushed on him to kill him.

Did you read what happened to Olga in Southern California just a few days ago? Or perhaps the two faithful evangelists who were killed while preaching?

Polycarp shared a similar experience with Stephen: “While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium thrice, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.” This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.’”

These people knew the scripture, and faithful proclamation of scripture drew opposition. I’ve personally preached to people who turned their backs to me. I did not stop because they were still listening to the message of God’s love and their rebellion. The gospel is publicly opposed because public proclamation touches people where they live. If we give the counsel of God privately, it cannot touch private lives. Furthermore, we should learn from Stephen that the message of the gospel is an old tree with deep, deep roots. That many opponents know scripture should not hinder our ministry, but should underscore the need to keep on teaching with gentleness.

Stephen saw God in His glory through all time, and he evidenced that in his defense. He was able to recognize the Son of Man because this is His glory on display since before Abraham. Stephen was so saturated in the scriptures that He could not help but recognize the Lord Jesus Christ! His mind was set on things above, where Christ is seated. If we are raised with Christ, we, too should set our minds on such heavenly things and there find increasing joy despite increasing adversity in gospel proclamation and daily living. We must confess the sin of our Christian atheism: saying we believe in God, but living like we don’t.

Like Stephen, we must be prepared. This requires that we spend time in Bible reading and prayer (and Bible reading is an excellent fire-starter for prayer). We cannot do ministry if we have nothing with which to minister. We speak His Words into the world, displaying before the mind's eye galleries of verbal pictures of what God is doing.

Like Stephen, we must be obedient to the Holy Spirit. His message was filled with examples of those who were obedient to what God was doing to glorify His name in His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. We operate in the power of His Holy Spirit as we show His love to the world.

Like Stephen, we need to be interesting. Not really. Faithful teaching of scripture to the lost and dying world brings it's own level of interest. There will never be a dull moment. Just because a person is oppositional does not mean they are not listening.

If, perhaps, God allows us to enter His glory in the same manner as Stephen, remember that this is not so bad. Scripture says Stephen, when being stoned, "fell asleep." J.R. Miller comments: "We sleep when we are weary--and we awake refreshed. Sleep is not the cessation of life. We expect to awake, after we have slept. As we part for the night, we do not say, 'Farewell,' but 'Goodnight,' for we expect to meet again in the morning. This beautiful Scriptural designation of death tells us, therefore, of life beyond, of resurrection, of immortality. We shall awake from this sleep of death--and our life shall go on again. We shall awake refreshed, lying down weary--and rising strong; lying down sick, or old, or deformed, or worn-out--and rising well, young and radiant in heavenly beauty!"

We can expect opposition from the world with faithful proclamation of the gospel. This does not mean that every time we share we will face it, but we will face it. Objectors are not rejecting you, but Christ. Remember, Stephen’s ministry was met with acceptance as much as with rejection. We prefer to avoid stress and opposition, but it is impossible to uphold the Christian worldview and not face it. Our brethren in other countries are giving their life's blood for the sake gospel.

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