Persecution and Grace – Part 1

32 But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions;

33 Partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used.

34 For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. Heb. 10:32-34

The early church certainly did undergo persecution. There is no question about that. But there is also no question about the fact that, despite this persecution, or probably because of it the early church was also a church in which the grace of God flowed abundantly.

In Acts 21:8-11 we read: 8 And the next day we that were of Paul’s company departed, and came unto Caesarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him. 9 And the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy. 10 And as we tarried there many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus. 11 And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. Acts 21:11

This man, Philip, had four girls, all virgins, who prophesied! Without a doubt, this ought to be declared the first wonder of the modern world.

Here we have all four sisters in one family prophesying. Not one or two, but all four. And the Bible goes to pains to point out that all these girls were virgins, which I am sure points to the importance that God attaches to those who are willing to pay the price to become “vessels of honor” (2 Tim. 2:20-22).

But notice also that these four girls were not prophets; they simply prophesied. This is a ministry of exhortation or direction to the church through a direct Word from the Holy Spirit. It is a slightly lower ministry than the ministry of the prophet. (The functioning of the Holy Spirit within the church is infinitely unlimitable, and that is why we cannot have a tunnel vision of the Holy Spirit’s operation within the church.)

And, therefore, these girls stayed with Paul for “many days”, but it was not given them to tell Paul what would befall him in Jerusalem. It required a prophet of God, Agabus, to travel all the way from Judaea to come and confirm to Paul the weighty matter of his impending persecution in Jerusalem.

Notice also that the Bible refers to both Philip and Agabus by their spiritual offices, “evangelist” and “prophet”. The Bible does not call the girls prophets.

In other words, women may not hold office in the Spirit, which designates authority; but women can minister in the Spirit in many different roles.

(One more thing we need to point out is that these girls were prophesying in the church. There are people who will say that women ought not to open their mouths in church; but I can assure you that these girls were not prophesying in their father’s living room. They were prophesying in the church. There are all kinds of misunderstandings of scripture simply because people will not rely on the Holy Spirit, but on their minds. But the Holy Spirit is faithful, and the minute we turn to Him, He opens up the Word to us. Actually, there are two ways of reading scripture: you can read and try to understand it by using your very fine mind; or you can decide to become a fool for Christ’s sake and pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide and help you. One approach will bring you life; the other, law (“It is written!”) – and death.)

But what I want us to notice here is the incredible grace that was in the early church. This church, which was persecuted left, right and centre, was the same church that produced men like Philip, Agabus, and Paul – and these four extraordinary sisters.

Probably the modern church is not as persecuted as the early church was, and that is why it is difficult to find this pervasiveness of grace operating in today’s church as was the case with the early church. Maybe someone will point to the great move of the Holy Spirit during the charismatic era, and the many miracles and healings that took place then. That was the grace of God at work all right; but it is what I would call the “tip of the iceberg”. There is so much more grace at work when people are denying their flesh and partaking of the sufferings of Christ: there is so much more inner glory. There is victory over sin, joy, and peace. Even death has no power over such people.

No one desires persecution, nor does the Bible tell us to pray for persecution. But on the other hand, if you give the flesh too much rope, the Spirit is stifled. That is why, whether we are persecuted or not, we should always carry the mind that Christ had of denying the flesh. The flesh is our No.1 enemy. The Bible says about our Lord Jesus Christ, “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me… By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb. 10:5, 10).

Notice the word “offering” there. The believer’s body has been given him/her, not to be pampered, but to be sacrificed. And that is the mind that we need to carry.

[Below: Life for the early Christians was a life of great persecution and profound want]

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First Things First!

One of the most poignant stories in the gospels is the account of the ten virgins as Jesus told it in Matthew 25. It is a story of great triumph and joy on the one hand, and yet one of tragedy and deep sorrow on the other.

The fact that Jesus talked of virgins here straightaway indicates that He was referring to the church. The bridegroom, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

The truly alarming aspect of this narrative is that even the five foolish virgins knew they could not enter the wedding banquet without light in their lamps!

The scriptures say: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” Mat. 6:22-23

Actually, the Kingdom of God is first and foremost all about the light of God in our hearts. If our hearts are dark – if they are impure – we cannot hope to enter that Kingdom.

We learn from the Bible that the first thing that God brought to be when He created the earth was light. You see, there are first things with God, just as it is with us. Light was the very first thing that God brought into being. It follows, therefore, that light is the most important ingredient in the Kingdom of God. Without light there is nothing else that is allowed to be.

We (as human beings) are professionals at working things downside up. Had we been in God’s place, we would have created the cows and the trees first, and then we would  probably have thought about the light. That is why there are many people in church today who are more concerned about doing many things “for the Kingdom” except carrying a heart of grace, a pure heart!

The oil talks about God’s grace. It is a matter of paramount importance that we make sure we are constantly carrying the grace of God in our hearts. Grace is the power of God. It is what keeps the light – our good Christian deeds – burning in our lives.

The Bible says that each born-again believer has been given grace “according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” (Eph. 4:7) This means that, just like the ten virgins, we all start out with a measure of “oil” in our hearts. But that oil needs replenishing. That is why Jesus talked about ‘watching’.

Have you noticed how some of us begin well our Christian walk, but after some time, we seem to lose that magic touch? We become stunted in doctrine and our hearts grow cold and hard. The bowels of mercy dry up in us and we become judgmental and unforgiving. Sin in its many forms soon begins to press hard against us from every side. That is because we are not watching and making sure we are carrying oil – God’s grace – in our lives.

The only way to serve Jesus is by having grace in our hearts.

Paul admonishes the Philippians: “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.” (Phil. 2:14-15)

We can clearly see that the word light here is associated with the life of grace that we live in this world.

There is only one way to carry the grace of God in our lives. It is by losing our lives. Why do you think the Apostle Paul has been maligned from the day of his conversion to the present? It is because at the moment of his conversion, Paul caught a revelation of the only thing that can crucify the flesh, and Satan has understandably been mad at him ever since!

The cross is the only place where we can crucify the flesh and its lusts and be able to carry that all-important grace in our lives.

The Apostle Paul was able to live the crucified life, and we are all witnesses to the kind of life that he lived and the great work that he accomplished for the gospel’s sake. Indeed, the true church can only be a product of the gospel of grace that Paul preached.

Paul had a revelation of what the cross was meant to accomplish in his life. We, too, must arrive at that place, the place where we will not just lay our burdens at the cross, but where we will also be willing to lose our lives there.

When Jesus comes, He wants to find us carrying grace. He will want to hear all about the many miracles we performed and the beautiful worship songs we composed, of course, but He wants to find us carrying a heart of grace. He wants to find forgiveness, mercy, tenderness, righteousness and holiness in our hearts. Those are the first things He will be looking for.

It is sad but one day, even though God is love, He will tell some of His children, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not.”

‘Verily’ means truly. Making sure we have grace in our hearts – always – is no joking matter.