Exiles as Missionaries

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the August 1, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20, NIV

Recently I had the opportunity to view a video dramatization regarding the importance of being true to Christ.[i] In the video, a man with a gun, a hitchhiker, forced another man to his knees and asked him if he was ready to die for Jesus. The man on his knees was well-dressed and had been forced out of his expensive car. His wife was ordered to remain at the car. Trembling and in tears she watched her husband’s trial in what appeared to be his final moments. The angry gunman told the husband with the gun barrel against the nape of his neck that if he was not ready to sacrifice his life for Jesus, he would let him go, but if he was ready to die for his God, he would expedite his death. The choice was his.

Finally with much angry urging by the gunman, the husband admitted he was not ready to die for Jesus, and begged the gunman to let him live. At that point, the gunman allowed him to stand and he lowered his gun and began to cry. Pointing the gun to his own head, he pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. He then opened the gun to reveal there were no bullets. He then told the couple to go as they were not who he was looking for. He explained through many tears that he was looking for someone who would give their life for Jesus. Then, he knew, that person would be able to teach him about Christ, because for that person, it was not just words on a page but a living, breathing experience worth dying for.

This question has recently been brought home to Christians globally as we have seen thousands martyred for their Christian faith in Muslim countries. Few in the West have been asked to make such a choice, but when we see these things happening elsewhere, we cannot help but ask ourselves, “What would I do if faced with the choice of living or dying based on whether or not I acknowledged Jesus as my Savior?”

Throughout history this question has burned brightly, lit by the flames of martyrdom. Sometimes the persecutors were pagans. Sometimes they were Muslims. Sadly sometimes they were even other Christians. But always the central principle surrounding God’s people at those times was whether Jesus meant more than life to them. Along with this struggle, another theological one arose as well.

In the middle of the third century, the Roman Emperor Decius forced Christians to offer incense to the gods and also to the emperor for his well-being.[ii] Faced with this dilemma, some Christians refused to offer incense to these false gods and were tortured and in some cases summarily executed. Pope Fabian, the twentieth pope if you begin the succession with Peter, was executed at Rome for choosing to disobey Decius’ edict. Other Christians reasoned that since the false gods were not really gods, it would do no harm to offer incense to them. As a result a controversy arose over whether those who gave in to the emperor were truly Christians. Since some were leaders in the church, it was also questioned whether or not they could hold holy orders and baptize or ordain others.

For those who were raised on stories of Christian trials and God’s deliverance from those trials, it is understandable how this would create a crisis of faith. Some stellar examples of these stories occur in the book of Daniel, written about the experiences of the Babylonian exile. In chapter two, Daniel and his friends are delivered from death when God intervenes by providing an interpretation for the Babylonian king’s dream. In chapter three, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow down to an idol even though it means their death. Cast into a fiery furnace, they are unharmed through heavenly intervention by one who appears to be like “a son of the gods.” In chapter six, Daniel himself is cast into a den with hungry lions to be devoured for praying to God. Angels come to protect Daniel from the lions, and he is delivered unharmed. The lesson of these stories is that if you place your relationship with God above your own life, deliverance will come.

This is a powerful concept. It has driven countless Christians to foreign lands, in spite of great danger to life and limb, to share the good news of Jesus with others. However, notwithstanding the stories from Daniel, many have paid with their lives in those lands. In fact, many died and were not delivered under the Emperor Decius’ persecution. Tertullian, an African theologian who died a few years before Decius’ attack on the church, opined in his work “Apologeticus,” “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”[iii] In this he perhaps was helping to shape a theology that instead of teaching that God will deliver the saints from persecution, taught that persecution and death for Christ was a gift to the church that brought others to Jesus on the strength of the witness of the martyrs. The value of that faith then being understood by the price the martyrs had paid.

But what of those who are not willing to pay that price? Maybe the experience of Peter speaks to that.[iv] After Jesus was arrested and taken to the high priest’s palace, Peter sat outside trying to see what would happen to his Savior. But Peter, confronted three times about his association with Jesus, in fear that he would be arrested or worse, denied having anything to do with Jesus. While this denial was tragic, Peter was still able to experience redemption.[v] Later he would demonstrate the fruits of repentance by calling thousands of others to Jesus on Pentecost.[vi] He would be eventually martyred in Rome where the Roman Catholic Church claims descent from his ministry and considers him to be the first pope.

Does this then provide theological justification for it being OK to deny Jesus as several third century Christians did under Decius? Some might feel that to be the case. However, the key difference is that Peter recognized what he did was wrong and repented of it. Those who justified offering incense to the gods and the emperor by claiming that they were not really gods would not see error in what they did. Without feeling in error, it is impossible to experience repentance. Therefore Peter’s experience could not be excusatory for them. Granted some may have later realized their error and repented. In following such a course they may indeed be paralleling Peter and may wish to find reinstatement. The church struggled with this.

Some theologians of the third century felt that there were sins that could not be repented of and therefore those who committed them could not be allowed into the church. Tertullian identified Fornication and Murder as unforgivable for example.[vii] After the Decian Persecution, Novatian, a Roman theologian with some following advocated that those who had offered incense should not be allowed back into the church under any circumstance.[viii] Perhaps they were focusing on the text that states that there is no sacrifice left for deliberate sin.[ix] Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, disagreed and felt that they should be allowed back into fellowship after appropriate probation and penance including rebaptism.[x] However, Stephen, Bishop of Rome, declared that rebaptism was not necessary. Eventually Cyprian demurred to Rome and Novatian’s group was considered schismatic.[xi]

We can see from this that there have been some conflicts in the church, conflicts that still inform praxis today. For instance, I once asked a Sabbath School class I was teaching what should be done for a sexual offender who repents and is baptized. Some, like Tertullian, felt there are some sins that could never be repented of, and they would include sexual predation on that list. Others felt that diminished the power of God to change lives and advocated that they should be admitted to fellowship, and that their willingness to be monitored would be an indication of their recognition of their past culpability and desire to live a changed life. This is a thorny problem, especially for those who have small children.

To bring this back to the main issue, should we be willing to lay down our lives for Jesus? Does He expect this of us? The stories from Daniel tell us that if we do, we will have opportunities for experiences not otherwise available. However, history has shown that not everyone who does so will be delivered. The experience of Peter also shows that there is redemption even for those who deny Jesus. Of course, that does not mean that denying Jesus is the right thing to do. Otherwise, there would be no need for repentance and redemption. Perhaps all it means is that for those who have the faith to do so, their martyrdom, or in some instances deliverance, will be a powerful testimony of their faith. But for those who are weak, they are not left without hope. To the consternation of some, even those with little faith may find redemption in Jesus. That is how Jesus himself said it would be.[xii]

[i] "Drifting," Brett Bower, http://www.sermonspice.com/product/430/drifting, 2004.

[ii] "Decian persecution," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decian_persecution

[iii] "Apologeticus," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologeticus

[iv] Matthew 26:69-75

[v] John 21:15-19

[vi] Acts 2:14-41

[vii] "Tertullian," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertullian

[viii] "Persecution, Penance, and 'the Lapsed,'" Paul Kroll, https://www.gci.org/history/lapsed, 2015.

[ix] Hebrews 10:26-27

[x] "Persecution, Penance, and 'the Lapsed,'" Paul Kroll, https://www.gci.org/history/lapsed, 2015.

[xi] Ibid.'"

[xii] Matthew 20:1-16



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