Personal security (part 5): The kingdom at hand and consummated

This is the fifth part of this six-part series on personal security. If you missed it, you can read part one, part two, part three and part four.

5. The Kingdom at Hand: Jesus Christ

With the coming of Jesus comes the coming of the kingdom. Mark records the first words of Jesus as “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). With this coming, the hopes of the new, permanent rest are raised, but we quickly learn that even though the kingdom has come, it is not complete, and therefore aspects of the ‘old creation’ remain.

This can be seen in many areas of life, but a brief survey of the lives of Jesus and the apostle Paul indicates that personal security for the Christian is still a very real issue. However, the dominant theme in the gospels and epistles in the category of ‘personal security’ changes slightly, to persecution, or a threat to personal safety as a result of gospel preaching or living.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus says:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kind of evil and falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:10-12)

It seems the scope of persecution here is both verbal and physical—but the underlying assumption is that it will happen and therefore there is something ‘normal’ about it. However, in the big picture that Jesus presents, the persecutors and their persecutions are not to be feared. Rather, fear should be directed to the ultimate judgement that we all face (Matt 10:28).

Jesus personifies the experience of this persecution and reviling as he is criticized by the religious authorities and then ultimately suffers punishment and death. With the reality of this persecution looming, Jesus prays his famous prayers in the garden of Gethsemane. Each prayer gives us an insight into the reality of the suffering Jesus is about to enter into, but also his desire to follow through, as that is the will of the Father. The alertness of Jesus to the reality of the situation is highlighted by the contrast of the disciples, who sleep and eventually avoid the association with Jesus as a means of avoiding the accompanying persecution.

There is no suggestion that Jesus is somehow enjoying the pain or the persecution, but at the same time he does not avoid it.

The idea of the normality of persecution continues as Jesus invites his followers to follow him on this path, with the challenging words “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Jesus presents an attitude to life which requires believers to lose their life for his sake. And not just the ‘super Christian’; this is the normal attitude for all believers. It would seem reasonable to suggest that this includes an incorporation of Jesus’ attitude to persecution and the threats to personal security that living as a Christian may bring.

This is certainly what we see in the life and writing of Paul. He reminds his Corinthian readers of his sufferings, not to boast but to demonstrate his weakness and God’s strength and grace (2 Cor 11:22-30). In his second letter to Timothy, he specifically invites Timothy to participate in the suffering that he has experienced (2 Tim 1:8, 2:3), but then generalizes that such participation is the norm for the Christian life, rather than the exception (2 Tim 3:12).

However, we also see that Paul does leave some situations when circumstances become dangerous. In Acts 14 Paul and Barnabas flee from Iconium after the crowd tries to stone them (only to suffer that fate in Lystra), and in Acts 17 the brothers send Paul and Silas away from Thessalonica because of the riots that have been provoked by their presence. We can note that in this second example, it is the ‘local brothers’ who send Paul away, rather than Paul himself making the decision.

And so it seems that from the New Testament we can say that persecution is to be an expected part of the Christian life and not something to be automatically avoided, although there is also a place for leaving under particular circumstances. If we are living in a part of the world where persecution does not take place we begin to see that as normal, whereas in fact the New Testament suggests perhaps we should be thanking God for such an abnormality.

But what of more general threats, the threats that come not from being a Christian, but because we live in a place prone to violence or civil unrest? The fact that we are a Christian may be the reason we are leaving in the place (e.g. as a missionary) but Christians are not being specifically targeted.

It is a little harder to find guidance on this, perhaps because in the first century the issue of persecution was so dominant, however there are some passages that help us broaden our understanding beyond persecution to our response to more general threats.

In 1 Peter, Peter writes to scattered exiles, encouraging them to respond graciously and respectfully even when their governments or masters are cruel and unjust. (1 Pet 2:13-21) It may be that the suffering they are enduring is persecution, but it may just be that they are living in tough times—and they need to live as Christians in those times. Peter’s reason for offering such advice reminds us of the words of Jesus inviting us to follow his example: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21).

Again, in chapter 3, Peter calls on Christians to bless in the face of evil, to turn from evil and do good and be zealous for doing good. (1 Pet 3:8-17) Clearly there is a persecution element to this instruction, but it seems that there is also guidance for our response to general threat and difficulty. Grace, generosity, sympathy, and brotherly love are appropriate responses to all kinds of threat.

In chapter 4, Peter continues to exhort his readers to godly conduct in all circumstances, particularly unpleasant ones. Again, there is a strong emphasis on suffering that comes as a result of being Christian (persecution), however I think we can also draw a reasonable application about the manner in which we approach suffering in general. We need to glorify God and entrust ourselves to him (1 Pet 4:16, 19)

6. The kingdom consummated: The return of Christ

In the person of Christ Jesus we see the hope of the prophets fulfilled. In the heavenly vision of the apostle John we are given a glimpse of what the perfect and eternal kingdom of God will look like. As the crowds from all tribes and nations gather around the throne, worshipping the lamb, there is no threat or danger (Rev 4). This scene is repeated in chapter 20 as we view the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Amongst the visions of life and abundance we hear a loud voice from the throne saying:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4)

The conclusion is clear. In the new creation there is no threat to personal security. There is no persecution, no general suffering. These belong to the ‘former things’.

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