When I saw the news of Rev. Jacques Hamel, the French priest who was martyred during Mass by ISIS sympathisers, I felt sick. Truth be told, I cried mixed tears of sadness, anger and fear. I have found myself not wanting to read the news.
Following Jesus has suddenly become more real than ever. Jesus was crucified. Many of his followers were put to death because of their witness to Christ and his resurrection. Now suddenly, martyrdom is on our doorstep.
The persecution of Christians has been going on for centuries all over the world. It seems that when there is a real push to completely eradicate Christ-followers, believers still come together and follow the Lord, even risking their lives.
This challenges me greatly. Could I follow Jesus and risk my life? The brave and right answer would be – yes. The honest answer is – I hope so.
I have no idea how I would respond if I was put under considerable strain for being a Christian. I am thankful that I can meet with other Christians, pray, read the bible, go to church and write about my faith without fear of being caught, tortured, imprisoned, stoned and killed.
From Persecutor to Persecuted
The apostle Paul in the New Testament was once a man who committed terrible atrocities against Christians. Before Paul followed Christ, he was named Saul and persecuted men and women who professed to follow Jesus. He wanted to destroy the church – the believers in Jesus. He was a Pharisee and believed in God, but did not believe that Jesus was who he said he was – the Son of God.
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2
How could someone like that ever deserve to be forgiven? How could God reach someone like that? Yet, God is sovereign and transformed Saul from the inside out. Saul had to be broken before he could be used in a mighty way. As Saul was on the road to Damascus to try and capture anyone who followed Jesus, it was Jesus who captivated him.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said,“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Acts 9:3-6
Saul temporarily lost his sight and had to be led by the men that were travelling with him and trust that they would lead him to Damascus. Saul ended up in Damascus as he had planned – but his plans had completely changed. He had encountered Jesus. Jesus told Saul truthfully that he was persecuting Christ. All of these attacks on believers were a direct attack on Christ himself.
What happened next?
God did not leave Saul without hope. He led him to a house where a disciple called Ananias would be expecting him. God had already let Ananias know about Saul through a vision, and when Saul arrived God healed him through Ananias. Saul’s vision was restored and he was filled with the Spirit of God.
As for Ananias…?
…He was honest and open before God. I think I would have reacted in the same way if God had told me to go and visit Saul of Tarsus who was known for his brutality against Christians:
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” Acts 9:13-14
Do you think God would have said, “Really? I had no idea! Thanks for telling me!” Ananias didn’t understand God’s purposes for wanting to heal a man who brought such devastation on God’s people. Maybe he felt that he didn’t want to be the one to help a man responsible for such suffering. Yet God used Ananias to prepare the way for Saul to become Paul the apostle – the persecutor would become the persecuted.
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9:15-16
The apostle Paul suffered a great deal for the gospel. When he wrote to the Corinthian church, he said:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28
From a man who once sought to destroy the Christian church, he now suffered alongside it because he had met with Christ. His life was spent telling others the good news that there is forgiveness, hope and life found in the living God.
Where does that leave us?
God wants us to follow and trust him fully and he tells us to not fear which is easier said than done at times. But he also says “I am with you”:
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
Paul’s life was completely changed when he encountered Jesus. This transformation still happens today. When people meet Jesus, their lives change forever. It’s unstoppable. I mean, we’re talking about knowing God. Really knowing him personally. Just wow.
Following Jesus is not for the fainthearted. It’s not an easy journey. It’s not a crutch to get through life.
It’s a call to a life lived at 180°; it’s a complete transformation to walk in a direction that may seem alien at times – a life at 180° can get heated and uncomfortable. Yet through the fire, we are refined, purified and shine brightly.
Life is found in Jesus Christ who meets every need – the most important being our need to experience the love and forgiveness of God in an age that needs both so desperately.