Earlier this week, a group of 21 Egyptian Christians, members of the Coptic Church, were beheaded. The accusation against them: they were “people of the cross, members of the hostile Egyptian Church.” This unfathomable act was carried out by ISIS—an act of barely veiled evil, supposedly done in service to God. Religious people everywhere (most Muslims included) are horrified at this and other atrocities committed by the Islamic State.

As I hear about this beheading, I am in the middle of my semester, in which I am teaching two courses that give me two unique perspectives on this event. On the one hand, I am teaching about the persecution endured by the Christians in the first three centuries. On the other hand, I am teaching through the book of Revelation. The church history course gives historical perspective; the Revelation course gives eternal and theological perspective.

In talking about the early church, we have been looking at many examples of Christians who bravely met their death. From sometimes sporadic and sometimes full-scale persecutions under Roman emperors to persecutions in China, India, Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East for most of Christian history, persecution has been the church’s constant companion. Paul promised: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). And he meant it. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation,” but he also went on to say, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Throughout history, many of our Christian brothers and sisters have boldly chosen death over disgrace, martyrdom over apostasy. Most of these martyrs didn’t actually have to die: there was a simple escape from their painful deaths (often preceded by torture). All they had to do was renounce Jesus. And yet that simple act was more than they could bear; death was a far more attractive option.

Despite numerous attempts throughout church history (and apparent victories in specific areas at specific times), evil has not been able to stop the followers of Christ from, well, following Christ—from picking up their own cross and accepting death on behalf of their Lord. As Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

These 21 men bravely joined the prestigious ranks of those who have demonstrated that Jesus matters more than their own lives. As Hebrews says, these are people “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).

At the same time, I’ve been teaching through the book of Revelation. Though there is much disagreement about the nature and timing of Revelation, the book was originally written to seven churches on the verge of intense persecution from the Roman empire (or “Babylon,” as Revelation refers to it). The letter of Revelation was written to keep them standing strong in the face of persecution. Some churches were in danger of flirting with the evil empire, and Revelation calls them to remain faithful. Other churches were about to suffer for their faith, and Jesus says to them: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

Standing firm as a faithful witness to the reign of Jesus—even in the face of death—is a key theme in Revelation. Revelation calls all Christians to be ready to lay down our lives rather than deny Jesus in our words or our actions.

In calling us to be faithful witnesses to the point of death, Revelation is calling us to follow the example of Jesus. Towards the beginning of the book, John hears an announcement of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has “conquered” (5:5). And as John turns to look upon this conquering, kingly Lion, he seems something startling: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v. 6). What John sees interprets what John hears. Jesus is indeed the King, the conquering Lion. But the way in which he has conquered is by dying as a sacrificial Lamb. This then sets the stage for the followers of the Lamb.

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Throughout the book of Revelation, the followers of the Lamb are called to “conquer” in the same way the Lamb conquered: “They have conquered him [the dragon: Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). It is fascinating that in Revelation, the same event in which Satan and the evil empire are said to conquer over God’s people (11:7, 13:7)—namely, martyring them—is also the event in which the martyrs are said to conquer Satan and evil (12:11). The evil empire believes that it is conquering by killing the saints; the saints are assured that they are conquering the evil empire by dying. We are reminded of Paul’s words:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Faithful witness is the call throughout Revelation, and martyrs throughout history have answered this call.

So as I heard about ISIS beheading 21 Christians and referring to them as “the people of the cross,” I thought: they got that exactly right. People of the cross indeed. People who are willing to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. And as I heard of one of the ISIS soldiers claiming, “we will conquer Rome,” I thought: they got that exactly wrong. They are siding with Rome, with Babylon, with the beast, with the evil empire. And the men they beheaded are the ones who truly conquered Rome.

Because our Christian brothers went to death for the sake of Jesus’ name, choosing faithful witness to the lordship of Jesus over their own lives, evil was conquered on Sunday. Just as in the crucifixion of Jesus, evil has been conquered in the very act by which it meant to conquer.

So to our Christian brothers who defeated ISIS: Thank you for reminding us that Jesus is better than life. Thank you for showing us that death is not defeat, that those who remain faithful to death will receive the crown of life. We are inspired by your allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb, and we are resolved to follow the Lamb into the heavenly city, where he has already wiped every tear from your eyes (Rev. 21:4).

If you’re single, you want to be married. At least, that’s what just about everyone in the church seems to believe. Nothing brings out the inner matchmaker of well-intentioned Christians like a sweet twenty something who has somehow evaded the romantic gaze of the opposite sex. “I can’t believe you’re still single!” we say, or “Those boys/girls are crazy not to be asking you out every day!” Meanwhile, singles cringe at the reminders that they’re not in a relationship or else take a few steps back on their journey toward satisfaction in Christ alone, rather than satisfaction in a perfect Christian romance.

From my vantage point, it seems that Christian singles are pressured on all sides to be married. (If you want to know why this mentality is a mistake, click here.) But I also believe that singles tend to put this pressure on themselves. One of the major factors in this pressure toward getting married is the constant quest for “The One.”

Dating Is Awkward

Perhaps we were introduced to our search for “the one” in youth group, when our youth leaders told us to not to settle in our dating relationships, but instead to think of a Christlike man or woman and to accept nothing less. Don’t lower your standards.

And of course, there’s value in thinking this way. You don’t want to marry some lowlife just because he or she is into you. But here’s the problem with holding out for “The One”: He’s not real. She’s not real. You made him or her up in your mind. Which means that until science progresses several steps further, he or she will never exist in the real world.

Maybe you modeled your “one” after a youth leader, a friend’s spouse, or the Lord Jesus himself. But in the first two cases, your perception of these people is far from the reality—no matter how well you think you know him or her, you haven’t seen the depths of their sins or the enormity of their annoying habits. And in the case of Jesus, no one matches up: read the book of Hebrews.

So your quest for “The One” can only lead you to constant disappointment, and you may end up (as an added bonus) messing with another person’s self-perception through your naive expectations.

Instead of focusing on “The One,” focus on each one. As you meet a nice boy or girl that seems to have potential (you know what I’m talking about—wink wink), get to know him or her better. You might think you want to date her right away. You may be absolutely convinced that you’re going to marry him. There’s a good chance that this is “The One.”

But wait! Stop! You don’t want to marry that girl. Nor do you want to be “A Couple” with her.

The Bachelorette - Rose CeremonyWhen you see a guy that you’re into, you don’t really want to marry him. What you’re really thinking is that you’d like to get to know him better so that you can find out if you’d like to be in a deeper relationship with him. And if you do decide you want to be in a deeper relationship with him, then you can eventually find out if you’d like to be married to him.

Because he could be awful. Really. I promise you that nobody wants to “Be Married”—as though that were a general category that someone can obtain without entering into it with a real life, flesh and blood, very specific human being. There are a near-infinite number of people on this planet with whom marriage would be horrible. HORRIBLE! No, you don’t want to “Be Married.” But you may want to marry some specific person you meet someday. And here’s the problem: you’ll never know until you get to that point. You don’t know you really want to marry her until you know her well enough to get a sense of where she’s heading in life, what she’s passionate about, how she handles conflicts, how quickly she repents of her sin, how funny or goofy or intelligent or serious she is.

And everything I just said about “Being Married” also applies—but in a less tragic and less permanent sense—to “Being in a Dating Relationship.” You may think you want to be “Dating Someone,” but there are so many people with whom a dating relationship would be miserable.

And there’s a failsafe built in: the other person has to want it to. So even if you’re mistaken in thinking that a relationship has potential, the other person has to agree. This safety feature of relationships has prevented more than a few major mistakes in the history of boys meeting girls.

The point is: just relax. You’re going to be fine. God knows what you need; and he knows better than you do. You can abandon your quest for “The One,” for that “Dating Relationship,” for “Your Soulmate.” Stop focusing on “The One” and start focusing on each one. As God brings people into your life, get to know them. Enjoy them. Don’t make them audition for the part of “The One.” Get to know those people better, and if at some point you prayerfully decide to test the waters of a dating relationship with one of those specific flesh and blood people, then go for it, and see what happens.

Wedding Cake TopperThis post is inspired by two overlapping events. The first is the approach of Valentine’s Day, when lovers are expected to show their affection through clichés (hopefully breathing new life into old traditions) and social media reflects the desire of many single people to be in relationships. The second is the progression of the Spring semester, during which college students instinctually know that the time to begin relationships is upon them.

A few years ago I wrote a six part blog series on “Why Christians Are Bad at Dating.” That’s not a fair title, of course, but I was trying to capture some of the awkward tension that comes from the Christian community’s disagreement over what dating looks like, what it should even be called, etc. I also addressed factors like the suffocating pressure we put upon young Christians to be married—soon.

In my view, many Christians have forgotten 1 Corinthians 7, in which Paul recommends singleness over marriage. Instead, single Christians don’t make it very far into their twenties without suspicious looks and comments from older (married) Christians. I also think some circles of Christianity have over-exalted forms of “dating” (whatever you want to call it) that make dating into a trial run for marriage.

I am convinced (perhaps naively) that if we do our dating right, our social lives won’t disintegrate into two-person love bubbles, our breakups won’t feel like divorces, and the single Christians in our midst won’t be treated like lepers. These are all major problems within the church. I don’t claim to have all of the answers for getting us to this point, but I’ve heard from many people over the last few years who have found the simple guidelines in that blog series helpful. So I’m summarizing and linking to those blog posts below, in the hopes that you might find them helpful as well. And for those over-achievers who want a book length treatment on the road to marriage and the accompanying dangers, I highly recommend this book: Altared: The True Story of a She, a He, and How They Both Got Too Worked Up about We.

 

Dating Series Part 1Part 1 – You Don’t Need to Get Married

Many people in the church assume that every Christian ought to be married. There’s a good chance that you believe that you ought to be married at some point (and soon!). But this mentality actually contradicts Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7. Some assume that they need be married based on poor interpretations of 1 Corinthians 7:9 and Genesis 2:18… READ MORE >>>

 

Part 2 – What Do We Even Call It?Dating Series Part 2

Though every marriage (aside from arranged marriages) begins with a “getting to know you and find out if we should be married” stage, Christians disagree (sometimes passionately) about what this stage should be called. Some call it dating. Some insist on calling it courting. Others are “just hanging out.” Some will identify as boyfriend and girlfriend, others avoid these labels. All of this disagreement leads to more unnecessary confusion and awkwardness… READ MORE >>>

 

Dating Series Part 3Part 3 – The Love Cocoon

We all know those couples who are so grossly into each other that they make everyone around them feel awkward. If your dating relationship makes all of your other relationships crumble (relationships with friends, parents, God…), then your relationship has become an idol and is doomed to failure. The key is to be the kind of couple that loves each other, but also loves and acknowledges the other people God has placed in your life… READ MORE >>>

 

Dating Series Part 4Part 4 – Test-Driving Marriage

In Christian circles, we tend to encourage dating couples to become intimate in every way except for one: physical intimacy is off limits. But this creates huge problems. When a couple becomes more socially intimate, more emotionally intimate, and more spiritually intimate, we shouldn’t be surprised when the physical intimacy quickly follows. This is how we’re wired. But there are actually other major problems with treating dating like a mini trial run for marriage… READ MORE >>>

 

Dating Series Part 5Part 5 – Playing the Field

Many people think that if you’re not “out there” actively “playing the field,” you won’t get married. There is nothing wrong with going on dates, even seeking them out, but your relationships with the opposite sex cannot all be focused on evaluating their marriageability rather than getting to know people as peopleREAD MORE >>>

 

Dating Series Part 6Part 6 – Successful Dating Relationships Can End in Breakups

Most people would consider a breakup to be a failure. But when you’re dating someone, you’re really just getting to know that person better until you find out whether it would be more glorifying to God for you to get married or not to get married. Either is a helpful discovery, and in either case your relationship should be able to continue in a God-glorifying way: as husband and wife or as brother and sister in Christ… READ MORE >>>

Missionaries Are People Too

Mark Beuving —  February 2, 2015 — 3 Comments

In class this morning, we discussed some of the challenges facing missionaries as they seek to plant churches in cross-cultural settings. There are many factors that make this difficult, but I want to share one factor that seems most relevant to those of us “at home,” whether because we are not overseas missionaries or because we haven’t left for the mission field yet. This factor is simple: unrealistic expectations.

I have no idea what comes to your mind when you think of missionaries, but I’d venture to say that most Christians have unrealistic expectations regarding missionaries. Paul Hiebert, a missiologist and long-time missionary to India, speaks to potential missionaries about these expectations:

“The public’s image of a missionary is a hardy pioneer who suffers great deprivations; a saint who never sins; an outstanding preacher, doctor, or personal worker who overcomes all obstacles—in short, a person who is creative, brave, sensitive, and always triumphant. When we are young, we almost believe that we can become such persons when we cross the ocean.” (Paul G. Hiebert. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985. Pg. 73)

Is that an accurate description of how you view the missionaries your church supports? Do you tend to see them as slightly super-human? These are the truly spiritual ones. They’ve figured life out, they’re willing to give up their dreams for the sake of Christ, they’re tough and brave and untouchable.

Ecuador

I’m guilty of often thinking of missionaries in these terms. To be clear, I do think that missionaries are extraordinary people. But that’s the thing—they’re still people. They’re obedient people, they are models of faith that we ought to follow, but they’re still human beings. So when we expect our missionaries to be idealized cowboys, we’re forgetting that they encounter the same struggles in life that the rest of us face. Not only that, but they face struggles most of us cannot begin to imagine as they seek to live and minister in a foreign culture.

So when we place these expectations upon them, or when they place the expectations upon themselves, it can have a big impact:

“It is not surprising, then, that we face depression, often severe, when we discover that we are still very human. Going abroad has neither changed our weak and sinful natures nor given us new talents.”

One of my students pointed out that it’s almost like we expect some magical transformation to happen on the airplane. But of course, missionaries arrive at their new mission field as human as ever, but with new fears, stress-inducers, and frustrations.

For those of us living “at home,” this is a good reminder that our missionaries are human. They need our prayers. They need support. They need us to be realistic about the real trials they face. They need us to be compassionate when they make mistakes or need extra help or fail to meet goals and deadlines. These missionaries are still part of the body of Christ, and we need to graciously share in their hard labor as much as we can.

And for those of us who hope to one day serve in a cross-cultural setting, it’s important that we get our expectations in order. Jesus is the only Savior, the only perfect human being, the only perfect missionary. He calls us to play an important role in his mission to redeem and restore, but accepting that calling does not necessitate perfection or superhuman capabilities. Be sure to remember that as you follow him to the ends of the earth.

In John 11, Lazarus dies. It’s a story so common that no day in the history of the (post-Edenic) world has passed without this headline. Death is tragic, heart-wrenching, unbearable—but also entirely ordinary.

And yet there is something odd about the death story of John 11. Jesus, who had been making quite a stir with his healings, was given advance warning about Lazarus’ condition. Everyone knew Jesus could have done something about it. When Jesus arrives at the scene—four days late—he repeatedly hears the same greeting: “If you had been here he wouldn’t have died” (v. 21, 32, 37).

But Jesus made a conscious decision to show up after Lazarus’ death. Oddly, John even tells us that Jesus delayed because “he loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5). Jesus loved this family and had every intention of exerting his inexhaustible power to resolve their situation in the best way possible. True to form, Jesus’ plan simply failed to align with what everyone was hoping and praying for.

As he relays the story, John keeps us in the know. There was a theological reason for this delay: “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4). In John 11, death is not presented as an ominous foe. It is almost tamed. Degraded to a mere plot device. A foil for the glory of God. Jesus even speaks of Lazarus having “fallen asleep” and of his own resurrecting power as simply “awakening him” (v.11), which evokes a humorous response from the disciples who basically say, “Well, if he fell asleep, he’ll probably be alright” (cf. v. 12).

And so it happened that Jesus peacefully strolled into town to minister to a man who had been four days in the tomb. Everyone seemed to be convinced of Jesus’ power to keep the living from death. But no one expected Jesus’ clever plot device, the simple words he would utter that would call death’s bluff—except maybe Mary, who wished Jesus had arrived earlier, but still acknowledged, “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (v. 22).

And of course, it wasn’t too late. Jesus came for Lazarus. Even after death. He was gone, removed from the face of the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Jesus came back for him. In response to a simple command to emerge, the decaying Lazarus reanimated and returned to his daily life.

If we could see beyond our Sunday school memories of this story, we would realize how shocking it is. And yet, like death itself, resurrection from the dead is also one of the most common things in the world. Or at least, it will be.

The Lazarus story stands out because he beat Jesus to the grave. What Jesus enacted with Lazarus foreshadows what Jesus himself would soon accomplish—not in obedience to the word of a stranger standing in the world of the living, but from the life-giving depths of his own being. Jesus entered the grave having already called death’s bluff (a few times). The world’s surprise at Jesus’ resurrection largely reveals humanity’s inability to understand what Jesus was up to.

Cemetary

Like Lazarus, we are all heading inexorably closer to the grave. But don’t worry, this illness does not lead to death. Yes, death is involved. But it doesn’t lead to death. Perhaps we should say it leads through death. Unlike Lazarus, who beat Jesus to the grave, Jesus has gone to the grave before us—and emerged on the other side. Jesus will come for us as well. Death does not get the last word. Resurrection—recreation—has always been God’s plan. Death is terrifying, yes. But when we view the world through the lens of Christ, we recognize it as a simple plot device. A mere foil to the glory of God.

We must be careful not to make light of what is serious. Even Jesus, who knew what he would do in a few moments’ time, saw the grief-inflicting impact of death on the people around him and wept (v. 35). There is a real place for grief in response to death, in response to a world gone berserk through the ravages of sin. But death does not get the last word. Jesus called Lazarus out of death. And he will call for us as well. “Behold, I am making all things new; I am coming soon” (Rev. 21:5 and 22:20).

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