Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:23a “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another:”
A comforting word–loyal courage can be compatible with our natural instinct of self-preservation. Courting trouble is not a virtue, a martyr complex is not heroic, recklessness not courage, foolishness not noble, bravado not prudence. Desire for personal glory can exaggerate the amount of sacrifice we need to make.
This counsel is pertinent in our current wave of terrorist attacks. We are at war with adherents of a world religion that encourages a craving for martyrdom.
Christianity, like other religions, yields at times to this unhealthy attitude. Recently I have heard two sermons in which I felt the preachers were taunting their listeners, goading them to rush toward martyrdom, to seek it and embrace it.
It should be anathema to point to the willingness of adherents of other religions to rush toward suicide and martyrdom, and thereby imply we Christians are not as committed as they are if we do not follow suit. Don’t rouse people to hysteria. They need to be deliberate in their actions, especially in matters this grave.
For Christians, martyrdom is not the highest good, the ultimate accomplishment. Our supreme objective is to expand the kingdom of Christ, to spread the good news of salvation to as many people as possible as fast as we can. Abuse, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom are merely means, never an end.
Stay mindful of the mission we are about. Laborers are few at best and there is much work to do. Life is no throwaway item. Every life, including yours and mine, is precious. Preserve it in any way we can without denying Christ.
Having addressed the radical excess we are to avoid, we now consider what God may be saying to us when we find ourselves being persecuted. First, it may be time to move on. God uses persecution to move His followers to other places and people that need to hear of Jesus. “Christ’s Name will be spread when His lovers are hounded from one city to another” (Maclaren). Jesus commanded His followers to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth (AC 1:8), but they long lingered in Jerusalem, huddled like a holy club, until they were forced to spread to Judea and Samaria after the stoning of Stephen. I recently heard a preacher say Christians are like manure, when spread out they make good fertilizer, but left in a clump they stink. The early Christians became stuck on dead center. Persecution spurred them to become missionaries.
If you suffer abuse at work or school for your faith, it may be time to move on, but first, you need to ask important questions of yourself. Have you accomplished your mission where you are? God is sovereign. He placed you in your current position on assignment, as a missionary, to make sure someone around you heard the good news of Jesus. Have you fulfilled your purpose, invited co-workers or fellow students to church, told them you are praying for them, or are you in danger of leaving people high and dry, without an understanding of how to know Christ? If you can flee persecution, knowing you have done your duty where you are now, then seek a way to do so. Do not stay until your spirit is crushed.
Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to save baby Jesus. Our Master avoided His enemies until He knew His final hour had come. When Jerusalem was about to be destroyed, Christians heeded the Master’s warnings and were spared by fleeing to Pella. John Calvin fled France twice. Tyndale fled from one hiding place to another till his great work of translating the Bible into English was done, and then he faced a martyr’s death. The Pilgrims fled, and we are beneficiaries of their flight.
Allow me to speak a word here about children. James Dobson shares a vital and important truth. He says if a child begins to be persecuted, for whatever reason, at school by other children, the family needs to move. No teacher, principal, or superintendent can keep children from persecuting a child once targeted.
Second, if God is telling us to move on, He’s also telling us to find another place to be on mission. Flee danger, not duty. Never seek a place of rest from labor. Instead of wanting a place of no work, we try to find somewhere we can carry on our efforts. Retreat is okay if we’re seeking another place to carry on the fight.
Believers often say they want to work in a Christian environment. Beware two fallacies here. First, Christians bring old sin natures to work with them every day. Selfishness, distrust, and intrigue exist even among Christian workers. Second, Christians don’t need to be isolated from prechristians. We can’t win the lost if we’re not among them. We need believers planted in the midst of unbelievers.
We flee persecution, not as cowards, but as couriers on a mission. Though believers stayed in Jerusalem till uprooted by persecution, once they left, they didn’t seek places of ease. “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (AC 8:4). It’s okay to change our location, but never our testimony.
Third, God may be telling us we need to stay where we are and suffer on His behalf. Persecution at work, school, and home can be intense. Often every thing in us wants to run and hide, but we may do so only if we can in an honorable way.
Sometimes for the sake of others or the cause we have to stand and take the blows. We are to suffer if the path of duty yields no other option. Most of us are called to keep fleeing and live. But some are called to stay, suffer, and yea, die.
John MacArthur juxtapositions in this context the lives of Florence Nightingale and Jim Elliot. The former wrote in her diary, “I am thirty years of age, the age at which Christ began His mission. Now, no more childish things, no more vain things.” Near the end of her heroic life, when asked the secret of her ability to accomplish much for Jesus, she replied, “I can give only one explanation, I have kept nothing back from God.” For Florence this meant living, life was her glory.
Jim Elliot, soon after college, wrote in his diary, “God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life that I may burn for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life but a full one like You, Lord Jesus.” For Jim this meant dying, being cut down in the flower of his life. Death was his glory.
Should we flee? Should we find another place to be on mission? Should we stay and suffer? I wish I could offer an easy, pat answer for what we should do in our particular situations. A mathematician by training, I try to be analytical, to break down huge, complex problems into smaller, simple parts I can figure out. For instance, my grandson’s autism weighs on me, I want to understand, to know why. But Christianity offers no trite, automatic solutions for our difficult times.
Our intimacy with Christ must be such that we sense His unfailing love, hear Him correctly, and follow His lead aright. We love, listen, and follow, trying to balance willingness to suffer any pain with willingness to take honorable means to escape pain. Both are equally loyal. All hinges on what God wants in our individual case. Sacrificing in living can be as profitable as sacrificing in dying.
Often a story teaches more than stating facts. The life of Paul may help. He lived much of life as a fugitive, running running running. Had martyrdom been the ultimate objective, he had opportunities to fulfill that mission many times over.
Running running running, but before he left town, everyone heard the Gospel. He didn’t leave people high and dry. Running running running, dodging and ducking mobs and political leaders, never to find a place to hide or be at ease, but a place where he could carry on the mission of telling more people about Jesus.
Running running running–due to persecution, he fled from Damascus to Jerusalem (AC 9:22-26), Jerusalem to Tarsus (9:28-30), Pisidian Antioch to Iconium (13:14, 51), Iconium to Lystra (AC 14:1,6), Lystra to Derbe (14:19,20), Philippi to Thessalonica (16:12; 17:1), Thessalonica to Berea (17:10), Berea to Athens (17:15), Ephesus to Macedonia (19:1; 20:1), Jerusalem to Caesarea (21:17; 23:33).
Running running running, Paul fled and fled and fled, but finally, at Rome, the time came to stand and die, when to flee would have brought dishonor to Jesus. May God make us wise, may we love, listen, and follow, wherever He leads.