Over the past two days, my wife and I have logged many miles over the cobblestone roads of Rome, Italy. During our time in Rome, we have managed to hit all of the historic sites on our personal list—including the majestic Sistine Chapel that was in progress by Michelangelo when Martin Luther made his historic pilgrimage to Rome over 500 years ago.
Yesterday morning, we began the day at the Colosseum—one of the most famous sites of ancient Rome that still stands today as a piece of history linking modernity to antiquity. The emperors of Rome’s history would buy and sell gladiators much like modern day football teams hire and trade athletes. Sometimes slaves or prisoners would appear in the midst of the Colosseum too—where they would fight wild beasts including lions, tigers, leopards, and even hippopotamuses. What a way to go, right?
Just under a half a mile from the Colosseum is the Mamertine Prison where Paul was held in chains. The ancient dungeon prison had a stone floor, stone walls, and a stone ceiling with one way in and one way out through the small hole above that provided a bit of light to the damp and dark dungeon below. Sometimes as many as 100 prisoners would have been kept in the small dungeon below—and everyone who was placed into that hole received a death sentence.
While being held as a prisoner in the shadow of the Colosseum, Paul would have heard loud thundering cheers from the crowds in the Colosseum numbering between 40k-70k. Much like a loud and vibrant athletic event in modern times complete with competition, drama, and passionate fans—the whole area surrounding the Colosseum would have felt the pulsating cheers.
As Paul sat in the dark dungeon contemplating the fighting of the gladiators—he would have reflected upon his life and ministry of the gospel.
- Five different times Jews whipped him with 39 stripes.
- Three times he was beaten with rods.
- One time he was stoned, dragged out of the city, and forsaken as dead.
- Three times he suffered shipwreck. A night and a day he spend in the deep.
- Perils of waters – Floods or rivers as he journeyed.
- Perils of robbers – those who would rob him as he was on his journey.
- Perils by his own country men – his own people rejected him.
- Perils by the heathen – the lost and unregenerate wicked ones – persecuted.
- Perils in the city – as he would travel to the city to work or buy food.
- Perils in the wilderness – animals or violent people.
- Perils in the sea – as he was shipwrecked and faced storms on the sea.
- Perils among false brethren – those who claimed to be Christians.
Paul had been able to plant many churches on his missionary travels that spanned many countries, cities, and continents. Paul had invested in others and discipled men to carry on the gospel torch. Men like Timothy, Titus, and others were placed in strategic posts where they would oversee churches and make disciples. Yet, at the end of his life, Paul sat in the dungeon cell listening to the ground shaking crowds in the Colosseum and he viewed his ministry of the gospel as a good fight. Rather than a wasted fight or a vain fight—it was a good fight. The cause was worthy and the price of imprisonment, suffering, and martyrdom joyful. In a strange way in the eyes of the world, Paul was at peace to be aligned with Jesus Christ in his suffering.
The scars the gladiator received in his epic battles in the Colosseum could not compare to the deep wounds suffered by Paul in his missionary labors. However, Paul was able to reflect upon his journey of faith as a good fight rather than a wasted pursuit for fame and vain success. Paul longed to preach the gospel in Rome, and he finally was able to do so—only from a dark dungeon. In his final letter recorded in the New Testament before he was taken from the dungeon through the hole and transported to a place in the streets of Rome where executioners cut off his head, the battle scared gospel gladiator penned these final words to Timothy—his young disciple:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Most gladiators died by the sword or weapons of other warriors in the Colosseum as a means of entertainment for the people. Paul died in the streets as a condemned criminal. Paul’s death had a great purpose that transcended the entertainment of the Colosseum—and for that reason we remember him to this very day unlike the warriors of the Colosseum.
For the majority of the world, to become a Christian is at best a difficult life and in many cases it’s life threatening. Jesus not only gave His disciples a commission, but He likewise warned them of the danger that was ahead. Suppose that open persecution was legalized in your city, would you still be a Christian? Before you begin a response to me regarding the fine points of theology, I want you to know that I’ve crafted the question in a specific way on purpose. Would your fear of man override your fear of God? Would your love for prosperity and peace be more valuable than the treasure of Christ?
Christianity and Persecution
It may come as a shock, but each year thousands of Christians are losing their lives because of their relationship to Jesus Christ. Some statistics report as many as 100,000 per year die for their faith in Christ. Other statistics report numbers as low as 7,000-8,000. No matter what number is right, the point is clear, it’s not a safe world for Christians. What if you were arrested and imprisoned simply for having a Bible app on your phone or for attending worship on Sunday? Would you continue in your faith or would you save your life by denying Christ?
In many cases in the United States, a little rain or a better opportunity that’s presented in form of recreation will keep families away from the gathered church for worship. That’s the current climate beneath the umbrella of prosperity and freedom. What if you lived beneath the intense pressures of Christian persecution, as many do around the world? Would you still be a Christian? If the fear of death or the love of pleasure is of greater value than the treasure of Christ, you never possessed real Christianity in the first place. If you choose the world over Jesus, your faith is false (1 John 2:19; 1 John 2:15; John 12:25).
John 15:19 — If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Real Christians Suffer Persecution
Christians are called to suffer, and to suffer for the proper reasons. Jesus promised that His followers would suffer persecution (Luke 21:17; John 15:18). At one point, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). Not only did Jesus promise persecution for His followers, but He encouraged them to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
It is possible for real Christians to suffer persecution for the wrong reasons. Experiencing persecution for foolish choices or for sinful motives is not the same as suffering for righteousness’ sake. Jesus understood the difference as did the apostles (1 Peter 3:17). Christians can suffer for making poor choices that lead to suffering when it’s not absolutely necessary. We must be reminded that there are hills worthy of death, but not all hills are as valuable as others.
When Peter and the other apostles were arrested for preaching Christ, they were beaten and charged not to preach in the name of Christ again. The word, “beat” used in Acts 5:40, means, “strike or whip as to take off the skin.” This was a severe warning as opposed to death, which is what the religious leaders wanted to do to them. However, Peter and the apostles were resolved to continue preaching Christ. They feared God more than men.
The fear of death or severe punishment often reveals false Christians. In the 1970s, an illegal Bible study was being conducted in Asia. When Communist officials discovered the meeting, they sent soldiers to shut it down. The soldiers burst into the room, and confronted the pastor and small congregation. They demanded the pastor to hand over his Bible. The solider threw it on the ground and then stated that they could all leave, under one condition. Each member had to spit on the Bible, which the solider called a “book of lies.” As they called on individuals to come forward, they spat upon the Bible as directed and they were immediately released. When a young teenager was called upon, she approached the Word of God, knelt down, and wiped off the Bible with her dress. The Communist solider put his pistol to her head and pulled the trigger.
Consider the words of Christ, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). For that very reason, the inner circle of Christ all suffered and most of them were killed for their faith. Many others would die for their faith following the days of the apostles—including men like Polycarp. Sinclair Ferguson writes:
Christians are persecuted for the sake of righteousness because of their loyalty to Christ. Real loyalty to Him creates friction in the hearts of those who pay Him only lip service. Loyalty arouses their consciences, and leaves them with only two alternatives: follow Christ, or silence Him. Often their only way of silencing Christ is by silencing His servants. Persecution, in subtle or less subtle forms, is the result. 
When John Rogers finished his translation work and had the Matthew Bible printed and distributed, he was later arrested for his views on the Lord’s Supper. When he refused to accept the doctrine of the Roman Catholic mass (the doctrine of transubstantiation), he was burned at the stake in 1555 in front of his entire family and others in the streets. Real Christians are prepared to suffer and die for their faith, but false Christians renounce Christ out of their fear of man and the prospect of pain.
The initial question was purposely crafted in a way to make you think. If persecution was legal, would you still be a Christian? All true Christians continue to the end, even beneath the pressures of persecution. As Justin Martyr famously stated, “They can kill us, but they can’t hurt us.” Is your Christianity shallow, weak, and false? In an evangelical climate where sports can actually compete with Jesus, the local church is placed down the list of priorities, and doctrine is downplayed—do we expect such professing Christians to die for their faith?
Would you be a Christian if persecution was legal?
Luke 9:24 — For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Sermon on the Mount, (Carlisle PA: Banner of Truth, 1997), 41.
- For more information on the persecution of Christians worldwide, visit Persecution.com.
We are not found wanting in our search for unbiblical versions of Christianity. In fact, we have far too many diffecient versions that abound in our present evangelical church culture. What exactly does real Christianity look like? How do we know the difference between false Christianity and real Christianity?
The best way to define real Christianity is to go to the sayings and sermons of Jesus. When Jesus was teaching His disciples as the cross was approaching, He desired to prepare them for what they would experience. In order to do so, He prophecied about His own death, burial, and resurrection. He talked about His cross for them and their cross for Him. His cross was for the atonement of sins, but their cross was to put on display true Christianity as they would endure much for the sake of Christ and His gospel.
Jesus reveals real Christianity in Mark 8:34-38:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The Cost of Real Christianity
In verse 34, Jesus reveals the cost of real Christianity. There is a cost to real Christianity. Not in the sense of our earning grace, but in the sense of a radical separation from the world. To follow Christ involves denying self. What exactly does self denial look like? It’s far more than refusing dessert at the end of a family meal. It’s a refusal to go with the flow of culture. It’s a refusal to be in love with the world. It’s being fully committed to Jesus Christ above all other things. We live in a “me first” culture and it’s hard to break from that mold. When people are influenced by their culture 6 days per week, it’s difficult for one or two sermons on Sunday to change the flow of their lives. That’s why Christianity requires more than one or two worship services per week.
Jesus goes on to speak about cross bearing. To the disciples, the cross had a certain image. It was an instrument of suffering, shame, and execution. It was bloody. It was a symbol of pain. It was a symbol of torture. Jesus was preparing the disciples for what would soon come their way. It’s a prerequisite for followers of Jesus to suffer, and Jesus was making His point clear. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book titled The Cost of Discipleship, wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The cross is more than jewelry or a nice piece to sit on top of a church steeple. The cross is designed for suffering.
Jesus speaks of following Him. Following Jesus may seem easy, but if you look at the footsteps of Jesus, they travel down the Calvary road. It’s a hard path to walk. It’s the road less traveled. Jesus warned in John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” Therefore, the disciples had to be prepared to suffer in order to follow after their Messiah.
According to Voice of the Martyrs (an organization that tracks and brings aid to persecuted believers around the world) – “An average of 171,000 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith each year.” One day when open persecution comes to the church in America – shootings in Oregon will not seem like such a strange thing. The beheading of Christians by Islamic Terror groups will not seem like such a strange thing. When such persecution comes to the American church, we will be forced to decide if Jesus is worth it. It would be wise to consider that today. In his commentary on Mark, J.C. Ryle writes, “Let us often ask ourselves whether our Christianity costs us anything. Has it the true stamp of heaven?…A religion that costs nothing is worth nothing.”
The Cautions Regarding a Self Centered Life
In verses 35-38, Jesus provides cautions for those who would refuse to follow after Jesus.
- Beware of Self Preservation (35)
- Beware of Materialism (36-37)
- Beware of Rejecting Christ (38)
The man who thinks he is insulating himself from danger and choosing to reject Christ is really not saving his life – he’s losing it. The man who is on constant pursuit to gain more wealth and more stuff and doesn’t have time for Jesus, he will gain many material things, but he will lose his soul. The man who is ashamed of Jesus will one day find that Jesus will be ashamed of him.
These are very sobering warnings and cautions that Jesus provides. They were not merely designed for the disciples and the crowd that gathered to hear Jesus speak on that specific occasion. They serve as timely warnings for us today.
Be on guard of the traps of this world.
Remember, we are not home yet. We’re just passing through.
Christ is our treasure!
Nothing this world has to offer us compares to Him.
Psalm 73:25-26 – Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Christian persecution has been a common thing for Jesus followers from the beginning. For the early church, to follow Jesus was synonymous with Christian persecution. For many years, America has enjoyed a great deal of prosperity and peace. Often, America has been shielded from reality and from what it looks like to suffer for Jesus. The founders of America came to this land of the free to enjoy the freedom of religion. Although wars have been fought and blood has been spilt in other nations, the muscle of American military has often shielded the entire nation from what it means to suffer for the sake of the gospel.
The original founders of America came to this land that was inhabited by a large population of Indians. Although they had their gods, the English population that landed here in America brought their Bible and subsequently, their God with them to this new land. For the majority of the 239 year history of America, the majority religion has been Christianity. Everything seemed to flow from that worldview – including politics and every other aspect of life. Being that we are a land of immigrants, we are starting to see an increasing collision of worldviews coming to the surface through politics, public schools, and the public square. Only through the somewhat recent technology boom of constant cable television, Internet, and smart phones do we have access to more information and stories of religious persecution. Ministries such as the Voice of the Martyrs have been committed to telling us the stories of modern day persecution.
I can remember growing up and hearing pastors and evangelists calling people to repentance on a regular basis. Outside of a couple of occasions, I don’t recall hearing anyone come to the end of his sermon and say, “If you repent today and trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior – it may cost you your life.” The fact is, the sermons that have been preached in American pulpits for the last 75+ years have been a softer message that lacks the risk of repentance. In the most recent years, the American pulpit has been hijacked by vicious church growth techniques, psychologists, and politicians. What it means to follow Jesus by picking up your cross and following in His footsteps of suffering has been silenced.
As a result, many American Christians don’t really know how to respond to images and video clips of ISIS beheading 21 Christians. The images are horrid. The threat is real, and at times overwhelming. For the vast majority of American Christians, their comfort is tied to tanks, guns, and fighter jets that could be used to blow up the ISIS army. However, even in recent years of blowing up many terror leaders, we are starting to learn that new ISIS types will simply arise from their ashes. Islam is not as tame as many American politicians seem to think, and the Jihad mentality will continue until Jesus returns and forces all followers of Islam to bow before His Lordship. Until then, what it means to be a true follower of Christ will remain risky business. To follow Jesus has never been a safe pursuit, unless you have been shielded by American security for the majority of your lifetime like many of us have.
The danger of following Jesus will change how you preach, how you do family devotions, and how you call people to respond to the call of Christ. Is it true that Jesus is the treasure in the field that is worth far more than anything else on planet earth? Yes! However, in order to obtain Jesus, we must be willing to die. Far too many are willing to consider the financial cost of following Jesus, but they remain unwilling to consider the cost of cross bearing in a depraved world. Before we stand before a church and invite people to follow Jesus, we should communicate to them the danger of what following Jesus means. Sooner or later, in America, to be a follower of Jesus will not be a safe choice. The images of ISIS beheading 21 Christians should change our method of sharing Christ this summer at VBS or in our children’s Sunday school class this coming week. One day, not too far off into the distant future, to enter the baptistry waters will mean something far different than it did for those who grew up in the “Bible Belt” of America in the 1950s. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
In order to be fair, we should communicate the full message of the gospel – including the risk. However, it would be far better to risk the threat of ISIS than to risk the wrath of God. Millions of people are walking around in fear of ISIS when they have absolutely zero fear of God. A. W. Tozer once said, “To make converts, we are tempted to play down the difficulties and play up the peace of mind and worldly success enjoyed by those who accept Christ. We will never be completely honest with our hearers until we tell them the blunt truth that, as members of a race of moral rebels, they are in a serious jam, and one they will not get out of easily. If they refuse to repent and believe on Christ, they will most surely perish. If they do turn to Him, the same enemies that crucified Him will try to crucify them.”
As I look at the picture of the 21 Christians beheaded by ISIS, a few of the men appear to be afraid. I ask myself, “What were these men thinking about during their final moments of life?” Yes, I do believe they were thinking of their families and many other things. However, I know one thing for sure, they were counting the cost of following Jesus! Consider the words of Christ, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). After considering the cost of following Jesus, His value far exceeds anything this world has to offer.
Thomas Schreiner has written, “Even though most of us won’t lose our lives for Christ’s sake, we should not be surprised if we do.” Read his full article about the 21 martyred Christians from last week.