“I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” —Galatians 6:17
If you are at all a people watcher, you will see different people wearing different marks on their bodies. Those marks tell you something about that person. For example, some people wear the mark of nearsightedness; some have on their fingers the mark of being married; others bear the mark of expecting a child.
Paul writes that he bears on his body the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. The reference that Paul is making is to the marks of a slave. When Paul calls himself a servant of the Lord, he is not talking about being a paid laborer for the King. He means that he is a slave under the subjection of his Master, Jesus Christ.
And yet for Paul his subjection is one of love and, therefore, one of liberty. By his subjection to the Master, Paul had been branded a slave to Christ, and Paul bore the marks of that slavery. In 2 Corinthians 11 we read of some of the marks that Paul bore: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers,” (2 Corinthians 11:24–26). Truly Paul bore on his body the brand marks of Jesus. When Paul was converted, Ananias came to Paul and told him what kinds of things he would have to endure. There was no mention of a salary, no workman’s compensation, no minister’s pension plan. All Ananias promised was this: “You will suffer greatly.”
Cushions Instead of Crosses
One would think that being a Christian would draw out the admiration of others. After all, we Christians are such nice people. Christianity means kindness, honesty, unselfishness, and all kinds of other positive attributes that would attract people to us. The mandate for Christianity is that we love one another. Instead of persecuting us, people should be singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow” around us. Sadly, that is almost what we have come to expect today. Ours seems to be an age where we are no longer interested in suffering. We want medals, not scars.
That’s not new. James and John wanted choice seats in the kingdom—one sitting on his left, the other on his right—once Jesus established his kingdom. The King answered by saying that He was not offering seats; He was offering suffering.
Nowhere in the New Testament are you going to find a passage that assures the Christian of an easy life on this earth. Nor does the Bible teach that Christians will be popular or successful in this world. In North America you cannot speak critically of African-Americans or First Nations without being labeled racist, or of homosexuals without being branded homophobic, or of women without being called a male chauvinist. The only group that society can continually and repeatedly hold up in public ridicule and contempt is the Christian. For some reason the world thinks it has to unleash its venom on us. Those who hold to the absolute authority of Scripture are open prey to the world.
Yes, we will be ridiculed and persecuted. That is because the Bible is a very confrontational book, even when it is not being preached. To live by the truth of Scripture is to be confrontational. Abel did not have to preach to his brother, Cain. His righteous life, typified by his proper sacrifice to the Lord, was a constant rebuke to his wicked brother who, in his rage, finally slew him. When Moses chose to be identified with his own people rather than compromise himself to the pleasures of pagan Egypt, he had to pay a great price. “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26).
The Puritan writer Thomas Watson wrote, “The way to heaven is by way of thorns and blood. If you will follow Christ, you must see swords and staves.” The early Reformers certainly knew this to be true. They were treated as non-persons—much like our country treats a fetus today. It doesn’t matter if you kill them.
Martin Luther, for example, was brought to trial after he nailed his ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg door. Mind you, Luther did not set out to condemn the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted to talk about the worldliness he saw within the church, the abuse of indulgences, and how forgiveness is by grace alone through Christ alone. He wanted to talk about faith. Certainly these are matters that the church should want to talk about.
The church, however, was not interested. They insisted that Luther recant statements that he had made regarding the church and the pope. He was to declare his allegiance to the church. That was something Luther refused to do. He could not recant what he had found in the Word of God. He had found the gospel—salvation through Christ and Christ alone, salvation by faith alone, through grace alone. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” was his reply to the church.
The result was that the pope declared that Martin Luther was no longer a monk, no longer a part of the church, and no longer a part of the human race. To kill him would be like killing an animal.
Guido de Brés, the writer of the Belgic Confession, was put into jail and sentenced to die because he was preaching the authority of Scripture and the truths of Scripture. Even as the noose was placed around his neck, he spoke to the people about God.
As in the early days of the church, the church of Jesus Christ again fell under heavy persecution. The words of Hebrews 11:36–38 rang true once more as people were stoned to death, sawn in two, and burned at the stake. People were forced to go into hiding not because they had committed some horrible crime, but because they believed the truth of God’s Word: salvation is through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
I hope we remember what our forefathers went through the next time we sing:
Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, Were still in heart and conscience free: How sweet would be their children’s fate, If they, like them, could die for Thee!
We are those children! We are the children of the Reformation. Are you willing to die “for Thee”? Even more important, are you willing to live for Him?
There are many who do, in fact, die for Christ while we sit in comfort. I have read reports of Christians being routed out of their villages. Husbands and fathers are placed in airplanes and tossed out of them while their wives and children watch them plummet to the ground. Violence has erupted against Christians in India where churches are being torched and Christians burned alive. Reports are coming from North Korea, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan, and around the world of persecution toward those who take upon themselves the name of Christ.
Too often we ask why such persecution takes place. The real question should be, “Why does this surprise us?” Jesus Himself told us that the world would hate His followers. He even explained why. He said they would hate you because they hated Him.
That has to be the most astonishing fact in all of history. Jesus Christ is hated by a world lost in its own sin, a world that lives in rebellion against God, a world condemned by God. They hate the very One who came to save them from that condemnation! When Jesus came into this world He exposed the evil of the world—and they hated Him for it. All of their vices were exposed for what they really were: sin against the most holy God. People did not like that exposure of their inner hearts, so they killed Jesus for showing it to them.
When the disciples began to perform “random acts of kindness” while proclaiming the gospel, they were arrested, beaten, and put in jail. The charge against them was that they were turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Therein is the reason why Christians are persecuted. Christ’s righteousness is so revolutionary, so contrary to man’s way of life, that it evokes hatred from the world. To live for Christ is to live in opposition to Satan in this world. Christ-likeness will produce in us the same results that it did in the apostles, the early church, and in believers throughout the history of the world: persecution.
Yet it seems that in North America we are working very hard to make Christianity more popular, more agreeable, and more pleasant to the world. We have taken away the cross and substituted cushions. We do everything we can to make people feel comfortable in their beliefs.
We must remember that Jesus did not try to appease the crowds in His ministry. He did not try to accommodate Himself to what He saw was wrong in the church. He did not try to popularize His teaching so that it would be more acceptable to the world. Instead, Jesus was the great divider. He has caused more division than any other person in all of history.
Jesus does not invite His followers to go on a picnic with Him, but a pilgrimage. He does not offer some excursion on an ocean liner; He offers execution: death to self, death to sin, death to the world. Jesus challenges believers to take up the cross and follow Him. Jesus clearly teaches that the Christian will have tribulation in this world. Those who live a godly life will be persecuted. We are called to rid ourselves of the things in our lives that offend the Lord, lead us into temptation, and make us stumble.
Martin Luther, for example, could have been a great bishop, perhaps even a cardinal within the Roman Catholic Church. He had the right education; he knew the right people. Instead he chose the reproach of Christ and faced great persecution. John Hus taught at the University in Prague. He had great prestige; he had financial security; he had the approval of the academic society. But he gave it all up, choosing instead the reproach of Christ as he began to preach the great and glorious Reformed faith. He was burned at the stake for it.
It is never “Christ and”; it is always “Christ or.” It is Christ or Egypt, Christ or Caesar, Christ or Rome, Christ or the world, Christ or the Anti-Christ. Jesus said, “He that is not with Me is against Me” (Luke 11:23).
The Marks of Slavery
Make no mistake. The great gift of salvation is freely given, by grace, to all who place their trust completely on the one, true Savior, Jesus Christ, and His saving work accomplished once for all on the cross. While salvation is free, discipleship will cost you everything you have.
We read in the Bible of a rich young ruler who had plenty of medals. He came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus told him to sell all he had and follow Jesus. The rich young ruler didn’t want any scars, and so he walked away.
I would daresay that any church would gladly have accepted this young man as a member of their church. We would not ask any questions. We would give him budget envelopes, tell him about our building project, and welcome him with open arms. But the Lord does not want joiners, He wants disciples. He wants people who are willing to count the cost.
Many people believed in Jesus when they saw the miracles. He preached as one who had authority, not as the scribes and Pharisees. But when the miracles stopped, many left. In John 6, Jesus preaches the crowds away because they no longer like what He has to say (John 6:66). They are not willing to pay the price of following Jesus.
Do you bear the marks of Jesus Christ? Mind you, the marks of Christ are not to be confused with self-inflicted suffering. At the time of the Reformation there were all kinds of ascetics who would purposely suffer self-inflicted pain, thinking that by doing so, they would be suffering for Christ. Some monks would hold their hands tightly in a fist so that their fingernails would grow into their palms. Others, not quite so gruesomely, would take oaths of silence, thinking that through their silence they were suffering for Christ. Martin Luther would climb the stairs of his monastery on his knees until they bled; he would sleep on the cold, damp floor rather than in his bed All this was done in an attempt to appease the wrath of God by means of personal suffering.
That is not what Paul meant when he said he bore the marks of Christ. Bearing the cross is not wandering around like a Gloomy Gus because your religion says you must live without certain things. Nor is it hanging your head low because you are ashamed of your beliefs and do not want to impose them on anyone. Some people think every headache they get, every pimple, every aching muscle is part of their cross to bear.
The Bible does not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” as though Jesus were sanctioning any type of persecution that might occur at any time in history for any reason whatsoever. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10). Jesus tells us here that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed because they are determined to live as Jesus lived. That means there is no promise for those who are persecuted because they are a pain in the neck. There is no promise of happiness for Christians who show themselves to be objectionable, difficult, foolish, or insulting toward their non-Christian friends.
Paul wrote, “For this we labor and strive, that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). Then he adds, “Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (v. 12). For us to suffer rightly for the sake of Christ we must fix our hope on Jesus Christ. People must see that we are dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ.
The Marks of Christ
The unbelieving world is looking at Christians. They want proof that Jesus is really alive. They are looking at those who claim to have the marks of the cross, those who claim to be dead to sin and alive in Christ. And all too often they see nothing different in the Christian than they see in themselves. A recent Barna survey reported that only 9% of Americans who call themselves Christians have a biblical worldview. What a frightening statistic! That means that 91% of Americans who call themselves Christians are not standing up for the truth of Scripture, nor are they defending the faith. How can they expect to change the world if they have become entrenched in the ways of the world themselves?
The Reformers changed the world by leading people back to the Word of God. They boldly proclaimed that salvation is by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. The sinless, holy Son of God came into this world to die in our place by taking on Himself the vileness of our sin. He became sin for us on the cross. He died in our stead, purchasing for us eternal life.
James writes, “Consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you are facing trials of any kind” (1:2). Today joy has all but disappeared from the Christian vocabulary. We have come to think of joy and happiness as they are related to the luxuries we have. James does not tell us to count it as joy when we fall into our easy chairs. He tells us to count it as joy when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. We are to walk not in ease, but in Christ. The greatest testimony to this doubting world is the testimony of those who are dead to sin and alive in Christ—those who bear the marks of Jesus Christ and give to Him all glory and praise in their lives. Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.