Many of us have an idea about how we think we will respond to facing pressure for our faith, but we cannot tell how we will actually react until it happens. Persecution is not something any follower of Christ would desire, but when it happens we should not be surprised by it because Jesus himself told us it would happen. How we respond and whether we choose to take a stand for our faith in the face of such pressure matters.
During Jesus’ trial, the writers of the gospels include references to Peter’s location. In fact, Jesus’ trial is sandwiched between details of Peter’s ‘trial’. This presents an interesting contrast between the trial Jesus was facing and the questioning Peter faced as to his connection to Jesus. Peter is a man who many of us can probably identify with. Determined to follow Jesus, but fearful of the consequences when that determination is tested. Determined to follow and be near Jesus, but not in exactly the same place for fear of being too closely associated with the arrested Jesus. His aim was to keep the faith and be near his Lord, but when that faith was tested he crumbled without much of a fight.
How many times have we resolved to follow God, to do his will only find ourselves giving into temptation, falling foul of God’s standards or even just maintaining minimal involvement whilst keeping at a safe distance? How many times have you assessed it easier to remain quiet when colleagues ridicule God or the Bible just to not rock the boat? There is much to be said about Peter’s aim to follow Jesus and as we shall see it contrasts greatly with the actions of the rest of the disciples.
In Mark’s account of the trials of Jesus and Peter in Chapter 14:53-71, there are three groups of people taking three very different courses of action which lead to three different outcomes, only one of which is pleasing to God.
The Fleeing Disciples
The first group is the disciples, minus Peter and Judas. If we rewind a little to set the scene, it helps explain their actions. Jesus had gone into the garden of Gethsemane with 11 of the disciples (Judas was already plotting to betray Jesus to the authorities as Jesus had predicted). As night fell, Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray with the weight of the reality of what was going to take place over the coming hours bearing heavily on him. He instructed the disciples to keep watch, but they fell asleep prompting a rebuking from Jesus when he returned to them. This responsibility to keep watch is something referred to many times in the Bible and is something that as Christians we should take very seriously. When Judas arrived with the soldiers to arrest Jesus, the rest of the disciples fled for fear of being taken also. Their fleeing was understandable as they would not have known whether they were at real risk, but their instinctive reaction to flee rather than fight is significant because it says a lot about how deeply rooted their faith in God was. It was at this point that Peter seeks to defend Jesus by drawing a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers. We’ll come back to this in the next section, but for now compare this instinctive desire to defend with the running away of the rest of the disciples. Scared that they might be taken away, amidst the most basic threat of facing a test for their following Jesus, they did not even put up a fight and abandoned Jesus. They completely capitulated and attempted to assimilate into society without trace or connection to the accused Jesus.
The actions of the disciples are sadly similar to much of the church today. The world is a constantly changing place but too often, parts of the church seem to think it must change to fit into the changing society. Such people are so concerned with not sticking out from the world that they end up following the way of the world and bowing to the spirit of the age, rather than being led by the Holy Spirit alone. For example, the world celebrates sexual behaviour that the Bible calls an abomination, so the church refuses to condemn it or worse still endorses it either implicitly or by actively supporting such sinful behaviour. After all, it is not so ‘nice’ or ‘loving’ to go around condemning people’s lifestyles, yet the Bible makes it absolutely clear that we have a responsibility to call out evil and usher people towards the loving, forgiving and transformative arms of Jesus. God calls us to be salt and light in the earth, yet if we just go along with the world and refuse to stand out, how can we expect to be that influence God has called us to be?
This group capitulates so easily and so quickly, it is hard to see if there was really any real faith in operation in the first place, whether they ever had any intention of allowing God to come and “transform them by the renewing of their minds” (Hebrews 12:2). When the church’s position on ethical or sexual issues is questioned, they just go along with whatever perversion the world aligns itself with. Instead of defending the absolute static truth of God as written in the Bible, they reduce the Word of God to a mere ‘help aid’ choosing instead to go along with ideas of relative truth and personal conceptions of truth rather than the truth itself.
Some would argue that in parts of the world it is extremely hard to be a Christian and that is sadly true. It is (they argue) far easier to blend into society rather than create a stir at great personal risk. However, when we see Christians being slaughtered at the hands of ISIS and other terrorist groups because they refuse to commit to the ways of the evil aggressors, it puts things into perspective when Christians in the west capitulate to the world for fear of causing offence. Allowing ourselves to be altered by the changing world is not an option for those who are of Christ. Following the world is completely contrary to the gospel and here is why: If we truly believe that God is bigger, greater and infinitely more powerful than anything that seeks to come against us, then surely it is to God alone we should be looking rather than the world. If we are truly saved by God, then we will be seeking to follow his will and if it is God who has “plucked us from the pit and set our feet upon the rock” (Psalm 40:2), then why would we even consider for a moment that the world has anything wholesome or lasting to offer? If we are genuine Christians then we will declare the words of scripture over our lives and believe God when he says “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). There is nothing the world can do to us or say to us that can really harm us. It is not an option to flee at the first sign of opposition or potential danger. We must be determined to contend for Christ and run the race set before us. To flee as the disciples did is not therefore an option for us.
The Comfortable ‘Peter Christians’
When most the disciples fled at Gethsemane, only Peter was left. The second group is what I call the ‘Peter Christians’. These are people who intend to stand strong in their faith, but crumble under fairly basic pressure. When Jesus says, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41), he is referring to people who intend to follow Christ, but constantly allow the flesh to lead them astray. When the soldiers came for Jesus, Peter’s instinctive reaction was to defend Jesus by cutting off one of the ears of a soldier. Those of us who love God will always seek to defend him, regardless of the costs. It is this instinctive action to defend Jesus (even though the action itself was wrong) that separates Peter from the rest of the disciples and fleeing Christians from determined Christians.
‘Peter Christians’ always set out with the right intentions. They have a real faith, they seek to follow Jesus, but they lack that strength in their conviction that comes from the Holy Spirit living within us to stand firm when questioned for their faith. Many of us have been in this situation. We have set out to defend Christ, we have set out to do what is right by God, but when faced with pressure, we have taken the easy option and left the scene swiftly without trace. When the rest of the disciples fled, he followed after Jesus albeit at a distance. Everything seemed fine to him as he waited in the courtyard warming his hands by the fire awaiting a verdict from the trial of his master Jesus. Only when he faced questioning did he begin to get rattled. The first question came from the daughter of the high priest who clearly recognised him as one of the people who had been with Jesus. Peter did not outright deny this; instead he deceptively twisted the question claiming he didn’t know what she meant. Only when questioned a third time and responding in anger with cursing and other profanities did Peter recall what Jesus had said to him about “denying him three times before the cock crows twice”. Both Matthew and Mark’s writing up of this says that upon realising his sin, Peter wept. Jesus, being fully God knew in advance that Peter would deny him, yet Peter’s zeal for following Jesus blinded him earlier to the fact that he was spiritually weak willed. Whilst initially determined, he catastrophically crumbled under minimal pressure because he relied on his own strength rather than God’s to sustain him. His irrational human fear overtook his faith and suddenly the fear of potential consequences of being known as one of the disciples became the sole motivation for Peter’s subsequent actions.
Many of us are all too happy to follow God and label ourselves Christians, just as long as it doesn’t mean we have to actually answer for it when questioned. It was not Peter’s following of Christ that came under questioning; it was his conviction that Jesus was the Christ. Many of us fear being challenged on our faith. Ultimately for Peter, his fear of man became greater in his mind than his love for God. Peter instinctively acted to defend Jesus at Gethsemane, but he responded in the flesh rather than the spirit which is why Jesus rebuked him. In the courtyard, Peter responded again in the flesh rather than the spirit and it ended with him weeping, a broken man at the realisation of what he had done.
The challenge for us is not just to live our life out for Christ when things are easy going, but to stand firm when faced with tough circumstances where the easy option may appear to be to deny Christ. We have to ensure that our faith is rooted deeper than a superficial commitment to God. We need to ensure that we don’t become ‘Peter Christians’’ with all the right initial intentions, but a lack of spiritual depth leading to complete failure to take a stand of faith when pressured for our faith.
Standing Firm with Jesus
Once Judas had betrayed Jesus, most the disciples had fled and Peter had kept his distance, Jesus was abandoned and left to stand for truth alone. All over the world today, Christians are finding themselves being persecuted, some prosecuted, often on jumped up charges (just as Jesus was) simply because of their belief in God. Many people lose friends or have families that disown them when they become Christians. There are many Christians who live easy lives (particularly in western societies) where the worst that can happen is people think you a bit odd for following Jesus. Those who choose to stand firm in their faith refuse to commit to the way of their accusers, they have refused to give in under pressure and so find themselves being persecuted for their beliefs. These believers are more concerned with doing right by God rather than man’s view of our beliefs.
Jesus faced a trial and a sham one at that, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he was a threat to the religious order of the day. The Pharisees had a tight grip on religious ordinance and their power was based on the customs which they had enforced as part of Jewish law. Like most Jews, they were seeking the messiah, but tragically because they had a preconceived idea of the messiah they wanted, they missed Jesus being the Son of God and instead took to berating him and punishing him, ultimately to the point of death. Jesus kept his silence for most of the way through the trial. However, when directly accused of being the Son of God he confirmed he was which provided the evidence the Sanhedrin needed to hand him over to the Romans for punishment according to the crime of blasphemy. At no point did Jesus give in. At no point did he take the easy route out and compromise or lie as to who has was. At no point did he try and strike a deal with his accusers or enter a plea bargain. Instead he stood firm on the truth and as the Bible says, he was “obedient even unto death” (Philippians 2:8). Being fully God, Jesus already knew what was going to happen to him. He was fully aware of his purpose and why he needed to die. It is for this reason that obedience to God was far more important to him than capitulating to the fallen ways of his captors.
There will be times when we are questioned for our faith. There will be times when the consequences of taking a stand for God may result in unjust punishment of us. God tells us in the Bible to expect persecution saying that the world will hate us because they hate God (Matthew 10:22). In fact, because of this, if the world hates you for your faith it is probably a good sign because it means they can see God in you. We need to remember that we are serving a higher purpose than this world as Christians and so our motivation to do right by God should far outweigh any fear of man that we might have. Our mission is to help others to come to faith in Jesus. There are countless examples of people who have persecuted Christians who have had dramatic encounters with God and completely turned their lives around. The most famous is probably Saul of Tarsus, more commonly known as Paul. He is responsible for the writing of much of the New Testament – a testament to how God can transform and use the most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of circumstances to bring about his purposes.
We need to decide to do what is right by God even If we are mocked, accused of wrongs and even dragged into courtrooms simply because of our faith in Jesus. We can be strengthened and encouraged by the fact that Jesus is by our side and he has been through it all (and much worse). Ultimately if we stick with God we can be sustained by his promise never to leave nor forsake us however hard it may be to stand firm for our faith.
Where will You Be?
The challenge presented to us is a clear one: Will we flee at the first sign of a challenge to our faith and disappear into the midst of society without trace? Perhaps we will be content to sit comfortably by the fire like Peter warming our hands desperately trying to not to be noticed or stand out from the crowd and hope that passes as taking a stand of faith. Or, will we decide to stand firm and refuse to compromise, emboldened in the knowledge that God will sustain us and is always by our side?
What it comes down to is whether we are going to focus on the permanence of the kingdom of God or allow the temporary worries of this world to define our actions and beliefs. Servants will always defend their master even unto death. As servants of God, are we prepared to defend him even if it means losing our life in order to gain the kingdom of heaven? Paul writes in Philippians 1 that “to live is Christ and to die is to gain”. As Christians we have something far bigger to hope and live for in eternal life.
Consider the differences between Jesus and Peter’s responses to the questions they were asked. Jesus ended up vindicated by God, defeating death and offering a way by which we can be saved. Peter ended up weeping after a realisation of sin, in need of that very redemption that only Jesus could offer. We hear nothing more of Peter in either Matthew or Mark’s gospels after this, but from the gospel of John we can learn something of God’s power to transform lives.
If you have found yourself being like a fleeing disciple or sitting comfortably at a safe distance from any questioning of your faith, God is waiting to welcome you back. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we have a glorious hope. When Peter realised his sin the Bible tells us that he wept. The book of John tells us he returned to being a humble fisherman and it was Jesus who told him to cast the nets on the other side of his boat having sought out Peter, subsequently landing a huge haul. This is a picture of the second chance that we have through the blood of Jesus Christ. If Jesus has the power to transform Peter and give him another chance, then He also has to power to restore you and give you another chance.
If we are completely honest, most of us are probably ‘Peter Christians’’ who want to serve God, but get so easily tripped up by things the world throws at us along the way. We need to be focussed on Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is set down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12:2). If we are in this category, then we need to be honest with God and ask him to come and help us through the Holy Spirit, that he would pick us up and make us strong in faith so that when the day of testing comes, we will stand firm and still be standing after the battle has finished. As Paul writes in Ephesians: “Take unto you the whole armour of God that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day and having done all, to stand.” (Ephesians 6:14)
The world is getting a tougher place to be a Christian, perhaps more subtly in the West and more obviously in the Middle East but this is nothing new. The first Christians in the book of Acts faced enormous pressure because of their faith. Many were persecuted and many were killed, yet because of their steadfast proclamation of the gospel, because of their commitment to spread the gospel to all nations (as the great commission calls us to), that same gospel continues to be spread today. If previous generations had given up the fight, there would be no gospel message today. We have a responsibility therefore to communicate God’s message of redemption for sins and transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
Of the three groups in Mark 14, only one truly serves God. The ‘fleeing disciples’ serves the selfish interests of the individual. They look out for individual safety, rather than any attempt to defend the gospel. At the first sign of potential pressure for their faith, they flee in fear. The second group, the ‘Peter Christians’ have the right intentions but end up worrying more about the world’s view of them rather than mounting a substantial defence of the gospel whatever the costs. The third group is those who stand firm regardless of the consequences. This group puts God first; they have truly died to self. They are walking in the spirit and not according to the flesh (Galatians 5). Ultimately if we want to truly follow God, we need to be choosing the third group. We need to be standing firmly for God in every part of our lives and whilst that means sticking our heads above the parapet and being in the line of fire, we should be strengthened that Jesus will be there by our side. We need to stick with Jesus regardless of changing world views and or circumstances. We need to realise that the God we serve is bigger and more permanent than this temporary world. We need to realise that we have a higher calling that requires us to do more than just fit into society. We need to realise that we have a calling to be world changers, to impact the world for Christ and we cannot do this if we run away and hide or capitulate when faced with questions of our faith.
With all that is taking place in the world and the intensity of the spiritual battle increasing by the day, now is not a time to withdraw from the world, but to be right at the centre of society, seeking to influence it for God. If we refuse to be cowed by a world that Jesus said, “will hate us because of him” (Mark 13:13) and instead focus on seeking revival for our nation then we might just see a mass outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We might just see social change as a result of an outbreak of revival. For as long as the gospel has the potential to transform people’s lives and set them free from addictions, sin and suffering then that has to be something worth fighting for no matter what the personal cost is to us.
As we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter, let us recommit ourselves to God. Let us thank God for the forgiveness of sins committed yesterday, His grace for us today and the hope that Jesus’ resurrection gives for tomorrow. Let us come “boldly before the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), cast off our sin and make ourselves available for God to use in whichever way he will. Above all, let us remember that Jesus went through all that pain and suffering so that we do not have to. He died for me, for you and for everyone else who has ever lived and ever will do. He died so that we might live. So let us live lives devoted to the transformation of the world by the power of God with the help of the Holy Spirit in us made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus. Let us live lives so devoted to Jesus that there will be nothing the world can throw at us that will stop us from standing firm in our faith and sharing that message of ultimate love, sacrifice and hope to a world so full of people without hope.