Just some quick audient participation—how many of you have heard of the now defunct band, dc Talk? I listened to a lot of dc Talk when I was growing up and in high school. They were a fun blend of 90s hip hop and pop-rock, and the best part was they loved Jesus. Their most famous song was one called “Jesus Freaks,” and that was easily my favorite song by them. I didn’t just love that song because it was catchy and energetic, but I loved the topic. The song was about people looking at those who were so devoted to following Jesus and his Word, that people would call them Jesus freaks. And the chorus asked, “What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” Little Justin Heise loved that idea. Maybe you’ve had this same experience that you go back and listen to a song from your childhood and you realize that you really didn’t understand the song. That’s what happened to me.
There was way more going on in that song than I first realized. Let me read the second verse for you and see if you can get what I didn’t: “There was a man from the desert with naps in his head // The sand that he walked was also his bed // The words that he spoke made the people assume // There wasn’t too much left in the upper room // With skins on his back and hair on his face // They thought he was strange by the locusts he ate // The pharisees tripped when they heard him speak // Until the king took the head of this Jesus Freak” (Jesus Freaks, dc Talk). If you didn’t catch it, that verse was about John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, pointed people to the coming Savior, ate locusts, and eventually was decapitated by Herod. That last thing was what I missed. This song wasn’t just about people who were really into Jesus. It was about people who were willing to die for Jesus.
The song became so popular that it even inspired its own book series. The song, “Jesus Freaks,” led to dc Talk publishing Jesus Freaks, Jesus Freaks, vol. II, Jesus Freaks Martyrs, etc. These are thick books, each about 300 pages, with story after story of people who have suffered for their faith, died for their faith, been displaced, and so on. I didn’t know that was what the song was really about until I got to high school. That’s when I learned about the books, too. And you know what? I think that knowing the song is about that, makes me like it even more. How often does the truth of persecution enter into our faith here in the gold ol’ U S of A? Not very often. I know that you might hear on the news or on social media or whatever that Christians are being attacked in our country, but let me give you some perspective.
In our world right now, persecution is worse than it has even been in all of history. Maybe you’ve heard stories about how Nero would use Christians as fuel for his night-time garden parties. Maybe you have heard about Christians dying in the Coliseum. Maybe you’ve heard other stories about how the apostles have died. Or how bad things were men like Diocletian. But, I want you to know that things are far worse now—not only in terms of how people are persecuted, but also in terms of the number of people being persecuted. Here are some quick statistics. Last year over 245 million Christians were victims of high levels of persecution. Over 4000 Christians died because they believed in Jesus. Almost 2000 churches were burned to the ground or destroyed. On top of that over 30,000 Christians were imprisoned, beaten, displaced, or arrested.
These people committed no crimes. They were people just like you, except they live in another part of the world where being a Christian is illegal or discouraged. But there’s more. Last May the BBC released an article saying that levels of Christian persecution were at near genocidal levels. The most striking statistic that they state is that in a place like Iraq, in 2003 there were about 1.5 million Christians living there. Now, there are less than 120,000. And just to punctuate this, that article came out five days after what happened in Sri Lanka at Easter. I know we live in a topsy-turvy world these days, but do remember what happened there last Easter? On Easter in tiny little Sri Lanka, on the highest Holy Day on our calendar, on the day we celebrated Christ rising from the dead, when highest number of people would be at church—people came in and hid bombs in those churches to kill and injure over 1000 people.
In our country, we might get a scoff out of someone because we are a Christian. Or, someone might let slip the name of our precious Savior as a curse word, but these things don’t rise up to those levels of persecution. I think that there’s a reason for that. There are psychologists who might attribute it to some sort of martyr complex, and that might be a part of it, but I think it’s shame. I think it’s shame that we are so blessed to come to church every week, to sing God’s praises, to live in a country with freedom of religion, to live with minimal persecution, and yet it doesn’t produce zeal in us. Our Christians are not excited. They’re indifferent. They think hymns are hard to understand, and most people don’t give them a second thought after they end. Jesus is a guy most Christian hang out with for an hour on Sunday. But that thought of dying for him, that thought that this faith might cost you your life, rarely enters your thoughts. Sometimes, we Christians can really put the pathetic in apathetic.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me. It’s truly a blessing in our country that we are not persecuted. Christians in America have enjoyed an unprecedented time of peace. But it really makes you wonder. If you were to stand before a hungry lion, that’s pawing at the ground, ready to eat you, and you were given the choice to deny Jesus and go free, or confess your faith in him and die, how would you hand that situation? If you were locked up, cold and hungry, inside a Soviet prison, and every day you were offered your freedom if you just denied Jesus, how long would it be before you gave in? It makes you wonder about those things, but in America, we don’t need to wonder about them. We aren’t facing those issues. So, instead, I think a better question for us would be, “If they were killing Christians in our country, would they even know that I am one?” Do you live so vivid a Christian life that the only way they could shut you up about the gospel is to kill you? If Christians were persecuted in our country, would they come looking for you?
This is exactly the context into which the apostle Paul writes the letter of 2 Thessalonians. He is writing to Christians who were experiencing high levels of persecution. They were being beaten down. They were left confused. Their family members were dying. Their livelihoods were taken away. What were they supposed to do or think? So, Paul writes to them: “All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5). The fact that these Christians were suffering wad evidence for them that God was right. That God had looked at each of these Christians and said that their sins were forgiven. He declared them not guilty, and now just as Christ suffered for them to win that verdict, they too suffered. Christ has made them worthy of his kingdom, and now they suffered for it. On it’s face, that may not sound comforting, but just picture how it turns persecution on its head. Persecution wasn’t about confusion and chaos. It was about confidence that God had counted you worthy in his Son. With that motivation, they could go undergo anything.
But he doesn’t stop there: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7). It does not please God to see his people suffer. Do you think that God would permit those who are his enemies to gloat over his people, over those he died for, over those who he worked so hard to redeem—as if his love counted for nothing? No way. God is just. Out of his justice, he would pay back all those would troubled his people, and for his people, comfort. “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
There will come a day when all people must face judgment, the last judgment. It will be on that day that those who reject and deny Jesus will be punished. It will be on that day when Jesus comes on the cloud with his angels, that they will be cast from the presence of God. It will be a terrible, dreadful day. But, the worst is still to come for those who are enemies of God, because there punishment will never end. It will go on and on and on, endlessly. Do not doubt my friends that all people will face the final judgment, and you will, too. It’s no good to only look like a Christian. Jesus doesn’t want people who look like Christians, but inside they’re his enemies, too. Those people will face the same judgment as his outright enemies. And here is the clincher, you don’t know when this is going to happen. It’s just like in Jesus’s parable that we heard earlier. The king is coming back, we don’t know when, but we are sure he is. Are you like that faithless servant that King commanded be killed?
Beloved friends, believe the gospel. Believe the message that has been spoken to you. It is through this message that you are readied for his coming, so that when he comes you will be among his people declared holy who glorify his arrival, so that when he comes it’s a marvel for you and not a terror. “He comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you” (2 Thessalonians 1:10). Jesus comes back to judge all people, but he is a merciful judge. He demands nothing of you, and instead he does everything for you. He lives for you. He dies for you. He rises from the dead for you. And soon, he comes back for you. All people will be face the last judgment, but—rejoice!—because Christ has counted you worthy of his kingdom.
Now, go live like it. Go out into the world and live a life that vividly shows that Christ is your Savior, that you love him and he loves you. Go live like you have nothing to fear, because you don’t. Though people may ridicule you, though they may lock you up, though they may beat you, though they may kill you, at least you won’t have to face their eternal punishment. Go and live a life that so preaches Jesus that no one would ever doubt that your Savior loves you and that you love him. Amen.
 Statistics come from here: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/