"Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Acts 15:25-26
The term used to describe the men who would deliver one of the first messages of Religious Liberty were called "men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Along with beloved Barnabas and Paul, Judas and Silas would be sent. All four shared a powerful testimony. The were recognized by their peers as, "Men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." May their tribe increase.
The first message of Religious Liberty dealt with the protection of believers from having a religion forced upon them that no longer had any jurisdiction over them. The time had passed when God would write His word on tablets of stone. He would now write it on their hearts.
" 'Behold, days are coming," declares the Lord, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers...I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people...I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.' " Jeremiah 31:31-34
This was my first text I was called upon to prepare and to preach in my first semester in seminary. My written sermon got an A. I was pretty proud of it. I was invited to preach it at First Baptist Church of Athens, Texas. That was in November of 1974. I am still waiting to be invited back. Some things are easier to write than they are to preach. But I digress. Still, can I get a witness?
These men represented a much larger number of people who no longer leaned on a religion, but had a relationship with Jesus. Jeremiah's prophecy had been fulfilled in them. Words mean things. The risk they had taken to receive Christ as Savior, paled only in significance to the risks they continued to take to share Jesus with others.
The early preachers had entered into a risky business indeed. They were described as...
"Men that have hazarded their lives" KJV
"They've looked death in the face time and again for the sake of our Master Jesus Christ." The Message
"These people have devoted their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Common English Bible
"...imperiled their lives..." Orthodox Jewish Bible
"...given up their lives..." Young's Literal Translation
The term used in the King James Version, hazarded, was linked as early as 1540 with the English language. It was used to communicate what takes place when a person gambles, wagers or hazards everything on a bet. In other words, these men, risked it all. Their response to the risk they faced was to double-down. They bet the farm, lock, stock and barrel, on their relationship with Jesus. They gave themselves over. They gave themselves up. They put it all on the line. They held nothing back.
Get the picture? "Men who had risked their lives." They could not be intimidated by key men, because they knew Who held the keys. Thanks Vance Havner! With their lives, they unlocked The Door of salvation, and pointed people to Jesus.
“A man who is intimate with God will never be intimidated by men.” Leonard Ravenhill
In this case of Religious Liberty, the preachers set themselves against centuries of traditional, and cultural assumptions. They didn't dial down the rhetoric or withdraw from the public square. They proclaimed the truth in the church, and in the streets. In doing so, they risked everything, including their lives.
They did not seek the spotlight, but they walked willingly into the cross-hairs. They were not fanatics seeking martyrdom. They were simply witnesses. As faithful witnesses, they changed their cultural landscape. In the process, the meaning of the word for witness became a synonym for martyr. Risking all simply meant putting it all on Jesus, and letting it ride, come what may. You bet your life, indeed!
"Nothing of any great significance has ever been accomplished without the element of risk. Mark through the word risk, and write in the letters F.A.I.T.H." Dr. John Bisagno, 1983 message at Single-Hearted of FBC, Houston
Thanks, Bro. John. No man has taught me more about putting faith in God for the big thing, more than you. My own father, Don Miller, taught me to trust God for the impossible. His life of faith showed me time and again how putting faith in God is a matter of giving God the elbow room He wants in my life to turn the impossible into the HIMpossible. GOD only does this...EVERY TIME!
Dr. John Bisagno and my Dad, Don Miller, are the two men who have been the Barnabas and Paul of my life. They showed me how to risk it all, and give my all to Jesus. They taught me that the life of faith was truly a great adventure, and that the joy is always in the journey, not in the arrival at a destination. From them, I learned that the song, "I Surrender All" says it all. Giving our 10% falls far short of what God's son gave to us. He gave His all. God expects no less from His preachers.
"Jesus did not die by fractions on the cross. He gave His all." Dr. Jack McGorman, Professor, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas
Preachers who have hazarded their lives, and are willing to face death without flinching in the face of it, are much needed today. 2,000 years ago Religious Liberty was in peril due to the pressure to conform to a religion that had fulfilled its purpose. Once it had prepared the way for Jesus, the baton was passed. A new race of believers was created, and a new race began. That new race was not meant to be a sprint to serve Jesus, but a walk believers take with Jesus.
Today, the peril of Religious Liberty still comes from within. There are those who are genuinely in love with Jesus, who have allowed criticism from the world to intimidate them into a self-muzzled insignificance. They are the contemporary friends of Job. They have seen how people react to what they really believe, and blame the preacher for the conflict. As a result, they intend to get preachers to withdraw into the confines of their church walls, and boldly proclaim to believers only, what they truly believe.
Note to self: You can only do this until the walls of the church are torn down by people who intend to snuff out The Light. Like the song of your youth says, "Let it Shine! Let it Shine!. Let it Shine!"
In a democratic republic, founded with an appreciation for the contribution made by preachers and Christianity, the Separation of Church and State has been replaced by the intimidation of Church by State. This is a huge difference, and in the face of it, preachers must stand up. Preachers should not be bullied into backing down by those from the State, nor should they be shamed into dialing down their message, by those from within the Church.
Don't take my word for it. Eric Metaxas, no stranger to taking a stand in the public square, says this...
“There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the separation of church and state. The church is to be protected from the state. Not the reverse. People have divorced faith from public life, mostly because of this misunderstanding.”
“If the church had been the church in Germany, had stood up and spoken loudly, as one, they could have won. But they were timid, just as Christians are timid now on so many issues. The church has to be heroically, courageously vocal. People will suffer because the church has not stepped up and lived out the faith we claim to have.” ERIC METAXAS
At a time when preachers are being told they need to come down on the right side of history, they need to stick the landing. Preachers must be found standing tall, not hiding in the tall grass. Standing tall is always done best on one's knees. Preachers are best grounded when their knees are on the ground. Surrounded by bullies who want to put your face in the dirt or Job's friends who want to throw dirt at you? Take The Risk. Stand up! TALK LESS! PRAY MORE!