You love Jesus, yet you feel isolated from the church – and even shunned by it.
“Grace and peace be yours in abundance.”
Previously, it wouldn’t have hit you. But now, it does:
Peter addressed his first New Testament letter “to exiles scattered.” He said:
I, Peter, am an apostle on assignment by Jesus, the Messiah, writing to exiles scattered to the four winds. Not one is missing, not one forgotten. God the Father has his eye on each of you, and has determined by the work of the Spirit to keep you obedient through the sacrifice of Jesus. May everything good from God be yours! (1 Peter 1:1-2 MSG).
Later in the same letter, Peter wrote, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through.” Then he said something really strange: “Instead, be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering” (4:12-13 NLT).
Previously, you wouldn’t have found yourself eager to hear what God says to exiles who are scattered and suffering. But now, you do.
Maybe you haven’t experienced exile as the people of ancient Israel did. Such exile would mean being banished from the land of your birth – perhaps ordered to leave, perhaps fleeing for your life – because you’re counted a threat or a liability by the powers-that-be. Yet now, strangely, the word “exile” identifies something in you.
Exile of the faithful
If you know the Scriptures, you’ve likely thought of exile as a punishment, and especially a punishment for disobeying God. In the Old Testament, it was. Exile happened to God’s people as a nation when they had obstinately, for generations, forsaken and betrayed him. The Lord himself said as much:
And the nations will know that the people of Israel went into exile for their sin, because they were unfaithful to me. So I hid my face from them and handed them over to their enemies (Ezek. 39:23).
Yet as Hebrews 11 shows, people of faith throughout time have experienced a different type of exile – an exile that results from their believing and following the Lord. It may be physical, but it is, foremost, social and spiritual.
All these [ancient people of faith, including Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob] died in faith, … having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God (Heb. 11:13, 16 NAS).
Peter wrote to exiles shunned by people for following God.
The apostle John experienced this kind of exile. In fact, he wrote the book of Revelation while living in exile. Introducing himself in Revelation 1:9, John didn’t belabor the fact, but he did acknowledge it:
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Even before he experienced physical exile, John wrote candidly of the spiritual/social exile that Jesus told his followers to expect:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (John 15:18-19).
They will put you out of the synagogue (John 16:2).
Hatred and shunning go hand-in-hand.
Hated by the world
Yet, reading Peter’s words, and John’s, you may wonder if all this really applies to you. Maybe you can relate to the term “exile,” but it doesn’t seem “the world” has anything to do with your current sense of isolation. Maybe, rather, you feel isolated from the church and even shunned by it. That may cause you deep pain, bewilderment, distress.
Pause. Take a deep breath, and consider again what Jesus said in John 15: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”
“The world” hated Jesus. So let us dive deeper into that. Exactly who hated Jesus?
If we read the Gospels with that question in mind, the answer is both clear and stunning. On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, at the moment the cry went out to choose Barabbas or Jesus, nearly everyone “hated” Jesus in that they chose something or someone else over him. Most people, including most of Jesus’ own disciples, chose not to risk ostracism and persecution by standing with him. As Jesus died in their behalf, disciples, crowds and government leaders chose against sharing in his sufferings.
But for all of Jesus’ ministry except that final day, the crowds were drawn to him. They liked the miracles, yes, but they were also drawn to Jesus’ teachings and to the authority with which he taught. The outcasts loved that he saw them, included them and treated them with respect. The government leaders didn’t particularly care what a renegade Jewish teacher did. The disciples left everything to follow him.
Only the religious leaders hated him with a vicious, determined-to-get-rid-of-him hate. And they weren’t just any religious leaders. They were the leaders entrusted with representing the one true God. They were the ones most fully prepped by God himself to recognize and welcome his Son.
When Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” he knew: The very next day, the hatred of the religious leaders would lead to his crucifixion. Soon, persecution by the same leaders would break out against Jesus’ followers – and the faithful would be scattered.
Ravaged by the wolves
Yet Jesus and Paul both warned that, in future, the biggest threat to following God would come from the least expected place of all, from within the church.
Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:15-16).
Paul said, “I know that, after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and won’t spare the flock. Some of your own people will distort the word in order to lure followers after them. Stay alert!” (Acts 20:29-31 CEB).
Wolves would arise among those entrusted to represent the Lord Jesus. But they would not look ferocious. They would look like gentle shepherds or harmless sheep. These deceiver-wolves would mislead many. Shrewdly, they would attack and run off any who saw the truth and tried to sound an alarm.
Jesus and Paul foresaw clearly. Christian history is filled with accounts of the persecution of the faithful by people supposed to be leading them. Church systems with some form of government-sanctioned privilege or power have often spawned the greatest cruelty.
Kept by God
If any of this hits home with you, be encouraged: The Lord has much to say to the exiles scattered. I have written more about that at keytruths.com and will do so in future posts here.
For now, remember Peter’s words:
Not one is missing, not one forgotten. God the Father has his eye on each of you, and has determined by the work of the Spirit to keep you obedient through the sacrifice of Jesus.
May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.