12 Simple Rules (For Following and Serving Jesus in Difficult Times)

Christians all over the western world are waking up to the reality that we no longer occupy a privileged position within the majority culture. Increasingly, we find ourselves being pushed to the outer margins. The passage of Bill C-4 in Canada and the ongoing legal battle in Finland have made us all acutely aware of our vulnerability. Thankfully the Bible is replete with useful counsel directed specifically at believers enduring similar circumstances. Hebrews 13 is one such passage.

The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to people who were beginning to face considerable political, social and economic censure because of their faith in Jesus. They were not yet being fed to the lions, but they were dealing with significant pressures and legitimate dangers in the public square. The bulk of the letter seeks to remind them of the glory and supremacy of Christ, the proper grasp of which should serve to stabilize them through the storms and upheavals on the horizon. In the final chapter he provides a series of practical and pastoral encouragements. I was able to identify 12 distinct exhortations, so with a tip of the hat to Jordan Peterson, I offer these “12 Simple Rules For Following And Serving Jesus In Difficult Times.”

Rule #1: Let Brotherly Love Continue

In verse 1 of chapter 13, the Apostle says:

“Let brotherly love continue.” (Hebrews 13:1 ESV)

It is easy to turn on each other when we begin to face hostility and pressure from the culture. Issues which may have been debated in a congenial tone in times of peace, now take on an almost apocalyptic significance. In such an environment brotherhood and kindness are often the first casualties of war.

The Apostle will have none of it.

Let brotherly love continue!

The devil would be only too happy to see us dividing from each other and hiving off into smaller and smaller communities. This is only increases our exposure and vulnerability. We must not allow ourselves to hate. We must not allow contempt to be sown into our hearts by our enemy. We are stronger together and therefore we must learn to preserve the bonds of fellowship through whatever chaos and upheaval we are destined to face.

Now is not the time for us to panic. It is not the time for us to catastrophize, demonize or divide. Now is the time for us to stand together as brothers and sisters and hold the line.

Rule #2: Don’t Close Yourself Off From the World

In perilous times we must love one another and maintain an attitude of compassion and mercy toward the outside world. The Apostle encourages his people saying:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2 ESV)

There is an understandable temptation to isolate oneself from all contact with an increasingly hostile culture, but such a decision for a Christian would represent an abandonment of our mission. Jesus said:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 ESV)

Our job as believers is to be distinctive and accessible. We are not to conform to the world, but neither are we to hide ourselves away from it.

Such a posture assumes a measure of risk. As Christians in the west begin to encounter this new reality, a certain amount of shock and overreaction is to be expected. In fairness however, it should be noted that we were warned. Jesus said:

“Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:3 ESV)

As hazardous as it may be to live and minister as a Christian in the coming years and decades in this culture, as we must not close ourselves off from the world.

Rule #3: Remember Those Who Have it Far Worse Than You

One of the most unattractive features of our own recent struggles here in North America has been the tendency toward exaggeration and false comparison. Being asked to wear a cloth mask so as to help slow the spread of a contagious virus is not in any way comparable to the experiences of the Jews in Nazi occupied Poland. The extension of a health protocol beyond the originally published date, does not necessarily signal the approach of Soviet style tyranny and despotism.

A little bit of historical perspective ought to be helpful for us in rightsizing our problems.

Likewise, the Apostle in Hebrews 13 commends a bit of reflection and prayerful identification with those who have suffered serious persecution. He says:

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3 ESV)

If the church in North America spent more time praying for the Christians suffering imprisonment in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, perhaps they would discover more resolve within themselves to face their significantly less perilous situations here at home.

I believe it possible that I will have to pay a fine to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal before my preaching ministry is over, but I deem it unlikely that I will be arrested, beaten, tortured or ‘disappeared’ because of my faith in Jesus.

Thinking about that – and praying for those who experience that sort of thing on a daily basis – ought to provide a bit of helpful perspective.

Rule #4: Hold the Line on Matters of Marriage and Sexuality

This is not the first time that the Christian sexual ethic has seemed odd to the majority culture. When Christianity began reaching out into the Roman and Greek culture of the wider Mediterranean world in the first century their views on marriage and sexuality were met with a mixture of scorn and disbelief. When Roman men converted to the worship of Christ they were shocked to discover that the church would not permit them to sleep with slaves and prostitutes. A Roman man only had sex with his wife so as to produce an heir, the rest of the time he believed it far wiser to leave the matter to the professionals. So ingrained was this attitude that Paul had to address it head-on in his letter to the Corinthians; he said:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality.” (1 Corinthians 6:15–18 ESV)

Paul did not adapt the Christian sexual ethic to accommodate Roman men, rather he called upon Roman men to adopt the Christian sexual ethic upon their conversion.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reflects an identical approach:

“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4 ESV)

All over the western world, the Christian sexual ethic is once again being viewed as something marginal, distasteful, and perhaps even hateful. Many, no doubt, will be tempted to modify their views or simply to remain silent. The Apostle commends courageously and honourably holding the line.

We must steel ourselves to do the same.

Rule #5: Keep your Life Free from Love of Money

The Apostle seems to indicate that the difficulties being faced by these particular believers had not yet reached the level of formal, fatal, state persecution. According to chapter 12 verse 4 they had not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. What they had done, almost certainly, is paid a financial price for following Jesus. Early Christians were often shut out of trade guilds for refusing to participate in prayers and rituals honouring pagan deities. In addition, in some circumstances, houses and properties were seized if an individual was accused of fomenting treason or upheaval. Therefore, it makes sense for the Apostle to say, as he does in verse 5:

“Keep your life free from love of money” (Hebrews 13:5 ESV)

It is fear of poverty, fear of losing out on a promotion, fear of being forced out of a lucrative profession that Christians on the margins of society often have to deal with first.

I don’t imagine that many Christians will go to jail for their faith in this country over the next 20 years and I don’t imagine that any will be executed. But I do believe that many will lose jobs, many will lose preferment, and many will be forced out of trades, guilds and professional associations.

The church must be prepared to support these individuals and all of us must keep ourselves free from the love of money. If you have an abundance, prepare to give much of it away. If you have a smaller amount, prepare to make do with even less in the future.

We may not struggle to the point of shedding blood in the months and years to come, but we ought to be prepared to suffer financially.

Rule #6: Follow Proven Leaders

In a time of crisis, it is tempting to follow the loudest voices making the most clear and compelling claims. When the ground begins to shift, there will always be people calling for rapid and radical changes, but driving fast and turning hard is not always the best way to deal with unexpected obstacles and challenges. The Epistle to the Hebrews recommends sticking with tried and tested leaders.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7 ESV)

In making this recommendation he appears to privilege longevity, faithfulness and fruit. It is the leaders you know, whose word and works you’ve personally experienced, whose message is drawn from Scripture and whose ministry gives evidence of the Holy Spirit’s blessing – these are the leaders you should be following.

Over the last few years in our current struggle, the internet has offered many people the opportunity to lay claim to an influence out of all proportion to their character and qualification. The internet allows congregants to bypass their local pastor so as to listen to preaching and podcast messages from a leader they do not personally know but whose tone and rhetoric they find more appealing.

Be careful.

The leader who says fiery and fascinating things in his videos may in fact have divided his church, alienated his neighbours and dishonoured the name of Christ in his local community.

So, remember your leaders. Those who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life. And imitate their faith.

Rule #7: Beware of Novel Doctrines

In verse 9 the Apostle says:

“Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings” (Hebrews 13:9 ESV)

In a time of crisis, it is tempting to put one’s faith in a new idea, or an untested theory. That’s the thing with untested theories; they aren’t burdened with a track record of disappointing results and as such, the proponents of such theories can present them as a guaranteed escape from the present catastrophe.

Better to stay the course and trust the process.

Biblical Christianity is fundamentally about faithfulness and incremental progress. The Apostle Paul said:

“what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2 ESV)

The Christian call is a call to stewardship, not innovation. The church is a pillar and bulwark of the truth – not a think tank or a Magic 8 Ball. When you shake up the church, the answer she gives should be the exact same answer she gives on a sunny day. We have but one message:

Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Our job is to speak, shine, spread and seep that message, mouth by mouth, family by family, generation by generation into the world. Our influence is slow and subversive – as Jesus predicted it would be:

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20–21 ESV)

Now is not the time for new messages or new strategies. Now is the time for us to steward and speak the Gospel with which we were entrusted.

Rule #8: Bear the Reproach of Christ on the Margins of the Culture

It is difficult to understand how a religion tracing its roots back to a man crucified naked on a Roman cross came to be transformed into a doctrine of power, liberty and political dominance. Nothing in the story of Jesus would seem to incline us in that direction.

Jesus was the consummate outsider. He was “the Nazarite”, the country bumpkin, the partyless pariah. He had no official standing, he held no government office, he commanded no troops in the field, and yet, there is not a single human being who can rival the impact that he made on this world.

Why then do so many of his followers seek to wield weapons and to hold powers for which he had nothing but disdain?

Why do they feel drawn to the centre, when he walked, lived, moved and ministered from the margins?

Why do they worry about being in charge here, of this city, when Jesus himself said his kingdom was not of this world?

The Apostle to the Hebrews noted a similar tendency in the attitudes and presuppositions of his people. He attempted to correct it by saying:

“Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12–14 ESV)

In difficult times Christians will be required to make far too many and far too costly compromises if they wish to remain ensconced at the centre of the culture. Far better that we would go to Jesus outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.

Rule #9: Continue to Praise the Lord

A Christian who allows social marginalization and financial censor to stifle his gratitude and praise must be accounted as no kind of Christian at all. If Job, on the day he lost his health, his wealth and his 10 children could stand before Almighty God and say: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21 ESV), then how can we as Christians say anything less?

The Apostle Paul was convinced that:

“neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39 ESV)

Why should we be any less certain of these things than he?

Why should anyone?

The Apostle to the Hebrews did not wish to see his people marching morosely out to Christ upon the margins, gnashing their teeth and beating their breasts, mourning for the city they left behind. On the contrary, he would have them be glad, rejoicing in the future that lay ahead. He said:

“here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:14–15 ESV)

Don’t let these light and momentary afflictions rob you of joy or silence your worship. Christians living and serving in difficult times should maintain a focus on the future so as to sustain their attitude of gratitude and praise.

Rule #10: Do Good and Share What you Have With Others

When we first begin to experience social marginalization and financial censure, it may be tempting for us to hoard our precious resources. The Apostle to the Hebrews encouraged his people to press back against that inclination. He said:

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13:16 ESV)

If the days ahead of us mirror to some extent the days that lie behind us, then the need of the hour is for strong communities with a commitment to sharing and mutual care. The lone wolf watching courageous podcasters in his basement may well find himself ill prepared for the hardships and deprivations of the future. What we need is a return to the church on full and glorious display in the Acts of the Apostles:

“And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:45 ESV)

The best thing you can do for your family, in light of the challenges we may soon be facing, is to plant them firmly in a Gospel preaching, Jesus obeying church like that. A church that is so grateful for the mercies of Christ and so certain of their future in Christ that when trouble comes they don’t lock their doors and hoard their possessions, they open their homes, share what they have and care for the brethren.

Rule #11: Don’t be Difficult to Lead

Being a leader is hard at the best of times; being a leader in a time of crisis can be absolutely excruciating, therefore the Apostle wisely exhorts his people saying:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

People are often very hard on their leaders in a time of upheaval and change. They expect well thought out answers to questions no one was even asking just a few hours ago; they expect perfect solutions to impossible dilemmas; they demand immediate relief from conditions and pressures beyond anyone’s control. It is all too possible in such a scenario to complain your way out of competent and qualified leadership. Indeed, one wonders why any sane individual would volunteer to provide leadership to a community in crisis.

I don’t believe that a sane person would volunteer to provide leadership to a community in crisis – volunteers make me extraordinarily nervous in a time like this – but thankfully, the Lord continues to call. If you are fortunate enough to have biblically qualified leaders at a time like this, then make it your mission in life to be easy to lead. Don’t ask them to do things they cannot possibly do. Don’t weary them with questions they cannot possibly answer. Don’t burden them with expectations they cannot possibly meet.

Ask only that they feed you with the Word, watch over your souls, and set you a godly example.

To the extent that it depends on you, let them do this with joy and not with groaning.

Rule #12: Pray for Those Serving on the Front Lines

We aren’t sure exactly which Apostle it was who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. For much of church history it was assumed to have been Paul. Others said that it was written by Paul in Hebrew and then translated by Luke into Greek, thereby accounting for the strangeness of its style. Some have suggested that it was written by Barnabas, Luther appears to have been the first, though certainly not the last, to wonder if it was written by Apollos. Regardless, it was written by someone preaching, travelling and leading on the front lines. The author of the Epistle is clearly not a pastor or an elder in the congregation to whom the letter was originally written. That much is clear from the wording of his closing exhortation. He says:

“Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.” (Hebrews 13:18–19 ESV)

Whether the switch from first plural (pray for us) to first person singular (that I may be restored to you the sooner) is a literary convention, or an indication of plural authorship remains a matter of debate. What is not a matter of debate is that front line leaders are generally the first to pay the ultimate price when persecution breaks out within a culture. In AD 64 it was the Apostles Peter and Paul who were the prize catch in Nero’s persecution. Similarly, in the 4th century AD during an outbreak of persecution in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, it was the bishops alone who were required to pay the ultimate price. Simon Baker writes here:

“Roman governors were free to punish dissident Christians, shut down some churches, demolish others and, in the case of the bishops in the province of Bithynia-Pontus south of the Black Sea, murder key figureheads in the Christian clergy. According to Eusebius, their bodies were chopped up and thrown into the sea as food for fish”.⁠ [1]

It is generally deemed too costly and disruptive to persecute an entire community of people and therefore historically, the burden of formal and fatal persecution has been born disproportionately by front line leaders.

Pray for those people in the years and decades that lie ahead.

They will almost certainly be the first to have their movements monitored, their messages suppressed, and their freedoms truncated. Some few of them will almost certainly be asked to pay the ultimate price.

Pray.

Pray that words would be given them, that courage would be poured out on them and that mercy would be granted them in their hour of need.

Even still, come Lord Jesus!

Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or on Google Play.

[1] Simon Baker, Ancient Rome (UK: Random Books, 2006), 356.

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