Don't Shoot the MessengerNathan Mates
The role of a messenger is not always the most career-enhancing job path. Tomorrow in Los Angeles, thousands will run a marathon-- commemorating the 26 miles that a Greek soldier was supposed to have run from a battle at Marathon to Athens in 490BC to report victory. He delivered the good news, then fell over and died of exhaustion. Physical conditioning has hopefully gotten a lot better over the centuries, so hopefully nobody will repeat his death. Messengers bringing bad news over the centuries to leaders have tended to fair worse-- they've routinely been killed just for doing their job. Even today, journalists in oppressive regimes are attacked and sometimes killed for reporting the truth.
If the secular world's been hard on its bringers of bad news, can we look back at the Bible and say that though history, God's people have survived any better? Sorry, nope. The fourth human, Abel, brought the better sacrifice to God than his brother, and got killed for it. Jesus himself comments that "the blood of righteous Abel" was shed (Matthew 23:35). Why was Abel killed? Both knew they had to offer sacrifices to God, and both did. Abel's better sacrifices-- the blood sacrifices of the firstfruits of his work, versus grains which were not the firstfruits-- were looked on with favor by God. Cain could have copied his brother's sacrifices, but chose to kill his brother instead.
Some prophets survived with their lives. Noah preached for a hundred years while he learned to be a shipbuilder, and managed to get his immediate family on board-- 8 humans in total. (Noah & wife, their 3 sons and their wives). Samuel, Nathan, Jonah, and several other minor prophets were either recorded as having natural deaths, or at least no bad news concerning them.
Moses faced near revolt several times despite some serious miracles happening for the Israelites. After plagues of rivers turning to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death, you'd think people would get the message that they weren't exactly living in "prime" real estate, yet they still wanted to run back before crossing the Red Sea. The first copy of the 10 commandments on stone tablets were broken into pieces (Exodus 32:19) in anger by Moses because the people got bored waiting for Moses to return, and Moses had to lead people around in the wilderness for 40 years while the whiners and complainers died off. He also died of old age.
Since then, as the world went steadily downhill, the life of a prophet was a hard, lonely road. There were many evil and immoral kings of Israel, and they didn't appreciate prophets from God who told them to shape up. To the world, did the prophets deserve their treatment? They challenged the complacency, told people to stop their evil ways, return to the Lord, and be forgiven. The prophets were not interested in bargaining with people down to 5 commandments or 10 suggestions. They were not willing to speak of compromise-- allowing both the Temple and altars to Baal. They were not always too interested in looking, dressing, or eating like their compatriots.
Put simply, the prophets got in the face of the Israelites, their leaders, and their practices and told them the bad news: they were breaking their promises to obey God's word, and would be punished for it. With 20/20 hindsight, everyone can see the prophets as telling the truth, but the Israelites certainly used God's messengers as target practice.
Elijah himself complained that "The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." [1 Kings 19:10] King Manasseh is reported to have had the prophet Isaiah sawn in half, which was referenced in Hebrews 11:37. [This passage in Hebrews refers to a prophet sawn in half, but does not name the perpetrator or victim, so it's not for certain that Isaiah is the one mentioned there.] Speaking of Israel as a whole, Amos 2:12 says "But you made the Nazirites drink wine and commanded the prophets not to prophesy." Later, in Micah 7:2 complains that "The godly have been swept from the land; not one upright man remains."
The persecution of prophets spread from the Kings and the populace at large to the even the temple. Jeremiah 20:1-2 "When the priest Pashhur son of Immer, the chief officer in the temple of the LORD, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things, he had Jeremiah the prophet beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin at the Lord's temple." This was a man of God, speaking the truth about how Israel would be judged for its sins, and the Temple leadership was set firmly against this prophet. God speaks later through the prophet Malachi that "It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name." (Malachi 1:6)
The author of Hebrews summarizes the lives of many Old Testament prophets who worked by faith that God's plan would be done, yet personally suffered for it. 11:35b-38 "Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned ; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-- the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground."
Humans want to sin, it's been Adam's curse on all his descendants. Humans, without God's spirit in them, will want to continue in their sin. Even the yearly (or more frequently) sacrifices detailed in Leviticus for the Old Testament wasn't enough to remind the people to turn from ways detestable in the Lord's eyes. And, like little children, they usually threw a temper tantrum at the messenger, rather than taking the message to heart.
Jesus was hardly treated differently. He railed against the religious leaders of the day, the descendants of those who'd killed and mistreated the prophets, who were about to repeat the same sins of their forefathers, instead of repenting and listening to that day's prophets. The religious leaders claimed to honor the prophets after their death (when they wouldn't convict them of sin to their face), but couldn't stand the same truths being spoken to them. Matthew 23:29-32 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!"
In fact, Jesus sums up the Old Testament history as the murdering of the righteous and the prophets. Matthew 23:35 continues on in speaking to the religious leaders, "from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar." Zechariah's death recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 lies at almost the end of the Hebrew arrangement of the Old Testament, and Abel at the start-- martyrs as bookends.
In some ways, Jesus is the most familiar messenger from God who got killed for telling people that "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15) To us, we acknowledge that he had to die for our sins, but to the religious leaders of the age, they resented Jesus and his message. They had to plot, find a traitor in Judas, couldn't find witnesses to agree on charges against Jesus (Mark 14:55-59), and had to stir up the crowd to sway Pontius Pilate into having Jesus killed against his better judgment.
Continuing forward in Acts, the early Christians were stoned, imprisoned, killed, and hurt for their beliefs. Why? They refused to quiet their message, their message of good news. No less a messenger than Paul commented on his own sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11: 23-27 -- "Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked."
So, if being a messenger for God is unpopular to the world, and may lead to suffering, why bother? First off, we are to obey Jesus. When he said "pick up your cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34 and others), he wasn't talking about a life of rest and relaxation. Jesus suffered for us; who are we to turn around and tell him that we're not feeling like any problems today? In fact, Jesus specifically commanded us to be messengers in the great commission:
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." [Matthew 28:18-20]
On the flipside of being a messenger is to listen to a messenger. Throughout your life, you should have many opportunities to be on both sides of the message, so it is good to be prepared to listen to Godly counsel. Don't act like the religious leaders of Israel and punish those who bring bad news. Don't punish those who call for repentance and turning away from sin. Don't shun the messenger. Don't let your message get in the way of listening to the Biblical teachings of others. If you're hearing non Biblical teachings from others, that's a good opportunity to give a Biblically correct message in return.
Learn from any message convicting you of problems, and change, as Paul commends the Corinthians for doing: "Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it--I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while-- yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." [2 Corinthians 7:8-10]
Also, according to Paul, why should we bother being a messenger? Quite simply: that they may be there with us in Heaven, not perishing in the lake of fire. Do you want your family, friends, loved ones, even enemies to have eternal life with Jesus? Start being a messenger. (Instead of getting worldly revenge on enemies, convert them to Christ, and annoy the Devil. If you're going to annoy someone, the Devil isn't a bad target.) Being a messenger is not necessarily the way to become popular, but it is the way of the truth.
Let me close with Paul's words: in 1 Corinthians 10:33b - 11:1 : "For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."