In the middle of what is truly an awesome description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, John takes a brief aside to run through a list of things that will keep us all out of Heaven. For the most part, they’re all understandable; it makes sense that murderers, idolaters, and unbelievers would not be with God for all eternity.
But tucked away into the crevices of this list is one that seems almost out-of-place: cowardice.
Seriously, cowardice? How in the world does cowardice compare to any of the other things on that list, much less seem “severe” enough that God states those who are guilty of it will “have their place in the place which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Seems kind of extreme, huh?
Am I a Coward?
Naturally, the first response most of us have towards seeing such an “obscure” restriction would be to look inwards and see if we are guilty of something like that. But defining it properly is the first step before making an accurate assessment.
For starters, cowardice is not the same as “meekness.” Being meek is actually a commandment from Jesus in Matthew 5:5, as one of the qualities of kingdom citizens is to be the “meek of the world.”
Meekness is an attitude of submissiveness that bends our will to that of God’s. When you’re meek, you humbly reign in your own “strength” to conform to someone else’s – in this case, God’s.
Being meek, then, is not the same thing as being a coward, despite how it may look to the casual observer.
Cowardice is when you know the right thing to do and yet shutter yourself in an attempt to save your own skin. You allow things that shouldn’t happen to occur because you’re more interested in your own safety than doing what’s right. If you see a situation where you should act, and you don’t, that’s cowardice. That includes stamping out sin, evangelism, or even the fear of reading your Bible at your desk because of what your coworker might think.
Two Problems With Cowardice
The first and biggest problem with cowardice is that it goes against the very saving nature that both Jesus had and commands us to have. This world is STARVING for God – starving for the truth – and a failure to bring the Gospel to them is a spiritual crime against humanity. And for what? To save our own skin/ego/comfort?
The merits of selflessness have been preached from Philippians 2 for centuries. The first 11 verses detail how Jesus divested Himself of His glory to come to earth and give Himself as a sacrifice to save the souls of His people. It’s a fantastic section that deserves to be taught as often as possible.
But you don’t have to be Jesus to make a similar (albeit less Divine) sacrifice. Just a few verses later in the same chapter, Paul, possibly thinking of the sacrifice of Christ, introduces a man named Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30). Not much is known beyond what Paul reveals here, but what is said is enough – that he “risked his life” to serve Paul on behalf of the Philippians.
The other problem with cowardice is that it allows evil to triumph where Godliness should shine. 150 years ago, British philosopher J.S. Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
We’re conditioned to think that sometimes, in an effort to avoid doing the wrong thing, it’s better to just do nothing at all. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or act in an improper manner, so we just simply step aside for the time being and keep our mouth shut.
However, what we regard as a somewhat insignificant transgression is seen by God as a monumental collapse of faith.
Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33: “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny before My Father who is in Heaven.”
Confess and deny. Two extremes off the same pole that speak to our publicized attitude about Jesus. Do we claim Him or do we not? Do we acknowledge His salvation or hide it in the closet? If we’re too embarrassed of Him to live and speak as a Christian, what right do we have to live with Him for all eternity?
Nicodemus faced this same conundrum in John 3. Here’s a man who comes to Jesus by night (which implies a healthy amount of fear for his safety), and converses with Jesus on a variety of spiritual topics, including one of the most famous verses of all time: “For God so loved the world, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
If Nicodemus’ story stopped there, Nicodemus would be seen as little more than someone who wanted to learn, but only when there wasn’t risk involved. Fortunately, we see him again in John 7, standing up for Jesus in the face of his Jewish coworkers, and by the time Jesus dies on the Cross in John 19, he’s seen again helping with the burial arrangements.
We should all be like Nicodemus: Facing our fears and growing in our courage towards God.
What Would Our Ancestors Think?
The foundation of the church is built on the blood of Christ, and the early Christians all-too-often paid the ultimate price to stand up for the faith. Hebrews 11 is replete with men and women who sacrificed everything to follow God. What makes us think we will be any different? Moreover, why would we want to?
A martyr complex is not healthy, but we all have to come to grips with the fact that being a Christian can be a dangerous life (John 16:33).
Rather than run from it, mimic the faith of the saints at the end of Acts 4. Faced with the threat of more danger and more persecution, they resolved – without hesitation – to continue preaching Jesus. Praying earnestly towards God to “look on their threats,” they asked that God would give them boldness. When they were done, God responded by literally shaking the room.
Perhaps what we need is less prayers of comfort and more prayers of boldness. Less requests to have an easier time in life and more pleas for courage to stand when we know we need to stand.
Let’s shake the room, brethren.Last modified: December 22, 2018