Why It Is Important to Identify with the Persecuted Church: 3 More Reasons


In my prior blog post, I noted that there are at least 5 reasons all Christians should identify with persecution. First, the New Testament says that all Christians will be persecuted, and the persecution could take several different forms, from the mild mocking and name-calling to the more severe imprisonment and execution. Second, Christians are united in one body. Thus, attempts to distinguish between those who are “really” persecuted and those who are not introduce artificial division in the body of Christ.

All Christians Face PersecutionThis leads to the third reason all Christians ought to identify with persecution: Unity in the body of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, there is a constant urging for Christians to live in unity. Jesus famously prayed for us all to be one (John 17:19-20ff.). In John 17:23, He asks the Father to perfect us in unity so the world might know the reality of His appearing.

Christians who have the Spirit of Christ have also a longing for unity within the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul manifested this reality to the church at Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul urged the Ephesians to preserve the unity of the Spirit. He continued further to say that the work of the church is directed toward building up the body of Christ “until we all attain the unity of the faith.”

On this basis of unity within the body of Christ, the writer of Hebrews commands Christians to “Remember the [persecuted] prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body” (13:3).  The connection between persecution and the unity of the body of Christ is unmistakable. It is as plain as it is well-pictured by the human body itself. If you have a leg injury, it impacts your entire body. Drop a 10 lb. weight on the little toe of your left foot, and your entire body will respond accordingly (even if not appropriately).

So it is supposed to work within the body of Christ. There is a unity of the body which insists that the persecuted be noticed—that they be “remembered” as though we were actually in the prison cell with them. We are commanded always to identify with suffering saints in unity within the body of Christ.

Fourth, Christ is present in the midst of the persecuted—and what Christian does not long to be where Christ is? Christ, of course, is always present with His people, but the New Testament emphasizes several occasions in which Christ distinctly promises to be in the very midst of His gathered people. Christ promises His presence when His people gather together to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:20). He is present when His people gather to worship (1Corinthians 14:25). He is present when His people are making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20). He is present when His people minister to other Christians in need (Matthew 25:40, 45). And He is present when His people are suffering persecution.

Consider the conversion story of Saul. In Acts 9, Saul—breathing threats and seeking vengeance against followers of Christ—is suddenly confronted on the Damascus Road with the reality of the living Christ. When Christ appears to Saul, He asks him a curious question:

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?

Notice, the Lord does not ask why Saul is persecuting the church or my people. Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting Me?”  Jaroslav Pelikan explains it this way,

“Saul—together with the long line of his descendants—may have supposed that he was attacking the miserable adherents of a wretched fringe movement (14:22); but here the ultimate target of the rage and the violence (28:31) identified himself as none less than ‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

Christ is clearly one with His suffering saints. Our Lord undoubtedly cares for all humankind, but He must hold particular affection for His very own children who are harshly abused for the simple reason that they belong to Him. The martyred saints have no problem making the connection. In Revelation 6, martyred saints are pictured as being in the presence of Christ crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

And the answer they are given, apparently, is that the Lord will indeed avenge their blood on the heads of those who persecuted them, but He must first wait until the full number of martyrs is complete. One gets the sense from Revelation 6:11 that the reigns of history are at least partially held in reserve until an appointed persecution is complete. At which time, Christ will free His white horses to ride upon the clouds descending upon the earth to exact perfect justice against those who opposed Him by persecuting His body (Revelation 19). What Glory!

Finally, the fifth reason all Christians ought to identify with the persecuted is that the persecuted are blessed people! According to the New Testament, the kingdom belongs to the impoverished and the persecuted (see the first and eighth Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3, 10). Does it sound strange to call persecution a blessing?

It’s a strange and hard thought for my American Christian ears to hear, but it is true nonetheless that persecution is considered a blessing in the New Testament.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your China Christians persecuted persecution blessing matthew 5reward in heaven is great for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (James 1:2).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Failure to identify with the persecuted represents a failure to recognize the blessed life in Christ. Surely, more than a few health-and-wealth, prosperity prophets have hauled in tons of followers and loads of cash by promising their hearers a “blessed” life. We know how wrong such preaching is, but are we altogether right about what it means to be blessed on Jesus’s terms?

Identifying with persecution may help us realize what abundant life really is as promised by our Lord. Don’t all Christians long for the abundant life Jesus said He came to give? Somehow, that abundant life includes both persecution and blessing. May the Lord grant us faith to embrace and receive all that He has to offer us.

Don’t Read This …Unless You’re Ready to Count the Cost of Discipleship


Since my friend Don Whitney posted a Tweet about this incident in Somalia, I have been unable to stop thinking about the sober reality of Christian faith. The world hated Jesus Christ when He ministered among men. And the world hates him still.

Persecution Cost of DiscipleshipThere is a robust theological heritage in Christianity which asserts that humans are sinful by nature. According to John 3, men love the darkness and hate the light. Paul says human beings actively suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1). And Moses, long before either Paul or John lived, said that our hearts are full of evil, continuously, even from our youth (Gn 8:21).

Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot the reality of the sinfulness of sin. I once preached a 35 week series on the sinfulness of sin. A visitor one day asked my wife politely, “Does he ever preach on topics other than sin?” I may have been guilty of overstating the case… maybe. But the situation with the persecuted church today makes me think I could never overstate the awfulness of sin.

The incident in Somalia is a sober reminder to us all of the fact that the world hated Jesus, and the world still hates those who love Him. Jesus is present with His people (Matthew 28; Acts 9; Hebrews 13). The presence of Jesus is odious to unbelieving nostrils. As Paul says, it is the aroma of death to death to some.

Sadly, a group of non-believing Muslims in Somalia sensed the presence of Jesus in the lives of two women, Sadia Ali Omar and Osman Mohamoud Moge. They were cousins. Omar had two daughters, ages 8 and 15. These two girls watched as the Muslim men brought their mother to the middle of town and there beheaded her.

Why were these women beheaded in the town square in Barawa? As with John the Baptist, so it was with these two women: They walked in the way of righteousness. The presence of Christ was with them, and that was unbearable to the Islamic militants of Barawa:

 “We know these two people are Christians who recently came back from Kenya – we want to wipe out any underground Christian living inside of mujahidin [jihadists’] area…”

The mere fact that these were Christians was enough of a crime to justify their being beheaded.  The incident was not about the global war on terror. It was not a political event. It was not about “Muslim-Christian” tensions. It was not extremism—well, it was, but that is really not the point.

The point is simple. As Jesus stated, “You will be hated by all on account of me” (Matthew 10:22).  If you are a believer in Christ, you will be hated. Most likely, neither you nor I will face the severe cruelty of a public beheading in front of our children. But we will be hated by some. Like Jesus, we will love others, but they will sometimes return that love with hate, slander, and persecution.

May our Lord God have mercy on these two girls and the rest of the family members grieving the loss of these two saints martyred in Somalia. Surely, Omar and Moge are absent in the body, but now present with the Lord. Perhaps they, too, are gathered around the Lord’s throne, crying, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

Noisy Saints Need Ears to Hear


“He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7).

I am a football fan. And I am a Christian. Therefore, as any good Christian ought, I cheer for the Saints!  The Apostle Paul blesses the churches at Ephesus and Colosse because of their love for the saints. So, it is obviously biblical to love the saints  😉

Last week, the Saints had a very rough time in Seattle. They were barely able to escape being scoreless in Seattle. Part of the problem for the Saints was the noise. The crowd in Seattle sought to break the Guinness record for loudest fans at an outdoor stadium. To do so, they had to exceed 137 decibels. They did—mostly during the crucial seconds the Saints needed for calling plays at the line of scrimmage. Congratulations, Seattle, you broke the record, reaching 137.6 decibels—and registering as a small earthquake on the regional Richter scale.

More importantly, this event is capable of instructing us in a serious theological matter. The Seahawks fans made so much noise that the Saints had to wear specially-fitted earplugs in order to hear plays being called at the line of Scrimmage. Think about that. Earplugs (used for silencing) became necessary in order to hear. The earplugs were necessary so that the outside noise (ambient noise) would not overpower the direct-line speech from player to player. The earplugs were designed to “drown out” the 137.6-decibel flood of Seattle Seahawk sound waves. The plugs filtered the noise to allow the team to hear close, direct-line speech.

All Christians–all saints–need ear-filters such as this. Indeed, one of the primary distinctions between “saints” and “sinners” in the New Testament is that the one “has ears to hear” what the Spirit is saying, while the other cannot hear the word on account of its being choked out by the cacophony of words being shouted by the world.

Richard Wurmbrand, founder of Voice of the Martyrs, spent 14 years in prison, often in solitary confinement. His book, Tortured for Christ, tells of his response to being free. In short, he states that he was most unimpressed with how those outside of prison squandered their freedom by simply making “noise” with their speech. According to Wurmbrand, even Christians squandered their speech on the noise of talking about sports, the weather, and the amusements of entertainment. After solitary confinement, Wurmbrand discovered that very few things in life were really worth talking about at all.

He also offers another telling story about the proper filtering of noise:

In the homes of many Western Christians, hours are sometimes spent listening to worldly music. In our homes loud music can also be heard, but it is only to cover the talk about the gospel and the underground work so that Ear to hearthe neighbors may not overhear it and inform the secret police.

Wurmbrand learned the real mechanics of noise and how to use it (like specially-fitted earplugs) to make the gospel more clearly, directly heard. Preachers must learn the same lesson. Unfortunately, many preachers spend too much time seeking to sound like the world (for apologetic or evangelistic purposes) instead of intentionally filtering a focused word for the saints, who are in the world but no longer desiring to be part of it.

With all the ambient noise surrounding us on billboards, television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Netflix, and Hulu—we need Christian pastors who are capable of tuning a message to the frequency of the Scriptures and broadcasting it directly through the crowd noise to ears of those who have an ear to hear.

Should Christians Flee Persecution?


In June of 1982, The Clash released (on Cassette) their only song to reach #1, the punk rock classic, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” The song was neither toward nor about anyone in particular. Its staying power rests on its ability to speak to so many situations in general. It even speaks (in general) to a question that Christians must answer in relation to persecution: When should the persecuted stay, and when should they go?

Persecution Stay or GoIn one instance, the Apostle Paul agreed to be hidden in a basket and clandestinely lowered out of the city in order to escape the persecution awaiting him (2 Cor 11:31-33), while, in yet another instance, this same Paul refused to leave prison even after the guards told him he was being released (Acts 16:35ff).  How did he know when to stay and when to go?

This question plagues ministries today who seek to help our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. In the latest issues of Christianity Today, Kate Tracy explores this very question in relation to the work of Barnabas Fund in Sudan. Since 2012, Barnabas Fund (a non-profit ministry based in the UK which helps persecuted Christians) has committed a sizable portion of their budget to helping suffering Christians escape intense persecution in Sudan. Presently, they are working to free 3,400 Christians from Islamic Sudan.

The article notes the problem which arises through such extraction efforts. Lisa Jones, executive director of Christian Freedom International, says, “History has demonstrated that sometimes you end up creating a market for the problem.” Her point is that paying others to help Christians escape builds a market for holding Christians captive to the point that they want to escape. Christians become a commodity to be traded. While those who are redeemed obviously benefit by gaining their freedom, those not redeemed suffer a worse fate than before, as opportunists will always kidnap, torture, and oppress more Christians in the hopes of getting more money for their release. It makes for a difficult dilemma.

As The Clash note in their song,

If I go there will be trouble,

And if I stay it will be double.

There is no easy way to make the call. Should the Christians stay or should they go? Should Christian ministries help them leave or implore them to stay? The Bible gives no direct, one-size-fits-all solution. In Matthew 10:23, Jesus tells His followers to flee to the next city when they are persecuted at home. Yet, in many other contexts, He teaches that His followers must endure persecution—and are even blessed when they do so—on account of Him (cf. Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 24:9-14).  The point seems to be that a Christian may either stay (to endure as a witness) or flee (to spread the gospel, as in Acts 8), but whichever decision is made, it must be made by faith, not fear. It must be made out of love for Christ, not fear of torment.  There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Fear cannot be the motivator because cowards have no place in the kingdom of God (Rev. 21:8).

Gloriously, Christians past and present have displayed an invincible faith in the face of terrible suffering. It is not our place to judge the motives of those who flee by faith. As Todd Daniels says, “It’s not our decision as American Christians whether Christians in persecution choose to remain or flee.” Instead, we must remember both those who stay and those who flee to the next city, ministering at least through our prayers so that they will endure to the end.

The CT article closes with this powerful image from a Christian in Egypt who struggles with whether to stay or to go:

“We live in Egypt today with hearts full of peace and joy, realizing that even as we are on that boat, in the middle of the dark night in the middle of the high waves, Jesus will…show up walking on the waves.”

 

 

From Conversation to Revelation


Deutsch: Apokalypse aus Lutherbibelexemplar in...

Deutsch: Apokalypse aus Lutherbibelexemplar in Schweden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Several years ago, when I was first contemplating a Ph.D., I did what most judicious students would do. I visited different seminaries and universities and thought through all my options. On one of my visits, I ran across an older, seasoned sage of academic endeavors. Our conversation turned out to be most refreshing.

 

The school I was visiting was not known for its biblical and theological acumen. Rather, it was well known for its program in Christian leadership. This professor, however, had a remarkable thirst for Scripture. He told me of his habit of choosing a book of the Bible and reading that book every day for a month. If one were to pick Jude, Philemon, or Habakkuk, that would be an easy task. But this professor was picking “real” books like Luke, John, and Revelation. It was, in fact, to Revelation that our conversation turned.

 

He had just finished reading the book of Revelation 30 times (day after day for a month). I asked him if he had figured it out. Surprisingly, he said, “Yes! The entire book opened up for me when I realized this was written to and for persecuted Christians in the first century.” Realizing the context of the book (first century) and the focus of the book (perseverance through suffering persecution) changed everything for this professor.

 

His testimony leaves us with a couple of helpful principles pertaining to Revelation in particular and to all of Scripture more generally.  First, context is significant. It is important to know as much about the original author and the original audience as possible. This information is gathered primarily from the text itself. John says in Rev 1:1 that he received a vision from Christ, and he was sharing it with the bond-servants of Christ so they would know what to expect in the near future.

 

John wrote the book to communicate to living Christians what God had shown him. Reading the book of Revelation with the idea that it is supposed to encourage Christians who are suffering persecution leads to strong words of encouragement for any suffering Christian. It also eliminates the need of deciphering cryptic codes to divine a road map for end times apocalyptic events. Jesus already told us no one knows the day or the hour. Revelation is not about that as much as it is about strengthening suffering saints. Knowing the context from the text makes the meaning of the text more clear.

 

A second principle easily deduced from this doctor’s discovery is that persecution is a significant theme in the New Testament. In fact, every writer (with the possible exception of Jude) touches on the subject. Almost every New Testament book contains instructions for believers about why they will suffer persecution and how they can respond well to it. Reading the New Testament on its own terms and using its own language and its own expectations—rather than injecting into it our 21st Century expectations and formulating truncated doctrines to support our conclusions—is really a refreshing way to explore God’s Word.

 

I am thankful for the simple, yet profound, conversation I was able to have with this aging academic. He was pious and genuine in his zeal and sound in his approach to the Bible and his consequent interpretation of it. These are but two of the helpful implications of that one conversation. Consider speaking to others about your Bible reading (and theirs) and see if similarly profound results do not occur.

 

Adoption Yearning


Any pastor worth his salt (as the saying goes) must, at times, identify with the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was more than a preacher to God’s suffering people—he was a vicarious enactment of their plight, having to lay siege against Jerusalem (Chapter 4); eat “unclean” food; pack his bags for exile (Chapter 12), and lose his wife.  Ezekiel suffered with God’s people.  God told him from the beginning not only that he would be required to suffer with God’s people but that he would also need a head as hard as theirs in order to bear the suffering without seeing much of a reward.  The people would mock him, scoff him, listen to him for the entertainment value, but not obey what he taught them.  Ezekiel’s ministry was difficult indeed.

Pastors understand. Frequently suffering with God’s people, pastors surely understand what it is like to plead with folks to yield their full allegiance to a sovereign God—only to have those folks too often walk away toward a secular solution to a genuinely spiritual problem.  That can be a tough assignment.

Lately, however, I have suffered an assignment that might be more difficult—suffering with God’s people who suffer well.  OK, it isn’t more difficult. But pain is painful even when it is beautiful.  Lately, I have experienced a kind of sweet agony as I have suffered with a people who portray the brightest ray of beauty from the clouds of pain.

For several weeks now, I have been preaching a series of sermons from Hebrews 12 on the discipline of the Lord.  Basically, I have called us to trust God’s instructing love through suffering.  God’s instructing love is His discipline.  After first rejecting the suffering, we can be trained by God’s instructing love to learn something of the nature of God and thereby be humbled into what the Bible calls the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).  The process must be something like the joy of a mother holding a new baby girl after suffering hours of labor.

So, here we are as a congregation suffering. Here I am as a pastor suffering.  I am suffering with the weight of what I am preaching, knowing that in the congregation are mothers who have lost their daughters, fathers who have buried their babies, and a young man whose wedding party was crashed in the most inconceivably bad manner he could imagine.

I am also suffering my own setbacks, which on an agony scale don’t measure up to the loss of those who have buried children.  Still, I am suffering a degree of agony, longing to know why I have 2 children in Africa who are being needlessly withheld from their home, their family, and their father who desperately wants them in his presence.  How can I (a pastor) make sense of it all?  I am so frustrated with the injustice of a bureaucracy which keeps my boys away from me.

I have some options available.  My natural response is to fuel a deep-seated cynicism against my own government.  Trust me when I say my Republican roots run deep!  It would be easy to grow powerfully indignant against the current administration and buy into the fervor of adoption activism—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! But that isn’t my thing, not right now.  For now, I am a shepherd of a suffering people who are listening and learning (by watching?) about God’s discipline.

I must receive the Lord’s discipline.  So, what can I learn from my suffering, Lord? Surely, no good can come from the forces pulling my little boys from me and holding us an ocean apart against our wills.  What is this situation saying about you, Father?

Perhaps you, Lord, are painting a picture of the church through my life (and the life of my boys).  I am thinking of unexpectedly sober picture of the church presented in Revelation 6:9-11,

9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.

Here with the Lord are those who have run their race as faithful Christian soldiers. They have died as faithful witnesses, martyrs.  Their concern is for justice—understandably so! They not only were killed unjustly on account of loving Christ, they are also now subjected to seeing others mistreated and even killed in the same unjust way.  Like Abel’s, their blood cries out.

But what is God’s reply to them? It is wait. But it isn’t a simple wait to which God is calling His people.  It is a specific wait.  It is a redemptive wait.  While the martyred saints are crying out for God’s justice, God is saying wait for my full mercy.  They cry for justice because God’s mercy is taking too long.

What this means is that God is certainly as aware as they are of the injustices against His people.  Heck, He is infinitely more aware of injustice than they could ever be!  The reason He does not act in the face of such injustice is that He is more focused for now on accomplishing the fullness of redemption.  “Be patient,” he tells His faithful.  “I have more aliens and strangers yet to adopt into our family.  As time welcomes them into history, I will be dispatching the Holy Spirit to give them eternity.  In the meantime, while that is taking place for my children, other injustices will occur. Don’t worry. I am keeping track and will repay. Vengeance is mine.  For now, trust me while I work through time to complete our family.”

We want justice while God is working redemption.  To say it another way, the only reason God delays justice is so He can fully express His mercy toward His people.  A God like that is worthy of our trust and our patient endurance.

So, I wait for my baby boys.  And I wait for the further redemption of Crystal’s death and Tommy’s loss.