The Persecuted Church

In Ephesians 3:1-13, the writer Paul opens by telling us that he is a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles to whom he had been called by the Lord to preach the gospel. This former persecutor of Christians had himself become a follower of Jesus, a protector of Christians, an apostle.  Now, it’s quite possible that Paul was under arrest and not in a prison cell. He may have been in a rented home where he would have been allowed to read and write and receive visitors. However, he would have been chained day and night to a series of Roman soldiers. In Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 20, he calls himself an “ambassador in chains.”

He was, in fact, the emperor Nero’s prisoner. But, though Nero might have had the power to incarcerate Paul, it was Jesus who commanded his love, allegiance and freely given service.

Paul was in prison awaiting trial because of his ministry to the Gentiles. The word Gentile refers to every non-Israelite, everyone outside of the Jewish nation. Paul was arrested in the first place because he was accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple in Jerusalem (we read about this in Acts, chapters 21 and 22) Throughout his ministry, Paul’s claim that God was creating a new people which included Gentiles—people from every tribe and nation—on an equal basis with Jews, aroused severe opposition.

This revelation of a new reality was not something that Paul had figured out on his own; it was given to him by God. Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the general nature of the mystery of Christ: that at the end of all time all things will be united under Christ. But this new configuration wasn’t to be just something for the future. This mystery also has a here and now reality to it. Everyone who receives Christ as Savior is united with and becomes one with all others who belong to Christ. We become a new reality, a new body, a new covenant people: THE Church.

These who once were enemies now share the same promised covenant blessings, the same body, the same benefits.

Paul, who had zealously persecuted Christians, is the same Paul whom we now see transformed by God’s astonishing power. Paul’s calling is to announce the good news that the enmity can end. Here and in the two chapters preceding, he preaches to the Gentiles the unsearchable, unfathomable, inexhaustible riches of Christ: redemption; forgiveness of sins; knowledge of God’s will; an inheritance; power; resurrection with Christ; enthronement with Christ; grace; kindness; citizenship in God’s kingdom; membership in God’s family.

Paul says he’s been called to make plain all of this, to turn people from darkness to light. Now, the mystery revealed—the manifold (the multi-colored) mystery of God is the Church: the multi-colored, multi-national, multi-ethnic Church, newly forged in Christ.

Then comes the central piece of the vision: that it is by means of this multi-ethnic Church that the supernatural powers themselves—the rulers and authorities—now see what God is up to in the universe. They watch in fascination as traditional enemies are drawn into the church and by this they learn about the manifold wisdom of God.

Because, though Christians have been persecuted throughout the centuries and continue to suffer persecution today at greater levels than ever in history, the Church is growing.

More than 1,900 evangelical churches have been planted in the Ukraine since 1991. Many are beginning to send missionaries to other parts of the world.

Christians in China continue to share the Gospel despite the great cost. One group’s church planter training seminars teach, in addition to basic church planting skills, these three things: (1) Never turn down an invitation to preach; (2) Look for a place to run when you are finished preaching; (3) Be ready to die that day.

In spite of the repercussions, it is increasingly common for Cuban Christians to gather as house churches. The church is exploding in growth, and Protestant Christians could number in the millions in a few years. But one Cuban pastor, earlier this year, said that “the sustained growth of the church unnerves a political system that needs a civil society as weak as possible to govern at will.”

In Indonesia where is found the largest Muslim population in the world, Christians are threatened and their churches are bombed. Yet, there is a great openness to the Gospel in spite of this persecution—the church is growing there at a rate of 5% per year. There are more than 25 million Christians in Indonesia, and more than 13 million of them are without a Bible. As more and more seekers come to Christ, the church grows, and the Bible gap widens.

We might note here that, without the Scriptures, Christians will not have the comfort they need to face persecution. Some of our dollars for the World Mission Offering goes toward this end, but this church has also put Bibles and other Christian resources into the hands of people in struggling parts of the world through a ministry called Love Packages. These materials, and others we might collect, are now being used to reach souls for Christ, to encourage and build up the church, and to raise up and train leaders to shine the light in dark places. In the coming weeks, as I unpack boxes of books to put on the shelves in the pastor’s study, I’ll also be culling to see what might be most helpful to send to those who have not had and do not have the resources to create such libraries.

In Nigeria, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the rising tide of aggression, the Christian Church is growing. People are curious about a Book whose beliefs some are willing to die defending.

Some years ago, when I was serving as a seminary professor, one of my students asked me a question that has remained indelibly etched in my mind. He prefaced his question by telling me that Muslims in an area of his home country of Nigeria had tortured and blinded eight pastors. This was just one example, he said of the continuing enmity between Christians and Muslims that dates back to the 1950s. Today, religious violence in Nigeria is dominated by Fulani militants and the Boko Haram insurgency which aims to impose Sharia law on the northern parts of the country. You may be most familiar with the latter as those who kidnapped 276 schoolgirls a few years ago. Boko Haram has burned down churches, destroyed Christian villages, and displaced millions. Sad to say, some Christians have retaliated, over the years, with similar acts of barbarity.

My student’s question to me—his renewal and evangelism professor? How can I love, how can I reach out in love, to those who are killing my people? How can I love them enough to share the gospel with them? How would you have answered him?

Well, often, Christianity grows in the face of persecution and in the midst of war.

The Bible League’s National Director says, “The positive thing of the war in Sudan is that many, many people are coming to Christ. We try to show the love of God through the Word of God.”

A young woman whose brother was killed for showing the Jesus film in this country offered the following prayer:

Dear God, I still believe in You.  One year ago today, my brother was martyred because he was a Christian. Because of that I have struggled with hatred, bitterness, and depression, but, I have also seen Your love, strength, and compassion.  It would be easy to say, “I do not believe in the Christian God anymore,” but it would not be better. I can honestly say that I have felt Your presence this year.  You are not the God of easy answers, magical fixes, or painless lives, but You are the God who meets us in the middle of our trials.  Thank you for being real to me, my mother, and our whole church as we mourn the death of my brother.”

On average, 171,000 Christians are martyred for the faith each year. Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly…undergoing perhaps its largest expansion in history. BUT—more people take part in Christian Sunday worship in China than in the entirety of western Europe. The same is true of Nigeria and probably true of India, Brazil, and even Indonesia. Lebanon is 40 percent Christian.

More people have come to faith in Christ in the last 30 to 40 years than had come in all the years preceding.

Churches in India are growing at a 10 to 15 percent multiplication rate each year. There are now twice as many Christians (631 million) on the continent of Africa than there are people in the United States where 325.7 million reside. Some of the largest churches in the world are now found in the country of Colombia.

But, while the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa, it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, only about ten percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. But friends there are now seeing great hope through initiatives such as Fresh Expressions, a movement that is planting new congregations different in ethos and style from the church that planted them because they are designed to reach a different group of people than those already attending the original church. Fresh expressions of church have been created for, among others, skateboard and BMX culture in Essex, café culture in Kidsgrove, artists and creatives in London, university students in South Hampton, surfers in Cornwall, British Asian people in Birmingham, people living in the city center of Manchester, and children in Portsmouth.

God is calling His people to think anew, afresh, and I am confident He will bless our efforts as do the same, as we go and make disciples.

Christian pollster George Barna, however, estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. A study was conducted last year and, though 46 percent of folks in the U.S. say they have a biblical worldview, only ten percent of Americans actually think and act according to the most basic biblical principles. And only two of every ten adults believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others who believe differently.

Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question—What are we trying to do?— was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list. He suggests, however, that by its very nature and purpose, the church ought to see itself first and foremost as a contagious group of people that is ‘infecting” more and more outsiders with the Christian faith, reaching more and more unchurched people and turning them—as empowered by the Holy Spirit —into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Mittelberg, writing in 2002, went on to note that people in our society are hungry for information about God. In the ensuing years, however, much that has come through the media would suggest to non-believers that Christians are pretty clueless about God. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Evangelism. It’s one of the highest values in the church—and one of the least practiced.

Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘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 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”

In the United States, and especially in New England, we sit on one of the neediest mission fields in the world and we’ve been called to reach the lost for Christ. The Lord may never place us in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel, but I think we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. Many of our fellow Christians around the world do put themselves in harm’s way every day in service to the Lord. What risks can we take for the Lord this week?

We could start by inviting friends or family members or even folks we’ve just met to consider Christ We could open up to non-Christian about what our faith has meant to us. Consider: Who might we bring to worship next Sunday? Who might we lift to the Lord in prayer?

Featured Photo of Nigerian Christians in prayer: Open Doors.

 

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