When the news broke on that Sunday night that twenty-one more Christians had been executed for their faith, I sat in silence. I was speechless in the jarring juxtaposition between a game of charades with my family and that image of men kneeling in the sand, a moment away from death.
Families lost their husbands, fathers, and sons because they were men of the cross.
It isn’t easy to face it. It isn’t easy to see this pain and this escalating persecution… it isn’t easy to bear witness to the unmerciful hands of hatred and evil. It’s one thing to know that, theoretically, there is persecution in the world. It’s quite another thing to see it before our eyes right after we tuck our kids into their beds.
The thing is, though ~ this isn’t new. These are not isolated events. Organizations like Open Doors track and minister to oppressed and persecuted Christians around the world. They estimate that 322 Christians are killed because of their faith each month. But unless we make an effort to know what is happening around the world, it is too easy for most of us to simply not think about it. We aren’t directly affected and we feel helpless to make a difference… and, maybe, we don’t quite understand why God allows it all to happen. So it is easier to stay focused on our own lives.
Yet, friends, I think that this is the time to shake ourselves awake, to throw off complacency. We must see this unfolding season with eyes open, praying for wisdom and understanding.
Because I think that these are the moments when we decide ~ do we believe Jesus? Do we believe Him when it isn’t just theology and Sunday morning church, when it becomes clear that the cost of following Him actually changes our lives? When it comes to seeing the reality of what it can look like to follow Him even unto death, will we choose to trust Him?
This is when we must know in Whom we have believed so that our actions are a result of our faith in Him. This is when we must trust that the Light who was not overcome by the darkness shines still ~ undeterred, unfaltering, undefeated.
Jesus spoke words of warning and promise, preparing us for days just like these.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)
Later, in Matthew 24, Jesus teaches the disciples what the end of the age will bring. He tells them plainly: Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. (Matt. 24:9)
This is a crossroads for many of us ~ because He goes on and says At this time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
We cannot brush over these verses, thinking that they will never apply to us or to our families. When we read the Word of God, it is clear that this world will be shaken before the coming of God’s Kingdom. We are in a battle, daily, against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12) …and as the day of the Lord’s return draws nearer, we cannot know what hardships we might be asked to endure.
In John 15 and 16, Jesus speaks again of persecution so that we will not be caught off guard: If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me… But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning. These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them.
Although Jesus was speaking to the disciples ~ and His words came to pass, for many of those followers were put to death for carrying His name ~ I believe the principle applies to us, too. If the day comes when our choice to serve Him carries consequences of persecution, we will bear witness ~ through the power of the Helper, the Holy Spirit ~ to His name and to His love. And no matter what happens to these bodies of ours, our souls are safe in His hands.
Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matt. 10:27-31)
Even if the people we know by name ~ our families, our friends ~ never go through this kind of persecution for their faith in Christ, our brothers and sisters around this globe are facing danger every single day.
We are one. Jesus prayed for our unity. Our love for each other ~ love that should cross borders, languages, and cultures ~ points directly to Him, for we are His body.
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ~ whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free ~ and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many… But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
(1 Corinthians 12)
Remember the prisoners as if chained with them ~ those who are mistreated ~ since you yourselves are in the body also. (Hebrews 13:3)
We feel helpless, like we can’t help those who are hurting ~ have we forgotten that if we have even a little faith in our God, He is mighty to move mountains? Are we deceived, somehow, into believing that our prayers for each other can’t make a difference? Do we forget that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective? We cannot physically reach those around the world, but we can boldly come before the throne of grace ~ we can reach God and God can reach the captives and the broken-hearted. Only He knows the plan and purpose for each life on this earth ~ and although we may not understand why some will face persecution, even to the point of death, we can pray for His peace and His strength for our brothers and sisters in all these things. We can pray that they will have the assurance that He is with them, always. Matthew 18:19-20 says this: Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
These are the words of our Savior and I have to ask myself and I have to ask you…do we believe Him? Do we trust Him enough to turn our belief into movement, into prayer, into interceding for each other?
Our calling does not end with praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ. I tripped over Matthew 5:44 as I was reading through these passages, because Jesus was telling me to do the exact opposite of what I was feeling at the time. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
It is one thing to know, theoretically, that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is quite another to see those men, faces hidden, swords in hand ~ and to pray for them even while they plan and plot more evil against innocent men, women, and children.
I stalled on this verse… and I remembered how Jesus was hanging on a cross, body beaten and battered ~ and how He prayed for the men who sent the whip across His back, the nails through His hands and feet. He prayed that they would be forgiven.
And He was there, to begin with, so that I could be forgiven.
I was reminded that the lives of those who hold the weapons, those lives being controlled by evil ~ they are being completely destroyed by sin. Their souls are in darkness, enslaved to the enemy.
And didn’t Jesus come for every single person? Do we really believe that His mercy is for any who will call upon His name?
It is not impossible for a man, even one who has persecuted and killed in the name of his religion, to find redemption in Christ Jesus.
If it were, we would not have these words of Paul in 1 Timothy… This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.
One encounter with Jesus changed Paul ~ and I believe that Jesus can still encounter men and women, wherever they are, and His grace can transform them. Jeremiah tells us this message “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”
Will we let the love He has shown to us… the forgiveness He has given to us… transform our hearts and teach us the ways of grace until we can pray that all ~ even those who hurt and despise us ~ will come to the knowledge of salvation? (1 Timonthy 2:4)
Why do we choose to follow Him, even when we know that first we lay down our will… and may be asked to lay down our very lives? Why do we choose to trust Him, when He may lead us through the valley of the shadow of death?
Although I could give you scriptures to explain it ~ I think I’ll start with my own life, my own reasons.
There was a time when I was afraid (of nearly everything) and convinced that I was worthless. I believed I was a failure, my sins and their consequences the theme of my life. I had no hope and no joy.
But Jesus reached out to me. And His love ~ His grace and His gentleness ~ transformed my heart and gave me new life. He set me free from fear that crippled me, from condemnation that overwhelmed me ~ His mercy called me beloved and chosen. On a day-to-day basis, He is my strength and my peace. I have seen miracles in big and small things… I have seen glimpses of His glory and I am left changed. I will follow where He leads because I know that He is with me.
He became the Man of the Cross for me. I don’t carry around my shame, my sin, my guilt, my broken pieces ~ because on Calvary, He bore them all for me. He gave up His life, willingly, so that I can have life in abundance.
So even if the promise was only His presence here in this lifetime… friends, it is enough.
Yet there is more in store for us, because we are not made only for this time and place. Like Paul said ~ to live is Christ, but to die is gain… for when we depart from this life, we will be with Christ ~ face to face, forever. His death may have looked like a battle lost, like light overcome ~ but He rose in power, the authority over hell, death, and the grave in His hands ~ and He went to prepare a place for me, for you, for all who will believe in Him. The Light was never overcome and never will be.