I will never forget the day I met the persecuted church face-to-face.
Eight pastors entered the humble living room, relief written on their faces. Their forty-eight hour train ride from the heart of Orissa, India had brought them to a place of safety. In 2008, mass killings and church burnings plagued Orissa. These eight pastors survived, but not all in their congregations had. I stood quietly in the doorway and listened as they recounted the horror.
Their story began the previous Sunday as Pastor Noah surveyed his ransacked and smoldering church. The cross that once hung at the front of the church lay amid the ashes, now nothing more than a charred log. He knew the arson sent a threat: cease proclaiming Jesus or be punished. Regardless of the target on Pastor Noah’s back, he did not renounce. Within days, he traveled to a neighboring village to encourage church leaders. Word spread quickly of his disobedience and the authorities followed in hot pursuit.
Pastor Noah sought shelter in the most unlikely refuge – a Hindu friend. The strange duo had forged a friendship despite their differing belief systems. Harboring a wanted man came with significant risk – even possible imprisonment of his own. Noah’s friend, however, quickly led him out back to his rice field. Crouching in the damp dirt, Noah watched as his neighbor laid a bicycle on top of his body. Heavy footsteps drew close. Noah shrank under the bicycle into the darkness. Nightfall, the fallen bicycle, and the dim moon hid Noah. From beneath his tomb, he heard the footsteps, interrogating questions, and before long, silence. The authorities vanished to continue their pursuit. After all, why would a Hindu choose to hide a Christian? Pastor Noah emerged unharmed.
Each generation endures persecution. Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonheoffer lived out these words even stripped and led naked to the execution yard for speaking out against Hitler’s Nazi regime. Men and women of the early church were fed to lions in the Roman Coliseums. The Middle Ages bore the reign of Queen Mary, called Bloody Mary due to her slaughter of Christians. North Korea executes anyone found in possession of a Bible. The words of third century martyr, Perpetua summarize the unwavering attitude of the historical church regarding persecution, “I cannot be called anything else than what I am, a Christian.”
The persecuted church, throughout the centuries, demonstrates the power of the gospel and the fulfillment of Christ’s final words to his disciples. As Jesus prepared for his own persecution, he readied his disciples for their responsibilities in his absence. The Upper Room discourse, found in John 13–17, outlines the responsibilities of taking his Word into the world. Christ offers three reasons for the existence of persecution from John 15:18–27.
Persecution exists due to our separation from the world. (Jn 15:18–19)
From the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth, the disciples chose to leave family and professions behind, in order to walk alongside the promised Savior. When Christ chose to separate them from the world, it was not for the purpose of isolation or piety, but rather proclamation of Christ’s supremacy. Proclaiming the convicting gospel of Jesus Christ would entail a life of radical choices, humility and suffering.
Persecution exists due to our association with Jesus. (Jn 15:20–21)
The world refused to believe that Jesus was very God and very Man, the Messiah. Their denial of Jesus’ deity resulted in their rejection of him, consequently leading to their hatred of him. The unity shared between the Father and the Son (Jn 14:11), would be mirrored in the unity between Christ and his disciples. (Jn 15:16, 20) Those who spurred the Son also spurned the Father, consequently spurning his followers. Anyone aligned with Christ became objects of equal hatred.
Persecution exists due to the declaration of Jesus’ message. (Jn 15:22–25)
Christ exposed the world’s self-righteous attempts to obtain the Father’s favor, uncovering humanities guilt and inadequacy. Only God Himself could accomplish the standard of perfect righteousness. Christ’s coming and presentation of the gospel made humanity culpable for their sin. The unchanging message of Jesus resulted in animosity, no matter the century.
Christ’s warning of guaranteed hatred and persecution concluded with hope. He promised to not abandon his followers as orphans. Upon his departure the Helper, Advocate, Comforter would come (Jn 15:26–27). Jesus offered the Holy Spirit as a gift from the Father in order to help the disciples navigate the animosity they would face. The Holy Spirit remains to offer hope for the persecuted church around the globe.
Sixty countries around the globe endure persecution with one hundred and eighty Christ followers dying each month. That means one in nine Christians are murdered each month because of their allegiance to Christ.
If persecution is unavoidable, what role can we play in the current situation? Here are a few suggestions:
- Write a letter of encouragement to a fellow brother or sister imprisoned for their faith (http://www.prisoneralert.com/)
- Download the Voice of the Martyrs prayer App for daily prayer requests (http://www.persecution.com/prayercalendar)
- Be informed by reading blogs, newspapers and magazines [Examples: Voice of the Martyr, Christians in Crisis]
- Purchase an “action pack” of hygiene items, clothing and Scripture for families of persecuted Christians (https://secure.persecution.com/p-434-action-packs.aspx?source=WEB)
- Recommit yourself to the church. Do not take advantage of your freedom to fellowship.
My mind often drifts back to that humble living room and the eight pastors who continue to risk their lives for the sake of the gospel today. Even a decade later, these men stand firm in confident hope while most would shrink in fear. Pastor Noah’s response to his night in the rice field echoes in my mind, “It is my joy to be chosen to proclaim the name of my Savior, even when it’s painful.”