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Friday, November 9, 2012

Abandoned Pennsylvania barn (photo by Doris High)
In the course of her travels our friend Doris High snapped this photo of an abandoned barn in central Pennsylvania

ListenListen to this message on your audio player. Note: Due to the length of today's message a podcast was not prepared.

Note: Today's message is quite a bit longer than usual. We encourage you to prayerfully read it.

"Remembering the Persecuted"

"But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them" (Mark 13:9). "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Hebrews 13:3). "So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good" (1 Peter 4:19).

One with them wristband for persecuted churchThis Sunday is designated an "International Day Of Prayer For The Persecuted Church". For many years we have borne a burden for the persecuted, although we feel not nearly as much as we should. We have been far removed thus far from the persecution many of our international brethren who know suffering all to well.

An aspect of this ministry that warms our hearts is to hear from readers from all over the world, particularly when we receive notes from believers in countries where there is persecution and oppression. A believer wrote to us from such a closed country and shared that the encouragement messages are "roaming around in this very strict country as far as religion is concerned." Now that's a powerful source of ministry fulfillment!  (If I were to name the country many of you would recognize it as among the most oppressive on earth.)

What a joy to share a message of hope with such a fellow believer this day and hopefully it will do some "roaming" to encourage others. The daily verses are indeed packed with encouragement for the persecuted and a solemn call to all!

Several years ago Paul H. Popov joined us for dinner. Paul is the president of "Door of Hope International", a Christian ministry that focuses on the persecuted church. When our guests join us for dinner we ask them to sign our guest book. Beside his name Paul wrote Hebrews 13:3 and then made an interesting observation about the theme verses of our respective ministries. Daily Encouragement is based on Hebrews 3:13; simply reverse the chapter and verse of the same book and you have the theme verse of "Door of Hope International" (Hebrews 13:3)!

Today's first Scripture reading is from Gospel according to Luke. Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) has a long chapter devoted to what is known as the Olivet Discourse, a sermon given by the Lord on the Mount of Olives just prior to His death.

In this message Christ shares regarding future events and warns His followers to expect persecution: "But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them."

Persecution has long been a part of the life of the church practically from the beginning, though it's difficult for many of us to identify with our persecuted brethren around the world. This is especially true if we live in free countries where we haven't yet experienced persecution.

Hebrews 13:3 tells us to "remember". "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Hebrews 13:3). I have memorized this verse and I earnestly desire that God would help me to live in daily prayerful remembrance and intercession for my persecuted brothers and sisters. Frankly, the Holy Spirit convicts me in this regard that I am not more concerned and moved by their plight.

We are called to We are also to remember "those in prison". I am thankful for "prison ministries" and we normally use that title to describe ministry to those imprisoned for crimes they have committed, but this is not what the writer of Hebrews had in mind in this text. He is surely speaking of those who were imprisoned specifically due to their obedience to Jesus Christ. In many countries of the world this is still happening today.

We are also to remember "those who are mistreated".  In my judgment the NIV uses far too mild a word here.  The KJV states "suffer adversity" and the literal Greek word "kakoucheo" means "torment."  It is used only one other time in the entire NT, also in Hebrews referring to persecuted believers through the ages, "They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented.  The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth" (Hebrews 11:37,38).

In his book "Tortured For His Faith" which is an account of his sufferings Haralan Popov, Paul's father, shares a form of horrible torment that he experienced at the hands of his communist captors as they tried to break down him down. It's a graphic form of torment that occurred during the lifetime of many of our readers (as I recall during the 1940' or 1950's).

He was ordered to stand facing the prison wall for two weeks straight. Required to stand 8" away from the wall he could not blink, sit, rest or sleep during the entire time. Guards watched him 24/7 and if they caught him blinking they would punish him. He was given crumbs and watery, foul-tasting soup to keep him alive. At the end of the two week period his face and head were huge, his eyes like flames of fire, and his legs were like that of an elephant. Yet they did not break his will to live for Jesus. He endured such kinds of torment for over 13 years! Why didn't the authorities simply kill him and be done with it? They admitted that such killings simply caused the cause of Christ to grow.

When the letter to the Hebrews was written very likely the recipients actually knew someone undergoing persecution.  Perhaps they could put a family member's face on the suffering or had even suffered themselves.  Few of us reading this Scripture passage can identify with the writer, but the early church surely could. Let's try.

Imagine with me being in the early church when Hebrews 13:3 was first read. You intently listen as your pastor solemnly reads the letter from the esteemed apostle. A short time before this you had heard this exhortation, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing" (Hebrews 10:25). You look around and note not only those present, but those who are missing. No, they're not at a football game, a NASCAR race or at the mall or sitting home reading the Sunday cartoons. They're not even sick.

You look around and see Martha and her children. Her husband is imprisoned for his faith. You look over and see James whose tongue has been cut out attempting to silence the gospel message that fell from his lips. Jude is missing; his whereabouts unknown but many suspect he was killed.

You really have no problem identifying with the missing since you know you could be next. The cost of being a disciple of Jesus is very great. The sense of the call to "remember" is not that they had forgotten but a solemn reminder of the cost of discipleship. This is a present tense experience for many. I merely consider the brutal treatment of followers of Christ in so many places in the world, especially where the Muslim religion dominates.

Paul wrote many of his letters from prison.  He recounts his sufferings in some detail in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. The early church watched and wept as the budding preacher Stephen was stoned. They grieved when James was put to death with the sword. Persecution did not stop with the closing of the apostolic age.

Let us pray and "remember".  We are called to seek to identify with these believers. As I seek to identify I consider the unwavering faith required if I were to face persecution and even execution as I persevere in my profession of faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord.
"So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good."

Be encouraged today,

Stephen & Brooksyne Weber

Praying manDaily prayer: Father, help us to be moved by the plight of those who are prepared to suffer and even lay down their lives for the sake of Christ. We remember them in our prayers and remember them as warriors of the faith, who for the joy set before them endured the suffering, shame and agony of their tormentors. As they endured the humiliation they also overcame by the blood of the Lamb. Many of them have received the crown of life in heaven that is rewarded to those martyred for their faith.  On Coronation Day when we all gather in heaven we look forward to enjoying earnest fellowship with these tried and true saints of our faith who did not give up meeting together to worship You.  Keep us faithful when tested by fire, we pray in Jesus' name.  Amen.

At the present time millions of Christians worldwide are subject to intense persecution for their faith. They meet secretly in their homes while being oppressed by government forces, violent mobs and Islamic terrorists. Their towns and homes are attacked and burned. Christian children and women are sold into slavery and raped. Christians are brutally tortured and brainwashed in an effort to force them to recant their faith. They spend year after year in solitary prison cells and hard labor camps.  They fear for their lives.  And they die for their faith.  Tens of thousands of Christians are martyred each year. Millions of Christians face discrimination in their daily lives. Their education is restricted. They are forced to take the lowest jobs in their societies. They are frozen out of the political and judicial processes. They are ridiculed.

Sometimes our well intentioned ideas have unintended consequences. About 30 years ago we had a Christmas program in our church in northern Pennsylvania and wanted to demonstrate that the Lord cares for all kinds of people and wants them to be saved. I was forewarned of a particular skit that three men were going to use to illustrate this point, but the rest of the congregation was not. It was to be a surprise.

Three wise guys

Three of the men in our church dressed up as hoodlums and at a specified time entered the foyer of our church. They revved up a motorcycle several times and clattered heavy chains. Those of us who gathered in the sanctuary heard what sounded like numerous motorcycles and broken glass.  We imagined the foyer glass door had been shattered and crashed through. The skit was so realistic that people thought we were being ambushed by brutal thugs!

Not realizing how intense this skit would be I didn't think through the possible consequences of a frightened group of people.  A visitor in our church service grabbed a chair and prepared to meet the intruders as they were making their way into the sanctuary. I managed to stop him before he hit anyone!

Yet the lesson had another unplanned teaching moment which we will always remember. It reminded us of how our Christian brethren around the world gather from Sunday to Sunday in places of danger.  For many of them the difference is that it isn't a staged attack and it's not necessarily a surprise element of their gathering.  They attend a service knowing that a very real attack could very well take place before their meeting is over.  Many of them have family members or friends who have been imprisoned, attacked or killed for their faith.

Note 1: The plan was that the three "hoodlums" were three modern wise guys and would hear the message of salvation and accept Christ. But I don't recall ever getting to that part due to the fear that had resulted in the parishioners and the need to calm everyone down.

Note 2: I would never do this again! I was in my twenties at the time and we had a young church. Last year in our area a youth pastor tried a similar stunt but far more graphic and is in a great deal of trouble over it.

Today's Suggested Music
and Supplemental Resources

Today we want to share some resources you can look into when remembering persecuted Christians. We really need to make this an ongoing matter of prayer and interest, personally, and as a church body.

Not All Local Churches Look Like Ours  A thoughtful blog article by Ruth Wilkinson. I enjoy her cut and paste analogy!

Door Of Hope International We mentioned this ministry in our message today

Persecution.com is a website purposefully calling attention to this matter. It is the US website for Voice of the Martyrs.

Open Doors  
Another ministry with a focus on the persecuted

"Persecuted Christians Need Your Prayer" Video
 A touching presentation with song and images.

The "One With Them" bracelet shown in the photo in our message can be ordered from Mission Network News (details)

"The Martyr's Oath"  A daily encouragement message on this topic.

"Praise You In The Storm" Video  Casting Crowns

"Blessed Be Your Name"
Video  This song reminds us that God is worthy of being blessed in the good times and the hard times.

"Press On"  Video  by Selah  I dedicate this song to all those suffering for their faith.

An interesting brief video presentation concerning Christian martyrs.

"Forty Brave Soldiers For Jesus" Tom Green (Audio) (Video) This is a powerful ballad concerning an event that happened in Armenia in 320AD and will touch you!

"Forty Brave Soldiers For Jesus" 320 AD in Armenia

The next morning as the guards were retrieving the stiff bodies and loading them onto a wagon to be taken away and burned, they discovered that the youngest of the martyrs was still breathing slightly.  They set him aside, thinking that once he revived, he would surely recant.  But it so happened that his mother was present.  As she watched closely, her son made a small hand signal indicating his wishes.  "Go, go, my son," she cried.  "Proceed to the end of this happy journey with your companions, so you will not be missing from those who present themselves before God."  Then with uncommon strength, she picked him up and put him into the wagon with his brothers.

After the bodies had been burned, local Christians retrieved the ashes and remains and distributed them to the fledgling groups of converts in the surrounding cities and towns.  As dramatic reminders of the faithful witness offered by the forty martyrs of Sebaste, these relics encouraged and inspired the believers to preach the gospel more boldly than ever, and soon numerous churches were erected in honor of these men, firmly establishing Christianity in the whole region.

"By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century" is a tremendous book I read about 20 years ago that chronicles the stories of modern day martyrs.

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Scripture references are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. © 1984 by International Bible Society; NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, New King James Version (NKJV) Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. and the King James Version.

Personal Mission Statement: "I am created by God to bring Him glory. Through God's Son Jesus Christ I have been redeemed and I make it my life's goal to please the Lord. My mission in life is to honor God through my faith and obedience and to prepare myself and all whom I may influence for eternity."

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