Friday, April 16, 2010

How to Support the Persecuted Church

This is the written version of the 5 minute presentation I delivered at last Saturday's VOM meeting.  It is an expanded version of an exposition of Ephesians 5:19-21 I first gave last fall.  Although my oral delivery of this message left much to be desired, perhaps the written version will help you marvel with me at how many treasures are packed into such a short passage!

How shall we respond to the persecuted church? We are not left to conjecture. The Bible contains an amazing amount of writings to persecuted believers and from persecuted believers. These writings provide wonderful guidance in how we should relate to them. Let me take you to just one passage, Ephesians 6:19 to 21.

19 … pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. 21 But that you also may know about my circumstances, how I am doing, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will make everything known to you.  (NASB)

Note carefully: where was Paul when he wrote these words? In prison chains! These chains make Paul’s prayer request amazing.

First, note that Paul needs prayer. Being a super apostle does not mean everything goes well for him just on “autopilot”. Even the greatest Christian must stay on his knees. Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking, “Oh, if only I were persecuted like these believers, I would have such a wonderful relationship with God.” Persecution is not the path to Godliness. Godliness is the path to persecution. And prayer is the path to Godliness.

Second, Paul asks others for prayer. He does not believe his own prayers for himself are sufficient. If a “superman” like Paul needs prayers of others, how much more do we need to open up and ask! In fact, we do find that the first request of persecuted believers—before Bibles or food or medical care—is always “Pray for us!”

Third, what does Paul ask for? Boldness! This is probably the last thing we would think Paul would need! Boldness is what got him into jail in the first place and now he’s asking for more? This is because boldness in sharing the gospel is always a gift from God, not a matter of temperament. Some personalities are naturally at ease in a crowd but no one is naturally at ease sharing the cross with unbelievers. Paul knows that he has no more strength without prayer, than Samson had without hair. It’s easy to assume that a believer who has shown great courage under pressure will never falter. But it’s the breath of our prayer that supplies oxygen to their spiritual muscles.

Fourth, notice that Paul requests boldness to proclaim a particular message. The gospel! The gospel is the most important message to proclaim, because only by it can rebels be reconciled to the God they have flaunted. The gospel is also the most dangerous message to proclaim. No one likes to hear that they deserve hell, much less that they cannot pull themselves out of hell by the bootstraps of good works. Our society still tolerates this talk—barely. Go to a society that is not a fading Christianity like ours but a vibrant Islam or Buddhism or atheism or Hinduism—and the reaction to the gospel will be violent. No wonder that Paul –and the persecuted church—want prayer!

Fifth, isn’t it amazing that Paul doesn’t ask them to pray for his release? He asks for the opening of his mouth, not the opening of his cell. What a proper sense of priorities he has! Indeed, our brothers and sisters around the world put us to shame in this respect. Unlike a health problem, the pain of which we usually cannot simply choose to cure, most of our brothers and sisters could instantly end the pain of their persecution by simply renouncing Jesus, or even by just ceasing their evangelism.

Sixth, look at that phrase “ambassador in chains”. It seems almost an oxymoron. When we think ambassador, we think 3 piece suit, nice haircut, handsome face. But God clothes His ambassadors in chains. We tend to wrestle against our chains, and tell God that we will be His ambassadors after He unshackles us. The persecuted church cannot wait for freedom to evangelize.

Seventh, notice that the gospel should be spoken in a particular way. “As I ought to speak”. What is the way? Boldly! Paul mentions boldness a second time here, this time to show that the way we share will either affirm or discredit the message of the gospel. By boldness he does not mean fearlessness, because Paul himself preached with weakness and fear and much trembling. Rather, he means the absence of politically correct, smooth words. It discredits the gospel when we sugar-coat it. The heroes of the church are not the men in soft clothing but the persecuted John the Baptists.

Lastly, did you notice how neither Paul nor the Holy Spirit thought the details of his physical situation were significant enough to be permanently recorded? He wrote a beautiful letter of encouragement to Ephesus, and never once tells them about the rats or the latrine or the musty chill. He does want them to know these details, but he leaves them for Tychicus to relate. The primary message we carry to you from the persecuted church is the message that they are being persecuted for, the good news of Jesus. And yet, I am secondarily also a Tychicus of sorts, to tell you of their physical needs.

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