When I was asked to speak at the Feast of Tabernacles in Colorado this past fall, I began to think about how nice and pleasant my surroundings would be high in the Rockies. The air would be crisp and clean, the mountains beautiful, and the hotel luxurious. I could really not ask for anything better than what I was being given. Maybe it was when I began to muse on how wonderful it was to be a Christian in this beautiful country that a contrasting picture began to fill my head. What came to mind was the vision of Christians in other parts of the world and what they might be doing as I lounged by the pool or filled my belly with the most sumptuous cuisine that money could buy. Well, the comparison was too stark not to be my sermon topic.
Not long before going to Colorado, I learned of a group of Sabbath-keeping Christians who were under attack in the little-known Central-Asian country of Tajikistan. Some very courageous people that I knew had undertaken to help these people relocate some 3,500 miles to the west, crossing the territory of three nations, to the Ukraine. The project was very dangerous and took many months to complete. To my knowledge there were no casualties, and we can thank God for that, but these people had to give up their homeland, their homes, and all that they knew just to preserve their lives. Property was sold at a great discount. In fact, the last group of Christians to leave had to flee with nothing but the shirts on their backs.
Just to give you a little background, Tajikistan, now an independent country, was once part of the Soviet Union. It borders Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, and is much closer to New Delhi, India, than to the old Soviet capital of Moscow. Since Tajikistan and many other Soviet republics became independent, they have been embroiled in civil war to determine which Muslim faction will run the government. In that part of Asia Islamic fundamentalists are very strong and will not tolerate any religion other than their own. Christians in particular are in constant peril because they will not bow to Allah, and because they often tend to be in better economic circumstances due to their strong work ethic and emphasis on good education.
As I reviewed the circumstances of the Tajik Christians, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words from John 15:20: “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…” (NKJV). Another verse that comes to mind is Matthew 19:29, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”
“If they persecuted Me…”
Most American Christians, as I have discovered, tend to think that Christians in other countries are pretty much like themselves. They go to church fairly often and get together when they can to fellowship and share a meal or to share some quality family time with other church members. There is little thought that things could be different for their brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries. Some realize that there is persecution here and there in various parts of the world, but few can fathom that surviving persecution and hostility is the norm, not the exception, for the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians throughout the globe.
Many accounts of persecution and terror just in the past year could be recited to portray the plight of the majority of Christians in the world, but I think that telling you of three or four in various locations will amply illustrate the point.
I remember reading an account of the grief of some Christian parents in Egypt whose daughter was kidnapped on her way home from school. It seems that a Muslim lad had taken an interest in their daughter of 16 and wanted her for a wife. The boy’s parents approached the girl’s parents with an offer to buy the girl. But, when the girl’s parents politely declined the offer to sell their daughter, the Muslim family took matters in their own hands. The last I read of this case, the girl was never returned to her home, and the police, who are Muslims, refused to do anything to retrieve her. The girl was forced into a Muslim wedding ceremony with the boy and is now his wife. If she refuses to follow Muslim customs and practices, she will be beaten until she complies. As bizarre as this case may seem to us in the West, this is fairly common practice in Muslim countries. Muslims use this tactic to reduce the Christian population in regions they control.
There is not much commentary that can be added to this tragic occurrence. Jesus said that His followers must be willing to lose all to be His disciples. Obviously, these Egyptian parents know the real meaning of Jesus’ words.
A few months ago a picture appeared in a magazine that drove this point home all the more. Marching in a line was a group of boys from Bangladesh chained together at the feet and hands. In this Muslim country young Christian boys are often taken into slavery and forced to learn the Koran. Until the boys memorize the Koran, they are chained together and forced to sleep on the hard wooden floor of their religious schoolroom. They are often beaten if they do not learn Muslim ways quickly enough, and are given little food or the customary amenities of life — even those items which are considered normal in that poverty-stricken country. (Hebrews 13:3: “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them–those who are mistreated–since you yourselves are in the body also.“)
North Korea has been in the news a lot over the past couple of years. The country has suffered one crop failure after another, and many of their people are starving to death. The population listens daily to the drumbeat of war and the harangues of their leaders against South Korea and the United States. Because of their desperate economic and social situation, many political leaders in Asia and the West fear an all-out invasion of South Korea in order to take what North Korea has not been able to produce for itself. It is in this culture where citizens must kneel and kiss the statue of their leader that many Christians are struggling to survive. It is in the midst of this environment that North Koreans who are known to be or suspected of being Christians are only given food and supplies after all others receive them first.
Egypt, Bangladesh, North Korea — they all seem so far away. However, if we look closer to home we will see the same pattern of persecution against any who might name the name of Christ as Lord.
Perhaps many of you have read accounts of the rebellion and civil war raging in the southern Mexican province of Chiapas. From news accounts the average English-speaking person would assume that the conflict in southern Mexico had to do with an attempt by the Indians there to gain some land for themselves so that they could grow their crops and lead an ordinary, wholesome existence. Well, to be sure, that is part of it, but there is much more to the story. According the the January 1998 edition of “Open Doors Newsbrief,” some village leaders are pressuring Christians (i.e. non-Catholics) to “renounce their faith or face forcible eviction from their homes and farms” (page 7). In November of 1997 approximately 60 men forced their way into a home where local Christians were meeting to worship. The leaders declared that they opposed the “evangelical religion” (evangelical meaning any Bible-believing Christian who does not acknowledge the authority of the Catholic Church), and do not accept freedom of worship in Mexico. A week earlier some Bible-believing Christian residents were forced to flee their homes in the face of threats from local village leaders.
These four vignettes of persecution against God’s people in different parts of the globe are but a handful of the dozens that could be mentioned. What has to be kept in mind is that these cases are real and that they represent the common, ordinary way of life and faith that Christians in most countries have to face on a daily basis. We in the U.S., Canada, and other Western cultures are the exception, not the rule. While many of us were enjoying a marvelous Feast, these people were trying to figure out how to meet with other believers and stay out of jail, how to get their children back, or where they might live should they be driven from their homes.
My purpose in saying all this is not to drive a stake of guilt through your heart for enjoying the Feast and the many other benefits that God has poured out upon you. Rather, it is to drive home the point that these are our brothers and sisters, and they need our help. But, you may be wondering how we here can help these fellow Christians who, by accident of birth, we not born into our freedom. I’m glad you asked the question.
“When I was hungry, you fed Me…”
One of the most difficult realities for many Christians to grasp is that they are connected through the body of Christ to brothers and sisters who have no similarity to them in culture, geography, language, or skin color. We grew up thinking in terms of being linked to those who were most like us. However, acceptance of Jesus Christ changed all that. Through faith, not skin color or culture, we have been made the children of Abraham, members of the same family. Jesus is as much with them as He is with us. His desire (and ours if we have His mind in us) is to protect, provide for, and nurture those whom the Father has given Him. (Hebrews 2:13: “…Here am I and the children whom God has given Me.” Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Also, Matthew 12:46 – 49: “While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!“)
Once we grasp Jesus’ understanding of who is our mother and brethren, that understanding begins to move us to help those who are most connected to us. We were given physical life and culture by parents and community, and will continue love and have obligations toward them until we die, but these things will surely pass away. The life and community of Christ which were begotten and grow in us will never die. They will continue to strengthen through eternity. Being in Christ, our focus must begin to shift away from the temporal toward the eternal — to those who will share eternity with us in the family of God.
As we begin to love and care about our unseen brethren, God strengthens our desire to pray for them and seek ways to help them. One of the best-kept secrets of the Church is that there are some whose entire ministry is devoted to serving Christians living under persecution. These ministries supply a wealth of information about what is happening to Christians in other parts of the world. Some of these ministries serve Sunday-keeping and Sabbath-keeping believers alike without discrimination. Among these are Open Doors with Brother Andrew and Voice of the Martyrs. There are others like the various outreaches of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and the personal ministry of Victor Kubik, a United Church of God pastor from Terra Haute, Indiana, whose focus is primarily on Sabbath-keepers in other countries.
In my view, these and other such ministries are worthy of support because they are more than willing to risk bodily harm and even their lives in order to go directly to those in other countries who are oppressed and in need of help. They take Bibles, food, clothing, seeds, farming implements, printing presses, and many other forms of aid to people who are denied such “ordinary” items by authorities in their countries. Obviously, the work has great risk for those who carry the aid to the persecuted Church. Many times contact is made with persecuted Christians in out-of-the-way places, at night, in basements, in attics, and in many other locations that avoid attention. These courageous men and women who engage in this dangerous but necessary work are joyfully doing what most of us would never be willing to do, and the persecuted Christians on the receiving end are very grateful. Often these oppressed believers wonder whether anyone knows of them and their plight, and when the couriers come bringing aid and encouragement, God’s love is once more confirmed to them. (“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” — John 15:13)
Our Brothers’ Keepers
For many years I considered the wealth of this country to be the blessing of God upon a godly nation, a divine legacy to the children of our founders who rooted us in the principles of God. However, in recent years, I have had to modify this view. God has finally penetrated through to my understanding that we sit in the same position as Israel of old. We are to be a light to the world. Other nations should look at us and desire to come to God because of the work He has done in us. He did not give us wealth so that we could have nice houses and lives of leisure; this bounty is the resource, the reserve from which we draw to take the knowledge of God to the rest of mankind. Nations were supposed to look upon us and know that God was in our midst: “Therefore be careful to observe them [God’s statutes and judgments]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, `Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’“(Deuteronomy 4:6).
To many there is the belief that God has given His people rest in our land of plenty. Well, it certainly is easier for us here than in most of the world, but God’s labor in this world is not finished. Satan still roams the earth, and there are billions of people who need to hear the life-giving words of God. Jesus said that both He and His Father work (John 5:17), and He is still looking for workers to go into the harvest (Luke 10:2). So, you see, it was never His intention to give us the complete rest that many Americans assume is their right. We yet strive to enter His glorious rest, and the weekly Sabbath is but a reminder of that better rest to come. (See Hebrews 4:1 to 11, especially verse 11.) With much work still to be done before our Lord returns, we can be very thankful that some have heard the call to go to our persecuted brethren and plant the seeds so that many more will come to the saving knowledge of God in the many “God-forsaken” countries of this world.
As you consider what your part is in all this, please read the words the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. And in this I give advice: It is to your advantage not only to be doing what you began and were desiring to do a year ago; but now you also must complete the doing of it; that as there was a readiness to desire it, so there also may be a completion out of what you have. For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack–that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (2 Corinthians 8:9 – 15)
It is true that God can perform miracles for those who are cut off from us, but He did not put His Church into this hostile world so that He could perform miracles from heaven. We are to be His feet that bring the gospel, His mouth that speaks the Truth, and His hands that heal and comfort. That is why it is important for us to know the condition of the body of Christ in all parts of the world. We can pray for those who are oppressed or in prison. We can use our resources to send them aid and comfort because there are those who are willing to go to them.
Please take the time to find out about your brothers and sisters whom you have never met. Contact Victor Kubik, Voice of the Martyrs, or Open Doors, or any of the ministries that work on behalf of the persecuted.* It will change the way you think and pray, and maybe when we meet at the Feast next fall, you will have new stories to tell.
* To learn more about the persecuted Church, write to any of the following addresses, and request an information packet:
Open Doors with Brother Andrew
P.O. Box 27001
Santa Ana, CA 92799-7001
Voice of the Martyrs
P.O. Box 443
Bartlesville, OK 74005-0443
c/o United Church of God
P.O. Box 476
Greencastle, IN 46135
Any local Seventh-Day Adventist Church will have information on their outreaches into restricted areas of the world.