“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
Burned, bombed, belittled, beheaded. These are just a few of the awful consequences of claiming the name of Jesus Christ in countries where oppressive regimes or cultures reign.
Yesterday, the first Sunday of November, was International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Our congregation prayed for those around the world who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ, bringing this issue to the forefront of our thoughts.
It’s a sobering moment for those of us who live mostly “at ease” in freedom…in nations where we are uninhibited from attending worship, speaking out about our Christian faith, exercising our beliefs at home or at work, owning Bibles, and working in ministry.
Not so easy for others. According to research from Open Doors USA, more than 250 million Christians currently experience intense persecution, particularly in countries that are “closed” to the Gospel.* Believers are tormented by physical attacks, shunned by family and friends, publicly humiliated, deprived of livelihood and homes, unjustly arrested, tortured, and murdered. Churches are destroyed by terrorist groups.
This is a human rights issue of biblical proportions. Stories abound of those who have endured assaults and injustice in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and even Europe and the Americas…in any place where following Christ is costly. Yet in many countries, where the church meets “underground” in secret, the flicker of Gospel light is growing stronger.
Across the 2,000 years since Jesus walked on the earth, His faithful ones have suffered mightily—something He warned would happen to them, something they should expect as the price for counting Him as their Savior.
In His “Sermon on the Mount,” however, He also gave them a great promise: “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 5:11-12)
“Rejoice and be glad” in the midst of pain and grief? I’m not sure I could be that strong. But Jesus has promised to be with us, regardless of the circumstances or storms that assail us. His Holy Spirit gives us the strength to withstand all things.
And there are some glimmers of hope. The Communist doctrine of the early 20th century in the former Soviet Union called for systematic annihilation of all Christian religious activities. During that time in Odessa, Ukraine, a reformed church was seized by the government and used over the years as a theater, its lovely iron cross sawed off. In the late 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the church was restored to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Odessa and renovated. Workers on the roof discovered the fallen cross where it had lain undisturbed for 70 years and reinstalled it on the steeple—today, the church and its cross proclaim the hope and mission of Christ over the city.
As you pray this week, please remember our Christian brethren, near and far, who are isolated and discouraged. Pray for hope in the face of despair and for abundant life, particularly for all those who have sacrificed much for Christ. May they be richly rewarded in heaven.
Lord Jesus, we ask You today to bless all who call upon Your name, especially those who have given up everything to follow You. Walk with them as their Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death. Grant them Your hope, strength, and joy in the middle of hopeless situations. Remind them how much You love them, and teach them how to fearlessly share Your Gospel message with others. Provide them with copies of Your Scriptures, with courage to remain steadfast, with other believers to surround and support them, with protection from authorities, and with jobs and safe places to live. Help us all to join hands in praise to You, our King, both now and in heaven. In Your powerful name we pray, Amen.
*For more information on the persecuted church, here are some sources: Open Doors (https://www.opendoorsusa.org); Voice of the Martyrs (https://www.persecution.com); and International Christian Concern (https://www.persecution.org)
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© Copyright 2021 Nancy C. Williams, Lightbourne Creative (text and photography)
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.