International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
Today is International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
Persecution is not strange. Paul told Timothy that all of us will be persecuted.
“Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
What is persecution? What are we going to suffer when we try to live a godly life in Christ Jesus? Are you being persecuted because you live a godly life in Christ Jesus?
Jesus told his followers that to be persecuted is a blessing. This is what he said in the Sermon on the Mount.
“God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (Matthew 5:10)
This should serve as a warning to you. Do you realise what you are asking when you ask God to bless you? When you ask God to bless you, you are asking for persecution. This is not a blessing that many of us desire. Jesus explains what persecution is in the next verse. Jesus says that it is persecution when you are mocked because you are his follower. Jesus says that it is persecution when people lie about you because you are his follower. Jesus says that it is persecution when people say all sorts of evil things against you because you are his follower.
Jesus says that at that moment you should be happy. He says you should be very glad that God is blessing you.
“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11–12)
Jesus uses four words to define persecution in Luke 6:22. Persecution is when people hate, exclude, mock and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When this happens to you, Jesus says you should leap for joy at such great blessing.
“What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.” (Luke 6:22–23)
It is important to remember that it is Jesus living in you who is the reason for, and the target of, persecution. If people mock you because you believe in UFOs, that is not a blessing. If people exclude you because you never wash and you smell unpleasant, that is not persecution. If people hate you because you are a lawyer or a politician, that is not biblical persecution and doesn’t result in any blessing.
The persecution and blessing are yours because you follow Jesus.
Paul explains this.
“And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. (Romans 8:17)
The road to glory with Jesus passes through the valley of suffering with Jesus. When we share in Jesus’ sufferings (hatred, exclusion, insults and rejection) we become heirs who will also share in his glory. These four verbs can be experienced in varying degrees of intensity.
When Americans are asked for word associations with the term ‘persecution’ they usually say: torture, imprisonment or martyrdom. We often tend to think of persecution as only the very intense forms. But even when you experience hatred, exclusion, insult and rejection because of Jesus in you to a lesser degree, you are still being persecuted. And if you are suffering because of your relationship with Jesus, then however small it is you are an heir.
Christian persecution is any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification as a Christian. From verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and actions. Christians in areas with severe religious restrictions pay a heavy price for their faith. Beatings, physical torture, confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death are just a few examples of the persecution they experience on a daily basis.
According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world’s population is living in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). According to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbours simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.
We are taking time today to pray for persecuted Christians. In one sense, we can now see that we are praying for all Christians. But Jesus said we should pray for the people who persecute us. We should pray for the people who mock Christians. We should pray for the people who hate the followers of Jesus. We should pray for the people who exclude and curse us.
Matthew 5:44 – “I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”
We also take seriously the instructions of Hebrews 13:3.
“Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.”
We who are not in prison for our faith will pray for those who are in prison, as well as those who put them in prison.
Persecution is the norm for Christians who are witnessing and living exemplary lives. The persecuted are not “them” but “us”.
If we are faithful witnesses, the Kingdom of God will expand into Satan’s territory and he will persecute us until we stop. All of us. But we aren’t going to stop, are we.
We are called pray for the whole family of God all over the world. We all face different forms of persecution, but it is all from the same evil prince of this world.
As a result of our prayers, persecution will not end. That is not the purpose of our prayers. In fact, it could be considered a victory if persecution increases because of our prayers. Does that seem slightly mad to you? Let me explain.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, persecution began ravaging the church in Iran. In 1997, at the time of the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Bishop Haik and others had been murdered for their faith. There were only about 500 Iranian Christians from a Muslim background in the entire country. It was utterly depressing, but still the Christians continued witnessing. Today, 20 years later, there are at least 100,000 Muslims in Iran who have come to faith in Christ. The Iranian government has admitted that there are now too of them many to put in jail. The same is true of other countries.
In Iraq, life is short for a Christian. Canon Andrew White talks about his church in Baghdad.
“Last year alone, 93 members of my congregation were killed. The threat is particularly great for those who convert to Christianity. I baptized thirteen adults secretly last year. Eleven of them were dead within a week.”
The church in China is flourishing under persecution. We need to pray for these brothers and sisters, that their faith will be strong. We do not pray for persecution to stop. We pray for more people to see the light of God and join us on the way of suffering, the path to eternal glory. We pray as the Holy Spirit directs, knowing that despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
“No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)