Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hebrews 11:35-40 - The Persecuted Church

Our Suffering Brothers and Sisters
Opening thought

The old man stood in the Roman arena. He was pastor of the church at Smyrna, and a disciple of the Apostle John himself. The Roman government had decided to locate and punish him in an outbreak of persecution in that area of Asia Minor. After pursuing him for some days, when the Roman soldiers came, he refused to keep running but instead fed them a meal, then was properly arrested. He stood now in the arena before the proconsul in Smyrna. The historian Eusebius takes the story from here, And when the proconsul pressed him, and said, Swear, and I will release thee, revile Christ; Polycarp said, Eighty and six years have I served him, and in nothing hath he wronged me; and how, then, can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?” The proconsul, somewhat embarrassed but bound by his threats, had the elderly pastor tied to a stake and burned to death.

When we think of persecution and Christian martyrs, the picture comes to mind of Christians being thrown to the lions in the Roman arenas of the first century. Not many of us in the West associate persecution with believers today. Nevertheless, most of the world does not live in a free society where attending church is considered a choice. This isn't the case for our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Believers living in still-Communist, Hindu, and Islamic countries are being imprisoned, enslaved, tortured and martyred daily.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that one of the signs of the last days will be an increase in the persecution of believers, and he said in John 15:18-21 that if the world persecuted Him, then they should expect that the world would persecute his disciples. There were more martyrs in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined, and the pace of persecution is increasing. 
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Textual Notes
With the theological foundation laid in chapters 1-10 of how Jesus is superior to and fulfills everything that points to him in the Old Testament, the author turns to the practical side of the Christian life, and he begins with faith. In the famous chapter 11 on Faith, the writer of Hebrews recounts many heroes of the faith and also mentions those who suffered for their faith as well. He says faith has always involved confidence in the unseen (Heb 11:1-3) and has always been expressed in action, whether before the Flood (Heb 11:4-7), by Abraham and Sarah (Heb 11:8-19), the patriarchs (Heb 11:20-22), Moses (Heb 11:23-28) or the Exodus generation (Heb 11:29-31). These and other believers (Heb 11:39-40) were commended for their faith. Then he transitions into chap. 12 with the great cloud of witnesses and the encouragement to keep moving forward with our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Key Truth: Perhaps Paul wrote Hebrews 11:35-40 to give to believers and example from the Old Testament of how faith sees us through difficult times of persecution and suffering for His name.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about the persecuted church.
Pray & Read Hebrews 11:35-40
Sermon Points: Our persecuted brothers and sisters receive:
1.   Torture and pressure to recant their faith  (Heb 11:35)
2.   Jeers, beatings, chains, and imprisonment (Heb 11:36)
3.   Execution, privation, poverty, and mistreatment  (Heb 11:37)
4.   Commendation for their faith (Heb 11:38-40)

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Exposition:   Note well,

a.   Christians are persecuted daily. For instance, in China there is a crack down on unregistered house churches, disrupting worship, and arresting their leaders. In parts of Central Asia where the state religion is mandated, Christians are considered traitors to their country and their families. Family members are beaten, and then thrown out of their house and onto the streets.
b.   In the Middle East and parts of India and Africa, laws prohibit Christians from evangelizing, and forbid citizens from choosing Christianity over the religion into which they were born. Christians caught sharing God’s Word are chased out of town, beaten, or worse. In Iran and Pakistan, a pastor and a Christian woman are under death sentences simply for expressing their faith in Jesus Christ.
c.   A cord of three strands: Prayer, strength, Bibles
Christians worldwide are severely punished for breaking religious laws or religious tradition. Yet they don’t ask us to pray for their persecution to end. Instead, they ask us to pray that they will have strength to endure—and they ask us to send Bibles, so they may
become stronger.
d.   Seventy percent of the world’s population lives under conditions that militate against the freedom of worship. According to estimates by human rights organizations 200 million Christians suffer discrimination for their faith. This year 170,000 Christians die a martyr’s death, nearly 20 people every hour die for the cause of Christ.
e.   ILLUSTRATION: Isaac was a rough, tough, character, who swore, womanized and caroused, joining the army of Eritrea when only seventeen to fight the Ethiopians for independence. Despite his ill-discipline, he was a brilliant and courageous soldier, and earmarked for promotion. Until he met the Lord.
f.    That day he was lying in a trench weeping. He had just seen 450 of his company of 500 men wiped out in heavy fighting during a phase of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. He opened his eyes to find two soldiers crawling towards him. “You have been spared for a purpose” they said earnestly, “God has a call on your life.” And they handed him a Bible, saying, “Don’t just read this word, eat it, eat the word of God.”
g.   Isaac was amazed at the risk they took to crawl to his position and to give him a forbidden book to read. At once he began to devour its words, and soon found himself praying to God for forgiveness. In a matter of days he stopped swearing and womanizing and with every spare moment kept reading the Bible.
h.   The commander soon noticed, and said to him, “You’ve lost your killer instinct. You had the potential to be a really great soldier, but I will help you. If I find you reading that Bible again, I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.” So Isaac began to bury his Bible in the sand, and during siesta time, when no one was looking, stole away from the camp, dug it up, and read it for a precious half hour every day. But the commander noticed. He followed him one day and watched Isaac dig up the Bible. He was furious. “All right, let’s see what is the price you will pay to read this book.”
i.    He was bound at the wrists and left for three days in the sun. “Will you stop reading the Bible now?” asked the commander. “No, I cannot!” he replied. So he was tied for three days in the “number eight” position, elbows lashed tightly behind his back. “No I cannot” was his reply again when asked if he would give up reading his Bible. He was made to dig huge holes without water, and then tied in the “helicopter position” – ankles bound to wrists behind the back, bending the body into an excruciating curve, with only his stomach touching the ground. This torture lasted a week. Still his answer was, “No I cannot.”
j.  The commander said, “I’ve had enough, its time for you to go into the container.” It was the ultimate torture for Christians, to be placed into a metal shipping container, so hot you baked during the day, so cold you shivered through the night, and all in pitch blackness, with just a loaf of bread in the morning, and a drink of water in the evening. The only time Isaac saw the light was when he was led out every day and asked if he would sign a piece of paper swearing him not to read his Bible any more. “No I cannot sign” he said.
k.   For nine long months he held out, and though he was such a young believer, his resistance became a great encouragement to other Christians. Eventually his army torturers gave up and handed him over to the prison authorities. At 31 years of age, he now sits in Asmara prison, and has since 2006, a Christian man who has never known a day without persecution.[1] The news service Compass Direct estimates that 1,800 evangelical believers are imprisoned in Eritrea, which mistakes evangelical Christianity for political dissent.
l.    “I cannot” seems to be a refrain among persecuted believers. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani (34) is a leader in the evangelical Church of Iran. He was originally arrested Oct 12, 2009, by secret police after he complained to school authorities that his sons Daniel (now 9) and Joel (now 7) would be required to study the Q’uran in school. After imprisonment for nearly two years and harassment including the arrest of his wife Tina and the threat of social services to take away their sons,[2] the 11th branch of Gilan Provincial Court determined on Sunday (Sept. 25, 2011) that Youcef Nadarkhani has Islamic ancestry and therefore must recant his faith in Jesus Christ. The Islamic judges demanded that he recant his faith in Christ. They have stated that even though their judgment is against current Iranian laws, they must uphold the previous decision of the 27th Branch of the Supreme Court in Qom.
m. When the judges asked him to “repent,” Youcef stated, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?” The judges replied, “To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.” To which he replied, “I can not.”
n.   Pastor Youcef’s plight became known to the world through advocates for the persecuted church and many thousands of believers pressuring their authorities to put pressure on Iran. European governments, the US House Speaker, and the US State Department have issued statements of support for Youcef. The international causing the court to ask the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khameini, for a decision in the case. In the meantime, the secret police from the Ayatollah’s office are pressuring him to read Islamic literature and recant his faith in Jesus Christ. Pastor Youcef remains in the Lakan Prison in need of more prayer, more international pressure, and most importantly freedom to be with his family and pastor his church.
a.   ILLUSTRATION: In 1999 I was asked to teach on reconciliation in the International Reconciliation Coalition’s Indonesia Reconciliation Convention in Bandung, West Java. Imagine how useless I felt as a soft-living American when I discovered that a number of the delegates from the province of Kalimantan had to swim to their ship amid a hail of rioting Muslim bullets to secure passage to West Java. The ships would not dock in the harbor for fear the Muslims would burn the ships, and our delegates swam for their ship and were fished out of the water to safety. Regrettably, one or two were killed swimming for the safety. Now how was I supposed to teach them what the Bible says about reconciliation? I should have been sitting to learn from them.
b.   ILLUSTRATION: North Korea is the world’s number one persecutor of Christians, as ranked by the US State Department. A refugee from North Korea, the world’s most closed country to the gospel, became a Christian after being sheltered in a Korean-Chinese home. She told of how her North Korean teachers played tricks on the children. She fell for one of these tricks, with terrible consequences.
c.   When she was only nine-years-old, the teacher said one day, “We want to have some fun, so look around in your house and see if there are any books that your parents might be hiding, and bring them in to school. We’ll read them and then give them back.” The teacher added, with a hint of warning, “Make sure you find one … it won’t be any fun if you don’t.” She had noticed her mother one evening, unaware her daughter was watching, place a small book into a slit in the sofa, and push it deep into the cushion with a knitting needle. The girl, not wishing to be unpopular with the teacher, fished out the book and carried it to school the next day, without her parent’s knowledge. As she lined up to leave school that day, two men approached her and said, “You have been re-assigned to another family.” There was no further explanation. Years later, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she recalled, “I never saw my parents again, and I heard they had been put in a labor camp. I know now it must have been a Bible. I’m sure they have died now." Yet even in the midst of that horrible experience, God’s grace was experienced. She became a Christian instantly when she realized that the family sheltering her in China was reading the same book as her parents had hidden in North Korea. She said, “I knew if my parents had happily taken those risks to read it, it must contain the world’s most important news.”
d.   And the teachers do not always succeed. In another class, this time for six-year-olds in North Korea, a teacher placed two plants at the front. She said, “I’m going to demonstrate that God does not exist.” One plant she called, “God’s plant,” the other, “The Dear Leader’s Plant,” which is how Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea is referred to. The teacher said, “Well, if God exists, he can look after his own plant. And we will water the Dear Leader’s plant, and we’ll see which fares better.” After a few weeks, God’s plant had withered and died, while the Dear Leader’s was green and strong. “So,” cried the teacher triumphantly, “how could people be so silly as to believe in God if he cannot even manage to keep a little plant alive!” At that point a child put up her hand and asked innocently, “Does the Dear Leader water the forest too?” The child was disciplined, but the teacher thought more and more about the question, and in a few months, believed in the God who made and sustains every living thing in creation.
e.   Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, author of 'Faith That Endures' writes regarding North Korea: “It's really rather sad as we reckon that there are maybe upwards up to 50,000 Christians in prison in North Korea and their prisons are virtually like Auschwitz where you are not allowed to look up but you must always look down because you're forbidden to look up to heaven," he said. "And you're not given rations that are equivalent to other people who are not Christian so most of them very slowly starve to death. The numbers are really quite astonishing.”[3]
f.    APPLICATION: We must speak up and defend those who are suffering. They are our brothers and sisters. The full list of the worst persecuting nations: [4]1, North Korea, 2, Saudi Arabia, 3 Iran, 4 Somalia, 5 Maldives, 6 Bhutan, 7 Vietnam, 8 Yemen, 9  Laos, 10 China, 11 Afghanistan, 12 Uzbekistan, 13 Turkmenistan, 14 Eritrea, 15 Comoros, 16  Pakistan, 17 Egypt, 18 Myanmar, 19 Azerbaijan, 20 Morocco.
g.   We must intercede for the persecuted church in prayer and with governments, advocating for their liberty and basic human rights. Matthew 25: 15-40 gives us a picture of Christ’s judgment of the separation of the sheep and the goats, representing believers and unbelievers. In Matt. 25:39-40, the sheep ask the King, “When did we see you sick or in prison and go and visit you? The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
h.   It was Martin Niemoller who famously said of the Nazi domination of Europe in the 20th century, "First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me."
i.    I pray that we in the West will not eventually say: "First they came for the North Korean believers, but I was not a North Korean believer so I did nothing. Then they came for the Iranian believers, but I was not an Iranian believer so I did nothing. Then they came for the East African believers and I still did nothing. Then they came for me but there was no one left to help or pray for me."
a.   Stoned: As Naboth, by the order of Ahab,  1 Kings_21:13, Zachariah in the court of the Lord's house;  2 Chron_24:21 and the character of Jerusalem is, Jesus said, that she stoned the prophets that were sent unto her, Matt_23:37. They were sawn asunder; to which there seems to be an allusion in  Matt  24:51. The Jews have a tradition, that the Prophet Isaiah was sawn asunder in the times of Manasseh, were slain with the sword; as the priests at Nob, by the order of Saul; 1 Sam 22:18. The prophets of the Lord by Jezebel,  1 Kings 18:22they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; like Elijah and Elisha might be arrayed, as John the Baptist was, who came in his spirit and power, and also in his form; and the latter, wore the mantle of the other; 2 Kings 1:8, who were obliged to wander about, because of those who sought their lives; and was the case of others who were forced, by reason of persecution, to quit their habitations, and wander abroad; destitute and afflicted; of bodily food, as Elijah, who was fed by ravens, and by the widow of Zarephath; 1 Kings 17:6; 19:4, tormented; or mistreated, reproached, vilified, persecuted, and made the filth of the world, and the offscouring of all things.
b.   ILLUSTRATION: A friend in Egypt trains younger believers to share Christ with their acquaintances with great results. Unfortunately, the Egyptian establishment does not like this. One of his disciples who was imprisoned for evangelism was told by the guard, “Well, you serve Jesus Christ and you Christians want to be like Jesus, right? And he says take up your cross and follow him, right? Then you can do just that. He was crucified in the prison quadrangle and his body left there until the bones fell off the pole. Another young woman was reported for evangelizing Muslim women. She was “invited” to the police station, and the police took turns at her for just over a week, 40-50 times a day. After the week was over, they called her father and told him to come and pick her up. She didn’t know him. She had lost her mind, and she remains in that horrible condition.
c.   ILLUSTRATION: Another of my friends whom I met at Amsterdam2000, the global meeting of 10,000 evangelists hosted by the Billy Graham Association, is Pastor Sam & his wife Hope Kujiyat, of Kaduna, Nigeria. One Friday night after prayer meeting, a group of Muslims surrounded their church building with torches and full gasoline cans. Sam looked at his wife and said matter of factly, “Do you want to die for your faith tonight, or do you want to go home and take care of the children?” Hope ran out the back door, and the remaining believers huddled in prayer in the sanctuary with Pastor Sam. Thankfully, the police finally arrived to dispel the riot and save their lives, but not before their church building was destroyed with fire. And the persecution continues in northeastern Nigeria. We lost another 100 brothers and sisters last week in radical Muslim riots.
a.   This passage in context describes the saints of faith of the Old Testament, but the experience of the persecuted church is the same except for the fulfillment of Christ.
b.   We have a picture of those who have been persecuted for their faith in the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, chapter 6, verses 9-11, the fifth seal. There, the souls in the privileged place under the altar in heaven cry out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe and told to wait a little longer until their number of martyrs was filled.”
c.   APPLICATION:  We must draw inspiration and encouragement from their witness. (Heb 12:1-2). These believers know about suffering. We don’t. We have much to learn from them about living our faith in times of grinding crisis. If they could do as they did, we can handle our troubles.