Blows Can Turn into Blessings!

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The national director of one of Sudan’s Evangelical denominations was answering questions about recent developments in the hostile environment of that mostly Muslim country. Sudan is a huge African country, and its recent history is tainted by terrible and bloody repression of Christians and their churches, so it is important to remember our brothers and sisters there before the Throne of Grace. God is obviously at work and they count on the other members of the Body of Christ to stand with them in prayer.

         But how to pray?

Are our prayers in line with God’s purposes? For example, are we praying that God will lift the persecution, or that He will use the persecution…?

We are not writing out of a desire to belittle any current efforts in the country. When we know that God is seeking to build up, and that Satan is seeking to pull down, it is good to realize that our prayers must be fully involved in that struggle. When persecution is raging in some area, our “family” that is feeling the brunt of it, needs to be before Christ, the Head of the Church, but so should the rest of the “family” – those who at present are not experiencing persecution – they also need to be before him, the ones upholding the others in prayer.

         The report

So in order to be more useful as prayer warriors, why not have a closer look at our brother’s report, getting two items into focus especially? He describes how
         1) The pastor of one big church was brutally beaten, but is now slowly recovering from his injuries.
         2) The church-structure (capacity of 500) was set ablaze, forcing the congregation to meet outdoors and without a pastor.
These are the director’s words: “It is a big blow to the church, to have no place to worship and to lack a pastor. This is a big tragedy” (crosswalk.com – 04/13/09).

         What mindset?

Is that what it is – “a big blow and a big tragedy”? Well, it is what it would appear to be… However, on that subject, Jesus once spoke to Peter, and through the centuries his words have resonated in the ears of many other followers. He said: “You are not mindful of the things of God, but of the things of men”. That way of thinking, Jesus says, is offensive to him! (Mt. 16:23).

         Let’s analyze the words of our Sudanese brother. Do they, in reality, betray a mindset, not of faith in the divine resources, but of dependence on human resources? Faith in man’s ability, wisdom, eloquence, support, faithfulness, etc. may take you a long way, but when “blows and tragedies” come, that “faith in man” is bound to be very negatively affected.

         Alien mindset

The director is speaking of “pastors and places of worship”. His words immediately give us an impression of religiosity, but when we hold them “against the light”, what do we find? Where did these concepts come from? Are they found in the Word?  Believe it or not, however devout and religious they may sound, they represent human resources… The “need” for them was imported from the west. The concepts of “pastors and places of worship” came with the concept of “denominationalism”, in which they are deeply embedded. Yet, as any honest Bible student will admit, they are totally alien to the New Testament! Does that congregation really need “a pastor” and “a place to worship”?

         As it was

Let us go back for a moment to Acts 16, where we find four Gospel workers, Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke involved in dramatic developments in a European city. Luke later relates it all in Acts of the Apostles. We find them to be itinerant-men-on-a-mission, not “pastors”. As such, and for a limited time only, they were meeting and working with new believers in Philippi of Macedonia.

         1. Gathering – They started gathering and sharing the Gospel with local women at a clearing by the river. We are not given all the details, but when the converts grew in number, there was no question of getting them into a special building where they must “attend” from then on. The group was totally flexible, mostly gathering in each other’s homes, patios, backyards or somewhere else out in the open. It is what Jesus did; it was the pattern the apostles followed, and it always was the practice in the first century and for a long time afterwards.

         2. Pastoring – There was no question of one of the four men getting ready to stay behind in order to henceforth be “the pastor”, when eventually the other three should move on. Neither was an epistle sent to Antioch or Jerusalem requesting the urgent dispatch of a well-trained man for the “pulpit” in Philippi…

         Paul’s epistle later is not addressed “to the (Reverend) Pastor of the Philippian Church”. It is addressed “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”. Acts 20 makes it abundantly clear that the men appointed as local “elders” (plural) of any congregation were both their “overseers” (bishops) and their “shepherds”, while Acts 6 speaks of the appointing of the first “deacons” and of their specific tasks. But Paul’s letter was not even addressed to the “bishops and deacons” in the first place. They came second; “all the saints” came first.

         Today’s paid-pastor system, with its false “clergy-laity” contrast, has turned things on its head, making it impossible to expect from the saints what Paul expected to hear from them in Philippi: “that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel”(1:27).

         3. Suffering – Two of the four workers received a monumental beating in public, only to be thrown into the inner prison with their feet “in the stocks”, all without due process or right of appeal. Yes, there must have been a huge sense of shock among the disciples, but “a big tragedy”? Nobody acted like it was…

         In fact, when earlier on something similar had happened to the apostles in Jerusalem, Luke reports that “they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5).

         Paul later told the Philippians: “and not in any way terrified by your adversaries… For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me” (1:28-30).

         4. Attending – To avoid any misunderstanding, we may as well clarify here that the “temple” referred to by Luke, was the one and only Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The early disciples (all of them Jews) still had access as followers of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, even if the relationship with “the council” became more and more strained. While they could, they gratefully used this access to proclaim the Risen Messiah to their fellow Jews. That same love for God’s beloved people, Israel, had Paul and companions later enter the Jewish synagogues abroad. Such “attendance” on the Sabbath day was not for the purpose of going back to Jewish law and rituals, rather they did this so that their fellow Jews in foreign lands, and their proselytes, might also hear and believe that the many prophecies about the expected Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth!

         As for the temple – the Jewish world center for worship – it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, only a few years after both Paul and Peter were executed.

         5. Worshiping – If the Philippian Christians were properly discipled right from the beginning, which, of course, they were, then, naturally, they had the experience of true worship. This becomes clear from Paul’s letter to them, especially chapter three.

         Jesus himself had given the supreme example in John 4. As soon as the Samaritan woman there had drunk from the living water, Jesus instructed her about worship. He taught her that worship is only valid, as far as the Father is concerned, when it is presented to him in “spirit and truth”. The Father seeks those who will worship him in spirit and truth.

         In other words, neither Jesus, nor Paul had anything to say about a need for buildings, pulpits, liturgy, tithing, music, and all that sort of thing, which today assert themselves as indispensable for Christian “worship”. These things are indicative rather of the “old worship”, whereas Jesus brought the “new worship”!

         New worship

New Testament worship is not something outward, physical, material. You don’t have to be with a crowd. God expects heart worship from the individual, but equally from a company of two-or-three that gathers in his name. Two-or-three-in-his-name constitute the minimum of what He calls a local “ekklesia” (Mt. 18). For their true worship, the senses do not have to be triggered, nor the emotions. Often the body, the voice etc. are involved, and the emotions will be touched in worship, but these are no more than incidentals – by-products, as it were. Worship itself is purely spiritual – it does not depend on a special day of the week, on special surroundings, on a special “ordained” man, on a special position of the body, or on a special mood. It is one of the great and unique assets of the Christian faith which contrasts with all other faiths, as Jesus pointed out: “The hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father”.

         Unique

However sincere and well-meaning they might be – Jews in their Temple, Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, or any others elsewhere – all their distinct traditions and rituals of worship were soon to be completely discarded, i.e. as far as God was concerned. They were all to be replaced by the unique worship offered by the followers of the Messiah. The Messiah himself had worshiped that way (Mt. 4:10; 11:25-26; Lk. 6:12; Jn. 11:41-42; 12:27-28; Jn. 17) and He had passed it on to them!

         At Pentecost, one group of followers, 120 of them, experienced for the first time the “rivers of living water” that Jesus had told them about in John 7:37-39. That full experience of the Holy Spirit, that worship and that service, had had to wait for the moment of his glorification, just as He had said, and as Peter confirmed (Acts 2:33). But then, after Pentecost, any Christian, at any time, in any place, in any circumstance, has had an open heaven and an open invitation to worship (Jn. 1:51; Hb. 10:19-22).

         A good place to worship

No better place than Philippi to check the reality of that “open heaven”. The two men, so unjustly treated, so severely beaten, thrust into the inner prison with their clothes ripped and with bleeding backs, their feet forced into stocks, and then left lying or sitting on a filthy floor amidst cursing criminals, how did they react? What did they decide to do? They decided to do the only sensible (and spiritual) thing which a Christian always seeks to do wherever he is – in times of tribulation or when all is calm. They decided to lift their spirits to God in worship. They prayed and sang his praises and all the prisoners were listening – most likely dumbfounded.

         And who wouldn’t be dumbfounded, being a witness to something simply “impossible”? Right then and there, the prisoners found out, in total darkness, about the reality of the God of the Christians; the God who makes his presence very real to his followers, wherever they are; the God “who gives songs in the night” (Job 35:10).

         Centuries later Frances Havergal wrote some precious hymns that would have suited Paul and Silas fine in their hour of need. One stanza puts the Christian’s rest-in-turmoil this way:
         “Hidden in the hollow of His blessed hand,
         Never foe can follow, never traitor stand;
         Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,
         Not a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.”

         The presence

Of course, the prisoners didn’t know about a Noah in a flood; about an Abraham sacrificing his beloved son; about a teenager, called Joseph, sold as a slave and spending long years in prison; about a Moses and his people crossing a sea on foot; about a young David facing a giant warrior; about a Jonah on a tiny boat in a hurricane, then swallowed by a fish; about a Jeremiah in his slimy pit; about young Hebrews captured, castrated and conditioned to serve pagan, idolatrous kings for the rest of their lives and passing through a fiery furnace and a lion’s den as part of their ordeal.

         It was Paul and Silas who were very much aware of these feats of the past – they knew that it was God’s presence, every time, which had seen his children through. And, yes, He was just as real to them now in their darkest night. The reality of that “divine presence”, upon two foreign preachers in their midst, must have left such an impact on the prisoners, that surely we may look forward to finding out in heaven, before very long, how many of them actually put their trust in the God of Paul and Silas… What we already know is that the jailer and his family, that very night, placed their faith in the One who elicits such worship.

         The real tragedy

Was it a “tragedy” that befell these messengers of the Most High? No one can say that the ordeal they went through was not real, or terribly painful, but it certainly did not get in the way of worship, nor was it a set-back for the Lord’s testimony! In fact, everything was under the control of him who is Lord of the harvest. And, from Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, we must conclude that we are in real danger of hindering, if not insulting him, when we label as “tragic” his dealings with his beloved…

         What would be the real tragedy? The real tragedy would be that Satan gets the believers so discouraged, so frustrated, and so anxious, that they simply allow him to completely sideline them (Lk. 22:31-32). Satan has often had that victory. But in Philippi these servants, and then the congregation, held on to their Lord, come what may! Paul later told them: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! … Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4, 6-7).

         James said: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (1:2-3).

         Blows becoming blessings

The Savior himself said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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” (Mt. 5:10-12).

         Verses like these, and there are many more, should give us a good clue as to how to pray for our brothers that suffer persecution.
The apostle Paul, who had turned from “worst persecutor” into “worst persecuted”, was at times enabled to flee persecution and death, only to continue preaching the Good News in new areas, and with new risks for life, limb and liberty. Often he didn’t make it and was caught (2 Co. 11:23-33). Listen to him as he tells Timothy that to take the Christian life seriously, means taking persecution seriously: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Ti. 3:12).

         Jesus said: “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. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know him who sent me” (Jn. 15:20-21).

         Timely training

The world’s capital, Rome, was just about the worst place for persecution during most of three centuries. Paul was himself incarcerated there for years and eventually executed. What did he tell his Roman “family”? He simply told them that God had a special ministry for them – the more blows they’d receive, the more blessings they could share: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Ro. 12:14).

         We must pray intelligently for our “family” in the countries where persecution, or the very real threat of it, is a daily part of Christian life. We’re talking about prayer that knows what God is after!

         Pray that their faith waver not, that their eyes may be on their Lord, that their hearts go out to him in praise and worship, that when the storms of persecution rage, their lives may still be clear beacons of light in the darkness, and that their voices bless their persecutors. Pray also that, if their Bibles have been confiscated, the Holy Spirit brings back the Scriptures to their minds!

         Praying for them that way – the New Testament way – is praying for spiritual revolution in those countries. And as you thus lift your brothers and sisters up to the Throne of Grace, expect spiritual revolution in your own life. As to the real blows-and-tragedies, they will be for Satan and for so much that he was hoping to achieve!!

         The original pattern

In China, for many years now, God has been maneuvering his children into situations where any dependence on human resources, like pastors-and-buildings, is smashed. These may be situations of great suffering, yet not of pointless suffering. Every situation is under his control! What God wants to see is the spiritual growth of his children. No growth, no fruit! When HIS work grows in HIS way, it will produce HIS fruit! God never scrapped the New Testament pattern that we see functioning in Jerusalem, Antioch, Philippi, Corinth, etc. Great pressures were an essential part. Paul told the Philippians: “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me” (1:27-30).

         In China the result has been an active “underground” church of many millions. He can do it again among his children elsewhere, be it in Sudan or Saudi Arabia, in Egypt or Eritrea, in Bangladesh or Burma, in India or Indonesia, in Iran or Iraq, in Vietnam or Venezuela, in North Ossetia or North Korea, He can even do it in the US or the UK! He does it when his children are ready to venture out by simple faith alone, allowing him to smash their human resources.

         Paul’s secret

As he started writing First Corinthians and again when he came to the end of Second Corinthians, Paul lets us into his secret: “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Co. 1:25). It is at Calvary that God’s “weakness” is seen. The “weakness of the cross of Christ” produces the “power of the resurrection of Christ”. Paul consciously accepted this principle, and so, when that awful “thorn in the flesh” was given to him, “a messenger of Satan to buffet him”, he did plead with the Lord to remove it, but soon understood what was really going on. God reminded him of “his grace – always sufficient”, of “HIS strength made perfect in weakness”. In other words, He shows him Calvary again – the weakness of God that leads to the victory of Christ’s resurrection! And Paul says: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong”. “Though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Co. 12:7-10; 13:4).

         Let go and let God!

The more our dear brothers and sisters in Sudan or China, or anywhere else, allow God to strip them of their human resources and strengths, the more the power of God, the power of the resurrection, will sustain and bless them, and bring forth supernatural fruit through them! Whether it is an apostle, a modern Christian, or a congregation, Paul’s secret is still valid – there is no other!Now when you refuse to be weak in yourself, the blows will be tragedies… But what a difference when the message of the cross has been consciously accepted (Lk. 9:23; Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14)! You can then glory in the cross of Christ. And the blows turn into blessings, which lead to the bearing of much fruit – produced by the Risen Christ, and for the Risen Christ!

         Just imagine!

The church building in Sudan seated some 500 people before it was burned down. Was it a congregation of 500 true believers? We don’t know. Nor do we know what percentage of them attended with a true and deep desire to serve the Lord with all their heart. But let us suppose that 5% of the congregation were like the two disciples from Emmaus, who, when totally defeated and downcast, got their hearts ignited and set ablaze by two things: the Lord’s Presence with them, and his Word to them. “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk. 24:32). Tired as they were, the pair immediately set out in the darkness to go back to Jerusalem (over 12 km) to give the good news!

         Just imagine that five percent of the 500, i.e. twenty-five Christians, look beyond the smoldering ruins of their building, humbling themselves before their living Lord. Their human resources have gone up in smoke, but, somehow, their Lord is more precious to them now than He ever was before. As they search the Word for his guidance, and for his enabling in their utter weakness, their hearts, like those in Emmaus, are set on fire. And lifting up their eyes, they see fields that are white unto harvest…

         Exceeding abundantly

What great things might be expected for a country like Sudan with such “firebrands”, who are truly at their Lord’s command! Traditions and requirements of pastors and buildings are things of the past. They have begun to find out that God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Eph. 3:20), and they are learning to trust in the availability of their new resources, the heavenly ones: “the Spirit of truth… will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify me, for He will take of what is mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are mine. Therefore I said that He will take of mine and declare it to you” (Jn. 16:13-15).

         Embracing the weakness of the cross, they start to preach the life and the power of the Risen Lord. As they are daily into the Word (Ps. 1) with much prayer, they will teach it and expound it in more and more small groups, gathering in any room or corner. Committing the living truth to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Ti. 2:2), there is multiplication – as in those early days when “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…!” Isn’t that what the whole of Africa is waiting for, indeed, the whole world…? Blessed are the blows and the burnings… when they lead to the breakdown of so much that stands in the way of the Lord’s stated plan and purpose: “On this rock I will build my church!” (Mt. 16:18).

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