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Thomas K. Johnson
 

Loving the Persecuted Church (I)

In Revelation 13, we have a description of what a state or a government can become when everything goes wrong. A state can become a devouring beast, destroying everything in its path, and especially attacking Christians with demonic hatred.

FEATURES AUTHOR Thomas K. Johnson 10 JUNE 2016 11:36 h GMT+1
sea, night, dark, quality Photo: Thobias von Schneider (Unsplash, CC)

This essay is a revised version of a sermon preached in several churches in the US and Europe. It calls us to consider the recent, extreme levels of discrimination, persecution, or even martyrdom currently faced by Christians in almost every continent in the light of three passages from the New Testament: Romans 13:1–7; Revelation 13:1–10; and John 13:34–35.



Because it may be helpful for the reader to review these biblical texts before reading the sermon, they are writter below. The thesis of the sermon is that Christians in the mostly free regions of the world have a lot to learn about how to love Christians in regions typified by greater persecution, and that beginning in this process of learning is a test of our discipleship as followers of Jesus.




Romans 13:1–7



Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.





Revelation 13:1–10



The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?” The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. Whoever has ears, let them hear. “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.” This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.





John 13:34–35



Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”




 



In 2007 a young Turkish man, the father of two children, was planning to take a theology class that I was scheduled to teach when he was brutally martyred. Two other Christians, one Turkish and one German, were also murdered with him in the office of their Bible printing shop in Turkey. They were cut up with knives! I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when I first read what had happened. Shocked and angry, I became deeply involved in reporting on and drawing attention to this terrible incident.



Afterwards I felt compelled (by God, I think) to consider how Christians face discrimination, persecution, and sometimes even martyrdom in many countries around the world. This included thinking about the different types of governments we see in different countries, since governments usually have some important role in relation to discrimination and persecution. I also contemplated our international duties within the Body of Christ, since we now live in a post-globalization world. This message shares some of what I have learned.



We find in the New Testament two complementary views of the State or of government, which we must hold together in our minds and in the practice of Christian discipleship. On one hand, Romans 13 describes what a state should be and do. This passage is very comfortable for us who live in free countries where we have official protection of human rights and the rule of law. “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” Therefore we should generally obey the law and pay our taxes.



But on the other hand, in Revelation 13, we have a description of what a state or a government can become when everything goes wrong. A state can become a devouring beast, destroying everything in its path, and especially attacking Christians with demonic hatred. This was not only the experience of the church in the first century, under the persecutions by Nero in the sixties and Domitian in the eighties; it is also the experience of tens of millions of Christians today. A few months ago I was at a meeting with representatives of persecuted churches from dozens of countries.[1] When someone claimed that the slaughter of Christians in Syria and Iraq should be called genocide, no one disagreed. On the contrary, Christians from other countries responded by saying that what was happening in their nations should be considered genocide too! We may have multiple Christian genocides occurring right now at the hands of multiple, beastly governments. The beast of Revelation 13 is not just a reality from ancient history; the beast is back!



In this light, we Christians who live in free countries, where the government generally fulfills Paul’s vision in Romans 13, need to carefully consider the challenging words of Jesus in John 13:34–35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”



A generation ago, Francis Schaeffer taught us that visible love is the mark of a Christian, basing his teaching on Jesus’ words in John 13.[2] Jesus has given our unbelieving neighbors, called “everyone” here, the astonishing right to evaluate our claim to be disciples of Jesus. They are to make this evaluation on the basis of our love for fellow Christians. Therefore, this love must be more than a feeling; it must become visible as sacrificial action for fellow Christians in need. In our largely globalized society, we need to fully engage with what it means for Christians in the free world to honestly love fellow Christians who live under a variety of beasts. We have a lot to learn.



As we learn how to love Christians living under the beast, we should also consider what this will do for us. I suppose that many of us in the free world are a bit lukewarm about the gospel. We take the gospel and the church for granted, as if they are not so special. One of the benefits of honestly engaging with persecuted Christians is that it may break us out of our spiritual lethargy. How can one remain unmoved when hearing or reading stories of martyrdom and of tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ fleeing for their lives? Initiatives that change the situation for persecuted believers may also have a large effect on us!



An additional benefit is that such engagement with persecuted Christians may prepare us for problems in our own countries. In the free world, we do not have hundreds of martyrs or thousands fleeing for their lives, but we do sometimes face real and serious discrimination on account of our faith.[3] And we do not know what the future will be for those of us who now enjoy freedom. Many Christians now facing severe persecution did not expect it in their countries just a few decades ago. In some parts of the world we observe a progression: discrimination leads to persecution, which leads to martyrdom. Getting involved with Christians facing persecution may equip us to face discrimination, which could escalate at some point to become persecution for us too.  And never forget: this love in action will be noticed by a watching world, leading some to consider Jesus whose disciples we have proved to be.



A word about Romans 13: Paul is presenting a very compressed version of a political theory that merits extensive explanation. For now, I will simply note that Paul assumed several other themes and texts in the Bible. For example, he assumed what Jesus said in Matthew 22:21: “So give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Paul also assumed what Jesus said to Pilate in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” And Paul clearly thought that most people serving in government can distinguish between good and evil, so that usually states can attempt to punish the evil and reward the good, even if very imperfectly. And there are other biblical assumptions underlying what both Jesus and Paul said about government: the creation of humans in God’s image, the fallenness of each person, the existence of an objective moral law, and the authority of written documents.



When we look around the world today and see where Christians and others enjoy a significant level of freedom of religion and other basic human rights protections, I think I see a pattern. I see the influence of the biblical themes assumed in Romans 13 upstream in the culture and educational systems, as a condition of the current experience of freedom and human rights protections. It is not by accident that some countries enjoy freedom and other countries do not. In the countries where the people enjoy freedom, even if the populace does not widely acknowledge Jesus as their Savior, there has usually been some significant influence of a few key ideas from the Bible within the last few hundred years. It is the cultural influence of Bible being felt in the political sphere. I have begun to think of this part of the world as “the Romans 13 world.” People in this world believe there is a realm of life that does not belong to Caesar. They may believe that modern Pilates are accountable to God for their actions. They may believe that people have a special dignity, even if they do not know where this dignity comes from. They believe that even top government officials should obey written laws. Most of us reading this message live in this world.[4]



Now a word about Revelation 13. There have been so many wildly speculative theories about the beast or the dragon or the antichrist that responsible theologians may hesitate to mention these themes at all. That would be a mistake. It is beyond the scope of this message to offer a complete interpretation of the book of Revelation, but I think that the apostle John was giving us a pictorial interpretation of events of his time, designed to help believers throughout history to respond to similar events.



In the 30 years before John wrote this text around 95 AD, as already noted, Christians endured two waves of persecution, under the emperors Nero and Domitian.[5] Though there were probably differences between the two, in both cases the Roman Empire became beast-like. The first period of persecution, under Nero, probably lasted about 42 months, until his death and a change of government. Tradition claims that both Peter and Paul were martyred under Nero, making it an especially painful time for Christians. I think the apostle John lost trusted friends during Nero’s persecution. John saw both of these persecutions as ultimately instigated by Satan, represented by the dragon. In John’s lifetime, Satan had repeatedly attempted to use a beast-like government to destroy Christians and the churches. The beasts he described were not speculation about some mysterious time in the future; they were his depiction of what the churches had experienced, but presented in such a manner as to prepare future Christians for what would happen again.



John also mentions a false prophet in another chapter; I think this refers to the redevelopment of emperor worship at his time in history. Some people within the Roman Empire were afraid that the empire would completely fall apart, leading to chaos and poverty. They thought that the religion of emperor worship, along with a very powerful emperor, would unify and save their society. The religion of emperor worship served as an ideological justification for an all-powerful Emperor. The Roman Empire would take control of everything external in society while the religion of emperor worship would get inside people’s hearts and minds, leaving no place that belongs only to God and not to Caesar. In this way, the false prophet, representing false religion, gave spiritual support to a beastly government.



What we must notice here is that the central creed of the early Christians, that “Jesus is Lord,” was the exact opposite and denial of the central creed of emperor worship, “Caesar is Lord.” Both were claims to be lord of everything in life; both were foundations of a complete worldview and approach to life. When the combination of the Roman Empire and emperor worship became totalitarian, claiming the people’s whole heart, mind, and life, it came into complete spiritual and moral conflict with Christians and the biblical message.



Recently I heard a very moving speech by a Christian woman from Syria, describing what she had seen and experienced in the last few years. I obtained a printed copy of her speech so that I can quote her accurately. It shows us that the beast described by the apostle John in Revelation 13 is not only ancient history. A state, or supposed state, acting like a devouring beast is the experience of many Christians today. Listen to the words of Rosangela Jarjour:



- From the Christian quarters of al Hamidiya and Bustan el Diwan in the old city of Homs, the city where I spent my childhood and teenage, more than 80,000 Christians were cleansed from their homes in early 2012, and their homes were occupied by the militant rebels (al Farouq brigade).



- Eight kilometers away from my parents’ village lies Saddad, a peaceful town that was mentioned twice in the Bible. The townspeople lived peacefully for tens of years until late October 2013, when both the Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra Front attacked Saddad and brutally murdered 53 civilians, including an entire family of six who were blindfolded, shot in the head, and thrown in a well.



- The 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was commemorated in Aleppo with the Islamic factions’ leveling to the ground of seven buildings in Al-Suleimania Christian neighborhood on Good Friday (April 10, 2015). Twenty-nine Christians lost their lives and 56 were injured. Easter Sunday was the day to mourn the dead family members and relatives as the whole town was in deep shock.



- Only three weeks before that, 179 Christian families lost shelter and all possessions after al Nusra Front stormed the city of Idlib. Of these families, only 85% of Christians were able to flee with women wearing Islamic robes and hijabs; the others faced an unknown fate.



- The daily mortar and missile attacks by the so-called Moderate rebels on Meharda and the Christian neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo have claimed hundreds of innocent Christian civilians’ lives—among them children in attacks on schools and nurseries.



- The Christian population of 400,000 in Aleppo, many of Armenian descent, had already been reduced to an estimated 45,000 by March 2015.



- In the North, 30 Christian Assyrian villages were attacked and wiped out. Many were massacred and the rest either became IDP’s or left the country. Up till this minute, 200 families are still held hostages by ISIS. For many Christians in Syria, it has become commonplace for Islamic extremists, including ISIS and Syrian rebels, to storm Christian neighborhoods, towns and villages; destroy their churches, tear down their crosses and deface their icons and murals; and kidnap Christians for ransom or murder them. Those Christians, who chose to live peacefully on their ancestors’ land, are now being eradicated by merciless militants for no other reason than being followers of the Christian faith while the Western world has remained silent and even reluctant to listen to their voices or answer to their intense suffering.[6]



When I thought about her words, I wished I could tell her that the persecution of her group of Christians will only last another few months, to reach the 42 months referred to in the book of Revelation. But I do not think that this reference is a literal promise that all severe persecutions will end in that period of time. Maybe the 42 months mentioned by the apostle John were meant to describe the time of intense persecution under Emperor Nero in the first century; maybe they are symbolic of a limited period of time, not to be taken too literally. So on the basis of the Bible, I do not think we can tell Mrs. Jarjour that the Syrians’ time of tribulation is almost over. I am not sure that would be true.



What I am sure of is that today millions of Christians are living under the beast, in a Revelation 13 world, while we live in a Romans 13 world, enjoying freedoms that are partly the result of the Bible’s influence on our world. And Jesus has told us that the watching world will know that we are disciples of Jesus by the way in which we love each other, including the group of Christians to which Mrs. Jarjour belongs.



Read part 2 of this essay here



Thomas K. Johnson, Religious Freedom Ambassador to the Vatican, representing the World Evangelical Alliance. He spent 21 years serving as an educator in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe.



 



[1] This was the Tirana consultation on discrimination, persecution, and martyrdom in November, 2015, which is described at greater length below.





[2] See Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (L'Abri Fellowship, 1970), now available from InterVarsity Press.





[3] An example would be the way the radical gay rights movement has challenged the legal status of some Christian institutions because they teach traditional values. Discrimination against Christians in the free world is usually because of the application of Christian ethics to public questions, not because of attending a church.





[4] Recently I read a fascinating account of an official from Communist China who had heard that Christians prayed the communists out of power in East Germany in the 1980. This official was afraid that Christians would also pray the Chinese communists out of power! I see this as an example of the influence of a biblical theme, the direct accountability of all people to God, even among people who do not yet acknowledge that they believe in God—in this case, a Chinese communist official who probably had to profess atheism. This account is found in a report written by Thomas Schirrmacher, forthcoming from the WEA Religious Liberty Commission.





[5] There has long been a historians’ debate whether John wrote the book of Revelation about AD 95 or about AD 68, before the destruction of Jerusalem. Following what I take to be the view of Irenaeus (AD 132–202), I think that the later date is more likely, but this difference has little effect on the theme of this message, except that John would not yet have experienced Domitian’s persecution.





[6] English grammar and sentence structure have been lightly corrected with no change of content. This speech was given at the consultation on the discrimination, persecution, and martyrdom of Christians held in Tirana, Albania, November 2–4, 2015.




 

 


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