Read: Galatians 1 – 2:10
Focus: Galatians 1:13 – 15
13 You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. 14 I was far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors.
15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.
The Apostle Paul wrote almost 1/3 of the text found in the New Testament. I find this interesting because at first, Paul (when he was still Saul) was one of the chief persecutors of Christians. In his own words in today’s focus verses, Paul described himself: “I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it.”
In 21st Century America, I think we have a hard time visualizing persecution and what our early brothers and sisters went through for their belief in Jesus. Personally, I get pretty upset when I read about a Christian being fired or discriminated against because he or she takes a stand for a Bible-based value. However, I have become increasingly aware of something that makes me look at it with a different perspective. While I believe situations such as those are instances of religious discrimination against Christians, are they really persecution? If not what does true persecution against someone for his or her Christian beliefs look like?
Take a few minutes to watch the first three minutes or so of this clip from the TV series A.D. It’s a dramatic recreation of what it may have looked like for our ancient brothers and sisters when Saul was leading the efforts to persecute them:
We can also read the Bible account of Stephen being martyred (killed violently for his belief in and proclamation of the Gospel) in Acts 7.
But how is this relevant to us? We live in the modern world; does this still happen? Sadly, yes, and unfortunately, it’s mostly being ignored by the media. In the Middle East, we are seeing Christians being violently persecuted by ISIS. By the hundreds of thousands, they are being given three choices when ISIS takes over an area: 1. Abandon everything and leave (sounds similar to what Saul said in the video clip when he said the followers of Jesus would be given a choice to abandon their land or abandon their lives), 2. Pay a tax that essentially equates to everything they have, or 3. Be killed. In some villages, when ISIS or other extremists groups such as Boko Haram take over, they give the Christian children an immediate choice: they can renounce Jesus and choose Islam or be immediately executed (if they are boys) or sold as sex slaves to be abused (if they are girls). By the thousands, Christians are being crucified on crosses, beheaded, and shot. This isn’t happening thousands of years ago; this is happening today – to our brothers and sisters.
If you have the time, here is a letter to the American Church written by an American Christian woman who recently visited some of the refugees from ISIS in Iraq: Dear North American Church. I think this is a must read wake-up call for Christians; it’s chilling, heartbreaking, disgusting… all at once. 1 – 9 year old girls are being sold as sex slaves; fathers and boys are being executed in front of their family members. One quote from the article in particular stood out to me: “Caring isn’t a Christian’s sideline hobby. Caring is a Christian’s complete career.”
So the natural follow up question is – what do we do? What can I do? I wish I had an easy answer, but for the most part I don’t. The first thing I would encourage all Christians to do is to pray. As a church, Vineyard Wheeling had a prayer session for the persecuted church on Sunday. It was decided there that we would be doing more of these so we can continue to pray together for the people being murdered, young girls being made sex slaves, and families destroyed for the name of Jesus; I would encourage you to make time to be there and pray with other Christians for our brothers and sisters the next time the church hosts one. But please don’t just wait until the next prayer meeting; please make it a priority to pray today, right now, for our brothers and sisters. I have included a sample prayer I’m praying, but please make it your own however the Holy Spirit is leading you to pray. And as Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray without ceasing.”
Other things I’d encourage Christians to do is to ask God to lead you in how to help. Maybe one of the organizations providing relief for the refugees might be where you are called to help. A few that I know of are: Samaritan’s Purse (http://www.samaritanspurse.org), Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.com), Open Doors (https://www.opendoorsusa.org), and Preemptive Love Coalition (http://www.preemptivelove.org – featured in the letter to the American Church from the website above).
So this brings us back to Saul… the same Saul who had the blood of Christian martyrs on his hands was changed by God into the Apostle Paul, who gave his life to bring the Gospel to non-Jews. God can and will use anyone and anything to further His kingdom. When we are praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters, pray also for a road to Damascus moment (Acts 9) for the modern day Sauls… that God would pierce the hearts of those persecuting His church with His truth, grace, and mercy. That He would lead them away from their false beliefs and into His truth and His way.
If you would like suggestions for specific ways you can pray for the persecuted church, this website provides several: http://www.cru.org/train-and-grow/devotional-life/pray-for-persecuted-church.html
Father, I am using Your words to pray to You. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1: 3 – 5: “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with His comfort through Christ.” I pray now for my brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for their beliefs. I pray that they would know the hope that You give; that their hearts will be flooded with light so that they can understand the confident hope You have given to those You called—Your holy people who are Your rich and glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:18).
I ask that the Holy Spirit strengthen them. I pray that from Your glorious, unlimited resources, You will empower them with inner strength through Your Spirit (Ephesians 3:16).
I pray that my brothers and sisters would know how much You love them. That Christ makes His home in their hearts as they trust in You. Their roots will grow down into Your love and keep them strong. (Ephesians 3:17).
Please help them to share the Gospel, no matter how desperate their circumstances. Please give them the right words so they can boldly explain Your mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. (Ephesians 6:19)
And please give them boldness and courage so they will fearlessly tell others about Jesus Christ, the only hope for mankind. Even for those in chains now, I pray that they will keep on speaking boldly for You, as they should. (Ephesians 6:20).
In Jesus name… Amen