David Jeremiah - In a World of Persecution, BE PREPARED
Andrew and Norine Brunson were relaxing at a Turkish retreat on the Aegean Sea when the phone rang and, "Andrew," said the voice, "the police have just been here looking for you". The call was from the small church that Andrew had pastored for 24 years in the New Testament city of Smyrna in Turkey. That was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted 735 days. As he later recounted in his memoir, he was kept for a time in a small cell with no chair, nothing but a low bunk, meaning he had to be either standing or walking or lying on the bed at all times. The toilet didn't flush. His Bible and his glasses were taken away.
Pastor Brunson was sometimes housed in overcrowded cells and unable to sleep because of the stifling fear and the stifling heat. A third of the way into the ordeal, he sobbed to the prison doctor, "I can't handle it. I have constant panic, I don't sleep, I've lost 50 pounds, I have fought for 8 months to control myself and I can't handle it anymore". More than once, he said he was afraid he was going insane. But the Lord didn't forsake Andrew Brunson. He said, "Each day I focused on fighting through my fear to reach a place where I surrendered myself to whatever God had for me. I had to learn the lesson of Isaiah 50:10," and he reminded us all of this verse that I had forgotten about. Perhaps you have too, so here it is: "Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God".
Can we say that verse out loud? Isn't that a great verse? "Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God". Andrew Brunson said, "God was teaching me to stand in the dark, to persevere apart from my feelings and my perception and my circumstances". Not long ago, Andrew Brunson spoke again and his words were very sobering. He warned of persecution ahead for the western church. Here's what he said: "I believe the pressures that we're seeing in our country now are going to increase and one of these pressures is going to be hostility toward people who embrace Jesus Christ and his teaching, who are not ashamed to stand for him. My concern is that we're not ready for this pressure, and not being prepared is very, very dangerous".
So I want us to be prepared, and Jesus wanted us to be prepared. And one of the best ways to be prepared is to listen to what he said to his disciples as he sat with them on the Mount of Olives. This is what he said in Matthew 24, verse 9: "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me". Now the record of persecution goes way back. How long has there been persecution? Ever since there was Jesus Christ on this earth. He himself was rejected and scourged and crucified. "He was a man of sorrows," the Scripture says. And the early disciples were arrested and whipped and forbidden to preach in the name of Jesus, though they would not be silenced.
As you remember, Stephen became the first person to die for his faith, and an entire chapter in the book of Acts, chapter 7, is devoted to telling us the story of that event. Eleven of the twelve apostles perished violently. Every one of them except John who was banished to the island of Patmos in an old age. By now you might think we'd see a decrease in persecution and that somehow the world which is supposedly getting better, would mean that persecution was decreasing and no longer were people being persecuted for their personal faith. Unfortunately, that is not true. In many parts of the world, the persecution of Christians now exceeds any period in history.
According to Dr. Todd M. Johnson of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, more than 70 million Christians have been martyred throughout history and more than half of those deaths occurred in the 20th century. He also estimates that 1 million Christians were killed between 2001 and 2010, and another 900,000 between 2011 and 2020. Persecution has been on the increase in the time in which you and I have lived, but we don't know much about it because so much of it happens other places. It's starting to creep in to our culture more than you can imagine. But most of the time, it's been in places we don't know about, but it's continued to grow. The reality of Christian persecution is evident. Each year, the Christian charity, Open Doors, releases a world watch list highlighting the 50 places where faith in Jesus costs the most.
In 2022, Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Yemen topped the list. Furthermore, they estimate that 360 million Christians in the world today experience extreme persecution because of their faith. And to give that some context, that is one out of every seven believers in the world. One out of every seven believers lives under the pressure of persecution. Jesus saw this coming. He didn't want us to be caught off guard. Once again, he said, "They will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake". And each phrase in that prophecy is important, so let's take them one by one. First of all, the promise of tribulation: "They will deliver you up to tribulation".
Now, the word "tribulation's" an interesting word. It comes from a Greek word that describes a grinding pressure. It's a word that was used for the grinding of wheat. Think of how they ground grain in the ancient world: the kernels were pounded and pulverized between two millstones and there was no chance of relief. That's tribulation. And that is what Christ has promised we will experience if we follow him. That begs the question: Are we already feeling that kind of persecution and tribulation? And the answer is yes.
In fact, there are a couple of examples of Christians being persecuted that I called out from my study. Here's one: In Kaduna State, Nigeria, a group of Fulani herdsmen attacked four villages, killing 18 Christians, burning down 92 houses. The victims were specifically targeted because of their faith in Jesus Christ. In Eastern Uganda, a man named Yusufu converted to Christianity even though he was the head of a private Muslim school. When the teachers at the school heard him praying in Jesus's name, they beat him and scarred him with third-degree burns and fired him from his position. There are hundreds of stories like that that come across the way every day.
But notice Jesus's second promise. He says they will persecute you and in verse 9 he says, "They will kill you". This is really getting good, isn't it? From persecution to murder. The world of the end will see a dramatic increase in the rise of martyrdom and religious killings, not only in regions of the world dominated by Islam and Hinduism and socialism, but in all the nations. The Bible uses the word "martyr" to describe someone who is slain for their faith. That's what they called Stephen; Acts 22:20: "The blood of Your martyr Stephen". Jesus reminded the church in Pergamos: "Antipas was My faithful martyr". Now, the word "martyr" means witness and it means somebody who dies because of their witness, someone who dies because they say what they believe about who Jesus is. And the Bible says that in the future when somebody does that, they will be taken out.
Kayla Mueller understood that reality as a Christian. She believed it was her responsibility to join in God's work of relieving suffering in the world. "I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine," she once wrote. Addressing God, she added, "If this is how you're revealed in me, this is how I will forever seek you". While serving as a relief worker in Syria, Kayla was taken hostage by members of an IS's cell. She remained a prisoner for 18 months, enduring abuse of every kind, along with several other female captives. She eventually became a personal prisoner of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS. When a group of her friends, four women, made a plan to escape their captors, she refused to join them. She said, "I am an American and if I escape with you, they will do everything to find you again, so I shall stay".
And the four women did escape. They smuggled out a letter that Kayla wanted to give to her parents. I told you this story because I really want to read this letter. Here's a portion of what that amazing young woman wrote during one of the darkest circumstances you can imagine. This is to her parents: "If you could say I have suffered," she wrote, "throughout this whole experience, it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through. I remember Mom always telling me that all in all, in the end, the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in this experience," Kayla wrote, "where in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our Creator because literally there was no one else. By God and by your prayers, I have felt tenderly cradled in free fall".
Did you hear that phrase? "Tenderly cradled in free fall". "I have been shown in darkness, light, and I have learned that even in prison you can be free, and I am grateful". Kayla Mueller died at the hands of Baghdadi, yet she is victorious today because her story is proving once again that the power of light is greater than the power of darkness, and that freedom over tyranny, and love over hate, is always the right equation. Kayla's witness will forever reveal the power of the gospel, a power that endures even to the face of death. So Jesus said, as he talked to these four men, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, he said, "Now, guys, I want you to understand something. There are some tough days coming and here's something you need to know. You're gonna be persecuted, they're gonna try to kill you, and here's why: 'Then you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.'"
I would ask this question right now and you don't have to shake your head or poke your neighbor. Have you ever felt anything negative because people know you're a Christian? Have you ever felt any pushback or anguish or maybe even fear or rejection because people know that you're a Christian? One of the grimmer realities of Jesus's revelation in this verse is that persecution against his followers is not clinical or detached. It's the persecution of God's people during the world of the end fueled by emotion. We will be hated. Of course, such hatred is unwarranted. It will be unwarranted in the future, but for 2000 years the world has raged against us, seeking to disband the movement that Jesus began, seeking to ban the Bible that he gave, seeking to disrupt the ministries he started, and seeking to destroy the souls that he saved.
So what motivates people to do that? I mean, we're good people. We help our neighbors, we try to be kind and, why do they hate Christians? Why do they look down their nose at Christians? The motivation behind it is the motivation that goes back to who Jesus is and what he has done. He came to deal with sin. He came "not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved". He offered salvation. But in order for you to be saved, you have to admit that you're lost, and my dad used to tell me, as a pastor, the hardest thing about getting people saved was getting them lost 'cause most of 'em don't think they're lost. They think they're pretty good. They think they got it made. They think they're good enough to go to heaven without God. They don't need Jesus. Jesus said, "You'll be hated by all nations," and then he said it for this reason: "For My name's sake".
The reason Christians experience persecution is because we have aligned ourselves with Jesus Christ, and the world hates Jesus Christ. "If the world hates you," Jesus said, "you know that it hated Me before it hated you," John 15:18. John's 15:20 says: "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you". Now, it's important for me to clarify this because I hear this word used a lot improperly. "I got a D on that test. I'm just going through persecution". No, you didn't study. "I don't have any money left in my account. I'm going through a time of persecution". No, you should have saved some. We use the word "persecution" as sort of a cover word for everything that's negative in our lives. But persecution doesn't fit any place except in this narrow place: persecution is what happens to you, particularly because of the fact that you are a Christian, followers of Jesus Christ.
And that raises an important question I'm gonna ask you and I hope you'll think about it this week. I'm not asking you about your salvation, I'm asking you, "Have you ever publicly identified yourself with Jesus Christ in such a way that those who know you know what you believe? And have you ever, ever told anybody that you didn't think wanted to know this, that you were a Christian, that you were a follower of Christ"? Here's another way to ask that question. This is a great question for all of us, especially for the younger ones. If you got arrested for being a Christian, is there enough evidence to prosecute you? Everywhere you look today there are people who are tucking their New Testament in their inward pocket and walking by 'cause they don't want anybody to know that they belong to Jesus.
"If they don't know I'm a Christian, I'm still a Christian". Yeah, but not a very good one. Not the kind of Christian God want... he doesn't want us walking around, sticking our faith in everybody's nose, but he doesn't want us covering up our faith in any situation for any reason. We're to stand up for what we believe and not be ashamed to do it. And sometimes, you have to confront what's wrong.
When I was a pastor back in Fort Wayne and I was first getting started, I was probably in my late 20s, early 30s, much to my wife's frustration, I played in two industrial basketball leagues every week. One of 'em was in the "Y" in downtown Fort Wayne and another was in another place, so I played basketball two nights a week. And I made a lot of friends there. It was the only contact I had with people who weren't Christians, 'cause if you're a pastor, soon as you walk in the room they'd get on report, you know? And "Pastor's here. You've gotta behave," and all that. But when you're playing basketball, nobody cares about that. So I'm playing against this guy in this one particular game, I remember. He was using the Lord's name in vain, every time down the floor. He was having a bad day and he wasn't making his shots and every time he missed a shot, he took the Lord's name in vain.
And finally, during a time out, I went over to him and I said, "You know what? You gotta quit doing what you're doing". He said, "What's that"? I said, "First of all, Jesus isn't missing the shots; you are, so quit using his name. And secondly, Jesus Christ is very special to me and you use his name in a way that's very dishonoring to him, and it's hurtful to me, and if you keep doing it, I'm gonna have to not play in this league anymore, and you know that wouldn't be good". The rest of the year, I never heard him peep one word that wasn't, I mean, he might have said, "Jeepers," once but I'm not sure.
Now you say, "Well, Pastor Jeremiah, that's a silly little story". Yes, it is, but how easy do we just accept what happens 'cause we don't want people to know that we're Christians. And the Bible says we will have to stand up for our faith and when we do, we will have issues. Jesus is telling his disciples this because he wants them to get ready. He knows they're gonna face some stuff like this. And so we have the record of persecution and the reality of it. Here's the response to it.
Let me tell you another story, most of which you may know. Coach Joseph Kennedy has inspired those of us in America with his example. As a high school football coach in Seattle, he would always take a moment to kneel in prayer on the 50-yard line after the game, no matter win or lose. Sometimes members of his team joined him for the prayer, and sometimes even players from the other team joined in. But whether in a crowd or alone, Coach Kennedy prayed after every game and he did it for 7 years. Then in 2015, an opposing coach noticed what he was doing and reported him to the Bremerton High School principal.
Soon after that, the school athletic director told Kennedy to stop praying, citing the School District's policy regarding religious expression. The coach tried to do as instructed. In fact, he skipped his weekly prayer after one game and felt so guilty and regretted his decision so much that before he got home he turned his car around, went back to the empty stadium, tearfully returned to the 50-yard line, asked God to forgive him for not doing what he should do, and expressed his love for the Lord. He resumed the ritual of post-game prayer the following week and the week after, and that's when the officials placed him on leave and then declined to rehire him for the following season.
Joseph Kennedy had spent 20 years serving his country as a United States Marine and he was fired for 20 seconds of prayer. And the coach, he's a fighter. He sued the Bremerton School District in 2015, claiming they violated his religious freedom and constitutional guarantee of religious liberty. And 7 years later in January of 2022, his case was taken up by the United States Supreme Court, and on June 27 of that year, the news flashed across the Internet that in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in the coach's favor, and I say, "Hallelujah". May his tribe increase. May there be more Joe Kennedys. Whenever possible, we need to kindly and bravely stand up for the freedom that allow us our faith.
In some places, there's no concept of religious liberty. Followers of Christ will have to navigate the best way to handle instances of persecution. We don't have solid answers for every particular situation we face or that you face. But we have one deep desire and that is to honor the Lord with our lives, not to be cowardly, not to run away from our faith and cover it up because it's under attack, but to be God's people and be God's people in a gracious, godly way. So here are some principles I wanna give you. Here's the first thing: Recount your blessing.
One of the most enigmatic verses in the Bible is Matthew chapter 5 and verse 10. Here's what it says: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". Now I know there are some passages in the Bible that are just really confusing when we first read them, and this is a great example of that. "Blessed are those who are persecuted"? I mean, what kind of sentence is that? What kind of sense does it make? How could Jesus join together "blessed" and "persecuted" in the same sentence, talking about the same people?
Well, the key is to understand that being persecuted by the world reminds us that we're not in the world. We are members of God's kingdom, we are children in his family, therefore we can choose to minimize the importance of what we experience in the world because it does not matter in the face of eternity. We would much rather focus on where we're gonna be forever than worry about where we are now, what we're gonna know in the future than what we now know, and so it is kind of a backdoor blessing when people persecute you or just remind you, "I'm on the right road and I'm going in the right way. There's the broad way and the narrow way. I'm on the narrow way, I'm headed toward heaven". "Blessed are you when you're persecuted for righteousness sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven".
Secondly, respond with worship, and here's one of my favorite points. If there's anyone in history who understood the reality of what it's like to be persecuted, it was the apostle Paul. In fact, there's three special places in the New Testament that describe the stuff he went through, kind of three lists that Paul has in his books about what he went through. I mean, he went through a lot of stuff. From the moment he accepted Christ, he was forced to deal with haranguers and harassers who were after his life. They wanted him gone. He scaled city walls in a basked, he endured beatings and stonings. He was arrested and accused. He was shipwrecked and snakebitten. And because he refused to let go of Christ, all these things happened to him.
On one particular occasion, he and his buddy, Silas, were beaten with rods and tossed into jail. And this was in Macedonia and the Scripture says the jailer even "fastened their feet in the stocks". For the first time in studying this passage many times over the years, I realized that this wasn't just for security. They were an additional form of punishment. A square log was split in two with holes drilled for the prisoners' ankles. The top half was removed. The prisoners' ankles were positioned in the bottom half, the top half was then laid down on top of the ankles and fastened. And the prisoners were left in this position for days, which meant they were unable to move their legs at all. This was torture. Just because Paul and Silas were telling people about Jesus. How did they respond? Listen to this: "But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them".
Now, I remember the first part of that verse very well. "Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God," but I did not realize they were holding a concert in the prison. They gathered everybody, and they had a concert. It says they were singing hymns, "and the prisoners were listening to them". You remember the rest of the story, I'm sure. An earthquake shook the foundation of the prison. Paul and Silas were freed, but they didn't run away because the jailor would have been killed if they got out of his jurisdiction. So they stayed. Guess what happened? The jailor got saved. The Bible tells us that. They were praying and singing hymns to God and, in doing so, they eventually led the jailor and his whole family... why? Because they acted in such an uncommon way. They didn't run away as you would expect. They stayed there because they didn't want anything bad to happen to him. He would have been killed. Because the rule was, you are responsible for your prisoners. If they get gone, you get gone. And instead of getting gone, he got saved. And he's gonna spend eternity in heaven.
Don't miss this. After being stripped, beaten, locked, and left to suffer, "Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God". They chose to praise God in the middle of horrible circumstances. If we're worshiping God with resolution today, we will learn to worship God in persecution tomorrow. We need to learn how to worship God. Know this. When you come to church every Sunday, this is a rehearsal. We're learning to praise God, not just for now, but for the days coming when we will not need praise just for our own edification, but for our own protection. Praise is a weapon. You and I get to choose how we respond to persecution. We can respond in anger or we can resolve to worship and amplify the values of God's kingdom. When the time comes, I pray that you and I will have the courage to make the right choice, and we resolve to worship even in the midst of mistreatment. God will get the glory and victory will be ours. They praised God.
One of the ways you deal with persecution is through worship. Here's the third one: Reevaluate your suffering. Verse 18 of Romans chapter 8: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us". Paul says one of the ways you deal with this is here's what I'm going through right now, here's what God has planned for me in the future. And I realize that what I'm going through right now is not even worthy to be evaluated against the promises and the glory that is before me. Someday when we're in heaven and experiencing the bliss and joy of being in the presence of Almighty God, in that beautiful place that is promised to us, if we are allowed a little time of memory, we will look back and remember the things we went through and we'll think, "Why did I get so upset over that when this was waiting for me"?
That's what Paul is saying. He said you just evaluate your suffering in light of the glory that is promised to you. One day in eternity, our sufferings will reveal God's glory, not because we look back at this moment that seems so terrible and so large and so unbearable. We will realize it because there is nothing in comparison with the wonders of God. And that's what he's promised. Recount your blessing, respond with worship, reevaluate your suffering. And the final one: Receive your reward. In the book of Revelation there are two chapters that are often overlooked because they're not really prophetic. They're present-day historic. It's chapters 2 and 3 because they tell the story of the churches of Revelation to which John wrote from the Isle of Patmos.
In the book, Jesus directed seven letters to seven churches and one of those churches was a church in the town of Smyrna, and that was the suffering church. They went through great suffering in that city. And I want you to hear what Jesus had to say to this church, specifically in this letter from Revelation. He said, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil's about to throw some of you in prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. But be faithful until death, and I'll give you the crown of life". You consider what we experience as human beings and as a church during the world of the end.
I encourage you to remember Jesus's words: "Do not fear any of those things". We have nothing to be afraid of. Don't leave here today, saying, "Oh, I went to church today and Pastor Jeremiah scared me to death". No, I'm not trying to scare you. I'm trying to tell you, this is it, man. And you know I'm telling you the truth because you already know some of it's started. You feel it, you say, "This is different than what it's ever been before". So I'm just telling you, you've got nothing to be afraid of because God is in control. He's already told you how to deal with it. You're on the winning team. You're gonna win, amen?
Well, let me finish the story with which I started. Andrew Brunson, the day finally came when he was placed on trial before the Turkish court and they were gonna get him. They determined that he was not gonna leave. He was terrified but he was resolved. After one accusation after another, after a host of false witnesses, the judge asked Brunson if he had anything to say in his defense. By now, the eyes of the whole world were on him for his case had garnered global publicity.
Brunson stood up, he looked the judge right in the eye, and he said, "Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. That's why I came to Turkey, to proclaim this. There's only one way to God and that's Jesus. There's only one way to have our sins forgiven, and that's Jesus. There's only one way to gain eternal life," he said, "and that's Jesus. There's only one Savior, and that's Jesus. For the last 25 years, I've declared Jesus as Savior. For 23 years I did it by choice and the last 2 years I've been forced to do it from prison. But my message is the same: it's Jesus".
And that was how he defended himself, and I say, "Hallelujah," and praise God for a man like that. And somehow, in spite of his bold declaration, God moved the levers of leadership and diplomacy and he was released to return home to the United States. And he continues now to tell his story. He's written a book and what God did for him and through him is a great encouragement to all of us. He's sort of a prototype on what's coming and how we can live for God in spite of the pressures. So in a world of persecution, we must be vigilant, we must be prepared, but we don't need to be anxious. God will give you the grace when you need it.
You say, "Well, what would I do if something like happened to me"? You don't know what you'd do and you don't have to worry about it because when the time comes, you'll know what to do, 'cause you're a believer. God will show you what to do, and you'll have to make a choice, whether to do it or not, but you'll know what to do. The devil cannot win. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. Whether we live or die, the gospel is true.
Did you know the gospel is true, whether you believe it or not? You cannot say the gospel isn't true just because you don't believe it. The gospel is true, whether you believe it or not, whether you accept it or not. It's true, it always has been true, it always will be true. And the gospel is Jesus. Jesus is true. Jesus is the truth. And I'm here to declare to you today that we are on the winning side. We're gonna go through some rough periods as we head toward heaven. Some of us will experience it more than others. But what I'm challenging you to do is this: ask yourself, "Am I a real Christian? Does anybody know that I'm a Christian"?
Why don't you tell somebody this week? Just bravely, kindly, graciously, in the right setting, "Hey, did you know I was a Christian"? It will shake them up. And the first question they'll ask is: "What do you mean"? Then you can tell 'em. And when you do that, the Bible says you will feel a sense of God's presence like you have never felt it before. And you will be blessed and you will be reminded that the Christian life isn't just all about the good things God provides; it's about the testimony we have in this world to which he has called us. We need to stand up and be God's people and not worry about the future because God has it under control.