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Prayer for Persecuted Christians

Prayer for Persecuted Christians

There is a chorus Now Is the Time to Worship. Our worship includes proclaiming the goodness of Jesus.

For us, we have the privilege of worshiping and proclaiming freely. However, that was not the case for a group of people told about in chapter 5 of the New Testament Book of Acts. The group was made up of the apostles of Jesus. The incident recorded occurred shortly after the Lord returned to Heaven following His resurrection.

The apostles, in the city of Jerusalem, had, since Jesus’ return to Heaven, been doing many signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. What they did was good for those who needed the Lord’s help, but soon the Jewish leaders became angry. So great was the anger that the apostles were arrested, chastised for representing and preaching about Jesus, and put in prison. All three of those things are examples of persecution.

The plan was for the apostles to again appear before the Jewish leaders the next day. However, that was delayed because, during the night, an angel entered the prison, opened the doors, and told the apostles to go to the Jewish Temple and start preaching, which they did as the next day dawned.

Sometime later that day, the apostles were found. They were taken before the Jewish leaders, who asked, “Did we not tell you to not preach in the name of Jesus? Yet you were found preaching. What is the meaning of your disobedience?”

The apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” That was a clear indication that even if - even when - faced with persecution, they were going to continue to tell others about Jesus, despite anyone else’s orders, which they did right after being released by the Jewish leaders.

The apostles were beaten before their release. That was another example of persecution. They were again told to never preach about Jesus again. But they did preach, doing so every day, including at the Temple in Jerusalem.

What happened to the apostles is an early example of persecution of Christians. Persecution that exists even today. Persecution that, from all indications, is becoming more widespread and in some cases increasingly violent.

Today is a Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians, which is what we are going to do in today’s service. We will also think about other examples of persecution in the early church, along with some examples of persecution happening in our time. But speaking of prayer, let’s do that now.

Lord, as the apostles were persecuted a couple thousand years ago, so are some - many - Christians persecuted today. That is very sad news. However, it should not be news to us that there is persecution because You, in the Bible, tell us very plainly that Christians will face persecution. As You faced persecution, so will we be susceptible to it.

Fortunately for us here, persecution is, at worst, very light. But other Christians face severe mistreatment. Today, as we should every day, we pray for them, that they will be strong. Strong enough to repeat what the apostles said - that they are determined to obey You rather than any human.

Lord, even now, help those facing persecution to know the messages of the two choruses - The Battle Belongs to the Lord and You Are My All in All - are true. The messages that the battles they face belong to You and that You are worth whatever sacrifices we make. 

Help those being persecuted feel our prayers. May our prayers encourage them. Amen.

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In chapter 6 through the first part of chapter 8 of the Book of Acts, we are told of Stephen, a Christian who began his Christian work as a Christian servant, seeing to the needs of Christian widows. He soon became a very outspoken preacher of Jesus. Such a forceful preacher that he upset Jewish leaders. The result was his death by stoning, which means he was persecuted. Persecuted to the extreme of death, just as had happened to Jesus. 

In chapter 12 of the Book of Acts, James, one of the apostles of Jesus, was killed by King Herod. That was another example of extreme persecution. The wording is he was killed with the sword, which usually means being beheaded.

When Herod had the killing done, he saw it pleased the Jews, which led to more persecution, including the imprisonment of Peter, another apostle of Jesus.

In his case, Peter survived. He was helped by an angel who opened the doors of the prison and caused the chains holding Peter to fall away. 

But what happened to Stephen, James, and Peter are examples of persecution of Christians. Persecution that does exist even today. Persecution that, from all indications, is becoming more widespread and in some cases increasingly violent.

Since this is a Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians, let’s spend another moment in prayer. 

Lord, as Stephen and James were killed and Peter was imprisoned, simply because they belonged to You, so are some Christians even today being killed, simply because they are Your followers. Though I have not and do not face such a threat and therefore do not know the emotions involved, we can and do pray for Christians who are facing even death. As Stephen and James remained strong, and as Peter remained strong, help today’s Christians to do the same.

Facing extreme persecution has to be terrifying, but help us remember that You and Heaven are worth our suffering. We pray for those being persecuted. Amen.

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Our emphasis today is praying for persecuted Christians, which continues with a few modern-day comments.

In the latest edition of Christianity Today, there are three examples of persecution of Christians. 

In Mexico, a pastor was fatally shot in August outside his church. Though the motive is yet unclear, drug cartels in the area frequently target religious leaders who speak out against such gangs.

In the African nation of Eritrea, security forces earlier this year arrested more than 300 Christians, charging them with conspiring against the government because they met as Christians without registering with the government. That happened even though they cannot register because evangelical churches are not recognized.

In India, Christian workers in the country to provide aid are required to sign agreements they will not be involved in religious conversion.

There is another publication called World Watch List. For 2019, there are 50 countries listed where it is most dangerous to follow Jesus. The countries span the globe, ranging across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, North America as indicted by Mexico, and South America. Those are just the 50 most dangerous nations, persecution ranging from being monitored to being imprisoned and from having church buildings destroyed to Christians being killed.

None of this is good, happy news, but it needs to be reported. Not for the purpose of depressing ourselves, but to remember to pray for persecuted Christians, including asking for the Lord’s blessings on those who suffer for Him. 

As mentioned earlier, that does not include us in any big way. One way I have read it described is that we are more inconvenienced by reactions to our faith than persecuted. But as we pray for others who really are suffering, we also pray for ourselves so that if or when we face more serious persecution, we will be able to stand strong.

Lord, as Your early followers, including all the apostles and then Stephen, James, and Peter, faced persecution, so do Your followers now. Many places around the world, those who choose to follow You are mistreated to varying degrees, that happening even as we speak.

Suffering is never easy, so we ask for Your blessings on those being or facing mistreatment. Help Your followers now to be as strong as Your followers were a couple thousand years ago, knowing that what is ahead for those who stay true to You - that being Heaven - is well worth the price.

Lord, we cannot stay true to You on our own. None of is brave or strong enough to accomplish that. But we are not alone. We have You with us through the Holy Spirit. That is how You share Your power and  strength with us, which we trust because You Yourself were persecuted, that happening unto death.

Lord, we thank You today for all the good things happening to us, represented in our praises. We also trust You to help us with our problems, confident You are able to know what is best for us, willing to share with us what we need, kind enough to let us know of Your love. That includes preparing us for whatever difficult days we might have ahead of us.

Please keep all Your followers encouraged. Thank You, Lord. Amen.

*       *       *       *       *

Examples of persecution have been shared, including what the early apostles of Jesus and then Stephen, James, and Peter experienced. Of course those examples are sad, but I have some positive things to share. One is a list of things for which we can pray. That will conclude today’s service. Another is an explanation of how Christians grow when they experience troubled times. That will bring us to a passage in the New Testament Book of Romans. Before that, some interestingly positive results of the suffering we have thought about from 2000 years ago.

Remember the report about the apostles being told by the Jewish leaders to not preach about Jesus? There were two positive results of that.

One came by way of a man named Gamaliel. A teacher of Jewish law. One of the Jewish leaders to whom the apostles appeared. Gamaliel actually protected the apostles by putting a stop to the proceedings against them. Proceedings that could have led to at least great bodily harm to the apostles.

Gamaliel’s argument was that the Jewish leaders should wait to see what happened. He cited other leaders who had had followers. Leaders who had claimed to be important and powerful, who had failed, their followers either killed or scattered.

Gamaliel suggested the same might happen to the followers of Jesus. If they were like the ones before, the situation would take care of itself. However, he warned, if what the apostles were doing in telling about Jesus was of God, they would succeed despite whatever the religious leaders did. The leaders might find themselves opposed to God.

Gamaliel’s defense of the apostles - his willingness to take a stand despite great pressure to stay silent, which is a wonderful example for us - was a good result of that example of persecution.

The other good result was from the apostles themselves. Their suffering actually emboldened them as they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus.

Remember the report of Stephen being put to death because of his faith in Jesus? He was stoned to death because of his faith. Faith displayed in his forceful preaching for Jesus. 

As he was being prepared to be stoned, Stephen gazed into Heaven, where he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He reported that to those who were going to do the stoning. Seeing the glory of God made his face one of peace.

Then, as he was being stoned, he said two things. First, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, “Lord, do not hold this sin against those killing me.” Both were quotes from Jesus as He was being killed.

What is so good or positive about what Stephen did and said? One of those who observed the killing of Stephen was a man - a Jewish leader - named Saul. The one who became Paul, one of the greatest ministers for Jesus of all time.

Of course the one who changed Saul from being a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to being a follower of Jesus himself was Jesus, but I cannot help but think Saul was encouraged to be a follower of Jesus by what he had seen in and heard from Stephen, who was completely confident in the Lord, willing to be killed for the Lord, knowing the glory of Heaven was awaiting him.

If what I think is true, Stephen’s death by persecution eventually helped in the conversion of Saul, who became Paul, who began Christian churches and wrote letters we still use today to learn about Jesus and how to live as Christians.

Remember the report about Peter’s imprisonment. It was of course a sad time. Being imprisoned for having faith in Jesus is terrible. But listen to what happened following Peter’s escape. 

Peter went to the house where other followers of Jesus were. Where they were praying, including for Peter. When they saw Peter, they rejoiced, which would have been a good thing. Something that no doubt inspired them to continue to pray, not only for Peter, but for each other as well, and for other Christians other places.

As sad as persecution of Christians is, there can be good results of it. In the Biblical examples cited today, good results did happen. They did not ease the suffering, but there were some good results.

I think having good results is something the apostle Paul suggested in the opening verses of chapter 5 of Romans.

The chapter begins with the promise of peace. Peace with God that is available to all who accept Jesus as Savior. To all who are Christians. Yes, even those who face persecution.

Remember peace is defined spiritually as tranquility of spirit and conscience that allows us to be in harmony with God, with others, and with ourselves.

There is also, at the beginning of chapter 5 of Romans, the promise of grace, which is also available to all who are Christians. Grace refers to receiving what we do not deserve. Including, according to Romans, the hope of sharing the glory of God. Remember Stephen? That was certainly the case for him. Remember? Just before he was to be stoned to death, he saw the glory of God, with Jesus standing beside God. That kept Stephen’s faith strong, even in the face of persecution.

With God, through Jesus, all who are Christians can have - we are to have - peace, grace, and hope, which, beginning with verse 3, is to cause us to rejoice in our sufferings because, Paul explained, suffering is part of a process of spiritual growth.

As we pray for persecuted Christians, let’s include that those who suffer will be able to grow. Let’s also pray for ourselves. As mentioned earlier, we are sometimes inconvenienced. May we be able to withstand that so in case we face greater persecution, we will be able to stay strong in our faith in Jesus.

According to Paul, we who are Christians are to rejoice when we suffer. That sounds contrary to our natural inclinations, but Paul himself suffered greatly throughout his Christian ministry - beatings, imprisonments, hunger and cold from time to time, rejection, threats. I wonder if it ever occurred to Paul that life might have been easier had he not become a follower of Jesus. But Paul was willing to suffer so he could serve the risen Savior. He was willing to suffer because the reward for his service was going to be Heaven.

Rejoice when suffering comes. Why? Paul explained a progression of growth that comes to those who suffer and remain strong with their faith.

Suffering produces - it can and should produce - endurance.

Fortitude is a word used in some translations. The meaning is that suffering, which has the root word for “pressure” - pressure can come in many forms, including sorrow, loneliness, difficulties with life’s experiences - can and is to produce endurance, which refers to having the spirit of overcoming whatever troubles are faced. Endurance is not sadly accepting whatever happens. It is the ability to stay strong, including in our faith, through whatever problems we face.

There is a story about a man who was totally broke because the company with which he was associated went bankrupt. Someone said to him, “Financial ruin certainly colors life, does it not?” The man answered, “Yes, it does, but I will choose the color.”

Rejoice when you suffer. Rejoice because suffering can lead to endurance. May that be our pray for Christians who are being persecuted. And when they and we endure, we have produced in us character.

The root word for character is also used to describe metal that has been submitted to fire so that anything and everything that is impure is purged from it and it ends up perfectly pure.

Relating that to our spiritual growth, when we have character, we are stronger and purer Christians, as close as possible to the Lord, which is not the end of the progression. Character produces hope.

Hope affects how bad things are handled.

We know, do we not, that two people can face the same negative situation differently? One can be driven to despair, while the other can be encouraged to triumph. To the first, pressures can be the end. To the second, they are challenges to grow spiritually. Spiritual triumph and spiritual growth are displays of hope.

Hope that does not disappoint. As Paul continued the passage, we who are Christians should have hope, no matter what is faced, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. This has happened through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

On this Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians - every day we should pray for those persecuted, so today and every day - let’s ask God to give those who are suffering troubles and pressures because of their faith the ability to grow from their suffering to a continued hope in Jesus. And yes, let’s pray for ourselves so we might grow even now, making us increasingly capable of surviving if or when persecution reaches our lives.

In a moment, some closing comments about what and for whom we should pray on this Day of Prayer. Before that, the closing song, Trust and Obey. The song is the call to do those two things in every situation of life.

The first verse challenges us to do His good will. That means all the time and includes us praying for those being persecuted.

Verse 3 reminds us of God’s promise of continued blessings, even in times of trouble.

Verse 4 proclaims the hope of Heaven, which encouraged people like Stephen in the early church and which should encourage Christians even now. Even in times of trouble.

When we walk with the Lord 

In the light of His Word,

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will,

He abides with us still,

And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Not a burden we bear,

Not a sorrow we share, 

But our toil He does richly repay;

Not a grief or a loss,

Not a frown or a cross,

But is blest if we trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet

We will sit at His feet,

Or we’ll walk by His side in the way;

What He says we will do,

Where He sends we will go,

Never fear, only trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Online I found a list of suggested prayers concerning Christians who are persecuted. The closing for today’s service is a sharing of two items on the list. We will end with a moment of silent and then a spoken prayer. The hope is that we will each use the list in our personal prayers beyond this day.

First, of course, pray for those in the midst of persecution. Let’s pray they will be able to stay strong in their commitment to Jesus. Along with that, let’s pray for the families of the ones persecuted, who, even if not affected directly, suffer economically and emotionally.

The other item, I am embarrassed to admit, has never crossed my mind. Pray for those who are doing the persecuting. Let’s pray that God will open the eyes and soften the hearts of the persecutors. Jesus died for all who will accept Him. May those who do the persecuting come to realize that fact. May they, like happened with the apostle Paul, be turned from being a persecutor of Christians to being a follower of Jesus, despite the fact that might lead to them being persecuted.

For a moment of silent prayer, let’s pray for the persecuted and the persecutors. That will be followed by today’s benediction.

Silent Prayer

Lord, we who are Christians are one spiritual body. Because part of that body is suffering persecution, we all need to pray for those who are pressured, that they will be able to remain true to You.

Help those of us who do not currently suffer such problems to continue to grow spiritually so we can and will be ready if and when we are persecuted to an extreme degree. 

We want to grow. We want to help others grow. Keep us true to You, no matter what. Thank You for that privilege. Amen.

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