Empowered by Christian Martyrs
Modern Christian Persecution
Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Christian during the heigh of communism, spent fourteen years being tortured for his faith in Christ. I want to begin this morning with an excerpt from his book, Tortured for Christ. He writes:
"A pastor by the name of Florescu was tortured with red-hot iron pokers and with knives. He was beaten very badly. Then starving rats were driven into his cell through a large pipe. He could not sleep because he had to defend himself all the time. If he rested a moment, the rats would attack him.
He was forced to stand for two weeks, day and night. The communists wished to compel him to betray his brethren, but he resisted steadfastly. Eventually, they brought his fourteen-year-old son to the prison and began to whip the boy in front of his father, saying that they would continue to beat him until the pastor said what they wished him to say. The poor man was half mad. He bore it as long as he could, then he cried to his son, 'Alexander, I must say what they want! I can’t bear your beating anymore!' The son answered, 'Father, don’t do me the injustice of having a traitor as a parent. Withstand! If they kill me, I will die with the words, "Jesus and my father-land."' He died praising God" (Wurmbrand 34).
Christians in the Middle-East, Africa, India, and China are facing similar kinds of persecutions, even now, choosing rather to die or bear severe mistreatment than to deny their faith in Christ. Our faithful brother, Mani Pagidipalli, who works in India, sends updates almost daily of the work they’re accomplishing to bring Muslims and Hindus into Christianity. I read a headline just last week, which read, “Five Hindu Men Lose Everything for Christ.” Choosing Jesus over this present age, they were kicked out of their schools and were forced to forfeit government aid.
I reached out to him and asked him to send me some additional testimonies of persecution. This was what he wrote back to me:
"There are so many - (1) A Christian woman was killed in public by her own husband for attending church services. That guy is still out on streets. (2) Another Christian woman had her husband and son pour pesticide in her throat in the name of threatening her not to worship with Christians in that village. (3) One bible college student was stabbed and thrown in open fields at night (4) another student was killed (5) another one suffered fractures (he was a former hindu priest) (6) one preacher's wife had [her] uterus ruptured and lost the baby and I had to do hysterectomy. (7) one Christian was poisoned by his Hindu friends."
When saints, both historically and presently, have endured such hostilities as these, what does it do for your faith in the midst of conservative, middle-class, free America where Christian testimonies yield very little trouble (comparatively)? Turn to Philippians 1:12-14.
Proof of Our Divine Gospel
“12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14).
Paul specifies two manners in which his imprisonment advanced the cause of Christ, namely, (1) the whole imperial guard keeping watch over Paul heard the news of Christ, and (2) Christians were empowered by what they saw in Paul and therefore spoke the gospel with greater confidence. I want to address that second idea first this morning, after which I’ll say a word about Paul’s immediate effect in the prison.
What did Paul’s chains do for free saints? It crucified their spiritual indolence. Quiet, timid, weak saints saw the unfazed, undaunted Paul, whose testimony for Christ emanated like shock waves far beyond prison confines; and as a result, they were girded in faith, stripped of timidity, and empowered to speak.
Paul relays these historical happenings as though they should be unexpected. His rhetoric is something like, “I want you to know that these attempts to squelch the gospel have actually progressed it! How great is the wisdom and knowledge and power of God!” And the reason this is so unexpected is because fear and coercion have been successfully used throughout the centuries to undermine both political and religious uprisings. Richard Wurmbrand spoke of the successful efforts of communism to eradicate free thinking. To one of his oppressors in a communist prison, he said, “Do you not have any faith in God?” And the man looked at him, without understanding, and said, “I have no such order to believe. If I have an order I will believe.” These kinds of coercive tactics are most often successful in quieting witnesses of various sorts. Not so with eyewitnesses to Jesus.
“You must speak no longer in this name!” said the authorities to Peter and John. But they responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (see Acts 4:17ff).
What would you expect to happen to Christianity when its leader was crucified and its people greatly persecuted? If this were anything other than a divine gospel, you’d expect Paul to be quiet, for the powers to get a handle on Christianity, and for believers to get real timid and close their mouths. But instead, Paul got his chains on and started talking even louder. And then most Christians saw Paul unfazed and thought to themselves, “If he’s still standing by his original declaration—even under bondage and in the face of death (see 1:20)—then Christ must be true and every man a liar!” And so they all began to declare the message of Christ without fear.
These testimonies from early eyewitnesses to Jesus spurred the early church out of apathy and into the kind of spiritual uprising that grew the church by the thousands. Paul’s message to the Philippians is, “Be bold and courageous in your testimony to Christ, just as most of the brothers are doing, because Christ cannot be silenced by oppression, prison, or Caesar—he’s too real. He’s too powerful. He’s not the kind of fanciful figure one can coercively eliminate.”
So the first main idea today is this: Find examples of bold and undaunted Christians whose example will destroy your timidity and light your fire for Christ.
Prisoner, Pillar, Paul
As a second and final point today, let’s talk about the immediate effect of Paul’s imprisonment. He says, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
So in the immediate sense, the gospel progressed because all of the Roman soldiers and authorities keeping watch over Paul came to know of Christ. In other words, high ranking officials and the highest offices in the Roman empire were introduced to the gospel of Jesus by Paul’s imprisonment. How high did the message reach? In 4:22 Paul says, “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”
Caesar is the Greek name which denotes the emperor of Rome. The gospel reached the highest powers on earth because of an imprisonment, though not just an imprisonment. The gospel wouldn’t have moved without the prisoner, Paul.
Paul goes to jail, and suddenly all of the highest authorities in the world are informed about Jesus. Aren’t you curious? What happened in that jail cell? Paul went in as a preacher of “foreign divinities,” and now everyone is thoroughly familiar with Christ.
Without Paul’s exact report we may still infer many things: (1) Paul—a real historical figure—believed with his entire being that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This is why he went to prison and wouldn’t deny Christ. This is why he left his successful life as a Pharisee; (2) Paul was fearless in the midst of spiritual opposition. I say that first because his example led others to be fearless (v. 14) and second because he calls the Philippians to not be “frightened in anything by your opponents” (v. 28). Paul was a fearless believer; (3) Paul was a talker. He went to prison and now everybody around him and far beyond him knows about Christ. What would his conversations have been like? (4) Paul behaved in such a way so as to make the gospel attractive to his guards. Had he been a grumpy complainer that his imprisonment was undue, his effect would have been minimal. In verse 27 Paul calls the Christians to behave in a manner worthy of the gospel, which, he goes on to say, is a sign of salvation from God (see vv. 27-29).
Be Empowered and Empower Others
I think the basic truths of today’s message are these: (1) Be empowered by Paul and modern persecuted brothers abroad, who stand unabashed with Christ amidst great hostility; (2) Be like them, so that other weak Christians will be empowered by your example in Christ.
In 1:29-30, Paul says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
Christian suffering is not supposed to dissuade us from boldness in Christ. Rather, our example within it should empower others who are on the fence. If my Indian brothers and sisters are being maimed for their faith, then surely I can speak up when I may lose a friendship. Surely I can testify when I may be laughed at.
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