The blogosphere and social media world have recently been filled with news of atrocities taking place all over the Middle East (some of which are just rumors spread by social media). One of the affected cities is Mosul, Iraq where a Muslim group, ISIS, has taken control. Christians have been driven from their homes and forced to renounce Christ at the penalty of death. Syrian Christians have recently also been heavily oppressed by Muslims.
If we were Christians living in the Roman empire in the first century, persecution would have been much more commonplace. History records much antagonism towards Christianity and ruthless actions of emperors like Nero, Domitian, and Marcus Aurelius. It was under Nero that Paul the Apostle was executed in Rome in 67AD.
I live on the other side of the world, but Voice of the Martyrs as well as frontier missionaries serving with The Antioch Center for Training and Sending have brought me nearer to the plight of my Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East. As I've learned more about their struggles, the Lord has been stirring my heart to pray for them. Solidarity with the persecuted is what Hebrews 13:3 speaks of:
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
(Hebrews 13:3 ESV)
Remembering the story
The Bible clearly says that suffering is a normal part of Christianity in this present evil age, and that persecution for the faith is part of God's design for a believer's life (1 Peter 4:12-19; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4; Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:40-41; 2 Corinthians 4:17-5:1). Why? Because Jesus Himself was hated, persecuted, and put to death by wicked men (John 15:20). Christians follow in His steps as a clear witness to the longsuffering love that He displayed on the cross (Colossians 1:24; Philippians 1:20-21; Philippians 2:5-11; Philippians 3:17-21; Ephesians 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). When believers endure persecution and even give up their lives for their faith, Jesus' glory and greatness is seen more brightly.
Just as the significance of Jesus' death on the cross can't be rightly understood without earlier biblical context, the normalcy of suffering for Christ in this age can only be acknowledged within the context of the broader biblical story - from the perfection of creation in the Garden, the fall of Adam and the promise of the Seed (Genesis 3:15), the story of Israel, the coming of Jesus, the cross, His resurrection, His ascension, and the promise of restored perfection in the age to come by and through Him. This age is characterized by toil, sorrow, sin, and death but the age to come will be characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy because Jesus will reign from Jerusalem, death will be no more, and the heavens and earth will be restored as the home of righteousness (Romans 14:17; Revelation 21:4; 2 Peter 3:13).
It's harder for us in the West to assimilate persecution into our concept of "normal Christianity" simply because we have not experienced it as other believers in the world have. This lack has unfortunately shaped the Western church's theology of suffering and in large degree lifted our anchor of hope from the age to come and placed it in this present age.
The persecuted church in the first century firmly believed that their hope did not lie in this age, and that their inheritance in the age to come was of greater value than anything in this age (2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 1 Peter 1:3-7; Ephesians 1:11-14; Colossians 1:11-12). The author of Hebrews so confidently said:
“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
(Hebrews 10:32–34 ESV)
Praying with understanding
When we remember the biblical story and understand that God's design in suffering is to magnify His greatness, we are better equipped to pray for our persecuted brethren. I've found that there's no better prayers to pray than the ones recorded for us in the Scriptures. Though I've already cited many passages that include Biblical prayers, the first part of Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians has been highlighted to me lately. The Apostle Paul visited Thessalonica during his second missionary journey around 49AD. During his three-week stay (Acts 17:1-9), he preached the Gospel and many believed. Later, reports of the church's progress came to Paul and he wrote them several letters. In one, he said:
“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.”
(2 Thessalonians 1:3–4 ESV)
Paul opens his letter saying that the Thessalonians' ever-growing faith in Jesus and love for one another compels him to give thanks to God. I'd imagine he was thinking along the same lines as he wrote to the Corinthians: "I planted ... but God gave the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6). Their steadfastness was not because of Paul's preaching finesse, but because God Himself was strengthening them. As he traveled elsewhere, he boasted about the church in Thessalonica. Though we often commend churches for a charismatic pastor, skilled worship team, or effective outreach programs, Paul ensured his churches knew that the Thessalonians continued to grow in faith and went on believing the Gospel even in the midst of severe persecution. This is a rightful boast.
The greater purpose in persecution
“And God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering. In his justice he will pay back those who persecute you. And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power. When he comes on that day, he will receive glory from his holy people—praise from all who believe. And this includes you, for you believed what we told you about him.”
(2 Thessalonians 1:5–10 NLT)
I love the way the New Living Translation makes Paul's logic so simple to understand. As the persecuted church stood strong in faith, Paul says that God would use the situation to show forth His righteous justice and prepare them to inherit the age to come. He would do this by:
- Repaying their persecutors with affliction and "eternal destruction" (verse 6, 8, and 9)
- Granting rest and relief from the persecution that comes from putting faith in Jesus (verse 7)
This justice and rest would come "when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven".
Did you catch that?
Yes, Paul said that the persecuted's day of justice and deliverance arrives at the second coming of Christ. I suspect he had Jesus' words in mind from Luke's gospel, where Jesus spoke about persevering in prayer until justice is established at His return (Luke 17:24; Luke 18:7-8). Their persecutors would receive the recompense they were due if they did not repent, but that day of destruction had been interposed by a period of amnesty. God is patient, not willing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance - even the hardest-hearted persecutors of Christians. (2 Peter 3:9)
You see, the return of Jesus was everything to Paul and the early church. Enduring persecution and even death for their faith was a "momentary and light affliction" (2 Corinthians 4:17), because they understood the broader story that they were a part of. They had received the Spirit, the promise of their bodily resurrection (Ephesians 1:13-14). Just as Christ was raised from the dead, those who put their faith in Him would also be raised from the dead (Romans 6:4-5; Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Until that Day, the church's longsuffering, unto-death witness towards persecutors declares that God is patient, but will repay the unrepentant.
How Paul prays for the persecuted
In light of the witness of Christ given in the midst of enduring persecution and with the hope of the resurrection, Paul prays a very specific prayer:
“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
(2 Thessalonians 1:11–12 ESV)
I presume that the most shocking thing to the Western mind in this passage is that Paul does not pray for the Thessalonians' deliverance from persecution or pray for the persecutors to be destroyed. His own former life as a persecutor of the church was undoubtedly shaping his prayers now (Galatians 1:13). Instead, he prays that God would use persecution to enable the believers to live a life worthy of participating in the age to come. Trials are a training ground to prove the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:7). Paul wanted his churches to "continue in the faith, stable and steadfast" (Colossians 1:23). In doing so, they would show forth the glory of Christ's death as a "sure and steadfast anchor of the soul" (Hebrews 6:19) and declare to their persecutors that the hope of resurrection they cling to "does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5 NASB).
He also prayed that they would "fulfill every resolve for good". Elsewhere Paul encourages believers to "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21). In context, he is praying that they will not retaliate against their persecutors with evil and that God would give them His grace to continue to walk as Jesus did. The true picture of Jesus was at stake. This is why his prayer culminates with the reason for everything - "so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified".
How we can pray for the persecuted
As we've examined this passage in 2 Thessalonians, I hope you've discovered more biblical ways to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East. In summary, we can:
- Pray that their faith is strengthened and their love for one another increases.
- Pray that they recall the larger story they are a part of and the witness they are bearing to Christ as they are persecuted.
- Pray that they have boldness to warn their persecutors of the judgment to come.
- Pray that God would use persecution to test and strengthen their faith.
- Pray that Jesus would be glorified through persecution.