As the Taliban regains power and radical Islam grips the nation of Afghanistan again for the first time in 20 years, a flood of emotion has filled my heart. I don't know anyone over there personally, though I am loosely connected with workers in several missions organizations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Despite the lack of personal connection, I feel solidarity with disciples of Jesus there, especially after watching this video of an underground church leader on the ground. The common faith and hope we share is what beckons me to pray for them.
As I was discussing the situation with some other disciples last night, Philippians 1:27-29 came to mind. Paul writes:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 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.Philippians 1:27-29 (ESV)
Unlike much of Western Christianity, life for a disciple of Jesus in the Roman empire in the first century was not free from hardship. Whether from opposing sects of the Jews or from Rome directly, both Jewish and Gentile believers experienced tremendous pressure to pledge their loyalty to Caesar, return to worshiping ancestral, territorial, and imperial gods, and forsake their confidence in Jesus as the long-awaited messiah of Israel. Paul's letter to the Philippian assembly serves to encourage them to remain faithful to the Lord in the midst of that kind of distress and opposition.
Paul's exhortations are based on the manner of life and teachings of Jesus. He encourages them to conduct themselves in a way that is "worthy of the gospel of Christ" - that they would live in such a way that reflects their conviction that Jesus is the Jewish messiah who has been appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead on the Day of the Lord (Matthew 28:18, Acts 10:42) and will grant eternal life to "to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality" (Romans 2:7). Their patience, humility, and acts of servanthood toward others ought to mirror those of Jesus himself. The pinnacle of that imitation is displayed when they don't seek vengeance on their enemies, but witness boldly and wait patiently for God to bring vengeance on his Day. As Paul writes elsewhere, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God" (Romans 12:19). The cross was their model. They were to embrace whatever circumstances came their way as a result of their obedience to Jesus, confident that God would vindicate them in the future.
In the next part of his sentence, Paul wrote that he longed to hear of the assembly's ability to stand firm together. While an individual's display of Messiah crucified is indeed compelling, a corporate witness is far more dramatic. As they "strive side by side for the faith of the gospel", they not only seek to continue their missional work but they aim to live in sobriety, urgency, and eager anticipation together as they affirm the reliability of the good news that they've heard and believed. The God of Israel is going to fulfill all that he has spoken. If they endure until the end, resurrection, vindication, and eternal life will be theirs when Jesus returns.
Paul continues by saying that the Philippians should not "be frightened in anything by their opponents." How could this be possible with the kind of threats and antagonism they faced daily? The fear of losing everything is only paralyzing if one has no hope for getting it all back again. But for a disciple of Jesus who does surrender everything, eternal life in a resurrected body is coming (Mark 10:29-30, 1 Corinthians 15). What is there to be afraid of when eternal glory on a restored earth awaits?
This corporate steadfastness and lack of fear in the face of opposition is a sign to their adversaries that they will be destroyed at the day of judgment (2 Peter 3:7) as well as a sign to the faithful that they will be delivered from God's wrath and receive a "rich welcome into the kingdom" (2 Peter 1:11).
It's evident that the Holy Spirit is moving among believers in Afghanistan in the same ways that he emboldened the Philippian disciples in Paul's day. As I've been praying for them using the language of this letter, it was deeply encouraging to hear an underground church leader say "we will continue God's work". Another report also quoted a believer as saying "we don't fear the Taliban". Despite the opposition, they are standing firm together with the eager anticipation of resurrection and vindication on the day of the Lord.
Similar stories will be commonplace as we approach the end of the age. God's longsuffering, amnestic witness to the wicked (and especially to his wayward nation Israel) will be put on display through a people who imitate Messiah crucified and who love not their lives even unto death. As we "wait for the hope of righteousness" (Galatians 5:5), may we also be a people who are counted worthy to suffer for his sake (Acts 5:41).
So as we pray for our Afghani brothers and sisters, ask the Lord to remind them (and us!) that the world will not be this way forever.
* For other helpful resources on what's happening in Afghanistan, check out this episode of The Underground with Joel Richardson.