The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

When the Holy Spirit comes

Christian churches around the world have just celebrated Pentecost. Six weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit came to the early Christians who were gathered in a small room in Jerusalem. There were just 120 of them and they were living in a very hostile environment, but when the Holy Spirit came to them they received power to proclaim the good news of Jesus without fear. The Holy Spirit enabled Peter to speak to the crowd in Jerusalem in the people’s own heart- languages. The crowd came from many nations including what are now Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On that one day 3000 people believed in Jesus and the Christian church was born.

Today nearly one third of the people of the world, 2.18 billion, profess to be Christians. The spread of the Gospel message, and the growth of the church, are the result of the work of the Holy Spirit of God. In the early centuries Christians faced severe persecution, especially from the Roman Empire, yet still many people put their faith in Jesus. Christianity has always been at its best and strongest when it has not been recognised by political powers as the “official” religion. T.S. Eliot said that when the church and the state are in conflict there is something wrong with the state, but when they get on too well there is something wrong with the church.

In the past 100 years the number of Christians in the world has grown significantly in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Today most Christians live in the Global South and in these places the churches are dynamic. The overwhelming number of people in these countries who are becoming Christians are ordinary people. Their faith in Jesus has brought them into a new relationship with God. He gives them strength in their daily lives and a certain hope for the future..

The continuing growth in the number of Christians around the world is evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. People from every culture and language, in mega cities and remote rural communities, are experiencing God’s love in Jesus and finding new hope in him. The Holy Spirit can transform anyone. The hymn of Daniel Iverson is a prayer that many people have prayed, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me, break me, melt me, mould me, fill me, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”