Remember Those in Prison

It can be hard to watch television.

Do you remember the wall? The wall covered with pictures of men and women who disappeared in the span of a few moments when extremists directed two airplanes into the largest targets on the New York City skyline. There’s a picture of a man, sitting on the roof of his home. He’s lost everything but his life and the clothes on his back. There’s a picture of a child, flies buzzing around her face, looking at us through hollow, hungry eyes. Mother and father are gone, the victims of yet another military coup that brought death to streets where she once played. Here’s a woman carrying her dying child, looking in vain for food for herself and her baby, but the ground is dry, even the water is spoiled, and there is no food.

We feel helpless. So helpless. You feel so incredibly helpless that the only way to deal with the helplessness is to turn it off, turn away, try to forget.

This morning I want to show you a picture that I hope you will not forget. I hope that I will not forget. It is a hard picture to look at, but we need not feel helpless nor hopeless.

As the writer of Hebrews closes his letter, he tells his readers to pay attention to several areas of responsibility. In chapter 13, verse 3, he writes this:

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

What can we learn from this text that applies to what is going on in our world?

Christians around the world are in prison or suffer mistreatment because of their faith.

There are two special inserts in your bulletin this morning. I would like you to look at the map and note that it represents, as the title says, areas of the world where Christians are persecuted. This means that because a man, woman, boy or girl has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, they are in harm’s way. Look for a moment at that map.

Note that those areas which are highlighted are also earth’s most densely populated. Missionaries have talked to us about the 10-40 window, that area of the world most resistant to the Gospel. If you look at the shaded areas, you’re looking at the 10-40 window. And right at this moment, in those places, we have brothers and sisters in prison and who are undergoing mistreatment for no other reason than their faith in Jesus Christ.

Of course, persecution of Christians is not new. Persecution began as soon as the excitement of Pentecost had settled down, and we can read about it in Acts 4. Paul wrote several of his letters while in prison. Many of the Apostles died as martyrs, with apparently only John dying of old age, but even he was in prison for his faith.

In addition, there is no reason to expect that persecution will stop. Jesus told his followers that the world would hate them because it hated him (John 15:18-25). Peter wrote to address the difficulties that Christians were facing in 1 Peter 4:12-19.

We need to be fair. People acting under the banner of Christianity have been guilty of persecuting people of other faiths, though in most (but not all) cases this was less a matter of theology and more a matter of power, ambition and nationalism.

Who are we talking about? Who is being persecuted? We’re talking about shopkeepers, fishermen, farmers, mothers, fathers and even children. We’re talking about pastors and church leaders – people whose “crimes” are having faith in Christ and being faithful to him. Owning portions of God’s word. Sharing their faith with others. And their punishment includes being mocked and perhaps even disowned. It could involve being excluded from the business community. It might mean the loss of property, beating, prison, torture and even death. All because of faith in Christ the Lord.

Why? What makes this happen? Simply, the Gospel is a threat. It threatens the power structures of this world because it has room for no ultimate authority other than the Lord Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God the Father. And people hate it.

So what do we do?

We are to remember those who are persecuted

In a first-century context, Roman law used prison as detention until punishment rather than as punishment itself; sometimes prisoners had to depend on outside allies for food.[1] To remember their brothers and sisters, then, meant providing for their sustenance, helping their families, making sure that they were fed and clothed. But we’re half-way around the world from most of our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted, so what can we do?

Before I answer that question, let me point out the reason that we need to care. The last few words of Hebrews 13:3 tell us that we are to remember these people “since you also are in the body.”

There are two ways to think about this. One way to see this is to acknowledge the fact that we are all vulnerable. And that is true. There is no guarantee that any of us will avoid persecution. So the idea is that we should realize that “there but for the grace of God go I.” But I think that misses something. I think that the best way to see this is that it is a reference to our inclusion in God’s family, as Paul has been telling us in Romans – we are all part of one body. We care because these people are our brothers and sisters. They have the same Father, they are indwelt by the same Spirit, they love the same Savior, they are fed by the same book. They are our family. How can you not care for family?

The question of course is, “What are we supposed to do?” The writer of Hebrews tells us only one thing: remember them. It is a word used only twice in the New Testament – both times in this book. It’s found also in Hebrews 2:6, where it is used in a quotation from Psalm 8, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him.” The word “mindful” and the word “remember” in Hebrews 13:3 come fro the same Greek word. It obviously means more than just “think about.”

So how do we remember? Well, you will notice that this is not the International Day of Protest for the Persecuted Church. Not that such activity is wrong. It is wholly appropriate for us to contact those in authority and urge them to act on behalf of those who are persecuted where possible. The media won’t herald their cause, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t.

I would suggest that we need to remember our brothers and sisters in two ways.

First, we need to remember their needs by making room in our lives to pray for them. If you haven’t already looked at the second insert in your bulletin, do so now. It is two sheets stapled together. This contains requests for 30 – count them, 30 – nations around the globe where Christian people are mistreated. Can you choose one country and pray for it once or twice a week? Can you take one country each day and rotate through this in a month?

What do we pray for?
· That they would be released (the church prayed that way for Peter in Acts 12)
· That they would be faithful to Christ and not deny Him.
· That where parents are in prison, especially fathers who earn the living, families will be provided for.
· That their witness will be effective.
· That the national church would grow strong. There are requests on this sheet for each of these 30 countries.

Second, we need to remember their example. It is simply time for us to wake up.

People are being put in jail and are tortured for the privilege of gathering as a spiritual family, and so many of us are quick to pass on going to church if something more entertaining or exciting comes along. That needs to stop. There may be reasons for you not to be here on a Sunday morning – and that includes staying to learn the Word of God in Sunday School – but there aren’t many good ones.

People are being mistreated because they have been found to have portions of Scripture in their possession. We have multiple Bibles and some of us never even open them up.

I could go on, but you get the point. Why are we so horribly casual with that for which others are willing to die? May God have mercy on them in their suffering, but may he also have mercy on us for our negligence.

Application

I am aware that none of us can pray for and respond to everything. But I also know that more of us can and should be involved in this. I hope that this makes us aware of what is happening in our world, and gives us a desire to join together with these our brothers and sisters and stand with them as they go through their darkness. There may come a day when they stand with us through ours.

[1]Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament (Heb 13:3). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

2 comments:

Bumble said...

Interesting. My brother in law was arrested 3 weeks ago. Please pray for us... If you leave me your email, I will send you more details.

Peter Bogert said...

My email is pcbogert at gmail dot com.