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Nov 05, 2017

Persecution Praying

Persecution Praying

Passage: Colossians 4:2-4

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Colossians

Keywords: church, gospel, persecution, prayer, suffering


On this Sunday of International prayer for the persecuted church around the world, we looked at what Paul, a persecuted early church leader, calls the church of every generation to DO for our persecuted brethren around the world and what the persecuted church does for the faith of every other believer in the world.


Persecution Praying

Colossians 4:2-4

November 5, 2017

INTRO:  2017 video from Voice of the Martyrs on persecuted Christians.

Today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church Worldwide.  Since we are part of that church, and since Paul gives us clear instructions about praying for persecuted Christ-followers in Colossians 4, I’m taking the liberty to jump ahead in our study in Colossians and combine Paul’s teaching with our praying today. 

The brief video segment you just saw was a dramatization of the actual experience of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand and his wife, Sabina, in Romania during the Communist Russian occupation of Romania from 1944 to 1989.  Richard was a prominent Lutheran minister at the time the Russians moved in as the Nazis fled.  As Romanian Jews, they had both suffered immeasurable loss from the Nazis. Sabina’s entire family had been annihilated in the concentration camps and Richard had been arrested three times by the Nazis. They had hidden escaping Jews during WWII.  Then they hid escaping Nazis from the Russians.  One of them thanked Sabina with a promise to imprison her if the Nazis regained power!

            Every Romanian hoped for a new start and freedom as the Communists talked of workers’ rights and “full religious freedom.”  But by 1947, more and more Christians were being arrested and imprisoned.  Richard had taken a very public stand at a 1945 “Congress of the Cults”, as the Russians had dubbed it.  In that Congress, they sought to acquire the conformity of every pastor to the Communist party.  Richard had been the first to deny them his allegiance.  For that, his church services were harassed and disrupted by rough-looking youths sent to whistle, jeer and interrupt the services.  Another pastor commented, “Better a rowdy audience that cares than a silent one that only pretends to listen!”  [I would agree!]

Richard finally sought to convince his wife and only son, Mihai, that they should all leave.  She got her Bible and read to him Jesus’ words in Mt. 16:25—“Whoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”  Then she said to her husband preacher, “If we leave now, will you ever be able to preach about this text again?”  They chose to stay. 

            In February of 1948, Richard failed to show up to preach that Sunday morning at church shortly after leaving the church.  For months there was no word whatsoever about where he was or if he was alive.  Eventually a prison guard offered her news of him… for a payoff, of course. 

            Under Communism, if you were a family of a political prisoner, you couldn’t get a ration card which meant you couldn’t buy food.  Ration cards were only for “workers” and the wife of a political prisoner could not work.  No work? No card.  No card?  You didn’t legally exist under Communism.

            For a brief period of time, some political prisoners were released.  But as it turned out, they were allowed to go home only long enough to recount the horrors of the prisons and work camps to their families.  Then they were rearrested.  Richard was not among the released or rearrested. 

            Then Sabina was arrested at her home at 5:00 a.m. one morning by the police.  It was August 23rd, 1948, “Freedom Day,” as the Communists called it.  Their 9 year old son, away for the night with another family, was left to fend for himself.  Sabina was taken to prison, at times housed in rooms with hundreds of other prisoners, other times in solitary confinement without so much as a bucket for excrement provided.

            She ended up in the infamous Jilava Prison in the worst cell of all, #4.  200 women were held in 4 cells while another 3,000 men filled the prison designed to hold 600 total. 

            The starvation rations weeded out the elderly and infirmed.  Eventually Sabina was transferred to a forced work prison building a 40 mile canal that would link the Danube River with the Black Sea.  By hand they were forced to carry at least 8 cubic yards of stone and dirt per day, by hand, 200 yards to a barge.  If they worked well, their quota was increased the next day.  If they missed their quota, they were punished. 

            Prisoners were bribed to become informants on other prisoners.  Sabrina refused.  Many women asked her to share with them stories of Jesus and the Bible.  She usually would.  And frequently an informant would snitch on her.  The punishment was to spend a night in the “carcer”—a narrow cupboard big enough for only one standing person.  Sent there immediately after a day’s labor, she would be left there for the entire night, and let out in the morning just in time to return to the work assignment. 

            Over the years, she would hear stories from other prisoners about her husband, Richard.  Often the stories concluded with his supposed death.  She was allowed to see her son…one day that year…for 15 minutes…standing across the room from each other.  Her parting words to him were, “Mihai, believe in Jesus with all of your heart!”

            Sabrina spent 3 years in forced labor camps like this (1948-51).  She was told by authorities to divorce her husband and she would be released.  She refused. She was told he was dead.  She refused to believe that.

Unexpectedly, she was freed.  She returned to her old home in Bucharest to find that another family in the church was living there.  But her son was alive.  Together they moved into the attic of their former home. Again, without work permits they had no food coupons.  They eked out an existence year after year. 

Then one lovely June morning, 1956, she returned home to find her husband, Richard, standing in their home, gaunt, head-shaved but alive.  It had been 8 years of imprisonment, 3 years in solitary confinement. 

In January of 1959, Richard was re-arrested.  He spent another 6 years in prison.  Sabina was able to see him only once during those 6 years. 

In 1965 he was ransomed for $10,000 by the Norwegian Mission to the Jews and the Hebrew Christian Alliance.  They immigrated to the United States and, in October 1967, started what we know today as The Voice of the Martyrs newsletter.  (Show) It has become the premier international organization advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world. 

            That is the story of just one of the millions upon millions of persecuted Christians in the world in the last 70 years.  Last year, some 90,000 Christians worldwide were killed for bearing the name of Christ.  Another 210 million lived in countries with “extreme” or “severe” persecution.  And some 600 million Christians were “prevented from practicing their faith” in 2016. 

            To this world and church reality, Paul, a prisoner in chains for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, has some very important commands for us, the “free church” in the world.  Colossians is one of the “Prison Epistles.”  It’s a letter from a man undergoing real persecution.  [One reason I’m looking forward to my son-in-law’s movie coming out on Paul in March 2018.  It’s setting is a persecuted church…and I think God will use it amazingly in our day of a deeply persecuted church worldwide.]

 Let’s read those commands in Colossians 4:2-4— Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

            So before any of us go on a guilt trip, can I just say that the two central topics of this text, namely prayer and witnessing, are areas of our experience with Christ where most of us feel like we fall woefully short.  I mean, I read about Richard and Sabrina Wurmbrand and how they kept following Christ and preaching Christ and dying for Christ under constant threat of more and more persecution and then I look at my own life—reluctant to talk about Jesus with my neighbors or having a hard time getting up a few minutes early to pray—and I think, “What a wimp I am spiritually!”  But guilt is, by and large, a lousy motivator.  So that’s not what I want you to hear today.

            But modeling is an amazingly powerful motivator.  Whether that is stories like we just heard or real-life people of faith we get to know personally, modeling has tremendous capability to change the way we do life. 

            One might expect a prisoner to ask for prayer like Paul is doing here.  One might expect prayer to be a theme in a letter from prison.  After all, prison probably holds a whole lot of opportunity to develop your prayer life, especially if you are in solitary confinement (as Christians often are).  NOTE:  You might want to be careful about asking God to “grow your prayer life!”  J

            But since we are a people committed to conversation with our Heavenly Father as was Paul, let’s see what Paul says about praying and what implications that has for our praying today. 

[Much of the following is liberally borrowed from a message by Steven J. Cole, June 19, 2016, found at https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-28-private-prayer-public-witness-colossians-42-6]

  1. Paul starts by telling us HOW we are to pray:

persistently, watchfully and thankfully.

1.)  Pray Persistently:  The Greek verb that is translated “Devote yourselves” is often used in connection with praying.

  • Acts 1:14 says of the early disciples before Pentecost, “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer….”
  • After the Day of Pentecost, we read of the early church (Acts 2:42), “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
  • Later, rather than getting distracted by waiting on tables, the apostles declared (Acts 6:4), “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
  • In Romans 12:12, Paul says that we should be, “rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, [and] devoted to prayer.”
  • And in Ephesians 6:18, Paul uses the noun when he commands us to pray “with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.”
  • Paul cites his own example of persistent prayer in 1:3, where he says that we are praying always for you.” He adds (Col. 1:9), “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
  • And he mentions ( 4:12) that Epaphras was “always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers.”

Without ceasing” or “always praying” does not mean praying nonstop every minute of the day, which would be impossible. Rather, it means coming back to prayer again and again, just as we would if someone were working with us all day and we had a running conversation.

This Greek word was used of a nagging cough, which persists over and over again and just won’t go away, (James Moulton & George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament [Eerdmans], p. 9).

Jesus taught persistent prayer in two humorous parables. In the first (Luke 11:5-8), a guy and his family are in bed at midnight when his friend starts banging on the door, asking to borrow some bread for a visiting guest. The guy in bed tells him to go away, but the guy won’t quit knocking. So finally, he gets up and gives him what he’s asking for.

In the second parable (Luke 18:1-8), a widow bugs an unwilling judge to give her legal protection from her opponents. At first he resists, but finally, because of her perseverance, he relents and grants her request.

The point of both parables is not that God is unwilling or unconcerned about our needs, but rather that we should persist in asking until He grants our requests.

APP:  Some of the most difficult praying for family or friends can be for those who are spiritually lost? Is there a point where we should quit praying? Probably not, or at lest until the person is dead…or you are dead! 

ILL:   George Muller began to pray daily for the salvation of five individuals in November, 1844. After 18 months, the first man was converted. After five more years, the second man got saved. After six more years (12.5 years), the third man came to saving faith. At the time Muller mentioned this in a sermon, he had been praying daily for the salvation of the other two men for 36 years! Just before Muller died in 1897, 53 years after he had started praying, the 4th man got saved. The 5th man was saved a few years after Muller’s death (see Roger Steer, George Muller: Delighted in God [Harold Shaw Publishers], p. 267). That’s being “devoted” to prayer!

2.) Pray watchfully:  “…being watchful,” or keeping alert may also be translated, “staying watchful.”   Think of those old Western movies where someone is supposed to stay awake around the campfire, listening for cattle rustlers who might want to bushwhack you. Or think of the military and guard duty on the perimeter of a hill you are holding.  You shoot at anything that moves.  So with prayer.  

Interestingly, this word is often used in the context of mentioning our adversary, the Devil.

  • After urging us to cast all our anxieties on the Lord, because He cares for us, Peter exhorts (1 Pet. 5:8): “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
  • Jesus tells us to be on the alert regarding His second coming (Matt. 24:42; 25:13). In the Garden, just before His arrest, He told the disciples (Matt. 26:41), Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

If we knew that a dangerous lion had escaped in our city Sunday morning and the authorities had last seen it near 2nd & Howard, we’d all be very watchful as we left church to head toward our cars! Well, a dangerous lion is on the loose in Spokane, not just on Sunday mornings, but all the time! Prayer is how we stay on the alert against this unseen, but frightening enemy (Eph. 6:10-18).

3.) Pray thankfully

To pray thankfully is to pray in faith.  It’s easy to pray thankfully when life is good.  But when we’re stressed and circumstances do not seem to be in your favor, it can be hard to be thankful.

  • Perhaps you’ve lost your job and have a pile of bills due.
  • Maybe your doctor has just diagnosed you with a serious illness (as several of our church family are in right now).
  • Maybe your teenager is rebelling and running with the wrong crowd…or your marriage is struggling…or you’re having school problems.

Whatever the trial, it takes faith to pray,

“Lord, thank you for this trial, because I know that it’s not too difficult for You. I know that You are for me and You intend to work it together for my good. You will use it to strengthen my faith. So I ask You to answer for Your glory and Your name’s sake.”

So we’re to pray persistently (not giving up), watchfully (aware of the spiritual battle we and others are in), and thankfully (by faith in who God is and what He has promised).

  1. WHO are we to pray for?

So much of my praying revolves around my own life, my own family, my own church.  But if I am to grow into Christ, my praying must move beyond what is right in front of me.  Here is where the persecuted church comes in.  Vss. 3-4:

“And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” 

            Imagine that you were in Richard or Sabina Wurmbrand’s shoes (or better yet…jail cell).  Is this what you or I would be asking God’s people to pray?  Wouldn’t our prayer request go more like, “Pray that I’ll get out of here…soon!”

But Paul, in effect, prays, “Your kingdom come….”

Pastor John Piper points out that one of our major problems with prayer is that we have made it into a domestic intercom to call for refreshments from the butler rather than a wartime SAT Phone to call in support for the troops (“Walk in Wisdom Toward Those Outside,” on desiringGod.org).

Here’s one way to picture what is going on here. Paul and Timothy (1:1) and Aristarchus (4:10) and Epaphras (4:12) are a unique platoon of spiritual “Special Ops” soldiers in the spiritual battle.  They are in the field to recapture the hearts of people for God. They have made a strike at the enemy lines and met a tremendous counterforce. Paul and Aristarchus have been taken prisoner and are being held as POWs. It looks as though the enemy has a tactical victory in his pocket.

But Paul manages to smuggle a letter out of the prison camp to some fellow soldiers stationed to the rear—that’s the Colossians. In the letter he asks them to get on the spiritual satellite phone of prayer to HQ (command headquarters), and ask our CO (commanding officer), the Father, to do what? 

Surprisingly, it’s not to “get them out of there” necessarily.  Certainly the phrase “to open a door for our message” may include getting out of prison.  But the clear context is to ask God for more opportunities to share the Gospel of Christ AND clarity/boldness in continuing to proclaim Christ to people needing Him. 

The faith and boldness of persecuted brothers and sister in Christ never ceases to amaze me.  Of course they desperately want to be released, to return home to their loved ones, to escape the torture, pain, cold/heat of imprisonment.  But consistently God gives them a clarity of vision for what really matters in life and death that we who enjoy freedom every day seem to lack. Having lost virtually everything (freedom, contact with loved ones, fellowship with other believers, homes, basic comforts of life, health, strength, etc.), they find Christ their all and find sharing Him and the Gospel the only thing that really matters.  Persecution makes them rich in spiritual vision, spiritual priorities, godly values, faith, perseverance, hope in God and eternal things rather than hope in people and temporal stuff.  

ILL:  Many of you may remember our brother who was with us a few years ago from India.  As you may know, I had the privilege of going to India several years ago and to speak for a week to the college students.  That college is one of the largest Bible colleges in that part of the world. 

            Well, recently, things have been getting hotter, tougher and more violent in that part of the world.  Let me read a portion of an email conversation I had with him this week.  He writes,

“[T]o answer your particular question concerning persecution especially with what has happened with Children’s Home (which is now called “Children’s Network” primarily because we now in at least 190 locations instead on one place!)…what happened was the current Indian government which came to power using Hindu Nationalism as their main strategy, were feeling threatened by the astounding growth of Christianity in this sub-continent, and wanted to somehow quench the growth.  [S]o they systematically tried to legislate anti-Christian laws and meddle with Christian outreaches like ours whose prime focus is Evangelism and Discipleship.

“They are trying to pass a law that would mandate that all the children at Christian orphanages like Children’s Home (which happens to be largest evangelical children’s home [in India], would also have to teach Hinduism alongside Christianity even to the point of mandating placing Hindu idols in our buildings which absolutely goes against everything we believe and sacrificed for. They also declared if we resisted their demands they would forcibly close our ministry.  

“Hence we did a “preemptive strike” and prayerfully closed our main Home with over 1,200 [children in it].  [To continue caring for these orphans, we] placed 5 to 8 children in the homes of our church planters, pastors and evangelists! This [is] turning out be an amazing opportunity for children to experience a Christ centered home environment! So just like in Genesis 50:20 with Joseph, “What the enemy meant for [evil] God is turning to good for the saving of many people.”

Then, speaking of the very passage we are in today in Colossians 4, he says, “I am convinced persecution does not happen because we have orphanages or feed & cloth the poor but persecution undoubtedly comes because we preach Christ and HIM crucified! As Jesus said in Mark 13:13 “they will be hated by all for my name’s sake”

He goes on, “However in our personal experience, what persecution has really done is that it has actually accelerated the Gospel advance as many bystanders are watching and asking the timeless question,  “Who is Jesus?” and genuine seekers are meeting the Truth inside the mayhem.

“So these are certainly bittersweet times for us! One of the question the persecuted church finds [itself] asking is, “Is there something beyond this jail cell [that] makes this persecution worth it?” The answer is, “Of course it is all worth it.” [As the] Apostle Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Yes, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus WILL suffer persecution.” So the question is not, “Why is there persecution?” but perhaps the question really should be, “Why are we not suffering persecution?”

Then he concludes, sounding to all the world like the Apostle Paul when he says, “If there are a couple of earnest prayer requests from the fields of persecution here in South Asia [they] would be

  • Pray fervently that our Lord will continue to open doors for us to continue sacrificially serving others
  • …and pray that He will open doors for us to preach Christ!!

After over 5 decades on this mission-field we have learned well the best strategy for defense is a good offense.... and that offense [is] finding places to serve others [by] preaching and sharing Christ to those who have never heard!

“Thanks for your prayers and support all these years.

Your co-worker in Christ.” 

If any of you want to support one of those children in one of those pastor’s/church planter’s home,

WHAT to Pray for When Praying for Persecuted Christians

  1. Pray for those in the midst of persecution(Hebrews 13:3, ESV)

Global watchdog Open Doors reports that 322 Christians are killed every month for their faith while millions more suffer persecution on a routine basis. Please pray that these believers will not only stay committed to the call of Christ but also will respond in love to the evil shown by their aggressors. God’s love will open doors for these believers to share the Gospel even more.

  1. Pray for those who are doing the persecuting(Matthew 5:44, ESV). Pray that God would open the eyes and soften the hearts of these individuals who bring unfathomable abuse upon Christians. Remember as you pray that God sent His Son for the whole world (John 3:16, ESV); He does not want anybody—even these individuals—to perish (Ezekiel 18:23, ESV).
  2. Pray for the families and loved ones of those being persecuted (Hebrews 4:16, ESV)

Ask God to comfort families who many times do not receive updates about their loved one and are not allowed to visit, or it’s simply not safe enough to do so. Pray they, too, will remain faithful to the calling God has placed on their lives.

  1. Pray that we/churches would rise up with help and support(Acts 4:23-35, ESV). Support from the body of Christ is so critical. Whether we are giving up our time in prayer or our resources in physical support, the church must rally around those suffering for Christ. American Christians also should rattle the door of Washington by writing their elected officials. Remind them the persecution of Christians is a real issue that must be addressed.

[See 2 Cor. 8:14“At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.”  We NEED their perseverance, faith, steadfastness, zeal for the Gospel, heart for the spiritually lost, sacrificial and loving hearts, etc.]

  1. Pray that world leaders would do all they can to fight this persecution(Psalm 2:10-11, ESV) God makes it clear in His Word that leaders have a responsibility. Pray God would stir their hearts, and they would not only draft but enact the necessary policies and procedures to make a lasting, global difference.

[From https://billygraham.org/story/5-ways-pray-persecuted-christians/]

So let’s DO THAT right now! che

[Take time to pray each of these 5 things for some specific country, church, person.  NAME nations under persecution.]

  • Talk about wristbands available for $1.00 to remind us to PRAY for the Persecuted Church.
  • Handouts on “How to Pray for the Persecuted Church” on the chairs. Take them and try praying every day this week one or two of the suggested prayers/areas. 
  • Go to persecution.com to support families of persecuted believers.