55. Care for the suffering church

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  55.  Care for the suffering church

Heb 13:3   Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Prisoners for Faith: Be under no illusion, when the writer says, “Remember those in prison,” he means those who are there for their faith, not those who are there because they are criminals. The first three centuries were centuries of persecution that came and went in waves. The apostle Paul, as he eventually became, was an early instrument of persecution: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”(Acts 8:1-3) The early chapters of Acts show us that the main apostles found themselves in prison, simply for declaring Jesus, more than a few times. Around the world today there are countries where Christians are either banned completely or severely persecuted. The call of this verse is never to forget those fellow believers who are in prison for their faith, and please understand that means people who are there simply because they are Christian believers, and there are many of them today.

Already earlier in this letter, the writer had referred to the difficulties of living as a Christian in those early decades of the first century: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Heb 10:32-34) It was a very real problem for the early Christians, as it is for Christians in certain parts of the world today.

Jesus’ Teaching: Jesus referred to such people when he challenged his followers to be caring: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35,36) Indeed his words in the wider context of that passage were quite strong, implying that if we didn’t care for such people, there was a question mark over our faith

The Body of Christ: The apostle Paul, while not directly speaking of persecution, may have had such people in his mind when he spoke in that famous chapter on ‘the body of Christ’, the Church, when he said, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) I have a story so bear with me until we get to the punch line.

The Example of One Man: I happen to have the privilege of having as one of my best friends in the world, an American pastor, now retired, who Skyped me in the UK, back in 2005, I think it was, and said, “I would like to run something past you that has been with me for some time, and see what you think.” He proceeded to share with me that he was certain God was calling him to go and demonstrate at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, on behalf of the persecuted church in China. He was aware it could mean he might end up in prison for ten years for doing what he had in mind. To cut a long story short, he painted slogans calling for release of Christians in prison, in several hotel rooms, videoed them as he did it and had it on the Internet to show it was real, and had a publicity team back in America running press conferences publicizing what he was doing. (He also left money in the hotels for the rooms to be repainted afterwards).

Having got it on the internet, he then went out into the countryside outside Beijing, where he lived under cover for the two week of the Games, so as not to interfere with them, and then on the last evening after the closing of the Games, he went out into Tiananmen Square where he started crying out loud for three quarters of an hour for God’s people to be released – the secret police in the area didn’t know what to do with him.  All this was being recorded back in America because he had a cell phone on him with a live link to the USA. The sound of this all happening, coming through a receiver in the USA, was eerie, as he carried on a running commentary, sharing the Gospel with tourists on the Square, and then carrying on crying out for the church until eventually he was escorted off the square and taken in a car through the back streets until the sounds of him ran out. He was interrogated for twenty four hours and then expelled from the country unharmed. Smart Chinese!

I think it was two years later he felt a similar call to get into Iran and stand outside the most famous prison in the capital of Iran and again in a similar recorded manner call for Christians imprisoned there to be released. He was taken into the prison, interrogated for twenty four hours and then deported.

Quite some time later after each demonstration, he received contact from the persecuted church in both China and Iran and the message was the same: we are just so grateful to you for publicizing our plight. Prisoners from the prison testified, the word spread through the prison that there was this American demonstrating on our behalf and it lifted our spirits and we were all given fresh hope.

Now I am aware that there are other individuals and organizations who give their lives for the persecuted church and I tell of this one simply as an example. The need is real and the church worldwide needs YOU today to remember this call: “Remember those in prison.”   There are many ways you can do it. Contact help organizations through the Internet, write to prisoners, pray for them and so on. The biggest enemies are indifference and the “too busy” syndrome. Persecution around the world is getting worse. Speak up for those  who are suffering before our voices are silenced. This verse is as valid as any other in Scripture: “Remember those in prison.”

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