Forum: Perspectives on Heaven from the Persecuted Church

Article
12.22.2020

We asked several pastors located in contexts where significant persecution occurs, whether in their location or nearby, the following question:

“How have you encouraged Christians experiencing significant persecution with the hope of heaven?”

*****

John Folmar, Pastor in the UAE

In Nizamabad, India, the farmers regularly come together to discuss the news of the day or respond to difficulties facing the community. When they face a problem, like when the price of turmeric drops too low or the goats aren’t giving enough milk, the farmers sacrifice animals to assuage the Hindu gods.

Isaac is from Nizamabad, but he has become a follower of Christ. Recently back in his home village, he explained to his fellow farmers that he only worshipped the one true God and no longer made sacrifices to other gods. They insisted that his new religion was fine, but he still had to join them in offering sacrifices because they all faced the same problem.

When Isaac refused, they responded by hanging a dead animal on his front porch, expressing their displeasure and intolerance. Isaac no longer fit in. His village no longer thought of him as one of them. He was no longer home.

So it was with Abraham. He was an exile, a stranger moving here and there throughout Canaan, no doubt misunderstood, suspected. But Abraham kept on trusting God, “for he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

A tent has no foundations. A tent shows you haven’t arrived yet, you’re picking up soon and moving on. A city, on the other hand, is permanent, settled, stable. With pillars and foundations. But this city is different—its designer and builder . . . is God. This describes a future hope of incalculable, unimaginable joy—eternal life in the very presence of God: a “better country” (Heb 11:16), a place so marvelous, the Scripture can only describe it in images and pictures.

What makes the city so great is who lives there. God himself is directly, immediately with his people. Faith gives way to sight. Joy overtakes any suffering or pain.

This city is where we belong, if we have placed our faith in Jesus Christ, if we’ve been cleansed by his shed blood. It’s home. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may . . . enter the city by the gates.” (Rev 22:14). Friends, to survive a hostile world, to endure discomfort and uncertainty, open your eyes to the better country, the heavenly city. Like Abraham, put your hope fully in those promises.

The city I live in, Dubai, says, “Buy now—pay later. Find your fulfillment here, no matter what, and give no thought to eternity.”

I trust this message is more-or-less universal. So I wonder: has it worked for you? Has the world satisfied you? Or have you begun to see the vanity of this world? The unsatisfying emptiness? Are you beginning to feel settled here, at home in this world?

Jonathan Edwards wrote, “If we spend our life in the pursuit of riches or sensual pleasures; credit and esteem from men; delight in our children, and the prospect of seeing them well brought up and well settled—all these things will be of little significance to us. Death will blow up all our hopes, and put an end to all our enjoyments.” [1]

When you are laid silent in the grave—what good will all your worldly enjoyments be then? But the life of faith says, invest now, even suffer now, and receive admission to the city, where God lives with us. This must be our chief and best desire. Edwards: “We ought above all things to desire a heavenly happiness; to be with God; and dwell with Jesus Christ. Though surrounded with outward enjoyments and settled in families with desirable friends and relations; we ought not take our rest in these things as our portion.”

In other words: “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

Let me ask you: Do you think often of your journey’s end? Have you considered that your life will soon be gone? Is heaven regularly in your thoughts? Or are you caught up in the daily life and difficulties of your village?

Edwards: “Labour to have your heart taken up so much about heaven, and heavenly enjoyments, that you may rejoice when God calls you to leave your best earthly friends and comforts for heaven, there to enjoy God and Christ.”

*****

Mack Stiles, former pastor in Iraq

In Dubai, a new Sudanese convert told me his father would execute him when his new faith was discovered, but his comfort came by knowing Jesus promised to be with him—always.

An Arab Christian friend murdered a defenseless prisoner during the war in Iraq; his great comfort was knowing the forgiveness of God.

An Iranian partner in ministry, jailed for his faith, was so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit that during his interrogation, he dreaded the departure of his tormentor, so palatable was the presence of God.

A fellow elder from Eritrea was arrested for singing Christian songs on his wedding day; his comfort in jail came from the fellowship of other believers.

A Kurdish believer, with her one-year-old daughter on her lap, explained to me why her family would disown her after her baptism. She took comfort in knowing, “Jesus is worth it.”

Promises of the presence of Christ, the forgiveness of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of believers, the worth of Jesus—all of them are comforts.

But the hope of heaven demonstrated among the oppressed Ixil people of Guatemala said more to me about God’s comfort than any of the experiences above.

The Guatemalan genocide in the 80s and 90s didn’t spare the young Ixil church. The cruelty of those years is difficult to describe or even imagine, but I have prayed in a cave where elders of a church were corralled and then slaughtered. I have prayed at the rock on which a pastor was beheaded for refusing to stop preaching in his church. And yet, it was in those dark places I saw the greatest encouragement of the hope of heaven.

We lived and worked at a malnourishment clinic and orphanage in Nebaj. Orphans were common in Guatemala due to the murder of so many parents. During the week, we would travel to surrounding villages by foot to preach the gospel.

In one small village, we unloaded the generator off the donkeys and fired up the show for all who would come. The church building was a shack with dirt floors, fit with planks on cinder blocks for pews. We showed them various videos, some richly contextualized and in the heart language of the Ixil. But the video they requested, again and again, was a badly made reenactment of Lazarus and the rich man. The fuzzy picture and the hokey American actors, made audible by an off-kilter Spanish dub, did not deter them. When we asked them what they liked about the film, they said that Lazarus was them. He was poor, downtrodden, sick, and humiliated— just like they were! But his name was known. He was loved by God in heaven, held by Jesus.

When the boot is on your neck and all hope is crushed from your world, the hope of heaven is a sweet and comforting treasure.

*****

DSD, Pastor in East Asia

Mother’s Day 2019 was a day I will never forget. We gathered as a church in our nondescript city center hotel ballroom—just like we’d done for the past several months. But this wasn’t an ordinary Sunday. We were about to be tested as a church like never before.

As one of our pastors got up and began preaching from Matthew 20, uniformed police officers interrupted the service, intent on shutting us down. They weren’t there to ensure we adhered to community regulations. They wanted to intimidate and to silence us.

After that day, our church scattered. We couldn’t meet together as one body in the same place. On that day, we joined the ranks of persecuted churches.

Time and time again, Scripture says that to be a Christian is to be persecuted. As a scattered church, we reflected a lot on the events recorded in Acts 8: “And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” But what struck me was verse 4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”

Those who were scattered didn’t hide. They didn’t build communes of safety. Indeed, they were scattered, but they were never silent. They went about preaching the Word! Now as a pastor of a persecuted and scattered church, I had a few questions: “How do we live like this? How do we respond to persecution—not by hiding behind closed doors, but by seeing this as an open door? How do we keep preaching the Word?”

Ironically, I found my answers from the voice of the one who persecuted that early church in Jerusalem: the Apostle Paul. Consider the counsel he gave to Timothy, a young pastor: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

Paul wrote these words from a prison cell. The persecutor of the church had become persecuted for the church. Near the end of his life, he turned his attention to his future. He looked forward to heaven and the glory that awaited him. This is what gave him the confidence to keep going, to keep fighting, to keep running.

A few months after we were scattered, I was sent out as one of the elders of a new church that we planted as a direct result of that persecution. I preached the first sermon on our first Sunday as a new covenanted community. Can you guess what I chose for my texts? Acts 8 and 2 Timothy 4. I wanted to point us to heaven.

On that day, as a new church covenanted together, a scattered people became a newly gathered people—at least until the Lord chooses to scatter us again or to return and bring us home. But until that day, we’ll keep preaching the Word, looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise that one day we will be an eternally gathered people, crowned with glory, safe and secure, never to be scattered again.


[1] Edwards, Works 2:244, 243.

By:
J. Mack Stiles

Mack Stiles lives in the Middle East with his wife Leeann, where he serves as a pastor of an international church.

John Folmar

John Folmar is the pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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