This past Sunday, our church prayed for our brothers and sisters who suffer for the faith around the world as part of the annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I want to encourage you to not leave this issue as something to think about once a year. I want you to keep remembering your persecuted family.
The book of Hebrews is especially helpful as a reminder about these things. It was written to Christians who suffered for the faith. And in chapter 10, we read:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38 but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” 39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
The recipients of this letter were Jewish believers who suffering for being Christians. The great temptation of their life was to flee suffering and persecution by going back to the religion of their fathers. But this letter warns them that that there is no help in the worship of the old covenant because it’s been fulfilled in Christ.
The Reality of Suffering
What were these believers going through? First, they had endured public ridicule (10:32-33). The sufferings they endured were not some back-alley thing. It wasn’t something that few people knew about. Quite the contrast, this was public ridicule.
Part of this public ridicule involved verbal abuse. They were “publicly exposed to reproach”— insults and public shame, lies and false accusations. This kind of abuse often hits at an emotional level. It’s the kind of thing that wears us down and makes unsure of our commitments. But it didn’t stop there.
It went on to include physical violence. We see this is the word “affliction.” This was more than people screaming at them on the street or condemning them in the public square. It included physical abuse. This might have been beatings, but it was certainly imprisonment at times (10:34a). And it could have come from mobs as well official government sanction.
Sadly, none of this is new. In just the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in public hostility to Christianity around the world.
- Not that long ago, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS) gave Christians in the city of Mosul an ultimatum that either convert to Judaism they can leave the area or die.* This came at the end of a decade of increased intimidation and persecution against Christians in the area. 10 years ago, 35,000 Christians lived in Mosul. By the time ISIS took over recently, there were only 3000 Christians living there.**
- Consider also the situation in North Korea. There, Christians can expect to face prison camps, torture, or death.
- In Iran, four Christians received 80 lashes for drinking wine during a communion service back in October of last year. (Islam forbids alcohol.)
- You may also remember the attack on a mall in Nairobi several years ago. Then, the Islamic terrorists made clear that any Muslim could leave. They were there to kill the Christians.
- In Pakistan, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside all Saints Church in the city of Peshawar. From that one act, 81 people were killed in 120 people wounded.
- In Syria, anti-government rebels have committed crimes against Christians which are so terrible I cannot even bring myself to type them into this post. It is estimated that every year, more than a hundred believers are killed because of persecution
To be clear, we’re not talking about suffering that comes simply because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time in a sinful world. What Hebrews is describing and what I’m recounting from news headlines is Christians experiencing mistreatment, persecution, and violence precisely because they are Christians. We are talking about suffering for believers because they have publicly identified with Christ.
Compassion for the Suffering
Hebrews told his readers to remember that sometimes they suffered and other times they saw friends suffering. Yet, together they lived as the church. When some believers saw others suffered, they compassion on them (10:34).
Specifically, they were partners in their suffering (10:33). This is the same word we often translate as fellowship(koinonia). These Christians so aligned themselves with those that were suffering that they participated in a fellowship of suffering. This began by acknowledging that those being dragged through the streets were their brothers and sisters. They didn’t distance themselves from the persecuted.
This fellowship with the suffering meant they would also suffer. Yet, they endured it joyfully (10:34). I think his point is not so much that they were joyful about these things, but that they joyfully endured with the other believers. They didn’t lose hope because of the suffering that they were enduring and they wanted to encourage one another in this hopefulness (10:36).
Remember the Suffering
Practically speaking, what can you do for Christians suffering today? How can we be like the Hebrew Christians who enjoyed fellowship with the suffering, even if we are not even in the same country as those persecuted? At least three things.
1. Pray for those suffering
Ultimately, our hope lies in a King who sits sovereign over all the nations on an eternal throne. So, we call out to him in prayer. Sites and apps like The Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors can give you specific needs for specific people. You can also download
Let me give you three things that you can pray in any circumstance. From 1 Timothy 2, we pray for government leaders. We pray for them to be saved and create a peaceful environment in which the gospel may flourish. Secondly, from the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, we obey Jesus and pray for our enemies. Again, we pray that they hear the gospel and turn from their wicked ways. Finally, from Acts 4 and the example of the early Christians who were first persecuted for the sake of Christ, we pray for their endurance and boldness in preaching the gospel.
2. Identify with those suffering
Hebrews 13:3 says we should “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (13:3). We need to find ways to publicly identify with our persecuted Christians because we are in the same body; the body of Christ. Just as if it were our own parents or siblings or children, we should speak up for the global church. We can leverage the earthly power of our country and call for awareness and alleviation of the sufferings the global church. Even if we end up bearing their reproach ourselves, we must identify publicly with those suffering.
3. Give to those suffering
It’s easy to be concerned for others but will we actually help them? Will we follow the command of James and display our faith through our works (Jas 2:14–17)? We have many refugees and illegals coming to this country with desperate needs. But what about our brothers and sisters fleeing for their lives, seeing refuge in other countries? Where will they go? Who will feed them? Will we be like the Macedonian Christians who, though themselves were in extreme poverty, gave to the believers suffering a famine in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:1–5)? Will we give generously, sacrificially, joyfully to meet the needs of those who will one day stand next to us before the throne of God and sing praise to the Lamb was slain for us? It’s easy with ordinations like Help the Persecuted and others.
The End of Suffering
Hebrews says, “you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property”(10:34). How could they do that? He says you responded this way“since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (10:34b–35).
Notice the play on words the author of Hebrews makes. Those persecuting you plundered your possessions, but you responded with joy since you knew you had a better possession waiting for you. This is why Christians can respond with joy in persecution and suffering and difficulty, even at the loss of their stuff—they have a great reward waiting for them. That’s their confidence.
Then, he quotes Isaiah to remind us that “in a little while and the coming one will come and will not delay” (10:37). Who is the coming one? It’s Jesus Christ. He is coming back for those who have faith in him. He is coming back to give us this better and abiding possession. This is the confidence the suffering church has in this life. This is what gives us hope, even today.
He is far better than anything in this life. Therefore, we should have compassion towards our brothers and sisters—those for whom, like us, Jesus shed his blood.
*Information about the current state of Christian in Iraq take in large part from Joe Carter, “The FAQs: Persecution of Christians in Iraq” on the TGC Blog (July 25, 2014), accessed online at http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-faqs-persecution-of-christians-in-iraq.
**Incidents and example take from Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know About Persecution of Christians in 2013” on the TGC Blog (October 28, 2013), accessed online at http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-persecution-of-christians-in-2013.