Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Persecuted yet Blessed

Roland Clarke

Adapted from a sermon based on Acts 5:17-42

Last week I told you about a remarkable encounter with the cashier at McDonalds. After I offered her a riddle she read the entire thing out loud – an extended quote straight from the Bible – and she loved it! As you may recall the general idea was God making everything beautiful, especially planting eternity in the human heart. But the real clincher that evoked her curiosity was at the end: “A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume and the day you die is better than the day you were born.”

What I didn't tell you was that several weeks earlier at that same McDonalds I offered the same riddle to another cashier but she refused my kind offer. Without even looking at the slip of paper, she said, “I'm not allowed to accept it.” Maybe her supervisor advised her not to accept literature or she simply suspected I was giving her a religious tract. Either way, experiencing this mild opposition made me think twice about whether I really should share this wise saying again. But as you've already heard, I didn't let it stop me.

Hearing stories like this some Christian friends have said they admire my boldness. But I know better.

True boldness is what we've seen in the book of Acts where the early church suffered imprisonment and even floggings for preaching openly in public about Jesus. We've heard a couple sermons recently encouraging us to share our faith more boldly, expecting to face opposition and persecution.

“If the world hates you,” Jesus said, “remember that it hated me first. ... I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. … Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you.” (John 15:18-20)

The apostle Paul echoed Jesus when he wrote, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12) For me, these Scriptures underscore the importance of finding an answer to the question, “Have I faced opposition or resistance from neighbors and acquaintances?” And if not, why not? What godly character traits do people see in me? Who am I sharing the gospel with?

Last year I had an unusual encounter that involved stronger opposition. It happened while I was sharing another gospel riddle involving a snake on a pole. Yes, a snake on a pole Have you heard of Asclepius? It is a logo on the flag of the World Health Organization. Actually it's quite common as you can see it on ambulances across the world. At any rate, the Lord led me to write a pamphlet, entitled, Serpent to Saviour, based on the well-known words of Jesus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16) Encouraged by the insights I discovered, I decided to write an intriguing short version, hoping to hook people's curiosity and point them to Jesus. I prayed that this introduction would awaken their spiritual hunger and lead them to explore the underlying reasons why Jesus laid down his life and ultimately put their trust in him as Lord and Saviour.

I began to share this 'brain teaser' (see endnote) with friends and acquaintances.Then I even plucked up courage by going to a public parking lot full of cars where I began tucking a copy of the blurb under the windshield wipers. While doing this I met one lady who graciously accepted the paper and talked for a couple minutes. Not long after this, I came upon a car which had just been parked and the driver was still inside. I spoke to him through the open window explaining what I was doing. But before I'd even finished my first sentence he assumed I was a Christian who was pushing (forcing?) my religious 'opinions' on people.

He launched into a tirade, accusing me of being hateful and biased against gay people. This angry attack went on for over five minutes interspersed with threats, such as; “I'm a law professor at the university and I also know what the Bible says. If you dare give out any literature inside that grocery store I can sue you in court.”

I was shell-shocked by this totally unexpected verbal attack! In fact, I hadn't experienced anything like this since 20 years ago in South Africa, when a Muslim leader made a 'veiled' threat to kill me. I know the Bible says that, anyone who wants live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, nevertheless, I was totally caught off guard and shaken, so much so, that I didn't put any more papers on car windshields!

Far more challenging than my own experience are the events recorded in Acts chapters 4 & 5. And the disciples' response was quite different too. You recall how Peter and John were arrested and imprisoned for teaching and preaching about Jesus. The next morning they were brought before the High Priest and other leaders who questioned their actions and warned them against speaking any more about Jesus. But they courageously refused to comply and insisted that their first and foremost obligation was to obey God.

Today in Acts chapter 5 we see even MORE of the apostles – not just Peter and John – preaching about Jesus in outright disobedience to what the Jewish leaders had commanded them. As expected, this ignited a sharp confrontation with the Jewish officials who had them all arrested and imprisoned again. Unlike the earlier occasion, however, this time God dramatically rescued them by sending his angel to unlock the prison doors with the instructions to go to the Temple under the very nose of the High Priest, so to speak, and there proclaim the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection!

But surely, wasn't this like going into a hornet's nest, the lion's den, the fiery furnace? Or to use a similar simile from Christ's teaching, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves, so be shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) The story unfolds in accordance with what Jesus had foretold: his apostles would be hated and persecuted by the authorities. The foremost elders and leaders of Israel became furious and wanted to kill the apostles, but ended up 'only' giving them a flogging at their third arrest and questioning before the Sanhedrin, due to the intervention of Gamaliel. And yet their obedience in terms of boldly proclaiming the gospel was not in vain! They reaped a massive spiritual harvest which brought the total number of men who believed in Jesus Christ to 5,000 in addition to women and children. What a blessing! No wonder they rejoiced in their suffering!

There's an interesting detail in this passage that shows the apostles put into practice Christ's teaching about being wise and harmless. Notice: they didn't preach from an angry, vengeful spirit. Yes, it's true they spoke the truth when they boldly declared, “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross.” (Acts 5:30, bold added) For obvious reasons, the authorities perceived the apostles as determined to make them responsible for Jesus' death. But we mustn't forget that, just a few days earlier, Peter used a much gentler, more conciliatory tone, saying, “Friends, I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance.” (Acts 3:17, bold added) Such gracious and non-accusatory words implied the apostles did not harbour a vengeful spirit, but rather, they displayed a loving and forbearing heart, wanting the people and their leaders to repent and be reconciled to God through Jesus. (We should also bear in mind, the fact that many people had just been healed from sicknesses and delivered from evil spirits by the apostles through Jesus name.)

However, in spite of seeing all these signs and wonders being performed, the Jewish leaders hardened their hearts. Accordingly, the apostles spoke sharply against the Jewish leaders, pinning the blame for crucifying Christ on them: “you killed him by hanging him on a cross.” (v. 30, bold added)

How is this relevant today in Canada where Christians seldom face overt persecution? Sadly it may seem just a theory, far removed from our everyday lives. Even the personal experience I shared at the beginning probably seems very unusual. Nevertheless, in the Bible God says we ought to identify with our Christian brothers and sisters around the world who are facing severe persecution right now. We are told to empathize with “those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. … If one part [of the body] suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.” (Hebrews 13:3; 1 Corinthians 12:26)

For this reason, I believe it is important to share some real-life examples of believers being persecuted around the world today. And I trust that God will use their inspiring testimonies as a wake-up call, challenging us to obey Christ's command to share the gospel not only with everyday neighbors but also newcomers and so many unreached peoples living in our city.

This is the true story of a young woman named Galia from East Africa. She was a student at a very conservative Muslim girls’ school where one of her teachers stood out as very different from the rest. He was not only kind but very approachable and open about otherwise taboo topics. His students loved and admired him.

But one day he no longer came to class. It became known that he had converted to Christianity and lost his job as a result.

Some time went by but a group of the girls didn’t forget about their favourite teacher who had had such an impact on their lives. Thirteen of them decided to visit him at home. They were welcomed and served a meal. Eventually, one of the girls bravely asked the crucial question:

“Teacher, we were told you were fired because you became a Christian. Is this true?”

Without any hesitation he replied, “Yes! I became a Christian!” Because the girls trusted him they suspected he had made a good, right choice. So they agreed to his plan to learn about the Gospel for themselves in a safe way. He introduced them to three young missionaries who began to secretly teach them over an extended period of time.

They came to believe in Jesus as their Saviour and discovered the importance of baptism. This was arranged in a secret location but just as the first girl was being baptized they were ambushed by a group of violent Muslim youth. A few of the girls managed to escape but some were badly beaten and one was actually killed.

When Galia got home her father had somehow been informed. The much loved teacher was attacked and driven out of the town. She herself was severely punished, taken to a mosque and forced to denounce Jesus and the Gospel. Back at school under strict surveillance, she pretended to be a Muslim. But in her heart she still believed in Jesus.

After graduation she moved to another town to help her aunt with a new baby. One day when returning from the market she noticed two men on a motorbike and realized they were her missionary teachers, Ismail and Bashir! When she called out they stopped. What a joyous reunion! Her hunger to learn more of God’s Word was satisfied when they connected her to an internet teaching series.

Because she had more freedom in a more moderate Muslim context, she gladly joined the classes.

Listen to her testimony:

I learned a lot from the Bible through the answers to the many questions asked by various members of our class. I also asked several questions of my own, and the most powerful question I asked was in chapter 8. I asked: “Many of us think that when we accept Jesus Christ all the sufferings are gone because we have Him as the remedy. If Jesus had already paid the debts for us, why should we pay again? All we need is to have faith in Him. Why do we suffer again after accepting Jesus?” Keith answered my question and it really enlightened me: “Becoming a follower of Jesus isn’t a decision that one makes lightly. Jesus said in Luke 9:23, 'If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me'.” This helped me understand better why we had been attacked by those violent Muslim youth. Because I have accepted Jesus I must be ready to deny myself and take up my cross to follow Him.

After completing the 'Grace4Grace' (G4G) class, I was finally baptized, without any problem this time. I felt as if I had been taken out of captivity. Thank you so much. I believe in my heart and confess with my mouth that Jesus Christ is now the Lord of my life and I will live for Him.

Turning again to today's Bible passage we observed that the angel sent to rescue the apostles from prison also gave them clear instructions to go to the Temple and preach the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. What if they had given in to fear and tried to play it safe by preaching only in the back streets of the city or going house to house? Probably they wouldn't suffer as much persecution, but do you think God would have given such a huge harvest? And more importantly, having compromised their conscience, how would the apostles respond in the future when the officials would (inevitably) confront them with further restrictions and threats?

You recall the verbal attack I experienced when God led me to give out a blurb which traces the salvation story from Moses until Jesus. Unfortunately, I allowed this shocking experience to restrain me from continuing to distribute this Gospel intro on windshields of other cars. Since that experience, I have shared this intro from time to time in personal encounters with people, nevertheless, my conscience has been troubled as I look back on that experience. “Did I shrink back from sharing the Gospel freely because I wanted to avoid unpleasant consequences?” I asked God to search my heart, as the Psalmist did, and I must confess that I did fail to fully obey his voice. I have asked the Lord to forgive me and help me to take up my cross daily and follow him. My earnest prayer is that, in all sincerity, I'm willing to “face death every day” just like like the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:31.

Let us now listen to the story of two Persian women who demonstrated supernatural courage sharing Jesus Christ in Teheran, the capital of Iran, a nation that has ranked, for many years, among the top ten countries where Christians suffer severe persecution. Paul Estabrooks has summarized their story in his excellent book, Living Like a LAMB among 21st Century Wolves, (p.89) which I highly recommend.

Maryam and Marziyeh are two former Muslim young ladies from Iran who met in Turkey while being discipled to follow Jesus. They returned together to the capital city of their Muslim motherland to plant new house churches—particularly among young street people. They were successful in this task and while engaged in this ministry, they would also distribute New Testaments to everyone they met. In the three years of this activity, only once did they meet someone who refused the offer of a New Testament. But they did distribute 20,000 copies. What boldness these young ladies exhibited!

You know that in a country with secret police, activity like this will not last forever. They were ultimately arrested and imprisoned in Iran's notorious Evin prison for 259 days. Most of the pressure on them during interrogations was to return to their former Islamic faith. At first, weakened by hunger and sickness, they struggled with fear. Maryam and Marziyeh were repeatedly interrogated for long periods of time. They were threatened often with statements like, “you must tell us everything about people you have contact with, which organizations you work with. Otherwise we will lock your hands and feet together and beat you until you die.”

The young ladies commented, “Despite our earlier bravado, we were afraid. For all we knew this could be our last day on earth. We held hands and prayed for strength. If we are tortured, give us the power to stand fast.” And God answered their prayers in amazing ways.

After their release, the two young ladies wrote a fascinating biography of their prison experiences titled, Captive in Iran. They concluded, “For all the heartache we have experienced on this journey, we wouldn't have missed it for anything. It has been our honor to serve Christ in this way, to take up our cross and follow Him faithfully anywhere he leads us.”

There are countless stories of persecution from oppressed nations such as Iran and the horn of Africa that we could recount showing the courageous witness of Christians who risk their very lives, sometimes even being 'slaughtered like sheep.' One example of this is Nigeria where nearly 5,000 Christians were slaughtered last year, essentially as martyrs. The expression 'slaughtered like sheep' may seem like an exaggeration, but remember, this is exactly how Scripture describes the persecution of God's people. Paul concludes Romans 8 describing various kinds of hardships and sufferings that believers have had to endure and then he concludes,

'For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.' … despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:36-39, bold added)

Believers in the West find it difficult to grasp this strange imagery, of being 'slaughtered like sheep,' but fellow Christians living under the shadow of terrorism know from experience what this means. Earlier we saw what happened when Galia and 12 of her school class mates were getting baptized. They were suddenly attacked by a vicious gang of Muslim youth. Fortunately, Galia managed to escape but one of her friends died shortly afterwards. Recently, I was reading the annual report which summarizes the ministry of missionaries, Bashir and Ismail and 17 other teammates, all of whom work under similar conditions. According to their report more than 4,000 Muslims believed in Jesus Christ during 2022, but sadly, about 10% of them – 400 – were martyred! (essentially 'slaughtered like sheep') Interestingly, these 400 martyrs correspond percentage-wise with Galia's story, where the number of martyrs was one out of thirteen. Of course, these figures are more than just a statistic because I'm personally acquainted with some of these missionaries. And I know very well how deeply invested they are in befriending and discipling these new converts. In fact, one foundational truth they teach all new believers is that they must expect to face hatred, opposition and persecution from the world just as Jesus himself taught his twelve disciples.

Considering that East Africa is under the shadow of radical Islam where opposition to Christ is strong, it is surprising to see such a huge spiritual harvest! But isn't this exactly what happened in the early church? As we have been reading through the early chapters of Acts we've seen repeated indications of huge numbers of new believers joining the church, in spite of deepening persecution and even the martyrdom of Stephen and James! (Acts 4:4; 5:14, cf. ch.7 & 12) Iran is another example where unprecedented numbers of Persians are turning to Christ even while persecution prevails.

As we read and hear these incredible accounts of intense persecution accompanied by a massive influx of new believers it may be difficult for us to take in and truly comprehend. Could this be because we experience so little persecution and see so few conversions in our part of the world? Nevertheless, these joyous testimonies of life-changing conversions (along with painful persecution) in far-away countries should be an encouragement and challenge to us here in Canada. The Bible plainly states that the suffering experienced by fellow believers in other parts of the world, can and should strengthen us. Do we need a wake-up call in Canada like the church in Revelation chapter 3 where their circumstances lulled them into being lukewarm, complacent and spiritually weak? Let us stand firm against the devil and be strong. Remember “that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are.” (1 Peter 5:18-19, bold added)

The persecution we have seen both in Acts 5 and in the testimonies we've heard today arises from people living godly lives who shared the truth about Jesus Christ. As Scripture says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”

A recent example of being godly is that of Josh Alexander who took a firm stood against the implementation of transgender policies at his high school. He objected, in particular, to allowing (transgender) boys to go into girl's washrooms. The school administrators refused to address the safety concerns of a female student and Josh was suspended from attending school for holding to his Christian beliefs. There are growing numbers of cases, not unlike Josh, where Christians in North America and Great Britain have been persecuted or jailed for exercising their freedom of conscience based on their beliefs. On Monday (27th March 2023) an activist, strongly influenced by transgender ideology, shot and killed six people at a private Christian school in Nashville. The school supports traditional values including marriage, gender assigned at birth and religious liberty. Media reports show that the transgender killer felt strong hatred against the school’s moral teaching.

So again I ask myself and I ask you, “Am I ready to suffer for the sake of the Good News?” As it is written,

Search me O God and know my heart … Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (Psalm 139:1,23,34)

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. And don’t be ashamed of me, either, even though I’m in prison for him. With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News. (2 Timothy 1:7-8, bold added)

What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. (Luke 6:22, bold added)

All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.

If you have questions, comments or responses, I'd love to hear from you. Please email me here.


Cruciality of martyrdom in Revelation

Paul Estabrooks made a strategic observation about martyrdom on page 41 in his book, Living like a LAMB among 21st century wolves. Citing Dr. Darrell Johnson's book, Discipleship on the edge, he notes that

“the entire document (Revelation) is structured as a chiasm—an ancient form of writing that places the central point right in the middle. That central point is Revelation 12:11, “They overcame him [the devil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (NIV) This has profound implications, as indeed, Johnson concludes; “There is only one way to overcome: the way Jesus did as a Lamb.”

It is true; Jesus Christ is the Lion of Judah, but why is this exalted, noble title only found once in Revelation whereas Lamb is used 19 times? (indeed, strategically located at the crux of the book) Johnson goes on to say,

The structure itself declares the message that since Jesus overcomes evil not by being a Lion who hurts others, but by being a Lamb who absorbs hurt, so too we overcome evil in the world, not by inflicting more hurt, but by absorbing the hurt, even if it costs us our lives. The structure itself declares the mystery that in losing our lives, we actually win, “overcome,” just as Jesus did. (bold added) Darrell W. Johnson, Discipleship on The Edge: An Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 395-396.

Mystery/Paradox of the Gospel

My latest two articles, It's a mystery and Pondering a Paradoxical Proverb, show how Scripture boils down to a paradox encapsulated in the proverbial saying: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (Jim Elliot) We need to “unfold” this mystery (God's Word) as it “gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130, NIV) Here is a short introduction which I hope God will use to whet people's heart longing for immortality.

Ancient wisdom says, “Give freely and become more wealthy, be stingy and lose everything.” Originally penned by Solomon, this proverb is echoed in similar sayings around the world: Giving is not losing; it is keeping for tomorrow.” (Lozi, Zambia) “If you do charity your house will always be rich.” (Arabic) “To give is to save.” (Ndonga, Namibia) “What you give away you keep.” (Kurdish) Every man goes down to his death bearing in his hands only that which he has given away.” (Persian) “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (Jim Elliot) Whoever wants to save their live will lose it but whoever loses their life for me … will save it.” (Jesus) Getting wisdom is the wisest thing you can do.” (Solomon) “Pearls don't lie on the seashore. You must dive for them.” (Chinese) So why not take the plunge … read on []

The Chinese saying calls to mind a parable Jesus taught about a pearl of great value: “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!” (Matthew 23:45-46) Another Scripture comes to mind: “I want them [God's children] to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:2-3, bold added)

The story of the precious pearl highlights God's love for lost humanity. God sent his Son to seek and save the lost, indeed, so much did Christ love the world that he paid the ultimate price by laying down his own life. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) On the other hand, we too are inspired to love others because we realize the magnitude of God's love in seeking us out and giving his Son, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19, 3:16, NIV)

Intro/blurb: Serpent to Saviour

It is no secret that the emblem of a snake wrapped around a pole has medical connotations as it appears on ambulances world-wide and is featured on the flag of the World Health Organization. And yet for thousands of years serpents have evoked fear or hatred. Why? I started asking some puzzling questions, “Considering the ancient serpent was cursed by God in the garden of Eden, why was Moses instructed to lift a snake on a pole signifying a remedy from fatal snake bites?” “Would it not have been more fitting if Moses had lifted something less sinister, such as an image of a white lamb?” (echoing the rescue motif of the Passover Lamb which the Hebrews were already very familiar with) I discovered some amazing things while probing these thought-provoking questions. An insightful article, Serpent to Savior, which explains the backstory behind why Jesus compared himself to the serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness is available online here:

One Day by Matt Redman

While pondering the pain and tears of countless thousands of persecuted and martyred Christians I came across this beautiful adaptation of When we all get to heaven, sung by Matt Redman. I encourage you to listen and worship.