‘Ambassador in Chains’ transcript continued…
I think it was during the first week of lockdown in the UK that Release interviewed our partner for Eritrea, Dr Berhane Asmelash. And as we chatted with him about the new restrictions that the church in the UK was facing, he made the point that Christians in Eritrea have been living like this for the past 30 years. They know what it is like to be prevented from meeting together. And they know what it is like to spend time in isolation. Some of them have been in prison for 10 years or more. People like Dr Kiflu Gebremeskel and Twen Theodros.
Prison is something that the Apostle Paul was very familiar with and several of his letters in the New Testament were written from a prison cell. I want to take a quick look at some verses from one of those letters now. This is Ephesians chapter 6:18-20. These verses come at the end of the well-known passage on the armour of God.
18 …Be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people
The first thing to notice in these verses is that Paul says his readers need to be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Prayer is something that requires intention and focus – if we don’t plan to pray, if we don’t keep our eyes open to find out what we should be praying for, then we probably won’t pray – we need to be alert. And prayer is something that should be continuous – through thick and thin, when we feel like it and when we don’t feel like it – we should always keep on praying. And prayer is something that should be for all the Lord’s people. It is right that we pray for ourselves and cast all of our cares upon the Lord, especially in a time of crisis. But in doing that we can’t afford to become too introspective. It is not just about me and my struggles. As God’s people we are all in this together.
Over the past few months I think the church in the UK has risen to this challenge well. It has been encouraging to see how quickly local churches organised themselves to pray together online and how attendance at prayer meetings has even increased in some cases. There have been many new and pressing needs to pray about. But in all this we must make sure that we also continue to have a global horizon in our prayers. We can’t let the crisis takes our eyes off that – we have to keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
As we know Covid-19 has had a huge impact in every part of the world. And it has certainly affected persecuted Christians too. Not only have they had to deal with the regular opposition they face but they have also had to cope with the spread of the virus and the restrictions of lockdown.
In Pakistan 75% of the marginalised Christian population are also daily wage workers including the families of the Christian prisoners we support. They have nowhere near the level of healthcare provision or government support that we have. Our partners have been on the front-line distributing food and organising regular pastoral support by telephone and online messages.
You can watch these reports and others in the lockdown church section of our website.
Pray also for me
So Paul tells the church that they have to be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. And then he has a very personal prayer request in v19-20.
‘Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.’
By this point Paul has probably been imprisoned for five years. Can you imagine how difficult that must have been for him? If this letter was written from Rome, then we know from Acts that he was under house arrest. That might sound familiar to us. It probably wasn’t the worst of conditions – he would experience a lot worse later on. But he was still chained to a guard, he still depended on other people bringing him food and clothes. And worst of all he wasn’t free to move around. This was Paul who longed to go to every corner of the world with the gospel, who never stayed in one place for too long before he got itchy feet. He was an apostle – a sent one – made to be on the road. He must have been so frustrated.
I wonder what we might have expected Paul to ask the church to pray for in these circumstances? Freedom, definitely. Good health too. Protection and provision. But interestingly Paul doesn’t ask for any of those things here. His focus is on something else. He asks them to pray that he would be able to continue to speak the gospel effectively and fearlessly where he is.
You’ll remember again from Acts that Paul had appealed to Caesar and that was why he was taken as a prisoner to Rome to stand trial. And as that time approached, and as his frustration at being in prison grew, you can imagine that he might have been tempted to soften his message. Part of the mystery of the gospel that he spells out in detail earlier in the letter is the fact God is going to put all things, all rulers and authorities, including Caesar, under the feet of Christ. That message was more than a little bit controversial in Rome – the heart of the empire. Maybe he could just skip over that part so he could get out of prison. He knew that temptation so he asks the church to pray that he would speak the right words fearlessly.
Last year many churches showed the film Tortured for Christ. This is the story of the Romanian Pastor Richard Wurmbrand who inspired the founding of Release more than 50 years ago. There is a dramatic moment of confrontation near the start of that story. Russia has just invaded Romania and the Communist authorities are trying to compromise the church. A conference of religious leaders is convened and one after another they take the stage to praise the Communist party and downplay the authority of Jesus. Richard Wurmbrand is there with his wife Sabina and their blood is starting to boil. Here is an extract from the recent book Wurmbrand: Tortured for Christ the Complete Story.
‘Finally Sabina couldn’t take it any longer…Her heart racing, she leaned toward her husband and grabbed his hand. Under her breath, she whispered in Richard’s ear, “Richard, stand up and wash this shame from the face of Christ!” Richard slowly turned toward Sabina and stared into her angry eyes… “If I do,” he warned, “you’ll lose your husband.” Sabina’s eyes bored into Richard’s…With courage only from the Holy Spirit, she spoke again. “I don’t want a coward for a husband.”’
So Richard stood up and reminded his colleagues of their duty to glorify God and serve Him above all earthly powers. He was later arrested and spent a total of 14 years in horrific Communist prisons.
So Paul knew that he needed the prayers of the church to be able to speak fearlessly at his trial. But on top of this Paul had lots of other opportunities to speak. He could speak to the guards that he was chained to. He could write letters to the churches. He could get messages to other prisoners. Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains. The chains didn’t stop his calling. Being God’s representative was an any place, any time job. Yes, he was frustrated that he couldn’t go where he wanted but he wasn’t going to let the chains stop his calling. He was still God’s ambassador.
In Iran Ebrahim Firouzi is currently serving two years in internal exile after spending five years in prison because of his Christian work. In a recent interview he was asked why he hasn’t tried to leave Iran and request asylum in another country. And this is what he said,
‘I was not looking to escape the will of God for my life. I always believed I must stay and bring change through the gospel and sharing the good news with my people. There are many people in Iran who are in a very bad state and are simply lost, just like we were before we came to Christ. They are desperately searching for a solution, a way out of their misery. And I know that the only true answer is the word of God. And I love to share it with them.’
We were recently speaking to our partner for North Korea, Dr Eric Foley. We asked him what sort of message North Korean Christians might want to give to the church in the UK just now. Here is part of what he said,
‘I think they would say to trust in God with childlike hope and that whatever happens to receive it as being from God’s hands. Romans 8:28 has special meaning for North Korean Christians, that in all things God is working for good… I don’t see a lot of anxiety on their part, even when they end up in prison camps. [Because] they are trained from the time they become Christians to understand that this is one of the possibilities of where God might send you to do ministry. So they don’t see this as the absence of God. They are conditioned to see that wherever they are at is a place where God has sent them for ministry – [a place] where God is present, and where he’ll provide for them.’
So Paul’s gospel work goes on regardless of the chains. And the prayers of the church are fundamentally important to it. He knows that it is principally through their prayers that God will empower his ministry and enable him to be an ambassador in chains.
We have to pray for Christian prisoners of faith today. We need to pray that God will comfort them, protect them, provide for their families. But we also need to pray that God will enable them to continue their ministry as his ambassadors. For 30,000 Christians in North Korean labour camps, for many Eritreans who have been behind bars for 10 years or more, for church leaders in China and Iran. Lockdown has given us an opportunity to do that. In our own moment of isolation we can identify with them in a deeper way. And that means we can pray for them better.
Let me encourage you to have a look at the Lockdown Church resources on our website which pick up this theme of identification. Go to releaseinternational.org/lockdown-church. There are Bible talks and frontline reports, prisoner profiles and interactive activities that will help you to learn about and pray for Christian prisoners of faith.
And hearing about their faith and perseverance can also give us encouragement and hope as we work through the particular difficulties we are facing in lockdown. They are such an inspiration to us. As Christians we are always God’s ambassadors representing Him in the world. Lockdown doesn’t change that. Will we be able to look back on this period as a time when we didn’t simply go on pause, but as a time when we prayed and searched for new ways to serve as God’s ambassadors?
On our website you can also subscribe to our magazine and prayer diary if you don’t get that already, and you can sign up for regular prayer alert emails, and you can give towards our work if you feel led to do that.
Let me finish by sharing part of an inspiring poem about how prayer transcends the restrictions of a prison cell. This was written by John Cao who is currently serving a seven-year sentence in China because of his Christian work.
‘You can take away my freedom, but you can’t take my prayers.
My prayers have wings and leap over the iron mesh high wall.
Many brothers and sisters have heard them.
And they fly freely every day and reach heaven on the blue sky.
You can impose heavy punishments on me, but you can’t hold my soul and spirit.
They are like cheerful yellowbirds, raising gentle praises toward the iron gate.
My Saviour must have heard my voice.’
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