‘Share in Suffering for the Gospel’ transcript continued…

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Last Christmas – and doesn’t that seem a long time ago now – while most of us were probably enjoying our annual family celebrations, a Chinese pastor by the name of Wang Yi was being handed a nine-year prison sentence; effectively for his gospel ministry.

Just recently the first picture of him in prison – seated, shackled – has circulated around social media sites.

As Christians here in the UK, can we even begin to imagine what life must be like, daily, day in, day out, for that man of God?

Well, some of you may be thinking: actually, given how life has changed in the past few weeks, yes I can at least begin to imagine what it must be like!

After all, life has very suddenly changed, hasn’t it? We find ourselves in extraordinary, unsettling, frightening times. Our freedom has been curtailed – and it’s not nice. We hope it’s not going to last too long; that it won’t disturb our lifestyles too much. People talk of “when things get back to normal.”

Perhaps this current crisis – the restrictive conditions under which we are all living – gives us an opportunity to reflect a bit more than we have done on the lives of those Christians for whom oppression, fear, the threat of imprisonment, are ever-present realities; a way of life.

The Apostle Paul was in prison as he wrote this letter to Timothy. In chapter two he describes himself as “bound with chains as a criminal” (2:9). Rather like Pastor Wang Yi.

2 Timothy is probably the last letter of the Apostle Paul. It’s not the first time he has been in prison, but it may be the final time. Paul expects to be executed soon. As he puts it later in the letter: “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” (4:6,7).

Paul’s primary concern throughout this letter is the future of the gospel and of gospel ministry, when he is no longer around. So we find him urging Timothy to guard the gospel, to preserve the gospel, to preach the gospel … We might say to serve the gospel, even if that means suffering for the gospel.

And so, in these difficult days of ‘lockdown’, what do we learn here from God’s word about serving the gospel?

Let me suggest two things we should observe from this chapter.

First, Serving the gospel means being willing to suffer for the gospel.

The night before he was crucified Jesus told his disciples that they may well experience the world’s hatred – but in virtually the same breath he reminded them that they were still called to bear witness to Him.

And here, we read Paul declaring: “…do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (verse 8).

As Jesus had reminded his disciples, so Paul reminds Timothy that faithful service of the gospel may lead to suffering. Now, here’s the interesting thing: I’m sure Timothy knew that! After all, he had travelled with Paul for a number of years. In that time he had seen the world’s opposition to Paul’s preaching. But Paul evidently thinks Timothy needs reminding of these things. And if Timothy needed reminding – so do we.

We in the West need reminding that the gospel challenges people; the gospel offends human nature, human selfishness, human sinfulness. The gospel calls people to acknowledge their need for a Saviour who puts us right with God. The gospel calls us to give up serving ourselves and to follow that Saviour as Lord. And so serving that gospel may well mean suffering, in some way, for that gospel.

I recall the story of a woman in Eritrea who has been imprisoned for a number of years simply for being a Christian. During that time she has suffered brutal treatment. And yet when a Release partner was able to make contact with her and ask her what people should pray for, her response was: “That God would be glorified in Eritrea!”

That’s a life sustained by the grace of the gospel. What was it that would sustain Timothy? What had sustained Paul? What will sustain suffering Christians today? A clear grasp of the eternal nature of God’s gospel. Listen again to how Paul describes it: “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…” (verses 9-11).

Is that the gospel you believe? Is that the gospel you want to serve? Serving the gospel means being willing to suffer for the gospel.

Second, Serving the gospel means being willing to care for the sufferers

Commenting, perhaps, on his re-arrest and imprisonment, Paul writes: “You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes” (verse 15).

We know nothing of these two men, but their betrayal of Paul serves as a contrast to what follows:

“May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me…” (verses 16,17).

Here is one of the most obscure characters in the New Testament – and yet none other than the Apostle Paul can say of him: “He refreshed me!” What an epitaph!

And what he did was no light, easy matter. Paul’s imprisonment, as one writer put it, may have been “in some dismal, underground dungeon, with a hole in the ceiling for light and air.” Notice Paul’s emphasis on how Onesiphorus searched earnestly for him. It was probably difficult – and dangerous.

Such is the love, the commitment, that Christians are called to show one another.

So what does that mean for us, for you, today? We can’t all go, as Onesiphorus went – and that’s true not just during these difficult times of restricted movement.

No, we can’t. But there are other ways we can care for those who suffer for their faith in Christ; those who are oppressed; those who are imprisoned.

We can pray for them. That’s always the priority for persecuted Christians: “Please pray for us.” It should be ours, too. But to pray you need to be informed.

Release International’s free quarterly magazine is a great resource, both for being informed and for being resourced to pray – and to pray regularly. If you don’t currently receive it, let me encourage you to sign up to do so. There are details on our website as to how you can do that.

You can also give to support the work of caring; to support those who do the work of Onesiphorus today, if I can put it like that. This is, I know, a precarious time for some of us, and you may not feel you are in a position to give at present (even though I would hope you would want to pray). But sacrificial giving has always characterised those whose lives are shaped by the gospel.

If you are able, and you want to help Release International to do that ‘Onesiphorus work’; to continue to care for, to resource, to support those who are persecuted for that gospel – you can, again, find details on our web page as to how you can do so.

On a Release trip to Nigeria a few months ago I met a number of Christians who, having fled after attacks from Boko Haram, now live in camps for displaced people. Not exactly a prison, but conditions in the camps are difficult, and travelling out to fields to try and farm is impossibly dangerous. Many have been traumatised; many are concerned for the education of their children. But among the same group of people I saw deep faith – and a hunger to reach out with the gospel, even to those who would attack them.

In the next chapter of this letter Paul writes: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2:8-10).

God’s people are to serve God’s gospel. That may mean suffering for that gospel; it certainly means caring for those who suffer.

Onesiphorus searched for, found, and refreshed the suffering gospel servant. Will we do the same?

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