Friday, November 14, 2014

THY KINGDOM COME: The Current World Crisis and the Church

An Address to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Nigeria

The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll
18 September 2014

Let me begin by saying how honoured I am and humbled to be invited to address you today on the subject of the kingdom of God and the persecuted church. I say humbled because I am not an expert on the persecuted church like Dr. Paul Marshall, Baroness Caroline Cox, and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali (see brief bibliography). Neither have I experienced the kind of persecution which you have endured every day but which we in the West only see flashing across our TV or computer screens from time to time.

What I do bring you, as a fellow theologian of the GAFCON movement, is a biblical teaching on the Kingdom of God and in the light of that teaching an interpretation of the current world crisis and the church.

An Anglican Approach to Scripture
It is hard to think of a more central subject than the Kingdom of God. After all, Jesus came “preaching the Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15), and He taught His church to pray first of all “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” For this reason, the first Global Anglican Future Conference in 2008 prefaced its Jerusalem Declaration thus:
We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, have met in the land of Jesus’ birth. We express our loyalty as disciples to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus. We joyfully embrace his command to proclaim the reality of his kingdom which he first announced in this land. The gospel of the kingdom is the good news of salvation, liberation and transformation for all.
How then are we to understand the Kingdom of God as applied to our context today? The key to the kingdom will be found in the King’s book, the Holy Scripture. The same Jerusalem Declaration gives us, I think, some guidance on our approach.

We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.
Let me comment for a moment on the “plain and canonical sense” of Scripture. The “plain sense” is not always so plain and obvious as many people think. I liken it to a three-stranded cord that cannot be broken, which includes a doctrinal or truth strand, because God’s Word is truth, a literary strand because the Bible is literature, and a salvation-historical strand, because the Bible testifies to the action of God in the history of Israel, Jesus Christ and the Church. The meaning of any particular book also needs to be read “canonically” noting its place in the entire Bible. This is what St. Paul calls “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and what our Anglican collect calls “marking” one text by another (“read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”).

The Kingdom of God

So with this brief introduction to biblical interpretation, let me pick up the theme of the Kingdom of God as it relates to the current crisis facing the Church. The theme of God’s Kingdom is the focus of a major section of the Old Testament. In particular the Prophets address the Word of the Lord to the kingdom of Israel, God’s covenant people, before, during and after the Exile to Babylon. These Prophets have one overarching message: that God has judged the nation and its kings because of their persistent idolatry and has determined to destroy it by means of a great pagan empire, the “rod of his anger” (Isaiah 10:5). They go on to say that God will in turn judge and destroy the pagan empire by means of another empire and then another. God’s people will go into exile for a seventy-year period (I believe the seventy-year period is both literal, from roughly 586 to 515 BC, and symbolic of what we might call “this age”). Finally, they announce the restoration and reconstitution of God’s Kingdom on the basis of a new Covenant in a new Era in which God will Himself visit His people and they will respond to Him, not with hearts of flesh but with the Spirit.

It is this Kingdom which Jesus announces after His baptism. It is also this Kingdom to which Jesus comes as Messiah, anointed by the Spirit. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom is Good News – and it is new news because, contrary to the Jewish expectation of a political conqueror, Jesus comes as the Suffering Servant, who offers His life as a ransom for many. The reconciliation of man to God must be accomplished through the Cross, the grave and the resurrection, and the apostles take the tidings of these great events to the world in the power of the Spirit.

Christ’s Kingdom is “now and not yet.” It is now in the sense that the Gospel confronts each person with the call of discipleship. “Follow me… and they left their nets immediately and followed him” (Mark 1:18). It is not yet in that believers continue to live in this world and to struggle with temptation from within and tribulation from without (John 16:33). The same Jesus who proclaims that the Kingdom is at hand confesses before Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). St. Paul proclaimed the now of dawning of the new age of history in which “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). At the same time, he explained the not yet, saying “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

The Return of Christ
So, with the coming of King Jesus, the Church finds its citizenship secure, but during this age believers find themselves “strangers in a strange land,” not unlike the Jews in exile. And as in Babylon God comforted His people by prophetic words and visions of hope, so also God comforts the Church by promising Christ’s imminent return.

In my address to the Divine Commonwealth conference in 2011, I suggested that in the two Letters to the Thessalonians, St. Paul lays out his basic doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess 4:13-18)
I noted in my address that some Christians apparently misunderstood this teaching as meaning that the end-time had already arrived and that they could take a holiday from daily work. Paul therefore went on to expand and clarify his teaching:

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only the Restrainer will continue until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false… (2 Thess 2:4-11)

Let me summarize this apostolic teaching:

  1. Jesus Christ is coming again surely and certainly.
  2. No one can predict the exact time of His return, but there will be certain events that will serve as warning signs.
  3. One such sign will be the emergence of the Man of Lawlessness who, inspired by Satan, will lead the world in delusion, destruction and death.
  4. This satanic figure will be opposed by a “Restrainer” who has been traditionally associated as the force of government.

The Revelation to John

Presumably St. Paul’s teaching comforted his congregation in Thessalonica, who were probably attacked by Jews from the local synagogue and defended by local Roman authorities. Fifty years later, the Church found itself under a much wider threat from the Romans when they refused to offer sacrifice to the Emperor as divine. The time was right for the revival of prophecy. One towering prophet emerged: John the Divine, the author of the Book of Revelation. His prophecy provides the capstone of the New Testament and the grand finale of creation and salvation history.

Once again, let me interject a comment about interpreting this New Testament prophecy in its plain sense, with its intertwined strands of art, history and truth, The Apocalypse, as it is called, is a work of spiritual imagination, with symbols upon symbols, mostly originating in the Old Testament but now reworked in a brilliant and dynamic burst of sight and sound. It offers a heaven’s eye view of salvation history in a spiral of events that are rooted in contemporary history – the city and empire of Rome being prominent – but extending forward to a future yet unseen, such as the New Jerusalem “descending from God.” For all its complexity, the book claims to be the absolute truth about the end of all things, concluding: "These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place" (Rev 22:18-21).

The Unholy Trinity

The Revelation to John comes from the Triune God, “from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1:4). The vision of chapters 4 and 5 make clear the supreme cosmic rule of the One who sits on the throne and with Him the Lamb that was slain (Rev 5:13).

There is, however, an alternative kingdom, revealed in John’s dramatic vision of war in heaven. A woman, representing the people of God, is attacked by a great red dragon seeking to devour her child – in vain: “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness…” (Rev 12:5-6). The child is Jesus the Messiah, whose reign is inaugurated when He is seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ enthronement leads to war in heaven and the dragon, now identified as “that ancient Serpent, the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world,” is defeated by Michael and his host and cast down to earth. The dragon, desperate because he knows his time is short, “became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 12:17). Here is a paradox. The victory of Christ and His angels in heaven leads to the dragon’s persecution of the church on earth.

The dragon, it turns out, is the head of an unholy Trinity. We meet the other two members of this evil threesome in chapter 13. The first is the beast from the sea: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads” (Rev 13:1). This beast is the fulfillment of the horrible blasphemous fourth empire of the book of Daniel. It is not a particular city or nation but a universal world order devoted to evil. The embodiment of worldly power, this beast demands absolute worship. Like Daniel’s friends at the fiery furnace, the saints refuse to bow down to the beast, only this time there is no deliverance: “It was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them” (Rev 13:7).

The war against the church is not only a matter of brute power but spiritual deception, as represented by a second beast, the false prophet: “Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast” (Rev 13:11-12). The second beast is the propaganda arm of the first. Like Pharaoh’s magicians or the Sirens of Greek myth, this beast performs tricks to deceive the peoples of the earth and then enslaves them with the mark of the beast.

The Saints’ Conquest

Here is a second paradox. It appears that the unholy trinity is victorious, dominating the peoples of the earth and killing the saints. But just the opposite is true, John says: the church conquers the anti-Christ by her suffering witness (martyria):

"Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Rev 12:10-11)
The vision of the beasts is followed immediately in chapter 14 with a vision of “the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. The martyrs are safe and sound with Jesus in heaven. The number 144,000 symbolizes the fact that Jesus will not lose one sheep that is His own.

At the same time, this is not the end of the story. John says that the 144,000 have been redeemed as “first-fruits for God and the Lamb” and he goes on to describe an angel proclaiming an eternal gospel “to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev 14:6). Perhaps these others represent the harvest of the nations, an idea confirmed in chapter 7 where John sees two groups of the redeemed, 144,000 of the tribes of Israel and then “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

The point is this: the martyrs not only save themselves, but their blood is the seedbed of the church, as Tertullian later put it. John’s expansive, missionary vision was in fact fulfilled in the next centuries: the more the Romans persecuted the church, the more it grew. That pattern has held true in subsequent ages, right down to the present.
The Current Context: Worldview War

I turn now to the question of how to understand the biblical prophecy in the current situation of the church in the world. The overriding theme of John’s Apocalypse is warfare, and I am convinced that theme applies to us today: the church today is in a worldview war similar in some ways to that which it faced in John’s day. Let me make four basic assertions about this war.

It is total war. It is being engaged in the political realm, in the economic realm, in the social realm, and in the spiritual realm. In other words, it is a war against the Kingdom of God. The Psalmist says: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Messiah, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us” (Psalm 2:1). Today the “kings of the earth” include not only the politicians but the cultural elite, whether they are university professors and journalists and certain bishops in the West or imams in the Islamic world. In either case, their enemy is Jesus Christ and His gracious rule.

It is a two-front war, something like the United States fighting in Europe and the Pacific in World War II. One front is a battle with militant secularism, which has been undermining Western Christianity for several centuries. The second front involves militant Islam, which in some ways has been at war with Christianity even longer, but which has gained renewed force over the past few decades.

The war is not simply between the church and outsiders but it is being waged within the church. In the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-2, we see the exalted Lord addressing a variety of church situations, including the church in Smyrna who are faithful under persecution and the church in Thyatira who “tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:8-11,18-29). The recent history of the Episcopal Church USA, which I served for 37 years, involves a pattern cultural conformity to the liberal elites and toleration of heresy to the point that only heresy will now be tolerated.

The war cannot be avoided. It cannot be explained away by clever evasions. One of the sillier – and dangerous – notions of the U.S. President has been to deny the “war on terror” by simply rebranding it “kinetic military action” and to declare victory in that war by simply withdrawing forces, when it is clear the other side has not laid down its arms. It is equally na├»ve – and dangerous – when the Archbishop of Canterbury tries to split the difference on God’s purpose for human sexuality by trying to uphold marriage while condoning same-sex civil partnerships.

Satan is for Real

The New Testament is perfectly clear on one matter: Satan is for real. In fact, one might say he is more real now that Jesus has come. Some scholars, noting the relative lack of references to Satan in the Old Testament, wrongly conclude that a personal devil simply pops out of a first-century Jewish apocalyptic box. But they miss the point, which John brings out. Satan is the “ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world.” He is ancient in that he led the rebellion in heaven, which is captured in biblical references to Leviathan (Psalm 74:14) and to “Day Star son of Dawn” (Isa 14:12). But he is also the wily Deceiver who prefers to hide behind the principalities and powers of this age and the elemental forces of the world, and to work his destruction through his offspring, sin and death.

John makes the point that the coming of Jesus actually “outs” Satan, as it were. The temptation in the wilderness makes clear the stark choice for Jesus and for us: “Bow down worship me!” or “Be gone, Satan” (Matt 4:9-10). Indeed, Satan does depart from Jesus, knowing his time is short, but in that short time between Christ’s Exaltation into heaven and the present, he intensifies his attacks on Christ’s offspring on earth.

Secularists have had great trouble in understanding what they call “radical evil” as represented, for instance in the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of six million Jews by the Nazis. Some secularists believe human nature is basically good, but even those who see human nature as weak and flawed are baffled by the darkness in the human heart that leads to such brutality (an odd word, by the way, as brute animals do not act like this). And in a way, they are right to be troubled. God made man in His image to be good, and Adam and Eve were deceived into sin, not the author of it. Only a supernatural worldview can see that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

The battle between the church and Satan is a matter of truth. The devil, Scripture says, “is a liar and the father of lies,” whereas “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (John 8:44; 1 John 1:5). The Kingdom of God is not primarily a political regime founded on a myth or an ideology but rather a spiritual community founded on a true Word, the Logos embodied in Jesus Christ the Son of God. Jesus, according to the Book of Revelation, is described in this way: “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev 1:16 ). The seven stars represent the mystery of the cosmos – how does the world in all its complexity and beauty hang together – what St. Paul calls “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Col 1:26). The church, possessing the sharp two-edged sword of God’s Word, is in a unique position to discern God’s judgements on Satan and His works and to expose them to a needy world.

False Prophecy

Both fronts of the worldview war are based on false prophecy. In the case of Islam, the case is clear-cut. Either Mohammed is God’s prophet or he is not. In the case of secularism it is not so obvious. Secularists pride themselves on their sophistication and science, and, to be sure, they often possess profound knowledge on various subsidiary matters. However, at the heart of this knowledge is a moral and spiritual vacuum, and this vacuum is the work of Satan.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life; Satan is not only a liar but a murderer (John 8:44). False prophecy can be known for its hatred of human life. Again, I need say little about the recent actions of Boko Haram and ISIS. As Jesus says, “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). Horrible though the actions of jihadists are, how are they worse than the legalization of abortion in the West, with its advocates proudly promoting a woman’s “right to choose” to abort a child in the womb, right down to the day of delivery?

In 1994, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was invited to make remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. President Bill Clinton and his wife were present, both of whom, though nominal Christians, are pro-abortion zealots. Anyway, in their presence, Mother Teresa stated that the problem of war in the world is a problem of the human heart: “if we accept that the mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?” Mother Teresa was a prophet “speaking truth to power.” She continued: “Jesus said, ‘If you receive a little child, you receive me.’ So every abortion is the denial of receiving Jesus.”

How is it possible that such an obvious truth that life and human personhood begin at conception – a truth made clearer by medical science – can be obscured and rejected by the “brightest and best” in the West? The false prophet, according to John, imposes the “mark of the beast” on everyone, whether great or small, rich or poor (Rev 13:16). False prophecy, a godless worldview, creates a culture, a culture of ignorance and fear, in which ordinary people will swim like fish in a polluted pond, unless they know the truth. And those who know and testify to the truth will risk their lives or their livelihoods to do so. Try to be a Christian shopkeeper or schoolmaster in the Middle East or in Europe today and you will find out what this means.

I turn now to a second contemporary example having to do with marriage. Marriage is the fundamental expression of God’s love in creating man in His own image, male and female. It is the source of human flourishing, of passing on life from one generation to another. At the heart of marriage is the principle of two sexes, one flesh, as Scripture says: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24; Mark 10:8). The principle, deeper still, serves as a sign of the mystery of Christ and His Bride, the Church (Eph 5:31).

The promotion of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is a blatant attack on God’s design in creation and redemption. (Let me clarify here that it is the normalizing of homosexuality that is the offence; the Church needs to minister God’s love to all people, including those struggling with homosexual desires.) The repudiation of the biblical norm by Anglican churches in North America has led to the breakup of the Anglican Communion, and all the equivocations from Canterbury will not put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The Church of Nigeria has been a leader in standing for the truth in this matter. I want now to challenge you to go one step further. I am convinced that a corollary to the biblical principle of two sexes, one flesh in marriage is the complementary roles of man and woman in the family and in the church. St Paul teaches: “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). The blurring of the male-female distinction has been part and parcel of the attack on marriage. After all, so the logic goes, if there is no real difference between men and women, why shouldn’t men marry men and women marry women if they are so inclined. The blurring of this distinction is the root issue in the ordination of women bishops. This issue has threatened the unity of the Anglican Communion for thirty-plus years and now it threatens the unity of the GAFCON movement.

I suspect much of what I have just said seems like common sense to you here in Nigeria. After all, you have a church culture of strong male bishops and strong women exercising ministry through Mother’s Union. You have maintained the tradition – not to mention the gorgeous dress to go along with it - you inherited from the historic church and from traditional culture. Beware lest you lose it. I appeal to you now to defend it theologically in the wider Communion. Egalitarian secularism has made deep inroads around the world, even in Africa. It is not enough to say: “That’s our culture.” Culture can change; I have seen it change within my lifetime in America. It can happen to you as well. So be ready to make a defense, as St. Peter exhorts us, for the hope that is within you (1 Peter 3:15).

Basic Training for the Worldview War
Our primary weapon in the worldview battle is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Eph 6:17). We must know and teach the faith to our children and to our congregations, and this education must go on at all levels.

Let me begin with basic catechesis. I was involved at the GAFCON meeting in drafting the Jerusalem Declaration, a confession of basic Anglican belief. I know you are familiar with this statement. Shortly afterward, I worked with colleagues at Uganda Christian University to produce a short catechism based on the Jerusalem Declaration and we posted it on the internet ( option=com_content&view=article&id=109&Itemid=107).  It was written for East Africans and was translated into six local languages. I would like to urge you to adapt this and translate it for your churches, or if not, write one of your own. Our people must be trained up in the way they should go, especially given the prevalence of other worldviews available in the electronic marketplace.

Basic education is necessary, but professionally educated Christians must go deeper still. Let me interject here a concern. As many of you know, fifteen years ago I accepted a call to help start Uganda Christian University. I accepted the call on the one condition that the Anglican Church of Uganda intended to found a Christian university not in name only but in substance. Several years ago I made a visitation to Crowther Graduate Theological College in Abeokuta and Ajay Crowther University in Oyo. In my report back, I noted many impressive things about these institutions. However, I was concerned that there was little communication between the theological college and the university and I feared that as a result, university students would not graduate with a strong intellectual and spiritual foundation in the faith.

Universities were originally founded by Christians, and there are still many fine Christian institutions. Hence when Boko Haram attacks “Western education,” it sees itself as attacking Christianity as well. Ironically, many universities in the West are as hostile to Christianity as Boko Haram is, and they seek to inculcate in their students an anti-Christian worldview, which then gets reflected by the politicians and the so-called cultural elite. Many Nigerian academics have studied at these universities and bring that worldview back with them. So I want to challenge you, on the one hand, to resist the Satanic denial of truth which comes from both fronts of the worldview war. The church here needs to invest in education at all levels and also be careful that education is integrated with the truth of God that is found in Scripture and the Christian tradition.

Government Is a Friend and a Foe
God’s Kingdom is now and not yet. The King has come and been exalted to the right hand of power on high. But even now, after His enthronement, Jesus’ words before Pilate apply: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight” (John 18:36). In the interim period between Jesus’ first and second coming, government exercises a legitimate authority.

The New Testament speaks of government in terms of “principalities and powers.” As such, it can be viewed in three ways. Firstly, it is “instituted by God” and commands our obedience and respect; its legitimate purpose is to punish what is evil and to commend what is good (Rom 13:1-7). St. Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship and appealed to the Roman authorities for justice on several occasions. I believe Paul is referring in Thessalonians to government as the Restrainer that will stand against the anti-Christ in the end-times.

Secondly, government is a structure of this present darkness. As St. Paul also says: “None of the rulers of this age understood [God’s plan of salvation], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1Cor 2:8). Indeed, the Church’s calling is to make known to the principalities and powers the coming Kingdom (Eph 3:10). This does not mean, I think, that the Church is to rule the State (theocracy), but rather that it keeps the state humble by reminding it that it is accountable to God.

Thirdly, government is a power of this world which can be co-opted by Satan. The beast of Revelation 12, in my opinion, is not only the final, awful fulfillment of totalitarian power but he represents the power exercised by tyrants and oppressors throughout the ages. We can see the hoofprints of the beast in the Roman martyrdom of Christians in John’s day, in the Communist suppression of Christians over the past century (which continues in full force in North Korea today) and in the dhimmitude, expulsion and murder of Christians under Islam wherever sharia law has been enforced.

I feel compelled to add a note here on the persecution of God’s people the Jews. They have been the target of the beast for much of their history. In previous centuries, Jews were victims of Christian pogroms. Hostility to the state of Israel and Jew hatred is a virtual article of current Muslim faith, and over the past fifty years, they have been forced out of their homelands in the Middle East and North Africa in toto. Now it seems the same thing is happening to Christians. Even in secular Europe, where people swore “Never again!” after the Nazi Holocaust, anti-Semitism and violence against Jews is raising its ugly head. We Christians need to pray for the political and spiritual well-being of the Jewish people and to protest their persecution especially, alongside persecution of other minority religious groups.

We see in Christianity and Islam a fundamentally different view of law and government. For Christians, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). Hence Christians can live peaceably under a number of different regimes. For Islam, at least as many interpret its scriptures, there is only one law and one caliphate, and it is the duty of Muslims to establish it, even to die and kill for it. I hesitate to recommend much on this matter to you in Nigeria except to encourage you to speak truth to the national and regional governments and to call on them to uphold the national laws, to respect the civil rights of all citizens and to wield the sword on behalf of victims of violence. Bp. Bill Atwood recently recounted the story of how Abp. Joseph Adetiloye confronted President Abacha about his tyranny – and the latter’s dramatic end. This was the same Archbishop whom I saw at Lambeth demand from the Archbishop of Canterbury a clear Resolution on Human Sexuality. 

To the extent that Government fails to do its duty due to corruption or fear of reprisal, it is failing its God-given duty. From the Christian worldview, the fact that the city of this world is not the city of God is actually a blessing for both. Worldly governments have limited and manageable duties – to keep the peace and uphold justice – and God through His faithful witnesses will prepare for the Kingdom.

Suffering Witness
I come at last to the central truth of the Book of Revelation: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:11). This word of the Risen Lord, in one sense, should not surprise us. After all, Jesus said to His disciples: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34); and “whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). This is what the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the cost of discipleship.”

Let me note three characteristics of discipleship which apply in a time of persecution.

Hold On! and Repent!

In the midst of the cosmic upheavals of the Book of Revelation, the specific command which the Lord gives to His Church comes in the Letters to the churches (Rev 2-3) and this advice boils down to two commands: “Hold on!” (to three churches) and “Repent!” (to four). These commands reflect the situation of spiritual attack from within as well as without. The temptation in either case is to compromise the faith.

Compromise can be the result of fear or complacency or both. Bonhoeffer, writing at the dawn of the Nazi takeover in Germany, saw the church there complacently hiding behind the doctrine of grace. Hence he wrote:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Which profile of the church fits your situation? I cannot say, but it could be a mix of both as was the case of the churches in Asia Minor. Surely there are those in your Northern region today who have been faithful even unto death. Perhaps the very success and growth of the Church here in recent years, its sense of inevitable growth, has made some complacent, as if the Kingdom of God was an automatic thing. I don’t know. That is a matter for you to discern.


The Book of Revelation is interspersed with prayer and praise. We hear the voices of the martyrs under the altar crying out: "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Rev 6:10). Let us not discount Satan’s ultimate goal in persecution: to discourage the faithful and make them feel alone and abandoned.

The one common request of all the persecuted churches in the world today is for prayer. They want to know they have fellowship in God’s Spirit. Prayer is the dying gasp of the martyrs, many of whom die unknown except to God. Their greatest comfort is to know that others share in their affliction, not because misery loves company, but because we are all one in Christ’s body and if one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor 12:26).

The prayer of the persecuted is expectant. “Thy Kingdom come!” is the first petition our Lord taught us. When we pray that phrase, we are bold to believe God will answer it “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph 3:20). Prayer can move mountains. We have seen throughout history how through prayer apostles have been raised up to take the Gospel into the unlikeliest places. We can learn something from our Pentecostal brethren here in seeking the “not yet” of the Kingdom and reaching out to the “least of Christ’s flock.”

Expectant prayer is, finally, answered prayer, calling for our praise and thanksgiving. We are part not only of the church militant on earth but the church triumphant in heaven. Before long the “night of weeping will become the morn of song,” the song of the redeemed in heaven: "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure" (Rev 19:6-8). Let us not forget to give thanks for all things, even in the midst of trouble.

Deeds of Love

Prayer without works is dead. God is preparing His Bride by washing her gown in the blood of the Lamb, and John goes on to explain that “the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:8). Jesus describes these righteous deeds in this way:

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' (Matt 25:34-36)
Jesus speaks of feeding, clothing and visiting His persecuted brethren. Feeding and clothing involves material and financial support. Visiting involves personal presence and may be the most difficult work of love. While there is no substitute for physically visiting our brothers and sisters in trouble, the current social media make it possible for us to be present even from a distance. As St. Paul makes clear, the imminent return of Jesus does not release us from service. Rather, as the popular chorus puts it: “If he calls me, I will answer; I’ll be somewhere working for my Lord.”

The final and highest deed of love is to forgive one’s enemies, as Jesus taught us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Brothers and sisters, I know that some of you have literally obeyed this command, and I stand in awe of you. One would like to think that such acts of forgiveness of one’s persecutors would shame them, open their eyes to God’s love and lead them to overthrow the beasts of this age. But even if it so happens that they are so hardened and blinded by Satan that they will not turn and be saved, your reward will be great in heaven (Luke 6:23).

Conclusion: Christ is Coming Soon!

The Kingdom of God is coming. Jesus Christ is alive and reigning even now as we speak. This fact of salvation history, the final act of the drama, is as certain as His Word. He will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. His coming will be marvelous and unexpected. When I look through the Hubble telescope at the galaxies He has made and through an electron microscope at the subatomic particles that give substance to our earthly life, I can only say

Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest. (Rev 15:3-4)
The final words of the Bible are these: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’” To which the church responds: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! And John adds his own coda, to which I shall add my voice to you in the Church of Nigeria: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”


Brief Bibliography on the Persecuted Church

Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Caroline Cox and Benedict Rogers, The Very Stones Cry Out. The Persecuted Church: Pain, Passion and Praise (London: Continuum, 2011).

Michael Nazir-Ali, Triple Jeopardy for the West: Aggressive Secularism, Radical Islamism and Multiculturalism (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).


The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll is the retired Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University and Professor Emeritus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania USA. He is Special Advisor on the Global Anglican Future for the Anglican Church of North America and a member of the GFCA Theological Commission. Professor Noll addressed the Divine Commonwealth Conference in November 2011.

18 September 2014

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