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Learning from the Persecuted Church During Advent

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We naturally think of themes such as hope, longing, and anticipation during the Advent season. Persecution, on the other hand, probably doesn’t come to mind for most Christians. However, the Advent season might just present a unique opportunity to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are suffering for their faith. 

Now before you start thinking, “O great, he’s going to give me a guilt trip because I’m looking forward to gifts and time with my family while other Christians are suffering,” hear me out. I’m thinking about the bigger picture. 

An Ancient Theme
The theme of persecution is as old as Abel and Abraham and the children of Israel serving as slaves in Egypt. Many of the prophecies of the coming Messiah were announced to those who were being oppressed by foreign nations. In short, God’s people have consistently faced opposition, and this opposition has given them a sense of longing for God’s presence and his future grace. This kind of longing is captured well by the psalmist:

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Psalm 14:7)

The Advent season should cause us to reflect on how God fulfilled these longings and expectations at Christ’s first coming. In fact, the word advent means “coming.” But Scripture doesn’t only speak of one advent, or coming, of Christ. Christ’s first coming should compel us to look with hope and anticipation to his second coming. And this is where the persecuted church can help us. 

A Current Example
Open Doors has shared the story of Jamil, a Christian in war-torn Yemen who converted from Islam. Becoming a follower of Christ in Yemen often has serious consequences, including exclusion from your family or your tribe, or even death. So how do you persevere faithfully in a context like this? Here are Jamil’s reflections:

“As Christians we feel like strangers in our own country. The war has focused us on what really matters—following Christ—even if it costs us our lives. The Bible is very clear about what we can expect; suffering is part of life for those who follow Christ. This is why many Yemeni Christians really long for Jesus to return. We lost so much; we reach out to the everlasting peace that He will bring one day—hopefully soon!”[1]

For persecuted Christians like Jamil, Christ’s second coming will mean the end of persecution and suffering and the entrance into everlasting rest. Their trials compel them to look beyond their present circumstances and to set their hope on God’s promises for their future. In this sense, they are imitating the example of believers who have gone before them:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (Hebrews 11:13–14)

Surely there’s a lesson for us here during this Advent season.

A Present Application
Though not all Christians face the same kinds or levels of opposition for their faith, Scripture teaches that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Therefore, we need to follow the example of persecuted believers past and present by setting our hope on God’s future grace (Hebrews 6:11–12). And by following their lead, we are simply following Scripture’s lead. 

Scripture constantly encourages all Christians to live in light of our future hope (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:16–18; 1 Peter 1:3–9). We are able to endure as we anticipate the day when every tear will be wiped away and God’s people will dwell with him forever in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1–4). It’s this hope that helps us endure to the end.

Of course, it is God who sustains our faith in his future grace (1 Peter 1:5), so we don’t have to fear that we will be unable to maintain this future-oriented focus. But we should be eager to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ who are currently enduring persecution by setting their hope on Christ’s second advent. What better time than the Advent season to learn from and imitate their example?  

[1] Open Doors, “Longing for Jesus’ Return,” March 22, 2017 (accessed at: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/take-action/pray/longing-for-jesus-return/).

David Burnette serves as the Chief Editor for Radical. He lives with his wife and three kids in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves as an elder at Philadelphia Baptist Church. He received his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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