As far back as I can remember, I’ve been the keeper of the objects, anecdotes, and photographs of my family’s story.
We value pictures and memories of those who are special to us. Our earthly family ties — like our lives — are precious, fragile, and fleeting. But we have, by grace alone through Christ alone, another family. I have spent more than twenty years visiting my Christian family in the world’s most hostile places, traveling to more than eighty countries (from the former Iron Curtain countries to war-torn Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and then sharing what I have seen and heard.
This family is created by a second birth through the blood of Christ. Christ’s family, which he has adopted us into, is everlasting and spans continents and cultures and all the centuries past. We are bound to the living and reigning Christ with all other believers — past and present. We’re family with every saint in the Bible! It is a mystery of grace that in this big, scattered, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, fractious, and seemingly dysfunctional family, we have a bond that’s deeper than blood, stronger than death.
Church History, Our History
Many years ago, I was in Albania at a time when the little Balkan country was emerging from nearly fifty years under a brutal, Communist dictatorship.
Among the Iron Curtain countries, Albania was considered the “North Korea” of Eastern Europe because of the isolation, deprivation, and persecution that the people suffered for decades. When Communism collapsed in 1990, there was no known church in the entire country. But God showed great mercy to the people of Albania as the gospel was preached to even the most remote corners of the country. Within twenty years, there were Albanian congregations in every city and in most towns throughout the nation!
During those first years of freedom and gospel advance, a missionary friend invited me to teach a short series on church history to his little congregation of first-generation Christians. Night after night I walked with them through the centuries and shared the stories of faithful men and women — their brothers and sisters — who had followed Christ in their day.
It became clear to them that the gospel they had heard and believed was the same one that Paul and Polycarp and Perpetua believed and died for. Theirs was the same faith that Luther defended and that Hudson Taylor had sailed to the other side of the world to preach in Chinese. These truths were found in God’s word, the Bible — the same Scriptures that Tyndale put into English and Carey translated into Bengali which was also the book that their pastor preached from in Albanian.
Saints Below and Above
When this reality took hold, light shone in their eyes and joy filled their faces. They had been told by family and friends that they were deceived and were part of a small cult of fellow fools who had drunk the same Kool-Aid. But now they saw that the church wasn’t just the forty or fifty people gathered in an apartment sitting on fold-up chairs. Instead, they were inseparably part of something worldwide.
They were connected to the saving work that Jesus himself started across the centuries and across the world as he gathered — and is gathering — his own from every nation and generation. Meeting this “company of heroes” from church history put iron in their souls and gave them greater perspective to endure the persecution and ridicule they faced. With fresh confidence, they took their place in the lines of Charles Wesley’s anthem:
Glory to God, and praise and love
Be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above,
The church in earth and heav’n.
Different Faces in the Family
God’s creative work is wondrously displayed in places and things. There are many places where I’ve worshiped the Maker of all things: a majestic sunset crowning the day in crayon colors; finding a nest chock-full of baby bluebirds; or a deep, dark night in a desert valley in central Afghanistan, where above me the Milky Way seemed ready to break beneath the weight of its glory and a meteor shower added fireworks to the star-spangled sky!
But as God’s creative work is displayed in places and things, so his redemptive work is displayed in his people. And I have been impacted by the stories and examples of this great cloud of witnesses — past and present. Their strides in running after Christ have quickened my own pace.
I think of a pastor I was with recently in the Middle East. Ten years ago, Mohammad planted (and still pastors) a church in a Hezbollah stronghold. Outside the church, which is within the shadow of a mosque, the streets are lined with posters honoring the local suicide bombers. But inside, the church is lined with people eager to hear of life in Christ. Threats and prison bars have not silenced this brother, who himself was once bound in the chains of Islam, but was delivered by Christ who sets captives free and raises the dead. It’s hard to threaten a man who will now live forever. Mohammad’s ministry (even his name) reminds me of the amazing and unlikely reach of the gospel.
Look at Those Who Went Before
I also think of my friend, Cheryl, who wrote these lyrics drawn from Isaiah 43 not long before being martyred in Afghanistan:
The waters came today, the rivers ran deep.
I saw the waves today; I watched them crashin’ over me.
I was drownin’ in despair, and I couldn’t get up for air.
Then I heard Your voice callin’ out to me:
Fear not! I have redeemed you.
Fear not! For I have summoned you by name.
I’m takin’ you by the hand. I’ve placed your feet upon dry land.
I will be with you. You will not be swept away.
Even now I can hear her singing these words, and in her voice, I hear the fellowship of his sufferings.
Then there’s the letter I received from my friends Ivan and Oksana who are serving in another one of the ’Stans. It brought me so much joy to read:
Some Muslim radicals started putting pressure on our brothers. A mullah visited our brothers in Berezovka and demanded that they deny Christ, and gave them three days to make that decision. Our brothers said they did not have to wait three days because they had already made a firm decision to follow Christ and weren’t going to deny him. They answered in love and meekness but very firmly.
The family resemblance is unmistakable. Whether it’s the brothers of Berezovka or Mohammad or Cheryl or others in that growing “multitude that no one could number” (Revelation 7:9), they all bear a certain likeness to Jesus and witness to the power of his resurrection. His face shines all the brighter, his salvation is all the sweeter to me, as I witness their courage and death-defying joy. Learn from saints who traveled before, and be encouraged by the God who worked in their lives.