xiAs I was speaking with the pastor of my sending church this week, he told me about  another missionary from our church who was facing religious liberty challenges in her part of the harvest field, China. Many Christian workers from the West have had to make the hard decision whether to remain in their ministries there or make other plans due to increasing persecution.

Maybe you haven’t heard of the word “sinicize” (it was new to me.) According to reports, President Xi Jinping announced last spring his new five-year initiative to sinicize all religions, especially by forcing allegiance to Communism. Persecution of Christians, including imprisonment, is on the rise and house churches are being threatened.

But here’s the sentence that caught my eye in this article that details the situation: “Experts say the new wave of persecution comes as the country undergoes a religious revival.” The very definition of a paradox, but it has happened many times before.

The shell of Communism is crumbling and in its place we’re seeing huge numbers of people coming to Christ. Just as the first-century church blossomed during persecution, China is experiencing the same thing over the past several years. While religious liberty is being tightened and even rejected by the government there, the gospel is taking off.

The Bible encourages followers of Christ to get along with their civil governments and model cooperative citizenship as long as obedience to the Lord is the priority. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we’re commanded to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Peter wrote the same idea.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”  1 Peter 2:13-17

We should be grateful for the measure of religious freedom we have in America and should speak up for the God-given (not man-given) right to freely worship for all people and all faiths. We should pray for our brothers and sisters in China and elsewhere who are being denied these rights. But we should never get the idea that the gospel cannot go forward unless it is unshackled from government regulation. It will go where God ordains it to go, regardless of the godliness or godlessness of any given governmental system. He decides – not man, not Satan, not Xi Jinping – only God.

Keep in mind as you read this final verse that it quotes a brutal tyrant who ruled Babylon and had severely mistreated the nation of Israel. God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and narcissism by sending him into a season of insanity and taking him off the throne. When he was finally restored, he was praising God and his words apply to China right now:

All the peoples of the earth
    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
    with the powers of heaven
    and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
    or say to him: “What have you done?”   Daniel 4:35

I was reading this blog post today by Darin Smith (which I recommend to you) and agree with it completely. Except for one sentence. confused

In the penultimate sentence, the author says, “It is important to pray for governmental leaders because the circumstances they create either stop or advance the progress of the Gospel.”

Hmm…

Is it right to pray for religious freedom? Yes. Surely there is a benefit when laws do not restrict religious belief and expression. Is the Gospel dependent on religious freedom to flourish? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that leaders can create conditions that can “either stop or advance the progress of the Gospel.” No person or group of people have that kind of power

History proves this. Christianity grew in its earliest days under government systems that weren’t always favorable to the message. Sometimes, civil disobedience was even called for because of early restrictions:

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:27-32 

Current statistics prove this. According to the mission research organization Operation World, the Gospel is currently growing the fastest in Iran and Afghanistan. China is in the top five. Laws do not determine whether truth will spread. Faithful followers of Jesus who share their faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit, determine whether the Gospel spreads.

I applaud Darin’s great article to remind us to pray 1 Timothy 2 prayers for those in authority. He gives some great suggestions for the content of those prayers. But let’s not forget on whom the spread of the Gospel depends.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.Acts 1:8

Leave me a comment with your thoughts!

GospelVMoralismPick a news story from this week. A strange and unprecedented presidential campaign? Disagreement over a possible Clinton indictment? The murder of policemen in Dallas? Police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis? The threat of terrorism here and overseas? Twisted analysis of our problems by our leaders – those who should know how to fix problems?  These issues and a hundred more vie for our attention each day, uniting most Americans to agree on this: we need change.

For some reason, we think the problems of this summer are the worst in history. But our current state just continues the path men have followed for millennia with the same core problem that we’ve always had. But lately, people are talking about change more than before. There seems to be a lot of us thinking that we could do better. We can. But we have to know what kind of change is really needed.

If the apostle Paul could speak to America and America’s leaders today, his message would be the same as the one he had for King Agrippa in Acts 26. And since Paul can’t speak to Americans today, those who follow Christ have to be the ones to speak. So, what did he say?

  1. He told his story – Quoting Jesus, Paul related, “But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,” (Acts 26:16). Paul had a great testimony of coming to faith in Christ and if you have been changed by the power of Jesus, then you have a story you can tell, too. Nobody can refute your story, so tell it and give glory to God.
  2. He made the gospel clear – Again remembering Christ’s words calling him to minister, “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). This should be the heart of our message to the world – the gospel of Christ is the only power that can truly change hearts through forgiveness and sanctification. No other plan or shortcut will work.
  3. When he was commanded, he obeyed“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision…” (Acts 26:19). None of this matters if the Church won’t obey.
  4. He presented true change – Obeying God’s call he “declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” (Acts 26:20) Here’s where lives head in the right direction, families and communities heal, then nations are strengthened. Deeds that flow from repentance. Hearts, then behavior, changed by the gospel.

If the Church prays only for better behavior in our world, if we are content merely with better laws and less immorality, we have missed Paul’s message from Christ. Moralism never solves what the gospel does. As we pray for our broken nation and increasingly godless society led by many blind guides, a prayer for the spread and reception of the gospel is our only true hope. And the only way that hope becomes a reality is if individual Christians share it with individuals who don’t follow Christ yet.

Agrippa thought Paul was crazy, by the way, and didn’t believe the message. But the root of our world’s problems (and the solution) remains unchanged 2100 years later.

It’s always so enlightening when people who have totally rejected God feel the need to tell people of faith how to act. The latest advice came from The New York Daily News after the shootings nydn
and murder in San Bernardino, California. Apparently, according to Rich Shapiro and any who agrees with him, prayer doesn’t work and God refuses to do what they want Him to do. Any one who says they are praying for the victims of a tragedy are wasting their time and should get off their couch and actually DO something.

What’s funny is, any of the candidates cited for praying for the victims actually HAVE ideas for combating violence in America. I guarantee it. Guess what, Mr. Shapiro and any one who agrees with him – you can do both. You can pray, believing God works in our society and still create laws to protect ourselves, which is the main purpose of government.

for he (civil government) is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Romans 13:4  

Our unbelieving world needs to understand that Christians feel deep heartbreak when calamity strikes. Like David, we weep at the violence and injustice around us. And, like David, our faith and dependence on God is questioned.

My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”  Psalm 42:3

Here are a few thoughts for you, Mr. Shapiro and any one who agrees with him – you have no idea what tragedies have been withheld from us because of the righteous prayers of faithful people. Prayer is not passive – it is a first-resort activity for those whose faith tells them God is intimately involved with His creation and hears the prayers of those who desire Him. He may not choose to stop all bullets, even though we want that. But that’s where trust takes over, a trust in His wisdom that is far beyond ours. So get over your delusion that you understand who is actually in ultimate control of our world’s circumstances. Hint: it’s not you or any other human.

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Psalm 115:2, 3

Second, the problem is not guns or our policies about them. The problem is not waiting periods. The problem is not automatic versus semi-automatic. The problem is the heart of people, many of whom have been told their whole lives that God should be marginalized or removed from the public square altogether. We have made policies that discourage prayer. We punish a coach because he prays with his team. For Mr. Shapiro and any one who agrees with him, it may seem like too many people pray during times of hardship, but they can not deny that our nation has systematically shut down the idea of prayer for years. If there has been an escalation of violence recently, what does that tell you?

America has rejected God for decades and the consequences we are reaping are not due to an indifferent or absent God. The consequences we reap, that we weep over, that we tire of hearing about day after day are solely due to our country’s rejection of God and devaluing of life. You simply cannot sanction killing millions of innocent babies, mainly for convenience and sexual freedom, and float along happily without paying the consequences. You cannot limit the freedom of people to worship and express their faith without paying the consequences. You cannot enslave the poor in a failing system and not pay the consequences.

And what about the day when some in America realize maybe they got this whole thing wrong about prayer and try to turn to God? It may be too late at that point.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. Psalm 66:1

So, Mr. Shapiro and any one who agrees with him, beg for God’s mercy. He will hear you and forgive if you truly repent of unbelief. Be glad there are people left who acknowledge Him and believe in the power of prayer. Realize the heart of people is the problem and no human or political action can change that. Exchange your puny, pathetic, anti-God, anti-faith, anti-prayer, anti-life worldview, which by the way, hasn’t produced any earth-shattering solutions to our problems, for the freeing gospel of Christ before it’s too late.

You want the problems of our world fixed? As long as men reject God, it won’t and can’t be. But there is a time coming when all will be made right. Not because people fixed it, but because the God all nations should seek will do it. In His time, in His way, without our help. Until then, we mourn and pray. We enact laws that protect our innocent. We punish wrongdoers. But above all, we should humble ourselves before and obey the One who controls all things for His glory. The stakes aren’t just dealing with the next instance of terror – the stakes are eternal.

Believers in Annapolis at the National Day of Prayer (May 7, 2015)

Believers in Annapolis at the National Day of Prayer (May 7, 2015)

A week ago today, people all over America gathered at events that centered on interceding for our country. The National Day of Prayer is an annual tradition for many and for that we should be grateful.

I took part in the observance at Lawyer’s Mall in Annapolis, Maryland. This is the spot used for most assembling that is done in the capital. During the legislative session, every day witnesses a protest or rally of some kind on a major issue or bill that is being debated. But on the first Thursday of May each year, that space is reserved for prayer.

We recited the pledge to the flag. We heard the national anthem sung. We prayed for several categories of influence in America – government, business, media, family and others. The gospel was presented. And the thing that always seems to strike me when I’m there is how biblical it is. How obedient to the Scriptures these folks are.

Here we stood in front of the capitol building, to the side of the governor’s house, across the street from the offices of the General Assembly and right next to the statue of Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Right in the middle of the center of power of Maryland with strong, bold reminders of all three government branches on every side. And we prayed. It is a modern-day bowing to the Lord based on a first-century text that still points us to the top priority of any citizen of heaven who is temporarily also a citizen of an earthly nation:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  1 Timothy 2:1-4

No anger was shown. No bullhorns were used. No placards were waved at cars passing by. Just prayer. Peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified.

Thanks to Juin Killingsworth, who heads up the National Day of Prayer throughout Maryland and also to Mitch Ekstrom for diligently coordinating the Annapolis meeting each year. And may we not stop praying for America and our leaders to repent and turn to God.

baltimore protestYou’ve seen the riots. You’ve heard the news conferences. The past week in Baltimore has been marked by the tragic death of a 25-year-old man triggering protests that have been building for decades. And now the marches are spreading across the nation. Disenfranchised communities are speaking out and have a large megaphone available with hundreds of microphones and cameras pointing directly at them. They’re angry and everyone seems to be trying to put their collective fingers on the reason why. But, as is so often the case, fingers are landing on the wrong answers.

We need more jobs. We need better schools. We need economic opportunity. We need the police to stop profiling.

In other words, our government has failed us.

The political solutions are complex, there’s no question about that. But the conclusion that government is the ultimate answer fails to go deep enough. But going deeper for answers will cost us something as a society.

  • It will cost time – The real solution will not happen overnight. Actually, since we have rejected the real solution for so long, the time to undo the damage would take years. How many? I don’t know, but many.
  • It will cost will – We (by that I mean a lot of us who want positive change) would really have to want this. Enough to accept a major shift in thinking and action.
  • It will cost submission – People would have to subject their natural inclinations to the will of someone else.

I see news reports that show churches and faith-based groups trying to serve during these protests. Prayer circles are forming. Food and water are being shared. This is good, but a larger message, a deeper message must also be sent. Not a temporary message of help during a city’s outrage, but a life-changing message that will last for eternity. Baltimore, and everybody else, needs to hear:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in princes.   – Psalm 118:8, 9 –

Quit looking to government to ultimately help with all our problems. Turn to God and His ways. His Son, Jesus, offers the answer to our most foundation need of forgiveness and acceptance.  His Word holds answers to solving the confusion and chaos in our world. Submitting to Him and His plans will heal families. Parents will be more likely to stay together, kids will be happier, families would be stronger and communities healthier. That would immediately alleviate some of the economic woes, but again, the political answers would still have to be grappled with. But if citizens and lawmakers were committed to God and His path first, better answers would be found by our leaders.

Statements like this one by New Orleans Saints’ tight end, Benjamin Watson, must be heard and embraced. I hope you’ll read it. And keep praying for Baltimore (and everywhere else).

benjamin watson

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)  supreme court building

The normal stance of the believer toward his government in New Testament teaching is submission and obedience. There are times, though, when conscience overrides the dictates of human law. We saw that recently when the founders and owners of Hobby Lobby and some other businesses echoed the apostles’ words from Acts chapter five.

Anytime the Supreme Court passes down a 5-4 vote on any issue, the resulting voices are predictably divisive. Reading comments on social media or replies to blog entries and opinion pieces show the stark, sharp differences we have in America on certain social issues. When Monday’s decision came down in favor of Hobby Lobby’s rejection of supplying certain (but not all) forms of hobby lobbycontraception for employees, the differing worldviews of our culture came to a head once more. Here at Rotunda Reflections, the decision is considered a God-honoring victory for religious freedom, something dear to the hearts of many Americans. Without getting into the specifics of the abortion debate, which has been done many times before here and on other blog sites, let’s just say that when the court wisely upholds our right to live out our faith in good conscience, the principles of freedom (granted by God, not government) are also upheld.

We will be celebrating America’s birthday this week and for me, at least, this will be a new reminder to be thankful to be in America. It’s a land with an amazing constitution which guarantees the right to worship as we choose, not just in cloisters hidden from the world around us, as some who oppose us would prefer, but to be lived out in our daily lives with “the free exercise thereof”. How long this freedom will be allowed is in some doubt. But for those who hold this freedom of faith dear, we should prepare to stand for it, keep praying for it, and resolve to fight for it. Paul himself appealed to the authorities for his freedom based on his rights as a Roman citizen. While we prioritize the gospel as our main message to the world, there is nothing unbiblical or inappropriate in firmly seeking to preserve our religious rights and freedoms.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

When Charles Dickens began his famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, he was comparing London and Paris. It’s interesting, though, that his words so appropriately describe two politicians found in the pages of the New Testament. Both were rulers. Both sought to hear the Word of God. Both responded to the Word when they heard it from Paul. And they both teach us lessons as we share the same Scriptures.

THE RESPONSE MAY BE ACCEPTANCE

Acts 13:6, 7, 12 –  When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. . .Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Sergius Paulus was the governor of Cyprus when Saul (later renamed Paul) and Barnabas began their first missionary journey. Paphos was the capital of the island and the novelty of Paul’s message reached the ears of Sergius. This passage says he sought to hear the Word of God, which Saul was happy to deliver.

The encouraging lesson here is that there are times that God’s Word will penetrate the hearts of leaders and this is a result for which we should all pray. Dickens’ “epoch of belief” was realized here in first-century Cyprus.

THE RESPONSE MAY BE ALARM

Acts 24:24, 25   After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 

Felix (procurator of Judea) and Drusilla didn’t have the purest of relationships. She was married to someone else when she started seeing Felix, then Felix abducted Drusilla to take her as a wife, even though she wasn’t divorced or a widow.

With these two as his audience, what topics does Paul cover from Scripture? Was it time for some soft acceptance of this couple’s strange marriage – who was Paul to judge if they were right or wrong? No – Paul spoke to them about being righteous and having self-control and that everyone will give an account to God at the end of their lives when there will be judgment. Felix responded to this teaching with unbelief and fear.

There will be times when people will respond to the Bible like Felix, running from God. Even anger toward hearing the Word is a form of showing fear – fear of facing what has been heard and being accountable for sin. Prepare to lose popularity with some people when you tell them the truth from God’s Word.

IMPLICATIONS FOR US

The implications from these two accounts are stark and clear. Paul’s example of steadfastly teaching the Scriptures should motivate us to depend on the power of the truth of God’s Word and share it with others consistently.

Also, we must realize that the message may be accepted or rejected, but we are not in control of the results. This reality should keep us in humble reliance on the moving of God’s Spirit in the hearts of leaders who come under the truth of the Bible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs often as we focus on praying for our leaders, we should also think of those who serve on their staff as well. Those who surround leaders in their offices are crucial to their success. In Acts 13, the proconsul Sergius Paulus had a counselor who tried to block the gospel from getting to him. It matters who is on the staff of our leaders.

Take some time to read this short article about two of my favorite Chiefs-of-Staff in Annapolis. I love these ladies and enjoy every time I visit their office. As busy as Andi and Katlyn are, they are always warm and kind when I come by. Let the article remind you how to pray for these key people in our government as they serve with much passion in the middle of so much pressure.

Click here for the article.

Have you noticed that attacks on Christianity don’t seem to let up?  Even in America, the home of the free, every group other than Christians either get a free pass or get openly promoted. And the Christian church’s response? Usually, it’s a call to make the world change.

Funny, the Bible doesn’t tell us to do (or even expect) that.

“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  John 15:20

“All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”   2 Timothy 3:12

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”   Acts 14:22 

“You yourselves know that we are destined for [these afflictions].”      1 Thessalonians 3:3

There are dozens of other verses.

The first-century church stands in stark contrast to the American Christian attitude that we deserve better treatment than what our culture is giving us. When Jewish leaders demanded that Peter and John should stop teaching in Jesus’ name and authority, these two men went back to the church and reported it. These believers stood at the same crossroads you and I do when we’re wronged by our society. What to do?

They (as a solid biblical example for all believers in all time periods under all human authorities) prayed. Look at the content of this prayer very carefully:

“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

   “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
   and the peoples plot in vain? 
The kings of the earth set themselves,
   and the rulers were gathered together,
   against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:24b – 30

Key thoughts in this prayer are acknowledging the control of God; admitting that it is normal for human leaders to “gather together against” the Lord; asking God to allow the gospel ministry to continue to be spread in the midst of the persecution (not necessarily the removal of it).

Maybe most significantly is the belief expressed that God superintends the thoughts and actions of governmental leaders (even evil ones) to carry out His will. Pilate and Herod committed gross sin in the unfair treatment and murder of Jesus, yet these early Christians knew this sin was predestined by the Lord to bring about His purposes. In the same way the threat to Peter and John by the Jewish rulers was somehow in His plan. This prayer displays a huge amount of faith and strength. But it is a faith placed first on God Himself rather than human effort to derail the persecution.

American Christians today should warm up to the idea that as bad as things are in our world and as uncomfortable as this culture may make us, that could be the very thing God wants to happen. There’s no need to be surprised at this treatment.  It was promised.  It’s what we signed up for. Our prayer should be that the good news of salvation in Christ can be shared in the middle of all this mess.