The year was 1932. Darkness had long overtaken the city of Minusinsk in southern Siberi Families throughout the community slept soundly. Suddenly, quite without warning, uniformed militiamen who had been dispatched by their brutal communist leaders violently shattered the silence of night. Raiding the homes of local Christian leaders these henchmen of terror systematically found and ruthlessly dragged twenty-five men, pastors and deacons from their sleep, out into the threatening, enveloping darkness.
They threw the men into vehicles and drove them some distance out from the city into a secluded forest, where they gave them shovels and forced them to dig a large, open pit in the ground. When they had finished digging, their captors instructed the Christians to stand down into the hole, which they did. Ironically, the soldiers who stood menacingly above their victims around the rim of the hole then took off their own hats and allowed the men to pray. When the men had finished praying, the soldiers callously replaced their hats, raised their rifles and summarily shot them. Missions
Standing at that humble, still secluded sight, now identified only by a slightly sunken circle on the pine-straw-covered forest floor and a few dried flowers placed perhaps months earlier by someone familiar with this moment in history, I marveled: not only at the wickedness of man without God, but especially at the power of God and the magnificence of scripture. On that tragic night in 1932, when two groups of men representing two opposing kingdoms entered that ominous Siberian forest, little did either know what the outcome would be. The communist soldiers may well have believed they were eradicating Christianity from the Siberian landscape. Those courageous Christian leaders may never have imagined that all these years later, God would be faithfully building His church not only in Minusinsk, but throughout Siberia, the rest of Russia and the whole world; nor that standing on this site would be two westerners together with two Siberian church planters, giving thanks to God for the rich kingdom heritage these men had left behind in the wake of their martyrdom.
Through the blood of the martyrs God is building His church. Ultimately, as a result of this process, His majesty will be universally and magnificently displayed to the ends of the earth. The gospel of His kingdom will be preached as a witness to every existing people group in the world. In this process, all designs of the kingdom of darkness will be thwarted and all worldly kingdoms will become the kingdoms of our Lord and Christ. Only then will the end come; and when it does, Christ shall reign for ever and ever;1 but between now and then, we are being entrusted with a very precise mission: to take this gospel to the ends of the earth, regardless of the risks.
Kingdom Advances: Made only in the Real World
History testifies to the reality that risks abound in our world for those who stand to represent the kingdom of God. How could it not be so? The character of Christ rivals secular and religious cultures as it is displayed in and through the lives of Christians, eliciting opposition and antagonism from a rival kingdom.
After working in Eastern Europe for a number of years, I eventually found time in my schedule to visit some of the local Russian Orthodox cathedrals. As an art lover and one who is fascinated by older styles of architecture, this was an activity I looked forward to. One particular cathedral had beckoned me for several years, as we routinely rushed by while commuting to our responsibilities at the university. Then one day, almost as an afterthought, I signaled to our driver to stop, and asked if we could take a few moments to go into the small cathedral. He agreed and I alighted, along with my friend John, who also taught a course at the university as a visiting lecturer. With much anticipation, we entered the tall front doors and walked inside. To my surprise, everything was pulled apart and workmen busily occupied themselves with what we were informed would be a complete renovation of the cathedral’s interior.
Almost immediately, craftsmen looked up from their tasks and greeted us. A lady parishioner, who happened to be there that day, began to explain the plan. After a brief tour of the progress, one of the workmen put down his carpentry tools and approached me with an invitation to accompany him outside to an area behind the building – there was something he wanted me to see. I agreed and called to my colleague, suggesting he may not want to miss what we were being asked to view. Once outside, I saw two large wooden crates, each covered by a blue plastic tarp. The man reached over, pulled the tarps away, and revealed one thousand human skulls and skeletons. Masking my initial shock, I asked, “Where did you find these?” to which he replied, “Right here in the basement of this cathedral when we began to renovate just now.” In all likelihood these were religious and political dissidents from the period of Stalin’s reign of terror, who had been shot or chained to the walls and left to die, abandoned by their captors – only now to be discovered at the turn of the century. Almost certainly, many of the victims were Christians whose witness to the kingdom stuck in the craw of that authoritarian regime, eliciting their brutal, gory response.
The ancient world of Nineveh, whose leaders would pile the skulls of defeated peoples in the street for all to see and to fear was brought home to me that day behind the small cathedral in Kazan, Russia. So too were the horrors of what believers have suffered throughout the centuries. But in that moment as I stood looking upon those crated skeletal remains, another reality also struck home: things have not changed very much since Jonah ‘s time. The sinfulness of sin continues to perpetuate from one generation to the next; men and women persist in being viciously inhumane toward one another, and God by His grace still relentlessly calls you and I into a world desperate for the gospel.2
Suffering: the Means to fulfilling God’s Kingdom Purpose
Christianity is being opposed with increasing intensity both in western and non-western countries. Those nations most adamantly opposed to the gospel are those most desperately in need of the gospel. In the face of this reality, a generation of young people exists on every single continent who have begun to calculate and embrace the realization that the means by which this gospel will be taken and displayed before a waiting, watching world is going to be the suffering and even martyrdom of Christ’s people. The church has been built throughout the centuries at the cost of the martyrs’ blood. Scripture confirms that it will be so until God’s kingdom purposes on earth are complete.3 The apostle Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” 4 The suffering of Christians for the cause of Christ will not only be the cost incurred but the means by which the gospel will be taken to the ends of the earth and God’s majesty displayed for all to see.
Jesus emphasized the kingdom. His focus went well beyond where ours often seems fixated, due perhaps in part to expectations imposed by whichever trends happen to be dominate in Christian thinking and practice. For example, the Church Growth Movement in the 1970’s and 80’s, it could be argued, took the visible Church to new heights in terms of a willingness on the part of individual congregations to reach-out to their communities with the gospel. However, rather than being brought to a deeper love for God, a stronger commitment to His Word and a willing submission to costly discipleship, the Church appears to have been led down a very different path. Bent upon placating the insatiable appetites of religious consumers for selective truth by providing all things palatable, the evangelical church has in many quarters capitulated to a pragmatic agenda in hope of finding what most appeals to, attracts and maintains church members. At a time when Christianity is facing its greatest challenge from opposing ideologies, a diluted theology has embraced a post-modern philosophy – challenging the authenticity of universal truths – paving a path divergent to the Calvary road and implementing practices designed to avoid any mention of cost at all costs.
The Cross: God’s Path to Passionate Service
If those who formulated The Cambridge Declaration 5 are accurate in their assessment, Christ and His cross have moved from the center of our vision. A fog of worldliness has settled upon many of our evangelical churches, whose message is now determined less by what people need and more by what they demand. Paul warned Timothy that this day would come6 and ample evidence exists to suggest that it has, dawning gradually, undetected by those whose level of discernment has been lulled to rest by an intoxicating, lingering lethargy. This may not be the church’s finest hour, but it could be. All it would take to turn the tide is for individual Christians to whole-heartedly embrace Christ’s Calvary call. German pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship, who suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s, wrote: “When Christ calls a man – a woman, a young person – he bids him ‘Come and die.’ ” 7 Christ is calling us to walk a Calvary Road. He knew what awaited Him at the end of that road and He beckons us to walk it with Him. He said, “If anyone desires to come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” 8
A kingdom advance will be realized when those of us who are identified by His name, act in obedience to His call upon our lives and step-out onto the path of Christian service, risking everything for the glory of God, knowing that such expression of confidence in God’s kingdom plan will bring the greatest delight to the heart of Christ.
Having preached a message on God’s call, I was approached by a lady who told me, “After listening today, I really think I have wasted my life.” I tried to encourage her that God could make-up for lost time9 and bring much blessing in and through her life, even in her latter years. Since that day I have thought much about her remarks, praying that God would truly encourage her by granting her usefulness and fruit for His kingdom. But perhaps what has challenged me most is the thought that I do not want to arrive at the end of my life and stand before God just to hear Him say, “Let me show you how things could have been, if only you had listened; if only you had stepped-out in obedience to my call on your life”. Perhaps He would play the “video” before me and tell me, “Do you see? This is how it could have been. Do you see these wonderful exploits for the kingdom we could have participated in together? You could have experienced the most wonderful life of joyous service as we labored hand-in-hand for the kingdom!” Then He would point out to me that of course it was really all God – all His strength, His might, His grace; that He didn’t really need me to accomplish any of it – He was just allowing me the privilege of serving the King. But instead, I would have missed out on the blessing of participating in partnership with God for the accomplishment of a glorious kingdom expansion.
Are you ready to embrace God’s call despite all risks, for the advancement of His kingdom? It will involve a passion, a commitment, a heart for the kingdom and a cross. That is the way it has always been.
- 1. See Revelation 15(b); Matthew 24:14.
- Excerpts from The Jonah Principle: God’s Response to Obedience by Peter Law.
- Compare Revelation 6:9-11.
- See Philippians 1:29.
- The Cambridge Declaration, is published in Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals, edited by James Boice and Benjamin Sasse (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1966), 14-20.
- See 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
- Bonheoffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan: New York, 1963, p. 99. (Dietrich Bonheoffer was a young German pastor and theologian martyred by the Nazis in 1945).
- Luke 9:23-24.
- Job 2:25.