"Seeing the Bible through Persecuted Eyes"
Brother Andrew's ministry
Taken from 16 reasons why I should encounter Persecuted Christians (www.opendoorsuk.org
I need to encounter persecuted Christians because they help me to interpret my Bible better.
"The Bible is not an easy book to interpret," said my New Testament professor, "otherwise why would we have fought so many wars over its meaning?"
I remember my Church History professor shaking his head and saying ruefully: "One of the saddest features of church history must be that it was over the doctrine of the Lord's Supper that Christians shed the most blood."
Every pastor knows it is hard to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. They labour to learn languages, use concordances and consult commentaries, all in the hope of shedding more light on the key questions of interpretation: Who wrote this text and what did they mean by it? Who initially read this text and what did they make of it?
All good interpretation begins with the tools that answer these two primary questions. We are taught that these tools lie in the realm of scholarship, and most pastors take to their studies and their libraries accordingly.
But there is another vitally overlooked "tool" that gives the key to the meaning of the Scriptures - the Persecuted Church!
The Persecuted Church of today represents the closest we can come to the original writers and readers of the Scriptures.
Most of the Bible was written by persecuted people for persecuted people. By interacting with them, we gain unique insights into the original meaning of the Scriptures.
We need their help because what is obvious to a persecuted, biblical Christian is no longer obvious to us.
We inhabit a completely different universe from that of the New Testament writers. We need the persecuted to remind us of what life was like for the first-century faith community.
There are three key characteristics persecuted Christians of today share with the biblical church, and which we emphatically know little of:
Persecuted Christians Have No Future
Having a future is a luxury that most persecuted Christians do not enjoy, either in the biblical period or today. They have no long term.
What they read and use, they use in the moment. They need to hear from God urgently because tomorrow their life may be required of them. And they live and act with little regard for consequences.
How different to us, who demand so much ministry on how to live in the world long term.
No stake in their society
We live in a world where the church was - and in some cases still is - privileged; where Christian language and concepts have shaped our history and where individual Christians can hold high office.
We are comfortable, well connected and prosperous.
But biblical, persecuted Christians were always on the outside of the power structure. Peter called them "strangers and aliens."
The Scripture is written for powerless people.
Persecuted Christians live in societies dominated by religious rituals. This is what gets them into trouble - they do not worship the "emperor." Even in atheistic societies, persecuted Christians are in conflict because they do not worship the "gods" of the age, whether the god is Mao, Lenin or Castro.
But we live in worlds where the role of religion has been relegated to the private sphere. We are not required, like our biblical persecuted forebears were, to take oaths of allegiance and fealty to state gods or other gods.
Thus persecuted Christians enable us in some small way to recover the "original eyes" of the first writers and readers of the New Testament - and that can make all the difference to a correct or an incorrect interpretation.
I remember a dear pastor from the West preaching about Jesus stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41). His whole talk was on how Jesus could still the storms raging in our lives.
He named storms like loneliness, misunderstanding, humiliation and even persecution. And he said: "Jesus can deliver you from every one of these storms, just like he did the disciples of old."
The pastor was about to go on when an old man stood up. He was from a Middle Eastern country and had seen much suffering.
He said gently and respectfully: "My dear brother, if you had been persecuted, you would know the primary meaning of this passage.
"The point of this story is not that Jesus takes the storm away, but that there is no need to fear the storm if Jesus is in the boat."
Everyone stared at him in silence. He added: "This passage is given to us for our comfort in the face of terrible storms, to know that Jesus is in the boat with us so that the storm will do us no harm."
Not many appreciated the interruption. But some years later, at seminary studying this passage, I saw the value of his insight.
Scripture's intended audience
Mark's Gospel was not written to Christians who were being delivered, but to comfort those who were dying. It was written to the persecuted Christians of Rome who were being martyred by the hundreds under Nero.
How would they have interpreted this passage? Surely not that they would be delivered out of the mouths of the lions. They didn't. They died in the arenas.
But this passage would have spoken to them even so - they would know that with Jesus, the storm of death would do them no harm.
Even the passage itself makes this clear. Jesus is astonished because the disciples have little faith. They just do not realise who He is. If they did, they would not fear the storm.
So that persecuted Christian - because he was persecuted - knew the meaning of the passage better than the preacher, because he was the one for whom the passage was written.
What a fantastic opportunity we have then. As we interact with the persecuted, our own Bible becomes clearer. They give us the eyes to interpret the Scriptures, which were originally written more for people like them than for people like us.
Of course, the persecuted are not a foolproof tool for understanding the Scriptures. We still need our scholars, our exposition, our encyclopaedias.
But do not overlook the aid of the persecuted in interpreting sacred texts, for they, far more than we, are linked to the world of our biblical ancestors.