This essay is a revised version of a sermon preached in several churches in the US and Europe. It calls us to consider the recent, extreme levels of discrimination, persecution, or even martyrdom currently faced by Christians in almost every continent in the light of three passages from the New Testament: Romans 13:1–7; Revelation 13:1–10; and John 13:34–35. Because it may be helpful for the reader to review these biblical texts before reading the sermon, they are written below.
Romans 13:1–7: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Revelation 13:1–10: The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?” The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. Whoever has ears, let them hear. “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.” This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
John 13:34–35: Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
In 2007 a young Turkish man, the father of two children, was planning to take a theology class that I was scheduled to teach when he was brutally martyred. Two other Christians, one Turkish and one German, were also murdered with him in the office of their Bible printing shop in Turkey. They were cut up with knives! I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when I first read what had happened. Shocked and angry, I became deeply involved in reporting on and drawing attention to this terrible incident.
Afterwards I felt compelled (by God, I think) to consider how Christians face discrimination, persecution, and sometimes even martyrdom in many countries around the world. This included thinking about the different types of governments we see in different countries, since governments usually have some important role in relation to discrimination and persecution. I also contemplated our international duties within the Body of Christ, since we now live in a post-globalization world. This message shares some of what I have learned.
We find in the New Testament two complementary views of the State or of government, which we must hold together in our minds and in the practice of Christian discipleship. On one hand, Romans 13 describes what a state should be and do. This passage is very comfortable for us who live in free countries where we have official protection of human rights and the rule of law. “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” Therefore we should generally obey the law and pay our taxes.
But on the other hand, in Revelation 13, we have a description of what a state or a government can become when everything goes wrong. A state can become a devouring beast, destroying everything in its path, and especially attacking Christians with demonic hatred. This was not only the experience of the church in the first century, under the persecutions by Nero in the sixties and Domitian in the eighties; it is also the experience of tens of millions of Christians today. A few months ago I was at a meeting with representatives of persecuted churches from dozens of countries. When someone claimed that the slaughter of Christians in Syria and Iraq should be called genocide, no one disagreed. On the contrary, Christians from other countries responded by saying that what was happening in their nations should be considered genocide too! We may have multiple Christian genocides occurring right now at the hands of multiple, beastly governments. The beast of Revelation 13 is not just a reality from ancient history; the beast is back!
In this light, we Christians who live in free countries, where the government generally fulfills Paul’s vision in Romans 13, need to carefully consider the challenging words of Jesus in John 13:34–35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”