Years ago, a missionary described sharing a Bible passage with a Muslim man. The missionary was shocked when his friend responded, “Now I know that Christianity is true.”
In response, the missionary asked, “Do you want to become a Christian?” At which point the Muslim man was similarly shocked. He had no idea becoming a Christian was actually possible for him.
Many times people might know what God expects from them, they’re just not sure it’s possible in the messy specifics of their lives. And in some contexts—especially difficult ones such as where this missionary was working—people don’t just need to know it’s possible to believe the gospel. They need to know it’s possible to follow Christ despite the suffering they’re likely to endure.
Challenge of Persecution
Today, the majority of unreached peoples in the world are trapped in various religious systems: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism, and animism. But in general, the suffering they face if they follow Jesus is the same no matter their background. The threat of persecution is real. In many cases, this expectation of suffering can do more to blind people to the gospel than the direct teachings of their religions.
Few people imagine that standing up in the face of such a threat is actually possible. The author of Hebrews acknowledges this, writing that the Devil has the “power of death” and uses the “fear of death” to hold people in “lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15).
How should we understand this? New Testament writers clearly portray Satan as the source of persecution (John 14:30; 1 Pet. 5:8–9; Rev. 2:10, 13; 12:17). Hebrews is no different. It was written to first-century believers who had suffered harsh persecution (Heb. 10:34) and faced possible martyrdom (Heb. 12:4). When the writer speaks to them of Satan using the fear of death to enslave people, he’s speaking of how persecution can intimidate people so they’ll turn away from Jesus—or never listen to him in the first place.
Jesus teaches something similar. He suggests the fear of persecution is enough to make some people fall away (Matt. 13:21) and that because of it “the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:9–12; cf. 2 Tim. 4:10). Scripturally, then, it’s not surprising that the fear of persecution is one of the greatest challenges missionaries face when seeking to make disciples in hostile contexts.
Outcomes and Imitation
How do we help people overcome this fear? Well, we can learn something from the approach of the author of Hebrews. As he seeks to encourage his readers to endure, he doesn’t tell them to “get serious” about their faith. Nor does he call them to suffer simply because Jesus suffered for them. Instead, he gives examples of how God rewards those who endure hardship for his sake and tells them to imitate these people.
The fear of persecution is one of the greatest challenges missionaries face when seeking to make disciples in hostile contexts.
He describes a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who lived as “strangers and exiles” (Heb. 11:13) on the earth and who now stand ready to inherit a better homeland. He then goes to the example of Jesus, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). We too must teach a theology of suffering that includes a theology of reward and glory.
Perhaps most significant for missionaries today, the author of Hebrews concludes by giving examples of people his readers know, those they’ve seen live faithfully under such persecution: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Here, it’s the outcome—the tangible result and reward of their leaders’ lives—that he depends on to fuel his readers’ faith. Vague hope won’t help those who suffer. Abstract theology isn’t enough. They need visible examples, people they can imitate. Because when people are facing suffering and death, they need to know God is going to come through for them in real-life ways.
Paul also encourages the Corinthians through his visible example. As God strengthens Paul in his sufferings and persecution, not only “the death of Jesus” but also the resurrected “life of Jesus” are “manifested” in Paul’s body (2 Cor. 4:7–15). Although Satan enslaves people through the fear of death, God’s resurrection power is displayed and the gospel is reenacted through Paul’s suffering. His endurance gives readers hope that God can and will raise the dead.
Show It’s Possible
Missionaries, many of the people you serve won’t imagine following Christ is possible until you give them a living example of what it looks like in the circumstances where they live. They know foreigners can be Christians. They likely don’t know it’s possible for them.
When people are facing suffering and death, they need to know that God is going to come through for them in real-life ways.
This is part of what makes long-term investment so necessary on the mission field. Without it, we can’t demonstrate what it means to follow Christ. As we live with the people we minister to, they’ll see how we deal with the various sufferings God ordains: sickness, disappointments, loneliness, betrayals, corruption, and persecution. This gives us the opportunity to leave them an example, for them to follow us as we follow our Savior (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1).
As they see our hope in God and see God’s resurrection power at work in us, some will gain strength to believe that if they imitate our faith, God will similarly sustain them. They’ll see it’s possible not only to believe in Christ but to endure persecution for the sake of the gospel.