Whatever Happened to All Those Pentecost Converts?

One moment 120 Christians were quietly praying together, and the next moment the hall was filled with a howling hurricane. Then they saw what looked like flames of fire that spread to every person. Running out they started telling what God had done. The crowds were utterly bewildered to hear them speaking in their own languages even though they came from fifteen different countries. Peter then preached a sermon which resulted in 3,000 converts with Jewish backgrounds.

Overlooked by Church Historians
Acts chapter two lists the fifteen countries represented by these 3,000 new believers. We know them by their modern names:
Nine countries in the Middle East: Palestine, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran.
Four countries in north-east Africa: Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan.
Three countries in south-east Europe: Crete, Italy, Greece.

Twenty years before the apostle Paul started his missionary journeys in western Turkey and Greece, these three-thousand new believers—an average of 200 new believers per country—returned within weeks to evangelize their own people and spread the Good News for 2,000 kilometres in every direction from Jerusalem. Jesus established His Church in the whole Middle Eastern region as well as in north-east Africa and south-west Asia.

Christians Are Surprised
The reason that this is a surprise to many Christians is well-stated by Paul-Gordon Chandler in his book, God’s Global Mosaic. “In Western theological colleges the study of church history begins in Jerusalem and proceeds quickly westward with the apostle Paul. Then there is a jump from the early church fathers to the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, a student can be left with the impression that the church somehow ceased to exist in the lands of its origin.”

Strong Through Suffering
Although little is taught about the Church in the Middle East and Africa, these countries had strong, thriving churches. In Libya, for instance, archaeological evidence indicates the presence of a vibrant, creative Christian communityfrom early in the first century until the Muslim conquest of A.D. 643. All these churches endured enormous persecution. First under the Roman Empire, then under the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, Christians were harassed and martyred for centuries.

Christianity survived in all the areas where portions of the Bible were available in the language of the people. Where the church used translation into Greek or Latin instead of the local language, the church did not survive.

With the spread of Islam came more widespread oppression and killing that continues even today. The first time the word genocide was used to describe the targeted killing of  people group was one-hundred years ago when the Muslim Ottoman Empire was accused of killing Christians in Armenia in eastern Turkey, an area far from where the apostle Paul traveled.

The Christians in northern Iraq were persecuted so much they were forced to migrate every couple of generations, much like European Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish had to do centuries later.

“Killing Christians Pleases God”
God has been faithful, the Church in the Middle East has endured, and the twelve million Christians currently living in these nations continue to carry out powerful ministries under some of the most repressive regimes on earth.

What sobers me is that these millions of Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in the faith have a heritage of suffering few of us can look back on. These believers have endured for generations and continue to persevere in their faith even though most are treated as second class citizens and some of them live among people who sincerely believe that to kill a Christian wins favour with God.

What about Us?
In comparison, we western Christians, especially in English speaking nations, have had it relatively easy for many generations, since we are living in countries where the laws are based on biblical principles. But as secular humanist ideology grows stronger, governments now feel free to marginalize Christian principles and repeal the laws based on them.

In some European countries, Christian schools are closed, home-schooling is banned, and children are forced to attend public schools where the parents have no input into what is being taught. There are local governments even in North America that promote the same atheistic, humanist agenda.

And what if these rather mild acts of discrimination provoked, not just a howling hurricane of protest, but a deep spirit of unity among Christians, leading to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit?

What if, along with uniting to protest, we also united in praising God and praying for strength to endure increasing persecution?

Would we grow strong in faith like our suffering brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world?

Would we, like them, also live by the words of Jesus, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world?” John 16:33 (NIV).


Jumping to Conclusions: Bad Exercise

“A major tornado has hit a provincial capital in southern Canada!”
It was Friday, July 31, 1987, when Jo and I heard this news headline on Brazilian radio.  I listened carefully, expecting to hear about Toronto, Ontario which is on the same latitude as South Dakota. Imagine my surprise when the announcer said, “Edmonton, a city in southern Canada, suffered major damage with twenty fatalities.”

Edmonton? Canada’s northernmost provincial capital? The gateway to the North? With its long cold winters, it’s in southern Canada? My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads, as much in dismay over the grief caused by the tornado, as over the ignorance of the announcer.

But, later, looking at a map of North America, I understood why the reporter considered Edmonton to be in southern Canada. That’s because it is! It is well over 2,500 km from the northern boundary, and only 500 km from the southern border. It’s not just in the southern fifty percent of Canada, it’s in the southern fifteen percent!

Eli‘s Worldview Versus Hannah’s Reality
I thought of that long-ago incident recently when I read the story in 1 Samuel 1, of Eli the priest seeing Hannah, the childless woman, moving her lips but not uttering a sound. He glanced at her and knew he’d seen that behaviour before–in drunks. So he rebuked her for being drunk. Wrong! She was anything but drunk. She was fervently praying for a child.

Eli’s worldview led him to judge praying Hannah as a drunk. The reporter’s worldview saw Edmonton as a provincial capital located in the southern fifth of Canada, while some Edmontonians see themselves as the northernmost outpost of civilization.

People tend to misinterpret actions by others who have a different worldview. It happens between adults and children, immigrants and long-time residents, retired seniors and college students, international travelers and local residents, and between the haves and the have-nots in our society.

Topless Canela Women
One day a cargo truck stopped in the Canela village on its way to a Brazilian settlement. When the six young Brazilian men, catching a ride on the truck, saw all the Canela women were bare-breasted, they concluded this was a village of sluts and began to behave accordingly. Taking off their shirts and smirking lewdly into each other’s cameras, they draped their arms over the shoulders of half-naked Canela women. As Brazilians, they came from a hyper-sexed society, like our North American culture, which views breasts as sex objects, while to Canelas, breasts were simply baby-feeding organs.

Canela Banking System
When we started our twenty-plus years of living among the Canela, it seemed like we were living in a village of beggars since our neighbours kept asking us for things. It was only after we understood the culture more thoroughly that we realized they were not beggars at all. They were just practicing a centuries-old credit-based trading system.

When a hunter brought home fifty pounds of deer meat, he would have plenty left over after feeding his family. With neither salt nor refrigeration, he had no way to preserve it. So, when neighbours came and asked for some meat, he would gladly give it, knowing he was building up credit with them, to cash in the next time they had excess food. No paper, no IOUs—the entire village-wide credit and debit system was based on mutual understanding and family memory.

So What?
The next time we see someone do something that strikes us as crazy, we probably should ask ourselves, “Is this person of a different age, background, culture, race, gender or nationality?” If so, we need to recognize that this “crazy” action may be perfectly acceptable in the other person’s worldview.

Exercise is good for us, but not when we jump to wrong conclusions. That simply shows our ignorance.


The Easter Confusion

It happened during an Easter Sunday service, fifteen ago, but it made such a powerful impact on me I still remember it with awe.

While I served as executive director of Wycliffe Caribbean, I was away from home most weekends and preaching in churches. One Easter Sunday in Trinidad, however, I had no speaking engagement, and walked to a nearby church.

Since I had visited a few times and preached there once, the usher recognized me and seated me in the front pew, next to the pastor and his wife. After a rousing time of musical worship and celebration, the pastor introduced the special visiting speaker, the president of the denomination.

The Invitation
“But before our president brings the message,” he said, “I’d like to welcome our brother Jack Popjes from Wycliffe. Jack, please come up and bring a few words of greeting from Wycliffe.”

Inviting visiting pastors or missionaries to say a few words is customary in many Caribbean churches, so I was not surprised. I took the microphone, knowing I was expected to speak for at least five to ten minutes. I gave a two-minute update on Wycliffe Caribbean and the world of Bible translation, and continued, “This Easter morning I am remembering what happened the first time we spent Easter in the Canela village of Brazil.”

My Story
In he next two minutes I told about sitting near the Canela old men’s council and listening to them arguing over how someone had died. Some insisted he had been executed. Others disagreed saying he had died in a fight, “How else did he get holes in his hands and feet if he wasn’t grabbing and kicking at the spears?” Hey! They were talking about Jesus, His crucifixion and death!

I prayed for an opportunity to speak. Suddenly the chief called on me to sit with them, and said, “Our Portuguese speaking Brazilian neighbours told us that this week everyone is remembering the death of a really important man. But we don’t understand what happened. Do you know anything about this?”

“Yes, I do!” I said and ran home to get the freshly translated story.

That was the first time I publicly read the Passion and Easter story in Canela. Even though it was only a first draft translation, hearing the clear facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection made a huge impact on the Canelas. (Read the full story in chapter 4 of my latest book, The Why & How of Bible Translation, available on Amazon.)

“Hundreds of millions of people,” I told the congregation, “speak over 4,000 languages in which none of the Bible has yet been translated. It breaks my heart that right now, today, this very Easter Sunday morning, they are still just as confused about Easter as the Canelas were back in the early 1970s.”

The President’s Response
I sat down, and the denominational president entered the pulpit. He opened his Bible, arranged his notes, looked over the congregation and said,

“I sense some of you need to respond to what you have just heard. Do you feel God wants you to commit to personally do something to bring His Word to those Bible-less people groups? Maybe you are willing to work overseas. Or you may want to commit to pray or give as you have never prayed or given before. If you want to make such a commitment, come forward right now, and I’ll pray for you.”

That’s when we saw God’s Holy Spirit at work.
One by one, men, women, young people and older folks got up and walked to the front and stood with bowed heads. As more people kept coming, the pastor whispered to me, “I’ve never seen this before. Come with me.” He organized lines for people to be prayed for by the visiting speaker, by himself, and by me.

As the people kept coming, we laid our hands on them and prayed. After over half the congregation had come, received prayer, and had returned to their seats, nearly an hour had passed. The visiting speaker never did preach his sermon. He stood with tears in his eyes, asked everyone to rise, and gave the benediction.

The Results
Some months later, a Wycliffe team led a well-attended, in-depth workshop in that church on how to get involved in Bible translation. Later that year, Wycliffe Caribbean signed a ministry partnership agreement with that major denomination.

God is still at work!
In the fifteen years since I told that two-minute story in Trinidad, people groups speaking hundreds of different languages have received God’s Word in their language for the first time. Currently, Bible translation projects are ongoing in nearly 2,000 other languages!

He is alive! Happy Easter!
But remember that 1,600 people groups are still as confused about Jesus as the Canelas were. They still wait for someone to translate God’s Word in their language.

College Reunions: To Go, or Not to Go, No Question About It.

This past weekend Jo and I participated in a reunion of our Bible college alma mater. (Yes, the one that expelled me in my second year. But that’s another story.)



When we first walked into the registration hall I thought, Wait a minute. We’re in the wrong place. This is just a bunch of old people.

Why would we spend the time, effort and money to get together with people we went to school with, some of whom we hadn’t seen for half a century? Why would anyone?

We talked. We listened. And talked some more. For hours and hours. Everyone had the same two questions for everyone else. Where do you live now? What do you do? Sometimes the conversation petered out at that point, and sometimes that was the start of catching up to 50 or more years of stories of family raising, travels and ministries.

Since Jo and I were missionaries to Brazil for nearly 25 years and are still active in ministries, many people had kept up with us through our newsletters, emails and blog site. But we hadn’t kept up with all of them. So we did a lot of listening.

We got name cards to wear, with our names printed in large letters. Good thing too, since many of my old time friends had changed so much they didn’t recognize me until they glanced down at my name card.

Seeing how much people have changed, or haven’t changed is certainly one reason people come to reunions. I remember walking into an earlier reunion and immediately noticing someone I had dated in college. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Through all those decades she hadn’t changed a bit! Still just as fresh faced, and good looking as ever. As I stared astonished, I noticed a woman about my own age standing near this vision of loveliness. She was watching me and laughing softly to herself. Then she said, “Hi Jack, meet my granddaughter.”

We had lots of unstructured time to praise God together as we sat in sharing circles and told and heard encouraging stories about children and grandchildren, fascinating travels, and ministry successes. It was great. But as I led the closing program and banquet, I looked out over the 190 attendees and suspected that there was also a heart ache in every chair. Pain, disappointment, sickness, and failure are part of everyone’s life. Those stories came out during the more private conversations.

Probably the best part of the organized program was the sing-along when for over half an hour we all sang steadily, lustily, and loudly—and from memory!—old time hymns, and meaningful choruses. Yes, we even sang all the way through the Hash Chorus!

Here are some reasons to attend your college reunion:

  • You’ll be missed if you don’t show up.
  • Your family is tired of hearing your stories and you need a new audience.
  • It just might be fun.
  • To show off pictures of your amazing grandkids.
  • It’s a small world, and you’ll be surprised at the neat coincidences that turn up.
  • To listen to some real music.
  • You’ve always wondered what happened to what’s-his-name.
  • To renew old friendships, or start new ones.
  • To talk about the good old days.
  • 1-1-DSC_0275Others really want to see you!
  • You know you really want to
  • Extensive studies have shown that those who initially were hesitant about attending their reunion, were very happy they came.
  • Who knows when there will be another reunion?
  • Who knows if you’ll be around to attend?

If your alma mater is a Christian College, then a reunion is a foretaste of The Great Reunion! And that’s the Reunion no one wants to miss!

Been There, Done That, I Understand

Back in my hotel bed after yet another productive time spent in the bathroom, I tried to remember when I last had such a severe case of diarrhea. Hmm, Indonesia a few years ago, I thought, and of course Brazil, nearly every work session in the Canela village.

I then started a mental conversation with Jesus, first asking Him to heal me and give me my strength back, and soon. I also reminded Him I was supposed to be in a suit and tie, giving a story packed speech that evening and every night that week before an audience of nicely dressed banquet guests who would be severely distracted if, in the middle of the speech, I had an accident or had to rush out to the nearest bathroom.

I was still mentally explaining my suffering to Him when the thought came, “Yes, I know.” And into my mind popped a vivid picture of Jesus grabbing some leaves and hurrying behind a boulder along the Jericho road to relieve Himself for the umptieth time while the disciples grinned knowingly.

Yes, the divine Jesus was also fully human and suffered the same problems we tend to suffer. “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. . . . Though He was God’s Son, He learned trusting-obedience by what He suffered, just as we do” Hebrews 4:15, 5:8 (MSG).

Jesus2Meaning He was tempted to complain about being afflicted with infections and the resulting weaknesses especially when He was busy in ministry.

The next mental picture I got was of Jesus rejoining his disciples and laughing at his predicament.

I, however, was not laughing. I was not only tempted to complain, I did so, frequently, bitterly, and at length. I also claimed healing faithfully, but then doubted His willingness to instantly heal me since day after day nothing positive seemed to be happening. No, not a pretty picture.

It’s now a week later and after a five-day liquid diet, I’m happy to report my digestion is back on track. I’m thankful that there were no distracting accidents or interruptions during any of my five speeches although my presentations were noticeably weaker and less peppy.

I’m also thankful that I got a clearer view of the humanity of Jesus. He was not the thoroughly healthy figure in impeccably spotless white robes, wearing a halo and a devout expression so often pictured in paintings and biblical illustrations.

He looked and smelled a lot more like a Brazilian peasant farmer trudging back from his field to his village at sunset. Sweat stained shirt, dirt streaked pants, and feet the color of the soil they had been tramping since dawn.

Jesus traveled and ministered out in the open air. He also lived there. He and His band of young men slept on the ground, the grass, or the sand many nights, close to the dirt and dust of the earth. That showed on their clothes. He had dirt under his fingernails, and in many other places. He was often dead tired, falling to sleep instantly and soundly even in a tossing boat during a storm.

You know how when you go camping for the weekend you tend to feel gritty and grunky, smelling of sweat and campfire smoke? Then, when you get home, one of the first things you do is have a shower and put on clean clothes, right? Now think of going camping without a tent, sleeping bag, pillow, propane stove, lamp, flashlight, or canned food, and hiking 15 miles a day, week after week for months. That’s what it was often like for Jesus and His band.

In comparison, my problem was a mere inconvenience. Instead of having to walk everywhere, I rode in a van. I slept in an impeccably clean hotel bed every night, and most afternoons, instead of in the sand off the side of the road. I had clean clothes, plenty of liquids, food, medicines, and  . . .

Oh, Lord, forgive my complaining!

Are you complaining about something today?
Jesus says to you, “Yes, I know, I’ve been there too.”

The Day the Bottom Fell Out of Everything

Jo and I awoke early after a fitful sleep that first night in the main Canela village. Rain had wakened us several times as it blew in through the open holes in the mud walls, still without shutters. We were exhausted after the long trip and from unloading three packing drums and dozens of cardboard boxes from the truck the day before.

Unloading supplies for a seven month stay in the Canela village

We dressed, and I started a fire on the ground at the back door to boil water so Jo could make coffee and breakfast porridge. Our three pre-school daughters were still fast asleep in their hammocks, worn out from riding on top of the truckload of cargo for the four-day 60 kilometre last leg of the trip. After eating our breakfast, using the top of a metal packing drum as a table, I asked some Canela men to bring lots of thin palm canes to make shelves.

The chaos started when some of the cane shelves and tables were ready to be filled. I picked up a box of cans of food and two steps later all the cans dropped out the bottom scattering on the floor. The same thing happened to Jo with a box of medicines. Huh? What? Then it hit me. Construction of our mud walled, palm thatch roofed house was still going on the day we arrived, the packed earth floor was still damp, and the moisture had soaked into the bottom of every cardboard box. That explained it. But it solved nothing.

It was hopeless. We had to get those boxes up off the floor before the dampness would damage the contents. But no matter how careful we were, the boxes kept coming apart. Rolls of film, jars of medicine, packages of soup, everything was loose and mixed up with everything else. Our girls were on the floor, picking things up one by one, and sorting them in little heaps on shelves. Shelves! We need more shelves! We couldn’t live there, let alone minister to anyone, until we had created some order out of the chaos.

A text from Genesis 1 popped into my mind. “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God looked at the mess and started creating some order. He sorted light from dark, night from day, sky from earth, and land from water. I felt a kinship with my Creator as I sorted my disorganized mess into separate orderly piles and stacks of food, medications, study supplies, equipment, etc.

Order is important. Paul summarized his teaching to the church in 1 Corinthians 14:33-40. “God is not the author of confusion, but of order.” God constantly creates order. The Israelites leaving Egypt were a disorganized mob. By the time God got done creating some order at Sinai, they marched out in tribes, each in their allotted location. Before Jesus miraculously fed the unruly crowd, he instructed his disciples to create order out of chaos and have people sit in groups of fifty and hundreds.

Let’s face it, life on planet Earth, even in the homes of Christians, still obeys the second law of thermodynamics which indicates that disorder always tends to increase. Hot coffee gets cold. Cold lemonade gets warm. Time schedules become skewed, pantry shelves get disorganized and our good intentions and good beginnings fade away into failure.

It took me a week to recover from my last major trip. Stuff was piled in chaos on my study floor, desks, and shelves. Critical things like glasses, keys, and power cords hid themselves the moment I turned my back. Before I could do any writing, planning, or even extended praying I had to create some order out of the chaos.

God hates chaos and loves order. He wants us to have regular places to work, regular times of sleep, food, rest, times of silence, solitude and thought. Jesus did this constantly, going off by himself out into the hills to pray, to think, to plan. The Holy Spirit works through order. He blesses others through us when our lives are in order.

When we see an OUT OF ORDER sign on a gas pump or an ATM, we know we won’t get any gas or money from them. So what makes us think we can be a source of blessing to anyone if our own lives are out of order and in a state of chaos?

We need to look at every aspect of our lives and ministry for evidences of chaos and put them in order. It’s not just about having a place for everything and putting everything in its place. Are we punctual, or do others have to wait for us? Do we drive our vehicles in a way that confuses others? Do we have workable and effective routines? What about our relationships? Our service for God?

We need to ask ourselves, “What area of my life bothers me the most? Where has the bottom fallen out of it?”

Let’s do what God did as His first act of creation. Bring order to the chaos.