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).