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Friday, February 19, 2010

The Spirit of the Gospel

Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:29-30)

How should we look at people? As they are or as they may become? How does God see the men and women around us? Do we tend to divide our acquaintances into "likely prospects" and "hard cases"? Consider the following story of the conversion of a rough man in a brutal environment.

The scene is the jail at Philippi. Paul and Silas had been ministering in the region, but wherever they went they were followed by a certain slave girl who was possessed with a spirit of divination. We are told that her masters made a good living from her fortune-telling. But now she fastened her attention upon Paul and Silas. She would cry out as they attempted to speak "These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation!" After several of these outbursts Paul became "greatly annoyed." He stopped speaking, turned around and commanded the spirit to leave the girl, and it is recorded that the spirit of divination "came out that very hour." Incensed at this interference with their livelihood, the masters of the slave girl incited the people and the magistrates to take Paul and Silas, beat them with rods and dump them into the local prison.

At midnight, Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God when a great earthquake shook the prison. It opened doors and loosed the prisoners' chains. The keeper of the prison assessed the situation, realized that he could not prevent the escape of the prisoners. He knew what his superiors did to men such as him who failed in their job performance, and decided that taking his own life would be preferable to the painful death he would suffer at their hands. But as he drew his sword, Paul called to him with a loud voice: "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here." We know how the story ends. The jailer beseeched Paul and Silas to show him the way of salvation and, after they did, he prayed to receive Christ. Paul and Silas were taken to the jailer's home and their wounds were dressed. The jailer and his family were baptized and afterward they shared a meal with Paul and Silas.

So, how did Paul and Silas see the jailer? They could no doubt see that he was a coarse, hard man, a man accustomed to brutality and torture, a man who gave no mercy and expected none. But Paul and Silas saw something else. The Holy Spirit had gifted them with what Watchman Nee called the spirit of the Gospel - the compassion that comes from sensing the perishing condition of sinners. They saw what Richard Wurmbrand saw in a communist concentration camp in Romania in the late 1940s.

Wurmbrand's story reads like the book of Acts. It is recounted in his book Tortured for Christ,and in abbreviated form in Jesus Freaks - Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus. As the communists came to power in Romania in 1945, they sought to co-opt the churches by holding a great congress for the religious leaders - some 4,000 Christian leaders attended. The agenda of the communists was to force the church into submission to the new regime. The assembly began by electing Josef Stalin as honorary president. Then, at the main convocation, bishops and pastors rose one after another and declared loyalty to the state, assuring those present that Christianity and communism were fundamentally the same and could co-exist. Wurmbrand and his wife Sabina became more and more upset.

Finally, Sabina looked at her pastor husband and said: "Richard, stand up and wash this shame from the face of Christ." He knew what was at stake: "If I speak, you will lose your husband." Sabina's reply: "I do not wish to have a coward for a husband." Wurmbrand took the stage and to everyone's surprise, began to preach. "Delegates," he began, "it is not our duty to praise earthly powers that come and go, but to glorify God the creator and Christ the Savior who died for us on the cross." Many of the delegates who had been afraid to oppose the communists until then, began to praise God loudly and pandemonium broke out in the assembly. Wurmbrand's microphone was cut off and the assembly was shut down for the day. Richard Wurmbrand was a marked man thereafter. Eventually he spent fourteen years in prison, where he was subjected to the most cruel sorts of torture. His wife, Sabina, likewise went to a prison camp for three years.

But like Paul and Silas, Wurmbrand was not a typical prisoner. He and his fellow Christian brothers, in the midst of unimaginable cruelties, began to experience a miracle:
And then the miracle happened. When it was at the worst, when we were tortured as never before, we began to love those who tortured us. Just as a flower, when you bruise it under your foot, rewards you with its perfume, the more we were mocked and tortured, the more we pitied and loved our torturers.

After his release from the prison camp in 1956, Wurmbrand told his story to the world. Often he was asked with some incredulousness: "How can you love someone who is torturing you?" His reply:
By looking at men...not as they are, but as they will be... I could also see in our persecutors a Saul of Tarsus - a future Apostle Paul. Many officers of the secret police to whom we witnessed became Christians, and were happy to later suffer in prison for having found our Christ. Although we were whipped, as Paul was, in our jailers we saw the potential of the jailer in Philippi, who became a convert. We dreamed that soon they would ask, "What must I do to be saved?"

How do we look at the people who we deal with day to day? Are we surrounded by unlikely candidates for the Gospel? Perhaps we need new eyes. Let the story of Richard Wurmbrand inspire us to see that "something else" in people - to see our clients and colleagues, even our adversaries, as they may become in Christ.

Heavenly Father, today I ask you to give me the spirit of the Gospel -- eyes to see individuals as You see them. May I experience the miracle of love for the unlovely and undeserving. Be with your men and women around the world who have chosen to risk all for Your sake and for the Gospel. May it be that I would have a part with them in what You are doing.

~ With thanks to Brent McBurney, Director of Attorney Ministries, Christian Legal Society

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