Taking a Stand
By Jack Norman
In the book of Esther, King Xerxes issues an irrevocable decree with devastating consequences for the people of God. Similarly, across the world today many Christians live under the oppressive dictates of hostile rulers, sometimes with life threatening consequences. However, despite the threats, like Queen Esther they are willing to take a stand for God – and like Queen Esther, they call the wider body of God’s people to remember them, and to stand with them in fasting and prayer.
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How did a book get into the Bible that doesn’t even mention God, and what can it possibly have to say to us today? In the book of Esther, it seems that while God is nowhere mentioned, if we look carefully, His hand is visible through the actions of others as they demonstrate for us how to live life as a believer in a state of oppression.
The book is set after the 70-year exile for God’s people prophesied by Jeremiah. God’s people have been allowed to return after the exile, but some have chosen to stay, having made lives for themselves as Jeremiah had encouraged them to in his prophecy. But although they have made lives for themselves, and some are contributing significantly to their society, they are never truly accepted. There are still those who see them not only as outsiders, but as a threat because of their allegiance to the God of Israel.
And one of these, a man named Haman, persuades the King to issue an order stating that all Jews should be killed. The King makes the order and we are told in the book that any order made by the King could not be reversed. In other words, what this really meant was that an order made by the King had to be obeyed, by everyone.
We see countries across the world today where the orders of the state have to be obeyed, with severe punishments if they are not. Dictatorships such as Eritrea and North Korea impose heavy penalties on Christians and others who are deemed to be in breach of the laws they have created to restrict religious freedom.
But in terms of sheer scale, the state today which seems to best reflect what we see in the book of Esther is China. For many decades Chinese authorities have undertaken ongoing oppression of God’s people. And with the introduction of new religious regulations three years ago, the country has been described as returning to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. During that time, much as we see in the book of Esther, the mention of God was rare and many missionaries who had been thrown out of the country at the start of this period feared that when they were able to return one day they would find no church to return to.
But we know, as we do from reading the book of Esther, that even when it is hard to see God’s hand at work, He is not idle, and He is not bound by the decrees of man. During that period in China we now know the church didn’t just survive, it thrived. Yet the authorities themselves do not seem to learn the lessons of their own history. And so the new religious regulations of 2018 were designed to restrict even further the activities of both the unregistered and the registered churches in China. When they were introduced, President Xi made the statement, ‘From now on no one below me will be allowed to disobey the law.’ And in a nation where Christians and other minorities were already under an iron grip of oppression, he went on to say, ‘Everything we do from now on is with the aim of strengthening the control of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) over the nation.’
Such was the oppressive power of the state in the time of Esther, and such is the oppressive power of the state in China today. But God’s people then, and God’s people today, continue to live their lives bravely in the face of such oppression. For Esther, when persuaded that she needed to take a stand and speak out on behalf of her people, she did so knowing it was against the law to approach the King if uninvited. She did so with fear in her heart, and she did so with a call to her people to remember her, to stand with her, to fast, and surely to pray for her.
For Pastor Wang Yi in China, he took a stand such as Esther’s. He decided that the threat of the Chinese government would not stop him proclaiming the gospel. Like Esther, he did not seek to overthrow the government which oppressed God’s people. Like Esther, he took a stand against laws which threatened the freedom, and the very lives of God’s people. And as he took this stand he did not ask for anything but the understanding of his gospel mission and the prayers of God’s people. When he was finally sentenced to 9 years in prison, his lawyer said Pastor Wang had decided not to appeal. Instead, he will serve it in full. His lawyer said, ‘God is continuing his ministry … by moving him from the courtroom to prison.’
As we continue to feel oppressed by the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps we can learn from the book of Esther and from the experience of Christians such as Pastor Wang Yi, that God is unchanging, that God continues to work even when we might not see it, and that He calls us to remain faithful whatever our circumstances, whatever the threat from others, whatever the outcome might be, even when we might be finding it hard to see God’s hand at work. And we need to continue to point others in this time of lockdown, as Pastor Wang Yi did so courageously in China, to the source of our hope which spurs us on.
And perhaps we could also take on the call of Esther, and when we hear of the oppression, the threat to believers in countries such as China, Eritrea, North Korea and others where the state seeks to control them – perhaps when we hear of these we will do as Esther encouraged her people: we will remember them, we will fast and pray for them, and as we do so we know that like Esther, they will be strengthened and encouraged, as they continue to take their stand in the face of such oppression.