A Church Ready to Die

01 October 2023

Pastor Jon was standing behind the pulpit of his small Church in the Middle East on Sunday morning, in December 2012, when about 20 heavily armed al-Qaida fighters stormed through the front door screaming, “Jihad!” The Islamists began pulling the nearly 40 terrified worshippers from their seats, beating them and shoving them to one side of the building. Then, the group’s leader ordered his men to aim their automatic rifles towards the congregation.

He shoved his handgun against a church member’s head and threatened to start shooting everyone in the church, one at a time. Some of the church members cried out in terror, and young girls standing near the pastor’s wife grabbed her legs in such desperation that they tore her clothes. Jon said he was about to run towards his congregation when, amid the chaos, God gave him a vision of heaven. “I saw heaven open and heard angels singing,” he said. Compelled by the heavenly vision, he yelled, “God is welcoming us! Be at peace! We are going to heaven!”

His unexpected response to a threat of imminent death caused a reverent hush to fall over the congregation. “All the people stopped crying and readied to meet their Saviour,” Jon explained. “They could feel the presence [of God]. If you read the Bible, when Stephen is dying, he is not crying, though the stones are painful. He saw heaven open; that was … happening [to us].”

Sensing the change in atmosphere, the Islamists seemed unsettled by this group of Christians who no longer feared death. “This land belongs to Muslims!” the al-Qaida leader yelled almost defensively. He and the other militants then started ransacking the church, taking the sound system, tables, chairs, a generator, mobile phones, a minibus and even some Bibles.

Before leaving, the extremists vandalised what remained in the church and warned the congregation that they would kill them if they ever returned to the church building. But the next day, even more church members arrived to worship God. “We all came,” Jon said, “around 50 people ready to die.” The al-Qaida fighters did not return.

The Gospel Anytime, Anywhere

Years before the 2012 attack on his church, Jon had moved to the Middle East looking for work. Upon noticing a great need for the gospel in the region, he invited some evangelists from other
countries to speak at openly
publicised meetings. The events, however, offended many people in the community, especially Muslims. False allegations were filed against Jon, and eventually, local authorities arrested him. “I was blamed, accused as a thief or a robber,” he said. “So they put me inside [a jail].” Jon was locked in a cell with about 25 other prisoners, nearly half of whom were Islamic extremists. Despite being surrounded by dangerous men, he read his Bible regularly, preparing himself to share the gospel if the opportunity arose. “My mind is to preach the gospel anytime, anywhere,” he said.

He also remained faithful in prayer. When one of the guards developed a severe eye condition that required travelling to another country for treatment, Jon offered to pray for the man. A few days after praying for him, the guard’s vision was completely restored. Eventually, the Islamists in Jon’s cell decided they could no longer tolerate having a Christian among them. “One night around 11 pm,” Jon said, “this person sleeping beside me jumped on me and started cursing me and made everybody in the room shout ‘Allahu Akbar [Allah is great]!’.” The Islamists also started screaming the Islamic oath called the Shahada. “When he did that, it means he is going to kill me,” Jon said. As if to confirm his fears, another prisoner then pulled out a knife. “I thought I was finished,” Jon recalled. “I said, ‘Thank you, Lord. I am coming to you.”

Since childhood, Jon had understood that some must pay a high price for following Christ. His grandfather, a Christian evangelist, had taught him that dying to follow Christ is the highest blessing from the Lord. “To die as a martyr, Jesus will stand and welcome me like Stephen,” Jon said. “So [during the jail attack] I was thinking, ‘I am going to heaven, and this is a good day’.”

But Jon was not martyred that day. Before the man with the knife could hurt Jon, a guard ran in and pulled them off him. “Leave him alone!” the guard shouted. “His God is for him, your god is for you!” It was the same jailer that Jon had prayed for earlier. When Jon was first arrested, his wife, Grace, thought her work connections — she worked for an influential international company — might help get him released quickly. Her efforts were unsuccessful; the authorities demanded the equivalent of more than $45,000 to free her husband. After a week in jail and the attempt on Jon’s life, the couple decided to pay the money. They sold personal possessions for years to pay off the fee for his release.

A Family Under Pressure

The Christian gatherings Jon organised eventually grew into a small church, and a group of international workers asked him to become their pastor. Grace’s job, however, began to suffer as complaints about Jon’s Christian activities found their way to her employer. Eventually, Grace’s supervisors gave her an ultimatum: she could move to a Western country and receive a significant pay raise or stay and lose her job. “You can practise your religion, but you cannot be involved in ministry,” a company official told her. Jon and Grace were determined to continue their ministry work, and Grace agreed to give up her job, but it was a significant sacrifice. “When I lost my job, I lost everything,” Grace said. “I was expecting God to do a big miracle because I gave up the job for the church.” Compounding her frustration were the taunts she received from Muslim neighbours when a new source of income failed to materialise. “Where is the God you served?” they asked. “How will you pay your bills? Who will protect you now?” The couple struggled financially for the next few years, and Grace became discouraged about their situation, even considering treatment for her depression. But at about that time, Jon urged her to join him in a time of focused prayer and fasting.

After seven days of prayer, Grace began to sense the Lord encouraging her, helping her to see that their ministry is not a burden but a blessing and that suffering for God also brings joy. “I understood that if we are standing for God, he is standing for us,” she said. Shortly after Jon and Grace’s time of focused prayer, front-line workers learned of their needs and connected them with Christians who were helping them with living expenses. Today, Grace responds differently to pressure and danger. “God made me to be very patient and calm,” she said. “So when somebody is [threatening]to arrest or shoot someone, I am not like before, shouting and running and panicking.” Grace has been repeatedly tested as threats against her husband have continued. Recently, a man assaulted Jon on the street, grabbing him and shoving him to the ground. “He brought a knife to my neck and put[his] leg on my chest,” Jon recalled. People started yelling, “Kill him! Kill him!” But then, Jon said, his assailant inexplicably released him. 

Another time, Jon suddenly felt compelled to pray for a man who had entered the church and sat in the front row. “He was sitting in front of me,” Jon said, “and God told me, ‘Has a bomb. He is going to blast it very soon.” Jon prayed, “Lord, you care for this person; touch him,” and the man started to cry. After opening his jacket to reveal the explosives, the man said, “See, I have all these things; I want to blast. But I feel the love of Christ. I want to receive it.” The bomber claimed he had been sent by al-Qaida, but instead of blowing up the church, he placed his faith in Christ and was baptised that day. While such miraculous escapes have been a regular part of Jon and Grace’s life together, they and other Christians in their country know that violent death is always a possibility.

Ongoing Preparation

Jon continues to prepare his congregation for the possibility of martyrdom, reminding them of Christ’s admonition to take up their cross daily. “[Those] who want to save their life will lose it,” he said, referencing Luke 17:33, “[but those] who want to lose their life, they will save it. “We are preparing people for Golgotha, not the beach!” he continued. “For people who want to die for Christ, there is no fear.” Jon thinks all Christians should be prepared to die in the name of Jesus Christ. “Everywhere the problem is the same,” he said. “Everywhere people will be persecuted for the name of Christ. Everywhere the Holy Spirit is raising a new generation, full of faith.” Quoting from Revelation 12:11, he described them as loving “not their lives even unto death.” “God is going to do this for His sake,” Jon added. “People are going to be ready to take the persecutions happily and as the highest blessing.”

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