We’ve had the privilege over the past few weeks of hearing a number of missionary reports from ministries all around the globe and it is exciting to hear what God is doing as He builds His Church world-wide. It is also sad to hear of the severe persecution believers are facing in many countries, with many being martyred for their faith in Christ. We see beginnings of persecution against Christianity in our own country and the question arises–will the church survive?
I am currently reading Erwin Lutzer’s book, The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent, in which he describes what happened to the seven churches of Asia Minor that received messages from Christ via the Apostle John. Today, in the place of those churches, you will find Muslim mosques. Only a very small percentage of the population is Christian, and they are under great persecution. What happened to the churches at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea? (Read Lutzer’s book and find out!) Will Islam take over all the world and eliminate Christianity and the Church?
The answer is, “No!” Remember the conversation Jesus had with His disciples when He took them to Caesarea Philippi, located at the base of Mt. Hermon, near the mouth of an enormous cave, and the center of Baal worship. Baal was thought to descend through the cave to the center of the earth until spring when he emerged to have sexual relations with Asherah. From their union, the world was supposedly blessed with fertility. It was apparently on the rock outcropping overlooking this cave that Jesus made His statement “upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades (represented here by the cave and Baal worship) shall not overpower it” (Mt. 16:18). Jesus was speaking of the revelation of who He is and Peter’s confession, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God,” as the “rock” upon which He would build His Church, and the powers of darkness would not be able to stand against the power of the Church of which Christ is the head. The church would grow and ultimately prevail, but in the process would also suffer and see millions of followers of Christ martyred for their faith, as they continue to be today.
In His book, Lutzer compares the growth of the Church to that of the Bristlecone Pine which is believed to live longer than any other known organism on earth. It grows in sub-alpine groves at altitudes of 5,600 – 11,220 feet in regions of the western United States where it experiences cold temperatures, dry soils, high winds and short growing seasons, thus growing very slowly. Up until recently the oldest, named after Methuselah in the Bible, was dated at about 4,600 years old. In 2012, one bristlecone pine located in the White Mts. of California was determined to be just more than 5,000 years old. The bristlecone pine has special traits that enable it to cope in one of the most austere and unfriendly environments on the planet. (So does the Church!)
1) First, these pines grow slowly. They receive less than 12 inches of annual precipitation and have a growing season of only six weeks. They are rooted in
ground with few nutrients. Under these conditions they may grow only an inch in girth per century!
2) Second, these trees put down an extensive root system enabling the tree to have greater access to whatever little resources are available. Also, the root
system is often interwoven with other nearby trees.
3) Third, the bristlecone pine has a built-in resistance to disease. The tree has dense wood and resins that shield it from invasion by insects, bacteria, and fungi.
4) Fourth, the bristlecone pine remains small in size. There are times when a bristlecone pine will allow most of itself to die so that a small part of it can live.
5) Fifth, the only times the bristlecone pine sheds its seeds is when it is stuck by lightning or is surrounded by the intense heat of a forest fire. The capsule that
holds the seeds does not break open unless it is exposed to great heat.
Some botanists once made an incredible find of 28 bristlecone pine seeds. They eagerly planted the seeds, but none germinated because the conditions in which they were planted were too favorable! Think about the parallels to the growth of the Church. There might be spurts of growth, like at Pentecost or during some of the great revivals in history, but the norm is slow steady growth, usually under very harsh conditions in a world that hates Christ and those who represent Him (Jn. 15:18,19). But, all the adversity causes the believer to develop a strong root system, as he/she is driven to the Word and to prayer and dependence on the Lord (Col. 2:6,7). The Church, as it grows slowly and develops a strong root structure, with dependence upon Christ and His Word, becomes resistant to the enemies which would attack with false doctrine and worldly allurements. Fellowship with other believers (interweaving of the root systems) also adds strength to the trees. It protects itself from rot and decay from within and persecution from without. The true Church would also remain small, in the minority, sometimes just a remnant. Jesus, speaking prophetically of the future of the Church, said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Mt. 7:13,14). Also, just as the bristlecone pine that sometimes allows part of itself to die so that a small part can live, believers must crucify the flesh so that the new nature can flourish. We must put off the old and put on the new (Eph. 4:20-24). And, as the bristlecone pine only reproduces during times of great adversity from a lightning strike or a fire, so the church doesn’t multiply until it faces intense persecution, such as the believers who were driven out of Jerusalem in the first century when “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word (literally, ‘gossiping the gospel’)” (Ro. 8:3,4). A church that is too comfortable with the world around it can easily become complacent or even apathetic.
Now we understand why the Church in countries such as China is growing strong, and the Church in this country may have that same opportunity in the near future!
Meanwhile, think about what your church can do, or what you can do, to grow deeper and more interconnected roots to prepare for the storm that is sure to come. We must have our roots deeply planted in the soil of God’s Word and must connect with other believers in fellowship and accountability. In doing so, we will have equipped ourselves to endure. “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13).
P.S. I highly recommend Pastor Lutzer’s book, The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent. It is published by Harvest House.