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Persecution and Christlikeness

Suffering for Christ’s sake makes us like him.

 My background is an Eastern Orthodox country. Eastern Orthodoxy is much stronger than the Catholic church on the dogma that the church saves people. You go to the priest, and the priest imparts your salvation. Orthodox theologians say there isn't such a thing as a personal relationship with God.

Religion is considered a state affair, and being Eastern Orthodox means being Romanian. It is the essence of R, and when you change your religion you betray your nation.

My parents happened to be among the first who accepted the Baptist faith. As a consequence, when I went to the school, I immediately found out I was worse than a leper. Children would not play with me. When I was in third grade, a priest came to the school to teach religion. The first thing the kids said was, "We have a Baptist here."

"A what? Baptist? Who is he?" They all pointed to me. He said, "Come here. Let me test you. Make the sign of the cross." I put my hands behind my back. I said, "No, sir. That's a sin." He slapped my face. I call that my first religious experience.

On top of that, in 1948 Communism came. Stalin time. I went to a Marxist university in the city of Cluj in 1951 years of Marxist indoctrination. I came out of that a stronger Christian than ever, and I came from there with a call to be a preacher.

So I went to the Baptist seminary in Bucharest, and I stumbled on liberal theology. The book that killed me was called A Plain Man Looks at the Cross by Leslie Weatherhead, the most liberal theologian of that time in England. He was pouring fun on atonement by the blood. I was shocked. I wasn't prepared for that. I went to my favorite teacher and said, "What is this?"

"Well, Josef, these are just metaphors."

"Wait a minute. You preach the blood every Sunday."

"Yes, but the people in the pews are simple folks. They would stone me to death if I preach like Weatherhead or Fosdick. I just know they are metaphors, and I give them what they need."

Imagine a huge scaffold hit at the base, and it all comes crumbling down. That's what I felt inside. I went to my room. I knew persecution had started, and I had said I was ready to risk my life for the real thingbut not for metaphors. I quit the seminary, lost my faith, and was in a spiritual wilderness for seven years. I wanted to be accepted by the Communist government. I did everything to prove that I was theirs, the ugliest things you could imagine.

So you have in front of you a big, big sinner. But by the grace of God, the book Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand came out. It came out after [he spent] 14 years in prison. He was a fantastic Jew. I went to see him, and he said, "Sit down. Tell me how you fell." I told him about the atonement issue.

"Oh." He started to teach me how real it is, how God really took our sins and put them on his Son. He explained this idea in different ways like a good rabbi. He explained everything to me and put me back. That was a great work of God. I stood before Jesus one morning and I said, "Yes, Jesus, I believe now. I understand now, but will you forgive one like me?"

"Josef, my blood washes away every sin. I died for all your sins."

After that I told my dear wife, "Look, the One who saved me has to own me. He bought me. I am no more my own. Whatever he wants me to do, that's what I will do." The first thing he wanted me to do was to stand up. By that time I was a high school teacher in one of the best cities of the country. I loved the job. I knew if I went public they would fire me. But I said I would do whatever he says. So I went public and gave my testimony.

Well, someone from the West heard my testimony. He arranged a visit to Austria for me to get some medical treatment, and I was able to get out. I went to England. I got a scholarship to Oxford University to study theology. Oxford for a man terribly burned by liberal theology? I said, "I need help."

Someone said, "In London, Martin Lloyd Jones meets with about 150 pastors every first Monday of the month, and this year they are discussing what makes an evangelical through systematic theology."

I said, "I want to go there."

"But you're not a pastor. They have a strict rule."

I said, "Now, look. Go to the old man and tell him these words: I am the only Romanian in my generation who came out of Romania, and I study theology in Oxford. When I go back, whatever I teach will be gospel in Romania. Does it matter to you what theology I take to Romania?"

They broke the rule and accepted me in the Westminster Fellowship. I am still a member. In my years there I became what they call a Baptist with a Reformed persuasion.

Now, after years studying theology I was ready to go back. Imagine. I was a fugitive. Going back to a Communist country was suicidal. I shared with a group of students that my dream was to go and teach a new generation of preachers in Romania. At the end a student said, "Josef, it all sounds marvelous, but what chances of success do you have?"

Success? I said, "This is a typically Western way of thinking. In Romania you don't say, come to Christ and you will have success. They say, come to C wait a minute. Are you ready to lose your job? Are you ready to be persecuted all your life? Did you count the cost?" For us the only issue was obedience. My King said go to Romania, and I said, "Yes, your Majesty, I will go." I didn't ask about success.

But in that moment I said, "Lord, I have an idea. What if I ask you that question? What chances of success do you give me?"

The Lord was quick. He said, "Josef, my answer is in Matthew 10:16. I send you as a sheep in the midst of wolves." I envisioned a circle of wolves, a sheep in the center. The Lord said, "What chances has that sheep to stay alive five or ten alone to convert the wolves? That's how I send you, Joseftotally vulnerable with no chance of success whatsoever and with no chance of staying alive. If you accept to go that way, then go to Romania. If you don't accept that way, don't go."

That moment completely changed my theology. I went back to my room and sat down. I said, "Lord, I want to talk to you. You are my Father and my King. As my King you say, go to Romania and I say, yes, sir, I go. But as my FI want to know why my Father sends some of his children to the wolves. I want to understand your mind. What are you up to when you do that?"

He was quick again. "Josef," said the Lord Jesus, "as my Father sent me, so send I you. He sent me as a lamb to be slaughtered. I send you as a lamb to the wolves." You don't send a lamb to the wolves to have a great time with the wolves. "But don't you see? The lambs go to the wolves with the proclamation of the gospel and with love and with the attitude of . When the wolves jump on them and tear them in pieces, with the last breath the lambs will say, 'We still love you.' And at least some of the wolves shudder and become lambs, because the truth conquers by dying."

All of a sudden I understood God's strategy. I said, "Oh, Lord. So being killed for you and for the gospel is not a tragedy. That's part of the job. That's the essence of your strategy. For 2,000 years that's how you conquered. Now I am ready to go."

We can have riches in persecution.

My text is Philippians 2:56. We are told to develop a Christlike mentality, to think the way he thinks. Most of the translations in verse 6 add things that shouldn't be added. No translator dares translate exactly as Paul puts it, and only recently a few theologians wrote articles in which they ask, "Why don't we take it exactly as Paul wrote it and see what that means?" Here is what Paul said, "Although Christ was in the form of God, he didn't consider equality with God to be harpagmón," which means "rapaciousness, acquisitiveness, grabbing."

What's the essence of being God? That was the issue for Christ when his father said, "You go down there." What does it mean to be equal with God in that situation, or to have in you God's essence? Does it mean I grabbing? "I am God. I deserve everything. Everybody should give me, give me, give me. I accumulate everything for me"? No, it's exactly the opposite. He emptied himself to become a slave who lived and served and died for others.

Let me put it in a different way. You know those kinds of love, like eros love. Eros comes out of inner emptiness and poverty, and it says, "give me, give me, give me. I want to be satisfied, and you satisfy me." That's eros.

Agape comes out of inner fullness. You bubble with fullness and explode, pouring out, and you are satisfied because you give. That's agape, and God is agape, fullness, richness that has to be given. Christ said that's the essencegiving, not getting.

Let me put it in different words of Paul. Second Corinthians 8:9: "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ." What follows? "He was rich and became poor so that we can become rich." The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is that he was so rich he said, "I have to make people rich. The cost is that I have to empty myself, become poor."

The essence of Christlikeness is that fullness, that richness bubbling with grace that has to be imparted. Christ was so rich that if somebody touched him, healing went out of him. Then they said, "We will break you."

"Fine, but when you break my body, I will feed you with it."

"We will shed your blood."

"Fine, when you shed my blood, it will wash away your sins. I am that rich." Now if you are that rich, when they come to threaten you, you say, "That's fine. I love you." You continue to give them love because you are rich.

Get rich, so rich with the Word of God, so rich with the fullness of Jesus and with the fullness of the Holy Spirit in you, so rich you just cannot stand but give. You will never be depressed. As long as you are rich, you cannot be depressed. You will never want to quit. You are too rich for that. You cannot go hidden because you are too rich. The secret of being a minister is being rich. You are a rich person who explodes by giving.

This is what I mean by persecution and Christlikeness. If you have Christlikeness, that fullness, that richness in you, you can stand persecution.

Our enemies are God's instruments.

The second important thing to see is the sovereignty of God in persecution. I got this from Martin Lloyd Jones. Make this the first pillar of your theology, the sovereignty of God.

About two years after I went back to Romania, they jumped on me. They decided to put me on trial. In preparation for the trial I was taken to the police. There was a ceremony for charging me. Imagine a long table, six senior officers and a prosecutor, and a colonel read the charge. Then he started to deliver a speech. He explained to me how grave it was what I did. To my amazement at one point he said, "You know, after all, isn't it written in your Romans 13 that we are of God and you challenge us?"

I never interrupt a speaker, but in that situation I couldn't contain myself, and I broke in and said, "Sir, will you let me explain how I understand Romans 13 in this situation?" He said okay.

I said, "Sir, yes, you are God's instrument. No doubt about that. But what happens here is not between you and me. What happens here is between God and me. God has some dealings with me here. Maybe he wants to teach me a few lessons." (Believe me, he taught me fantastic lessons there.) "But, sir, you will not do anything to me but what God decided you will do. You will not go one inch beyond what he decided because you are only my God's instruments."

He didn't like that interpretation. But for me it was like seeing my Father pulling strings and moving his puppets. That's the sovereignty of God.

If all your enemies are God's instruments, why are you afraid? If you understand the sovereignty of God, then all the people who threaten your lives are God's instruments. That's how the church in Acts 4 prays when Peter and John tell them that if they continue to preach they may be killed. The church prays and calls God with a name that is strange. The name for God they use is despótēs, an absolute ruler. "Why do the nations fret?" Don't they understand they only do your will always? For example, Herod and Pilate and the Gentiles and the Jews united against Jesus only to do what he decided beforehand they would do. Now they are up in arms against Peter and John. What will they do to them? Only what Christ decided beforehand.

You cannot pray, "Protect them. Put a shield around them. Smash their enemies." No, because you just said they will do what Christ already decided that they do. There is only one prayer left. "Give them boldness in preaching accompanied with a few miracles so that it is even greater." That is prayer according to the sovereignty of God and understanding your position in persecution under the sovereignty of God.

Broken, we become instruments of revival.

I still had a lot of trust in myself until two special moments during the interrogations when I was so scared I wanted to quit. It was my wife who became strong and said, "Didn't you say you wanted to die for Christ? Now do it." Don't teach your wife that kind of theology.

I will not tell you all that happened, but I will tell you Elizabeth's conclusion. "Josef, I watched you these days. God brings you to a place where you are really convinced that it's all over, and you have nothing left but to say, 'Here I am. Do whatever you want. Now I am ready to die.' Then he has done the work in you. When that work is done, all of a sudden there is a solution to the problem, and you go free because the battle that God had was the battle in you. They were only instruments to bring you to where you are completely broken."

It was after that complete break in me that the fire from on high came, and in four years I baptized 850 new converts. That never has happened in Romania before. It was under C of. It was when the Lord broke me. He broke my pride, first of all, when I fell and I went through all that sinfulness. Then he brought me to situations where my wife and others shamed me and pushed me to the end. I cannot say I was a hero because Elizabeth was the hero. He broke my trust in myself and my pride. Then he said, "Now you're qualified for the blessing. You're qualified for the fullness. You can be an instrument of revival." The persecution was God's instrument for me, to break me and make me fit to be used by him.

We cannot choose the method of our martyrdom.

Let me tell you something about an important dimension of martyrdom: stolen martyrdom. Whenever they apprehend a Christian, they smear that Christian by telling lies. "He was caught with cocaine." Or "He was caught embezzling the money of the church." Or "He is a womanizer." In Medieval times, "He was a heretic." They smear you so much that everybody believes you deserve to be burned at the stake. They not only make you a martyr, they steal your martyrdomletting everyone believe you are a rascal. That's painful.

I was interrogated for six months, having to go every day for eight to ten hours Monday through Friday. After about three months, the interrogator told me they were muckraking. You go through the life of a person and find everything dirty there. "We have many ugly things from your past, and we are going to spread them to all the churches. Your Baptists will come to smash your windows."

I became pale. Power left me. I started to tremble because there was dirt in my past, those years when I was away from the Lord. He looked at me and was afraid I had a heart attack. It was eight o'clock in the evening, and he called but couldn't find a car available [to take me home]. He said, "I don't want you to die here." He took me into the street, stopped a taxi, told the driver my address, and said, "Take him home." I went home, and for two days I couldn't walk. I was crushed.

That Saturday morning, in my morning devotion Jesus was in front of me and said, "Josef, let me tell you how you imagined your martyrdom, going with your cross to be crucified but passing among two rows of Christians applauding. 'Bravo, Josef!' But what if I make those brothers and sisters of yours as you pass with your cross stoop down, take mud, and throw it on you and your cross? Will you accept a cross with mud on it?"

"Lord, even this is from you. Then I accept it."

It came like lightning. It hit me in the head and went through my legs, and at that moment I was able to stand up. When they called me back the following week and the man started gently to tell me something, I snapped [a response]. With each sentence he said, I retorted. At one point he stopped and said, "Mr. Tson, who visited you this weekend? I have in front of me a different person than the one who left here. Somebody came and changed you completely. I have to know who came and visited you."

"Jesus visited me and made me ready for the battle again, and I accepted even the mud as coming from him."

Let me come to the pointpersecution, suffering, martyrdom and joy. If somehow you think that going through persecution and suffering gives you a morose attitude, you are wrong. Rejoice, says Peter, because the Spirit of glory hovers over you.

The only weapon we wield.

After the second day of interrogation my main interrogator said, "Okay. It's all done for today. Take your coat. Go home. Tomorrow morning at eight be back for the battle."

I said, "Sir, why do you speak like that? You should know, sir, that every morning before I come here I pray for you. I pray for your salvation. I pray for your family. I come to talk with the man for whose salvation I just prayed. That's the spirit in which I come, not for a battle."

He choked. Again and again as he asked me many questions, each time I could see a possibility of sharing the gospel with him, my experiences with the Lord. That man would forget about interrogation and sometimes listen for an hour. For me, it was an hour without interrogation.

At the end of six months he told me, "It's all over. You go free. I will not see you again." (But three years later I was arrested, and he saw me again. That's when I was beaten.) But he said, "You should know I will miss you."

I realized that man needed me. When I was arrested again in 1977 and they treated me as they did, at one point when he was alone with me he said, "Mr. Tson, whenever I interrogate somebody, I feel how they hate me, and they are justified. I'm not nice to them. But with you it's different. I don't know how to put it, but you should know it's a delight for me to be with you."

I immediately thought, It's not a delight for me to be with you. But then of course I repented of that thought because here was this man telling me, "Here is a man I tried my best to hurt, and he loves me still." I consider that one of the greatest moments of my life. That man, who is now considered the most wicked interrogator of the Secret Police from those times, had to tell me that I didn't hate him but that I loved him.

I went to my church and preached a sermon I entitled "The Aggression of Love." I said, "You think these persecutors of ours are the aggressors? Wrong. We are the aggressors. We start the attack. But we have only the gospel, our love, and the readiness to be slaughtered. We go loving them until they crush us. But we conquer at least some of them with that love." The aggression of love.

Josef Tson is a Romanian pastor and president of the Romanian Missionary Society. After the revolution, he founded Oradea Bible Institute (now Emmanuel Bible Institute) and has authored seven books, including Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven (University Press of America, 1997).

(c) Josef Tson

Preaching Today Tape #215


A resource of Christianity Today International

Preaching Today Tape #215

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Sermon Outline:


I. We can have riches in persecution.

II. We can see our enemies become God's instruments.

III. We can become instruments of revival.