Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“On [the day that Stephen was stoned to death] a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1b).
What in the world is God up to now? Perhaps you have asked yourself that very question several times this year. Like me, maybe you have occasionally posed it with curiosity, but more often with a sense of puzzlement or even doubt. “What are you up to now? I haven’t been able to gather with my brothers and sister in worship for months!” “What are you up to now? My son lost his job because of COVID-19 and there aren’t any other opportunities out there. He’s got four mouths to feed.”
It reminds me of Tevye from “The Fiddler on the Roof.” Poor Tevye . . . hassled by huge cultural upheaval and the eviction of the Jews from their village. Nothing seems to go right for him. In his frustration, he argues with God as each misfortune occurs. “Dear God, was that necessary? Did you have to make [my horse] lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. Bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty—that’s all right. But what have you got against my horse? Really, sometimes I think, when things are too quiet up there, you say to yourself, ‘Let’s see. What kind of mischief can I play on my friend, Tevye?'” Later on, after another frustrating experience, he blurts out, “I know, I know, we are the chosen people; but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
I wonder if the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem had similar thoughts and questions when persecution broke out in their beloved city. Like Tevye and his family, all those brothers and sisters had to pack up their meager belongings and run for their lives to escape earthly ruin. I have to think they were asking questions in the vein of, what in the world is God up to now?
Here’s what he was up to. Acts 8:4 gives us a hint: “Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went.” People who study Christian mission work surmise that at this time, the early church was dragging their heels a bit on Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. Following the Jerusalem persecution, however, Christ’s gospel began to spread out like a refreshing fragrance in a musty room. The Jewish refugees not only carried their possessions on their shoulders, they carried the name of Jesus on their lips. Multiple churches were founded—mostly by lay people. The good news of God’s salvation spread to other Jews, then to Samaritans, then to the Gentiles. The church in Antioch was established and became one of the greatest mission-sending agencies of all time. From that base, the gospel launched into Turkey, then into Europe, and from Europe to the world.
All because God allowed persecution to turn his people into refugees.
When it comes to our WELS mission work in East Asia, many people have also asked, what in the world is God up to now? For over a decade, Jesus has been working powerfully in our target country through WELS. Up until last year, we had several missionary families living there, reaching out, discipling believers, and training leaders. Now, everyone has been relocated to nearby countries. In fact, it’s been about a year since any of our missionaries have even visited our students, partners, and friends in the target country. What in the world is God up to now?
Depending on the location in our target country, some Christians can still gather, some are closely monitored, and still other groups are repeatedly broken up. Throughout the country, it’s becoming more prevalent for Christians to be detained, arrested, or jailed.
So, what in the world is God up to now? By God’s grace, the trouble in our target country has not hampered our work but has opened new doors. WELS continues to train and encourage our Christian brothers and sisters there and in other surrounding countries. The ministry continues in ways we have never seen before. Like the persecution in Jerusalem, God has used it to spread the work farther and quicker than we had dreamed.
I hope you are as amazed as I am at the power of God’s Word that continues to bear abundant fruit in this upheaval. Even a worldwide pandemic cannot stop the sharing of the gospel! God continues to bless our work in the target country, just as he blessed his gospel work when his people were driven out of Jerusalem. On behalf of the mission field, I want to say, THANK YOU! We thank the countless WELS members for the many years of prayers and offerings that have supported our ministry, and we thank our Lord for blessing our labors through you. Please prayerfully consider offering a gift today for our WELS work in East Asia through the ministry of the East Asia missions team.
Serving Jesus together,
Matt, East Asia Missionary