Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 26 February 2017

For more sermons and other writings, please check the following homepage: www.livinggracetoowoomba.org

 

History Revealed

 

The book of Matthew in the Bible tells the story of Jesus, and the first two chapters are about the beginnings of this new movement in history. Mary (a young woman) was pregnant with Jesus by the Holy Spirit and an angel told her fiance this – I read from the book of Matthew:

 

Matthew 1:21-23: ‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us’.

 

Here we have the meaning of the entire Jesus story in a nutshell. Mary would give birth to a baby son whose nameJesusspelled out his destiny: “God saves”. He would save people from the consequences of their sins. And, in fulfillment of an old prophecy, he would further be known by the nameImmanuel” – meaningGod with us” – because when God saves, he is coming to be with his people, removing any barriers between him and his people – any separation that was caused by sin. (Jesus, the one saving us from sin, would thereby remove any barriers between God and people, thus ensuring that a holy God could dwell with a forgiven people.)

Salvation was coming. God was with his people. We read about these great affirmations. But then do the first two chapters of Matthew really live up to our expectations? If you were (or are) unsure about the Christian faith, how would you read these first two chapters of the Jesus story? You could be a little underwhelmed, disappointed even:

 

Matthew fails to mention the fact but you know that Jesus, his mother Mary and Joseph were Jews whose country was occupied and oppressed by the Roman army. They were not free to do much, wield any political power of their own.

 

The first chapter spends much time – two thirds of all the verses – in itemizing Jesus’ family tree, listing forty-two generations from the person of Abraham. But the family tree is not exactly a glowing testimony of always triumphing in God, even though Jesus was of royal descent (from a human point of view).

God promised Abraham to make him a father of nations and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. All nations would be blessed through him (Genesis 17). But God took his time, even informing Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). Then, after another forty-year delay, they would finally live in the promised land, except for the seventy years of their exile in Babylon – a judgement and punishment from God for a buildup of sin and rebellion against him. It took forty-two generations for baby Jesus to be born. This is a slow story, and not really glorious.

Especially the last fourteen generations from the exile in Babylon to the birth of Jesus did not produce any great leaders or advancements, and – in 63 BC – the Romans (as other world powers before them) took away their sovereignty.

Then, Jesus’ family tree had some other “imperfections”. There is Rahab who was a prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2). She did protect and hide two spies from Israel, but was she the right kind of forebear for Jesus? And what about this reference: “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” (Matthew 1:6)? David lusted after Bathsheba and took her while her husband, Uriah, was away fighting for David as one of his best soldiers. When Bathsheba fell pregnant and David could not cover up the adultery, he plotted to have Uriah killed. That was a mess – much dirty linen in Jesus’ family closet – and a son from this union became another ancestor of Jesus.

Then, there was Hezekiah under whose rule the nation of Israel returned to God:

 

2 Kings 18:5-6: Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses.

 

But his son, Manasseh, absolutely reversed everthing good that his father had done.

 

2 Kings 21:1-18: Manasseh … did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. He built altars in the temple of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put my Name.” In the two courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.

…But the people did not listen. Manasseh led them astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites…

Moreover, Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end—besides the sin that he had caused Judah to commit, so that they did evil in the eyes of the Lord

 

Where is the progress? Where is the advancement of maturity in Jesus’ family tree?

 

And moving on from the family tree, Jesus – from all appearances – was an illegitimate child, his mother falling pregnant out of wedlock. Even Joseph, her fiance, was feeling betrayed and wanted to break off their engagement (Matthew 1:18-19).

Then, at Jesus’ birth, three pagan magicians (and judging by their precious gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, they were nobles) – practicing astrology and interpreting the appearance of a certain star as a sign that a king had been born (Matthew 2:1-2) – paid homage to Jesus. They worshipped Jesus and brought him gifts. But were these not the wrong kind of people to be seen with Jesus – pagans, idolaters and isn’t astrology something of the occult?

In their quest to find Jesus, these three pagans stirred up King Herod in Jersualem, making enquiries about the newborn king there, which made Herod persecute any potential rivals, killing all babies and toddlers up to two years in the area (Matthew 2:16-18), and forcing Jesus and his parents to flee and become refugees in Egypt. How does it strike you that this poor Jewish refugee boy in Egypt was called “Jesus” (“God saves”) and also “Immanuel” (“God with us”)? His name is becoming a mismatch for reality.

Even when the family was able to return to their homeland, Israel, they could not settle in their home village, near the capital of Jerusalem, because Herod’s son was still a threat to Jesus. So the boy that promised salvation and God’s presence with his people would hide and grow up on the fringe of the country (also the cultural and religious fringe because of imported multi-culturalism). They came to live in Nazareth in Galilee. And when people later heard that Jesus was from there, they would ask: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there” (John 1:46).

 

The first two chapters of Matthew are a challenge. How would you explain them to a sceptical person? There is plenty that looks unimpressive. Yet, today about every third person alive is a Christian.

 

“As of 2010, Christianity was by far the world'slargest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth,” the Pew report says.

 

There are aspects of the Jesus story that you can miss – completely overlook – unless you get help from God himself. And we will go over the same verses again. The Bible says:

 

1 Corinthians 2:6-10: We do … not [speak] the wisdom of this age… No, we declare God’s wisdom… None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him. These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit…

 

In other words, unless the Spirit of God reveals to us the truth of God – the truth of the Jesus story – we cannot understand what is going on, because God’s wisdom is beyond the grasp of human wisdom. “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.”

We go back to the first two chapters of Matthew and have another look. There is another perspective about this Jesus (“God saves”) and Immanuel (“God with us”).

I think that one of the coolest aspects of the first two chapters is the complete disregard for anything that we would put in our newspapers. God sends Jesus to save the world and the world will notice. In country after country, all layers of society will be touched and transformed. Yet, when the story is told (the beginning of it), we hear about his family tree, his birthplace in Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth – everything is about Jesus – but we hear nothing about the politics of the day – nothing about kings and queens, the movement of armies, taxes and the state of the economy – and we also hear nothing about the state of God’s people (today we would say the church) – nothing about the leadership or worship attendance. What confidence and boldness! There is an assurance – a strength – in Jesus’ sense of call and purpose. It doesn’t matter what the movers and shakers of this world are up to, this is Jesus’ time and he will do what is on his heart to do – save us from our sins and be with us.

King Herod in Jerusalem was a monarch who was jealously guarding his throne, murdering his own family when he suspected them of treason. For instance, he murdered his wife Mariamne, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, her mother, and also killed his firstborn son Antipater (see https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-king-of-Judaea). King Herod was not prepared to share his throne with anyone. Thus, he had absolutely no place for Jesus, but God handled him easily. In Herod’s own palace, the truth of Jesus would be proclaimed at his birth, and even Herod would acknowledge (at least speak the words) that it would be right for him to worship the newborn Jesus.

 

Matthew 2:1-8: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

 

It’s like God saying: “Ready or not, here I come.” The political climate around King Herod was extremely hostile, but God was not worried. He made use of three pagan nobles to show up at Herod’s court and prompt him, the chief priests and teachers of the law to search the Scriptures and discover the promised birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. I think that this is cool. God is in charge. And then he handled Herod’s murderous rage, even though it cost lives.

We can also have another look at Jesus’ family tree. Yes, there was a former prostitute – Rahab. King David – otherwise a king “after God’s own heart” – committed adultery and murder, and (of all of his many children with numerous wives) the child that came out of this particular mess became the next king and the next ancestor of Jesus. God could have produced a more polished family tree for Jesus, but the way it is now is better news for us. Jesus’ family tree demonstrates that God forgives sin, even adultery and murder. He is not ashamed of flawed people but, as he transforms them with love, they become trophies of his grace – his undeserved and abounding kindness.

Furthermore, even people and kings like Manasseh – demonized, enslaved by the occult and sacrificing his own son to demons – they cannot cancel the promises and blessings of the family tree. The sin of the people may become so great that God judges them with destruction and exile, but there is a way back. There is forgiveness and then the fulness of redemption through Jesus.

I also like that there are not only heroes in Jesus’ family tree. There were generations that were not doing anything spectacular – such as Eliakim the father of Azor or Eliud the father of Eleazar (at least we know very little about them) – but they carried on with God, and they rate a mention just like the heroes. Everyone is important and everyone passes on the torch until Jesus was born. We – our church here this morning – may not be heroes of the faith and spectacular (like some others) but God sees us and names us in the family tree of Christians in Toowoomba and Australia. We do carry on his promises and blessings to the next generation.

Jesus appeared to be an illegitimate child, the outcome of Mary’s relation with another man (not her fiance, Joseph). Yet, the truth was different and miraculous. Mary, still a virgin, fell pregnant by the Holy Spirit. God – and I like his confidence (he is God and we are not) – doesn’t worry about people taking the pregnancy the wrong way. And he doesn’t offer any fail-safe proof for the virgin birth even today. God doesn’t have to make anything plausible to human wisdom. But Joseph was arighteous manand God helped him with a dream.

 

Matthew 1:20-21: But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

 

See also Matthew 11:25-27: At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

 

There are a lot of prophetic dreams (five mentioned) in these first two chapters. And they underline that God was in control and the birth of Jesus was going exactly according to his plan.

 

Matthew 1:24: When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

 

Matthew 2:12: And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they [the three magi] returned to their country by another route.

 

Matthew 2:13:  When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

 

Matthew 2:19-20: After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

 

Matthew 2:21-23: So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

God guides his people, even today. And he has to because Joseph and Mary had no clue about the plans of God. But God makes his will known. All Joseph had to do was to listen and obey. Five times in these first two chapters, the Bible confirms the level of control which God exercised by commenting every turn of events with words like these: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets” (Matthew 2:23). God had history in his hands – prophesied beforehand what would happen – and now was the time of Jesus.

 

Matthew 1:22-23: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

 

Matthew 2:5-6: “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

 

Matthew 2:15: … where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

 

Matthew 2:16-18: When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

 

Matthew 2:23: And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

Some of the prophecies had previous applications. They applied originally to different people and circumstances. For instance, Isaiah 7:14; Jeremiah 31:15 and Hosea 11:1.

 

Isaiah 7:10-14: Again, the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God…” “… the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

 

Jeremiah 31:15: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. (In Jeremiah, this verse is a description of Rachel, the long dead mother of the northern tribes, mourning as her children are taken into captivity by the Assyrians.)

 

Hosea 11:1: When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

 

And I find this fascinating, because God shares so deeply our history. The past is not forgotten but valued and redeemed by Jesus. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” First, the son is the enslaved nation of Israel that escaped from Egypt, but then the whole experience finds fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of God. The past – our history – tells of Jesus. Our experiences are lovingly interwoven. God is always in control.

 

See also Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.

 

John 14:12: Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

 

When you read the first two chapters of Matthew, what do you think now? Are you still a little underwhelmed, disappointed even with a flawed family tree, a questionable pregnancy, the refugee status in Egypt, and finally settling in Galilee, on the fringe of the nation? Or are you open to the Spirit of God helping you in your understanding?

 

1 Corinthians 2:6-10: We do … not [speak] the wisdom of this age… No, we declare God’s wisdom… None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him. These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit…

 

“‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” Ignoring the politics of the day, God steps in and is shaping history with the birth of Jesus (“God saves”) also known as Immanuel (“God with us”). The news resounds even in King Herod’s palace. Dreams provide guidance. Prophecies are being fulfilled. With high expectations, we will be reading the remaining chapters of Matthew.

What I may do now is to look at another example in history where looking in from the outside we may not see much (newspaper do not report on this) but God is having his way – again, just when Jesus came in the beginning.

By 1949 Mao Zedong and the communists had forced out all foreign missionaries from China, leaving approximately three million Chinese Catholics and about seven hundred thousand Protestants. Then, there was a terrible persecution, but today – seventy years later – there are about one hundred million Protestant Christians in China plus about twelve million Catholics. This represents a more than hundredfold increase. About thirty thousand people become Christians in China every day. China is in the process of becoming a Christian country. What a shock it would cause world-wide when Communist China is officially recognized as Christian China.

What are we not reading in the newspapers? There is a story (or stories) like Matthew 1-2, full of prophetic dreams, fulfillment of past promises, and God building on his family tree of Christians in China. “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” I will concentrate on one aspect of the bigger story: the stirring of a Chinese missionary movement calledBack to Jerusalem”.

 

http://www.fwponline.cc/v24i2/bookreview_1.html: The Gospel first came to China in A. D. 635, but it had all but disappeared by the end of the fourteenth century. The record of a large Christian community from this era was carved on a stone tablet which had been hidden in the ground for over 800 years, until its discovery in 1623. By the time of its discovery the Gospel had returned. Yet by the nineteenth century it seemed possible that Christianity was again in danger of vanishing.

It was not until 1807 that Protestant missionaries first arrived in China. And yet Robert Morrison only won ten converts in twenty-seven years. While the Gospel message in the 1800s was then preached in a purer form than was understood by the first two movements, a heretical new movement was also spawned, the Society of God -Worshippers. Hudson Taylor arrived in 1866. While God used the China Inland Mission, there were several anti-foreign backlashes, including the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

By 1926 there were 8,325 Protestant missionaries in China, the most ever. Yet by 1949 Mao Zedong and the communists had forced out all foreign missionaries, leaving approximately three million Chinese Catholics and three-quarters of a million Protestants. Then there was the terrible persecution of the Church during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard attempted to eradicate all religion from China. The West feared that the Church in China had died and we did not know until the late 1970s what really happened.

In 1977 Christianity Today published an article entitled “Where Have All the Churches Gone?” A priest who had left China twenty-eight years earlier returned and reported that he saw no signs that the Chinese had any interest in religion. He looked for Catholic churches and found they had been turned into civic centers, schools, and stores.

Yet what actually has happened was that the Chinese church has grown to about 80 million believers. China is now one of the leading Christian nations in the world and yet the Chinese government officially is still atheistic. Yet the Church has an annual growth rate of 7%. They have had at least 3000 conversions every day for 40 years. In a sense Pentecost has been repeated daily for a generation. Aikman wrote in 2003 that Christians are everywhere and have even infiltrated the highest levels of government. No longer is Christianity a foreign religion. It reaches deep into Chinese culture and society and has grown “at a staggering speed since 1979.” “China is in the process of becoming Christianized.” It is projected that within three decades Christians will constitute 20-30% of China’s population. It is estimated that there are now 1000 underground seminaries in China which are training the next generation of leaders. But as recently as twenty-five years ago it appeared that the third wave of evangelism might also vanish.

Instead the Church in China has grown in spite of one failure and reversal after another. While we can today rejoice in the growth of Christianity in China, why did a sovereign God take 1400 years to do what he could have done in a day? Why did it take so long for this seed to produce a harvest? Why did he allow his Church to suffer repeatedly and so many of his preachers to be martyred? And how many of these heroes languished and died in prison never knowing the glory of God that would one day come to China? It all seems like such a waste. However, in God’s economy nothing is ever lost. It all appears to be such an inefficient plan, but the very process of conveying the message of salvation through human preachers seems foolish (1 Cor 1:21). God does not really owe us an answer, but we do owe him our faithfulness. Yet “persecution is the growing pain of the church. It is good for the church.” Pastor Samuel Lamb testifies, “The more persecution, the more the church grows.” In 1999 he asked the government to arrest him again. Chinese church leaders worry, “If things are too open it is not good. Under hardship the Chinese church will be healthy. I am concerned that some day when things are totally open there will be corruption.” They also worry about the egotistical, affluent lifestyle of American churches. And so God, through persecution, has kept his Chinese Church pure and prepared to carry the Gospel to the rest of the world.

 

Three Chinese Church Leaders with Paul Hattaway: Back to Jerusalem, Carlisle: Piquant 2004, quotes from different segments of the book: During that special meeting the leaders of each house church network, or “family”, testified about what God was doing in their midst and reported on the growth their churches were experiencing. They had been asked some time before to research the number of church fellowships and believers in their networks as accurately as possible.

The top leaders asked their provincial and regional leaders to submit reports. These people then gathered the statistics from grassroots house church leaders, who operate at the city and county level. The information was then collated by the top leaders, who were gathered at the special meeting.

The combined total membership of the house church networks present at the meeting came to 58 million people, while the net growth rate of each church group was reported to be between 12.5 per cent and 17.5 per cent per year. Some experts estimate that 30,000 Chinese are coming to Christ each day, which works out to more than ten million new believers annually. Even though the number of conversions in China today does not yet match the birth rate (approximately 55,000 babies are born each day), at the present rate of growth the church in China will soon be expanding at a faster numerical rate than the country as a whole…

 

Indeed, Chinese believers today joyfully explain that the Communist authorities, despite their efforts to demolish Christianity, actually paved the way for the rapid spread of the gospel. Before 1949 there was very little infrastructure in China, and linguistic, cultural and geographic barriers greatly hindered the advance of the gospel. The Communists changed all this. Here are just some of the ways the policies of the government prepared the ground for the revival of Christianity:

 

·         Much of China’s idolatry was removed during the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of temples and idols were smashed, creating a spiritual void in the hearts of hundreds of millions of people.

·         The government’s attempts to remove God and deny the existence of the supernatural resulted in mass conversions to Christ when people personally experienced the reality of God and miracles.

·         Train lines, roads and airports were constructed, enabling evangelists to easily travel to areas that were formerly inaccessible.

·         Mandarin was adopted as the official language of China and is now used in all education and media. Formerly there were thousands of dialects that made communication of the gospel problematic.

·         Large-scale literacy projects were undertaken, resulting in multitudes of people being able to read God’s word for the first time.

·         Control of the media resulted in a hunger and respect for the printed word. Christian organizations have taken advantage of this, printing tens of millions of Bibles and Christian books, while radio ministries were quick to broadcast the gospel by short-wave radio into China. Millions of Christians in China trace their salvation to radio ministry.

·         During the excesses of the Cultural Revolution people were forced to denounce their wrongdoings and reform their lives. The “culture of confession” this created makes it much easier for people to repent and confess their sins to God when they hear the gospel.

 

It’s little wonder that Christians in China today have a very deep realization of the sovereignty of God and his absolute control over human affairs! Despite living in the midst of a system dedicated to destroying them, Christians have learned to have no fear – not because they enjoy persecution and torture, but because they have met God and have been deeply transformed. They have experienced God’s deep intimate love and come to personally know the truth of promises such as this one: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27–29).

Estimates of the total number of Christians in China today vary, but I believe a figure of between 80 million and 100 million Protestants to be realistic, in addition to at least 12 million Catholic believers meeting in both registered churches and illegal house church gatherings. Although these numbers still represent only a small minority of the 1,300 million souls inhabiting China today, the growth of the church is spectacular and unparalleled in Christian history when it is considered that there were only about 700,000 Protestants and three to four million Catholics in China at the time the Communists took power in 1949.

 
Beginning around thirty years ago [1970], genuine and sustained revival came to the Chinese house churches. We found ourselves on the front-line of this worldwide fire of God’s blessing, and many tens of millions of people have come to faith in Christ. We also came to the realization that practically all of the remaining areas of the world that have never been penetrated by the gospel are situated west and south of China. We believe God has given us a solemn responsibility to take the fire from his altar and complete the Great Commission by establishing his kingdom in all of the remaining countries and people groups in Asia, the Middle East and Islamic North Africa. When this happens, we believe the Scripture says the Lord Jesus Christ will return for his bride and “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Thess. 4:17–18). We believe that the farthest the gospel can travel from Jerusalem is to circle the entire globe and come all the way back to where it started – Jerusalem! When the fire of the gospel completes its circuit of the whole globe, the Lord Jesus will return! “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). This is where the name “Back to Jerusalem” comes from in terms of the missionary vision of the church in China.

 

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_to_Jerusalem_movement: The Back to Jerusalem idea was initially conceived during the 1920s by the Jesus Family church in Shandong province. While the vision eventually lost visor in the Jesus Family, the Northwest Spiritual Movement would split from the Jesus Family and revive the original vision. Simon Zhao would become the principal leader of this movement in the 1940s. In 1946, another group in Henan province, the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band, would independently develop a similar vision. However, government restrictions and persecution forced the movement to go underground for decades, and its leader Simon Zhao spent 40 years in prison in Kashgar.

Since 2003, the most vocal international proponent of "Back to Jerusalem" has been the exiled Chinese house church leader Liu Zhenying, also known as "Brother Yun". Yun intended for "Back to Jerusalem" to evangelize fifty-one countries by sending a minimum of 100,000 missionaries along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that winds from China to the Mediterranean Sea. The ongoing work of evangelism, both within China and beyond its borders, are being done anonymously by Chinese church members, who make no appeals for money or seek any publicity for themselves.]

 

[http://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/beyond-back-to-jerusalem: The total number of missionaries currently working both within and outside of China is estimated to be under a few hundred. On top of that, less than 1,000 are currently receiving training specifically for cross-cultural ministry.]

 

[https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2015-05/the-rising-missions-movement-in-china-the-worlds-new-number-1-economy-and-how-to-support-it: The current number of overseas missionaries sent from China is around 500. While the goal of 20,000 in 15 years seems to be ambitious, one could point to Korea for inspiration. In the 1990s, the Korean church declared a bold vision to send 10,000 missionaries by the year 2000. They miraculously reached their goal in a decade and then doubled to 20,000 missionaries by 2010. Chinese leaders believe their goals to be very attainable with one distinct advantage: China has seven times the Christian population of South Korea.]

 
Early in 1942, Mark Ma had a discussion with the Lord that changed his life forever and gave him the momentum needed for pioneer work into the vast unreached Muslim world. We have his own account of what happened then, and in the months that followed:

 

On the evening of November 25, 1942, while in prayer the Lord said to me, “The door to Xinjiang is already open. Enter and preach the gospel.” When this voice reached me I was trembling and fearful and most unwilling to obey, because I did not recall a single time in the past when I had prayed for Xinjiang; moreover it was a place which I had no desire to go. Therefore I merely prayed about this matter, not even telling my wife.

 

Xinjiang, meaning “New Dominion”, is a vast region of northwest China that has traditionally been known as Eastern Turkestan. It was, and still is, inhabited by millions of Muslims, the majority of whom speak languages from the Turkic linguistic family, such as Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz and Uzbek. Other Muslim groups include Tajiks, Tatars and Chinese-speaking Hui people. A large number of nomadic Tibetan Buddhists also inhabit Xinjiang.

It is not surprising that Pastor Ma had no particular desire to go to a region of which he knew very little. His account continues:

 

After exactly five months of prayer, on Easter morning, 25 April, 1943, when two fellow workers and I were praying together on the bank of the Wei River, I told them of my call to Xinjiang and one of the fellow workers said that ten years before she had received a similar call. I thanked God that He had already prepared a co-worker. When I returned to the school I learned that on that same Easter Sunday at the sunrise service eight students had also been burdened for Xinjiang.

 

The Easter morning service in 1943 to which he refers was to prove the genesis for a chain of events that drastically changed the lives of many. The impact of that prayer time is still felt in the Chinese church to this day. While Pastor Ma was not at the service, we have an account of the events from another source:

 

On the hard surface of the courtyard, under the tall trees whose thick boughs spread a leafy shelter overhead, a map of China had been outlined in whitewash. The students stood around, looking at it. They had been hearing again of the needs of the great provinces to the North and to the West…

The sky was lightening in the east, and thin rays of light obliterated the fading grayness of the night. It was very silent in the courtyard, and the white-washed outline of the map on the ground stood out sharply. The solemn moment had arrived, the moment which brought with it an almost breathtaking hush. “Let those who have received the Lord’s commission leave their places and go and stand on the province to which God has called them.”…

There was a stir among the group of students. Cloth-soled feet moved noiselessly as one, then another, walked across the courtyard to the map. And as the sun rose over the distant horizon, eight young people were seen standing quietly on the patch that was marked with the word XINJIANG.

 

These were the students who joined Mark Ma in his call. His own account continues, with a vivid account of his conversation with God:

 

It was with joy that I gathered them all together, and we planned to have a regular prayer meeting. With permission of the faculty we decided on Tuesday evening as the time for our weekly prayer meeting. On the evening of May 4 we held our first prayer meeting and there were 23 present. . . . On May 11 we received the first offering for our mission, amounting to $50.

Gradually the question arose as to what our group should be called… On the morning of May 23 as I fasted and prayed about the name of the Band the Lord revealed the verse of Scripture to my heart, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations; and then the end shall come” (Matt. 24:14).

I said, “O Lord what does this mean?” The Lord replied, “It is this, I not only want the Chinese church to assume responsibility for taking the gospel to Xinjiang but I want you to bring to completion the commission to preach the gospel to all the world.” I asked, “O Lord, has not the gospel already been preached to all the world?”

The Lord said, “Since the beginning at Pentecost, the Pathway of the gospel has spread, for the greater part, in a westward direction; from Jerusalem to Antioch to all Europe; from Europe to America and then to the East; from the Southeast of China to the Northwest; until today from Gansu on Westward it can be said there is no firmly established church. You may go Westward from Gansu, preaching the gospel all the way back to Jerusalem, causing the light of the gospel to complete the circle around this dark world.” I said, “O Lord, who are we that we can carry such a great responsibility?” The Lord answered, “I want to manifest My power through those who of themselves have no power.”

I said, “That section of territory is under the power of Islam and the Muslims are the hardest of all peoples to reach with the gospel.”

The Lord replied, “The most rebellious people are the Israelites, the hardest field of labor is my own people the Jews.”… The Lord continued speaking, “Even you Chinese, yourself included, are hard enough but you have been conquered by the gospel.”

I asked, “O Lord, if it is not that their hearts are especially hard, why is it that missionaries from Europe and America have established so many churches in China but are still unable to open the door to Western Asia?”

The Lord answered me, “It is not that their hearts are especially hard, but I have kept for the Chinese church a portion of inheritance, otherwise, when I return will you not be so poor?”

When I heard the Lord say He had kept for us a portion of inheritance, my heart overflowed with Thanksgiving and my mouth uttered many Hallelujahs! I stopped arguing with the Lord.

 

On May 23, 1943, Mark Ma reported the above revelation to the prayer group. They decided they needed a name for their group and settled on Bian Chuan Fuyin Tuan, which literally means the “Preach Everywhere Gospel Band”. This is the name this small group of faith-filled men and women are known by in China to this day, but the missionaries agreed that the English name of the movement should be the “Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band”.

 
In March 1947 two men and five women set out on the long westward trek to Xinjiang. Each carried only one small bag and a washbasin.

 
It was while they were waiting for the door to Xinjiang to open that the Communists swept to power in China. Soon after a curtain of silence descended across the nation. All foreign missionaries were expelled from the country and communication came to a halt. In the face of a systematic plan to obliterate the church, believers such as Mark Ma, Mecca Chao and Ho En Cheng went “underground”.

As the months of persecution and hardship rolled into years, and years into decades, the vision of the Back to Jerusalem Band began to fade. All seemed lost. Like the children of Israel who were so close to the Promised Land that they could see it with their eyes, the Back to Jerusalem vision in the late 1940s and early 1950s was taken back into the wilderness, to await a time when the workers would be better equipped to handle the great task laid before them.

Could it be that God allowed the original Back to Jerusalem efforts to be thwarted because the Chinese church was not yet ready to succeed in this great call? When the vision first sprang up, the Protestant church in China numbered less than a million and the Back to Jerusalem vision was taken up by a very small number of individuals. Miraculously, more than fifty years later the Chinese church numbers approximately 80 to 100 million members and countless thousands of believers are responding to the Back to Jerusalem call. “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). To the human eye, the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band failed. But God knew the dedication of his young children, and did not reject the purity of their commitment to him. Although the vision was buried for a time, it did not perish.

The Jesus Family was the first to have the Back to Jerusalem vision. Their workers carried baskets of food and essentials as they walked on foot across China. By the late 1940s there were some 20,000 Chinese believers enlisted in more than 100 different Jesus Family groups throughout China, enabling them to reach many different regions with the gospel. Some believers went to Manchuria, some to Inner Mongolia, others to southern China. All of these groups considered themselves part of the Back to Jerusalem vision. They all prayerfully and practically supported the main evangelistic band that was heading west into the Muslim nations on foot, intending to establish the kingdom of God in all the territories along the way.

Yet it seems that after a time the Jesus Family lost their direction. All the authority was invested in the one leader, Jing Dianying. Consequently, the Back to Jerusalem vision became extremely centralized and was not shared by most of the ordinary believers. A split developed and a new group, known as the Northwest Spiritual Movement emerged. Today’s Chinese believers interpret this split in different ways. Some say that it was a bad thing, while others believe the Lord was behind it because the vision was floundering and a fresh start had to be made. Whatever the case, by the end of the 1930s God had raised up a new generation of believers who were willing to forsake everything in obedience to seeing this call of God completed.

You need to understand that this was not a large spiritual army marching across the nation. The leadership consisted of just four or five individuals, plus a few dozen other workers. But despite their small numbers the Northwest Spiritual Movement was effective because their vision was focused. They were like a sharp arrowhead, while the new converts they left behind were the shaft of the arrow.

Simon Zhao: We will tell the story of one man who while still in his early 30s was appointed the leader of preaching and evangelism in the Northwest Spiritual Movement.

Born on June 1, 1918, Simon Zhao (whose original name was Zhao Haizhen) was originally from Shenyang in Liaoning Province in northeast China. His father died when Simon was a young boy, and his mother was forced to raise the children alone. She was a beautiful woman. On several occasions the village leader came to their home and tried to lure her to commit adultery with him. He brought her expensive gifts but grew more and more frustrated as she repulsed his advances. Finally, tired of her resistance, he raped her.

When little Simon found out what had happened to his beloved mother he was furious. He told his mother that when he grew up he would become a county leader so that he could bring the man to justice for the wrongs done to her. His mother replied, “It’s no use. The county leaders are just as corrupt as that evil village leader.”

“Then I will become higher than the county leaders!” Simon exclaimed.

“It’s no use. The provincial leaders are just as corrupt as the county leaders,” his mother replied.

“Then I will be a higher leader than the provincial leaders!”

“Again, son, it’s no use. The emperor is just the same.” Simon was heartbroken and angry and asked his mother, “Then who is more powerful than the emperor? Where can we go for justice?”

His mother replied, “Only God can grant justice, my son.”

“Then I will become a god!” the zealous little boy concluded.

The wound in Simon’s heart did not mend. In his teens he pursued a career as a writer and used his skills to expose the village leader’s crimes in a local newspaper. Yet his anger still burned.

Many years later, Simon Zhao met God. He found that he no longer hated and sought revenge on the man who had violated his mother. His goals in life had changed, and now all he wanted to do was preach the gospel and make the glory of God known.

It was during a prayer meeting in Shenyang that the Lord first gave Simon a vision. It was winter and very cold. Outside the house where the believers prayed, the snowdrifts grew so high that the doors were blocked and they could not leave. As three believers were praying over a map of China, the Lord focused their thoughts on the northwest province of Xinjiang. They placed their hands over that part of China on the map and prayed with great authority. Before that day they had never seriously considered ministry in the remote northwest.

Later, in Nanjing, Simon met other Christians who had received exactly the same vision from God to take the gospel to Xinjiang and the regions beyond. Among them was a young woman named Wen Muling, who later became his wife. She was a fourth generation descendant of a Qing dynasty imperial officer.

Three teams set out to join in the harvest. The first group reached Xinjiang, and was followed by Simon Zhao’s group. Later a third group, under the leadership of Zhu Congen from Zibo in Shandong Province, made their way on foot into Xinjiang after the advent of Communism in China in 1949.

The group led by Simon Zhao and his wife left Nanjing and travelled to Xinjiang via Shaanxi Province. For much of the way they went on foot, but there were some areas such as the desert where it was impossible to walk, and so they also travelled on horseback, camelback, and occasionally by vehicle, all the time heading for the northwest border with the Soviet Union. On the way they won many soldiers to faith in Christ, for it was a troubled time in China’s history with civil war and widespread internal chaos.

 

Eventually they reached Hami on the eastern edge of Xinjiang and joined members of the North West [Spiritual Movement] who had arrived there a year or two previously. Eager to plant the gospel on virgin soil, Zhao headed south with five fellow workers to Hetian, a remote oasis town in the far south of Xinjiang, in the winter of 1950. But two weeks after they arrived the Public Security Bureau ordered them to leave. So they were forced to move even further west to Kashgar, where in September 1949 the Band had set up a preaching station at Shule...

They arrived in January 1950 to a chaotic situation. The gospel compound had been taken over by armed soldiers who claimed there had been a ‘counter-revolutionary incident’. Uncle Simon did not know what to make of it. But within a few days he was arrested and placed in prison.

 

Every member of the Northwest Spiritual Movement was sentenced to prison, for various lengths of time. The five leaders were given extremely harsh sentences – Simon Zhao was the only one to see out his sentence alive. His wife was pregnant at the time of their arrest. Soon after she suffered a miscarriage. In 1959 she died in the women’s prison but, cruelly, Simon wasn’t told about it until 1973.

During the first few weeks and months in the Kashgar prison labour camp, the guards tried to make Simon renounce his faith, but they soon learned this would not work. They ordered him to stop praying and beat him every time they found him doing so. He never stopped praying, but learned to do so in secret when nobody was watching.

After some time the prison authorities thought he must have changed because they never saw him praying, so they ordered the former writer to pen a column for the prison newspaper, praising the transforming power of the Communist system.

He commenced work on the article, which greatly pleased the prison authorities. When they saw what he had written, however, they flew into a rage and realized they had been tricked. His article consisted of a short poem about the beauty of Jesus and a sketch of the cross.

The prison guards beat him by slamming a heavy wooden bench on his back and kicked him mercilessly. The local authorities punished him by extending his prison sentence for many more years and sending him to work in a coal mine, where most prisoners died within six months because of the inhuman conditions and backbreaking work. Every day he was required to meet a quota of several tons of coal, a task humanly impossible for such a small and frail man. Not only did he have to mine the coal, he also had to carry it out of the mine in a basket tied to his back.

The prisoners were forced to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The food was meagre and rancid. In the summer, there was sweltering heat; in the harsh winter, temperatures were well below freezing. Simon Zhao became a living miracle of God’s sustaining power. Hundreds of fellow prisoners came to the coal mine, most of them physically stronger than Simon, only to die within a few months of their arrival.

For years Simon discreetly witnessed to many of his fellow prisoners, and some believed. There were a few other Christian pastors in the labour camp with him, but the authorities placed them in separate cells and work units, allowing Simon only fleeting moments of contact with them. For all the years he remained in confinement, Simon was not allowed to receive any visitors. He knew in his heart that nobody remembered him anyway in this remote Muslim border town, thousands of miles from his home.

Except for the faithful presence of his Lord, who had promised never to leave him or forsake him, Simon felt completely alone and abandoned. Back in his home province of Liaoning on the opposite side of the country, his relatives did not know whether he was dead or alive, and as the years of silence stretched into decades, few people thought about or prayed for him.

The Back to Jerusalem vision truly went underground. The seed had died.

Simon later recalled how, during those harsh years, he would look up at the stars and remember the vision God had given him and his co-workers to take the gospel all the way back to Jerusalem on foot. He had heard that his precious wife and unborn child were dead, but knew nothing about what had happened to his co-workers.

So in the early years of his imprisonment, when the guards and his fellow prisoners weren’t watching, Simon often prayed, “Lord, I will never be able to go back to Jerusalem, but I pray you will raise up a new generation of Chinese believers who will complete the vision.” But over time Simon Zhao lost the fire and passion for the Back to Jerusalem vision, although he never denied the Lord Jesus who had given him that vision.

After many years of suffering in the coal mine Simon was almost dead, so the prison authorities transferred him to a chemical factory in another area of Xinjiang. Although this was a commercial factory, they used prisoners as their main source of labour.

This new job was little better than the mine, for he was daily exposed to toxic gases and poisonous chemicals. Every evening after work he returned to the prison, where the beatings continued. Now, however, most of them were at the hands of his fellow prisoners. The guards had devised a plan to get the prisoners to vent their frustrations on each other, rewarding those who reported on the behaviour of others. Being a hated Christian whom the authorities had never been able to break, Simon Zhao was a particularly easy target for brutal men.

Yet God had not forgotten him. On one occasion in the midst of a severe winter, the prison guards refused to let Simon stay in the heated cell block. They stripped him to his underwear and forced him to stand outside in the snow. As they pushed him out the door they mocked him, saying, “You believe in your God, so why don’t you pray to him and ask him to keep you warm!”

For the first few minutes the cold wind tore into his flesh like a razor. Simon cried out to the Lord for mercy – and something amazing happened. He felt a tremendous warmth, so much so that he soon had sweat dripping off his body as though he were relaxing in a sauna! The snow around his feet started to melt away from the warmth emanating from his body. He called out to his cell mates inside and when they looked out the window they could scarcely believe their eyes. Steam was rising from his body!

Yet such dramatic miracles were uncommon, and he suffered terribly. Hundreds of times he was beaten mercilessly. The majority of the prisoners were ethnic Uygurs, the predominant Muslim people in Xinjiang. The Uygur prisoners were especially cruel to Simon because he was a hated Chinese “pig eater”. He later described the way the Uygurs beat him as “the same way they surround and pounce on a goat just before they kill it”.

Once he was beaten and kicked so severely that his skull was fractured and he fell to the ground unconscious. While unconscious, he had a vision in which the Lord spoke lovingly to him, “My child, I am with you. I shall never leave you or forsake you.” Regaining consciousness at that moment, he had no idea how long he had been out. He was dizzy and unsure of where he was. He touched his head on the spot where his skull had been smashed and discovered that the wound had miraculously healed, although there was dried blood on that spot.

Simon Zhao was beaten for most of the thirty-one years he spent in prison. It was only during the last few years – when he was an elderly man in his sixties – that he wasn’t subjected to physical torture. During those long years behind bars he wrote this poem:

 

I want to experience the same pain and suffering

Of Jesus on the cross

The spear in his side, the pain in his heart

I’d rather feel the pain of shackles on my feet

Than ride through Egypt in Pharaoh’s chariot.

 

One day in 1981 the prison superintendent ordered Simon to come to the main office. He walked down the corridor a little apprehensively, wondering if he had managed to get himself into more trouble. He hoped something hadn’t happened that would further extend his punishment.

The superintendent invited Simon to sit down and fumbled through a thick file as he puffed on a cigarette. Finally he spoke, “The government of the People’s Republic of China has decided to have mercy on you and show you lenience for the crimes you have committed against our nation. I have been authorized to release you. You are free to go.”

The man of God shuffled back to his cell dazed and numb. He had never expected this day would come.

When he was first arrested in 1950, he was in the prime of his life, an energetic man in his early thirties. His beautiful young wife was expecting their first child. God had called them to take the gospel back to Jerusalem and despite the dangers and many challenges, his life was rewarding and exciting. Now, thirty-one years later, he was in his sixties, with white hair and a white beard.

Simon walked out the prison gates into a completely different China from the one he had known. He had missed all but the first few months of Mao Zedong’s reign, including Mao’s death in 1976. He had missed the insane Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when millions of people were killed by the fanatical Red Guards. He was now an old man with little strength. His body was damaged from decades of beatings, torture and hard work, and his face was marked with deep lines revealing the struggle of more than three decades in the lion’s den.

Nobody in the whole of China was waiting for him. Everyone he knew thirty-one years earlier had either died or long forgotten about him. He had nowhere to go and nobody to see. He didn’t have a clue what he should do. With no money or friends, he could not even afford to catch a bus into the city.

The prison labour camp had been a part of his life for so long that he decided to construct a makeshift hut just outside the entrance to the prison. As he lay in this damp, cold hut, his mind sometimes wandered back to his life as a young man and the call God had once given him. He had faithfully tried to obey God, but it hadn’t worked out. He hoped he would soon die, for he knew that heaven was a much better place and the pain and confusion he had experienced for so long would be removed forever.

For months he remained there, silent except for his daily prayers of thanksgiving to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who had kept his promise and never forsaken him during all those painful years. Without Jesus Christ, Simon knew he would have died a thousand deaths. The living Christ had kept him alive and sane, and had helped him to never renounce his faith in God. Simon knew that no matter how lonely a person is in this world, Jesus will always be there as “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

After some time local Christians in Kashgar learned about Simon Zhao and heard his testimony. Out of respect they brought the old saint food and a Bible and helped him however they could.

News spread from church to church in Xinjiang about Simon, and soon the news was carried back to other parts of China that a miracle man had been sustained by the power of God during thirty-one years in prison for the sake of the gospel.

 

Starting in the late 1960s, God poured his Spirit out on Henan Province and many millions of people experienced God’s salvation there. Henan became known as the centre of revival in China and was given the nickname “the Galilee of China” – the place where Jesus’ disciples come from.

Many of the house church leaders in Henan had heard about the original Back to Jerusalem workers in the 1940s. Our knowledge of the details of those early workers was somewhat sketchy, but when we heard that one of the top leaders was now out of prison, we were eager to meet him and learn from him.

Some of our co-workers were ministering in Kashgar. They met Simon Zhao and sent us letters informing us of his story. Our church members in Kashgar loved him like their own father and enjoyed very close fellowship with him. He had been deprived of fellowship with other believers for decades, but now the Lord gave him spiritual sons and daughters who deeply respected him. Women from the church cooked for him, washed his clothes, and helped him however they could. They treated him as they would an angel of God.

Finally a group of house church leaders caught trains and buses all the way across China because we felt we had to meet Simon Zhao for ourselves. After more than a week of travelling, we reached Kashgar and met a broken, humble servant of God.

At that time we published a magazine which we used to encourage believers in the house churches. Simon Zhao refused to write any articles or share his testimony. We tried to show him that the current generation of Chinese believers needed to learn how the Lord had taken him through so many years of suffering. He always declined our offers, saying, “I don’t want to have any attention focused on me.”

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, there had been no active talk about taking the gospel Back to Jerusalem. Times were so dark for believers in China that it took all of our energy and prayers just to survive those years with our faith intact. But in the early 1990s, the Lord showed us that it was important for Simon Zhao to come to Henan Province to share his testimony with our house church Christians in order to inspire them to carry on the vision God had given him almost fifty years before.

We sent Deborah Xu (the sister of Peter Xu, who is one of the authors of this book) by train and bus all the way to Kashgar to prayerfully persuade him to reconsider. Every day she was away we prayed that the Lord would grant her success. To start with, Simon Zhao was hesitant. He said, “The Lord called me to go west back to Jerusalem and here in Xinjiang I am at least on the way. Why should I travel back east again and go further away from Jerusalem? Why don’t you leave me alone to die here in Kashgar?”

Deborah is a very persistent sister in the Lord! She wouldn’t take no for an answer and followed Uncle Simon wherever he went, repeatedly asking in a loving manner if he would come back to Henan. She assured him that we had no intention of taking him away from the front line of the battle. We only wanted to bring him back to where there were thousands of new troops who needed training and equipping if the Back to Jerusalem mission was to be rekindled in the life of the Chinese church. Deborah explained that his vision could be multiplied many times over and that thousands of new recruits would be sent back to fight on the front lines if he would just come and share his story.

Finally Simon Zhao realized this sister would not give him any peace until he agreed to return to Henan Province with her. He started to realize that it must be the Lord who had given this woman such stubborn persistence! When he prayed about returning to eastern China, the Lord confirmed that he should go by giving him a Scripture that was deeply personal and brought healing after all the years of suffering and loneliness he had endured:

 

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities. Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband – the Lord Almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.” (Isa. 54:1–5)

 

We didn’t have any money to buy him a sleeping berth or even a seat on the four-day train journey across China. He just found a spot on the floor and curled up on a newspaper.

When he ministered to our churches in Henan it was very powerful and a fire was lit in the heart of everyone who heard him. Many tears flowed and thousands of believers were touched and received the vision for missionary work. Even Simon Zhao’s physical appearance was unique and added to his ministry. He looked like an ancient sage, with his long white beard and white hair.

For many house church leaders the Back to Jerusalem vision became very clear and God placed on us a heavy burden to see this vision fulfilled.

Simon Zhao finally went to be with the Lord on December 7, 2001. He was 83 years old. He died in Pingdingshan, Henan Province, among Christians who loved him.

His life was a remarkable one. Like Joseph, Simon started with a dream from the Lord but before it came to fulfilment he was imprisoned and his vision was put in the ground where it died while he silently suffered unjust punishment for thirty-one years, remembered by no one but God.

Yet that was not the end of the story! Unbeknown to him, the Lord was sowing this same vision in the hearts of many Christians in China. After he was finally released from prison, God graciously gave him another twenty years of ministry.

The house church Christians treated Simon Zhao with the utmost respect in the Lord and honoured him as a prince in the house of God. Before he died he came to realize that “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).

Simon Zhao learned that the Lord always finishes what he starts and is always faithful to fulfil his promises.


Brother Yun: When I was first saved, at the age of 16, I began to wait on the Lord for his guidance, and a wonderful thing happened. One night around 10 p.m. when I lay down on my bed, I suddenly felt someone tap my shoulder and heard a voice tell me, “Yun, I am going to send you to the west and south to be my witness.”

I was in prison when Simon Zhao first returned to Henan to share his experiences with the churches and so I knew nothing about him. However, I had heard of the old Back to Jerusalem workers. As a relatively new Christian, I had read a booklet about their efforts to take the gospel outside China in the 1940s, only to be turned back at the last hurdle. The booklet also contained several stirring songs that the Back to Jerusalem pioneers had sung as they marched towards the west. I memorized them and taught them to others.

God was already burdening my heart and helping me understand that it was his will that the Chinese church should take the gospel into the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu nations of the world. In the autumn of 1995 I was speaking at a house church gathering in central China. I encouraged the believers to seek God for a worldwide vision, challenging them not only to continue in their present ministries but to expand their horizons to include the unreached nations surrounding China.

With tears in my eyes I sang one of the old songs about the Back to Jerusalem Movement:

 

Lift up your eyes toward the West

There are no labourers for the great harvest

My Lord’s heart is grieving every day

He asks, “Who will go forth for me?”

With eyes filled with tears

And blood splattered across our chests

We lift up the banner of Christ

And will rescue the perishing sheep!

 

In these last days the battle is drawing near

And the trumpet is sounding aloud

Let’s quickly put on the full armour of God

And break through Satan’s snares!

 

Death is knocking at the door of many

And the world is overcome with sin

We must faithfully work as we march onward

Fighting even unto death!

 

With hope and faith we will march on

Dedicating our family and all that we have

As we take up our heavy crosses

We march on toward Jerusalem!

 

While I was singing, I noticed an old man in the congregation who was visibly moved. He was weeping and could hardly contain himself. I had no idea who he was, and thought my preaching must have been really powerful to cause such a response! The old brother, crowned with white hair and a white beard, slowly walked to the front of the room and asked to speak. A respectful hush fell over the audience. He said,

 

I am Simon Zhao, a servant of the Lord. Forty-eight years ago my co-workers and I wrote the words you just sang. All of my co-workers were martyred for the name of Jesus.

I was one of the leaders of the Back to Jerusalem movement. We marched across China on foot, proclaiming the gospel in every town and village we passed through. Finally in 1950, after many years of hardship, we reached the border town of Kashgar in Xinjiang Province.

Before we ever had a chance to leave China, the Communist armies took control of Xinjiang. They immediately sealed the borders and implemented their strong-armed style of rule.

All the leaders of our movement were arrested. Five of us were sentenced to forty-five years in prison with hard labour. All the other leaders died in prison long ago. I am the only one who survived. ... For the sake of the vision to take the gospel back to Jerusalem, I spent thirty-one years in prison for the Lord.

 

We were all stunned. We sat there with our mouths wide open and tears running down our cheeks, dripping onto the floor. I asked Simon Zhao, the man of God, “Uncle, will you please tell us more?” He continued:

 

When the Lord called us to this vision, I had been married just four months. My beautiful bride had just found out she was pregnant! We were both arrested and imprisoned. Life in the prison was difficult and my wife suffered a miscarriage.

In the early months of my imprisonment in 1950 I saw my beloved wife twice from afar, through the iron bars on my window. Then I never saw her again. By the time I was released many years later my precious bride was already long dead.

 

We all wept loudly. We felt as if we were standing on holy ground in the presence of the Lord. I asked Uncle Simon, “When you were released from prison, did you still have this Back to Jerusalem vision in your heart?” He responded to my question by singing for us,

 

How many years have bitter winds blown?

How many times have the storm clouds gathered?

Through the icy rain we couldn’t see God’s altar

The altar of God where he accepts our sacrifices.

 

God’s leaders are crying with broken hearts

Jehovah’s sheep are scattered far and wide

Tears of sadness well up in the chilly wind

Where have you gone, Good Shepherd?

Where have you gone, soldiers of God?

Where have you gone?

Oh, where have you gone?

 

After Uncle Simon had rested for a while, I asked him again, “Uncle, do you still have this vision in your heart?” He continued to sing,

 

Jerusalem is in my dreams

Jerusalem is in my tears

I looked for you and found you in the fire of the altar

I looked for you and found you in Jesus’ nail-scarred hands.

 

We wandered through the valley of tears

We wandered towards our heavenly home

After walking through the valley of death for forty years

My tears dried up.

 

Jesus came to destroy the chains of death

He came to open the path to glory!

The early missionaries shed their blood and tears for us

Let’s hurry to fulfil the promise of God!

 

I held his hand and assured him, “The vision God gave you has not died! We will carry on the vision!” After we had brought comfort to the heart of Uncle Simon he stood up, blessed us with his holy hands, and encouraged us from Luke 24:46–48, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

He exhorted us, “You must recognize the way of the cross is the call to shed blood. You must take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Muslim countries, then all the way back to Jerusalem. Turn your eyes to the west!”

That meeting was a pivotal point in my life. I felt as if God passed a flaming torch from this revered old man to the house churches, giving us the responsibility to complete the vision.

The Lord had already placed the Back to Jerusalem vision in my heart, but after meeting Simon Zhao it became the primary focus of my life. I came to understand clearly that the destiny of the house churches of China is to pull down the world’s last remaining spiritual strongholds – the house of Buddha, the house of Mohammed, and the house of Hinduism – and to proclaim the glorious gospel to all nations before the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!

You need to remember that when we speak about ‘Back to Jerusalem’ we are speaking about evangelizing the thousands of unreached people groups, towns and villages located between China and Jerusalem. We are not ignorant of the fact that these nations don’t welcome the gospel. We are well aware that countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia will not take kindly to preachers in their land.

 
We should not look at the Back to Jerusalem vision through human eyes. If we do, like most of the men sent to spy out the Promised Land, all we will see are the obstacles and troubles confronting us. Chinese Christians will see that the Western church with all its wealth and strength has not been able to make much of an impact in these nations, and then we will look at ourselves and immediately give up.

“‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.”

 

1 Corinthians 2:6-10: We do … not [speak] the wisdom of this age… No, we declare God’s wisdom… None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him. These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit…

 

About thirty thousand people become Christians in China every day. China is in the process of becoming a Christian country and sending thousands of missionaries overseas. And God is in charge, giving prophetic dreams, revisiting old promises, and not worrying about the human politics of the day. The newspapers were not reporting anything about Simon Zhao, but what a momentous event it was when he was released from prison after thirty-one years of confinement.

You can trust God’s version of history. Hear again the meaning of the entire Jesus story in a nutshell:

 

Matthew 1:21-23: ‘She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us’.

 

His name is Jesus because, through him, “God savesyou from your sins and he is also known as Immanuel because, wherever he is, “God [is] with us”. History is about him. Amen.