The invitation to contribute to this blog came with a question designed to stimulate me as to what I might write about: “Has a passage of Scripture really gripped you lately?” To be “gripped” by a passage, I take it, means to experience the Spirit embedding that Scripture into your heart and thereby strengthening your faith. That can happen when the Spirit “grips” or connects the Word with other life experiences, making the Word potently relevant and teaching us lessons that transform us. Such transforming instruction occurs when the Lord takes us to the extreme end of ourselves where the lines of our understanding and character are redrawn into greater conformity to Christ. But transforming lessons are usually painful experiences.
I experienced a convergence of Scripture, extremity and pain last August. It was my twelfth visit to Pakistan to minister at an Annual Pastor’s Conference and in the small church planted by Arif Khan and his dear wife Kathy. We concluded the conference with great encouragement. It was the fifteenth conference and once again a good number of men had come from all over the country and they gladly received the Word. Arif and I preached on matters concerning the pastoral ministry and biblical church life. I also ministered to his “little flock” on both of the Lord’s Days that book-ended the week of conference. It has been my habit during my visits, to attempt to encourage Arif and Kathy personally as well. On Tuesday, August 28, 2007 the three of us sat around the breakfast table as I devotionally delved into three verses which have gripped me, verses that I’ll never read the same ever again.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)
We spent the bulk of that morning interacting with this passage. We examined the various components of the tribulation arrayed against us in v35. We contrasted the challenges faced by the church in the East and in the West. We spoke, using the metaphors of Revelation, of how the church in the East is being clawed by the Beast through economic, social, and even physical persecution. We bemoaned the languishing church in the West with its lethargy, compromise and apostasy, as affluent, indulged Christians nestle themselves comfortably on the voluptuous breasts of the Babylonian Harlot.
We read the entirety of Psalm 44 from which Paul quotes in v36 and entered into the Psalmist’s experience of bewilderment at the sight of the Lord’s army in disarray and apparent defeat in battle. We too, like the Psalmist, pledged our fidelity to the living God. We too swore our allegiance to fight the Lord’s battles using the Lord’s weaponry. Yet, we wondered why it seemed that for Thy sake we are killed all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered?
Then v37’s bold assertion confronted us: in all these things. Not “after” all these things, or “instead of” all these things, but in all these things. What things? The things listed in v35. In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer. How? Like slaughtered lambs. Our thoughts immediately went to the Lamb of God, even our Lord Jesus Christ. We turned to Isaiah 53 and read of His prophesied death: like a lamb that is led to slaughter (v7). We pictured that day by the banks of the Jordan when John the Baptist introduced Him: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). We recalled how Jesus invaded the kingdom of darkness and how He fought and triumphed by being obedient to death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). We remembered that it was by His death, albeit while experiencing the fangs of the serpent digging into His heel, that He thereby crushed Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). We confessed afresh that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9). We reminded each other that the risen Jesus then commissioned His disciples to be His witnesses and to ransack the realms of Satan and rescue His sheep by the power of the Spirit. We rejoiced knowing that Jesus then ascended to the throne of God. We turned to Revelation 5:5-7 and saw His exalted enthronement. The angel announced the victory of the Lion of Judah. In our mind’s eye, we naturally pictured a valiant Davidic warrior, crusted with dirt, sweat and blood, emerging out of the mist of battle, clutching his blood-drenched sword with his dented shield relaxed at his side. But when we turned to see the One who has overcome, we saw a fluffy, little white Lamb with it’s neck slit open in sacrificial fashion and a rivulet of blood streaming down its pristine wool. Behold, the Overcomer! Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord is the worthy One! The Conqueror is the Lamb of God, who is now enthroned as our Priestly King and the supreme universal Sovereign.
As we gazed upon the victorious Lamb, we saw how we too must overcome. Paul says we conquer when we learn to fight like slaughtered lambs. We looked into each other’s eyes that morning as we sat sipping on our chai, arrested by what the Spirit was saying to us by His Word. It is not without danger that Christ’s servants minister in lands such as Pakistan. It is not without disappointment that His servants labor in the West. We saw a sober determination in each other’s eyes; a knowing realization that we were in a dangerous battle. But we also saw the look of faith, the expectation of victory and the realization of something more wonderful than all the horrors of war. We experienced the presence of Him who loves us. While in tribulation, in the midst of the disorienting anomie of battle, in the midst of sacrificial slaughter, we yet experienced something more profound, definitive and enduring: we experienced being loved by Jesus Christ. We knew, experientially, that we were loved by Jesus with a love more extensive than all creation and more powerful than any created thing (Romans 8:38,39).
That evening we went out to a nice restaurant as has been our annual custom. Arif spoke to me in sincere and encouraging tones of how our devotional exercise that morning had ministered to his heart. The following morning, Wednesday, August 29th, I departed Pakistan to visit another servant of Christ who labors in another very challenging county. On Thursday, August 30th, the news came that Arif and Kathy had been murdered the night before. I held on to my skepticism, knowing that things are not always what they initially appear to be, especially in that part of the world. But it was true. Arif and Kathy had been shot in cold blood.
As the pieces came together I learned that after leaving me off at the airport, Arif had a normal day of work. That evening, he met with his little flock for their midweek prayer meeting. His heart was still feeding on the spiritual food we had eaten together the day before, and so he opened up Romans 8:35-37 to his people. While only a few moments away from his own death, Arif encouraged his little flock in the love of Christ and in the certain victory given to Christ’s slaughtered sheep. Together, they too experienced being loved by Christ.
After prayer meeting, he and Kathy opened their home to a disgruntled former member who, with his notoriously wicked wife, came ostensibly for counsel. Along with this couple came a stranger. With typical kindness, the Khans hospitably welcomed the three of them. The Khans were outnumbered and assassinated by the third man, who has since escaped to Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic extremism and conflict. The couple was captured and await trial in prison in Pakistan. The details of the murders are sketchy, but I have heard nothing to dissuade me from concluding that the murderers were motivated by a hatred for the gospel that the Khans proclaimed and practiced.
When the news first reached me, I fell into the frightful fog of Psalm 44. How? Why? Grief, fear, and uncertainty overwhelmed me. I returned to the States stunned and sobered.
We buried the Khans in September here in New Jersey. The memorial service was a glorious celebration of their lives and ministries, but more so, a declaration of the victory of the Lamb. Pastor Albert Martin conducted the funeral and spoke at the grave site. The fog lifted and the exhilaration of victory filled my soul. Unexpectedly, the Khans were given two plots right next to the plot where Pastor Martin’s first wife, Marilyn is buried, which is right next to the plot reserved for Pastor Martin. There, virtually standing on the grave of his wife, just a couple feet from his own grave, Pastor Martin proclaimed the gospel and the resurrection victory of the slaughtered Lamb. Two slaughtered lambs lay in two caskets before us as a gospel minister declared our victory in Christ while standing on his own grave. Victory – in all these things. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death (Revelation 12:11).
I’m humbled having had the privilege of serving Christ with Arif and Kathy. I’m overwhelmed at having been given the honor of being Christ’s servant to them on the eve of their deaths. I cannot read Romans 8:35-37 now without remembering our first martyrs. I expect that we will see more martyrs. And I expect that the Lord will prepare and equip each of us who are His faithful servants to complete the work which He has given us to do, and being the faithful Shepherd that He is, He will guide us through this valley of death, to that glorious table spread for us because of the victory of His eternal death-conquering sovereign love.Alan Dunn, Pastor Grace Covenant Baptist Church Flemington, NJ