Congratulations to Ji Seong Ho, but the biggest North Korean heroes are those who cross the border in the other direction

Ji Seong Ho may now be the best-known North Korean defector on the planet. The image of him holding his crutches aloft as President Trump told his story in the State of the Union address will not soon be forgotten. President Trump said that Mr. Ji is “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” In one of many interviews following the State of the Union address, Mr. Ji explained:

I think I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t live for any single more day. And even if it means I would die by risking crossing the border, that was so worth it because I just wanted to live one single day as a genuine human being.

Mr. Ji said that his crutches symbolize the truth “that you can achieve anything if you do not give up.”

These are the kind of words that resonate with most of us in the so-called “free” world, so it is no wonder that Mr. Ji was feted on the perhaps the highest stage that the free world has to offer.

I have nothing negative to say about Mr. Ji, and I am happy anytime the world hears North Koreans share their own thoughts in their voice. Yet…

I wish you could meet the people we get to meet: North Koreans crossing the border in the opposite direction of Mr. Ji. Heading home. In possession of a message powerful enough to raise the dead. A message that one does not have to cross any border or escape any country in order to live as a genuine human being.

“Yes, that’s easy for you to say,” some might reply. “You have not been in that situation.” I often receive criticism from Westerners for our organization’s stance against defection–we don’t encourage it, we don’t assist in it, and we spend a good deal of our ministry time and resources picking up the shattered pieces of life of North Koreans who do defect, often through the aid of well-meaning Westerners who hold liberty, freedom, choice, and safety as the greatest goods. Yet…

There is a message some North Koreans learn, typically while visiting China–on a work visa, a relative visa, or having been sold there by their own government working in cooperation with Korean-Chinese gangs. They typically learn the message from people like us whom the North Korean government brands as terrorists precisely because we spread this message to its citizens wherever they are found: North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Korea. And this message enables North Koreans to be genuinely human wherever they are found, whichever side of the border they are on, and even without ever needing to leave North Korea.

I know many of the names and faces and stories of these North Korean message carriers, and I can picture their backs as they turn to head back home, crossing the border into North Korea in possession of nothing more than this message. Like Mr. Ji, they believe that they can achieve anything if they do not give up. But the “anything” they are seeking cannot be confined to this lifetime. As the author of Hebrews writes,

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Mr. Ji found a new country–South Korea. And he is being celebrated in another country–America. And as he was being celebrated in that country this week, he said, “the next time I go to North Korea will be when reunification finally happens.”

But the greatest North Korean heroes, in my view, are those who returned to North Korea not at the point of political reunification but at the point when they were reunified with God, through receiving his son, Jesus Christ. These heroes are now even greater outcasts and greater enemies than was Mr. Ji when he was in North Korea–the North Korean government tirelessly searches for converts to Christianity and regards them as far more base than any physically handicapped person. They are martyred quietly, almost never as dramatically as the stories you hear from Christian organizations who focus on this sort of thing. Mostly they just disappear one night, and then their names are taken away from them, and they die nameless, faceless, voiceless deaths after a short time in a North Korean concentration camp.

I am not ashamed to call these my heroes.

And God is not ashamed to be called their God.


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When Governments Violently Give Us The “Gift of Nothing”: Rejoice!

VOM Founder Rev. Richard Wurmbrand reminds us why we can rejoice even when God gives us the “gift of nothing” through our enemies.

In the last week, the Chinese government has destroyed a church without provocation. Also Christian meetings have been banned in Pakistan, and Bolivian Christians’ freedoms have been threatened. Many Christians around the world have responded with outrage and concern.

But as VOM Founder, the Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, reminds us, while it is easy for us only to see the violent and unjust nature of these actions, the church must also see God’s gift in the destruction, and the continual advance of God’s plan.

Rev. Wurmbrand was imprisoned and tortured for his faith in Christ for 14 years under Romanian communists. He said, “[Our captors] took everything from us—even our names. We had nothing, we wore nothing. [Our captors] did with us what they liked.”

But Rev. Wurmbrand emphasized that even when governments leave Christians with nothing (as they have done once again this week in China, Pakistan, and Bolivia), Christians can give praise for the God who always brings something out of nothing for his children. Said Wurmbrand,

“[Christian prisoners] all loved this world with its beautiful, multi-colored butterflies and chirping birds and scented flowers and pretty children. But then we remembered, ‘Wait a little bit, out of what did God make this beautiful world? He made it out of nothing! So nothing is a very valuable material! You can make a universe out of nothing! If anyone would try to make all of these things out of gold and diamond, he would not succeed! But out of nothing, God created this world.”

When we hear about the destruction of churches and the denial of religious rights this week, we must say to China, Pakistan, and Bolivia, with the voice of Rev. Wurmbrand and the voice of Joseph in the Old Testament, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.” We Christians are to hold governments accountable for more than human rights. We are to hold them accountable to the truth that the plan of God, not the plan of governments, will withstand all attempts to destroy it.

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Our mission: To ensure that the voice of the martyrs never falls silent…

The mission of Voice of the Martyrs Korea is to ensure that the voice of the martyrs never falls silent but is instead carried forward in our own voices and lived out in our own lives.

By “martyr”, we mean the faithful witnesses to God in Christ across all geography and history who “loved not their life even unto death” (Rev. 12:11, ASV). By “voice”, we mean the teachings, sermons, and testimonies of these faithful witnesses. This extends back to the Scripture itself. God did not cause the Bible to suddenly descend from heaven, complete. Instead, he gave us his inerrant, inspired word through faithful witnesses. That word even uses the name “the faithful witness” to describe Christ himself (Rev. 1:5), which shows the centrality of faithful witness to the Christian life. While only the Scripture itself is the inspired, inerrant word of God, Scripture teaches that the testimony of faithful witnesses—the voice of the martyrs—is an essential part of how God equips the church to triumph over the accuser (Revelation 12:11).

In our fallen world, faithful witness to Christ can indeed entail death. But it is important to remember that for Christians, martyrdom is not focused on death. It is focused on faithful witness. The Greek word, martyr, means witness. That is why the mission of Voice of the Martyrs is not to report on acts of violence against Christians, nor simply to pray for survivors. Instead, our mission is to make sure that the voice of the martyrs is never silenced by the violence enacted against their faithful witness.

Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, the global founder of Voice of the Martyrs, was a faithful witness for Christ in Communist Romania. He wrote the story of a fellow inmate in prison. Although a prisoner, this man was preaching. Guards dragged him out of the cell, beat him, and threw him back in the cell. But the man picked himself up, dusted himself off, and said, “Now where was I?”

Sometimes faithful witnesses are not able to return to where they left off because of murder, torture, or imprisonment. Voice of the Martyrs Korea picks up where they leave off: seeking out the words of these martyrs and finding ways to keep their words alive in the places and languages where they were first spoken. We also translate the messages into Korean, English, and Chinese so that those words can find new hearing in our lives as well.

This work also takes us across history. Sometimes the voice of the martyrs is simply forgotten with the passage of time, or neglected as the church struggles to remember what it once knew. That is especially true in the case of the early Korean Christian martyrs, who, though still honored by Korean Christians, are rarely heard as important voices in church gatherings or everyday life. Through preaching their words in our Covenant Renewal services and radio broadcasts, and through sharing their teachings in our Underground University and discipleship training programs and resources, we foster the renewal of the martyrs’ spirit in the church in Korea. Through partaking of the Lord’s Supper whenever we gather, we remember that we are one body in Christ with these early Korean Christians and with all those who faithfully died in Christ before us.

There are three reasons why we undertake this mission:

First, we can never be the true church unless we are one body with all believers across all of geography and history, speaking in one voice and one witness with them. Think of martyrdom as a cross. The horizontal bar of the cross represents the martyrs around the world today. The vertical bar of the cross represents martyrs throughout history. The witness of the church across geography and history is our treasure and responsibility, and we are held accountable by God for its stewardship and transmission.

Second, we grow to fullness in Christ as we make the voice of the martyrs our own voice. All who follow Christ are called to martyrdom. Whether or not we ever face physical persecution and death is in the Lord’s hands, but is certain that when we commit to follow him, we covenant to die to ourselves and the world and be alive only to him. Thus, martyrs are produced not by acts of violence but by the waters of baptism. How do we learn to live the life of the faithful witness? By carrying forward as our own personal witness the witness that Christ has entrusted to the church across all geography and history.

Third, it is God who keeps the voice of the martyrs alive. When we join him in that work, we are privileged to serve as his instruments. Scripture says that God never forgets a faithful witness. Psalm 116:15, says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Even though the world seems to be able to silence faithful witnesses to Christ, God ensures that their voices will reverberate throughout the world until the end of time. As 1 John 2:17 says: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” God does not call on us to idolize the martyrs or memorialize their lives in museums. Rather, he calls on us to “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also” (Hebrews 13:3, NKJV). Even when their bodies die, we are “chained” together with the martyrs and their message in the one body of Christ. Through these “chains”, we are honored to be able to be a means by which God keeps the voice of the martyrs alive: first, in our own lives; second, in our homes; third, among the believers with whom we fellowship; fourth, among the Christians in our nation and around the world; and fifth, as faithful witnesses to those who do not yet know Christ, but for whom he died.

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