Are you sure you want a prophet’s reward?

In Matthew 10:41 Jesus says, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.” A prophet’s reward. Our eyes and mind go right past that phrase without thinking too much about it. We hear “prophet’s reward” and think, “big reward”—something really good. So in our mind the passage becomes something like this: “Any time you’re asked to host an important Christian leader, you should definitely do that because you will get a big reward out of it.”

But such a reading ignores two of the key things we should keep in mind every time we open the Bible.

The first thing is that the Bible is first and foremost a revelation of the character of God. The purpose of each scripture in the Bible is to reveal something about God. Secondarily—and sometimes quite importantly—a scripture may also reveal something about us, or command us to do something. But as important as those things are, we should always “seek first the character of God” every time we open the Bible and read any scripture. So when we focus our attention in any scripture on what we’re supposed to do, or what’s in it for us, it’s a guarantee that we’re missing the most important thing that the scripture is seeking to give us, namely, a revelation of the character of God.

The second thing that is wrong with reading today’s scripture in the way I indicated is that it totally ignores the context! The scripture today comes at the tail end of a passage that begins with Jesus having his guts turned when he saw the people of Israel wandering into great danger because they were like sheep without a shepherd: the religious leaders had failed them. They had even claimed that Jesus did what he did in partnership with the devil. Jesus, in great concern, gathered his twelve best students to send them out to extend his shepherding to the lost sheep. He ordered them heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.

But here’s the part of the context that is absolutely crucial for understanding today’s scripture: He warned them that when they went out to shepherd those sheep, they would face persecution and martyrdom. “Behold I send you out like sheep surrounded by wolves,” he says. Beginning in Matthew 10:17 he says,

Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.

And in verse 21 he says,

Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.

Keep in mind, when Jesus sends them out, he requires that they go out with nothing. He says in verse 9, “neither gold nor silver nor copper…nor bag…nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs.” So they are to be completely dependent on those that they meet—most of whom, he tells them, will try to kill them!

That’s the context for today’s scripture. Those are the verses we should have in mind when we hear Jesus say, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.”

So the first thought that should come to mind is: Life is not so easy for prophets. Prophets are people who are completely identified with God’s message. They’re not people who have a message from God. They are the message from God. Prophets have no message of their own. They can only say, “Thus saith the Lord!” Prophets are like the human versions of angels: the messengers of God. Unlike angels, scripture sometimes shows them putting up a little resistance against the message God gives them to share (or in the case of Jonah, a lot of resistance). But as Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 20:9,

But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

So the prophet has to deliver the message. If they don’t, the fire that is shut up inside their bones burns them up.

But here’s the problem: once they deliver their message, the people who hear the message light a fire from the outside that burns up their bones anyway!

That’s the nature of being a prophet: Either get burned up from the inside by God or burned up from the outside by those who don’t like what God has to say. In the Bible, false prophets get stoned for telling a lie. True prophets get stoned for telling the truth.

So from the standpoint of this world, if we ask, “What is the prophet’s reward?”, the answer is clear: Death. Persecution followed by suffering followed by death. Really painful death, in most cases. In Hebrews 11, we read about the great pioneers of faith. Many of these were prophets. And in Hebrews 11:36-38 we get a list of how many of the prophets suffered and died:

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

One of the reasons why they were wandering in deserts and mountains and living in caves and in holes in the ground is that not many people wanted to host prophets. Hosting prophets was dangerous. Consider the case of Obadiah. During the time of Elijah, we read in 1 Kings 18:4,

While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.

In other words, Obadiah had received prophets in the name of prophets.

Jezebel and Ahab were trying to kill all the prophets, but most particularly Elijah. So we read in 1 Kings 18:7-14:

As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’”

“What have I done wrong,” asked Obadiah, “that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? As surely as the Lord your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. And now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!”

The message here is clear: If you receive a prophet in the name of a prophet, you will receive the same punishment as the prophet.

And that was true not only in Old Testament times. Jesus says it would be true for his followers as well. In fact, in Matthew 5:10-12, he prophesies that this will happen to his followers—to prophets as well as the righteous. Remember that the righteous also get mentioned in today’s scripture, in Matthew 10:41, when Jesus says, “He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” As Jesus is about to tell us in Matthew 5:10-12, hosting a righteous man will get you killed these days, too:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In that scripture, Jesus mentions the great reward of the prophets and the righteous. He says simply that it is a “great reward in heaven.” He does not specify what it is. The one thing that’s specific is that the reward is not here on earth. What’s here on earth for prophets and the righteous is a whole lot of suffering for righteousness’ sake, all for the name of Christ. The Book of Revelation shares that same thing when it speaks about the reward of the prophets at the end of time. In Revelation 11:18, the twenty-four elders in heaven cry out to the Lord,

The time has come for judging the dead,
    and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
   both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

Notice the mention of the “small people” who revere the name of the Lord. They receive their reward, too, just as Jesus says they would in today’s scripture in Matthew 10:42, when he says,

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.

So we could end our look at this scripture at this point with this very important conclusion: Hosting prophets, righteous men, and even small Christians is dangerous work. You will likely suffer in this lifetime if you do so, and you may even die. But if you do, you will receive a great reward in heaven—the same as the prophets, the righteous men, and the small Christians themselves.

That would be a very important conclusion, but it would not get us to the main point of today’s scripture, or the main point of scripture overall. The main point of scripture is to reveal to us something of the character of God. What is it that today’s scripture reveals?

And here is where we find the truly amazing part of the message.

It is true that Christ will give a prophet’s reward to the one who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet. But what is truly remarkable about the character of God is that Christ does not just give a prophet’s reward. He himself receives it, too.

That is, the character of God is not that he lives in heaven, handing out great rewards to those who are willing to suffer for his name on earth. As the Nicene Creed says, “He came down from heaven…” God did not just send prophets to die for him. Instead, he died for them.

In Matthew 21:33-39, Jesus tells a story about a landowner who planted a vineyard.

Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

And that’s exactly what they did.

As the day of his sacrifice grew near, Jesus looked out over the city and cried out, in Matthew 23:37,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…

He spoke specifically about the prophets and righteous men and small Christians in Matthew 23:34-36:

Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

And that’s exactly what happened. All of the righteous blood that had been shed on earth came upon that generation…and he carried all of that sin, on the cross. “For our sakes he was crucified…”, says the Nicene Creed.

That is what this scripture reveals about the character of God. It is not only that “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me,” as he says in the scripture today. It is also that he who sent the prophets sent himself, to die the death that all prophets die due to their identification with him.

When the writer of Hebrews lists the suffering of all the pioneers of faith, he writes in Hebrews 11:16, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” But it is because God himself suffered the very same things that we do that we are not ashamed to call him our God: Immanuel, God with us.

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“How Would I Respond to Persecution?” is not a hypothetical question

After hearing the story of Richard Wurmbrand or other Christians who have been tortured for Christ, we sometimes ask ourselves, “What would I do if I was in that situation? Would I be faithful?”

But that is the wrong question because we actually are in that situation.

It is the same principle as when we have a toothache. Our foot does not say, “I thank God I am not in pain.” Instead, when we have a toothache our whole body is focused on it. We can’t do anything else until we attend to the pain in our tooth. We even pace around on our feet or walk to the dentist because our one body is built to work together to alleviate the pain in any part of it.

The Bible says that we are one body in Christ. The Christians who currently suffer for the name of a Christ in more than 70 countries are one body with us. Hebrews 13:3 commands us to remember them as though in prison with them. 

So we cannot say, “What would I do?”, as if we were engaging in a merely theoretical exercise. We must instead say, “What will I do?”, because the one body of Christ of which I am a member is actually, presently suffering. The only thing that has changed since the time of Rev. Wurmbrand is that more Christians are being persecuted in more places more often.

The fact that we ourselves aren’t the part of the body of Christ which is in jail does not mean we are not experiencing persecution. It just means that we are the part of the body that God has placed is in the best position to help the rest of the body. That is why we should never pray, “Thank you, God, that I live in a land where I am free to worship as I choose.” Only part of your body is in such a land. The rest of your body is in a land where worshiping as God calls often requires time in jail, or worse. With 70 countries restricting Christianity and 1 in 3 Asians currently living in such countries, the part of your body in prison is substantial.

So what help can our part of the body provide to the part that is presently suffering?

Rev. Wurmbrand offered “howling in pain” as a good place to start. Isn’t that what we do when some part of our own body is in acute pain? It also may be a much better description of the action that we should take than “pray”. It is worth noting that the Bible does not command us to “pray” for those who are suffering for Christ but rather to remember them as though we were imprisoned with them. That calls for something more akin to a howl than a pious remembrance.


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Is There Such A Thing As Smuggling Too Many Bibles Into North Korea and Other Closed Countries?

I regularly see ministries putting out ads claiming that the number one request of North Korean Christians is for Bibles, Bibles, and more Bibles. These ministries claim that for every few dollars you send, they’ll send one more Bible into North Korea; the only limit is your generosity. I’ve even seen them claim to distribute Bibles into North Korean concentration camps.

As someone who has worked with underground North Korean Christians for many years, I can tell you that while such ads have tremendous emotional and fundraising appeal, they are not rooted in reality. The amount of time, care, logistics, people, money, and prayer it takes to place even a single Bible inside North Korea is beyond most people’s imagining. It’s never cheap, and it doesn’t happen on a mass-production level. The shortage is never of Bibles available for distribution. Never.

I was reading a private letter from Rev. Wurmbrand to our sister VOM missions from 1982 today. Seems that there is nothing new under the sun. Rev. Wurmbrand wrote:

Huge quantities of Bibles are produced for European Communist countries by other missions… This has produced a catastrophe in a country like Romania. Everybody brought the Bibles basically to the same addresses. Neighbors were alarmed by the great number of vans and trailers coming to one person. These had no possibilities to be distribute such quantities. At the last arrests in Ploieshti tens of thousands of Bibles were confiscated. They were sto­red since long. I know from my own experience that to distribute 1,000 Bibles in conditions of illegality, with every second member of the underground church suspect as informer, without means of transport was already a big problem.

Rev. Wurmbrand’s point is that we should not think that the only thing stopping us from effectively distributing an unlimited amount of Bibles in closed countries is money. Distribution is mainly limited not by funding shortfalls (donors are always generous with Bible money, praise God) but by a number of factors stemming from the fact these countries are closed and specialize in making Christian work as difficult, dangerous, and deadly as possible. Rev. Wurmbrand noted that there are always fake Christians, spies, and profiteers in these countries, and we must be wise. Bible distribution in closed countries is by definition very difficult, and money for Bibles is usually the least of the difficulties.

So if not Bibles, Bibles, and more Bibles, what should we be smuggling to underground believers? Rev. Wurmbrand offered a specific recommendation in the 1982 letter:

My conviction is also that while a good number of Bibles is needed, they [people in closed countries] need a huge quantity of simple books explaining the Christian faith and books opposing Christianity to Marxism. For those who have not lived under Communism, it is difficult to realise what counter-productive effect a Bible can have, if not accompanied by right teaching, on a soul. I had not read the Bible 14 years. I read it as a new book when I came out of prison. I was appalled when I read books like Joshua, Judges, etc. where God orders the extermination of whole populations with wives and children. I said to myself ”This is worse than what Communists have done. The Communists could use this justification.’ Happily I had some spiritual preparation. For those without it, General Jaruzelski [of Poland] is better than Joshua. The Bible says, ‘How will I understand if there is nobody to explain?’ I am against simply giving 1 million Bibles. even if it would be possible, without giving another million books with explanations. This belongs to the realm of phantasy.

Rev. Wurmbrand was quick to note that this does not diminish the real need for the hard, slow, copy-by-copy distribution of the Bible inside closed countries that we and our VOM sister missions around the world specialize in. But he felt VOM’s unique contribution to the underground church around the world lay in the distribution of that peculiar form of literature which might be called “ideological evangelism”:

We have to print Bibles. We could not have couriers without this, but we should concentrate our printing on special books: Christianity versus Marxism. No other mission has such books. We have the unanimous witnesses of Christians from behind the Iron Curtain, especially from students and intellectuals, that these are the books they value most because these solve the doubts which Marxist indoctrination has sown in their mind. It must not be only my ‘Answer to Moscow’s Bible’ and ‘Marx Satanist’. Several other authors have written good books on this subject.

To say that we should concentrate on printing and distributing anything other than Bibles in China, North Korea, and other closed countries is likely to yield indignant outcries and stern rebukes (and the least amount of funds raised). But Rev. Wurmbrand never worried about the response of the general public, only the need of the underground church. And with more than 1 billion people still living under Communism today, it’s worth noting that while the Chinese government is getting ready to publish its own Chinese Communist Party edition of the Bible, it has yet to publish any of Rev. Wurmbrand’s books on Communism and Christianity. That remains VOM’s unique contribution to the work of the church globally.

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