Tested by fire

Jonathan Pong

Reading: Revelation 7:9-14; Psalm 66:10-12; Malachi 3:2-4.

Thank the Lord, for this gathering here. The theme of the conference is 'The heavenly vision'. In the first message, our brother shared from three different angles, the vision of Paul the vision of Peter and the vision of John. Through different angles we can have a full picture of the heavenly vision. This afternoon I would like to use what we have just read which is the vision John saw on the island of Patmos. I want to share through this vision something about what God has done in the church in China, so I hope by the grace of God this afternoon to have about one hour to share what the Lord has laid on my heart. In the book of revelation there are eight visions given to the apostle John and our brother shared on the first vision. This afternoon I would like to touch briefly upon the second vision.

Tested by fire

The second vision is a big vision which begins with the throne, the one who sits on the throne and the One who is worthy to take the little scroll from the Father. In chapter seven, the vision expands from the throne to the Lamb and now to the people around the throne. That's the first time in the whole book where you see people appear before the throne, and when we read it I'm not sure if you were aware that John told us that numerous people whom nobody can count were wearing white robes, and from every nation and people and tribe and language, they were standing before the throne. This morning when I entered this hall, I listened to the grand hymns with which you praised the Lord and I had a sense of this vision - from all nations, tribes and tongues with only one focus, God on the throne and His Son the Lamb.

So I really feel that something of heaven is on earth, and this is just a little taste of what is to come. We have only a few hundred here, but when we are there we will be multitudes, no one knows what will be the number of people. I can even imagine that when we are in heaven some day, the most beautiful choir will be from the Latin countries because you really know how to sing. The singing really moves my whole body, touching my heart and I have to cry. And in this vision, John saw that. What a glorious sight.

The question was asked, 'who are these people in white robes?' and John said, 'you know sir' and then the angel answered in verse fourteen, 'these are they who have come out of the great tribulation, they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb'. So the first characteristics described by the angel about the whole multitude is that they came out of the great tribulation. In other words, these people have been tested by fire and they are overcomers. Because they have overcome they have received this reward from the Lord and they are raptured before the throne. Their lives have been tested. So I picked the other two scriptures, one in psalm sixty-six and the other in Malachi chapter three. All the saints in the Old Testament also echo the same testimony. We are justified by the blood, this justification by faith is free. We didn't do anything by the grace of God we are saved freely and we thank God for that. But that is the beginning. The Lord called us out of this world, He paid the highest price for everyone of us and He is leading us on a journey. This journey has an end point and the end point is the throne. So from here to there is a way to march on, but this way from Jesus' introduction is the narrow way.

I think today that many Christians have a misunderstanding. I'll use an analogy. In the Sunday school, the teacher shared a story with the children. The story is in the gospel of Luke, concerning a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. One day they both died and the rich man and the bigger end up in the afterlife but there is a big gap between these two people. The beggar is in Abraham's bosom, very comfortable, very happy. But on the other side where the rich man was, far away, it's a hot place. It's not Hell but it's very hot. I think we all know this story told by Jesus Himself.

After the story the teacher asked the students, 'which person do you want to be?' Everybody looked at each other and raised their hands, ' I know, I know' so the teacher asked a child, 'please speak' so the little child stood up and said 'when I'm alive I want to be the rich man, and when I die I want to be like the beggar'. How smart. I think that somehow we all have the same wish. When we are alive on earth we try to be rich men and one day when we leave this earth we want to be just like the beggar, Lazarus. In this way we gain both benefits, the earthly and the heavenly. This is our wish, but it's not true. You cannot have both.

So in this vision all these overcomers stood before the throne, the first qualification was that they went through great tribulations. They were tested by fire. So in psalm sixty-six which we've just read, it says, 'for you Oh God tested us, you refined us like silver.' So this refiners fire is an analogy to describe the Christian life. When we are saved, we are a mixture. We have divine life coming into our being; we call that being born again, when we have received the life of Christ. But at the same time we still have the old self-life and this life has to go through a process and this process is called the refiners fire, to purify our lives. That is the purpose which God is working out right now.

For the author of this psalm, in the beginning when he went through the fire, he could not understand it. He would be so confused, 'why? I'm supposed to be blessed by the Lord'. On the contrary he found out, 'you brought us into prison' - they were living in a very confined place called prison. Also he found out that other people laid burdens on their backs. In other words they are slaves, under heavy persecution, even to the degree where, 'you let men ride over our heads' our heads get wounded.' So all these tough experiences, the author sums up in two words, 'fire' and 'water'. Sometimes very hot like fire and sometimes very cold like water. The experience has such a contrast from one end to the other end and when we go through these processes its very confusing for most of us because we all thought we would be richly blessed by the Lord. But the more you are walking with the Lord, you more you will find a lot of surprises. The reason we are surprised is because we are not prepared psychologically, but if you really study the word carefully and with a cool head, you will find that the bible has already revealed these secrets to us.

In Malachi, the book which we have just read the same experience is shared. God is like a refiner's fire and He is purifying His Levites. We are His Levites, we have the privilege to serve our God, but we are so mixed up. We are bound by our flesh and for us to serve God our flesh has to be dealt with. But we don't like that; it is not comfortable, full of tears and pain. Someday we'll find out that that's the way God designed for everyone and we'll go through it one way or another.

Testimony of the work of God in China

I was saved in 1961. I was sixteen and I was living in Taipei, Taiwan. The first ten years of my Christian life were in Taiwan until 1971 when I went to the U.S. as a graduate student and that was the same year that I got married to my wife. I went to a university in North Carolina and I remember it very clearly, it was August 1971 and the following month in early September, which is the labor day weekend in the U.S., there was a small gathering in a brother's house filled with people.

That day the host of the family introduced the meeting saying, 'today we have a special speaker from New York by the name of Stephen Kaung.' I didn't know who Stephen Kaung was, I only knew the Chinese name not the English name. So the host introduced brother Kaung, he stood up, and I said 'Hey I know him' and I told my wife 'his name is not Stephen Kaung, he's Chiang Sho Dao or something like that.' That's the Chinese name. Because when I was a senior high school student in Taipei in about 1964 or 1965, brother Kaung visited Taipei from New York and at that time and he spoke on 'the song of degrees' in the Taipei assembly.

At that time I was a high school student and my impression at the time was, 'wow, his bible is different from my bible. He studies the bible and I read the bible but somehow his version is different from mine. When he shares the whole bible is full of light, but when I read the bible, I don't see too much.' That was how I met him in those early years. I was so fortunate from 1971 onwards to have the privilege to listen to brother Kaung's teaching.

In 1992, after my sixteen year service in an American company, I resigned from my job and became a full-time worker in our fellowship. On the one hand I serve in our fellowship and on the other hand the Lord has put me in a very special ministry to China. I will now go into how I am involved with China today and the reason for it.

Since 1992 until now, I have had the privilege to go to China three times a year and visit different house churches all around China. I have fellowship with many different Christians in China. In order to do that the Lord had prepared me for about ten years for this ministry in China and during that preparation stage, which was from eighty-two to ninety-two, I studied almost everything concerning China. On the one hand it was related to my job with a U.S. company and on the other hand I had the privilege to meet a few of the Chinese brothers and sisters. So through that contact and their testimony I had a better understanding about what God was doing in China.

I was born in Taiwan and I had very little contact with Christians on mainland China. But because of those ten years of unusual background, I came to know many of them. Then I knew what those Christians went through over the past fifty years. When I was in Taiwan, we heard a lot about the Chinese and their communist rule. I think that many of us know of chairman Mao. He ruled China for thirty years and during those thirty years the most famous period is called the cultural revolution.

That was from 1966 to 1976 and many Christians suffered greatly. Of course if you study the whole history since chairman Mao took over China in 1949 until he died, those thirty years, you'll know that the whole government had a series of tactics to eliminate Christians and they did it very systematically. Many Christians were under great temptation to change or be persecuted. So the whole of China went through fire.

One brother told me that during the cultural revolution there were four famous people called the 'gang of four'. They were the faithful of Mao Tse Tung. One of them called Mr Jung made a statement at the beginning of the cultural revolution, 'In three years I'm going to send the whole of Christianity into the museum' and he did. He burned all the bibles in China to such an extent that I heard that there is a location in southern China in a village where they collected thousands of copies of the bible and piled them up like a little mountain and asked the most famous pastor in the village, 'you come out and burn the bibles.' But this pastor said 'I cannot'. So he was shot right there on the spot. So things like that were happening everywhere.

All bibles were burned up, all church buildings were shut up, all Christian seminaries were shut down. Christian schools and Christian hospitals were confiscated and anything to do with Christianity could not be seen during those years. Everybody kept very quiet about their faith, some gave up but a few of them kept the faith and went through terrible times. Some went to labor camps, some were sent to prison, and some were even shot dead.

For those ten years, all Christians went through hell. Outwardly, you saw no Christian activity. When we were in Taiwan we received messages from China, the most famous one during that time was from the relatives of brother Nee, who died during those years in 1972. Many many good, strong Christians suffered greatly and all asked the same question - 'why? Lord you must do something, you should vindicate your people; they have suffered too much. Why?' No answer. It seemed endless, even hopeless.

Five years ago I met a group of Christians from Iran. I met them in Seattle in a conference like this. There were about a hundred Iranian Christians and a hundred Christians from China so we had the opportunity to fellowship during mealtimes. So when we were chatting, this brother told me, 'brother, you guys are from China, right?' and I said, 'yes. Most of us are from China but some of us are from Taiwan.' He said, 'praise God!' I said, 'why do you praise God?' He said, 'We can understand you.' I said, 'how can you understand us?' He said, 'yes, God raised up a man called Mao Tse Tung in China, right? For us Iranians, God raised a man called Khomeini.' He asked me if I knew Khomeini and I said 'yes, I know him, a famous leader'. He said, 'because Mao Tse Tung persecuted you guys, today the Christians have experienced a growth explosion in China'. I said, 'how can you be Christians, because my impression was that in Iran you were all Muslims?'

We all think that in that part of the world, because they are Muslim countries, it's difficult to preach the gospel. If you are a Christian and get caught you will be killed. He said, 'yes it was like that but God did something miraculous and changed the impossible situation. God gave us a man called Khomeini. He was doing such a terrible work in Iran that many people gave up Islam. They said if Khomeini preaches this kind of Islam to us, we don't want to believe. So many young people turned away from Islam and started looking for an alternative. As a result of that process you see hundreds of us Iranian Christians here today. The gospel was preached in Iran after Khomeini passed away.' He said, 'the same happened to you in China, right?' I said, 'you are right.'

Since chairman Mao died in 1976 and then three years later Deng Xiao Ping came to power, and China opened up and many old Christians who were persecuted before were now recovered. The gospel in China experienced a big bang. I'll give you a few statistics. In 1949, that was the year when communism took over China, at that time the Christian population in China was around seven hundred thousand against the population in China at that time which was four hundred and sixty million. So the percentage was about 1.4 people per thousand people, a very low percentage.

The gospel was first preached to China at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a protestant missionary called Robert Morrison. He came to China from England in 1807. In three more years it will be the two hundred year anniversary since the gospel was preached in China. So by 1949, after a hundred and fifty years of hard missionary work, the gospel was hitting a wall and the Chinese were rejecting the gospel. The Chinese are very proud, "we don't need any foreigners to tell us we are sinners and have to repent. No you foreigners are sinners. You come to China and invade us - you should repent and not us." So the gospel was rejected. Many Chinese worshipped idols, so we had our own gods and didn't need another foreign God. Throughout these 150 years of hard labor when thousands and thousands of missionaries came to China, only very few Chinese were saved.

What could we do? Who could change us? Humanly speaking it was impossible. Who can change a culture? Who can change historical facts? So humanly speaking the gospel in China was just impossible. But those missionaries and few Christians in China really prayed and prayed for a very long time. Then God answered their prayers and when the answer came, no one liked it. The answer was chairman Mao. China suffered greatly under his hand. He ruled with a rod of iron for thirty years. The statistics show that under his hand, at least thirty million Chinese were killed.

What's the population in Chile? Fifteen million. So chairman Mao killed two times the population of Chile. Anyone dare to guess how many Christians there are today in China? A hundred million? In 1949 before communism took control there were seven hundred thousand. Now add three more zeros after it - seven hundred million! From 1979 until now, a little bit more than twenty years. No missionaries, no theological seminaries, who did it? The Holy Spirit and those faithful Christians. When God does it, no man can stop him. It's so fast, it's far beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

So during these years I've had the privilege to go and have fellowship with these Christians. So many Christians are newly born and the old Christians who've suffered so much are in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They've labored so hard but the harvest is so big. Today the problem for them is not who'll preach the gospel, because the gospel is preached everywhere, no problem. People will come to you and say, 'I heard you are a Christian, please tell me how to become one.' Its because they've lost all hope, they want to find answers - 'what is the meaning of life? Please tell me'. So preaching the gospel in China in the last twenty years has been done very quickly and easily.

But now there are so many baby Christians, who can feed them all? Who can teach them using the word of God? This has become the most urgent need. On the other hand, if you look back you'll find that the Lord has done a marvelous job even before the communists took over, among very few Christians.

I think many of you know Watchman Nee. He received a lot of help from a sister from England called Miss Margaret Barber. She came to China in 1912, for the second time and when she came with another sister from Britain, the Lord laid on her heart to pray for the young people in China. That was in 1912. The Lord answered her prayer and at that time she helped about a dozen young people and many of those young people were raised up and greatly used by God in those years. If you read 'Against the tide' you will know the biography of Watchman Nee. God used him greatly and gave him heavenly vision and many Christians received his ministry and experienced revival. At that time, the work was also growing tremendously all over China. That was before 1949.

On the one hand you see that God had blessed the Christians at that time tremendously but at the same time the human hand began to interfere because there was such a great work - ten thousand, twenty thousand, a lot of people came into this gathering. But then the human hand began to organize. Then things began to change. You will see a lot of wrinkles as the brother shared this morning, and the wrinkles are not from God but from human nature. So God put the Christians through fire. For what purpose? To purify us. He needs our pure sacrifice. God cannot accept anything that's not of himself. Anything from human flesh is rejected. Our human nature has the tendency to corrupt God's work. So on the macro level, you will see that all the Christians in China went through the refiners fire, but on the micro view, you see the fire touch many of those great works, the local church work at that time. The whole work in China went through a tremendous persecution. Even today, God is still purifying His testimony.

God is refining his church

So last night when our brother asked me to share on something that was on my heart, I listened to your testimony, how the Lord has worked among you, how you have been blessed over the last twenty-five years. You have also been through a lot of tests and trials and I think I wanted to share the same experience which I witnessed in China. As individuals, we went through fire to purify our individual life. Corporately, we have different assemblies everywhere, and the Lord is also trying to refine His church so that we can serve Him according to His character. So everything we encounter is not an accident but it is a design by God. We are called to walk on this narrow way so that we shall have the privilege one day of standing before the throne, wearing white robes and praising Him in heaven where we'll serve Him forever. In order to be able to do that, today we go through all these processes. So we have to be prepared, our heart has to be right. This is the process we have to go through together.

So I hope this afternoon that what I've shared about the church in China is an encouragement to the church in South America. The days are very short, He is coming back very soon, so the process is getting even faster. He has to do a job quickly and we have to cooperate with Him. We don't want to withdraw but we present ourselves to God and trust that He will do it so that His name may be praised and He will receive all the glory. Hallelujah.

International Conference 2004 "The Heavenly Vision"

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