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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




Jesus in a Seeking World

Eurasia

By Randy Hurst
April 4, 2010

With 44 nations, the Eurasia region includes the greatest land area, the largest population and the most unreached people groups in the world. Every nation is characterized by masses of people who are deeply religious but desperately lost.


During the past year, I ministered with Regional Director Omar Beiler in several of the region’s major cities. In each place, ornate architecture illustrates religion’s role in the culture, but true spiritual freedom is largely unknown. In some countries, public and even private proclamation of the Christian message is restricted or prohibited outright.

Those called of the Lord to proclaim His message in Eurasia all face the same challenge: communicating the gospel to 2.3 billion people, most of whom embrace one of three major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. These religions, as well as Judaism and Christianity, each originated in Eurasia.

This month, as we celebrate our Lord’s sacrificial death and resurrection, is an especially appropriate time to call attention to and pray for the billions who do not yet know of His salvation.


Hinduism

In a modern Asian city, I visited a Hindu temple surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers. Thousands of onlookers filled an outer courtyard. Caught in the press of the crowd, I soon found myself standing in the innermost part of the temple. Just a few feet away, worshippers submitted to a demonic trance in response to a priest’s chant. Rows of small steel hooks pierced the flesh of their backs, yet not a drop of blood flowed. Each hook was connected to a chain that stretched back to a cart of rocks. In an attempt to obtain healing or prosperity or fulfill a vow, the worshippers pulled the heavy carts through the city streets. Each torturous burden bore silent but graphic witness of the antithesis to God’s grace.

In Hinduism, all beings are subject to samsara, the continually revolving wheel of life, death and rebirth. The consequences of deeds committed in previous lifetimes are reaped in the present lifetime. A person’s actions and deeds, known as karma, are the moral equivalent of cause and effect that determine the kind of body — whether human, animal or insect — one will have when reincarnated.

Hinduism, a religion based on ritual and the belief in many gods, began about 3,500 years ago in what is now India. For Hindus, ultimate reality (Brahman) is absolute and eternal but completely impersonal and without moral distinctions. Brahman has three manifestations or deities: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Siva (the destroyer). Each has at least one devi, or divine spouse. Vishnu is personified through 10 mythical incarnations called avatars having both animal and humanlike forms. Beyond these principal deities are 330 million other gods.

The Hindu solution to man’s spiritual problem involves liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth by losing one’s individual identity and attaining union with the impersonal Brahman. This is accomplished by following three paths: the path of duties (actions and rituals), the path of knowledge (training and meditation), and the path of devotion to the gods. All are based on human effort.

Forgiveness is not only unavailable, but also incomprehensible. Hindus believe that their actions bind them to their personal existence and keep accumulating, making the prospect of escape hopelessly remote.

As Omar Beiler and I visited several cities in India, one thing overwhelmed us more than anything else — the countless masses of people, mostly Hindus, who flood the streets and fill the Hindu temples. At least 930 million Hindus in India alone wait for the message of salvation in Jesus.

Almost a billion Hindus in Eurasia wait for the message of Christ’s sacrificial death and forgiveness.


Buddhism

Along Asia’s most congested city streets, people can be seen somberly bowing before an image of Buddha. Holding sticks of incense or presenting offerings of flowers or food are not only monks in saffron-colored robes, but also well-dressed businessmen, stylishly dressed women, and parents accompanied by their children.

At the time the Israelites were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century B.C., Siddhartha Gautama was born into a wealthy family in what is now Nepal. He lived in a palace, carefully sheltered by his father so he would not see suffering, sickness or poverty.

Eventually young Siddhartha ventured away from the palace, and the suffering he observed affected him profoundly. He left his family, including a wife and child, and the life of luxury he knew to embark on a spiritual search for the source of suffering and how to eliminate it. He began by practicing extreme fasting and self-denial. When this did not produce the enlightenment he sought, he ventured into Bodh Gaya, a city in northern India. Sitting under a fig tree by the edge of a river, he vowed not to rise again until he had gained enlightenment. As he waited, he fell into a deep state of meditation.

Following this experience, he proclaimed himself as Buddha, or “the enlightened one.” His path to enlightenment, called the Middle Way, avoided the extremes of wealth and self-denial, since both had caused him suffering.

Buddhism did not spread far until an Indian king embraced its teaching and devoted himself and his resources to propagating it. Buddhist missionaries carried the message as far away as Syria, Egypt and Greece. Today an estimated 365 million people follow Buddhism worldwide.

Over the years variations of Buddha’s teachings developed, but most Buddhists follow the basic teachings known as the Four Noble Truths. These truths are: life consists of suffering; everything is impermanent and always changing; the only way to be liberated from suffering is by eliminating all desire; and desire can be eliminated by following the Eightfold Path. Those guidelines fall in three sections: wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline.  Buddhists’ ultimate goal is liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The result is nirvana, a state of release and ultimate enlightenment.

Buddha did not claim to have a special relationship with God. He considered the matter of God’s existence unimportant because it did not pertain to the issue of how to escape suffering. His focus was eliminating suffering by eliminating desire. Jesus taught that by God’s grace and power, He will transform our sinful desires and give us hearts for God.

Almost 70 percent of Sri Lankans follow Buddhism. In Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, I interviewed an AG pastor whose husband was killed in front of her.  (See “Lalani’s Story” in the March 7 World Missions Edition.) Although Buddhism is largely perceived by most in the West as being a peaceful religion, in Sri Lanka radical Buddhists have recently burned large numbers of Christian churches and personally attacked Christian believers.


Islam

Istanbul, Turkey, marks the junction between East and West, Europe and Asia. A beautiful, massive city on the Bosporus Strait, it is home to more than 15 million people. At every point in the city, we could look in any direction and see minarets of mosques stretching toward the sky. Five times a day loudspeakers blare the call to prayer in Arabic.

Istanbul is a telling reminder of Islam’s growth. With more than 1.5 billion followers — about one-fifth of the world’s population — Islam is the second-largest religion after Christianity. The religion began in Saudi Arabia, but non-Arab Muslims now outnumber Arab Muslims nearly three to one. The four nations with the largest number of Muslims —  Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India — are all outside the Middle East. Those four countries alone account for more than 640 million Muslims.

Islam’s central figure, Muhammad, was born in A.D. 570 in Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia. He was 40 years old when he claimed to receive his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Over time a series of subsequent revelations were compiled and named the Quran, which means “recitation” in Arabic. Islam teaches that the value is found in the recitation, not in the understanding of the contents.  Three quarters of the Muslim world are non-Arabic speakers, but they say their prayers and memorize the Quran in a language they do not understand.

Leaders of Muhammad’s Arab tribe pressured him not to spread his message. They viewed it as a threat to their livelihood, since they benefited economically as other tribes visited Mecca to worship 360 different deities.

Muhammad ignored their warnings, and persecution increased against his followers. About 100 Muslim families fled the city, and Muhammad soon followed. Eight years later he and his army returned and took control of Mecca, destroying all the idols. Within a year all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula were unified under Islam.

Today Islam has two main branches — Sunni and Shiite, with 80 percent of Muslims following Sunni Islam. The two sects differ primarily concerning their source of authority. Sunnis emphasize the written traditions of the Quran and the Sunna, a record of the sayings and conduct of Muhammad and his companions. Sunnis also receive guidance from elders or religious scholars. Shiites, on the other hand, believe that God speaks through holy men known as imams. The split between the two sects took place over the issue of rightful succession to the position of the supreme leader of Islam.  In Iran, Ayatollah serves this role among Shiites. Sunnis have had no universally accepted leader since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Islam teaches strict adherence to these five pillars:

1. Recite the Shahadah, a confession of allegiance to Allah and Muhammad, his messenger.

2. Offer prayer at least five times a day.

3. Fast regularly, especially during the month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims must abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations during daylight hours.

4. Give alms of at least 2.5 percent of  a person’s  net worth, primarily to the poor.

5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime, provided one can afford it financially and is healthy enough to do so.

According to the Quran, all people will one day stand before God in judgment. At that time, each person’s deeds will be weighed. Those whose good deeds outweigh the bad will enter Paradise; those whose bad deeds outweigh the good will be banished to hell. Whether a Muslim goes to heaven or hell is known only by God and will not be announced until the judgment. As a result, Muslims have no assurance of acceptance by God. Islam teaches that man is weak and prone to sin. Doing good works can compensate, but they have no understanding of a need for a sacrifice for sins.

Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet, but teach that Jesus did not die on the cross. To believe that God would allow one of His prophets, especially one of high honor, to be crucified would be disrespectful.

As Omar and I walked through the Hagia Sophia and the church of St. Savior in Chora, we saw vestiges of Christian art and symbolism. The first church on the site of the Hagia Sophia was built in the fourth century. The first two constructions no longer remain, but the church in its present form was constructed in the sixth century. Decorated with beautiful mosaics and marble, it remained a functioning church until 1453 when it was converted into a mosque. It was eventually turned into a museum in 1934. St. Savior’s church was converted into a mosque in the 16th century, and the Christian mosaics were covered with plaster, but then uncovered again in the 19th century. It was turned into a museum in 1947.

Tragically, in this city that was once the epicenter of Christianity, millions honor Jesus as a prophet but do not bow to Him as the Savior.


Christianity

The last city where Omar and I travel is Jerusalem. This city is significant to three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and all three honor Abraham as a spiritual patriarch. We arrive at the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites, late Friday afternoon, shortly before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. After praying awhile, I glance around at men, both old and young, and the books and scrolls they hold. I remember that the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans that the Jews “have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:2, NIV). And, in the same epistle, he said, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).

Many pray intensely; some bow repeatedly; others press against the wall. If anyone could be saved by human effort and obedience to the law, these devout Jews would qualify. Yet if these people, so distinguished by their concern for moral virtue, cannot rely on good works, then no one can. If they need Jesus for salvation, then everyone does.

The first Christians proclaimed the gospel to people who were aligned with a wide variety of religious beliefs. Jesus’ first disciples and the first Christians were Jews, but the Jewish believers did not compromise the truth with Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Herodians or Essenes. Neither did Gentile Christians in Antioch accommodate polytheism, mystery cults or gnosticism. 

Today, as in the first century, Christ’s messengers must proclaim the truth of the gospel uncompromisingly in a pluralistic world.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam all recognize that a person’s actions have consequences. Hindus and Buddhists believe their actions determine the form of their existence in future lives. Muslims believe that their good and bad deeds will be weighed against each other at a final judgment, and heaven or hell awaits as a result. None of these religions provides for forgiveness of sin.

Many in Christian missions use numbers and percentages in an attempt to classify particular people groups and nations as “unreached.” But much of Eurasia’s teeming masses can be more accurately described as “untouched.”

While anyone who does not know Christ personally is lost, hundreds of millions in Eurasia are essentially hopelessly lost because they have no access to the saving message of Jesus. This knowledge burdens and compels those who are called by the Lord to proclaim His salvation in the region’s “hard places.”

Standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem at sunset, I contemplate how God revealed himself to this world, first through a people and then through a Savior. Every person on earth needs to know what happened more than 2,000 years ago on a hill outside this city. On a cross, suspended between heaven and earth, Jesus died to redeem all mankind.

So many Christians come to the Holy Land to “walk where Jesus walked.” I believe it matters much more to Jesus that we walk how He walked. He told His disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 10:21). We are sent to proclaim the good news of His salvation as His first followers did — with simplicity and boldness. The way to reach the lost is not by refuting their beliefs but by clearly proclaiming Jesus in His love and the power of the Spirit.

Sadly, in the very land where Jesus lived, died and rose again, masses of people don’t know Him. Christians tour the ancient sites of the seven churches in Revelation in nearby Turkey, where in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicea early Christendom affirmed Jesus’ divinity and equality with the Father. Yet, today, barely one in 20,000 people have received Christ’s salvation.

Almost 3 billion Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims — most living in Eurasia — seek truth, peace and enlightenment. But only Jesus can fill the emptiness in their hearts. Through Him the Hindu, who has no concept of forgiveness, can find the peace of sins forgiven. The Buddhist can see the desire that leads to suffering change to spiritual thirst that Jesus can satisfy. And the Muslim who lives in dread of the final judgment can experience the blessed assurance of sins forgiven the Puritans called “heaven on earth.”

Men and women, called by our Lord, are laboring diligently to reach Eurasia with the message of Jesus Christ. They, like the missionary-apostle Paul, are compelled to preach Christ in the “regions beyond,” rather than “where Christ has already been named” (2 Corinthians 10:16; Romans 15:20, RSV).

The majority of Eurasia has yet to receive an adequate witness of Christ. Millions have never even heard His name. In spiritual darkness they wait to hear the message of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection one time, even as so many others hear it again and again.


RANDY HURST is communications director for AG World Missions.

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