Even though I have been travelling to the Middle East since the 1970s and have watched many changes taking place, I am astonished at the pace of change in the last few years. I have been in the Gulf States and Egypt the past couple of weeks and have come back with the assurance that the prayers of countless intercessors are being answered to a degree that I could not have imagined.
In Dubai I was with the YWAM family who are scattered around the Gulf area. They are Chinese, Egyptians, Iraqis, Filipinos, Indians, Afghans, Brazilians, Germans, Danes, Brits, Americans, and so on. I was so encouraged by the unity of believers in this part of the world, which is the heart of Islam, and by the number of traditional Christians who have become genuine followers of Jesus, as well as those who have been called from all over the world to minister in the Middle East.
I was particularly surprised to meet Afghan workers. They were a couple who came to Christ as a result of the living witness of a Korean family in Kabul. Before they were married, the young man followed Jesus but his fiancée hadn’t decided to do so at the time. Their lives were soon under threat by the Taliban who gave notice that they were going to bomb their home. Three times they had to leave their house at short notice, moving to a new location and leaving everything behind. Finally this dear young woman, mother of three little girls, thought she would put God to the test, so she prayed for protection as a Muslim and saw no change. Then she prayed for protection in the name of Jesus. In a dream that night she saw her house surrounded by huge angels and knew that she was safe. In the long run they felt that they should go to another country. So miraculous provision and visas opened to them in the Gulf area and they are now discipling many others from Afghan, Persian and Tajik backgrounds. One of the other leaders there says he has rarely seen anyone as fruitful as this young couple. Again, this far exceeded my expectations. When I was first in Kabul in 1970, the only known believers were a handful of blind people. (The government did not object to a Christian helping the blind because they were social outcasts.)
One of the most memorable moments in this trip was when an Egyptian leader said, “We have been praying for revival and God sent us ISIS.” That may sound quite strange to many, but the rise of extreme Islam and the revelation of its cruelty and inhumanity has been a major reason for disillusionment and a hunger for change. No one can accurately estimate the number of people who have turned to Christ in the last few years. Some people would say millions; others would say no, it’s more like hundreds of thousands. But any figure needs to be seen in context—there were almost no Muslims deciding to follow Jesus until about twenty years ago.
I could tell you many exciting stories like the South American who is a football coach in one of the least reached nations where visas are very hard to get, but the government has welcomed him with open arms. There were so many encouragements during my days there! Amongst them was the fact that many of the workers are under the age of 30 and are putting roots down for the long term. Several of them have just finished two years of language school. I was impressed with their commitment but also with the bubbling life that was evidenced amongst them.
I had a little more than a day at home before I left again, this time for Egypt. I have been to the Western Desert many times and I am always uplifted by the experience because, for more than 17 centuries it has been one of the world’s great spiritual centres. Monks from the Western Desert took the gospel to Ireland. Then, in the dark ages, monks in Ireland and Egypt kept the light of the gospel alive.
There were understandable security implications for people from so many nations gathering there, even though great efforts were made to keep the numbers down. When it was first planned, we learned that the Chinese wanted to bring 4000 and the Egyptians figured as many as 12,000 would come if the gathering were open. When the security implications were considered, we made the event available by invitation only. As a result, we were only about 1,000. (But we believe more open events lie ahead.) Around 3-400 of the thousand were Chinese, then about 300 Egyptians with the remainder coming from around 30 other nations. The theme was the Isaiah 19 highway:
23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 24 In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing[b] on the earth. 25 The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”
As usual with these events, it is very hard to describe the significance of it. I will do my best to explain that below. What anyone would have experienced is an almost unique sense of family love between believers from so many different nations. That led to a clear sense of spiritual authority for proclaiming that the Egypt to Assyria highway is open!
I will try to explain a little more clearly:
It is rare for followers of Jesus to gather from so many nations with only one purpose—to worship God together and then believe and obey anything he says. When we do that, it seems that His priority is to prepare the Church, the Bride of Christ. He does that by leading us to tear down the walls that divide us. Nationality, race, language, culture and religious traditions all serve to separate us; but all those become insignificant when we focus on Him. A powerful sense of love pervades and the usual gulfs between us disappear. In that atmosphere, we are able to talk about sensitive subjects, such as Jews and the land of Israel, different views of the second coming of Jesus and different perspectives on current politics and events. But the love and unity prevail even when we have different opinions on these important subjects.
We must all be familiar with what Jesus said to his disciples, “This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other.” I have always understood that to apply to us as individuals and I am sure it does. But recently I realized it could equally apply to nations or races or any groups that are traditionally divided against one another. When Koreans, Chinese and Japanese believers love one another, it is a powerful demonstration that the good news about Jesus is supernatural and a powerful force for good. The same would be true between Germans and French and British, or Israelis and Arabs. I am convinced that such love has spiritual power.
A lot has been said about spiritual warfare and the Ephesians passage is well known:
“The warfare we’re engaged in, you see, isn’t against flesh and blood. It’s against the leaders, against the authorities, against the powers that rule the world in this dark age, against the wicked spiritual elements in the heavenly places.”
Over the years, we have sought to wage this warfare in different ways. Sometimes it seemed as if our efforts were futile and missing the mark. However, when we gather as we did in Egypt (and have done in many other nations over the past five years) we know, beyond doubt that territory is being taken for the Kingdom of God and the “powers that rule this world” are on the run.
A major factor in this spiritual power is the Chinese. That part of the Church has been refined through suffering and they have a level of commitment and zeal that is too rare. In addition, it just seems that God has decided to give them a gift for praying for the birth of new things in the Kingdom. It is as if they are spiritual midwives. In these gatherings, they worship will all their hearts and then pray and travail in the Spirit with all their hearts and new ministries or relationships or other breakthroughs occur. Their spiritual leadership is indispensable and they have made covenant commitments to stand with both Arabs and Jews for the sake of the Kingdom.
One final important point on this subject: One of our good friends from Israel said, “The destiny of a nation is to be seen it its redeemed minority”, and Paul wrote that all things will be brought together in Christ. That cosmic destiny is demonstrated when we worship together and love one another across the usual divides. When people from different nations, races, social and educational backgrounds find genuine love and unity in Jesus, the King, it gives us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come.
This has already been long, but I have to mention one more bit of encouragement. I was visiting a friend whom I have known for about 30 years and, to my amazement, I discovered that he had a friendship with the man who has been announced as the next King of Saudi Arabia. This Crown Prince has been in the news recently because he paid a world record for a painting—over $450 million for a Da Vinci depiction of Jesus. That in itself is amazing! Muslims do not approve of any pictures of people or animals. Why would he risk the wrath of fellow Muslims? More importantly, though, was the news I read last month. Crown Prince Salmon was reported as saying that Saudi Arabia was no longer following strict fundamentalism. He said they were breaking with their Wahhabi version of Islam and embracing what we would call moderate Islam. So I asked my friend, “Do you know him well enough to know if this is a sincere change?” He said, “Yes, I have a warm and growing friendship with him and he means it.”
Yes, these are seismic shifts. What will the next few years bring? I know better than to try to make a prediction, but I am certainly eager to see it unfold!