I’ve been thinking about last week’s post on three ways suffering makes us like Christ and remembered an illustration that I told in an earlier book. As servants of Christ suffer for His name, and for the sake of His righteousness, the message of the cross continues to be proclaimed. This was also true in Philippi, where God used Paul’s imprisonment to bring about “the greater progress of the gospel” (Phil. 1:12), which specifically resulted in the message of Christ being made known to “the whole praetorian guard” (1:13). A more recent illustration is told by Alex Leonovich, Executive Secretary of Slavic Missionary Service.
After emigrating from Russia to the United States with his parents and younger brother in 1929, Alex received missionary training at Nyack College in New York. As a result, his heart became burdened to reach the Soviet Union with the gospel, which resulted in his direction of the Russian Gospel Broadcasts from HCJB in Quito, Ecuador. Later, the demise of the Soviet Union allowed him to revisit his homeland. After decades of faithful broadcasting, and unaware of who had been listening across the ocean, Alex arrived to be greeted by standing-room-only crowds of believers whose faith had been fed via his radio teaching. On one of his return visits, at the time of a historic prayer meeting in the Lubyanka (KGB headquarters), Alex met a believer named Basil Paley. Alex tells the story of their meeting: When we opened the door … who should stand there but a broad-shouldered man with disheveled hair all over his face, two missing front teeth and a look of bewilderment on his face. After looking at the whole group, he spotted me and, almost like a locomotive, came charging at me and kissed me eighteen times on my cheek, saying in a bullhorn voice, “Brother Alex, this is for every year that I spent in prison for my faith.” I looked at him in amazement. In shock, really. I had never seen him before. I knew nothing about him. I’d never met him. Then, through tears, he told me his story: “Yours was the last face that I saw; the last message that I heard before I was exiled to Siberia. In the 1960s, I was living in Ukraine where I was sought by the government for printing gospel literature on a little press I had made out of washing machine parts. I distributed 700,000 little leaflets and gospels house to house in different areas during the darkness of night so I wouldn’t be seen or heard. I had been in prison before and would have been arrested again if I had attended church, so I did my growing by listening to your radio broadcast. When I heard you were going to be in Kiev in 1965, I wanted to hear you in person so much that I decided to risk coming to hear you. As you know, every service was monitored by the KGB and everything was carefully scrutinized. Even though I was far from my home, the secret police recognized me, arrested me as I left the service and took me to prison. From there, I was exiled to Vorkuta where I spent eighteen years at hard labor. Yours was the last face I saw and yours was the last message I heard from the pulpit before I was sent to Siberia. You preached about Christ asking Peter the question, ‘Lovest thou Me?’ Every time it got so unbearably hard and difficult in prison that I felt almost forgotten not only by man but even by God, I would see your face and hear you speaking that question. It was as if Christ was asking Peter—and me—‘Lovest thou Me?’ Then I would lift my head toward heaven and say, ‘Lord, you know all things; You know that I love you.’ For a while, I couldn’t figure out why God would allow me to be punished for serving Him. Then, one morning, I saw that God had provided a new way to serve Him. Each day, we had to line up long before the sun came up. Prisoners had to be prompt, but guards did not. That meant that thousands of us stood outdoors with nothing to do. I decided to use those minutes to preach. I asked the guards for permission and they said I could if I would agree to do the filthiest job—clean the toilets.” Basil spoke with such force and animation that I grabbed his flailing arms several times as I pleaded with him to speak softer and slower so I could translate what he was saying into English. It was to no avail. He would lower his head and try to speak slower and more quietly, but within seconds, he would again be shouting like a machine gun. I soon learned why. “In the beginning, I became hoarse as I tried to be heard by all the thousands of prisoners standing in line. Then, gradually, my voice became stronger. I never knew if I would have even two minutes in which to preach, so I learned to speak at top speeds and loud volumes. Sometimes it took two weeks to complete one sermon. But I’ve been back, and there’s still a community of about 100 believers worshiping in that camp,” Basil told us, bathing us in the warmth of his enormous crooked smile.
God’s servants may be bound in locks and chains, and punished for their bold preaching, but the power of His gospel cannot be shackled. Men may be imprisoned; words cannot be.
[Excerpted from Counsel Your Flock: Fulfilling your role as a teaching shepherd.]