The same young apostle writes…
Before I had even arrived at the first stop on my planned Southeast Asia tour, I received an e-mail from a European doctor living and working on the border of two Central Asia countries that were experiencing a great deal of violence and unrest. The words of his e-mail were guarded and carefully worded. The message read: “Dr. Ripken, I have heard about the research that you are doing from a friend I knew and worked closely with in Somalia some years ago. I believe that the Lord needs you to come to name of country and he names his border town.”
My wife had already booked and purchased my plane tickets for the entire, tightly-scheduled trip. I responded to the man’s e-mail, explaining that my itinerary included not only Vietnam and Thailand, but also Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Then I explained further: “These are the last of the countries that I have already made plans to visit this year. I am expecting to be in your region late next year, so please be patient. I will be sure to get back in touch with you and I will gladly consider your invitation at that time.”
After another stop to see the killing fields of Cambodia (where very few believers survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror), I landed in Bangkok. From there, I went up and stayed for a time among the Karen people group living in the Golden Triangle region where Thailand’s borders meet the borders of Laos. Then, I attempted to travel to what was once called Burma (now Myanmar). Several days later, I came back to Bangkok where I had another e-mail from the same doctor.
This second e-mail was more insistent, “I really think you should come now,” the man wrote.
At that point, I responded with a slightly less gracious reply: “I am sorry, but I will not come your way until next year.” At that point I set out for another country on my itinerary. Just before arriving there, however, I received a phone call informing me that all 18 pastors that I had lined up for interviews there had been arrested and were currently in jail. My primary contact in that country said, “This will not be a good time for you to visit us, unless you want to stay a lot longer than you had planned!” I certainly wanted to visit that country, but I had no interest I spending time in prison.
I wondered about the strange turn of events. Even more, I wondered if maybe it was some sort of a sign. I changed my plans immediately and returned to Bangkok. I am not sure if I was really surprised or not, but I received another e-mail from this same annoyingly persistent doctor.
This time I replied even more bluntly. Didn’t want to sound rude, but I was confident in the plans that I had made. In effect, I said to him: “Please stop asking me to visit; I am not coming to your country at this time.” A few days later, I prepared to leave Bangkok for my next destination. After leaving Bangkok and before I reached my next stop, however, I received a phone call from an in-country contact. This phone call informed me that some of the pastors who were planning to talk with me has been in an automobile accident. Several others were sick in the hospital, and ever others were under tight surveillance.
“I am sorry,” I was told, “but this is no longer a good time for you to visit. We will contact you to let you know when you might try again.”
Once again, I returned to Bangkok. Arriving there, I was startled to find yet another e-mail from the European doctor.
Again, he insisted strongly: “I really believe God wants you to come here now.”
Given the recent events and the apparent closed doors that I was facing, I was suddenly more open to his request. I broke down, swallowed my pride, and called the doctor. After introducing myself, I sheepishly admitted, “It suddenly looks like I really don’t have anything else to do for the next couple weeks. I guess I’ll be coming your way after all.”
I flew into capital city of his country, then traveled on to a smaller city. From there, I took a smaller plane which landed on a short dirt runway outside a small border town. As soon as I exited the airplane, I spotted a man who was obviously the doctor. Standing beside him were five men in traditional Muslim dress who also seemed to be waiting at the remote desert airstrip for my plane to land.
As the doctor and I exchanged greetings, I asked him, “Who are your friends?”
“You don’t know why they are?” He reacted in surprise.
“No, I didn’t even know who you were until 30 seconds ago,” I told him.
“Well, Dr. Ripken,” he said, as he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, “If you don’t know these men — and I don’t know these men — then we have a serious security problem. They told me that they had come to meet you.”
“So,” he continued rather abruptly, “I’m going to have to leave you now. Here’s my cell phone number. If everything turns out all right, call me, and I’ll come back and get you.”
Then he turned and walked away.
I was stunned, and it dawned on me that I was already praying. I felt that I was self-trained in being careful in the midst of danger, so there was no way that I was going to leave with these five men. As I dragged my bag towards the small terminal, I was already thinking about how quickly I could catch a flight out. The men followed me. They tugged on my clothes trying to get me to stop. I tried my best to ignore them. Finally, one of them said in broken English, “Sir, stop. Please stop. We are followers of Jesus.”
I immediately stopped and turned to listen to what they had to say. The quick summary of their story rang true. Against my better judgment, but sensing the hand of God on our meeting, I went with my five unnamed new “friends” to a room that they had rented in the nearby town.
When we got there, we sat down together on the floor in an unfurnished apartment. They simply looked at me and smiled. They seemed perfectly content to wait. I had no idea what was expected of me. I shared briefly about myself, though my words were more guarded than usual. I talked a little about where I had been. How I had been travelling around the world, the research that I had done, and why I wanted to talk to believers in different parts of the world. I even speculated a little on why I had ended up in this tiny corner of the world.
One of the men spoke English. He translated my words to the others. After he finished. All five of the men began to laugh.
I was confused and I wanted to know what they thought was so funny.
They shook their heads, smiled, and said to me, “You may think you know why you have come here. But we would like to tell you why you are really here.”
They briefly sketched out their own personal stories. They had each had dreams or visions that had raised spiritual questions and prompted a long search for answers. They had each miraculously found a copy of the Bible to study. After reading the entire book several times, they had each, on their own, decided to follow Jesus. They had each been rejected and disowned by their families. Eventually they had to flee their country. They made their way across the border to this small border town. Somehow they found each other and they realized that they all shared the same newfound faith in Christ.
They didn’t really know what to do next, but they instinctively started meeting in this tiny third-floor apartment. They met daily from midnight until 3:00 in the morning, hoping that no one would notice them. They read the Word of God secretly and tried to provide spiritual support and encouragement for one another.
Two months earlier, they explained, they had started praying this prayer: “Oh God, we don’t know how to do this! We grew up and were trained as Muslims. We know how to be Muslims in a Muslim environment. We even know how to be communists in a Muslim environment. But we do not know how to follow Jesus in a Muslim environment. Please, Lord, send us someone. Send us someone who knows about persecution, someone who knows what other believers are doing, someone who can encourage and teach us.”
Chills were running up and down my spine as they explained what had happened when they had been together in this same rented upper room earlier in the day: “At 1:30 this morning, we were here praying when the Holy Spirit told us to go to the airport. The Holy Spirit told us that we were to go to the first white man who got off the plane. The Holy Spirit told us that He was sending this man to answer our questions.”
“So,” they said as they smiled at me again, “that is why you are here. Now you can do what God has called you here to do. Before you start teaching us, however, we have one other question for you: Where have you been and what have you been doing for these last two months? We started to pray for someone to show up two months ago. And, only now are you here.”
I shook my head in embarrassment. I confessed, “Well… I guess I have been being disobedient! I tried my best for weeks not to come here at all. Please forgive me!”
They did. And we had a great time of teaching and learning from each other over the next few days. I listened to each of their personal testimonies of faith and asked them specific questions about the details of how and when they encountered Jesus and became His followers.
One of the five men told me, “I dreamed about a blue book. I was driven, consumed really, by the message of the dream. ‘Look for this book,’ the dream said, ‘read this Bible.’ I began a search, but I could not find a book like that anywhere in my country. Then, one day, I walked into a Quranic book shop and saw this sea of green books lining the walls. I noticed a book of a different colour on a shelf at the back of the store, so I walked back there and pulled out a thick blue volume to discover that it was a Bible. It was published in my own national language. I actually bought a Bible in the Islamic bookstore, took it home, and read it five times. That’s how I came to know Jesus.”
Another one told me, “I dreamed about finding Jesus, but I didn’t even know how or where to look. Then one day I was walking through the market when a man I had never seen before came up to me in the crowd. He said, ‘The Holy Spirit told me to give you this book.’ He handed me a Bible and disappeared into the crowd. I never saw him again. But I read the Bible he gave me three times from cover to cover, and that’s how I came to know and follow Jesus.”
Each one of the five men told me a different variation of this same story. Each one of them had come across a Bible in some unusual, miraculous way. Each one had read the Gospel story of Jesus. Each one had decided to follow Him.
After hearing their stories, I felt drawn to open the book of Acts. With an entirely different point of view, I began to read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. For the first time in my life, as I read that passage, I wondered: How in the world did an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a man of colour, and a foreigner get a copy of a scroll containing the book of Isaiah?
In New Testament days, even partial copies of Scripture were handwritten on scrolls. They were very rare and very expensive. What’s more the Jews had strict rules and restrictions about who was even allowed to touch the Holy Scriptures and where the Scriptures could be opened and read.
By all accounts, this Ethiopian official would not have been allowed to touch a copy of Scripture, or open it and read it, or possess it. Yet, Philip finds this Ethiopian man in a chariot on a desert road in Gaza pouring and puzzling over Isaiah 53. When I read the story on this night the fact that the Ethiopian official was actually going home with a copy of a portion of the Jewish Bible seems extraordinary and unlikely.
In fact, it was so extraordinary and unlikely that I blurted out a question: Where did this man get a copy of Your Word?
In reply, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart: I have been doing this for a long time. If you will take My Word out into the world, I will get it in the right hands.
What a marvellous, miraculous, and mysterious partnership this is! We have no clear understanding of what sent that official of the Ethiopian queen on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel, Something or someone did. How did that man miraculously get his hands on that part of the Word of God? And why was he on the empty stretch of desert road, at that very moment, reading that particular chapter of Isaiah? Of course, we know how Philip ended up there – the Holy Spirit sent him.
I had to admit that I did not know the answers to any of those questions.
Yet, now, after being among believers in persecution, I was pretty sure that God must have had to work a number of small miracles for that encounter between the Ethiopian man and Philip to take place. In God’s marvellous timing, this encounter happened in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. Almost two thousand years later, the fact thing had happened when I walked off of a place to meet five Muslim men who had miraculously found Jesus. I had never intended to be an answer to prayer that day, but evidently I was.
Reading from the book of Acts that evening was a completely new experience. Two thoughts stayed in my mind: this is what God did then and this is what does does now. Suddenly, my modern world didn’t look all that different than the world of the Bible.
Much, much later, after years of gathering stories, I came to understand that the tales told by these five new friends were actually pretty commonplace. Time and again, in the years since, Muslim-background believers from many different countries and cultures have told me about being directed by dreams and visions. They have told me about finding Bibles through amazing circumstances. They have mentioned reading the Bible multiple times. In the reading, they have talked about feeling drawn to Jesus. They have told me of a personal decision to follow Him. Many of those pilgrimages to faith involved a Philip who miraculously showed up at exacting the right time, in the right place, with the right words that finally pointed the seeker directly to Jesus.