In 1866, a Welsh missionary with the London Missionary Society named Robert Jermain Thomas departed China with the objective to provide bibles to the Korean peninsula. At this time the Chinese and Korean languages shared some characters such that educated Koreans could read Chinese bibles. According to a personal diary entry Thomas learned enough Korean to share “some of the most precious truths of the Gospel.” It would not be without risk as the Korean people, as a whole, were hostile to foreigners and bibles were given or taken at the risk of fines, imprisonment, and even decapitation. “Death to the Western Barbarians! Death to all Christians!” were slogans shouted on the streets of Pyongyang. Yet in his first visit, in the fall of 1865, Thomas found some eager to listen to the good news of the gospel and to accept Christian literature, even with the known risks. And so, Thomas was eager to return and boarded an American ship whose intentions we are today unsure of. Various reports suggest either smuggling, spying, or trading; any of the aforementioned being forbidden within this closed culture. In addition to a large supply of bibles, Thomas carried a love for the Korean people and a desire for the light of God’s love to shine upon them. Unfortunately, hostilities broke out between the American ship and the Korean coast guard resulting in the burning of the ship. As it sank, Thomas struggled to the shore as the lone survivor taking with him all the bibles he could carry. When the Korean soldiers came to him he thrust God’s Word into their hands, after which he was beaten to death.
As shocking and sobering as this event was, it bears resemblance to the coming of Christ to our world. The Apostle John, writing of the incarnation of Christ, says: “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. (John 1:9-10)” Even his own people did not receive him; in fact he was scorned, rejected, and crucified.
What is our world’s greatest need? Answers such as peace, economic justice, hunger relief, or environmental care would likely top the list of world-wide answers. None of these desires are wrong in themselves, but according to John our world’s primary need is belief in Jesus Christ. In fact he tells us the whole motivation for his gospel writing was such that we “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:32)” “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:4)”
Thomas’ efforts were not in vain. Besides many churches and memorials established to honour the man’s sacrifice in bringing God’s Word to the shores of Korea, some came to saving faith directly from his efforts. Choe Chi Hyang, a 12 year-old boy who had received a bible on the day of Thomas’ execution, was later to be discipled by Reverend Samuel Moffett and became an elder in the fledgling Pyongyang Church. Thomas’ executioner, Park Chun Won, recorded later that he knew he had killed a good man. He and his sons became Christians. The government official who oversaw the attack on the American ship, had taken the scriptures and posted them as a trophy on the wall of his house. Later in life he converted to Christianity and his house underwent a conversion of its own – becoming the first Protestant church in the region.
As we enter this year’s advent season my hope is that we long to deepen our appreciation for the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh, and allow his life giving light to shine in and through our hearts.
As we gather for Sunday worship, we want you to meet with God and be transformed by the Word. Prepare your heart by reading the passage and listening to the songs for Sunday.