Chapter Twenty Three
Preparing for Martyrdom
While most of us in the West may not live in an atmosphere where martyrdom is a present threat or reality, I believe that it is very important for all of us to remain connected to our brothers and sisters who do. Presently there are numerous countries throughout the world where persecution and martyrdom are common. I believe that there are practical steps that we can all take to connect our hearts to those who live on the front lines. Surely the Christian Church in the earth needs to strive to build stronger bonds of unity, mutual support and connectedness. And of course, we in the West, who presently “dwell securely in the coastlands,” can certainly benefit from regular reality checks.
Jesus explained the principal to us that where our treasure is, there our hearts would be also. Our “treasure” may be defined by more than just our money. Beyond our finances, our time and our energies are also equally our treasures. So if we wish to begin building heart connections with those in lands of persecution then there are some very simple things that we can do. Of course, to start, we can get to know who they are and where they are, and we can begin to regularly pray for them. If you are a leader or a pastor, then I encourage you to take a brief moment during every Church service to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. By this you will be facilitating the development of a bond between your entire congregation and the persecuted Church. This is a good reality check for those of us who live in such a state of comfort in the West.
Secondly, we can begin to develop relationships with real people who live under the threat of persecution. Letter writing, E-mails, or even visits are all very simple ways to build bonds of mutual support. If you have a young family with children, then “adopt” a family in a land of persecution. Your families can exchange letters and the children can draw pictures and make small gifts for each other etc. As a family, you can regularly pray together for your friends in Pakistan, China, Iraq or wherever they might live.
And lastly, of course, you can send money. Do not feel as though you necessarily need to send large amounts, but simply choose an amount, and set it aside each month and send it wherever you feel led to give. Even if you literally sent five dollars a month, you would be sowing a seed and building a bridge.
How do you begin to get acquainted with the persecuted Church? Firstly there are various organizations that minister directly to the persecuted Church throughout the world. Each ministry has its own special emphasis. I refer you here to three very good ministries:
Each ministry has a newsletter that provides updates about current events as well as prayer points and practical ways to support their efforts. If you have e-mail, then each organization has e-mail reports that they send out with day-to-day updates and prayer requests. Contact one of these organizations and ask them to help you in establishing a contact such as we discussed above.
Preparing For Martyrdom Is Not Optional
But martyrdom is not merely something for those in some far off lands to think about. Everyone who claims the name “Christian” should be preparing his or her heart for potential martyrdom. This is not an optional preparation for only those who live in third world countries or those who live at certain times in world history. Preparing for martyrdom has always been part of what it means to be a true Christian. Christianity is the only religion that has as its highest example, a man who was tortured and put to death publicly. As Christians, we are his followers. Yet the concept of martyrdom is essentially a foreign one to most of us in our western Christian culture. But in many parts of the world today, such as China, Pakistan, or the Middle East, those who choose to follow Jesus likewise all realize that they are saying yes to potential martyrdom. This was also the case for Christians for the first three hundred years of Church history. Persecutions and martyrdom were common, especially among those who assumed positions of leadership.
Yet during the periods of the early Church and since the communist takeover of China, when martyrdom has been commonplace, the Church has thrived. Not only does the Church grow in such an atmosphere, but it is also experiences the greatest measure of power. Miracles, prophecy, angelic encounters, visions: these are the experiences that we read about as common in such an atmosphere of heavy persecution. Not surprisingly then, the Bible likewise says that in the last-days, when persecution will have peaked on a worldwide scale, the greater Church will experience that same measure of power:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my
servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they
will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth
below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. Acts 2:17-20
The Bible makes it clear that the last-days will be a period not only marked by severe persecution and martyrdom, but also by perhaps the greatest measure of corporate anointing by the Holy Spirit for miracles and demonstrations of God’s power. God will show mighty signs and wonders not only in the heavens but also “on the earth below.” During the last-days, the Church will simultaneously shine the brightest and experience its darkest defeat.
Overcoming By Being Overcome
In the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, we see the clearest articulation of this paradox. As the Lord revealed images of the last-days to Daniel, he was totally confused and utterly devastated. Daniel actually says that after seeing these things he was sickened and remained so for days afterward. What did Daniel see? As the Lord visited Daniel with visions of the last-days, he saw the mystery and the paradox of the cross being lived out by the Church. Daniel saw the very means by which the last-days Church would literally overcome Satan and his hoards and ultimately receive their reward: the Kingdom of God:
“As I watched, this horn [Antichrist] was waging war against the saints and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom. He gave me this explanation: 'The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time. But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.' This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” Daniel 7:21-28
This very passage is reflected in the Book of Revelation:
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast--all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. He who has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints. Revelation 13:5-10
The saints at the end of this age will be “conquered.” They will fall by the edge of the sword. They will be taken as captives by the armies of the Antichrist and multitudes will be martyred. The Book of Revelation says that those who come through the tribulation will be a vast multitude “that no one could count”:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." Then one of the elders… said, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, "they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst." Revelation 7:9-16
In these verses, we see the paradigm that defines the last-days Church. It is the paradox of the cross: Like their Lord and Master, those who are defeated and overcome are the actual overcomers. While those in the army of the Antichrist will think that by defeating their detractors physically and militarily, they will be gaining the victory, they will actually be setting their own snares. Instead, in the wisdom of God, even as it was at the cross, the very ones who appear to be being humiliated, beat down and defeated are the ones who are literally crushing Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). But how do they overcome him?
They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Revelation 12:11
The overcomers will fix their eyes on Jesus, who is not only the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) but also our example. Jesus set the bar. As such martyrdom for those who have chosen to become followers of Jesus fills the pages of Christianity’s history books. Every apostle, except one, is believed by Church historians to have died the death of a martyr for preaching the Christian message.
If you’ve read the Book of Acts, then you’ve read the story of Stephen, one of the early leaders in the Church. Like the believers in the last-days, Stephen was a man who was “full of God's grace and power, (he) did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” Stephen was also martyred for his bold declaration of the gospel message. And like his Master, as Stephen died, he prayed for those who were killing him:
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:59-60
Stephen was just a regular guy. But Stephen was an overcomer. While Jesus is our ultimate example, Stephen is proof that it is possible for all of us to also be overcomers.
Andrew was the brother of Peter and one of the twelve Apostles. Andrew also died the death of a martyr. The account of his death is recorded in Church history. I have never been able to read the story of Andrews’s death without crying:
Peter’s brother, was crucified by Aegeas, a Roman governor, in the city of Sebastopolis. Andrew had brought so many to faith in Christ that the governor came to the province to compel the new Christians to sacrifice to idols and renounce their faith. Andrew challenged Aegeas to his face, told him to renounce his false gods and idols, and declared that the gods and idols of the Romans were not gods but devils and the enemies of mankind. In a rage, the proconsul ordered Andrew not to teach and preach, and warned him that if he did he would be fastened to a cross. Andrew replied, “I would not have preached the honor and glory of the cross, if I feared the death of the cross.” He was immediately condemned. As Andrew was taken to the place of his execution, he saw the cross in the distance and cried out, “O cross, most welcome and looked for! With a willing mind, joyfully and desirously, I come to thee, being the scholar of Him who did hang on thee: because I have always been thy lover, and have coveted to embrace thee.” 1
Whenever I read this, I pray that if and when my one opportunity arrives, I will likewise posses such a willing spirit. It is clear that Andrew had actually anticipated and looked forward to that moment. Andrew had not ignored the possibility of martyrdom until it was upon him; he actually had meditated on the idea. There are countless stories recorded throughout Church history of those who died glorious deaths in the grace of God. I encourage you to occasionally read such accounts and talk to the Lord about your feelings regarding martyrdom. Many such accounts are available in books like the Foxes Book of Martyrs or the more modern Jesus Freaks published by the Voice of the Martyrs.
While it is encouraging to hear stories of those who seemed to die with such spirit of courage and grace, seemingly without any fear or in some cases without any pain, I do not personally believe that every martyrdom is this way. While we like to read about valiant stories of martyrs throughout Church history, I do not personally think that every martyrdom is necessarily glorious. Reality rarely is as it is described in books. My mind flashes to the recent martyrdom of Kim Sun-il, a Korean Christian who was beheaded in Iraq after being taken captive by Muslim extremists. Few news reports mentioned that Kim Sun-il was murdered specifically because he was a Christian who was actively sharing his faith with Iraqis.
Kim Sun-il was an evangelical Christian who had always dreamed of being a missionary to Muslims. He had learned Arabic for this purpose and was in Iraq working as an interpreter. All the while he was sharing the gospel message with those he came in contact with. After Kim’s death, the group that claimed responsibility, Tawhid wa al-Jihad made this statement on their web-site:
We have killed an infidel who tried to propagate Christianity in Iraq… This infidel studied theology and was preparing to become a missionary in the Islamic world. 2
So while most people probably just assumed that Kim was merely another political beheading, to those who killed him, it was because he was speaking about Jesus to the Iraqi people.
While Kim had obviously heard the call of God on his life and had been preparing for some years, when he found himself in the hands of evil men who intended to kill him, he broke down. He wept and begged for his life. Recordings of this were played on newscasts all over the world. Three days later he was beheaded and the videotape was sent to news organizations all over the world. Those who saw the footage said that Kim did not weep or beg or fight as his captors read their message to the world and then beheaded him. Instead Kim died with a solid resolve and without any protest - courageously.
Why do I recall this horrific event? Because it is reality. While, by the grace of God, when Kim Sun-il died, he seemed to have accepted his fate and met it with faced it with a solid resolve, the reality is that just days before his death, he was weeping and pleading for his life. And the straight truth is, most of us would probably do the same thing.
In preparing our hearts for martyrdom, I think it is important that we shed our false notions that martyrdom is purely a valiant, glorious and honorable event like we read about in the pages of some Christian history books. We need to remember the very important fact that martyrdom is not intended to make the martyr look good. Martyrdom is not about the glory of Christians, but the glory of God.
I want to be very frank here for a moment. The point that I am trying to convey is that I suspect that to a degree we Christians – particularly men – might have a rather macho or idealistic image of martyrdom in our minds. I fear that many young men in the church tend to think of martyrdom as a means to essentially “look awesome.” We imagine how we would be remembered if we were to die as a martyr. It is the means by which we might achieve the status of Christian legend.
But if martyrdom is identification with the death of our Lord – the death of Jesus on the cross, then isn’t martyrdom also a shameful event? Is martyrdom limited merely to a quick death? Or does martyrdom also include immense suffering, torture and utter humiliation? Again, what was Jesus subjected to? Jesus endured not only pain but also great shame and humiliation during his trial and crucifixion. And not only shame and humiliation but an utter turmoil gripped His soul until he actually began to sweat blood. I think of the many stories that came out of Iraq after the war ended. I hear stories of people who were given the option of confessing to a crime that they never committed or watch as members of their families were raped, tortured and murdered. What if you were given the option of renouncing Jesus or seeing your children abused and slowly tortured to death? Which would you choose? I understand that this is a nightmare even to think about. Please forgive me for even going here, but this is a point that needs to be made. Martyrdom is not macho. Martyrdom is not glorious. Martyrdom is not merely enduring great amounts of pain. Martyrdom is also not merely dying gracefully. Martyrdom is utter embarrassment, shame, confusion and absolute turmoil beyond what most have ever experienced. For me personally, it does not take very long before even the mildest of difficult circumstances in my life move me to begin complaining to God and giving myself over to sinful attitudes. So how does one prepare his or her heart for martyrdom? We begin today. Martyrdom is not a one-time event. Martyrdom is identification with Jesus on the cross. And taking up our cross is supposed to be a daily exercise.
Then Jesus said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Luke 9:23
Isn’t that what we signed up for? A lifelong exercise of daily dying to ourselves, living for the glory of God and not our own? We cannot expect to walk according to our own ways today and yet expect to die for God tomorrow. Martyrdom is something that we need to begin living now.
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 3:21,22
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