Embracing the Spirit of the Martyr
From The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130
The author is not known, but we know it was written a hundred years or so after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. In this brief paragraph, we have a beautifully preserved, magnificent description of Christian living in those early days of the church. To me it strikes a radically different image from the state of much of the church in 2017. Read it carefully:
“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”
Most American Christians don’t really understand the concept of martyrdom. It is an altogether foreign, and honestly, terrifying concept to us as a people who have lived in relative ease and freedom from consequences of faith. Few western believers know that Christians are the most persecuted of all people groups. Roughly 100,000 Christians are slaughtered each year; a number that is trending steadily upward, especially with the rise in militancy of the Islamic movement. 100,000 a year – That is roughly one Christ follower beheaded, burned alive, beaten or hacked to death, or crucified EVERY SIX MINUTES.
The enemies of Christ continue their march, driven by a bloodlust for those who follow His teachings; determined to exterminate all who swear allegiance to the Cross. This is not a new development; a new wrinkle in the advance of evil in the earth. It is as it has always been. What may be more shocking to the comfortable, nominal Christian is that it is not going to stop. Those darkly driven forces are sweeping across the globe with a frantic hunger to silence the voice of Christ. What is the Christian to do?
We must embrace the spirit of martyrdom.
We have forgotten (or were never taught) that to follow Christ is to die to self, to die to the world; ultimately, to die to this life. Jesus said that to follow Him means to “deny one’s self, to take up a cross daily and follow Him.” Many are eager to follow Christ through the gates of pearl to walk on streets of gold, but few realize that the pathway to heaven is often by way of the cross.
Jesus said in Acts 1:8: “After the Holy Spirit has come you will receive the power to be my martyrs; first in Jerusalem and then Judea, and then Samaria and unto the farthest reaches of the planet.”
“Oh no,” you say, “that’s not what Jesus said. He said we would be his witnesses; not martyrs!” Except, that the word that is translated in Acts 1:8 as witness is the same word from which we get the word, martyr. Martus is translated “witness” in some instances and as “martyr” in others because they mean essentially the same thing. For the early believer, his death was his witness while for the modern believer witnessing is pretty much limited to handing someone a tract or posting a Scripture on my Facebook account.
In many nations today, faithful men and women are offering up their lives as a witness to Christ. They are sharing in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). They have understood that in order to share in His glory, we must also share in His suffering.(Romans 8:17); to inherit His Kingdom, I must also drink from His cup. When James and John wanted to share Jesus’ throne he asked them “Can you drink from the cup from which I drink.” For many, to acknowledge Christ is to invite death. In many places the cross is not a piece of jewelry, it is a mark of death. To embrace the life of Christ is to release any hold on life in this world. To be a “witness” under many flags is a sure pathway to martyrdom and to offer the life of Christ to a man in spiritual bondage often comes at the price of one’s own life; giving new meaning to the Scripture that declares, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friend.” (John 15:13)
What is most remarkable is that in the places where the suffering is the greatest, men come to Christ in unprecedented numbers. In his work called Apology, the Latin apologist Tertullian made this now-famous comment: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” Tertullian lived during one of the most violent periods of Roman persecution, but he noticed that paradoxically, the more Christians died for their faith, the more their numbers grew. The astonishing courage and love shown by the early martyrs inspired many pagan Romans to embrace Christianity.
Somehow, the suffering of some Christians spurred others to more faithful living. The apostle Paul noted that “most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” (Phil. 1:14). Through all the terrible persecutions of the early centuries the church continued to grow. It would seem that when faith is forbidden it comes to life and rather than killing it, persecution actually energizes the church.
Conversely, when dwelling in safety Christianity becomes sedentary. The resulting obesity renders us moribund, totally lacking in vigor or vitality and unwilling to stretch ourselves for anything but the next “meal.” Wherever believers languish in relative ease and free of persecution, we stagnate and our zeal wanes. We have become increasingly comfortable with the flow of the culture and often, are relatively indistinguishable in heart from the culture around us; content to co-exist with the world.
One percent fewer Americans each year claim a Christian affiliation. Most denominations and congregations report declining membership and attendance. More and more congregations are closing their doors forever. And now, the youngest generation shows the greatest disaffiliation trend, that marks a decline likely to have lasting impact. Despite the presence of huge, mega-churches with multiplied thousands in attendance, the church is clearly having little impact on American life and culture. Why?
Because we are too alive to self. The martyr does not die when a bullet pierces his heart, or when the sword is put to his neck. No! The martyr dies when he sells out to Christ. He dies to his own self, considering this life to be a passing moment en route to his ultimate home with Christ, and not worthy of clinging to. It is said of the early church fathers, “they loved not their lives unto death.” When the executioner arrives he is helpless to take the life of a martyr because that life has already been given to another. This is why Paul could cry out, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Leonard Ravenhill, in his great work, “Why Revival Tarries” declares, “The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.” Sharing in the sufferings of Christ is not really on our radar, and the thought of embracing that possibility stands at an even greater distance. Despite the explicit warnings of Jesus and the apostles to the contrary, the possibility of being confronted with death or denying our faith has not been permitted within our collective consciousness. Martyrdom has little audience in health and wealth theology.
When the executioner arrives, he is helpless to take the life of a martyr because that life has already been given to another. It is not his to take.
Without doubt, persecution will come to America. Lives will be taken and families torn apart. Christ followers will be thrown into prison, beaten, and tortured because of their allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom. Many will recant in the face of it all unwilling to endure, because they are too alive to self. The only way to survive the coming holocaust is to not survive; but rather, to die. We must die to ourselves so that when they bring the sword to take life, there is nothing there to take.
The only way to survive the coming holocaust – is to not survive.
Persecution will come in the relentless effort to stamp out the body of Christ, but it will succeed only in scattering the seed. Those who vainly seek to kill, will only watch as they see the true Bride of Christ emerge; glorious in her beauty, perfected through her suffering, and adorned for her husband. Many will gaze upon the spectacle and be drawn to Christ because of the blood of the saints, for as Tertullian proclaims, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith.”
“Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked–the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: My own will shall become yours.’... C. S. Lewis