Archives For Martyrdom

One of the things I read most days as a companion to my Bible reading is the Christian history highlights for the day. Key events and people in the history of the Christian church are emphasized along with the year that key event happened.

On this day, November 30, in 1554, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, and who had recently been crowned Queen of England, restores the country to Roman Catholicism. Mary Tudor was known as “Bloody Mary” because she burned at the stake 300 Protestants, followers of the gospel of Jesus Christ espoused by Luther and Calvin and others. Some of those included in the Reformation’s cloud of witnesses are Thomas Cranmer, High Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. In addition to these martyrs, under Bloody Mary’s reign, 400 died due to imprisonment and starvation.

From our vantage point, when we think of the Reformation we often focus on the rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, the five solas – sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fidei (by faith alone), solus Christus (through Christ alone), sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone), the priesthood of the believer, among other vital truths. One aspect we often neglect or overlook is the cost of proclaiming the gospel and professing justification by faith alone. Many gave their lives for these truths.

As I prepared for our upcoming Theology Conference on “Reformation 500: Theology and Legacy – Reformation, Protestantism, Evangelicalism and the EFCA,” I pondered this cost and considered having a lecture focusing on it. In many places around the world, many brothers and sisters in the Lord are professing faith in Christ alone at the cost of their lives. These contemporary expressions of faith, the ultimate sacrifice given of one’s life have connections back to the Reformation, and the Reformation’s legacy continues forward to today in the martyrdom of faithful witnesses.

Although this will not be one of our lectures at our upcoming Conference, had our scheduled allowed another lecture this is one I would have planned.

Reformation, the Global Church and Martyrdom

In 1521 Luther was called to the Diet of Worms to recant his teachings contained in his writings. He did not. This resulted in an Edict against Luther claiming he was a heretic. He escaped and remained in seclusion at the Wartburg castle. In Luther’s case, this did not ultimately lead to his death.

This cannot be said for the numbers of others subsequent to Luther who affirmed and embraced the teaching of the gospel, who refused to recant, renounce or deny the teaching, and were martyred for it. What do we learn from this? The Reformation marked the divide in the Western Church into the Roman Catholic and Protestant, or more accurately, Evangelical. It was among these groups martyrdoms were happening.

Today is a different day, such that there certainly remain the internecine debates, even among Evangelicals, but that does not rise to this level. Is there something to learn from the unshakable faith of the Reformers and post-Reformers that they were willing to die for the gospel of Jesus Christ? There certainly is. Although we face a different cultural context than the Reformation, the contemporary application would be to what is happening among some believers in Islamic countries who are giving their lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ and who refuse to renounce their faith in Christ. This, then, also connects the Reformation and us to the global church.

Although significantly different than the experience of many in the global church, this also reflects a cost of confessing and professing faith in Christ alone and his claims on our lives in our own contemporary Western culture. We are tempted to remain silent to avoid the backlash, scorn and ridicule, and in some cases litigation, from those espousing the new cultural and moral narrative, that of tolerance and the autonomous self. We want to avoid the judgement and condemnation of being a “cultural heretic.” But we do so at the cost of not contending and defending “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), with the result being we are “ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation (Mk. 8:38; cf. Lk. 9:26).

What do we learn from the Reformers and post-Reformers about the cost of confessing Christ? For what would we give our lives today?

We are excited for this excellent Theology Conference. Not only are we addressing the Reformation, a timely and important theme in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses, but we have some of the foremost scholars addressing the various themes/topics of the Conference.

You can read more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here. Please register here. Plan to attend with other staff, elders or leaders in the church.

Although the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians occurred a couple of weeks ago, I continue to ponder what this means to these Christians immediately affected, and also to us, albeit more indirectly. We affirm with Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Furthermore, we can affirm with the writer of Hebrews that “In your [our] struggle against sin you [we] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4), but we also affirm that some have and some will.

Related to the death of these Coptic Christians is the perpetrators of this death. One ponders the rise and spread of ISIS and the implications of their brutal and gruesome and heartless atrocities committed against fellow human beings, those created in the image of God.

Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt and vice chair of the Lausanne Movement, responded to the martyrdom of these Christians with a biblical reference: The World Was Not Worthy of Them. The full context of this expression is important to read (emphasis mine): “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:37-38).

In the immediate wake of this news, Atallah arrived at the Bible Society office distraught and discouraged about what had occurred. He was a bit taken aback when a young coworker stated she was “very encouraged” by what happened. In her words,

I am encouraged, because now I know that what we’ve been taught in history books about Egyptian Christians being martyred for their faith isn’t just history but that there are Christians today who are brave enough to face death rather than deny their Lord! When I saw those young men praying as they were being prepared for execution, and then many of them shouting “O Lord Jesus” as their throats were being slit, I realized the gospel can still help us to hold onto the promises of God even when facing death.

If the earlier Hebrews texts applies to what they experienced from others, this text from Hebrews explains how they responded the way they did, and it provides a way to pray for them, and us.

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (Heb. 10:32-39).

Atallah lists these prayer requests:

  • Pray for comfort for the families of the victims.
  • Pray for effective mass distribution of a Scripture tract we’ve just produced, that God’s Word will comfort and challenge the many who will receive it.
  • As I write, there is news of more Egyptians being kidnapped in Libya. Lord, have mercy!
  • Please pray for Egypt as we pass through this painful period.

From a fellow Christian removed physically but engaged spiritually, Tom Schreiner provides a biblical and pastoral response from one here in the United States: “A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS Execution of 21 Christians

  • We Are Not Surprised (Jn. 15:18-20; 16:2; Lk. 14:26)
  • We Are More Than Conquerers (Rev. 2:10; Matt. 5:10-12; Acts 4:41; Isa. 43:2; 2 Cor. 9:8; Rom. 8:37; Rev. 12:11; 20:4)
  • We Grieve with Those Who Grieve (Phil. 1:21; Rom. 12:15; Phil. 2:27)
  • We Pray for Both Our Enemies and Our Suffering Brothers and Sisters
  • We Plead for God’s Just Judgment (Rev. 6:9-11; 22:20).

Finally, I include a powerful response/statement by Ramez Atallah, mentioned above, who seeks to live faithfully in the midst of this martyrdom of fellow Christians. He recognizes God is sovereign, and this terrible slaughter provides a unique providential opportunity, although divine but not one humanly chosen, for the spread of the gospel.

Shortly after the martyrdom of the 21 Christians, Atallah and his partners in the gospel at the Bible Society of Egypt wrote and printed a Scripture tract. This brief yet incredibly amazing story is captured in the article How Libya’s Martyrs Are Witnessing to Egypt The article begins,

Undaunted by the slaughter of 21 Christians in Libya, the director of the Bible Society of Egypt saw a golden gospel opportunity.

“We must have a Scripture tract ready to distribute to the nation as soon as possible,” Ramez Atallah told his staff the evening an ISIS-linked group released its gruesome propaganda video. Less than 36 hours later, Two Rows by the Sea was sent to the printer.

One week later, 1.65 million copies have been distributed in the Bible Society’s largest campaign ever.

The tract is entitled Two Rows By The Sea, the content I have included below. Click on the link to see and read the tract, which adds powerfully to the words.

I thank the Lord for the faithful witness of these dear brothers and sisters. Even if one is in chains, the gospel is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9), so may these tracts bear gospel fruit (Jn. 15)!

Two Rows By the Sea

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.

A Question . . .
Who fears the other?

The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Which Row Pleases God?
Matthew 10:28, 32, 33

Which Row Understands?
1 Peter 4:12-14; John 16:2-4

Which Row Sees?
Acts 7:54-60

Which Row Will Prevail?
Romans 8:35-39