Heroes of the Faith
We live in an evil world filled with suffering, even for believers. On 15 February, 2015 twenty-one young Egyptian men were executed for their faith on a lonely beach in Libya. Each had been kidnapped in separate incidents in the previous months.
Clad in orange jumpsuits, these Christian men were forced to kneel. Standing behind each of them was an Islamic State terrorist dressed in black, hooded and holding a knife. Right up to their brutal beheading, the young men were courageously calling out the name of Jesus.
When the worst was over, their decapitated bodies were thrown into the sea. That same day, Islamic State released the infamous video of their execution: ‘A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross’. The tragic images are almost impossible to watch.
But little did ISIS realise, their barbaric execution totally backfired. The men’s refusal to deny Jesus under the threat of death made them heroes of the faith. They are now remembered as the “martyrs of Libya”.
Global Persecution is on the Rise
Persecution of Christians around the world is on the increase. John Allen, author of the book The Global War on Christians, says:
“The truth is two-thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live in dangerous neighbourhoods.”
In regard to those who are killed for their faith, Open Doors president David Curry said in 2014 that “current conditions suggest the worst is yet to come.”
In the months prior to making this statement, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had personally sentenced 33 church planters to death; twin bombs in a church in Pakistan killed 96 worshipping Christians, and in northern Nigeria some Islamist groups had targeted Christian villages, killing 791 men, women and children. Tragically, a great many such incidents continue to this day.
Jesus often spoke to His hearers about persecution. Warning about the world’s hatred, He said,
“In fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.”
~ John 16:2-3
Speaking about the last days, He said,
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
~ Matthew 24:9
You Will Be My Witnesses
In its ultimate form, persecution results in martyrdom. A Christian martyr is someone who willingly suffers persecution and death for witnessing to and refusing to renounce his or her faith in Jesus.
While the number of Christian martyrs causes much debate, the International Society for Human Rights currently estimates a figure of between 7,000 to 8,000 Christian martyrs each year. Open Doors, who have monitored the fifty most dangerous countries in which to be a Christian for several decades, think this figure could be about right.
This estimate does not include Christians who have died in conflict and war, such as the 900,000 who were thought to be Christians who died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first decade of the 21st century.
The word ‘martyr‘ comes from the Greek word translated in the Bible as “witness”. The risen Lord Jesus used this word when He appeared to His disciples saying,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
~ Acts 1:8
Over the centuries, many Christian have suffered cruel and torturous deaths, as detailed in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. But we can rejoice that dying as a witness for Jesus is not in vain. The Gospel most often takes root in places where the blood of martyrs has been shed. Tertullian, a theologian in the early church, said,
“We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.”
The First Christian Martyr
The Bible records in great detail the account of the first Christian martyr in Acts 6:8 to 8:3. In many ways the martyrdom of Stephen mirrored the death of Jesus, which took place about five years earlier.
When Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, the accusation against him was the same that was used against Jesus. And like Jesus, Stephen didn’t defend himself. Instead, he accused these religious leaders of failing to obey God’s laws.
Just before Stephen was stoned, he said, “Look, I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). These words echo words spoken earlier by Jesus to His accusers.
Finally, as Stephen was nearing death, he spoke words very similar to the words that Jesus spoke from the cross:
“Lord Jesus receive my spirit… do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59,60)
The martyrdom of Stephen shows how much he had become like Jesus — “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) who had “humbled himself and became obedient to death” (Philippians 2:8).
Ever since, Stephen’s life and witness has been a challenge to many Christians. The apostle Paul, who had watched and approved Stephen’s stoning, was one such person.
The only time the word “martyr” actually appears in the NIV Bible is when Paul told his hearers about Stephen saying “when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed” (Acts 22:20). Later, Paul wrote from a Roman prison cell “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
The Way of the Cross
A person who wants to be a witness for Jesus must be prepared to suffer and die as Jesus did. The way of the kingdom is the way of the cross. Satan hates God and hates human beings because they are made in His image. The devil therefore incites tyrannical regimes, rulers and religious radicals to hate the followers of Jesus who refuse to accept the rule of man or false gods as their supreme authority.
Father God, thank You that Yours is an everlasting Kingdom and that our lives are safe in Your hands. Thank You too that Jesus is building His church and “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). We glory that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church for the spread of the Gospel. Even though Satan is a murderer who is always looking for someone to devour, help us to be faithful witnesses for Jesus who will not love our lives so much as to shrink from death. Show us how to pray for and help our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering for their faith. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Painting: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1824-1904)