MODERN CHRISTIAN: You know, martyrdom is getting really intense in the world.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: What do you mean?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Do you see the news about the recent martyrdoms of Christians like Father Samaan Shehata of Egypt in October 2017 and the Egyptian and the Ethiopian Martyrs of Libya back in early 2015.
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ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You think this is something new?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: No, but it is increasing as of recently.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: No, it is not.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Are you not aware of the news?
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am, but you are relying on the news, the news which is publicized. Seek out other information, and there is available, and you will find that the reality is that there has never been a generation without Christian martyrs. Martyrs are the sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church that there are true believers, and they are also the sign of a world that has detached itself from God. They bear witness to God’s work in their lives to transform them to the point that they do not even fear death because they worship the God who is Himself Life and who conquered death by His Resurrection. They bear witness against the world that a world without God is a world that goes out of its way to kill and bring death. Indeed, the word martyr comes from a Greek word meaning “witness.”
You know, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has an article collecting research that points out that there have been more than 70,000,000 martyrs throughout the course of Christian history.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: What?! Are you serious?!
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am dead serious. Just in the last century alone from the years 1914-1922 in a narrow region of the world in the Middle East, 1,500,000 Armenians were killed because they were Christians, 750,000 Pontic Greeks because they were Christians, and more than 250,000 Assyrians because they were Christians. That’s 2,500,000 million Christians in an 8 year period in only a small region of the world. That averages about 312,500 Christian shedding their blood for Christ a year in that time period and region alone. Last year, in 2016, according to a report in your news, more than 90,000 Christians died because of their faith, as martyrs. The year before had 105,000 martyrs. Martyrdom is not getting really intense in the world, but it has been intense since the very beginning of Christianity.
Do you ever mention the martyrs in your modern, Protestant, Christian churches?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Sure. We talk about the martyrs and how they lived for Christ.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Their life stories must edify you then.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Uh, sure.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Who have you spoken about in your churches?
MODERN CHRISTIAN William Tyndale, Jan Hus, um….
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Yes, who else?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: I don’t know anyone else.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You only know two martyrs?!
MODERN CHRISTIAN Well, by name.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So you only know two. You don’t know any others. How is that so? Do you go to church regularly?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Yes, every Sunday, and actually Wednesdays too.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So, your churches only see martyrs in the abstract, and do not actually look at their lives in specific.
MODERN CHRISTIAN I guess not….
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: That is a great loss for your churches. Not knowing the martyrs and their lives results in a spiritual famine for Christian churches. In the early Church we always kept their memory in front of us.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: How can you say that? We have the Bible.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Yes, you do. But without a real, living, breathing Temple of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit, which these martyrs are, you have lost a large part of what it means to be a body of believers, the body of Christ. There are several reasons for that.
The martyrs are the strongest witnesses to the Truth, to the Love of Christ which surpasses all human understanding, they help us see our Lord Jesus by recapitulating His death in their bodies and as such become an image of his death, and thus their resurrection will be glorious. In the Book of Revelation, John says that he “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9). This means the martyrs are so close to our Lord because He is the Lamb that was slain for us on the altar, and there they are right under it.
Why are they so close to Him? It is because our Lord Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13), and two verses later, our Lord called His disciples [and by extension us] His friends. He exemplified this love, and He died for us, so those martyrs who die for Him demonstrate that greatest love He spoke about.
The word for that type of love in the original Greek language of the New Testament is agape. This is unconditional love, the type of love that causes a person to sacrifice himself for another.
Something curious happens toward the end of the Gospel of John related to this type of love.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: What’s that?
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Our Lord has a conversation with the Apostle Peter, and asks Peter if he loves Him. Our Lord uses the word agape in His question the first time, but Peter answers with a different Greek word also translated as love, which is philia. This love is conditional, it is like friendship, but one that is based on something someone has done for you like helped you out in a tough situation or defended you when others attacked you. Yet our Lord had clearly taught the Apostles to value agape and not only philia which is less than agape. So our Lord asked him the same question again, and Peter answered the same way again indicating he was not able to offer agape to our Lord, no doubt the painful memory of his denial of Christ the night before His Crucifixion still fresh in his mind.
Then, our Lord asks him the third time,“Do you love Me?” but changes the word to philia, in a way asking Peter if he even loved Him with the lesser type of love, philia. And the Gospel says, “Peter was grieved” because our Lord used philia (again this is clear in the original Greek but not in the English). And he told our Lord, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You” (John 21:17) still answering with philia indicating he does not have the ability to offer more for the time being.
And our Lord responds to Peter curiously, which only makes sense if you have John 15 in mind when he defined agape for them. He explains to Peter how he will die using the same language John used to describe our Lord’s death on the Cross. The reason He brings this up with Peter is that He is telling Peter that someday he will get to the point of that greatest love of agape and even offer his life for Christ in the same way that our Lord offered His. That is a martyr. This gives us hope because Peter did not believe it was possible to continue following our Lord after He had denied Him, but our Lord showed Him another way because right after this our Lord tells Peter the same thing He told him when he became His disciple, “Follow Me” (John 21:19) meaning Peter now has a fresh start; His sins have been forgiven.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: I never thought of it that way before. That gives me hope in following Jesus.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: That is one martyr. If you surround yourself with the stories of other martyrs, your faith strengthens just as it did now when you grasped the meaning of our Lord’s conversation with Peter in John 21.
You see, in the early church, there was a writer who wrote, “The Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church,” because he noticed that wherever the martyrs were, the faith spread and did not diminish (against all human understanding). In addition, the faith was solidified in those places.
The places where the martyrs die, which are spiritually barren places, true deserts, a seed is planted and watered, and the barren field transforms and becomes a green forest full of all sorts of flowers, fruits, and fragrances, which are the true believers that follow Christ after the martyrs, whose faith is based on the witness of the martyrs who died in those places.
The blood of the first martyr, Stephen, scattered the seeds of faith all over the world with those believers who fled Jerusalem after he shed his blood for Christ.
The blood of the Apostles Peter and Paul laid the seeds and watered the others that made Italy Christian.
The blood of the Apostle Mark and the blood of the Patriarch Peter of Alexandria watered the seed of faith which converted Egypt to Christianity.
The blood of Hripsime and her companions watered the seed of faith which converted Armenia to Christianity.
The blood of the countless thousands of martyrs who died in the Roman Empire watered the seed of faith which converted the Roman Empire to Christianity.
The blood of Theodore and John watered the seed of faith which converted ancient Russia to Christianity.
The blood of the millions of Russian martyrs who died under the Soviets watered the seed of faith which converted the Soviets to Christianity.
The blood of the countless others which time would fail me to mention by name who died under those who detached themselves from God watered the seeds of faith which converted those who have become Christians.
Those who killed the martyrs conquered the bodies of the martyrs, but the martyrs often conquered the souls of those who killed them. So even though they died to the world, they brought the True Life to those who killed them, and some saw the Light of this Christian Life, and accepted it, and it transformed them, but others rejected that light, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).
May we be worthy when we enter the Kingdom of Heaven, that we behold those Martyrs who bore witness to and reflected the image of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ and who will reflect His Resurrection more gloriously than all other believers, and in the words of the Apostle and Martyr Paul, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Those witnesses will help show us how to live because they lived the life of Christ in their bodies which they offered up to Him as a sacrifice, and the result will be that we will be encouraged and strengthened in our journey following Christ, and we will not lose heart, and we will bring the Glory to Him, which is due unto Him forever. Amen.
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