Christian martyrdom is in the news. Over the past several months, with increasing frequency, we have seen reports about the murder, or martyrdom, of believers in Jesus, executed for no other reason than that they believed in the crucified and risen Jesus as their God and Savior.
Some of the Greek words from which we get our English word martyr include the verb martureo, meaning I witness, and the Greek nouns martus, which describes a person who gives witness, and marturia, the word that means, roughly, the witness’ testimony.
None of these words carries any association with persecution or death. The Greek words, in themselves, are completely neutral. In the Greek, a martyr was simply someone who told you about something that had happened.
But a martyr, as we use the term in English, is someone who loses his or her life for their faith.
The reason for the transformation of this benign set of terms--words meaning witness, testimony, and so on--is simple: To be a witness for Jesus Christ--to be a faithful disciple who tells others about Christ, to be a faithful Christian church that proclaims Jesus Christ to be “the way and the truth and the life” and the only way to God--such faithful witnessing will often incur the opposition, even the death sentence, of a sinful, fallen, dying world.
Many witnesses for Christ lose their earthly lives because they confess Jesus as God in the flesh Who forgives the sins of the repentant and gives everlasting life with God to those who surrender their lives and wills to Jesus Christ.
Penn State historian Philip Jenkins has demonstrated, over the past several years, that Christianity is the fastest growing movement of any kind in the world.* That’s encouraging.
But at the same time that this trend of growth has been evidenced, the murder of Christians, the burning of churches, and the depth of hostility toward Christian faith has also been increasing.
This is nothing new. The Church has always experienced its greatest growth in faith and growth in numbers at precisely the moments it has had the greatest number of martyrs.
Last week, our lesson from the book of Acts told us about how disciples like Philip witnessed for Christ in countries foreign to Judea where He, Jesus, and Jesus’ first followers had grown up. Philip witnessed in foreign nations because persecution in Judea and its capital city of Jerusalem had forced Christians like him to flee to other places.
Persecution and martyrdom are always tragedies, but it should never surprise us as Christians when these things happen. In about 60 AD, the apostle Peter told Christians facing persecution in Asia Minor--what is today Turkey--in 1 Peter 4:12-13: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
The Church is composed of disciples, followers of Jesus Christ.
Followers of Jesus Christ are witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And being a witness for Christ is a rock-bottom, non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells His Church: “...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “If you feel like it, you can be My witnesses.”
He doesn’t say, “If you think you have the gift of evangelism or if you’re confident in your knowledge of the Bible, you can say a good word for Me.”
He doesn’t say, “If it doesn’t entail the risk of being thought weird for standing up for My Lordship or by God’s commandments, you can be My witnesses.”
Jesus says, “You will be My witnesses.” That's a command.
The only question for Christians is whether we will be witnesses for Jesus even when the world hates us for it or will we remain silent and so be silently complicit in the eternal deaths of those who need to hear our witness for Christ?
Fortunately, we don’t have to operate in our own power as Christ’s witnesses. In that same verse, Acts 1:8, Jesus promises Christians: “...you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
When the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ followers fifty days after His resurrection, ten days after He had ascended to heaven, on Pentecost, the Church was born and it was empowered by God to be Jesus’ witnesses.
Folks, the Holy Spirit hasn’t gone out of business.
And, if in His power, we dare to witness for Jesus, we will fulfill the one and only mission Jesus has given us as His people: We will make disciples.
Of course, in order to tap into the Holy Spirit’s power and to be witnesses for Christ, God allows us to cheat. In fact He commands it. He commands us to pray.
Philippians 4:6 tells us: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
One of the most lamentable aspects of contemporary Christian life in North America is that we spend so much precious time on having anxious thoughts and engaging in anxious conversation over the state of the world and how nobody in the world is interested in Christ.
Time spent bellyaching is time that could be better spent obeying the command of God’s word by praying to God for the power to fulfill our mission as Christ’s witnesses and then, by the power of the Spirit, actually being Christ’s witnesses. (I'm trying to remember this each day myself.)
We see the power of prayer to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit in our first lesson for this morning, Acts 10:34-48.
These verses tell a portion of the story of the coming together of the apostle Peter and his fellow Christians with the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household.
If you’ve been watching the NBC miniseries, AD, you know that they’ve decided to name Pilate’s second-in-command Cornelius and I suspect that they’re going to make that fictional Cornelius and the Cornelius of our lesson one and the same. That’s a little dramatic license and, I suppose, is harmless.
But what we know of the real Cornelius, as told to us by the Bible, is that he commanded a cohort of Roman soldiers--a cohort being about 480 men--who occupied the city of Caesarea, part of the Roman army which kept the Holy Land under Rome’s conquering thumb. Caesarea, founded by Herod the Great, was a kind of bailiwick of evil and idolatry. (Think Las Vegas without any of its virtues.)
Yet in this city with so much evil, a foreigner who had been taught to worship many gods, had come to believe in the God of the Jews. Cornelius, like the Ethiopian eunuch of last week’s lesson, was a God-fearer, a Gentile who believed that the God of the universe was the one and only God of all creation.
Listen: Faith in God can grow even in the most hostile and unlikely of environments.
God can work the miracle of faith in willing hearts, wherever those hearts may be, from Paris to Springboro, from Riyadh to Centerville.
But God had decided that Cornelius should come to know Him, as can only happen through Jesus Christ. God wanted Cornelius to hear a witness for the Lordship of Jesus and so have the chance to believe in Jesus and receive eternal salvation.
So, as Cornelius prayed, God told him to send for a man who turned out to be the apostle Peter so that Cornelius and his family could repent and believe in Jesus and so have eternal life. At the same time, Peter prayed and God told him to do something no Jew would ever have thought of doing. He was to enter the home of a Gentile. Then he was to give witness for Jesus Christ.
When Peter did give witness for Jesus Cornelius and his family came to saving faith in Christ, they were converted.
But another conversion took place at that moment, the conversion of Peter from a man who thought that Jesus belonged only to the Jews. Look at our first lesson, starting at Acts 10:34: “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’”
And when the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles and empowered them to share their newly minted faith in Christ in languages other than their own, we’re told starting in verse 46: “Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
- To be the Church is to be Christ’s witnesses.
- To be Christ’s witnesses entails risk. There is no choice for us as the Church or as individual disciples of Christ: If we claim the salvation from sin and death that God freely offers to all who repent and believe in Christ, we will be His witnesses. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we sign on also to be His witnesses.
- But God doesn’t expect us to be Christ’s witnesses in our own power. He gives us the Holy Spirit and He gives us the words we need to tell others about Jesus.
- And God lets His Church cheat: He lets us pray and tap into the Spirit’s power again and again.
Some people in today’s North American churches are pessimistic and defeatist. They think that our world has sunk too far into the morass of sin and death to ever listen to our witness for Christ.
At a time when Israel’s great leader Moses had fallen into such thinking, God asked Moses: “Is the Lord’s arm too short?,” meaning, “Is there any circumstance so dark or horrible that it’s beyond My reach or beyond My capacity to transform.”
If the God we know in Jesus Christ can reach a one-time atheist like me and transform him from an enemy of God to a child of God, from one damned to hell to one saved for eternity, God can use our witness for Christ to bring His salvation to anyone.
The rabid atheist.
The indifferent humanist.
The wounded teenager.
The prodigal daughter or son.
The Roman centurion.
The Isis fighter.
Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to liberate people like these from their darkness and to usher them into the light of His love and never ending life, through faith in Him alone.
He wants all to hear our witness for Him so that, like Cornelius and his family, they may turn from the sin and death of this world and come to eternal life in Him.
Jesus says to His people, to all of us who confess Him as Lord, “You will be My witnesses.”
And He seeks the Church’s simple reply, “Yes, Lord, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, no matter what dangers or opposition may face us, it is Your witnesses that we want to be and it is Your witnesses that we will be.” Amen
*The two works in which Jenkins demonstrates this are cited in Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan. Here is a link to Philip Jenkins' Author's Page at Amazon.