What About the Martyrs?
At the end of my first article on this topic, I shared a report from missionary-evangelist, Christopher Alam. He reports that many underground church leaders in Afghanistan do not want to leave their country because they want to keep the Gospel witness alive there, even if it costs them their lives. Christopher then referenced Revelation 12:11 (NKJV): “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
Many of us who have grown up in the United States have never experienced significant persecution first-hand, and it may be hard to relate to the hostile environment in which the early church emerged, or the types of persecution that believers in many other parts of the world experience yet today. We likely spent much of our spiritual development based on Scriptures such as having life and that more abundantly (John 10:10). Because of all the freedoms and religious liberties we have enjoyed, we may not have paid much attention to verses that talk about “suffering according to the will of God” (1 Peter 4:19).
For the earliest Christians, the threat of persecution, including the possibility of death for their faith, was simply part of the fabric of their existence and consciousness. It is easy, from a modern, western perspective to speculate on how those early Christians should have “used their faith” for deliverance. I remember cringing when I heard a modern-day preacher make the statement, “If _______________ (and named a biblical martyr) had the level of faith and revelation that we have today, he would have never been martyred.” That’s a pretty easy statement to make when you’ve never lived in a hostile environment or experienced the least bit of persecution in your own life.
The Bible presents three primary approaches to threats, persecution, and martyrdom. Let’s look at each of these.
Some experienced miraculous deliverance.
These are the Bible stories we love to hear and tell! What preacher doesn’t love telling the stories of Daniel in the Lion’s Den (Daniel 6), The Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3), and Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison (Acts 12:3-17)? Understandably, these miraculous interventions delight us and cause our faith to soar.
We could go on and on about these, and it is helpful to remind ourselves of God’s track record of doing the impossible. Whether it was the Israelites being delivered from Egyptian bondage, the Jews being saved due to the intervention of Queen Esther, Jonah being delivered from the great fish, or Paul and Silas being miraculously set free from the Philippian jail, all of these can inspire and bless us.
In some cases, there was a combination of supernatural deliverance and suffering. For example, when the early church was seeing miracles and church growth, all of the apostles were arrested and thrown in the common prison. Acts 5:19-20 (NLT) states:
But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!”
That is indeed supernatural! We might assume that if God delivered them in such a supernatural way, they would experience non-stop protection from that point forward. However, we find out that they were re-apprehended, warned never to speak again in Jesus’ name, and beaten. One commentary calls the inflicting of these thirty-nine stripes a “cruel punishment” and states:
With bared chest and in a kneeling position, one was beaten with a tripled strap of calf hide across both chest and back, two on the back for each stripe across the chest. Men were known to have died from the ordeal.
That’s tough! It was a strong deterrent, designed to keep these apostles from ever wanting to preach again. Instead, “The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: ‘Jesus is the Messiah’” (Acts 5:41-42 NLT).
I think their attitude and approach was far different than what some might have in our day and age. I can imagine some today being confused, and saying, “God delivered us out of prison, so why did we end up getting beat like that? I thought God was going to protect us all the time.” I can imagine others speculating as to why they got beat and saying, “What went wrong? Was their sin in my life?” or “Did I not have enough faith not to get beat?” No, they understood that persecution was going to happen as they stood for the truth.
Not only had Jesus warned the disciples several times that they would experience persecution, but he specifically talked to Peter about how he would die, and that in his death, he would glorify God.
John 21:18-19 (TPT)
18 Peter, listen, when you were younger you made your own choices and you went where you pleased. But one day when you are old, others will tie you up and escort you where you would not choose to go—and you will spread out your arms.”
19 (Jesus said this to Peter as a prophecy of what kind of death he would die, for the glory of God.) And then he said, “Peter, follow me!”
History tells us that Peter was crucified in Rome under the emperor, Nero. Jesus did not tell Peter, “Peter, if you just have enough faith you can avoid suffering,” or “Peter, if you just learn how to be led by the Spirit, you can avoid martyrdom.”
In another biblical situation, Jesus commended the faithfulness of the pastor of the church in Pergamum relative to his martyrdom. He told that embattled congregation, “You have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city” (Revelation 2:13 NLT). Note that Jesus called Antipas, “my faithful witness.” The Greek word for “witness” is “martys,” from which we derive the English word “martyr.”
There are many ways a Christian can witness about his faith in Christ, but perhaps giving one’s life—making the ultimate sacrifice, is the epitome of declaring one’s faith to the world. Tertullian (AD 160-220), the north-African lawyer turned preacher wrote to the rulers of the Roman Empire in defense of the Christian faith. He described how Christians were blamed for all types of calamities and disasters within the empire, leading to the senseless killing of Christians. One of his statements to the authorities was, “The more often you mow us down, the more we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Polycarp (69-156) was a disciple of the apostle John and had been ordained by him to his leadership position in Smyrna (one of the seven churches identified in the book of Revelation). In AD 156, when Polycarp was eighty-six years old, orders were given for his arrest. At first, Polycarp had no intention of fleeing, but was persuaded by friends to take refuge in a house not far from the city. While he was praying, Polycarp had a vision of a burning pillow under his head, and he told those with him that he was to be burnt alive.
When the authorities came to arrest him, Polycarp demonstrated hospitality and kindness, requesting that they be given a meal, and that he be allowed to pray a bit more. In order to secure his release, Polycarp was advised to simply make the declaration, “Caesar is Lord,” and offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, but Polycarp was firm and unwavering in his faith.
As he entered the stadium, a voice was heard from Heaven encouraging Polycarp to be strong and to “play the man.” He refused continued offers to be set free by offering sacrifice to Caesar, and when they threatened him with fire, he responded, “Your fire burns for an hour and goes out, but the fire of the coming judgment is eternal.” Ultimately, Polycarp demonstrated his absolute resolve with the words, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
One author describes what happened after Polycarp prayed, having already been bound to a stake:
At last that last word the torch was applied and the fire instantly rose high, but the flames seemed to arch themselves around their victim. Seeing that the fire had failed to do its work, the officer charged upon Polycarp and pierced him with a sword. The eminent saint then gave up his spirit. It was more a day of triumph than one of tragedy. So this brave and true man of God received his “crown of life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is the great German pastor and theologian who was hanged by the Nazi regime shortly before the end of World War II. He had amazing foresight in discerning the evil within Hitler’s agenda while many so-called ministers and churches cooperated with Hitler. Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to escape Germany before things got too bad, but his conscience did not allow him to stay in the United States. Before he returned to his homeland, he wrote:
I am enjoying a few weeks in freedom, but on the other hand, I feel I must go back to the “trenches” (I mean of the church struggle). I am drawn back into the struggles of the brothers.
He also stated:
I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.
Bonhoeffer could have easily justified his staying in the states as he had the opportunity to minister to other German refugees here, but he felt called to go back to his nation in spite of the pending dangers. It reminds me a bit of our courageous first responders who run toward danger when others are running away. It also brings Paul’s statement to mind:
Acts 20:22-24 (NLT)
22 “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me,
23 except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead.
24 But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.
Paul’s attitude toward suffering is quite amazing. To him, attaining personal comfort was a low priority, while preaching the gospel and fulfilling his calling was of paramount importance. The more productive a minister is, the bigger the target they can be for the attacks of the enemy. When Paul was first called, Ananias protested when the Lord told him to go and pray for him. The Lord responded, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16 NLT).
It is clear from Scripture that persecution goes hand-in-hand with certain types of callings. Could Paul have avoided all of the suffering and persecution he went through? Absolutely! He could have avoided all of his problems (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-29) by simply not preaching the gospel. Obedience sometimes leads people through great challenges. Kenneth E. Hagin writes, “Some of the hardest tests I’ve gone through in 50 years of experience are because I was led by the Spirit of God.”
We like miraculous deliverances. We also acknowledge the scriptural reality that many people throughout history have suffered for their faith, and many have been martyred. But what about people who run away or flee? We might impulsively think that people who run away lack courage, but is that really the case? Scripture actually presents a strong case that fleeing from persecution (when possible) is actually a very common and very positive response advocated in the Bible. It is safe to say that Jesus did not want His disciples being persecuted when they could avoid it. He exhorted, “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23 NKJV).
Consider some of the following examples:
- When a plot was made to kill Paul, other disciples lowered Paul over the city wall at night and he escaped (Acts 9:22-25). Paul did not try to prove how great his faith was by staying in Damascus. Rather, he removed himself from a situation where people were trying to kill him. That is not an absence of faith—it is the presence of wisdom.
- In Jerusalem, another plot was made by forty religious zealots to assassinate Paul. In this case Paul’s nephew learned of the plot and informed him of it. What did Paul do? Did he say, “No problem; I’m praying and trusting God. I’m in faith, so there’s nothing else I need to do.” No! He used the information wisely and strategically. Paul called for a Roman officer and had the officer take his nephew to the commander to share the report he had heard. The Roman authorities then took Paul to another location for his protection (Acts 23:12-33).
- After an extended time in Caesarea, Paul realized he was not going to receive a fair trial, so he appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:10-12). This is why Paul ended up under house arrest in Rome. He was Jewish, but he also exercised his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid unfair treatment. In other words, Paul used the natural resources that were available to him in his own defense.
- Because Jesus knew it was not his appointed time to die, he avoided Jerusalem and surrounding areas at certain times. John 7:1 (NLT) states, “After this, Jesus traveled around Galilee. He wanted to stay out of Judea, where the Jewish leaders were plotting his death.” Was this a profound spiritual leading, or was it just common sense? I lean toward the latter. If you know people in an area want to kill you, it’s probably smart to stay away from there unless you have a really strong leading otherwise.
- One time a crowd of people wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff. What did he do? Did he stick around to see what would happen? No. He got out of there. Luke 4:30 (NLT) states, “He passed right through the crowd and went on his way.”
- Some of Jesus’ earliest years were spent as a refugee in another country. His family fled when Joseph warned by an angel of the Lord that Herod was determined to kill young Jesus (Matthew 2:13). They were specifically directed to flee to Egypt. After Herod died, the angel advised Joseph it was now safe to take Jesus and Mary back to Israel (Matthew 2:19-20).
Whereas some in the Bible (and throughout church history) faced martyrdom boldly, others felt led by the Lord (or just by good ole’ common sense) to flee. A retired military friend of mine once told me that “retreat” is not necessarily a sign of fear or failure. He said it can be a highly strategic move in which one pulls back in order to regroup, re-supply, and plan for future victories.
Conclusion: One Size Doesn’t Fit All
What do we learn from all of this? We need to get away from the conclusion of immature, overly-simplistic, and unscriptural binary thinking: “If it makes me happy, it’s from God. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s not from God.”
It is possible:
- To experience miraculous deliverance by faith
- To die by faith
- To escape by faith
One size doesn’t fit all! God has different paths for different people, and we shouldn’t be quick to judge what is right for someone else. Peter tried this, and it didn’t work well for him. After Peter was told about his own future death (John 21:18-19), Peter asked an ill-advised question about his perceived “competitor,” John.
John 21:20-23 (TPT)
20 Then Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the disciple who sat close to Jesus at the Last Supper and had asked him, “Lord, who is the one that will betray you?”)
21 So when Peter saw him, he asked Jesus, “What’s going to happen to him?”
22 Jesus replied, “If I decide to let him live until I return, what concern is that of yours? You must still keep on following me!”
23 So the rumor started to circulate among the believers that this disciple wasn’t going to die. But Jesus never said that, he only said, “If I let him live until I return, what concern is that of yours?”
The path that Jesus had for Peter was totally different than the path that was laid out for John. Actually, John became the only one of the original apostles (post-Pentecost) that died a natural death in old age. All of the other apostles were put to death for their faith. Jesus told Peter—rather sternly—to mind his own business. To follow him, and not to get up in John’s business (or that of anyone else). Likewise, you and I must discern God’s call and God’s will for our own lives and devote ourselves completely to him and to it.
Portions of this article are drawn from material covered in three of my books: What Would Jesus Say? Lessons from the Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation, Miracles and the Supernatural Throughout Church History, and Relationship Matter: Lessons from Paul and the People Who Impacted His Life. You can order these by visiting our bookstore or by calling (918) 633-8419.