What About the Martyrs?
Good-hearted people have been grieved and repulsed these last several days about the prospects of what Christians and other groups (women and girls in particular) have already begun facing at the hands of the Taliban and associated groups in Afghanistan. Regrettably, Christians being targeted for torture and death is not entirely new news. In 2015, the world was horrified as they saw pictures of twenty-one Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits kneeling on a beach in Libya before members of ISIS beheaded them.
While some instances of Christians being senselessly slaughtered make headlines, many more go completely unnoticed by the media and the population in general. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary issued the following statement:
There have been over 70 million Christians martyred in history. Over half of these were in the 20th century under fascist and communist regimes. In the early 21st century we estimate that on average over the 10-year period from 2000–2010 there were approximately 100,000 Christians killed each year (1 million total).
The Pew Research Center reported that “Christians were harassed by governments or social groups in a total of 128 countries in 2015 – more countries than any other religious group.” Those wishing to learn more about the persecuted church can visit the websites of such organizations as Open Doors USA (https://www.opendoorsusa.org) and Voice of the Martyrs (https://www.persecution.com).
As we are informed about historical and current events, it is also important to have an eternal perspective on Christians who suffer persecution, and especially those who are martyred for their faith. For these insights, we turn to what God has revealed in Scripture. In the book of Revelation, John had a heavenly vision that is most compelling:
Revelation 6:9-11 (NLT)
9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony.
10 They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?”
11 Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them.
As these martyrs in heaven appealed to God to avenge their blood, it is important to understand that God has never been surprised when believers were put to death for their faith.
The book of Hebrews recounts certain miraculous deliverances that certain Old Testament characters experienced (thank God for those) but proceeds to say that “others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35 NLT). The graphic description of their sufferings in the following verses are difficult to read.
Jesus did not paint a rosy picture for his earliest followers. He told them upfront, “Even those closest to you—your parents, brothers, relatives, and friends—will betray you. They will even kill some of you” (Luke 21:16 NLT). Jesus foresaw the misguided religious of some and said, “the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are doing a holy service for God” (John 16:2 NLT). Nearly 65 years after his resurrection, Jesus spoke to and through John the Revelator to the believers in Smyrna and said:
Revelation 2:10 (NLT)
10 Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.
There is ample evidence throughout the New Testament that being a follower of Jesus can be costly. Paul told Timothy how many times the Lord had delivered him from various plots, but then stated, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12 NLT).
Let’s go back to the request from the martyrs that John saw in his heavenly vision. He heard them asking the Lord, “how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” (Revelation 6:10 NLT). Is that something God would even do? We have heard so many sermons about God’s love (and we should… God is love), but we should never forget that God is also just. He makes abundant forgiveness available to everyone who turns to him in repentance and faith.
Don’t forget that the Apostle Paul persecuted Christians before he met the Lord and took part in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:1). Stephen was entirely full of the love of God as he was being stoned to death. His final words were, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:60 NLT). What are we to make of this? Was Stephen more spiritual than the martyrs in Heaven? Stephen was expressing forgiveness while the martyrs in Heaven were asking about the avenging of their blood.
It is entirely true that Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV). Stephen personified and expressed that principle beautifully. But the martyrs also had a biblical basis for their question. While they lived on earth, they had likely heard what Paul explained to persecuted believers in Thessalonica.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 (NASB)
6 It is only right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted, along with us, when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels
8 in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
9 These people will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power
People who have only studied about the love of God may find that passage shocking, but the Scriptures about God’s righteousness and justice are just as true as the Scriptures about his love and mercy. Paul tells us to “consider the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22 NLT) and states, “even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction” (Romans 9:22 NLT).
God is still a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29 NKJV). For his adversaries, it is still “a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31 NLT). And what the prophet Nahum said is still true.
Nahum 1:2-3 (NKJV)
2 God is jealous, and the LORD avenges;
The LORD avenges and is furious.
The LORD will take vengeance on His adversaries,
And He reserves wrath for His enemies
3 The LORD is slow to anger and great in power,
And will not at all acquit the wicked.
When the martyrs in Heaven asked, “how long?” the Lord did not say that he would avenge their blood immediately. They were told to rest a little longer. The Lord is longsuffering, and he greatly desires all people everywhere to repent, to believe in him, and to align their lives with his will and purpose.
Many Christians in the world have never known what it is to live in a land where their very lives can be threatened because of their faith. To those of us not suffering persecution, Hebrews 13:3 (NLT) provides this instruction: “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.”
My friend, Christopher Alam, just posted the following on social media:
A group of fiery young missionaries from Pakistan, both men and women, have managed to leave Afghanistan on their own. They reported that many underground church leaders in Afghanistan do not want to leave their country, because they want to keep the Gospel witness for Jesus alive in Afghanistan; even if it would cost them their lives.
“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.” (Revelation 12:11 KJV).
May the faith of these brave servants of the Lord move us and inspire us to take up our Cross and follow and serve our Lord Jesus.
We have a job yet to do. Salt. Light. Gospel. Missions. Evangelism. Disciples. Faith. Love.
In closing, let’s remember that even during his earthly life, Jesus was no stranger to threats and to terror. He was targeted for assassination by a wicked king when he was just a young child. His parents took him and fled the country, dwelling as refugees in Egypt until directed by the angel to return to Israel. Later, Jesus would seek solitude when he received word that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by another depraved king because he had taken a stand for righteousness.
Jesus understands the pain of those who suffer from injustice.
Jesus willingly died and rose again so that all who would turn to him—even the worst of sinners—can receive forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus will return as the King of King and the Lord of Lords, and he will make all things right.