This is an essay I wrote for a Church History class I am taking. I would encourage anyone reading this to also read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and I pray that your heart will be deeply touched by God.
Characteristics of a Martyr
What does it mean to be a Christian martyr? I don’t have a very good answer for that. I cannot tell you from experience or from first-hand information. The best I can do is look up the meaning, read Stephen’s account from Acts 7, read accounts from books like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and then do my best to explain what Christians have endured for His namesake. But no matter how much I read or study, I cannot look you in the eye so that you can see the curious look of pain mixed with joy that comes from losing much, but gaining so much more. I cannot tell you what it truly feels like to be burnt from head to toe, or to be stabbed repeatedly and viciously, or watch your parents be brutally killed before your tenth birthday, or see your daughters raped by men filled with all the hatred and rage of hell. All because they confessed the one true God and His Son, Jesus Christ. No, the brutal persecutions suffered by my brothers and sisters throughout history and the world today have not been my lot in life as of yet. As I read through one account after another of the brutality inflicted on those who are my family in Christ I felt a great embarrassment and shame come over me because I often think much of myself as a sort of Champion for Christ. One who would proudly boast, as Peter once did, that I would gladly die for Jesus’ sake. Yet, the more I read these accounts the more I realize what pain and suffering they had actually endured on a more personal level. I thought of my beautiful wife and her radiant smile, I thought of the children in Sunday school that have become so dear to me, and I realized I am not the great and heroic man I thought I was. The thought of them being brutally tortured was more than I could bear. I realized that I am weak, and even more so, foolish for thinking myself strong. I had the overwhelming feeling that I am not cut from the same cloth as these faithful martyrs, and I thanked God for His mercy towards those who are weak like me. Then I realized that we are all weak, and it is by grace that we stand, so that will be my prayer. That God’s grace will abound to those who are persecuted and tortured, that may be given the grace to stand in their day of trial and temptation, and that may be able to forgive those who persecute them just as our Lord Jesus taught us to do. So, as we take a look back at some of these faithful men and women, I pray that the Lord will teach us what it means to be a Christian martyr, what it means to be patient, perseverant, loyal, joyful in suffering, and bold in witness. I pray that He will set our hearts a little more seriously and a little more passionately towards Him who showed us what love truly is.
As we begin, let’s look at what it means to be loyal. When I think of loyalty I think of medieval times, and gallant knights staying true to their general or king no matter what the temptation to give in or ease up may be. As I have thought about loyalty for this project I realize that those thoughts are quite applicable for those who have their faith in Jesus tested under extreme circumstances. Christians are called to be faithful and loyal to one King and one King only, Jesus Christ. He is worthy. Joshua, Moses assistant and the man God used to bring Israel into the promised land, understood loyalty, and he declared his loyalty to God while encouraging others do the same when he said, “…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15). Joshua meant what he said, and he was loyal to his King. Although, there were many examples of loyalty from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (If you are not loyal to Christ you will probably not be a martyr), I especially appreciated the story of James Jeda on pg. 354 of the book. A young child who had watched his entire family be killed by Muslim extremists. He was captured and eventually placed next to fire which he himself had kindled, and then told to deny his faith and convert to Islam. Yet, after all the tragedy he had witnesses, and with impending pain and death bearing down upon him he remained loyal to his King, and declared, “I am a Christian.” He miraculously survived being thrown into the fire he built, but not without severe scars. Today James says with unknown pain, and yet with quiet joy, “I am a Christian.”
As we continue, we will look at patience. Patience is somewhat of a lost art in modern American Society today. We want everything now or sooner, and if something doesn’t go our way our endurance fails and the complaining starts. Yet, patience is a virtue highlighted in God’s word, and meant to be worked into the life of every believer that we might hope in God alone, and remain steadfast no matter what trial comes our way. I always take encouragement from the Old Testament prophet’s ministries, and the struggles they endured while I see the glory that was being worked through each one of them. The Bible tells us in James 5:10 to look to the prophets, “My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience.” A great example is Jeremiah, who patiently endured persecutions, imprisonments, and captivity yet trusted in the Lord and remained obedient to Him. He didn’t quit when things got hard but remained steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Another person who remained patient under sufferings was John Hooper from pg. 143 of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Before his death Hooper penned, “I have left all things of the world, and I suffered great pains and imprisonment, but I thank God that I am as ready to suffer death as any mortal man may be.” He had run to mainland Europe amidst persecution as a younger man, but had learned patience through persecution, and now was completely surrendered to the will of God. He would go on to be burned in the slowest and most agonizing way, but he endured to the end and undoubtedly received the crown of life upon entering glory. May all Christians be willing to patiently endure in surrender to the divine will of God.
Next, we move from patience to her close sister perseverance. If I take anything away from my studies in church history it will be perseverance. This is an absolutely vital trait for anyone set on the work of God. The workmen of God must understand that the ease or difficulty of a situation is not an indicator of God’s will or the validity of the work. I can’t underscore this point anymore strongly. We must faithfully endure and persevere amidst attacks from outsiders and brethren alike, and weather the storms of fleeting mind and failing body if we are to be successful in the work God calls us to. My absolute favorite example of this is William Carey which is mentioned in pg. 308 of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and in more detail in Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. Carey’s story of pushing forward in bringing the gospel to the world amidst the discouragements at home, and the horrors that awaited him in India have strengthened my desire to go out for the Lord, and to expect many trials to come my way, but know that the Lord will give me the ability to endure all for His namesake. I now understand much more clearly that no matter what comes my way, by the grace of God I must persevere and continue in the work just as Nehemiah so faithfully did as he rebuilt the wall in Jerusalem. Regardless of the attacks and mocking of the enemies, Nehemiah persevered and remained focused on the work God had given Him. He stayed upright in his dealings as governor, was not tempted to sin by fear of man, and set things in order when the people strayed from God. Nehemiah was faithful and perseverant in the work God gave Him, and God is still being glorified today because of it. I pray that the perseverance seen in the Bible and seen among the martyrs will be a hallmark of my life, my marriage, and my ministry.
Next, we come to joy in suffering, and this will dovetail into our final topic Christian Witness. Joy in suffering is an acutely Christian trait, as suffering and joy stand in opposition to one another according to the mind of man. Why would I be joyful when I am suffering? The simple answer is that joy in suffering comes when someone else’s well-being and/or honor is truly the heart of the one enduring the suffering. The greatest example we have of this is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As it says is Hebrews 12:2, “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus was able to joy in the brutal torture and crucifixion he endured because of the love He had for those He came to save. Jesus knew that through his death he was obedient to the Father, and that many people would pass from life to death because of it. He actually went to the cross with joy not because the events taking place were pleasant, but because of you and me. Obviously, Jesus was not focused on himself, or He could not have experienced any joy in His suffering, and this is a great lesson for us on how to have a joyful life. Look to Jesus and then look to others. A great example of this in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is John Frith from pg. 123. John Frith was to be burned with his friend Andrew Hewet. They were tied up on the stake next to each other, and as they were both alight a strong wind blew pushing all the fire to Hewet and consuming him quickly. That left Frith to a slow and agonizing burn among a small, slow-burning fire. Yet, Frith appeared happy unto death because his friend was allowed to pass with minimal suffering. What a selfless and Godly man! We see many other such instances of people happily singing hymns as they were lead to death, and as they joyfully and patiently sealed the truth with their blood they became some of the most powerful Christian Witnesses.
This brings us to our next point, the Christian Witness. The Bible says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24) and “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) The Christian witness is one that comes from Abiding in Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and steadfast in the Word of God. Christians are to abide in Jesus and be His witness in every aspect of life, but as we look through history when someone is willing to give his life for Jesus Christ the impact was often amazing. The apostles were told to go out and preach the gospel to every nation, and with the help and power of the Holy Spirit they did just that. Peter, Paul, and the rest of the apostles went out to Rome, to Samaria, and beyond because they were not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because they knew it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Besides John who was supernaturally protected, each apostle died for his faith in Christ, gladly esteeming the riches of Christ much more valuable than anything this world has to offer, and judging Christ worthy of their lives. Because of God’s work through these men millions, and perhaps billions, have passed from life to death. Paul said. “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That needs to be the depth of our faith if we are truly going to be Jesus Christ’s witness on earth. A favorite example of Christian Witness in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is the Staines family that went to India to minister to Lepers. They gave up their western lives and moved their children to India with no thought of ever returning, and they never did. They wanted to reach out with the love and mercy of Christ to the Lepers who had been rejected by all of society and all the religious leaders in their area. Mr. Staines and his two sons would be brutally killed by Hindu extremists, but their impact and witness remained. They reached out and cared for the lepers, their kids played unafraid and unashamed with those who were rejected, and they shared the gospel with all which lead many to faith in Christ. The Staines were real Christians, and their lives remind me of Jesus eating with the tax-collectors and harlots as the Pharisees mocked. That is the Christian Witness I want to have.
In conclusion, how do all these things apply to me? I hope they affect me profoundly and permanently. I hope they cause me to live completely for Jesus in every aspect of life. As I mentioned before, my wife and I hope to go out on the mission in field in South America, and as I have read these martyr’s accounts my understanding of what to expect has changed dramatically. I won’t be as shocked when trials come, and Lord willing, I won’t turn back when things get hard and discouragement comes rushing over me. After reading accounts like those of William Carey, John Hooper, and the many others I have become even more convinced of the worthiness of Christ, and more settled in my heart to spend and be spent in the Work of saving souls as John Wesley once encouraged. After reading account after account of the modern martyrs, I had a hard time looking around my house and considering any material item of any real importance, and actually felt somewhat ashamed by my comfy, warm bed when I thought of my brothers and sister locked in damp, wet prison cells. My prayers with my wife have been enflamed with an earnest care for those suffering, and I know that God hears and acts on the prayers of His children, so I know how important the prayers for grace and strength in the lives of those suffering are. As I looked at the pictures of a Chinese brother expressing his extreme emotion after being visited by a foreign brother, and the encouragement he must have received, I wanted to be that person who brings a cold cup of water in the name of Jesus and one who brings good news from a far land. All this to say, that I hope to be like the Staines family, who gave up everything to follow and serve Jesus. I hope to be like those who came before me, and confess that I am a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth, to embrace the promise of eternal life, look forward to the world to come, and redeem the time serving Jesus and being His witness wherever He sees fit. That is how I have been affected, and I hope and pray more Christians will be affected and drawn into a closer and more meaningful relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ just as I have.