Martyrdom and Persecution
– by Jean Barbara
Martyrdom: By martyrdom, we normally mean dying for Christ. But the Greek word for ‘martyr’ also is the word for ‘witness’. Every disciple of Jesus is essentially a ‘witness’ (Acts 1:7-8), and thus a ‘martyr’. Traditionally, martyrdom was understood under three forms: a witness by word, that is, an evangelist; a witness by life, that is, obedience to Christ and to his will (Acts 5:24-32); and a witness by blood, that is, the pouring of one’s blood for the truth of the Gospel. Acts 6-7 describe how Stephen lived these three forms of martyrdom in an excellent way.
While the first two forms of martyrdom are the bread and butter of every disciple, the last form is reserved to a few. Although, saying ‘a few’ is perhaps an understatement. During the two years of 2015 and 2016 alone, there were more Christian martyrs than all the martyrs since Stephen.
But, how did men and women embrace with joy the idea of dying as martyrs? I believe the answer is because they loved to be with God in heaven more that they desired life on earth (see Philippians 1:23).
We could ask: “Why is there such a thing as martyrdom?” The answer lies in the mystery of a God who accepts the sacrifice of the life of one martyr and pours it back to bring forth new life for many. After Stephen’s martyrdom, the Good News quickly spread beyond the borders of the Holy Land, imparting spiritual life to the gentiles. In our times, when the number of martyrs has reached unprecedented proportions, should we not expect an unprecedented spread of the Gospel and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
Persecution: No person in his right mind would seek persecution, but the Lord promised us blessedness and joy in it (Matthew 5:10-12). And today persecution is coming from the most unsuspecting places, from modern, so-called ‘civilized’ society that worships ‘tolerance’ but is so intolerant towards Christianity that it has enshrined persecution into national law.
Considering this, what should our spiritual posture be? Fundamentally, the same as that of the Apostles who boasted and rejoiced when they ‘merited’ persecution (Acts 5:41, 1 Peter 4:12-15). Sometimes, we must flee (Matthew 10:23), and we need to be shrewd, innocent, and on our guard, but we don’t need to be worried, because the Holy Spirit will speak and act in us in an exceptional way (Matthew 10:16-20). As in martyrdom, there is a mystery in persecution: it not only advances mission, it also hastens it (Matthew 10:23).
Unity: Perhaps there is another mystery at work when martyrdom and persecution go together, as so many Christians in the world are experiencing today: they lead to deeper unity among those who suffer. Our differences, though important, now seem petty as we come to fight together for a cause that is far more important than our differences – the salvation of the whole world – a cause for which our Lord himself suffered both persecution and martyrdom.
Jean Barbara is the President of the Sword of the Spirit and lives with his family in Beirut, Lebanon.