Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Christian Martyr: Part 1 -- Jesus, Our Great Exemplar

It is not possible to talk of Christian martyrdom without first looking at the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The evening before His crucifixion, as the disciples prepared to leave the upper room where they had just shared the Passover meal with Jesus, Jesus made a rather strange request that has left many puzzled. “Then said he unto them, … he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one… And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.” (Luke 22: 36,38).

What was that all about? Jesus, knowing the end from the beginning, and knowing human nature, that there would be temptation on the part of many to defend their faith by force of arms, was about to give his disciples a living object lesson that they would never forget. Jesus was about to settle once and for all the issue of the use of violence in the defense of faith.

In the garden of Gethsemane the mob came to arrest Jesus, and the disciples proved themselves to be all too willing to wield those swords in Jesus' defense. “When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” (Luke 22:49). And Peter, most likely the one doing all the talking, and leaping to Jesus’ defense even as he spoke, swung his sword and managed to clip the ear of one of the servants of the high priest.

John 18:10-11 Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

Matthew 26:52-53 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?

By these words the use or force to defend the Christian faith was expressly forbidden. If even the Lord Himself was not to be defended by force of arms, then neither was the church He established was to be defended by force of arms. Such violence was to have no place in Christianity. And this was a lesson the disciples learned well. Never again, no matter how grievous the persecution they suffered, did they take up arms in self-defense. From that day on the only sword they carried was the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.

Not stopping there, Jesus, surrounded by His enemies, proceeds to give a living example grace to His disciples by healing the servant's ear that Peter had cut off.  Grace is commonly defined as unmerited favor.  But true grace goes far beyond mere unmerited favor.  If you were to give a gift to your children for no apparent reason, that may be unmerited favor, but that would not be grace.  Grace is doing something good for someone who hates you, someone who despises you, an enemy.  (See Romans 5:10 and Matthew 5:44-45).  That is grace. 

The following morning, when Jesus was taken before Pilate, Pilate asked a question of Jesus. The answer that Jesus gave is most relevant.

John 18:36-37 Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.  Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness [martureo] unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

First of all, Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. And if Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, neither can the kingdom of His followers be of this world. Can the realm of Jesus' disciples extend beyond the realm of Christ's kingdom? Scripture tells us, "our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20). If our citizenship is in heaven, then Christians were not to be fighting over some patch of holy land as the peoples of so many other religions do. Christians are to stand above all the squabbling and fighting that takes place in the world. We have been commissioned to preach the gospel, and nothing is to be allowed to divert us from that purpose.

Second, if Christians do find themselves fighting over some patch of holy land, then by that act they declare that their citizenship is no longer in heaven, but here on this earth - and are thus living and working outside the realm of Christ's kingdom.

Following Jesus' example, Christians are to bear witness of the truth. The word martyr is Greek for witness. [Martureo -- to be a witness, i.e. testify.]  To be a Christian Martyr is to bear a true witness of Jesus, even with your life if need be. A true Christian martyr is one who bears witness of the truth as it is in Christ - with the ultimate witness being the giving up of their lives for the truth.

Through all the cruelty of his trial and crucifixion Jesus never once resorted to force - not by word nor deed, to defend Himself. Scripture tells us of Jesus that "when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously;" (1 Peter 2:23).

By Jesus' own example, even in martyrdom, the Christian is not to retaliate even by a word. But Jesus goes far beyond merely "not reviling" or "not threatening." He actively blesses. Listen to His words. “And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, … 34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." (Luke 23: 33-34).

"Father, forgive them." This is the voice of the true Christian martyr. Never a curse, never a threat, but only blessings to the end. The true Christian martyr looks beyond themselves and see souls to be saved. Their whole burden is for the salvation of the lost. And with their last breath they will call down blessing from heaven on their persecutors with the hope that they might be saved.

Listen to the teaching of Jesus:

Matthew 5:43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 "But I say to you, 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, 45 "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Those are the words of Jesus, words that He lived by, and words that He died by. That is how a true Christian martyr's will behave. That is the ideal - the true pattern set forth by Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

Elden Miller