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The Martyrs’ Message

February 26, 2015 2 Comments

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by Mathew Block

On February 15, Christians around the world shuddered as news of the Islamic State’s most recent atrocity was publicized. The terrorist organization released a video that day in which they beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians en masse.

“Their only words were ‘Jesus, help me!” Pope Francis commented following the release of the video. “They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians.”

“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard,” he continued. “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

An icon of the 21 martyred Coptic Christians, by Tony Rezk.

An icon of the 21 martyred Coptic Christians by Tony Rezk.

These men are martyrs. And there are grave fears that the Islamic State intends to add to their numbers. On February 23, the group enacted a mass kidnapping of Syrian Christians. Initial reports suggested 90 people had been seized but that number keeps rising, with new reports suggesting the actual number may be as high as 285.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” our Lord Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

These are hard words because they remind us that the reward Christ has promised us is not one of safety and security in this world. It is not the promise of earthly comfort and joy. Instead, our Lord actually promises suffering. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

The reward Christ has promised us is not one of safety and security in this world. It is not the promise of earthly comfort and joy. Instead, our Lord actually promises suffering.

Those Christian Egyptians recently slaughtered on video were called to witness this truth in a very literal way. They followed Christ, and in so doing they lost their lives.

But—and this is important—they did not lose their lives in vain. Yes, it is true that on this earth Christians have no permanent home. Yes, we are promised suffering, not comfort, in this world. But the Good News is that this world is not all there is. Our true and final home is yet to be revealed. “For here we have no lasting city,” as the Scriptures say, “but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:15).

It is for this reason that Christians can have hope in the face of persecution, even facing martyrdom with courage: we are promised that we lay down our lives only to find them again. So it is that we can take solace in the words of St. Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed…. If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:12-13, 16).

This is the martyr’s message. This is the testimony they make with their blood: that Christ has suffered first and that His suffering makes our suffering meaningful. He has bought us entrance into heaven with His own blood. In fact, the very word “martyr” reminds us of this fact, for it comes from the Greek for “witness.” These Christians, killed for the faith, witness by their deaths that Christ is greater than death—that the grave which could not hold Him will likewise not hold them. Or us.

This is the martyr’s message. This is the testimony they make with their blood: that Christ has suffered first and that His suffering makes our suffering meaningful. He has bought us entrance into heaven with His own blood.

“If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him,” St. Paul writes in a letter to Timothy. “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 1:11-13). We can face death with confidence because Christ has already defeated death for us. But—and this is the hard part—we must still die. We must die with Him on earth ere we live with Him in heaven. And this death may well be violent, as a sinful world rages against the Gospel of Christ.

We Christians in the West, too often comfortable in this world, have perhaps forgotten this difficult message. It is one that modern-day martyrs in Libya, and Syria, and Iraq, and Nigeria, and other places are now teaching us with their blood. Let us regard the suffering of the faithful in these places and pray for them, that God would protect, comfort, and strengthen them in the midst of persecution. May He guard their hearts and minds with the peace that passes understanding.

And may He teach us through their witness a living faith—a faith that stands firm no matter the consequences, no matter the cost.

———————

Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran and Communications Manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council and blogs with First Things.

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