The fourteenth letter of the Arabic alphabet ن (nun), equivalent to the letter N, has become a world-renowned symbol for Islamic persecution of Christians. The terrorist group ISIS painted it in bold red letters in front of the homes and businesses of the people they call “Nazarenes.” When it happened in 2014, reports and pictures flooded news and social media showing people fleeing their homes and some being captured and killed. When Christians first saw this symbol being used as a tool for terror, thousands of people marked their social media pages with the Arabic mark making bold statements of solidarity with the persecuted Iraqi and Syrian Christians. And then came the horrifying photos of 21 Egyptian Christians kneeling on the sand ready to be beheaded . . . and other reports continue.
With the rise of ISIS in recent years, the church has been visually reminded of the reality of martyrdom in this world. With current events shedding more light on Christian martyrdom, the church should be careful to cultivate a biblical view of this important and rich subject. In reaching such a view we should find that martyrdom is an expected reality that all Christians should be prepared for, even if we are never asked to stand before an executioner. Christians must be reminded that we seek to make disciples of Christ in a world that hates Him. Martyrdom, therefore, is a solemn and powerful witness of those who are assured of an even more powerful message of Good News.
The True Meaning of a Martyr
The word for martyr comes from the Greek word martys (μάρτυς) and it means witness or testimony. The most prolific use of this word in Scripture is unsurprisingly in the book of Acts as we see the apostolic witness of Christ spreading as the church is established. Just prior to His ascension, Jesus promises His disciples that in the power of the Holy Spirit they will be His witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). In Acts 1:21–26 a replacement for Judas Iscariot is found in Matthias, who was with Jesus from His baptism to His ascension as a fellow witness of His resurrection.
The idea of being a witness is a very important one. The gospel is primarily a message about a historical event in which Jesus was crucified, buried, raised to life, and ascended in the presence of witnesses. The good news that mankind can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ is centered in the historical credibility of His atoning sacrifice for sin and His all-conquering resurrection. The gospel message is therefore inseparably linked to the eyewitness account about Christ. Paul, himself an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus, noted this connection as he proclaimed the message of good news at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:31). In his first epistle, John also wrote that the good news of eternal life is that which is testified by those who saw, touched, and heard the Savior (1 John 1:1–4).
After the original martyr, Jesus, Stephen is often noted as the first person to be “martyred” as a Christian (Acts 7). In Scripture, Paul notes that Stephen’s death was based on his witness of Christ (Acts 22:20). James was also killed on account of his faith along with others in the church (Acts 12:1–2). The author of Hebrews also discusses the great cloud of witnesses in chapter 12 immediately after the description of those who were willing to die for their faith in chapter 11.
The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.
While many in the church have died as a result of testifying/witnessing about Christ, the use of the word martyr in terms of the death of a witness stems back to the early church fathers. Early church father Ignatius (AD 35–107) desired that his death would be an instrument of proclamation for God. Restraining other Christians from saving him from his Roman oppressors, he said, “If you remain silent about me, I shall become a word of God. But if you allow yourselves to be swayed by the love in which you hold my flesh, I shall again be no more than a human voice.”1 It was Ignatius’ desire that his witness of Christ would become even more powerful in his death. One hundred years later, Tertullian is credited with saying, “The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.”2
Christian Persecution Is an Expectation
When a sinner comes to Christ in faith, they come to an exclusive Savior and Lord.3 The narrow message of the gospel is that Jesus is the only way to salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) and all other roads lead to destruction (Matthew 7:14). Those who reject the gospel find no sympathy with the narrowness of its nature.
Jesus made it very clear that conversion to Christ would expose the hatred for God in the human heart. Nations will hate Christians because of Christ (Matthew 24:9). Families will war against their own members who have come to Christ (Matthew 10:34–36). Jesus also said that we are actually blessed when people revile us and persecute us for His name’s sake (Matthew 5:11). There is not a single verse in Scripture that promises that our lifestyle in this age will be one of ease and comfort as a result of having faith in Jesus. On the contrary, the Apostle Paul sees his losses in this world as nothing compared to his eternal gain in Christ. He views suffering for the sake of Christ as a shared privilege (Philippians 3:8–11). At the same time, as we mourn upon hearing the news of Christian martyrs, we can praise God for their profound witness of their Savior and be thankful for their willingness to share in the sufferings of Christ.
Persecution Does Not Hinder Christian Freedom
Even if America’s legislated religious liberty is lost, the Christian has not lost one degree of the freedom that matters.
The discussion of Christian freedom is closely linked to the idea of Christian persecution because many believe that losses of legislated liberty will result in increased intolerance toward biblical Christianity. It is a hot topic in today’s America. There is a legislated religious liberty in the US (First Amendment), and many are working within the confines of the legal system to keep it. It is possible that strategies to preserve such legislation while remaining subject to the governing authorities can be achieved within the confines of Scriptures such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Nevertheless, as we have already seen, biblical teaching does not promise us a persecution-free life in this world. Even if America’s legislated religious liberty is lost, the Christian has not lost one degree of the freedom that matters. In the context of living under authority, the Apostle Peter tells us to live as those who are free (1 Peter 2:16). In this way, no matter what the situation is, we can never lose our true freedom in Christ or our freedom to serve Christ. Paul also tells us that the Christian is one who has already died. The old man is crucified and we are no longer a slave to sin, but are set free and now slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:5–18). Our freedom from our biggest problem is ours today and forever. We do not gain or lose the true exercise of Christian freedom on the basis of legislation or oppressors. While legislation can be taken, freedom in Christ can never be lost.
With talk about religious freedom permeating the culture, it will do Christians good to remember what the greatest exercise of Christian freedom looks like. In an early church letter written to Diognetus about Christians we read,
They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life.4
It would then also seem that freedom looks like 21 Egyptians kneeling on a beach and exposing their necks for the blade of their captors who require their denial of Christ. That’s freedom!5
Persevering in the Face of Martyrdom
We should be humble and prayerful that God would give us the strength to face such a time with a true desire for God’s glory to shine through us.
Most of us who live in the West hear about martyrdom and severe persecution without ever going through it ourselves. While we may never experience it, we should not be complacent about it. God may call us to minister where our exposure to persecution is increased, or one day we may face it right where we live. Either way, we should be humble and prayerful that God would give us the strength to face such a time with a true desire for God’s glory to shine through us. Here are five quick points that we can keep in mind if we are ever in such a situation.
When Job faced enormous persecution from Satan, he was tempted by his own wife to respond with cursing and despair. Job’s response was a faithful reminder that it is God who is in control (Job 2:9–10). He replies, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” The Bible tells us that God is both sovereign (Colossians 1:17; cf. Psalm 90:2) and good (Psalm 119:68, 34:8). As theologian D. A. Carson has written, we can take comfort that “in God’s universe, even Satan’s work cannot step outside the outermost boundaries of God’s sovereignty.”6
The Christian has been given amazing promises about our eternal future. Reminding ourselves of these promises can help to keep our eyes on the great prize. Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). We will be seated with Christ in victory (Revelation 3:21). We will one day be like Jesus (1 John 3:2). We have been given an inheritance in Christ, and the Holy Spirit in our lives is a guarantee of it (Ephesians 1:11–14). The promises of God are to help us persevere in holiness and in the faith (2 Peter 1:3–11).
There are various warning passages in Scripture that help keep us persevering in the faith. Warnings and promises in the Bible are a great balance to keep us authentically living for Christ even in the face of persecution. In this way both promises and warnings remind us positively and negatively that saving faith is faith that perseveres. There are warnings to those who deny Christ (Matthew 10:32–33)7 and warnings to those who neglect God’s work of salvation (Hebrews 2:1–4) and warnings to those who have no care about sin (Hebrews 10:26–31). Warnings heeded are revealed in faith preserved.
God Will Have Ultimate Vengeance
No matter what mere men do to us, we can always be reminded that God is just and will take vengeance in the vindication of His own name. The martyr is not essentially concerned for self but for the sake of God where the real attack is being pointed. The murderer’s day of judgment will come. In John’s Revelation vision the martyrs cry out from under the throne to ask how long until God will avenge their blood. Scholar William Hendrickson writes, “Does not God Himself affirm that the blood of His saints cry for wrath? (Gen. 4:10, Heb. 11:4.) Insignificant individuals, mere earth-dwellers have defied the holy, true and sovereign Lord of the universe.”8 God will have ultimate vengeance.
Always Be Ready to Defend
To people facing persecution Peter wrote that they should always be ready to give a defense for the hope that they have within them (1 Peter 3:15). The Christian faith is a defendable faith founded in historically credible and reliable truth. We should be prepared to defend both the objective nature of that truth and the subjective element of our individual faith and experience to stand solidly in the day of trial with unwavering confidence. Answers in Genesis (and other like apologetics organizations) exists in part to stand beside the church in help for such a time.
Our Response to Hearing About Persecution
As we hear of our brothers and sisters being persecuted and martyred, we will do well to remember Hebrews 13:3: “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also.” Our hearts for our persecuted brothers and sisters should be full of prayerful compassion propelling us to help and support in any way we can.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a mandate to take up arms in solidarity against those who wish to kill us because we are Christians. The church is an army of God preaching good news in solidarity to everyone, including those who wish to kill us. We wish to save those who wish to kill, and we are prepared to be killed to do it (Matthew 10:28).
In the miniscule attention span of the social media culture, we can all too easily lose the profundity of an Arabic nun. On the same day this gesture of solidarity was made, I found it posted with videos of funny animal tricks and photos of Aunt Molly’s birthday. This is the nature of social media, and it’s not going to change any time soon. But perhaps we can do something better. Perhaps we can prepare ourselves, stand for God’s holiness, give to the cause of our persecuted brothers and sisters, and pray for them without ceasing. Perhaps we can also attempt to foster an attitude like the Apostle Paul that says, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Perhaps we could love our enemies in the best way possible. Perhaps we could be a gospel witness so bold to see them saved that we are also prepared to be a martyr if required. Let’s humbly pray for such strength and love in our faith.