Not long ago we read of a recently published book which claims that reports of Christian martyrdom under the Roman Empire were all fabricated. According to a review of The Myth of Persecution in WORLD magazine (June 1, 2013), the book’s author, a Notre Dame professor, theorizes that “the ancient narrative of Christians tortured and killed for their faith was all a gag to make a profit: ‘Martyrs were like the action heroes of the ancient world….’”
There is more, but you get the point. After rejecting the myth charge and calling attention to the fact that “at least 100 million Christians are being persecuted today,” the WORLD book reviewer concludes: “Historical texts aside, today’s Christian persecution helps to confirm yesterday’s Christian persecution.”
Let’s have a look at the “historical text” of the Gospel of Matthew in the divinely inspired Holy Scriptures. Throughout His Sermon on the Mount (chapters five through seven) the Lord Jesus had been molding His disciples’ will for the difficult challenges that lay ahead of them (including the Beatitude which is a precursor for what is to follow, namely, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”, 5:10-12). In the next section (chapters eight through ten) the Lord zeroes in on what one Bible commentator labels “three Messianic hammer blows which [were intended to] temper and toughen the apostles for their mission” as fishers of men.*
* FOLLOW ME—Discipleship according to Saint Matthew, Martin Franzmann, Conc. Publ.
House, St. Louis, MO, 1961, page 94
Hammer Blow #1) “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (10:16).
Far from being a myth, persecution even to the point of death, says the Savior, comes with the territory of being one of His sheep. Yes, persecution is as much the norm and standard for His followers as it is for sheep venturing into a pack of wolves.
Whether witnessing before “governors and kings” or within the family circle (!), Jesus wanted His disciples to know that the unbelieving simply cannot be tolerant of the Christian faith. Behind that intolerance is the fact that they just cannot tolerate the Christ of God, His Word and His ways.
While recognizing these truths, let disciples of Jesus pray to be “wise” and “harmless,” so that they do not unnecessarily stir up persecution.
In connection with each hammer blow the Savior attaches a word of promise, encouragement, and comfort. In this case He adds: “You will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he that endures to the end will be saved” (v. 22). Take heart, confessing Christians, for the Church of believers is truly “an anvil that has worn out many hammers.”
Hammer Blow #2) “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household” (10:24-25).
We use colloquial expressions such as “like father, like son; like mother, like daughter.” Here, on a higher level, it is “like Master, like disciple.” As their Master was unjustly and cruelly treated, so will they be treated who belong to Him. John the Baptist was beheaded for his standing up to Herod. The historical (!) book of the Acts of the Apostles reveals various forms of persecution of Christians. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. James was executed. Apostles like Paul and Peter experienced imprisonment and other persecution.
And far from being a fabrication, verifiable history supports the facts that 1) most of the apostles died a martyr’s death; and 2) confessing Christians died in second and third century persecutions under the Roman governors Nero and Domitian.
In connection with this hammer blow the Savior attaches a comforting and encouraging three-fold “fear not”: “Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.…and do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell….Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows…” (vv. 26, 28, 31).
Undergirding these “fear nots” lies the Master’s own triumph through the path of suffering and death He Himself walked in order to redeem us—and rising again for our justification.
Hammer Blow #3) “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (10:34).
The Christmas angels announced the arrival of peace on Earth with the birth of the Christchild. To the Romans St. Paul proclaimed: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).
Jesus came to be the Prince of Peace, but “He brings no cheap peace, no half peace, no peace by compromise. He can create peace only by destroying evil; and since men love evil and cling to that which excludes them from the whole peace of God, His coming forces a decision between good and evil and proves to be, for all its peaceful intent, the sundering sword.” (FOLLOW ME…, p. 96)
Following this third hammer blow, Jesus calls on His own to take up their cross and follow Him, adding that “he who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (10:38-39).
Take heart, confessing Christians, for “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Lord Jesus, in the face of any and every form of persecution for Your name’s sake, keep Your believing children in such faith unto eternal life.
• PERSECUTION AMONG OUR FOREIGN BRETHREN:
Our old-fashioned hard-copy file on the subject of persecutions is two inches thick with accounts of Christian persecution today. With so much violent persecution going on around the world, one observer has termed the 21st century ‘a new age of martyrs.’
And it strikes close to home—a ten-page e-mail dated March 29, 2012, provided by our CLC Board of Missions, detailed “persecution among our [CLC] foreign brethren” in the various states in Africa and India where we are co-workers with the gospel. Tales are told of pastors beaten (one killed a year or two ago), of women abused and/or raped, of property (including church buildings) damaged/burned/destroyed—and just a general, widespread, open animosity against our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Yet far from being negative, the reports are generally positive. One of the reporters for our India brethren writes: “We try to favor all men: We avoid using militant language in gospel preaching. We don’t shout, ‘India for Christ!’ but say ‘Christ for India!’, as we know Christ has not called us to Christianize the world but evangelize it….” Frequently the foreign reporters ask for our prayers, and they speak of how our fellow believers “glory in persecutions” as they find strength from such words of God as: “…but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3ff).
Dear readers, as the familiar mission hymn puts it:
If you cannot be a watchman, Standing high on Zion’s wall,
Pointing out the path to heaven, Off’ring life and peace to all,
With your prayers and with your bounties You can do what God demands;
You can be like faithful Aaron, Holding up the prophet’s hands. (TLH #496:3)
• “The Principle of Limited Tears”
As we have proffered, there is much persecution of Christians today and comparatively little publicity, especially when the persecution involves Christians. While that is troubling, even more troubling is the remark of one Christian observer who says: “Even when persecution is known, Christians often don’t seem to be overly concerned.”
Then in answer to his own question as to why there is so much apathy among believers on an issue of such significance, reference is made to Ecclesiastes 4:1 which says: “Then I…considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: And look! The tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter—on the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter.”
This extrapolation follows: “Sociologists call it ‘the principle of limited tears.’ Since we do not have the capacity to ‘cry’ about all the tragedies of the world, we narrow our focus and weep for those things that touch us personally. Then we close our eyes to the suffering that is farther from us.”
In conclusion, this is said: “Jesus’ words of warning still ring true today. Persecution is real. While we may have limited ability to physically help those who are suffering for the faith, don’t forget the power of prayer. Brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering’ (Hebrews 13:3).” (Forward In Christ, July 2012, p. 28f)