21 Egyptian men were killed by ISIS because they identified themselves as Christians. They join a long list of people in the history of the church who have given their life to follow Jesus. The Bible tells us to expect such treatment and yet it still comes as a surprise.
Christian martyrs aren’t new. The first martyr of the newly established church was Stephen whose death is recounted in Acts 7. James, who along with his brother John and Peter made up Jesus’ inner circle, was killed by King Herod in about 44 A. D.
In centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection there were periods of intense persecution mixed with years of relative peace. Sometimes the persecution was localized and other times it broke out across the Roman empire. At the heart of the animosity toward Christianity was its exclusive claims about Jesus and Christians refusal to declare that Caesar was Lord.
Ignatius served as a pastor in the Apostle Paul’s home church in Antioch (Syria) about 50 years after Paul’s death. We don’t know why he was singled out by the authorities but we have letters he wrote to churches as the soldiers delivered him to Rome to face the beasts in the Coliseum. Here is an excerpt…
“May nothing at all, whether of this world or the invisible world above, fight against me and prevent me from reaching Jesus Christ. Bring on the fire…the cross…the hordes of wild beasts! Let the cutting and directions begin! The wrenching of my bones, the dicing of my limbs, the grinding of my entire body, the hideous torture of the Devil–let all this befall me; only let me attain Jesus Christ.
Nothing from one end of the earth to the other matters to me any more. The kingdoms of this age are meaningless. I would rather die for Jesus Christ than rule the entire world. He alone is the one I seek, the one who died for us. He is my desire, the one who rose again for our sake!”
Polycarp was a pastor in Smyrna, not far from Ephesus and was likely a disciple of the apostle John. He was martyred in 156 A. D. at the age of 86.
When Polycarp was told that the authorities were looking for him, he refused to flee. The soldiers quickly found him at an estate outside the city.
When he heard the police arrive, he went downstairs and talked with them. The officers noticed his advanced age and quiet dignity and were astonished at all the eagerness to arrest such respectable gentleman. Right away Polycarp ordered food and drink set before the officers, as much as they wanted.
Polycarp was delivered to the stadium and the governor tried to get him to recant:
“Have some respect for the dignity of your old age,” he urged align with other things like this that they typically say. “Just swear an oath by the divine spirit of Caesar. Change your mind about what you believe! Say, ‘Get rid of the atheists [Christians]!'”
The governor kept pressing him: “Just swear the oath, and I’ll let you go. Curse the name of Christ.”
Polycarp answered, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How could I now blaspheme my king who saved me?”
“I have wild beasts,” said the governor, “and I’m going to throw you to them unless you change your mind.”
Polycarp: “Bring them on! We Christians can’t change from something better to something worse.”
Governor: “Since you don’t think much of the beasts, I’ll have you roasted by fire unless you change your mind.”
Polycarp: “The fire you’re talking about burns for a very short time and then is quickly put out. Clearly you’re unaware of the fire of imminent judgment and eternal punishment that awaits the ungodly. So what are you waiting for? Come on! Do whatever you wish.”
In his book Early Christian Martyr Stories, Bryan Litfin concludes with 4 lessons that the martyrs leave us today.
1. The martyrs refused to make Jesus into just another god. The pagans didn’t usually care if Christians gave up on Jesus as long as they would worship the other gods including Caesar. But the Christians knew that to worship Jesus as another god was to deny that he was the God.
2. The martyrs counted the cost and gave up everything. The Christians who died by wild beasts or by being burned alive or who endured the other barbaric tortures weren’t different than us. They loved their families. They shrunk back from pain. No one would choose an painful and premature death. And yet they loved Jesus more than their comfort, more than their relationships, more than their life.
3. The martyrs were utterly confident in their eternal hope. Over and over Christians stood in front of rulers or mobs and declared that they didn’t fear death because they were confident that they would immediately be in the presence of Christ.
4. The martyrs call us into unity with the ancient church. Time, culture, and more separate us from the early church. If you dropped us into their world, we probably wouldn’t feel comfortable in their churches, nor would they feel comfortable in ours. And yet as many differences as exist “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).”