In modern terms, most of us understand that a martyr is someone who has been killed for their faith, cause or conviction. But did you know that the word is actually derived from the Greek word for witness? There’s no better place to trace the word’s evolution from witness to martyr than in the book of Acts, beginning with the resurrected Jesus promising his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
To be a witness means that you bear testimony to what you have seen. When the Holy Spirit was poured out and Peter began to preach to the multitudes, his testimony was this: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Peter professed then what would become the hallmark of the apostles — they had been made witnesses of the resurrection.
You Will Be My Witnesses
It is for this testimony — the testimony of eternal, resurrection life — that most of the apostles ultimately gave their lives as martyrs. They had witnessed Jesus lay down his life that “through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death…and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). As the first partakers of this Life in the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles went everywhere upsetting the powers of darkness by proclaiming their defeat in the resurrected Messiah.
At Pentecost alone, three thousand souls once held captive by the fear of death that chains men to their wealth and self-interest were snatched from the fires of slavery into the waters of baptism. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the earliest believers followed the example of Christ in embracing a death to their natural desires and ambitions that allowed them to give sacrificially of their wealth and time, to patiently endure scorn and reproach at the hands of family and friends, and finally to suffer imprisonment and persecution.
Where the world coveted and saved for fear of want, the church gave it all away and lacked nothing. Where the world sought the accolades of man, the church endured humiliation and received an eternal weight of glory. Finally, in suffering and fear of death, when the world would crumble, curse God and die, the church leapt for joy to die and yet live with Christ.
This is the testimony of the church that has been left as the witness of Christ in the earth. The persecuted are prepared for martyrdom because they know the God who raises the dead. The persecution the church faces in some areas of the world requires that they count the cost well before they ever come to Christ. Many give up social status, wealth, freedom, and even relationship with their unsaved friends and families, and yet God meets them in their sacrifice to bring life and peace that surpasses understanding.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost, He brought all things to nothing before the immeasurable worth of Christ. In the same manner, the Holy Spirit enables some to suffer a martyr’s death and daily enables the persecuted church to live life abundant in the midst of their suffering and sacrifice.
Living With Christ
And while they may not be martyrs in the traditional sense of the word, the families of the martyrs live on to daily bear a testimony of the resurrection in how they choose to live and love in the face of such tragedy. The testimony of Pauline Ayyad, the widow of a Christian worker who was murdered in the Gaza strip, is that after the Father helped her overcome her grief, she is now able to say with pride, “It’s not everyone who gets to be called a martyr’s wife.” Birtukan, the wife of a martyred evangelist, named her infant daughter the Amharic word for “light” due to the light of the gospel that spread in their village after her father’s martyrdom.
Their stories are just a few of the countless ways that the persecuted church is spreading life where there should be death, saying with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).
The Way of the Martyr
Most of us won’t be facing a martyrdom like many do today in countries like Somalia and Nigeria, but in some ways, the harder road is to walk in the way of the martyr every day. To do that, we can choose daily in the Spirit to offer up our lives as a “living sacrifice,” to love instead of hate, and to be patient, kind, and bold in affliction — pointing our friends as well as our enemies to life in Jesus.
Can you say with Paul and the persecuted church that you are always carrying in your body the death of Jesus so that His life might shine in you? Can people smell the aroma of Christ when they meet you? Be encouraged today to walk in the way of the martyr — the way of everlasting life — by remembering the words of the Faithful Witness to fretting Martha at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” John 11:25.
I am bewildered to think that 64% of the 70 million Christians who have been martyred in the history of our faith have died in the 20th and 21st century. Forty five million Christian martyrs is hard to comprehend, but we have some comparisons:
- The total population of Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey combined – nearly half the east coast.
- The total of civilian casualties from World War II.
- Nearly double the total deaths from the AIDS pandemic since its discovery in 1981.
Though I can hardly begin to comprehend 45 million people, I am able to grasp the number five. Five is the number of family members that Songhwa and her two daughters, Grace and Jinhye, have lost because of the repressive North Korean regime. I met these women recently and had the opportunity to hear their story of hunger, suffering, torture, and death amidst their search for Christ and life. In a matter of ten years, these women lost a grandmother, two brothers, a sister, and a father, along the way discovering a profound faith in Jesus as He guided them through a dangerous and difficult escape from this repressive nation to eventual safety and freedom in the United States.
They risked it all to find a means to a life of freedom and provision, and God blessed them for their faithfulness to Him. They had heard bits and pieces of God and the Gospel of Christ through other Christians hidden in North Korea, but had never heard a sermon, read the Bible, or openly aired their questions of faith – but their mustard seed sized knowledge gave them enough faith to move mountains in the face of persecution. I was humbled to meet them and left with a heavy heart for those in North Korea and across the world who thirst to know more about God yet are not able to quench that thirst because others prevent them from doing so.
Responding to Persecution
Some of us hear of this sort of persecution and are emboldened to fight back and seek to end such cruelty. Others of us encounter stories of martyrs and recall Paul’s admonition to the church in Philippi to bear under such persecution, saying “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” We see persecution as a privilege and opportunity to suffer in the footsteps of our Savior. We recall that Christianity has spread like wildfire primarily when it is opposed by the ruling forces.
Whether we fight against persecution, or see it as opportunity for growth in faith, we must always remember that our words and actions have tremendous impact, not only in the lives of the persecuted, but also in those who are committing atrocious acts against followers of Christ.
How we advocate for change and how we admonish the acts of others will show to a watching world what sort of disciples of Christ we truly are. We must always remember that Jesus called us to love, to forgive, to turn the other cheek, and to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. I believe that we must fight ardently against the horrific acts taking place across the globe in the name of religious intolerance. We have the freedom to speak and worship as we please, and the knowledge and connections to mobilize resources on behalf of others – and we cannot sit idly by as others are beheaded, burned at the stake, tortured, imprisoned, and forced to live lives of hunger, oppression, and marginalization because a ruling majority has deemed them less worthy.
But we must maintain a balanced understanding that our fight will never be over, and we must continue to act wisely and lovingly. As Christians, we cannot allow our desire for revenge and retribution to determine our course of action. Christ has ultimately paid the price for the sin of the world, and that includes the sin of Christian persecutors. Now we are called to live out this good news amidst those who seek to abolish it, and I pray that we will each day be successful in doing so.
Advocacy Officer and Regional Manager of Southeast Asia
In February, we celebrated the release of Said Musa, our brother in Afghanistan who had been imprisoned for his faith in Christ. One of the crucial elements that led to his release was the publication of letters that he wrote while in prison. ICC worked with contacts inside Afghanistan to gain access to these letters and make them known to the world. Said’s nine letters (which you can find here) not only detail his experience inside prison, but they also collectively provide a picture of a man engaging with God to come to grips with suffering and learn to live as a light in the midst of darkness.
The Father has a way of making pearls out of immense pressure. There is much the Western church can glean from the lives of our brothers and sisters who are shaped daily by this kind of pressure. In addition to encouraging you to read Said’s letters, I want to share a few pearls I’ve drawn from a letter written last year by Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in October of 2009 and remains in prison today, facing the death penalty for his faith in Christ.
Pastor Youcef begins his letter by asking his brothers and sisters to remember him and “those who are bearing efforts for His name” in their prayers, but devotes the majority of his letter to encouraging the Church. Drawing heavily on Scripture, he reminds us that though “heaven and earth will fade, His word will still remain,” and encourages us to “commit [our] souls to the faithful Creator” and “earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.”
We are reminded that trials are not to be considered strange in the life of the believer but counted as joy as we participate in Christ’s suffering:
“As we have learned from Him in Gethsemane, He surrendered His will to the Father, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.’ What we are bearing today is a difficult, but not unbearable situation, because neither has He tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does He do such. …Consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to His name.”
Giving us a clue as to the key to his own patience in suffering, Youcef writes,
“Have we not read and heard: because straight is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests and gain victory.”
Pastor Youcef signs his letter with a challenging question from Scripture, “As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that He will come soon, however, ‘when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’”
Scripture exhorts us to “encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble” (Isaiah 35:3) and to “strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble” (Hebrews 12:12). As a persecution ministry, this is obviously a part of our mandate, but with so many exhausted, weak, and feeble . . . where do we start?
I believe the Father gives us a clue in the instructions he gives to Moses prior to his death, “Charge Joshua, encourage him and strengthen him, for he shall go across at the head of this people” (Deuteronomy 3:28).
The Father’s plan for Israel’s success was to exhort Moses to encourage and strengthen Joshua – the godly leader who would go at the head of the people. Last year, we sent a pastor who is gifted in encouraging exhausted and weak leaders into a Muslim stronghold area in Africa to implement exactly this strategy. He told us something that really solidified this vision for us: “Touch a pastor, you’ll touch a church. Touch a church, you’ll touch a city. Touch a city, you’ll touch a nation.”
Pastor Greg spent four days training, strengthening, and encouraging 2000 pastors and key church leaders that we had gathered from 19 different denominations and 21 towns and villages. The pastors had arrived at the training weary and battered from continual persecution from radical Islamists, many of them ready to give up their calling. One of the pastors told us, “Mere words cannot fully express the unspeakable impact of the four days of training. My life and ministry vision is totally refreshed.”
The revival in the hearts of the pastors spilled over into three days of ministry to around 20,000 people from around the region. The team estimated that on the first night, about 90% of those in attendance were under 25 and 40% accepted Christ – including former Muslims who knew they were risking their lives to take such a stand. More than 2,000 rushed into a soccer field one night to pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
One of the church leaders told Pastor Greg that the ministry to the pastors alone probably impacted an additional 20,000 people in their home churches.
“Our region is known for famine and drought, but today we have seen the fresh visitation from the Lord touching our lives and region,” said a senior government official. After the trip, we learned from our partners on the ground that the “visitation” the official spoke of had continued. Town drunks were actually stumbling into churches in the region asking what they must do to be saved!
In our line of work, touching pastors is touching the men and women on the front lines of persecution who literally lay down their lives for their flocks. This kind of ministry is enabling pastors who are faltering in their calling to return to their suffering congregations and encourage them to continue “rejoicing in hope” and “persevering in tribulation” (Romans 12:12). We are strengthening the weak hands and feeble knees of those who will strengthen the church, and in turn, the nations.
When faced with the staggering reality that every day our brothers and sisters all around the world are harassed, beaten, tortured and killed for their faith in our Savior, it’s easy to feel helpless. After all, how can we, a world away and often scarcely able even to comprehend the depths of their suffering, truly help? Can we end persecution? Should we? Does sending money for a new house ease the pain of a widow whose family was burned to death inside her home?
In many ways, we are helpless. But perhaps that is a weakness that needs to be embraced before it is too readily dismissed. Consider Paul’s words to the church in Corinth as he recalls his own persecution, “Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:28-30).
Recently, our staff had the honor of having a pastor from India lead us in a devotional time. He shared a similar insight into this question. We invite you to listen to his words for yourself via the audio file at the top of this post, but in short, his answer was simple:
“You know what we need? We need somebody to identify with us. Somebody to say we are with you. Somebody to say we feel that suffering. We feel that hurt. We feel that pain. We feel it. That’s all the suffering church needs. Someone to know it. Someone to acknowledge it. And someone to be a part of it.”
Does that sound familiar? Jesus bore our sufferings in Himself and now calls us into the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). Is it possible that part of that fellowship involves genuinely bearing the burden of our brothers and sisters? And, if it does, what does that look like?
I can’t pretend to know the answer in full, but I would like to suggest a place to begin:
Don’t turn away. Speaking from the perspective of someone involved in this ministry day by day, I can tell you that the easiest thing to do when faced with the countless, horrific accounts of suffering (many accompanied by photographs) is to turn away, to dissociate, and to disconnect. But is that really our call?
Or is our call, like our Master’s, to lay down our lives for our brothers? To spend whole nights in prayer, weeping tears of anguish on their behalf? I don’t believe we can truly enter this place of intercession until we allow ourselves to really stop and look. Take a moment when you read these stories and imagine yourself or your family in such a situation. Feel their pain. Learn their names. If there is a picture – look in their eyes.
I challenge you to embrace the weakness of a tender heart for the persecuted church, taking comfort in the “Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).