Why I Am A Christian (#11): “They loved not their lives unto the death”

Detail from the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1556), in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1556), in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In this series of eleven posts, I outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Contents

Reason #11: “They loved not their lives unto the death”

“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”

Revelation 12:11

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
Revelation 12:9-11 (AV)[1]

In my opinion one of the most compelling reasons for believing in the Christian faith is the faithful witness of those who, down the centuries, have preferred to die rather than deny the Lord Jesus.

“From the first years of Christianity down to the present day, without interruption, Christians have always been called upon to suffer and to die for the Christian faith.”

For from the first years of Christianity down to the present day, without interruption, Christians have always been called upon to suffer and to die for the Christian faith.

In Christianity the act of suffering death as a witness to the Lord Jesus is called martyrdom, and those who so die are called martyrs.[2] It is worth remarking that this, Christian sense of the word ‘martyr’ is entirely different to the meaning of the word commonly associated with radical Islam. The Christian martyr dies bearing witness peacefully to the message of Christ, not dying in the act of bringing harm to others.

Let us consider just a few of the many down the centuries who have willingly laid down their lives for their Lord Jesus Christ.

In ancient times

Paul, Peter (both 60’s A.D.)

“[Peter], when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, […] and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.”

1 Clement, chapter 5

It is certain that the apostles Paul and Peter, both of whom wrote parts of the New Testament, were martyred for the faith. We don’t have an entirely reliable tradition as to how they died, but that they died for the faith is clear from a statement of Clement of Rome (c. 95 A.D.) who writes,

Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.
1 Clement, chapter 5[3]

We should not overlook the significance of this in particular. Peter was one of the twelve disciples of the Lord and — the Gospels claim — saw him on several occasions after he rose from the dead. Paul claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. If these men were willing to die telling people about the risen Lord Jesus, that is a powerful testimony to the truth of their claims.

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. 107 A.D.)

“All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this age, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ than to reign over all the ends of the earth.”

Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans

One of the outstanding examples of faith from the generation after the apostles fell asleep in Christ, was Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria. He is believed to have known the apostle John personally.

Around 107 A.D., Ignatius was condemned to death for being a Christian, and was taken under guard to Rome to be killed by wild beasts in the arena.

On his way to Rome he wrote letters to six churches to spur them on in the Christian faith, as well as a letter to his friend Polycarp (of whom more shortly). His letters are filled with desire to “depart and be with Christ.” He even urged his fellow believers not to try to prevent his execution!

Writing to the Christians in Rome itself, he says:

“All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this age, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ than to reign over all the ends of the earth. ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?’ [Matthew 16:26] Him I seek, who died for us; him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me.”
Letter to the Romans, chapter 6[4]

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (c. 155 A.D.)

“Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

Polycarp

Ignatius’ friend and fellow bishop Polycarp was bishop of Smryna in Asia Minor. A moving and credible account survives of how he was put on trial for being a Christian. Ordered by the proconsul to swear an oath by the fortune of Caesar, repudiating the Christians, Polycarp refused. Instead he told the proconsul:

“Eighty-six years I have served him [Christ], and he never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”[5]

For this refusal to deny Christ, Polycarp was sentenced to be burnt alive. He died on the pyre, faithfully following his King and Saviour.

Justin Martyr (c. 165 A.D.)

“After searching enthusiastically in various philosophies, Justin became convinced that in Christianity he had found the true philosophy.”

Justin was a Palestinian Greek who searched enthusiastically for truth in various Greek philosophies. Finally he gave consideration to Christianity after an encounter with a Christian by the seashore, and became convinced that he had found the true philosophy. He then began to persuade others of the truth of the Christian faith.

Justin leaves us three major surviving writings, known as 1 Apology, 2 Apology,[6] and the Dialogue with Trypho. He is believed to have been martyred for the Christian faith (hence the epithet with which he has become known) around A.D. 165.[7]

Perpetua and Felicitas (c. 202 A.D.)

Perpetua was a woman of respectable birth and well educated. Felicitas was a young, female slave. At the time of their deaths Perpetua was about twenty-two years old and nursing an infant son; Felicitas was herself pregnant.

“‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’ And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’ And I replied to him, ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.’”

Perpetua

The two women were arrested on put on trial for being Christians. On refusing to offer sacrifice to the Emperors, and confessing themselves to be Christians, they were imprisoned in a dungeon. For a while Perpetua kept her child with her in the dungeon in order to suckle him, until her father refused to give the child to her.

Being eight months pregnant, and not wishing to remain while the others with her were sent to the wild beasts (pregnant women were not allowed to be put to death), Felicitas prayed, and then went into labour, delivering a daughter in the prison three days before the day of execution. The girl was brought up by a fellow Christian.

On the day of execution, the women were led, along with some Christian brothers, into the arena. A fierce cow had been prepared for the women, and tossed Perpetua to the ground. Her tunic was torn from her side. Felicitas was crushed by the beast.

Perpetua was the last to die. Before she died she nobly held the gladiator’s sword to her own throat.

We have Perpetua’s own account of her imprisonment. It is a moving record. While she was on trial, and her father was urging her to give in to the demands of the mob,

“‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’ And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’ And I replied to him, ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.’”[8]

At the Reformation (16th century)

William Tyndale (c. 1494 — 1536)

William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire and completed a degree at Oxford in 1512. He became convinced that the English people must be able to read the Bible for themselves, in their native English (at the time it was only available to read in Latin).

“If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

William Tyndale, speaking to a clergyman

“If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
Tyndale, speaking to a clergyman[9]

He made it his life’s work to translate the Bible from its Hebrew and Greek into English. Because of threats at home, he had to move to the Continent to carry out this work. In 1525 his New Testament in English was published. Copies had to be smuggled into England by sympathetic merchants.

In spite of his precautions, Tyndale was betrayed by a spy and arrested near Brussels in 1535. He was executed by strangulation and burning in 1536. His last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”[10]

Thomas Cranmer (1489 — 1556)

“Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VIII in 1532, and introduced the ideas of the Protestant Reformation into the Church of England. But he fell foul of the Catholic queen Mary (1553—1558), and was burned at the stake at Oxford in 1556.”

Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VIII in 1532. Influenced by the writings of Martin Luther, he introduced the ideas of the Protestant Reformation into the Church of England.

In an age when summary executions and kangaroo courts were commonplace around the English throne, Cranmer survived the reign of Henry VIII and served as Archbishop under Edward VI. But he fell foul of the Catholic queen Mary (1553—1558), and was burned at the stake at Oxford in 1556.

Echoing the words of the first Christian martyr Stephen, Cranmer’s dying words while being burnt at the stake were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit …; I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”[11]

21st-century Christian martyrs

“According to the report for the Foreign Office, 245 million Christians around the world today face persecution for their faith.”

Christians around the world are still laying down their lives for Christ today.

An interim report published on 3rd May and commissioned by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP found that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. According to the report, 245 million Christians around the world currently face persecution for their faith.

Here are just a few examples of Christians who have died brutally for the Lord Jesus in recent years.

Nauman Masih, 14 (died 14 April 2015)

“On confessing that he was a Christian, Nauman Masih was doused in kerosene and set alight. He died four days later.”

On 10 April 2015 in Lahore, Pakistan, 14-year-old Christian Nauman Masih was returning home from work when he was set upon by two Muslim attackers who asked him what his religion was. On confessing that he was a Christian, Masih was doused in kerosene and set alight.

He died in hospital four days later.

Sudanese church pastor and his family murdered in Sudan (died 2 March 2018)

“Masked attackers made their way into the house of Sudanese church pastor Stephen Toms Abur, demanding to know why he had not responded to their warnings to stop preaching the Christian faith. In response, Pastor Stephen began telling them about Jesus.”

In the early hours of 2 March 2018 in Darfur, western Sudan, masked attackers made their way into the house of Sudanese church pastor Stephen Toms Abur, demanding to know why he had not responded to their warnings to stop preaching the Christian faith. In response, Pastor Stephen began telling them about Jesus.

The attackers assembled the family in their living room and tried to make Pastor Stephen violate his daughters, Rachel and Priscilla. When he refused, they cut the two girls into pieces, followed by their mother Beatrice.

They then killed Pastor Stephen himself, before setting fire to his church building, where hundreds of Christian converts were sleeping, having been disowned by their families and taken refuge there. Miraculously, none of those in the church building died.

Uzbek woman murdered by husband because of her Christian faith (died 9 February 2019)

“On 9 February this year, an Uzbek woman had her throat cut by her husband after converting to Christianity.”

On 9 February this year, an Uzbek woman had her throat cut by her husband after converting to Christianity and asking a friend to get her an Uzbek Bible. The husband is now facing many years in prison for murder. Her two-year-old son is being raised by his grandparents.

Conclusion

The above are just a few examples of the millions who have been killed for their Christian faith during the last twenty centuries. The Foreign Office report mentioned earlier found that 245 million Christians worldwide are currently facing persecution. As many as 3,000 Christians were killed for their faith in 2018 alone.

“Soviet Communism fell, practically overnight, in 1991. The Third Reich lasted only twelve years. The mighty Roman Empire fell to pieces in the fifth century A.D. But the Christian faith has endured down the centuries, and continues to endure.”

The willingness of believers worldwide, from the first century down to this day, to die rather than deny their Lord Jesus Christ, is a powerful testimony to the truth of the Christian faith.

To me, in some ways this is the most convincing evidence of all. Down the centuries ideologies have come and gone, political movements have come and gone; Soviet Communism fell, practically overnight, in 1991. The Third Reich lasted only twelve years. The mighty Roman Empire fell to pieces in the fifth century A.D.

But the Christian faith has endured down the centuries, and continues to endure. And believers in Jesus shed their blood, their very lives, year after year for him. “They loved not their lives unto the death.”

That is why I believe that the Christian faith is true and ultimately, the only really successful way to live.

What would it take to convince you of the truth of the Christian faith?

*        *        *

We have reached the end of our series on ‘Why I Am A Christian.’ I hope that you have enjoyed this series. My humble prayer is that you will go back and review these reasons for the Christian faith, and perhaps come to know the Lord Jesus Christ for yourself, and enjoy everlasting life in the presence of God through him.

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

 

 

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[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+12%3A9-11&version=AKJV

[2] Historically the term has also been applied to those who suffer severe persecution such as torture for the Lord Jesus. The word actually derives from the Greek word for ‘witness’, martus (μάρτυς, G3144), hence, “one who bears witness to the faith.” Thus Acts of the Apostles 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

[3] https://etimasthe.com/2018/02/27/four-things-clement-of-rome-tells-us-about-early-christianity/#Observation1

[4] Ignatius of Antioch and Graham Harter, The Shorter and Syriac Epistles of Ignatius, 2018, p.36.

[5] https://etimasthe.com/2017/10/18/a-reflection-on-the-martyrdom-of-polycarp-of-smyrna-c-65-155-a-d/

[6] ‘Apology’ here means “a defence of the gospel”: from the Greek word apologia (ἀπολογία). It doesn’t imply saying sorry!

[7] A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion, 1996), p.94.

[8] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian24.html

[9] A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity, p.398.

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Cranmer#Trials,_recantations,_death_(1553%E2%80%931556)

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