Richard Wurmbrand was a pastor in the persecuted Romanian Underground Church in 1940s-60s. He tells the story of an occasion when armed police broke into a church service. “If you are not a true believer you may leave,” the police said and pointed their guns. Some of the worshippers left, the majority remained, fearing for their lives. When the unbelievers had left, the police put down their guns. “We are Christians too,” they said, “But we only want to share fellowship with those who consider the truth worth dying for.”
What would you have done, I wonder? Stayed or left? Are we “those who consider the truth worth dying for?”
Jesus said in Mark 8:35 “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Through the ages many Christians have been courageous enough to sacrifice their lives for Jesus Christ and for the sake of the gospel. John the Baptist was the first – the first Christian martyr. Usually preachers are encouraged to preach from personal experience, but today is an exception. Our theme is martyrdom.
DYING FOR CHRIST
The life story of John the Baptist does not have a happy ending. So why is it included in such gory details? One reason is the significance of John and his ministry preparing the way for Jesus. But probably the more important reason is the desperate situation the first readers of Mark’s Gospel were facing. Mark’s Gospel was written around the time when Christians were experiencing terrible persecution under Emperor Nero between 60 and 65 AD. After the great fire of Rome in 64 AD Nero blamed the Christians. Some were forced to become gladiators, others thrown to the lions. Some were crucified and others were set on fire to be torches in Nero’s garden. Facing such horrific ordeals, Christians needed encouragement.
So here is the story of the death of John the Baptist. It has given Christians across the ages courage and hope as an example of faithfulness in the face of persecution, suffering and even death. Early Church history gives similar examples from the lives of the apostles: Peter reputedly crucified upside-down, James killed by the sword. We read about Paul’s sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11. And many Christians followed these first martyrs to death in the first three centuries of the church when they refused to bow down to the Roman Emperor. My favourite writer in that period was called Tertullian and around 200 AD he wrote this. “If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low the cry is always the same: “The Christians to the Lion!” What? All of them, to a single lion?”
Countless thousands of Christians were martyred in those centuries. But still they stood firm for Christ, and this faithfulness in the face of persecution became one of the most powerful factors contributing to the growth of the early church. Their deaths were their witness – and in fact the word martyr actually means witness – those who witness for Christ even up to death.
So Tertullian also wrote these memorable words. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
As Baptist Christians we neglect the history of the church and particularly the martyrs. We don’t celebrate saints’ days, our buildings don’t have the tombs of martyrs. But we should not forget that it was not only in the Early Church that Christians gave up their lives for Christ. In the sixteenth century many of the first Protestants were executed for their faith. In the seventeenth century in England our Baptist ancestors were persecuted by the state church. In the 1680s hundreds of Baptists were hanged and thousands were imprisoned or deported, just for being Baptists!
The twentieth century saw its share of martyrs too. From Jim Elliott of Missionary Aviation Fellowship working with the Auca Indians, to Martin Luther King, to the sufferings of Christians in the Communist Bloc to the persecution of the church in China after the Cultural Revolution, to the murders of Christians in African countries such as Nigeria even today.
So many Christians dying for Christ because they consider the truth is worth dying for.
Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
Even today the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
Stuart Townend’s beautiful song, “With a prayer you fed the hungry” has an interesting last verse. It goes,
I will feed the poor and hungry, I will stand up for the truth;
I will take my cross and follow To the corners of the earth.
And I ask that You so fill me With Your peace, Your power, Your breath,
That I never love my life so much To shrink from facing death.
The reality is that Christians in this country in our generation have not had to face persecution. There have not been any Christian martyrs in England for a long time. We need to be reminded that following Christ should mean that I never love my life so much To shrink from facing death.
Some Christians have lost sight of our Christian hope and the happy certainty of heaven. Some Christians are trapped in the worldly view of death as the last enemy, the destroyer and the end of all hope. They have forgotten the victory of Christ’s resurrection life which He shares with all who believe in Him. The death of our bodies is only the doorway into the presence of Christ, which is far better. Remember what the apostle Paul wrote.
Philippians 1 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
To depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, says Paul!
1 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
That is exactly what Stuart Townend means when he says that I never love my life so much To shrink from facing death.
Dying for Christ is not the end of all hope. Dying for Christ is not failure! The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
But not every Christian is called to die for Christ. What does this passage say to the rest of us? How does John the Baptist’s example of a martyr’s death help us live our Christian lives? We don’t all die for Christ, but we are all called to a life of
DYING WITH CHRIST
The gospel promises that we share Christ’s resurrection life, eternal life in relationship with God. But the gospel says that we also share in Christ’s death on the cross.
As far as sin in concerned with have died with Christ!
Romans 6 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. … 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Since we have died with Christ, Paul says, we should now turn away from sin.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master,
We all like to think that if Christ did call us to lay down our lives for him we would be faithful even unto death. We like to think that if we were facing the kind of persecution and imprisonment and suffering some of our brothers and sisters have had to endure, and are still facing in the persecuted churches, we would like to think that our faith would remain strong. But if God does not call us to die for Christ, we should still be prepared to die WITH Christ. To stand up for Christ and fight the battle against temptation and sin. To stand firm in the daily battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. To die with Christ to selfishness and pride and greed and lust and jealousy. That battle is just as hard – to nail our own selfishness and pride on the cross with Christ, to die to self and live for righteousness. Are we prepared to die WITH Christ?
And if we are not called to die for Christ, the example of John the Baptist and of all the martyrs does spur us on to
LIVING FOR CHRIST
It has been said that it is easier to die for Christ than to live for Him. When Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times, Peter boasted, “I will even die for you.” And I am sure Peter would have laid down his life for Christ. But that isn’t what God required of him. Jesus simply wanted to Peter to live for him, to stay faithful to him and not deny he knew him. But Peter failed.
Paul wrote Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
Jesus has died for us. Our lives belong to Him now. We are no longer in control – Christ is our boss! We may not be called to die for Christ but we are called to live for Him, obeying him in every aspect of our lives.
Romans 6 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. …. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.
2 Corinthians 5 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
The great cricketer who became a missionary to the Congo C.T.Studd wrote, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.” If Christ called us to lay down our lives for him, we hope we would. If he asks any lesser service of us we should do it even more willingly!
Spurgeon said that the gospel comes to comfort us in our afflictions but also to afflict us in our comforts. The death of John the Baptist is an inspiration and an encouragement to Christians suffering persecution. But to those of us who are not persecuted or imprisoned for our faith it still gives us an example to follow.
As do the lives of the apostles, and of our brothers and sisters who belong to the suffering church in so many places still today. The blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the church. Are we also people “who consider the truth worth dying for?”