To Die For

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matt 5:10-12

Some hymns are so familiar that we often don’t stop and think about the lyrics. When we do, we may discover that they’re beautiful, archaic, mystifying – or disturbing. For some, this might be the case with hymn #304 in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal – Frederick W. Faber’s “Faith of Our Fathers.” A hymn about preaching the gospel in spite of persecution, the second stanza contains these lines:

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark: Were still in heart and conscience free:
How sweet would be their children’s fate if they, like them, could die for thee!

Suffering and dying as a Christian martyr isn’t enough, Faber seems to suggest – we should wish it for our children too. Most would, in fact, be horrified if their parents told them that their greatest hope for them would be premature death. What kind of impulse – why kind of holy madness – leads someone to wish for death?

In the early church, being willing to die for Christ was integral to being a Christian – and it was a practical commitment, not an ideological one. “The believing have, in love, the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ, by whom, if we are not in readiness to die into his suffering his life is not in us,” wrote early church father Ignatius of Antioch. Shortly after writing this, he was executed in Rome by being torn apart by beasts in front of a crowd.

Indeed, the New Testament is full of martyrs, both those who die within the narrative for their faith – like Stephen, who preached to the Pharisees during his execution trial (Acts 6:8-15) – and those who would later face death for their beliefs – like Peter, who was crucified upside down in Rome in AD 64. The first person to die who proclaimed Christ, however – one we don’t talk about as often – died before Jesus was even crucified.

In Matthew 14:1-12, Matthew takes a break from relating the miracles of Jesus to address the fate of a character we haven’t seen in awhile: John the Baptist. Herod had put John the Baptist to death, and was haunted by the possibility that Jesus - the miracle man walking around gaining followers and performing impossible feats - could actually be John The Baptist back from the dead.

Matthew then explains that Herod wanted John dead – not directly because of his teachings about the Messiah – but because John had publicly criticized Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias. When Herodias’s daughter Salome danced for Herod and he offered her anything she wanted as a reward, Herodias had her ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter – and so Herod had his chance to kill the unruly prophet.

While John’s tragic death comes as a result of his speaking truth to power, he isn’t directly killed because he preaches about Jesus. Does this mean that he isn’t a martyr – or does it force us to reevaluate exactly what a martyr is?

“The early church was married to poverty, prisons, and persecutions. Today the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.” - Leonard Ravenhill

Cynical modern writer Chuck Palahniuk has remarked that “The only difference between a suicide and a martyrdom really is the amount of press coverage.” Many would argue, however, that the difference between suicide and martyrdom is choosing to die and choosing to die for something. This doesn’t necessarily need to be religion – at least, that’s what is implied by this scene from Stranger than Fiction, where a literature professor tries to convince the main character in a book that he needs to die for the sake of creating good literature:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBRlxs0q2QY

Of course, the professor’s pleas for Harold to die seem ridiculous – but wouldn’t many people say the same thing about people dying for religion, for what they see as just a good story? Is dying for Christian faith – especially when a simple word or choice could save your life – any bit more reasonable?

Of course, while Christians in other parts of the world do currently face immediate danger and even the threat of death for practicing their beliefs, martyrdom isn’t a problem that often faces the contemporary church in the West. As Leonard Ravenhill notes, “The early church was married to poverty, prisons, and persecutions. Today the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.”

Is this comfort and prosperity something that we should wish would change? Should we, like the author of the hymn, pray for the same persecution and death that plagued the early church? Or is the biggest test of faith not dying but persevering through the long and often dispiriting slog of life, agreeing with the musical Hamilton that “dying is easy, but living is harder”?

Talk Back:

  • Read the verses listed below and answer the following questions: Why does God seem to want people he loves to die for him? Or is it something that he does not want? Does suffering for Christian beliefs have any purpose?
  • Is there a difference between dying for a loved one and dying for your beliefs? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • On October 1, 2015, a shooter entered Umpqua Community College, killing ten people and injuring nine more. While he was there he questioned victims as to their faith; if they said they were Christians, he shot them in the head. This kind of situation often shows up in our discussion of the End Times; this, however, was just an attack by a random person. How would you respond in this situation? Would saying you weren’t a Christian here mean you were denying God? Would saying yes and dying here make you a martyr like the martyrs in the early Christian church?
  • Among the early Christians in the 3rd century, there was some controversy about what to do with Christians who gave up their faith during persecution, who then returned to the church. Even some church leaders caved under pressure and offered pagan worship offerings to the Roman Emperor, contradicting and even renouncing their faith in Jesus. After the persecutions against Christians calmed down, many of these people returned to the church, regretting what they had done. Read more about these events on Wikipedia, and how Cyprian of Carthage dealt with this issue. How do you think the church should treat members who renounce their faith under pressure?
  • Talking about Christian persecution from just the Bible can be one-sided. Jesus and the apostles give lots of instruction about what Christians should do when other people persecute them. They don’t talk much about what happens when Christians persecute others - because that’s not what Christians are supposed to do. However, history is filled with examples of people who identify themselves as followers of Christians committing acts of violence, manipulation, and cruelty to other people. Can you think of some examples of this? What can Christians today do to improve our relationships with people who may see Christianity as dangerous or harmful?

Go Deeper:

Read Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus, the Ultimate Jesus Freaks by DC Talk, the well known Contemporary Christian Music group with a song by the same name, Jesus Freak.

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