"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain" (John 12:24)
After the secret baptisms of Afghani new believers, we all sat on the floor. The man opposite me with a trimmed white beard was waving his right hand. “What is he saying?” I asked our translator.
The man looked seventy years old, but I knew that he was probably much younger. My interpreter explained, “He says that he had a stroke a few months ago and his right arm was paralysed. He prayed that when he was baptised that God would heal him. He is waving his arm to say that God has healed him.”
This was Nazim, a man who loved learning. After this service, he returned to his village and started teaching children to read and write primarily using stories from the Injil (New Testament Bible). One morning, the local Mullah, a member of the Taliban, entered Master Nazim’s home with others from the local mosque and beat him severely, yelling “Why do you teach our children from the Injil and not from the Qur’an? All they need is Qur’an.” The mullah threatened to return and kill Nazim if he didn’t stop.
After the Mullah and his thugs had left, Nazim asked his wife and two children to quickly run and call together family and friends, along with his students. Within a few minutes, there were approximately twenty-five people crowded into his home. Despite the pain from his injuries, he gathered the strength to say to the assembly: “I want to tell you something very important.” He then recounted his journey to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He concluded by reading from the Gospels and saying, “Jesus, by giving His life for us, releases us from the burden of sin and links us with God.” He challenged his listeners to follow Jesus; then he fell over and died.
Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Believe in Christ by Brother Andrew and Al Janssen
No doubt like me you have been troubled by the dreadful unfolding of a 20 year old ‘Western Experiment’ in the nation of Afghanistan. Prior to 2000 there were no official churches in Afghanistan. Now there are several thousand believers usually meeting in secret. Courageous stories like Nazim are not uncommon.
Sadly Christian martyrdom is tainted by the evil and ungodly acts of suicide bombers and fanatical extremists. That is not a Christian understanding of martyrdom.
I didn't know this, but the word 'Martyr' comes from the Greek word 'witness'. A martyr is one who chooses to suffer death as a calling rather than to deny Jesus Christ or his work. The ability to display an attitude of joy while in the midst of enduring suffering or even dying for the faith. One who sacrifices His life to further the goodness and the love and the restoration and the justice of the kingdom of God.
The Bible gives these individuals special honour. Don’t hear what I’m not saying though. The Bible doesn't call us to seek martyrdom. In fact Jesus said in Matthew 10:
“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next”.
That's repeated throughout Acts as we see Christians fleeing persecution and the Christian faith going viral in the process.
So what on earth do we do with such stories? What are the questions we must ask? Increasingly these stories are not so distant anymore. In fact knowingly or unknowingly many of them rest on our doorstep. In the midst of massive globalisation, war and poverty and persecution and the massive increase in displaced people groups and the refugee crisis, we have thousands of stories of martyrs close up everyday.
She was 17 years old. He stood glaring at her, his weapon before her face, "do you believe in Jesus?” he asked her. She paused. It was a life or death question. "Yes I believe in God”. "Why?" asked her executioner. But he never gave her the chance to respond. The teenage girl lay dead at his feet.
This was Cassie Bernall a student at Columbine High School in Little town, Colorado 1999.
Do you believe in Jesus? Thats the question I ask when I read these stories. And on those days when the answer is an emphatic yes, the next question is why?
Most of the martyrs that we read about could have saved their own lives if they had been willing to deny Jesus Christ. We wonder, why they didn't just say they weren't Christians and live or could they not just keep silent about their faith? The point is, I believe Jesus more when faith moves people to action. I believe the baptism and the ongoing filing of God the Holy Spirit amongst his saints when I hear these stories of bravery from seemingly ordinary men, women and kids.
The purpose of reading about Christian martyrs it's not to try and explain away their deaths but to honour their conviction, commitment and faith. It's to stand in awe at the power of God lived out through individuals and groups. But most importantly these stories should build your commitment, conviction and faith. Each of us must follow Jesus for ourselves. You or I may never have to face the decision whether or not to die for our faith, but every day we do face the decision of whether or not we live for it with equal commitment, conviction and faith.
Throughout history ‘this great cloud of witnesses’ have died so you and I could experience the faith and freedoms that we enjoy today. They teach us about Gods love beyond reason, how to treat those we may regard as our enemies. They are a testimony to the power of God’s Word and Spirit. Therefore when you pick up a book and read the stories of Polycarp of Smyrna, Jim Elliot, John Allen Chau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so on, yes certainly, definitely, be encouraged by their previous lives. Without a doubt. Learn about them. But most importantly like the Apostle John on seeing the death of his beloved friend Peter and Stephen and countless others, make your life count as a result now, today, tomorrow and the day after and for eternity. We are spared for purpose.
As The Apostle Paul, almost certainly martyred in Rome AD 65, said:
We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!1
Friends, The blood of the Martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.
Do you believe in Jesus today?
1 Romans 5: 3-5, The Message paraphrase of the Bible
When Mary went to the tomb early on that first Sunday after Jesus' crucifixion, she would not have expected what was to come. Jesus' 'story' and mission however is bigger and greater than ours.
As we come out of our Covid restrictions and look into the next season for us as Jubilee, I wanted to take this time to share some news with you regarding our next steps as a church.
This month, we're privileged to have Michael Akotia write a blog for us. Michael along with his wife Mabel and three children (John, Keziah and Grace) are dear friends to us. Michael leads City of Grace Church in Ho, Ghana and serves on the Christ Central Churches International Team.