Saturday, May 26, 2018

Remembering the Martyrs

"Remember your former leaders, who spoke God's message to you. Think back on how they lived and died, and imitate their faith." (Hebrews 13:7, Good News Bible.)

This Memorial Day weekend, I want to say that I'm grateful for those who have given their lives in the service of our country and in defending the freedoms we enjoy. And when I meet military men and women, I thank them for their service. My grandfather served in World War II, and I have great respect for those who serve in our armed forces. 

Yet it's important to remember that as Christians, we are also citizens of heaven. The Bible says, "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Phil. 3:20, NKJV.) And many of those who went before us died for their faith in Christ. We need to remember them and honor their legacy. In the Greek language of the New Testament, the word “witnesses” (Greek martures; see Acts 1:8) means “martyrs”. The early Christian author Tertullian (155 – 250 A.D.) wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50.) 

Here's an excellent graphic novel called The Martyrs, published by The Voice of the Martyrs ministry, which tells the story of some of the early Christian martyrs. 

And let's also remember that most all of the twelve apostles died for their Christian faith. The Voice of the Martyrs has another graphic novel called The Twelve, which "tells about the lives and deaths of the 12 apostles."

Additionally, let's remember the great apostle Paul. Shortly before his martyrdom he wrote: 
“Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me his prisoner, but join me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God.” (2 Timothy 1:8.)
"As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near." (2 Timothy 4:6, NLT.)

To give some historical context to Paul’s words, here's a statement by the Roman historian Tacitus (55 – 120 A.D.) regarding the persecution of Christians during the reign of Emperor Nero. (It was Nero who had the apostle Paul beheaded). Tacitus writes: 
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration [devastating fire] was the result of an order [i.e. Nero's order to burn the city of Rome]. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, and immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Annals of Tacitus, Book 15, Section 44.) 

Similarly, the church historian Eusebius (260 - 340 A.D.) writes:
1. When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe. 
2. To describe the greatness of his depravity does not lie within the plan of the present work. As there are many indeed that have recorded his history in most accurate narratives, every one may at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the man’s extraordinary madness, under the influence of which, after he had accomplished the destruction of so many myriads without any reason, he ran into such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very many others of his own family as he would private and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths. 
3. But with all these things this particular in the catalogue of his crimes was still wanting, that he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion. 
4. The Roman Tertullian is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows: "Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence." 
5. Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. (Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 25.)

No wonder that Andy Stanley has remarked something to the effect that, "Today we name our sons Paul and our dogs Nero." The Bible says, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot.” (Proverbs 10:7.)

So let's thank God for the freedoms we enjoy in this country and let's use it as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel!

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