Suffering and Martyrdom
God's Strategy in the World
Jesus Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords, calls people to Himself and demands from them total allegiance to Himself. Nothing of this world, not father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter, or material goods, ought to stand between Him and His children. Jesus expects them to learn from Him and to become like Him. Then Jesus sends them into the world as His Father sent Him into the world, to spread His message and to be His witnesses. He knows that the world will hate His witnesses and will turn against them with merciless violence. Nonetheless, He expects them to meet that hatred with love, and to face that violence with glad acceptance, following His example by suffering and dying for the lost world. Their suffering and martyrdom are prompted by their allegiance to His own Person and are endured for the purpose of spreading His gospel. Christ's disciples do not seek these things for their own sake, and they do not inflict these on themselves. Their goal is not to suffer and to die; on the contrary, their goal is Christ's Person and Christ's cause in the world, the spreading of His gospel.
Suffering for Christ is not only the suffering of persecution. It begins when one leaves close relatives for the service of Christ. For some, it means selling their possessions and giving them to the poor, which often means giving them for the propagation of the gospel. For others, suffering for Christ may mean agonizing in prayer for the cause of Christ, or agonizing and toiling for the building up of the body of Christ and the perfecting of the saints. Again, to clarify this concept, suffering for Christ is not a self-inflicted suffering. The disciple of Christ seeks to do the will of Christ and to promote the cause of Christ. However, suffering for Christ does mean that the disciple will voluntarily involve himself in suffering and in sacrificial living for Christ and His gospel.
Furthermore, a disciple of Christ thinks as a slave of Christ: he is totally at the disposition of the Master. It is the Master who decides what kind of service this particular disciple should perform. The first duty of the disciple is, therefore, to discover the will of his Master and to do it with joy and passion. If and only if the disciple does his duty can he be certain that his Master is always with him, living in and through him to accomplish His own purposes.
Martyrdom is the function God gives to some of His elect to literally die for the sake of Christ and His gospel. From what the Scriptures intimate, it is apparent that there is a fixed number of God's children who have been predestined by God for this supreme sacrifice. For some, martyrdom might be a quick event, like being shot or beheaded, but for others it could also be preceded by torture. God may have in His plan a long martyrdom of toiling in a labor camp or the misery and pain of a long imprisonment. In such a situation, even if the Christian is released after some time and the actual death occurs at home because of his health having been shattered by the long detention and suffering, I believe that God still reckons the death as a martyrdom. In our more sophisticated age, martyrdom might also take the shape of an imprisonment in a psychiatric hospitala modern form of torture that is possibly the most cruel form of martyrdom where one's mental health and even one's personality are utterly ruined by means of drugs and other psychological torture.
God does everything with a purpose. If He chooses to call His children to suffering and self-sacrifice, He must have very important purposes to achieve through them. Hence, it is the duty of the children to obey their Father even if they do not understand the purpose or rationale behind the Father's command. But the Father wants His children to understand Him because He wants them to develop a mind like His. Therefore, He has revealed His mind, His purposes, and His methods to His children in His written Word and in His Incarnate Word.
God entered into history by sending His Incarnate Son as a suffering slave who would end His own earthly life enduring torture and martyrdom. In this event, God revealed to us that suffering and self-sacrifice are His specific methods for tackling the problems of rebellion, of evil, and of the sin of mankind. Self-sacrifice is the only method consistent with His own nature. For instance, God cannot respond to hate with hate, because if He did He would borrow not only the method but also the nature of the one who is the originator of hate, the evil one. God can only respond with love because He is love, and by suffering and sacrificing Himself for the ones who hate Him, He expresses the essence of His own nature.
Now, the ones who are born of God have become partakers of the nature of God (2 Pet 1:4). Therefore, the children of God are called to tackle the problems of this world with the same agape love which is the nature of God (1 John 4:4-21). More than this, Christ united Himself with His brethren in a union that is comparable to His union with the Father (John 17:21-26). Christ lives in them and continues His work in the world through them. But He has not changed the strategy He used when He was in the world. His method is still the method of the cross. With this in mind, Christ told His disciples that He would send them into the world just as His Father had sent Him into the world; in other words, He sent them to be in the same position and to conquer by the same method, namely, the method of the cross. For precisely this reason, Jesus asked them to take up their own crosses and to follow His example by going into all the world to preach the gospel (to witness), to serve others, and to die for others. Their crosses represent their voluntary, sacrificial involvement in the fulfillment of their Father's purposes with mankind.
Three basic things are achieved by the deaths of the martyrs:
- The triumph of God's truth
- The defeat of Satan
- The glory of God
Martyrdom and the Triumph of God's Truth
The unredeemed world lives in spiritual darkness. The eyes of unbelievers have been darkened by Satan, resulting in their hatred of the light of truth. For people who have lived a long time in darkness, a bright light that suddenly shines upon them produces pain. They cannot stand the light. They hate the light, and they do their best to put it out. Jesus explained the world's reaction to His own coming into the world in these terms (John 3:19-20), and He told His disciples to expect exactly the same kind of treatment.
Speaking in modern terms, each group of people on this planet considers its own religion to be one of its most precious treasures. Thus telling them that their faith is wrong or untrue becomes an unforgivable offense and insult against them. The attempt to change their religion is perceived as an attack on their "national identity." This is why Christian missionaries are met with hostility and violence in every place to which they carry the gospel. For his part, the missionary must be convinced that the population to which he takes the Word lives in the lie of Satan and is damned to hell as a result of it. If the missionary is not convinced of this, he will not risk his life to kindle the light in their midst.
However, when the ambassador of Christ speaks the truth in love, and meets death with joy, a strange miracle occurs: the eyes of unbelievers are opened, they are enabled to see the truth of God, and this leads them to believe in the gospel. Ever since the centurion's eyes were opened at Calvary, ever since he believed that Jesus was the Son of God because he had seen the manner of His death (Mark 15:39), thousands and thousands of Christian martyrdoms over the centuries have produced the same results. Moreover, this was precisely what Tertullian had in mind when he wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed out of which new Christians are born. Many, many groups of people on this planet have testified that the darkness which had been over them was dissipated only when a missionary was killed there. However, countless areas and peoples of the world today so experience a darkness that will be vanquished only when enough Christians have given up their lives in martyrdom.
Martyrdom and the Defeat of Satan
Jesus saw His own coming into this world as an invasion of the strong man's house in order to spoil his goods (Matt 12:29). He saw the Prince of this world being cast out at His own death (John 12:31-33), and as a result of the ministry of His own disciples (Luke 10:17-19). Jesus taught them not to be afraid of the ones who can kill only the body, and He charged them to bravely lose their lives in order to gain the victory (Matt 10:26-39). Hence, John was simply following the teaching of his Lord when he depicted the casting out of Satan and his defeat through the deaths of the martyrs in Revelation 12:9-11.
Satan has two instruments with which he keeps humans in bondage and slavery. His first instrument is sin. The sins of people are Satan's "certificate of ownership." But this document was nailed to the cross of Calvary and was canceled by the death of Christ (Col 2:14-15). Satan's second instrument is the fear of dying (Heb 2:14-15). Again, by His own death, Jesus liberated His own from the fear of death. When the martyrs meet their death without fear, Satan's last instrument is rendered powerless, and he is crushed and defeated.
As the deceiver of the nations, Satan maintains their enslavement by keeping them in the darkness of his deception. When the martyrs cause the truth of God to shine brightly among the nations, those who were formerly in the bondage of darkness respond by turning back to God. The death of the martyrs opens the eyes of unbelievers, and when they see the light, Satan's power over them is gone. We have further proof of this reality in the Book of Revelation, where we see the knowledge of God coming to all the nations as a result of the deaths of the martyrs (Rev. 11:1-19; 14:1-12; 15:2-4). The martyrs are shown to defeat Satan by bringing all the nations to God through their witness and death.
The story of Job shows us another aspect of Satan's defeat by the faithfulness in suffering of God's people. Job's refusal to curse God demonstrated to the whole population of heaven that God had genuine worshipers on the earth, thus proving Satan wrong. The suffering of Job was watched by the hosts of heaven as an extraordinary spectacle. It appears that Paul had the experience of Job in mind when, speaking of the suffering of the apostles, he said that they "have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men" (1 Cor 4:9).
Writing from prison about his own ministry, Paul told the Ephesians that "the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places" now have the opportunity of knowing God's "manifold wisdom" as it is being manifested in the Church (Eph 3:10). Paul was talking about the same wisdom of God that he had earlier described in 1 Corinthians 1: 17-31. This is the wisdom of God which the world considers utter foolishness: that He sent His only Son to die on the cross. However, the manifestation of God's wisdom in this world did not end with Jesus on the cross; it is continued in His children when they obey God's commission to go into the world and to sacrifice themselves for the cause of Christ. As they conquer by dying, God's children demonstrate His wisdom to the whole cosmos. Moreover, by their witness and death, Satan is discredited and defeated.
Martyrdom and the Glory of God
Jesus described the outcome of His crucifixion as both His own glorification and as the glorification of God (John 12:27-32; 13:31-32). Yet death by crucifixion was one of the most shameful and barbaric modes of execution; how could that be considered an act glorifying to God? The answer becomes clear when one sees what that act has revealed to the world. In Christ's voluntary suffering for the salvation of mankind, the true nature of God was revealed. His essence was shown to be perfect love, utterly and unconditionally giving itself to others, even enduring pain and death for them. The glory of God shines through the beauty and splendor of self-sacrifice as nowhere else and, most importantly, this glory of God, the glory of His self-sacrificing love, shines out in each martyrdom. For this reason, John referred to the martyrdom of Peter as "the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God" (John 21:19, NIV). It was also the reason why Paul was so determined to glorify Christ by his own dying (Phil 1:20, NASB).
Martyrdom has the power of revealing the love of God to those in darkness. Herein lies its power to convince and to persuade: people see the love of God in the death of the martyr and are compelled to believe in God's love and sacrifice for them. Paul expressed the same idea in the concept of reflecting the image of Christ or the glory of God to other people through our suffering and our loving self-sacrifice for others (2 Cor 3:18; 4:1-15). As the knowledge of Christ and the grace of God is spread to more and more people through the sacrifice of the children of God, there is more and more thanksgiving, praise, and glory given to God.
Taken from Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven, Josef Tson, Copyright 1997, University Press of America. Used by permission.
This article appears in the recently completed Third Edtion of the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement Reader. The volume is available at missionbooks.org