What is the cost of proclaiming God’s Word to a fallen world?
In the Old Testament, the cost was often being ridiculed, ostracized, or even arrested. Elijah was chased out of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, because he dared to challenge the false prophets and their idols. Jeremiah was arrested for sedition, because he had called the people to repentance and foretold the capture of Jerusalem by the empire of Babylon. John the Baptist, who straddled the era of the prophetic promises of the Old Testament and the realization of those promises in the New, was himself arrested and killed for calling Herod Antipas to repentance.
Then, of course, Jesus Christ was crucified by those who were offended at him. All of his apostles, except for John (who was exiled to Patmos), were killed by the authorities for their witness to the Christian faith – this is where we get the word “martyr” from. At the time, it meant a “witness” – as in a witness who testifies to the truth of something, staking his life on his testimony. That’s why those who were killed for the faith were called “witnesses” or “martyrs.”
Indeed, in the first three centuries of the New Testament Church, many Christians were martyred for their faith. We speak of the more well-known ones like St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and St. Justin Martyr. But, there were countless others: bishops, deacons, deaconesses, and the faithful of the various congregations of the Church. In fact, Pliny the Younger – Roman governor of the province of Bithynia in the early second century – corresponded with the emperor Hadrian about what to do with Christians, stating that he tortured and executed many.
The Church has always had her martyrs, right up to the present time and in our own day. Right now, Christians in Egypt and throughout the Middle East are being killed for their faith. Christians in China are sometimes arrested.
And yet the Church continues its faithful witness and is growing in these areas. For, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” as the second century Christian apologist Tertullian wrote.
Perhaps we can look at all this and count ourselves lucky. We in America and Europe are not being killed for our faith, at least not by the civil authorities. We may be ridiculed at times, or ostracized, or even sued or denied employment or business. But, we at least are not yet being killed.
Is this all unanticipated? No. In fact, Jesus Christ warns us in Matthew 10:21-33 and in other places that we will encounter opposition for proclaiming the Word of God. If Christ was crucified, then his people should expect that they too will be persecuted. For we are not above our master, and the fallen world rejects the God who made it.
Perhaps, though, the Church is at its strongest and most pure when it is being persecuted. Like a refining fire which makes the ore stronger, persecution refines the Church and focuses it on what is most important.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was chased from the German church of the Nazi era in the 30s and 40s, he founded his own underground seminary and helped form the “Confessing Church.” The goal was to keep the Word of God untainted by the world’s political calculations and idolatry, particularly that of the Nazis who sought to co-opt the Church and use it to support its evil agenda. The members of the Confessing Church were most concerned with keeping God’s Word pure and proclaiming it to a world which was dying around them, a world which desperately needed to hear that the things people were doing were against God’s Law and that there was a free forgiveness in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if only they would take hold of it.
The world is always trying to corrupt the Church by injecting its own ideas into it, in order to tear people away from God, doubt His Word, or cause discord within the Church. So, in our own time, the Church is told that its ways and its teachings are outdated or hateful. What is this but a way of saying that God’s Word is no longer relevant or not true? People also attack the things we believe about God: that He’s a Trinity; that His Son came in the flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary; that He died and rose for our salvation; that He is returning again to resurrect our bodies and bring us into everlasting life. What is this denial, but a denial of God’s revelation of Himself to us?
So, the fallen world wars against the Church at the instigation of its prince, the devil. And yet our Master has overcome the devil and the world. He was killed, and yet he conquered. And we are conquerers through Him, no matter what ills may befall us in this present life. And He says to you: “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:26-30).
So, what is the Church to do? She is to remain faithful to Christ, her husband. She is to pray for her enemies and for the people of the Church. She is to keep teaching her people so that they will be enabled to defend the faith. She is to proclaim the Word of God, bringing people to repentance through the Word of Law and forgiving sins through the Word of Gospel.
And the Church brings great hope with this proclamation. This hope proclaims that the world is not as it is meant to be. This hope proclaims that the sadness, fear, hurt, anger, sickness, death, and brokenness we feel and experience will not last forever. This hope proclaims that God has not abandoned this world to wallow in its fallen state, but sent His Son to redeem it. This hope proclaims that “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And this hope proclaims that the Church will continue its mission of bringing people to faith in Christ for their salvation until he returns in glory to finish his restoration.
Then, sin, death, and the devil will be no more. It will just be Christ and His people in a restored creation forever. And the truth which the martyrs witnessed to with their blood, and which we continue to proclaim, will be seen in person.
(Image: Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: “Procession of the Holy Martyrs”. Mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”. By Meister von San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155424 )