Witnesses and Martyrs

In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 13:1-13), Jesus tells his disciples:

“… be on your guard.  For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.  And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.  And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.  And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.  And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Jesus warned his disciples what was going to happen after he died, rose, and ascended into heaven.  As the New Testament Church began to spread throughout the world during the time between Christ’s ascension and his coming again it would be called to “bear witness” to Jesus Christ before the world.  The Greek word translated “bear witness” is “martyria,” which is where we get our word “martyr.”  In the days of the early Church, to bear witness to Christ often meant that you would be killed for doing so, which is why death began to be attached to the concept of martyria, or witness.  

And indeed, what Jesus told his disciples would happen did, in fact, happen.  Of the original apostles (other than Judas Iscariot who hanged himself after betraying Jesus), all except John were killed for their faith; they were martyrs, because their deaths bore witness to their conviction in the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They were so firmly convinced, because they had seen Jesus die on the cross, then they saw him alive again, and then they saw him ascend into heaven.  They bore witness, then, not to abstract ideas or philosophies but rather to the truth of what they had seen with their own eyes.  They were witnesses, and for these acts of martyria, they were often killed by those who opposed the Church.

James, John’s brother, was killed in 44 AD; Philip in 54 AD; Matthew in 60 AD.  Peter was crucified upside-down in Rome in 64 AD during the Roman emperor Nero’s persecutions.  His brother Andrew was crucified upon a diagonal cross.  Bartholomew (also called Nathaniel) and Jude were killed.  Thomas was killed in India in 72 AD.  Simon the Zealot in 74 AD.  James, son of Alphaeus, and Matthias, the replacement for Judas Iscariot, were stoned and clubbed to death.  

All of these apostles were killed for their faith before the end of the first century AD.  Paul also was likely killed in Rome around 64 AD during Nero’s persecutions.  And John, although he died of natural causes in Ephesus around 100 AD, was exiled to Patmos during the Roman emperor Domitian’s persecutions, which were particularly harsh.

These men witnessed to their faith before governors and kings, and they were followed by the next generation of Christians who did the same.  Men like Ignatius of Antioch who was killed in Rome in 108 AD, Polycarp of Smyrna who was killed around 155 AD, and Justin Martyr who was killed around 165 AD.  They all proclaimed the reason for the hope that was in them, even as they were led to their deaths. 

In fact, Ignatius wrote letters to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Trallus, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and to Polycarp to encourage them in their faith even as he travelled to Rome to meet his death.    Polycarp gave a witness to his faith even as the Roman authorities lit a fire underneath him to burn him at the stake in the amphitheater in Smyrna.  And Justin Martyr wrote letters to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and his sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus prior to his death.

The point is that the early Christians bore witness to their faith in Christ even to death, because they knew that what they proclaimed is true.  Jesus Christ, when he is proclaimed, challenges the status quo of sin and idolatry, and so the fallen world – which so desperately holds onto falsehood – strikes out against his body, the Church; the early Church martyrs considered it an honor to be persecuted as faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ.  

We may yet in our own day also “stand before governors and kings for [the sake of Jesus Christ] to bear witness before them.”  We hear talk about the “anti-Christ” and people sometimes fret about coming persecutions.  But, it occurs to me that the Church’s more immediate threat comes from another “A” word: Apathy.  

In our own day, we in this country are not yet facing death for our faith.  Christians in other countries most certainly are, but in our own country the Left Hand Realm of Civil Government for the most part still respects the Right Hand Realm of the Church, and the two Realms operate in relative peace with each other.  The threat we face now is Apathy.

We’ve gone from a time where the Christian faith was so distinct and proclaimed so boldly that people died for their faith to a time when people can’t even be bothered to get out of bed on Sunday morning to gather with the Church.  We’ve gone from a time where Christians walked for miles just to be with the body of Christ in someone’s home to a time when people won’t even drive a few minutes to attend a church unless it has plenty of programs and good music.  We’ve gone from a time when those outside the Church saw the Church’s witness to Jesus Christ as a threat to their way of life to a time when those outside the Church can barely tell the difference between what they see in the Church and their own way of life.  We’ve gone from a time when the Church was bold and distinct to a time when the Church is not much different than a self-help seminar or workshop and when it affirms and upholds the sin and death of the world around it.

Why persecute a Church that doesn’t say anything?  Why persecute a Church that no longer speaks the truth and no longer calls sin “sin” and evil “evil.”  Why persecute a Church that does not proclaim Jesus Christ as the one, the only one, in whom we have forgiveness of sins, restoration, and life everlasting?

So, it’s no wonder that the Church in this country is shrinking.  When the Church is no longer distinct and is no longer bearing witness to Jesus Christ, it makes sense that people do not feel the need to go.  They can find peace and quiet while lying in bed, relaxation at the golf course, and read the latest novel to be immersed into a different world, because too often the world they find in the Church is not any different than the world outside of the Church.

But, the Church has a lot to say and has the Word of God to proclaim to say it.  As we see people hate and murder and abuse each other, steal from each other, live contrary to God’s design, and covet one another’s spouses and possessions, we have God’s Word of Law that says this is wrong.  We call sin what it is and confront evil when necessary.  And as we see people who are hurting, lonely, in pain, sorrowful, and of broken spirit we have God’s Word of Gospel that there is an end to all these tears and this end is Jesus Christ.  God is restoring His broken, fallen world to Himself through Christ.

So, we have the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ to proclaim.  We are heirs of all those who have gone before us, from Adam through Seth through Noah through Abraham and through all those who are children of Abraham by faith in the one that Abraham looked forward to, Jesus Christ.  We have a message for the ages to proclaim: that we are sinners, deserving of eternal death, but that God in His mercy has sent His Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins.  We live in a broken, fallen world filled with death and evil, but God’s promise is that, through Christ, these enemies of ours have already been defeated and at the end He will remove death and evil from our presence.  This is the Gospel that is to be proclaimed to all nations before the end comes, that we are justified freely by God’s grace through faith for the sake of Christ, that God is conforming us to the image of Christ to return us to how He originally created us to be, and that Christ is returning to restore all things to perfection.

But until the Last Day comes, the world will continue to appear to be going on as it has since Adam and Eve fell into sin and brought decay and death into the world; there will be wars and rumors of wars, nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines.  These things will take place.  Oftentimes we hear people pointing to this or that disaster or war as a sign that the end times are upon us.  But, these things are bound to occur, because we live in a fallen world where these things are, unfortunately, an everyday occurrence.  But, when the end does finally come we will not know until it happens.

So, instead we are to keep our eyes on the task set before us, which is to bear witness to Jesus Christ and proclaim his Gospel to all nations.  This is the task given to us and is the lifeblood of the Church as the body of Christ; a body bears witness to what it is, and can’t help but do so. 

If you’ve ever been to Europe and seen the old, beautiful, expansive church buildings you probably noticed the fact that they are mainly tourist attractions; their congregations have long since left or died out, not to be replaced by new believers.  The buildings have become the main attraction, rather than the Gospel that was once proclaimed in them, but is now only a distant memory; the same thing is beginning to happen in many of our own cities as well. 

“Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”  The Jews in Jesus’ time trusted in the temple; it was where God had promised to dwell in the midst of His people.  But, the people had long since turned the temple into a tourist attraction, devoid of any real faith in the coming of the Christ.  The temple became just dead stones that were indeed thrown down when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.

But, God didn’t abandon His people.  He still dwells in His temple in the midst of His people, but this temple is Jesus Christ who, though ascended back into the presence of the Father, continues to be with us through Word and Sacrament and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in you.  St. Peter in his first epistle calls Christ “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.”  And Peter also says, “… you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, and you are the living stones built up on the foundation of Christ; you are the wonderful stones of the Temple.

God has done something grander than what He had done previously with the temple in Jerusalem.  In the temple, only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the sacrifice and only other priests could serve in the presence of God after having washed and been consecrated with the blood of the sacrifice.  But because Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, entered into the presence of the Father with his blood on your behalf, you are now also priests before God, able to draw near to Him with full assurance, having been sprinkled with the blood of Christ and washed with the waters of Baptism.  The Old Testament temple sacrifices find their completion in Jesus Christ and the Old Testament priesthood finds its completion in you.  Our Lord God has done great things for us through Christ.  

So, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:11-25).  

That Day that is drawing near is the end that Jesus mentions.  We do not know the exact day it will be, but we do know that when it comes what the Old Testament prophet Daniel saw will come with it.  Daniel saw the resurrection of the dead and the judgment where the “wise” go to everlasting life, while those who are “unwise” go to “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:1-3).

You have been made “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” as Paul wrote in 2 Timothy.  And you have been made living stones, not like the dead stones of the abandoned churches of our cities or the broken temple in Jerusalem.  You are living now and will live forever with your Lord and Savior when he returns for you.

This is our comfort as we live here and now in this fallen world.  We can remain confident in our witness to Jesus Christ, despite responses of anger or apathy that we may receive when we bear witness.  Christ has already won the victory and he’s told us of our deliverance, so stand firm in your confession of faith as you proclaim the Gospel wherever you are given the chance to bear witness, even if one day you too stand before governors and kings for the sake of Christ.  He is your refuge and will not abandon you, and he is coming again for you.  Amen.


(Image: Christian Martyrs; By Domenico Morelli – C. Bertelli, G. Briganti, A. Giuliano, Storia dell’arte italiana, Milano, Electa/Bruno Mondadori, 1992., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18128979).