Sunny Side of The Stream: Why You Should Read Martyr Stories
I’ve been working for a while now on an article about The New Book of Christian Martyrs. I think this will be the first of three parts on it. In the process of writing this article/series I realized the question I repeatedly asked the authors in various ways — essentially, what can readers hope to gain from this book — was one I wanted to be able to answer based on my own experience.
So I’ve been giving the book a more thorough read than I did before the interview with Johnnie Moore and Jerry Pattengale. I’m still not finished, but so far I can say I do feel somehow changed. I may have to come back to this book repeatedly when I need refreshment in the wisdom it provides. So before I share my interview with the authors in another article, here’s my reflection on why we need this book. And we do need it.
The book summarizes the lives and deaths of Christians who died for their faith, from the ones mentioned in the Bible until ones in modern times. I’ve found myself reaching for this book when I’m frustrated with something and/or need a reminder of what’s important in life. The book is a sort of counselor. When I feel offended with someone, it tells me of brothers and sisters who have forgiven far greater offenses. They forgave those who persecuted them. When I feel focused on things I want to buy, it reminds me of the brothers and sisters currently preaching the Gospel in remote areas and in need of prayers and financial support.
More Calloused or More Tender?
I hadn’t spent much time thinking about how I might die and I felt uncertain that I could endure much suffering or torture. But the book told me story after story of victorious believer who was glad to be able to give his or her life for Jesus in response to Jesus’ great sacrifice for us. As I took in the stories of these martyrs, I have often imagined myself in their shoes. Could I be brave like them?
You might think that I would become calloused after reading story after story of death, but I don’t think that’s exactly the case. I am getting more used to hearing stories of torture and death, but I shed tears the other day after typing the headline of my article about 13 believers being released after 10 years in prison. 10 years! The more of these stories I consume, the more the hearts of these believers resonates with me and make sense. Perhaps I’m now more likely to connect emotionally with stories so foreign to my own experience.
The Coptic 21, Our Brothers in Jesus
The authors do a fantastic job of portraying the lives, deaths and passion of these believers. In the stories from recent history, they are able to include interviews with family members and friends. The story of “the Coptic 21” is striking. I looked up ISIS’ full propaganda video after reading this account. (Google wasn’t helpful. Dogpile was.) The authors wrote of how the family members who watched these martyred men die onscreen proudly pointed to their loved ones in the lineup. They held no animosity toward the ones who beheaded them. They were proud of their sons’ faithfulness. Proud that they did not turn away from Jesus. Proud that they endured till the end.
I wanted to see what they saw. Their deaths were more gruesome than I was expecting. I watched, with fondness in my heart, the 21 men walking along the beach and choosing death before disloyalty. I heard my heart say something like, “These are my brothers,” as they walked, and “You did it!” as I saw their severed heads displayed. Maybe one day I will get to meet them and tell them I’m honored to be their sister. Then again, maybe they are cheering me on to the finish line right now, part of that “great cloud of witnesses.”
ISIS’ Propaganda Backfired Badly
The author of Hebrews says, in chapters 11 and 12, of the holy people of the Bible who lived by faith:
They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were murdered with the sword. They went around in sheepskins and goatskins; they were destitute, afflicted, mistreated. The world was not worthy of them! […] Therefore, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also get rid of every weight and entangling sin. Let us run with endurance the race set before us, focusing on Yeshua, the initiator and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame; and He has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and lose heart.
Moore and Pattengale wrote, “The terrorists’ video, in short, was a spectacular failure. Perhaps no piece of propaganda has ever backfired so completely.” Amen. That’s how it should be. When we see the boldness and love that our brothers and sisters have, it makes us stronger in our faith, not weaker. That’s what this book does. It reminds us of what life is about, what it means to be a Christian, and the cost our dear brothers and sisters have paid and are paying — and that we must be ready to pay.
Worship is Being a Sacrifice
I’m also reminded of this verse: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1) Reading this book of martyrs, it’s not just the deaths of the martyrs that stand out, but in many cases, their lives leading up to those deaths. Their deaths were just an extension of their lives already laid down for the Gospel of Jesus. Do I live this way? Every year of life that passes by, every breath, was it an offering?
This book offers a great gift: perspective. Perspective that could change us and help prepare us to hear Jesus say, “Well done.”