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  • Writer's pictureJoe D'Orsie

Of Whom the World Was Not Worthy...

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

christian martyrs pray for the last time
Painting: "The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer" Jean Leon Gerome

On Sunday, Bishop Cooper made known the contrast between our perceived "persecutions" of the modern American age and the actual persecution of the Christians that are recorded in the New Testament. He drew the conclusion that sometimes we as Americans package the Gospel as "come to Jesus and have life," whereas the motto in the time of the Acts of the Apostles was more like "come to Jesus and lose your life." The former isn't untrue, for Jesus came so that we might have abundant life, but what Bishop Cooper was getting at was how critical it was for the church under siege by actual persecution to die to themselves and literally love their own lives not unto death. They had no other choice. It was either that or compromise.

Interestingly, I've been reading Foxe's Book of the Martyrs, an exceptionally detailed book chronicling Christian martyrdom from Stephen's stoning all the way through the 1800's (this is the updated version of the book). The gruesome way in which Christians breathed their last in this time span, at the hands of the Roman empire, the Persian kingdom, and even the Catholic church, can't be understated. The last moments of many of these people of God, in the face of not just destruction, but mutilation, have been inspiring to read. These people were heroes, and, as Hebrews 11:38 notes, 'the world was not worthy of them.'

Genocide - Genocide is a terrible thing. It means the deliberate killing of a certain group of people. The term is a bit overused today and at times diluted because it has been used interchangeably with murder. Genocide isn't murder, it's worse. It's the eradication or near eradication of a group. It's mass murder with the intent of elimination. It's what Christians faced in the Roman empire from the time of the events recorded in the Book of Acts up until the reign of Constantine. And then again sometime after Constantine and intermittently through Europe, Asia, and beyond through the Dark Ages (named for the very genocide we speak of), the Middle Ages, and right through the Christian Reformation. It was most intense from 67 C.E. to the early 300's C.E.

Christians who refused to recant their faith or bow to whatever pagan idol they were ordered to were subjected to the most brutal imprisonment, torture and eventual death during this span. History tells us that during the reign of Diocletian (284-305 C.E), thousands of Christians were martyred every day, and women and children were not left to watch their fathers, husbands, and brothers succumb to flame, sword, or beast, they joined them! It was seemingly the predominant goal of rulers like Diocletian, Nero, and Trajan to destroy the Christian faith and eradicate anyone associated with it, with which there was an ever-growing number. Unfortunately for these cruel, pagan kings, this violence did not have the desired effect. Every act of rage or bloodlust against these brave Christians only strengthened the church, which infuriated the authorities and those carrying out these atrocities. It usually didn't end well for those ordering the death of these Christians of the early church either.

- Many Romans of significant rank were converted by those persecuted, and emboldened by the Spirit, joined them in their valiant deaths

- Others who carried out or ordered these lawless monstrosities met horrible fates, like Nero, among the most evil of all Christian persecutors, who committed suicide after going completely crazy.

When I consider the demise of these Christian antagonists, I can't help but think of the charge from 1st Chronicles 16:22 & Psalms 15:15 - “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”

One of my favorite reformers, the prophet John Knox, who was at his prime in the mid 1500's, was harassed, opposed, threatened, and exiled by the Mary's (Queen Mary Tudor of England, and her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots). This was due to his staunch and very public opposition of Catholic idolatry and false doctrine. While in forced exile, Knox drew the comparison between these queens and Jezebel of the Bible. In his "First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women," he called out their heresies, and they in turn further threatened his life. Knox even went on to proclaim that if Mary Tudor did not repent for her lawlessness, she would perish. She did perish of an illness shortly after Knox's prophetic proclamation. Then some years later, Mary Queen of Scots was executed by authorities for her evil acts. Relatively soon thereafter Scotland was won for Christ. Moral of the story? Don't touch God's prophets!

Notice in the famous statement below from Knox, which was a private prayer to God, the willingness to die for the salvation of his country. This is the key that I'm seeing as I study these martyrs, and the subsequent proliferation of their cause, the Gospel, that truly set them apart.

"Give me Scotland, or I die." - JOHN KNOX

The Story of George Wishart

george wishart the scottish reformer
George Wishart - Oil on Panel - Artist Uknown

John Knox was among the most important and influential reformers in history. Scotland really was all but won for the Gospel of Christ because of his relentlessness, boldness, his preaching, his pen, and the many hours he spent in the prayer closet. But there would have been no John Knox without George Wishart, who was martyred on March 1st, 1546. Wishart doesn't get near the credit as Knox but arguably had more to do with Scotland and Europe's reform than his contemporary.

Wishart was among the first powerful protestant preachers in Scotland. Immediately upon arriving at this call he collected followers and also plenty of ire from the Catholic complex. When the pressure increased from the catholic persecutors, Wishart became very skilled at avoiding capture. He stood before councils where he corrected and reproved, and he travelled the country preaching the good news of the Gospel and the evils of the organized and repressive Catholic regime.

His followers increased in the 1540's, among them a young John Knox, and therefore the Catholic cause became increasingly threatened. With this in mind, plots were drawn up to assassinate him and all of these plots were effectively foiled. On one occasion, as soldiers waited in covert to ambush Wishart as he was lured by a falsified letter to travel, he stopped suddenly and returned to his home. Journals and first-hand accounts record that he had said of this ordeal that he was "forbade by God to continue," and that "he knew he would die at the hands of the Archbishop David Beaton, but not in this manner." This is a guy that was clearly hearing from God.

How he died is also of note. Finally, being captured and shackled by Catholic tyrants, he was led to be burned at the stake. Below is a segment from Foxe's Book of the Martyrs which tells this story (I've paraphrased it slightly to take away the incoherency of Olde English).

"As soon as he arrived at the stake, the executioner put a rope around his neck and a chain about his middle, upon which he fell to his knees and thus exclaimed: 'Oh Savior of the world, have mercy on me! Father of Heaven, I commend my Spirit unto your hands.'
After this he prayed for his accusers, saying 'I beseech you, Father of Heaven, forgive them, for out of their ignorance and evil minds, they forged lies against me: I forgive them with all my heart. I beseech Christ to forgive them, that they have ignorantly condemned me."
He then was fastened to the stake, and the fagots being lit immediately set fire to the powder that was tied about him, which blew into flame and smoke.
Beaton, who stood so near that he was singed with the flame, exhorted the martyr, in a few words, to be of good cheer, and to ask the pardon of God for his offenses. To which Wishart replied, 'This flame spells trouble for my body, indeed, but it has not broken my spirit. But he who proudly looks down upon me from his lofty place shall, before long, shall be deservedly thrown down, as now he comfortably sits at ease.'
The hangman sat down upon his knees, and said, 'Sir, I pray you to forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death. To whom he answered, 'Come over to me.' When he came over, he kissed his cheek, and said, 'This is a token of my forgiveness.' 'Please, finish your job.' And then he was put into the gibbet and hanged, and burned to powder. When the people saw what transpired, they piteously mourned and complained of this innocent lamb's slaughter." FOXE'S BOOK OF THE MARTYRS, CHAPTER XV - An Account of the Persecution in Scotland During the Reign of King Henry VIII.

Shortly after Wishart's death, Beaton suffered a horrendous and lethal fate, which Wishart prophesied in his final moments. Wishart's death and cause, however, also emboldened John Knox, and thus the firebrand sword-bearer of Scotland was born afresh, and the rest is history.

As I mentioned earlier, a total disregard for self is what carried the message of the Gospel through the early church, the Dark, Ages, Middle Ages, and onward. So many people were put to death for their faith, and even more people saw their faithfulness in the face of death and decided to follow Jesus.

Do we have the same selflessness, passion, and zeal for the sake of the Gospel? Do we really acknowledge the race set before us? If our fortunes were reversed, and we didn't enjoy the freedom that we do today, would people be reading about the valiant last few moments of our lives in centuries to come? I'm not sure about the answers to these questions personally; I'd like to say yes but I'm not sure. And, to speak broadly about the American church, we're not even close to assuming the stature that these great martyrs had. My goodness, most of us don't even know their stories! I hope and pray that this changes, in fact, coming events might just force our hand in the matter.

Here's what I think we should do

I think we should pray for boldness like Peter did in Acts 4, but we have to be aware of the cost of such a prayer. Endued with the very boldness he asked for, Peter was crucified at Rome in A.D. 64. Are you really ready to pick up the cross of Christ? What if you had to drink from the same cup that John & James did? Are we prepared to suffer imprisonment, torture, and death for the sake of the Gospel? Would you recant your faith if the pressure was really turned up?

I'm not asking for persecution, believe me, but I'm concerned that we might need it in order grab a hold of what the martyrs had. More importantly, it might force us to shape up and become the spotless bride that Christ deserves when He returns.

- JF D'Orsie - Communications Director - PCC

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