Martyrdom and the model of Stephen

February 19, 2015

I've been thinking a lot about the 21 Egyptian Christians killed by ISIS in Libya for their faith earlier this week. The media has not only given us glimpse into this horrific situation, but has also put before the world a very potent witness of the worth of Jesus. From the moment I heard about what had happened and from the subsequent details that emerged over the next several days, I was very emotional. I was moved to tears when I saw the brother in the picture above saying his final prayers and when I heard that in the last moments of their lives that the Christians all cried in unison “Ya Rabbi Yasou’”, an Arabic phrase that means “Oh Lord Jesus”.

I think it’s important for Christians in this time not only to mourn but also to come to a deeper understanding of what the Bible says about suffering and martyrdom. It’s not a subject that is broached often in the West, and I believe it is a critical time for us to have clarity and renew our vision for the greater story of redemption - the story in which martyrdom is central and commonplace.

The mission of God in this age is characterized by His restraint from judgment and His patience towards the wicked. This is most vividly seen through the martyrdom of His own Son. In the midst of the greatest injustice humanity had ever committed, Jesus uttered the driving desire of His heart in His final moments on the cross:

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:33-34)

The pastoral epistles of the New Testament often recall this central event of Jesus' first coming. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died [was martyred] for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died [was martyred] for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

The centrality of the cross in Christian discipleship sprung from Jesus' commissioning of his followers to bear witness of Him (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8). The early church had been eyewitnesses of the greatest injustice in history - the martyrdom of their LORD and Messiah. They understood that the greatest witness they could give of God's longsuffering and restraint from judgment was by imitating Him in their response to injustice.

This is typified by the church's first martyr, Stephen. His dying words expressed the deepest ambition of his heart, echoing the words of Jesus as He was being martyred:

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered... But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him... And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:51–60)

The greatest Christoform, Christ-like invitation a Christian can give is by living a cruciform life. As the church seeks to engage the hardest and darkest places in the earth with the Gospel, we must plead for the Holy Spirit to thrust forth more faithful witnesses like these Egyptians - faithful martyrs - who have been captured by the longsuffering witness of the cross just as Stephen was. By the grace of God these laborers will, with a full hope in the resurrection, not seek to compel the wicked with the sword or respond to injustice with force, but will declare God's patience toward the unrepentant even if it means their own death.

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About the author

Joshua Hawkins is a pastor, Bible teacher, and content creator for disciples of Jesus from College Station, Texas. He co-hosts The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, a weekly audio show exploring how a first century Jew would have understood the Gospel. He's also an all-around tech nerd and enjoys road cycling.

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