Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Voice of the Martyrs: Sermon on Revelation 6:9-11

By the last day of the games, the slender and youthful Blandina had seen and felt a lot. Because these were no games to her. In the cities of Lyon and Vienne (now in southeastern France), during the last years of the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, things had taken a sharp and unfortunate turn.

Blandina was a slave working in the household of a local woman. Both had learned years ago to confess Jesus Christ. And so when the city began to socially exclude and sideline those suspected of being Christians, both of them felt it. No longer welcome in the baths, in the town forum, chased out of home. That's where it always started. Then the mob had gotten whipped up, dragging them to that forum to be interrogated by a local official. Blandina remembered the questioning. Then locked up in a dark and cramped prison cell together until the governor arrived for the start of a festival. At a public hearing, a well-spoken young man in the crowd named Vettius Epagathus – part of their church – volunteered to act as their lawyer; but, the authorities finding that he was a Christian too, he was arrested instead. Soon, there was a full-scale investigation underway, trying to root out every Christian in the province. They'd caught Blandina. They'd caught 15-year-old Ponticus. They'd caught a woman named Biblis who, like some others sadly did, thereafter denied Christ to save her skin. They'd caught the immigrant Attalus, and the deacon Sanctus from the next town over, and the newly baptized believer Maturus, and others. Their sickly bishop Pothinus, in his nineties, already asthmatic and struggling, they put on trial, beat, and tossed into jail with them. For two days, they watched him decline. Then Bishop Pothinus, their beloved lead pastor, died. In the meantime, even some like Biblis who'd previously denied Christ under pressure now recanted and confessed themselves Christians, ready to rejoin the flock in prison, where most of the believers would be strangled.

The festival then began, kicking off with gladiatorial games, and so many of their former neighbors turned out to watch them suffer, cheer for their woes. It was in the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, with galleries enough to seat twenty thousand – and they were packed. In that ring of red earth, 222 feet by 138, was where they'd meet their earthly end. Maturus and Sanctus, new believer and church steward, were whipped, mauled by beasts, put in hot irons to be seared – but in the end, they stood firm, doing nothing but shouting again and again that they were Christians and would remain Christians. As for Blandina, she'd been tied to a pole, helpless to interfere. Her mistress, who died that day, was worried Blandina could never bear up under these pains – Blandina was too small, too tender. But Blandina's love for Jesus burned hotter than the irons, and she trusted him with all her heart. Attacked from dawn to dusk, the Holy Spirit filled her with power and strength, and over and over she confessed, “I am a Christian, and we do nothing to be ashamed of!” Tied to the pole and exposed to hungry animals, she prayed loud the whole way through; and in that position, whenever the others looked at her, they couldn't help but see Jesus on the cross. And she lent them all her bravery.

At the end of the day, Blandina was taken back alive and put in jail. Others soon joined their number, as the display had lit the fires of their courage. Every day of the 'games,' Blandina and teenage Ponticus were brought to watch as their fellow believers were killed. Every day, the authorities pressured them to offer a token pinch of incense to false gods. And every day, they said no. They watched as the well-known doctor Alexander, with Attalus at his side, were sent back to the arena. And while Alexander silently prayed to his last, Attalus burned on a chair of heated bronze, crying out that Christians were innocent of all the rumor-mongers' slanders.

At last came the final day of the 'games.' The day when it all counted. The day when Blandina returned to the arena. Her injuries from the beatings had healed up enough. She was ready. Asked again and again if she'd sacrifice, she said no. Asked again and again if she'd renounce Christ, she said no. And the crowd got angry. They booed, they hissed, they jeered, they mocked and yelled. Blandina and Ponticus were whipped. Bitten by animals. Ponticus died, but as he did, Blandina encouraged him to stay strong 'til he sent his spirit up to God. And now it was just her in the arena. But she saw she wasn't alone – Christ was with her. And when they put her on the hot griddle, she reached out to him despite the pain. And then when they covered her in a net and let loose a bull, she barely noticed. She was too busy celebrating the Jesus who had never been more real, never been more obvious to her than in those moments. She felt like she'd been invited to a great party. And as the bull tossed her body back and forth, she focused on that joy – and then passed right into it. Blandina, too, became a martyr.

When all that was done, the authorities left the bodies unburied for six days, then burned them and scattered the ashes in a local river. Soon things died down, and what was left of the church in the town remained in hiding. They sent out letters describing what had happened. One local priest returned from traveling abroad and found himself the new bishop, nearly by default. Years later, he wrote, “The church in every place, because of its love for God, sends forth in every time a throng of martyrs to the Father.” 
And Irenaeus was right. Nearly three decades later, far across the Mediterranean, a group of Christians were killed in Carthage. One of them, Perpetua, was stabbed between the ribs and then allowed a young and inexperienced gladiator to strike her neck. A half-century later, in 250, the leadership of the Roman church, including Pope Fabian, were wiped out in a single week. Eight years later, back in Carthage, the local bishop Cyprian thanked God before being blindfolded and beheaded. In 304, the deacon Romanus was brought before the emperor and strangled to death. Sixteen years later, forty Roman soldiers confessed themselves Christians and were stripped and forced into a lake in the winter until they froze to death. A century after that, in 420, a Persian nobleman named Hormizd was killed for refusing to give up his faith. In the 850s, a number of Christian leaders in Spain were executed by the Muslim governing authorities. In April 997, a missionary named Adalbert was speared by the pagan Prussians he was trying to reach with the gospel. In 1597, in the ill-fated city of Nagasaki, six missionaries and twenty native Japanese believers were crucified. In 1922, Russian bishop Benjamin of Petrograd was gunned down by a Soviet firing squad. Nineteen years later, Polish bishop Antoni Julian Nowowiejski, refusing to renounce his faith while held in a concentration camp, was starved to death. Fifteen years after that, in 1956, five missionaries – 32-year-old Nate Saint, 31-year-old Roger Youderian, 28-year-old Ed McCully, 28-year-old Jim Elliot, 27-year-old Peter Fleming – were speared while trying to make contact with the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador, and so passed through gates of splendor. In 1972, Russian soldier Ivan Moiseyev, who refused to obey orders to abandon Jesus, was stabbed in the heart six times. And in 2015, terrorists executed twenty Coptic Christian construction workers they'd kidnapped and one other believer; two months later, they executed another thirty Ethiopian Christians.

All these examples to say, the age of the martyrs has stretched long, for two thousand years. Any book offering to unveil the real meaning of the world – and 'unveiling' is what the word 'apocalypse' or 'revelation' means – well, any book of unveiling of the lived experience of the church from a heavenly point-of-view must grapple with this perennial reality of the church's life amidst the ages.

Where we left off last Sunday, we saw Jesus the Lamb of God at work unsealing the scroll of God's plan for the ages. The first four seals let loose the 'Four Horsemen,' all the greatest fears of Roman society or of ours; and they received authority to terrorize, and they stalk this world still. But their fearsome work is necessary to keep the plan moving forward. And now we return to that scene as the Lamb shatters the fifth seal. And when he does, John suddenly sees something he hadn't noticed before. “When he opened the fifth seal,” John writes, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had upheld” (Revelation 6:9).

John now sees the souls of the martyrs – of Lamb-followers, Christians, who were killed for a very clear reason: because of their obedient devotion to the gospel message and because they insisted on testifying, even in the face of danger, that Jesus is still King of Kings and Lord of Lords. These are those who will later be described as having “overcome [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). The first plank in their victorious ascent is the blood of the Lamb – the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross for them and for us. Without the blood of Jesus, there can be no victory. Nothing else can wash away our sin. Nothing else can make us whole again. Nothing else can be our pardon and our plea. Nothing else can be all our hope and peace and righteousness. Nothing but the blood of Jesus. And by remaining faithful to Jesus in their own confession of him, by loving their earthly lives less than they love Jesus, their deaths can be, will be, must be transformed into victories.

So these martyred believers – people like Blandina – are no mere victims of suffering and woe. As much as this world is a-brim with violence of every sort, they are no mere victims. Nor can they simply and merely be classed alongside other victims of religious persecution (though they are that too). These are believers who surrendered their lives through witness to Jesus Christ, our true God. Life was not stolen from them; they gave their lives and their deaths to God. The letter that the churches on Lyon and Vienne sent out, describing what happened to Blandina and the rest, was specific in depicting each death as a sacrifice. And so it was – a sacrifice offered by the believer, him- or herself each both priest and offering. It's like the offerings made in ancient Israel, when a priest would kill a bull or a goat and then “pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar” (Leviticus 4:30). So that's where John sees their souls having gone: poured out beneath heaven's altar, a sacrifice acceptable to God. No matter where a martyr dies, that place becomes, in that moment, the altar of heaven. And though the wicked of this world may strive to erase their memory and annihilate them from history, no martyr can be forgotten – their very lives, parted from earth, remain safe and secure beneath heaven's altar, beyond reach of time or tyrant.

As John watches and listens, he hears the voice of the martyrs – their prayer after death. It's a loud sound, a roar of lament even in heaven: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). They may be in heaven, but the earth still concerns them. There's something they're waiting around for. They're waiting for God as Judge to act in the world and to set things right. The martyrs are praying Psalm 79: “O God, the nations … have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them. We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us. How long, O LORD? … Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name! For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. … Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name's sake! Why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes!”

Psalm 79 is the prayer of the martyrs. When the raging nations have killed God's servants, shed their blood, mistreated their bodies, and judged God's servants to be guilty of a crime for their confession of faith, then the psalmist – and these martyrs, taking up the same prayer – asks how long it will take before God sets things right – before God gets angry at the injustice and pours out that anger against all the persecutors. The psalmist calls for “the avenging of the outpoured blood of [God's] servants” to be obvious, so as to silence and resolve the skepticism of the nations who dismiss Israel's God. And that's what the martyrs are calling for. They have two chief concerns. First is God's public reputation. When the martyrs are killed, it's for the word of God – those who kill them are rejecting God, demeaning his glory. So for the “glory of [his] name,” the martyrs call on him to act. But it's also for their own public reputation. The world has made its case against them, judged them, and found them guilty. And that stain will stick unless God overrules the verdict, declares that they were innocent, and prosecutes their killers. That's the only way. Until they get that, even heaven can't be fully satisfying. So they want to know how long God is going to make them wait, and why he hasn't done something yet.

From heaven's throne, they get their answer – maybe not the one they'd prefer to hear. They're told that they need to “rest a little longer.” How much longer? “Until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers, who were to be killed as they themselves had been, should be complete” (Revelation 6:11b). That's the schedule God is keeping to. There is some number, known only to him, that has to be reached. Just as he wouldn't let Abraham take the Promised Land until “the iniquity of the Amorites” had become “complete” (Genesis 15:16), so he won't let his avenging justice take the earth until the iniquity of the persecutors has become complete – a milestone measured in the number of martyrs killed. Each Christian put to death for the word of God and for the Christian confession he or she maintains is another box checked off on God's countdown calendar. And one day, that hidden number will be reached. We don't know how long it will be – we might pretend to know, but we haven't the foggiest notion. But however it relates to the calendars we keep, there will come a time when the last martyr in all of human history will sacrifice his or her life for the gospel of Jesus Christ, for the confession of the Crucified One as having become the Risen Lord. And when that happens, God will say, “No more – the number is complete.” And then, with millennia of martyrdoms entered into evidence, God will unleash the last judgment. The death of the final martyr will be the direct trigger for the end of all evil – for the very thing for which the martyrs pray beneath heaven's altar.

And so those praying martyrs are told that they have to wait. They're restless, but they have to rest. To them, it won't be long, not on heaven's clock. Just one or two more seals for the Lamb to break. But they do have to keep waiting. Even heavenly prayers can get the answer, “Not yet – wait.” But God doesn't leave them wholly unsatisfied. He can partially address one of their key concerns. The martyrs have been judged by the world – weighed in earthly balances and found wanting; accused of lies and crimes, smeared as wrongdoers. God can make it clear, to heaven if not yet to earth, that it just isn't so.

So the same Lamb who 'gave' authority to the Four Horsemen so that they could run wild in the world now 'gives' a gift to each martyr, one by one. “They were each given a white robe” (Revelation 6:11a). A white robe is unstained. A white robe is beautiful. A white robe has a story to tell. It announces that these believers aren't guilty. It isn't orange jumpsuits being handed out. Just the opposite. The white robe declares that the world's accusations are false. The martyrs did not deserve their execution. They were loyal to a higher justice than this world knows. They did not bow to what was false. In the hour of their great trial, they put their hopes in God, trusted Christ, spoke by the Holy Spirit, and confessed the gospel-word, testifying that they belonged to Christ and would honor and obey Christ above all else. And for that, they did not deserve to die. They are promised a favorable verdict. What's more, they're promised a victory march. This is how Romans dressed for festivals of great triumph: “clad in white and carrying laurel branches” (Cassius Dio, History 63.4) – and so the martyrs, with others, will soon be seen “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). And the whiteness of their robes, the purity and innocence and victory of the martyrs, is all due to the robes being made “white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). It is through “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” that the martyrs are not beaten, but rather become conquerors who overcome the accusing dragon, having outlasted and outwitted him and all his doom-bound beasts (Revelation 12:10-11). The death of a martyr is victory. The death of a martyr is righteousness. The death of a martyr is witness for Jesus – that's what the word means.

But a question might remain: Why does God allow martyrdom at all? Why doesn't he just protect his servants, make his witnesses immune to all the weapons of this world? Why hasn't he set the number lower and hastened the end, so that those he loves wouldn't have to keep suffering and dying? Why has he so often allowed the wicked to have power over the church, and over the poor and innocent and oppressed more generally? 
But what we see here is that the death of the martyr is victory – and not just for that individual martyr. No, the sufferings they endure advance the progress of the kingdom of God. It was the example of Blandina and others that called fearful and doubting Christians back to their first love and allowed them, too, to gain the crown of immortality. It was the example of freezing soldiers that made even one of their guards rip off his clothes, shout “I am a Christian too!”, and go join them to die. Twenty years after Blandina offered up her sacrifice, a Christian in Carthage wrote a message to the persecutors, saying, “The more often you mow us down, the more we grow in number. The blood of Christians is seed!” And as we've seen, from that seed, incredible things can grow.

During some of the early centuries of the church, there were times when you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in church who hadn't personally known a martyr. Today, I doubt if a single one of us can say we've personally known someone who was killed for their Christian faith. The vast majority of us are not at risk of being killed or imprisoned for our faith, not here in America; though I do wonder if the younger ones among us, looking decades down the road, will see a day when American Christians begin to be martyred between sea and shining sea. It may be that the American church will never see revival without our blood for its seed. Whether or not it comes to pass that my generation or the next will begin to have its martyrs here, it is still true that, except for some of our missionaries who are killed around the world, modern American church life has lost touch with the prospect of martyrdom and with the witness of the martyrs. And I dare so a great deal of the weakness in our modern American church life owes a lot to our having lost touch with that. Many of us wouldn't sacrifice our income level, our sexual preferences, our independent streak, our pride and self-righteousness, or our political opinions for the word of God, let alone our lives. What percentage of American churchgoers, if it came down to it, would stay as faithful as St. Blandina and the rest of the martyrs?

Yet today, Christians are harassed in 60% of the world's countries; Christians are still the targets of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination worldwide; and, in line with that, Christians are still being martyred throughout the world. Thirteen days ago, the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped a 60-year-old Christian woman named Suzan Der Kirkour from her village, al-Yaqoubiyeh, in Syria's northwestern Idlib Governorate; after enduring nine hours of torture followed by a lethal stoning, she found dead on Tuesday, July 9. The next day, in the eastern Pakistani city of Faisalabad, a Christian nurse named Saima Sardar was shot to death after declining to forsake her faith. Thousands of Christians are killed every year, even right now, for the word of God and for the testimony they uphold. One by one, sacrificing their lives for Jesus, they go to join the souls John saw under heaven's altar. And heaven waits for the last one to fill up the number. As for us, while we wait, we have to stay 'in tune' with the persecuted church and with the martyrs. Seventeen hundred years ago, in a book (the Didascalia Apostolorum) compiled between 50 and 130 years after Blandina's sacrifice, the churches were told this:

Should a Christian be condemned to the games or to the beasts or to the mines on account of the name of God and for his faith and love, you are not to turn your face away from him, but shall send to him for his nourishment and payment for the soldiers guarding him from your labor and from the sweat of your brow, so that your blessed brother may be relieved, receive attention, and be not entirely afflicted. Anyone who has been condemned for the sake of the name of the Lord God should be considered a holy martyr, an angel of God..., clothed with the Holy Spirit of God. Through him, you may look upon the Lord our Savior, as he has been found worthy of the crown that shall not be corrupted and renews again the witness of the passion. For this reason, all you faithful are obliged carefully to minister and... to refresh from your possessions those who are bearing witness. Anybody who has nothing should fast, giving to his brethren something from what he would've spent that day. Yet if you're rich, you're obliged to minister to them to the extent of your ability, even to the extent of giving everything you own to redeem them from bondage. For these are they who are worthy of God...

We should be praying that we don't enter into testing. Yet if we're called to martyrdom, we should confess when we're interrogated and be patient while we're suffering and rejoice while we're afflicted and not be distressed while we're persecuted. Not only shall we save ourselves from hell when we act this way, but we'll teach those who are young in the faith … to do the same. And they shall live before the Lord. … Should any find themselves worthy of martyrdom, they should accept it with joy that they're found worthy of so great a crown.

Today, to fulfill that book's vision for both being equipped for martyrdom and for serving the church of martyrs, we have parachurch organizations like the Voice of the Martyrs, like International Christian Concern, like Open Doors, like Christian Solidarity International, and others. They provide Bibles for believers in hostile nations, they help us send letters of encouragement to Christians imprisoned for their faith, they engage in human-rights advocacy on behalf of the freedom of Christians to live out their confession of Jesus (and on behalf of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in general), they provide accurate reporting on anti-Christian activity around the world so that governments can intervene, they funnel financial help to the families of martyrs. They're there to help us do what Christians have always been told to do. It's up to us to partner with them in that work. How much time and talent and treasure do we devote to serving our persecuted brothers and sisters, those who may well be crowned as martyrs in our generation, versus the time and talent and treasure we fritter away on less worthy things?

Historically, one test for a healthy church, a well-discipled church, has been this twofold question: First, is this church shaping believers who are ready to be martyrs? Second, is this church shaping people who give support in practical ways to believers facing persecution (of whatever degree of severity) around the world? Let those questions rest with you. Is this church shaping you in ways that would help you sacrifice your life for the word of God and to uphold your testimony? And is this church shaping you in ways that make you want to support persecuted believers? And if so, will you follow through on that desire? What can we do to make this a church that supports persecuted believers? What can we do to make this a church that produces and trains potential martyrs who will confess Christ boldly to the costly end? How can we raise up people who really do love Jesus more than life? May that be true of all of us, as we work together in service to his kingdom. And may the day of his return be soon and yield justice for every martyr, every suffering saint, and find us all in white robes of pure victory. Amen.

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