Modern martyrs: Faith at any cost

Since the stoning of Stephen a few weeks after Pentecost, approximately 40 million believers have given their lives for simply being Christians. Of this appalling figure, our century alone has been responsible for nearly 26.6 million martyrs, spread across the globe.1

John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, gives four reasons why so many Christians have died for their faith in this century: (1) There are more Christians today than ever before. (2) "Powerful anti-Christian or anti-religion ideologies have organized systematic persecution" against Christians. (3) "In some areas Christianity has been identified with Western culture and politics, and persecution is revenge." (4) Secularized "Western countries do not defend and protect Christians as they did in the past."2

Nina Shea, human-rights advocate and author of the widely acclaimed book, In the Lion's Den, suggests that the strongest anti-Christian persecution in recent years has come from "two political ideologies—communism and militant Islam."3

Not too many Seventh-day Adventists have been martyred, partly because we are a relatively small church, eschew official involvement in politics, and generally "refuse to use violence" to defend ourselves.4 Furthermore, in encounters with Islam, however, Adventists have sometimes received a more tolerant treatment than other Christians because Adventist beliefs about lifestyle (nonuse of pork, tobacco, and alcohol, and opposition to sexual immorality) provide significant common ground with Muslims.5

Although accurate figures are not available, several Seventh-day Adventists are known to have recently died for their faith: six in Chiapas, Mexico,6 two in Dagestan, Southern Russia,7 and an undetermined number in Rwanda.

The biblical meaning of martyrdom

The biblical meaning of martyrdom is rooted in the Greek noun martys, a "witness." Other forms of the word are the verb martyreo, "to bear witness," and the noun martyria that denotes the content of the witness or testimony given.

In the New Testament, martys designates a witness (Matthew 18:16; Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8), who may or may not actually die for that witness (Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13; 17:6). The early church recognized both living and dead martyrs, thus adding a second dimension to the definition of martyr. Revelation 12:10* describes martyrs as those who "conquered" Satan "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony [martyria], for they loved not their lives even unto death." The attitude of "loving not their lives" echoes the words of Jesus, "If any one comes to me and does not hate...father and mother and wife and children... and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). Thus the New Testament describes the martyrs as persons for whom witnessing to the power of Jesus was the first priority—even at the risk of life.

The meaning of martys as witness gradually metamorphosed into the meaning of one who died for the witness given. Hence the definition: Christian martyrs are "believers in Christ who lose their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility."8

In the early church, death was all too often the result of witness. Of the 11 disciples, all except John met a martyr's death. John too was treated as a martyr. The Emperor Domitian ordered him deep fried in a vat of boiling oil. Something went wrong, however. John's body didn't react to immersion in hot oil as the laws of physics indicated it should have. In frustration, the emperor banished him to Patmos—"on account of the Word of God and the testimony [martyria] of Jesus" (Revelation 1:9)."

Thus the New Testament definition of martyrdom emphasizes the quality of a Christian's absolute commitment to the claims of Jesus. From such a definition we can learn much about martyrdom, not only from those who died as witnesses, but also from those who were willing and ready to die, but who, like John in his oil baptism, survived—not by yielding to the demands of the persecutors, but by some form of divine protection or intervention.

Living martyrs

Christian history includes many examples of such "living martyrs," persons who willingly yielded their lives and indeed came right to the moment of death, but were amazingly spared. Consider two present examples.

Mr. Wong,10 a Chinese Seventh-day Adventist, sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for keeping the Sabbath and for continually talking to others about "my Friend Jesus," survived repeated attempts to "reeducate" him. Even in the labor camp, he seized every opportunity to speak a word for Jesus. Some of those to whom he witnessed became committed Christians, but more often fellow prisoners betrayed him to renewed beatings and torture.

At one point, after 17 consecutive days of torture, Wong grew impatient. How could he convince the prisoners beating him that their efforts were futile? Opening his bloody lips he cried, "You don't understand!" For a moment there was silence. "My answer is No! Even if Chairman Mao himself were standing here asking me to recant and deny my God, I'd still say No! I can't deny my Friend Jesus!" Infuriated, Wong's chief tormentor grabbed his arms, which were tied behind his back, lifted them over Wong's head and "brought them down to his waist in front, ripping the tendons in his shoulders and breaking both arms."

"'It is enough!' the supervising guard ordered. 'Stop! If we kill Criminal Wong, we can't help him develop.'"" Although Mr. Wong was practically beyond caring whether he lived or died, he cared supremely about being faithful to his Friend Jesus. He "loved not [his life] even unto death."

Anthony Nemeti, 26, was drafted into the Hungarian Army in 1952. Two days after his induction, Nemeti had his first opportunity to witness: when wine accompanied the meal, he said to his officers, "I cannot drink because of my religious convictions." His officers countered: "When you go home you can eat what you like, but here you will carry out your officers' orders in everything, including what you eat." Calmly Nemeti explained his convictions regarding diet. The next day he had another opportunity to witness—explaining why he could not help clean the grounds on the Sabbath. For refusing to work on four consecutive Sabbaths he served eight years in prison, and later six more at hard labor in stone quarries and coal mines. But his eagerness to witness is captured in the words, "my opportunity came to testify for my faith."12

Jesus and the Christian martyrs

Many New Testament texts describe the close connection between the sufferings of Christ and those of believers in Him. Martys with its cognates is applied not only to believers who witness for Jesus, but also to Jesus Himself. Revelation 1:5 calls Jesus "the faithful witness [martys], the firstborn of the dead" (see also Revelation 3:14). "Early Christians regarded the death of Jesus as a martyrdom."13 In 1 Timothy 6:12 and 13, Paul called upon his young disciple to be a faithful witness (martys) regardless of the consequences, just as Jesus had been. Timothy was indeed martyred in 97 A.D. after he courageously denounced the orgiastic festivities of the goddess Diana in Ephesus.14

This connection between Jesus' martyrdom and believers' martyrdom yields four vital meanings.

First, martyrdom constitutes a dramatic contemporary representation of the cross, "liftpng] up" (John 12:32) and "clearly portray[ing]" (Galatians 3:1, NKJV) to a new audience the suffering and death of Jesus. Christ is "crucified the persecution of His people."15 Thus Christians, by their suffering, bear witness to the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice to a new audience.

Second, martyrdom is one of the most complete examples of discipleship. Paul commended the Thessalonian Christians for becoming "imitators of us and of the Lord," in that they "received the word in much affliction" (1 Thessalonians 1:6). Peter, who denied ever knowing Jesus, later came to a different understanding. "Beloved," he wrote to persecuted Christians, "do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:12, 13).

Noble Alexander, locked for 21 days in a steel, five-foot-square "tiger cage," suspended over the filthy subterranean dungeon of a Caribbean prison, was amazed to discover the fulfillment of 1 Peter 4:13 and 2 Corinthians 1:5. "Even during my worst hours in the cage, He [Christ] reminded me that I suffered in His name and for His sake."16

Third, martyrdom unmasks the real "power and destructiveness" of Satanic evil in an otherwise seemingly civilized world. Satan so successfully hides his true character and methods that when martyrdom does occur, we are likely to blame the persecution on a totalitarian political system, an intolerant rival religion, or one wicked individual (such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Idi Amin), missing the point that our true opponent is no one but Satan himself (see Ephesians 6:12). This recognition that the real enemy is Satan should take us one step toward showing the persecutors Christ's love for them and their own need of salvation through the gospel.

Deeper meaning of martyrdom and persecution

To many modern Christians, martyrdom seems a cruel, unjust anomaly. Didn't Christ come to bring life "more abundantly" John 10:10, KJV)? Then how can martyrdom ever be part of

God's purpose, much less "beneficial," for Christians? Paul, however, saw martyrdom as a participation in the sufferings of Christ for the benefit of the church. "I rejoice in my sufferings," he said, because "in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). The New Testament reveals several ways in which martyrdom and persecution benefit the church.

First, while the New Testament teaches that believers can "know" that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13) and that believers have in themselves the witness of the Spirit (Romans 8:16), the reality of the fight of faith is that often "our hearts condemn us" (1 John 3:20), robbing us of absolute assurance. Both Jesus (Matthew 7:2123) and Paul (1 Corinthians 13:3) warned of the danger of a falsely motivated, and hence worthless, religious service or martyrdom. Nevertheless, the strongest promises of salvation in the New Testament are those that apply most directly to persecuted witnesses. "Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven" (Matthew 5:12, KJV). "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).

Second, martyrdom often leads to new conversions. "The blood of Christians is seed" of the church, wrote Tertullian, the early Christian apologist.17 How true that has been! In the death of a Christian martyr, Jesus is lifted up, and people are drawn to Him.

Persecution often results in scattering the witnesses, so that the gospel seed is sown more widely. Beginning with the apostolic church (Acts 8:1, 46) to our own times, history is a witness that persecution has led to remarkable conversions, powerful preaching, and the establishment of new churches. In one country in our times, Christian witness resulted in baptismal services in the prison water tank and an underground "university" that taught basic academic

subjects as a means to make friends with non-Christian prisoners. The prison officials decided to "break the back" of Christianity at the prison by transferring "members of the prison church to other prisons in the system." When the prisoners first heard the news, they saw it as a "tragedy for God's cause." But the "tragedy" turned into an opportunity: the dispersion of Christians to nine different prisons resulted in the formation of nine new churches.18

Third, persecution purifies the church by winnowing out the "false-hearted," "halfhearted and hypocritical" professed believers.19

Fourth, persecution unifies the church. The reflex action of the shaking and sifting that purifies the church is that the faithful who remain are brought "nearer to one another and to their Redeemer" by the very "sufferings which they endured."20 When Anthony Nemeti and another Adventist were thrown into a military prison for their refusal to bear arms or work on Sabbath, they met a third Adventist who in several months' incarceration had been reduced to 92 pounds. All three were kept in separate cells, so they had little opportunity to communicate except at the daily 10minute walk. At the end of the walk, the third brother quickly put something in Nemeti's pocket and hurried away. Back in his cell, Nemeti took out the gift—a small piece of dried bread and a piece of soap with the carefully scratched words, "Have faith in God."

Several days later Nemeti was transferred to a group cell and met the brother who had given him this gift of bread and encouragement. They rejoiced to be together, but soon were separated for transfer to long-term labor assignments. Just before parting, the brother opened his briefcase and brought out another present—a piece of stringy parsley.

"I did not want to accept it from him," Nemeti recalled, "but he offered it with so much love that I could not refuse. I began to chew on it, and, even though it was bitter and stringy, the love that God implanted in our hearts made it sweet." Then the two discovered that they were being taken to the same place after all. Even the brutality of the guards could not dampen Nemeti's spirits. "The joy of having my brother with me overshadowed all that."21

Fifth, endurance in the midst of persecution strengthens others of lesser power to endure. God often used stronger Christians to strengthen others. Noble Alexander, for refusal to work on Sabbath, was beaten by three guards, each carrying an electrical cable with the end splayed into three parts. "I heard the zing of the cables as the officers snapped them through the air," he recalled. "Again and again, the cables ripped at my flesh. When I fainted from the pain, one of the soldiers dumped a bucket of water on me to revive me. When I came to, the captain asked, 'Are you going to work?'"

"'Not today,' I gasped."

Four times the routine was repeated. Each time he thought he would die right there on the concrete. After the fourth beating, the officer again asked, "Are you going to work today?"

"'No,' I said, unable to speak above a whisper. 'Just kill me and be finished with it.'"

"'Is that what you want—to be a martyr?' He strode past my head, then back again. 'We are not that foolish!'" Then he turned to the others and "snapped, 'He is insane, a fanatic!' and left." His refusal to work on Sabbath prepared the way for new converts among the prisoners to accept the Sabbath. The guards called them "Noble's people" and excused them from working on Sabbath.22

Sixth, "through trial and persecution the glory—the character—of God is revealed in His chosen ones."23 Gerardo Alvarez was the head elder of a prison church, whose Christ-centered preaching strengthened men to resist the twin temptations of apostasy and "being devoured by the cancer of hate." One Fri

day evening as the prisoners were returning from a long, hard day of labor in a mosquito-infested swamp, the sergeant in charge ordered the prisoners to run. "Exhausted, undernourished, and sick with all kinds of diseases," the prisoners could barely walk, let alone run. Furious, the sergeant ordered specially trained soldiers to join the guards in an attack on the prisoners.

"As the crippling blows fell, one of the prisoners in the line lifted his hands and his eyes toward heaven, and in a calm, clear voice, said, 'Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.'...The entire prison population watched as this giant of a man, Gerardo, prayed for his enemies even as they beat him. The old prisoner's hat fell to the ground. A hush echoed throughout the area at the sight of the prisoner's full head of white hair—Gerardo, Brother of the Faith. Then he fainted. Two soldiers picked him up and carried him to his circular, where they left him without any medical attention."24

Here was a witness of faith for the glory of God.

Seventh, in the death of a faithful witness, Satan is defeated, even though to earthbound eyes the martyr appears to die alone, friendless, and deserted. Death places the victor eternally beyond the reach of the evil one.

That one of the great objects of witness is the defeat of Satan reminds us that persecution and martyrdom can only be adequately understood from the point of view of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. Witness about Jesus and His character is the focal point of that controversy.

A lesson for us

Are we ever tempted to hide our light under a basket for fear of such trivia as the disapproval of professors or the ostracism of peers? Then, look again at martyrs, of the past and the present, those who risked their lives for the sake of their faith.

My own reflection on the spiritual heroics of Christian martyrs of the past and the present fired my imagination and challenged my own commitment to Christ. Up close, I was shocked by the realization that these brothers and sisters of mine who had so far outstripped me in the persistence of their witness and the passion of their devotion to Christ, had done so without any of the educational, economic, or geographical "advantages" that characterize my life.

For me this realization raises a basic issue: Is the activity or lifestyle I call "witness" sufficiently clear and audible to arouse either acceptance or rejection? Or is it simply a culturally marginal expression of private religious preference that threatens no one, disturbs no status quo, hence merits no attention from the dominant social order? If the latter is the case, then it is not witness at all, and will not be recognized as such, either on earth or in heaven.

Jerry Moon (Ph.D., Andrews University) teaches church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University and serves as associate editor of Seminary Studies. His postal address: Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan 491041500; U.S.A. Email address: jmoon@andrews. edu

* All Bible quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, unless noted otherwise.

Notes and references

  1. David Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, Our World and How to Reach It, and Almanac of the Christian World, cited by Susan Bergman, ed., Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modem Lives of Faith (New York: Harper San Francisco/Harper Collins, 1996), pp. 14, 15.
  2. John Graz in interview with W. G. Johnsson, "Religious Liberty Under Siege," Adventist Review, August 14, 1997, p. 8.
  3. Nina Shea, In the Lion's Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1997), pp. vii, 1.
  4. Graz in interview with Johnson, p. 9.
  5. See James H. Zachary, "Inside the Muslim Mind," Adventist Review, September 11, 1997, pp. 812; Robert S. Folkenberg, From the GC President, March 10, 1997.
  6. William G Johnsson, "South Mexico: Baptisms and Bloodshed," Adventist Review, March 13, 1997, p. 11.
  7. Gadzhimurat Gadzhiyev, 31, and his wife Tatyana were recent converts and zealous evangelists for the local, eight-member Seventh-day Adventist church. They were seized by a mob, beaten publicly, doused with gasoline, and burned to death. The Adventist Review called the incident "religiously-motivated" (Robert W. Nixon, Secretary, "Minutes, International Religious Liberty Association Hearing Committee, Fourth World Congress," Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 23 and 25, 1997; Jonathan Gallagher, "World Events Demonstrate Importance of Religious Liberty Congress," Adventist Review, August 14, 1997, p.13).
  8. Barrett and Johnson, cited in Bergman, Martyrs, pp. 14, 15.
  9. See Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), pp. 569, 570.
  10. Wong is a pseudonym. See Stanley Maxwell, The Man Who Couldn't Be Killed (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1995), p. 5.
  11. Ibid., pp. 210211.
  12. Anthony Nemeti, The Time of Trouble (Leominster, Mass.: Eusey Press, 1978), pp. 2326, 8182, 129.
  13. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1970), art. "Martyr."
  14. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, "Timothy, St."
  15. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1962), p. 39.
  16. Noble Alexander with Kay D. Rizzo, I Will Die Free (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1991), pp. 4951.
  17. Quoted in Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), p. 42.
  18. Alexander, pp. 95100.
  19. White, The Great Controversy, p. 602; White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1958, 1980), Book 2, p. 638.
  20. White, The Great Controversy, p. 42.
  21. Nemeti, pp. 67, 68, 8285.
  22. Alexander, pp. 76, 77.
  23. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 576.
  24. Alexander, pp. 144, 145.