The Christian Martyr
March 7th, 1976 @ 8:15 AM
THE CHRISTIAN MARTYR
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-7-76 8:15 a.m.
On the radio of the city of Dallas, WRR, we welcome you sharing with us this holy and heavenly service. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled, The Christian Martyr. In our preaching through the Book of Isaiah, we have come to chapter 51 [Isaiah 51], and the chapter begins with a prophetic call to the people of God to remember from whence they came and to call to mind their forefathers. As we read the text, we shall use it as a background for at least three messages: today, The Christian Martyr; next Lord’s Day, The Church and the State; and the following Lord’s Day, Christianity and Communism, the most formidable foe that the Christian faith has ever faced. Now the reading of the text in Isaiah 51 is this:
Hearken to Me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.
Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you . . .
This is a call, as you can see, on the part of the prophets by the Word of God to remember from whence they came; “The rock from whence ye are hewn, the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged” [Isaiah 51:1], and a call to remember our forefathers who gave us life and birth.
Another word, another delineation of the message today, The Christian Martyr, could be the story of the New Testament church. It is written in blood, in tears, in the pouring out of the crimson of life. Many times that story is difficult to follow because the persecutors of the people of God also burned their literature. The hand that held the sword to destroy God’s people also carried the torch to burn their books. Many, many times, the writer was reduced to ashes in the very flame of the literature that he wrote. But God raised His truth out of the dust and out of the ashes.
He has said, “On this rock I shall build My church; and the gates of persecution, of Hades, of hatred, of death, shall not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18]. Always there shall be, and there has been, a witness to God in the earth. Always, there has been, still is, and will continue to be, a New Testament church. It does not be a New Testament church by name, nor by its ability to follow an unbroken history back to the day of John the Baptist [Matthew 3:1-12; John 1:19-36]. It is a New Testament church because of its great apostolic principles. You could organize a New Testament church tomorrow on a lonely isle in the Pacific, if it followed the great revelation that God has written down for us who believe in Him.
I have five fingers on my hand. There are five great apostolic principles that always characterize a true New Testament church. Number one: it looks upon Scripture as its sole authority for faith and practice. The holy New Testament was first oral, as the men who heard Christ repeated what He said. Then it later was written—the gospel and the epistles that encompasses the Word and message of our Lord. But from the beginning, a New Testament church has always been built upon the Holy Scripture, the sole authority for our faith and for our practice.
Number two: the great apostolic doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Every man can go to God for himself and talk to the Lord for himself. The veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom [Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38]. Not from the bottom to the top, from the top to the bottom, that is, it was rent asunder by the hand of Almighty God. A kitchen corner is as fine a place to pray and to approach the Almighty as a gilded cathedral. The priesthood of the believer: any man has the right, boldly, to approach the throne of grace [Hebrews 4:16] for himself, and talk to God as a man would to his best friend.
The third great apostolic principle of the New Testament church is: a regenerated church membership. That is, the church is what the New Testament calls an ekklēsia, a called-out body of baptized believers who are furthering the gospel, and who are keeping the ordinances, and who ordain their own ministries. A regenerated church membership; that is, under no conditions could the citizenry of the state be congruous, be equal to, the members of the church. For a man to be saved, he must be born again [John 3:3, 7], he must publicly confess his faith in the Lord according to the Word of God [Romans 10:9-10] and on that confession [Acts 8:36-38], he is to be baptized, buried, and raised in the name of the triune God [Romans 6:3-5]. The state is not the church, and to be a citizen of the state is not to be a citizen of heaven. A man must be born again ever to be a child of God in the New Testament sense of the kingdom of our Lord, a regenerated church membership [John 3:37].
The fourth great apostolic principle of the New Testament church is its ministry; its ordained ministry is two, and its ordinances are two. The ordained ministry is, according to the New Testament, a presbuteros, an episkopos, a poimēn, all three referring to the same officer. An episkopos, a bishop; a presbuteros, an elder; a poimēn, a pastor. All three of those words are used interchangeably in the New Testament to refer to the same officer, the same minister. Your pastor is also the bishop of the church and the elder of the congregation.
The other ordained ministry is the diakonos, the word for servant, for helper, the deacon is to hold up the hands of the preacher, to run interference for him, to help him make a touchdown, to help him knock a home run, to help him carry the cause of Christ in victory and in triumph. And the ordinances of the New Testament church are two. The initial ordinance, “Baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” [Matthew 28:19], and the recurring ordinance of the church, the Lord’s Table, breaking bread together, drinking of the cup together [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26].
And the fifth and last of these great apostolic principles of the New Testament church is this: the instrument for conquest is not tyranny and taxation and conversion, but the instrument for conquest is always prayer and love and persuasion and godly appeal. Under no conditions is a New Testament church ever to use force or the sword or the power of the state to turn men to Christ. But our instrument of conquest is always love and prayer and appeal and witnessing and testifying and preaching and asking God to bless our word of witness to the saving grace of the Lord [Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:45-47; Acts 1:8; Romans 10:14, 1 Corinthians 1:21].
Now these New Testament churches have been bathed in blood and martyrdom from the beginning, and still through the centuries and these two millennia it is still a church of martyrdom and of sacrifice.
John the Baptist introduced the new dispensation [Matthew 3:1-12], and his own life is a pattern, is a type, of the churches that were to follow after. John the Baptist lifted up his voice and preached, saying, a man is not a member of the kingdom of God because of race or family or natural birth;” He said, “God could raise out of these stones children to Abraham” [Matthew 3:9]. But a man enters the kingdom of God by repentance of his sins and by faith in the Messiah [Acts 20:20-21] who, in his day, was yet to be introduced [John 1:29]. And the great ordinance by which John introduced his message and the new dispensation was burial after death and resurrection in the power of the Lord [Mark 6:16-29]. And he sealed the warrant for his death when he bore witness for the truth. And John the Baptist died in his own blood [Mark 6:24-29], a type and a figure of the story of the Christian church through the centuries that followed after.
The man that he introduced [John 1:29-34], the God-Man Christ Jesus was baptized in water by John in the Jordan River [Matthew 3:13-17], and He was baptized in His own blood on a hill called Calvary [Matthew 27:33-35; Luke 23:33]. And the apostles, all of them, died a martyr’s death except John who, in his old, old, age was exiled to die of starvation and exposure on the lonely, rocky isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9]. The story of the New Testament church that followed after was no less one of blood and of martyrdom. As they confronted and as they wrestled with Roman idolatry and Roman imperialism, they paid for their faith with their lives. They were like a little ship on a vast sea of paganism and heathenism and idolatry.
You know one of the strange things that I read in the story of God’s churches is this, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, one of the great books of the faith of all time, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs he names ten imperial persecutions on the part of the Roman Caesar. And in the address of our Lord to the church at [Smyrna], in the second chapter of the Apocalypse, this is the church of the apostolic fathers. This is the church of the Roman Empire. In the address of our Lord to the church at [Smyrna], He said in Revelation 2:10, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, Satan shall cast some of you into prison that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” [Revelation 2:10]. Isn’t that remarkable? The Lord said to the church at [Smyrna], which stand for the apostolic church, that era of the first three hundred years, “Thou shalt have tribulation, trial, ten days” [Revelation 2:10]. And in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he names ten of those persecutions of the Imperial Roman Caesar. I name five of them, I mention five of them.
The first was Neronian, who died, committed suicide in AD 68. Nero, as you know, fiddled while Rome burned. And when the population accused him, maybe, of setting fire to the city that he might have room for the building of his golden palace, Nero said, “I did not do it. Those Christians did it.” And, according to Suetonius and Tacitus, that gave rise to the first secular mention of the name of Christ. For the historians had to say who the Christians were. And the historians said they were named after a man named Christ who was crucified under Pontius Pilate in Judea. So Nero, in order to avert the suspicion against himself when Rome burned said, “The Christians did it.” And in that terrible persecution, Paul and Peter laid down their lives; one in Rome, the apostle Paul; and the other one in Asia Minor, the apostle Peter.
The second great persecution was Domitian. He died in 96. And in the days of Domitian, they presented the Christians to the world as atheists, that is, they worship no visible God, and they had no image to express His presence. But they worshiped an unseen God. And they bow at no human altar. Their altar and their sanctuary were in heaven. And in the days of Domitian, John was exiled to the lonely isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9].
The third one I picked out was that of Trajan who died in 117 AD. Trajan was the man, the emperor, to whom Pliny wrote from Bithynia saying that these Christians have emptied the temples and the sacrifices are neglected. And the chief sacrifice, of course, was made to the image of the emperor. And Pliny said, “What shall I do? These Christians are sweeping the earth. They’re converting the whole Eastern empire.” And Trajan the emperor wrote back saying, “Every Christian is to be arrested and brought before the image of the emperor and if he says, ‘Kaisar Kurios,’ ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and takes a pinch of incense and places it on the altar fire, then he is exonerated. But, if he says ‘Iēsus Kurios,’ ’Jesus is Lord,’ and refuses to bow down and to place incense on the altar fire before the image of the emperor, he is to be summarily executed.”
It was in the days of Trajan that Ignatius, the pastor of the church at Antioch, was sentence by Trajan to be exposed to lions in the Roman Coliseum. Haven’t you seen pictures of the Saint of God standing there in the Coliseum and the gates open and the ravenous lions coming out, and this man looks up to heaven unperturbed? Trajan.
The next one I mention is Decius. Decius died in 251. The Decian persecution was violent in the extreme. I have here a record written by the Roman jurist, Calcilnia, and he describes a slander that he and all of these who were of the persuasion that the Christians were cannibals. I have a quote from his own words I’ll not take time to read. And he describes how, in the Christian meetings, human life is offered and human blood is drunk. And that was a slander that was universally believed in the days of the Roman Empire. They took their cue, of course, from the Lord’s Supper. “This is My blood, drink in remembrance of Me. And this is My body, eat in remembrance of Me” [1 Corinthians 11:24-25]. And these slanderers of the days of the Imperial Caesars took that service and using such infamous things as this jurist has written, they persecuted the Christians unto death, hunted them down like animals, and presented them as cannibals in an image before the face of the whole civilized world.
The last emperor that I shall name is Diocletian. He died in 305 AD. The Diocletian persecution was an attempt to destroy the Christian faith from the earth. Diocletian saw that the basis of the Christian faith was the Word of God, so he began to destroy the Word of God. And any man that was found with a copy of the Holy Scriptures was summarily executed. And he thought that he had succeeded. Diocletian died believing that he had exterminated the Christian faith from the earth. Diocletian had a coin struck. On one side of it is a picture of the Roman emperor, Diocletian, with a victorious laurel around his brow. On the other side is a picture of Jupiter with his thunderbolt standing on top of an executed Christian. It was Diocletian who erected a monument in memory of his triumph over the Christian faith over a Bible that had been burned. And this caption, written on the triumphant column, Nomine Christianorum Extincto Est, “The name of the Christian is perished,” is destroyed.
Who followed Diocletian? The great first Christian emperor, Constantine. How the Christian faith costs: martyred, burned, buried, rises from the dead in the strength and the power of Almighty God. And it was Constantine who presided over the counsel of the pastors in Nicea in 325 AD. And when that group of episkopoi, presbuteroi, poimēn, when they gathered together, what a sight they were, with their eyes gouged out and their hands cut off and their tongues torn out, wounded and scarred, “but faithful unto death” [Revelation 2:10].
I choose just three out of all of the centuries since; I choose just three of the great tragic periods of blood and martyrdom through which the New Testament churches passed after the conversion of the Roman emperor. One: the sword of Mohammed. In 632, that band of fanatical zealots who believed in the propagation of the faith by the sword, Mohammed and the caliphs that followed after, by the sword slew and destroyed the thousands and the thousands and the thousands of the Christians in all North Africa, in all the Middle East, in all Asia Minor, and finally sacking and putting to the flame and the sword the great Christian Byzantian capital of Constantinople. And they turned the whole Middle East into a bath of blood; literally, rivers of human blood flowed down.
The second of those great confrontations of martyrdom, I mean, is the terrible and unthinkable Inquisition. How many perished in those awesome days of death and burning at the stake and drowning in water is known but to God. I have read where it is estimated that fifty million martyrs laid down their lives in that awesome persecution, through the centuries when the New Testament church was destroyed by the power of the state, which was directed by a mistaken hierarchy. I have here, and I’ll not take time to read it, I have here one of the great sonnets of John Milton, the English poet, written after the tragic destruction of the Pied Matisse, these Piedmont dwellers in northern Italy; the whole race of them, wiped out.
I mention one other. And that is the church in the communist world today. We think Mohammed, 632 years ago, Diocletian, 305 years ago, the terrible unspeakable Inquisition, 400, 500, 600-700 years ago. But these days have brought to the New Testament church rest and peace and quiet and victory and triumph. This day, this day, the church faces, in martyrdom, its greatest and most formidable foe. I listened to a man who had traveled in China, and he said, “I stood on the very spot where the Chinese atheists executed every member of the church. They were gathered together inside the house of God, brought forth one by one and executed. Every member of the church died.”
A man said to me, when I returned from Russia, he said to me, “Do you remember that man who walked by your side in the dead of the night, dark, dark, dark?” For the church always is as far out as the communist can place it. Only one of them is allowed in the city. Six million people in Moscow. One church. “Do you remember,” he said, “that man who walked by your side in the dead of the night with a big coat? And while you walked by his side, he reached into the folds of his coat and showed you his holy and heavenly Bible? Do you remember that?”
I said, “How could I ever forget it?”
And the traveler said to me, “Did you know that man was accosted, arrested, and executed?”
I said, “No, I had no way of knowing. I had no way of knowing.”
When I attended the First Baptist Church in Prague, I, in Czechoslovakia, Prague, I never saw a congregation more hurt in heart than that band of Christian believers. You know why? The communist government had taken their pastor for the years and the years whom they loved as they loved the Lord Himself. The communist government had taken that pastor because he was true to the faith and had sent him to the frontier facing Poland. And they knew not what had become of their pastor. And the communist government had sent another preacher to that pulpit and the men privately said to me, “We think he is a communist agent and a traitor to the faith.”
We do not know how many have perished in China. We do not know how many have perished in Russia. We do not know how many have perished in these socialist, communist countries of the world. Nor do we know, now, how many are laying down their lives for you are never told. It will never be mentioned; the quietness of that awesome and formidable decimation. It is said that there is no sign of a living church in all China today. The people have died. They have been destroyed. They have been executed. And it goes on today, only more and more and more. I was in a service of evangelicals, and they bowed their heads, having named the pastors whom they knew in South Vietnam, who had been executed before the firing squad, and with tears, bowing to pray for the suffering church in South Vietnam.
I must close.
“Look onto the rock from which ye are hewn, and look to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged” [Isaiah 51:1]. You know how I feel? I believe I can describe it exactly. In the days when David was a fugitive from the Philistines and the blaspheming, uncircumcised, Philistines had occupied most of Judea, and a garrison of them in the little town of David called Bethlehem, in a cave called Adullam in which David had sought refuge for his life, he said, “Oh for a drink of water from the well which is by the gate of Bethlehem!” [2 Samuel 23:13-15]. And three of David’s mighty men heard him say that. “Oh for a drink from the well which is by the gate of Bethlehem.”
And those three men, in unequalled bravery went through the Philistine host and through the Philistine garrison, and they drew water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem and brought it back to David and said, “Drink.” And when David received the draft from the hands of those three great and mighty men, David said, “I cannot drink it. This is the blood of these men who jeopardized their lives that I might have it. I cannot drink it.” And the Book says, David poured it out on the ground as a libation before the Lord [2 Samuel 23:16-17].
I feel exactly that way about these holy liberties and these holy freedoms and this Holy Book and this holy church and this holy service. I have received it from the hands of men who have laid down their lives that I might possess it. What shall I do with it? Shall I treat it lightly? Accept it summarily? Work with it indifferently or peripherally? No. I must take it and offer it as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, a libation, before God [Psalm 116:17].
Lord, the Holy Scriptures, I thank Thee for them. They show me the way of life. The blessed Jesus who died on the cross [1 Corinthians 15:3], O God, thank Thee for the blood that washes from sin [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5]. This precious church, Lord, thank Thee for the church. And the congregation that loves Thee and calls upon Thy name, Lord, thank Thee for the open door.
I could not tell you the number of church doors I have seen locked in Russia, in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany, in communist lands. Lord, thank Thee for that open door! And, Lord, thank Thee for the privilege to preach without agents standing by to see whether or not I am to be arrested and executed or sentenced to Siberia.
How shall I receive these gifts from God for which men paid down their lives? I shall take them and offer them unto Thee in praise and thanksgiving [Psalm 116:12, 17].
Lord, my deepest gratitude, that thus we have been blessed and in bounty.
Our time is far, far spent. While we sing our hymn of appeal, in the throng in the service this hour, a family, a couple, or just you, “Pastor, today I have made my decision for God. I am no atheist. I am no unbeliever. I believe in God. I believe and do accept the Lord Jesus [Romans 10:8-13]. And I give Him, in gratitude, my heart in repentance in faith. I ask Him to forgive my sins and to write my name in His Book of Life [Luke 10:20; Revelation 20:12, 15]. To be my helper and partner, the great source of help and strength and wisdom for my journey, my pilgrimage and someday, my Intercessor when I stand at the judgment bar of Almighty God [Hebrews 9:27]. I’m a lost sinner. And if I die without Christ, I die separated from God forever. I accept Him in all that He promised to be, and here I come.”
As the Lord shall press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now. And in a moment when we stand up to sing, down one of these stairways, walking down one of these aisles, “Here I come, pastor. Here I am.” Do it now. Make it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.