The Christian Martyr
March 7th, 1976 @ 10:50 AM
THE CHRISTIAN MARTYR
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Isaiah 51:1 – 3
3-7-76 10:50 a.m.
We welcome you again, you who are listening on radio and watching on television, to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. In our preaching through the Book of Isaiah, we have come to the fifty-first chapter. And the text is a background for the message this morning, next Lord’s day, and the following Lord’s day.
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 of the prophet of God to the people, that they look to the forefathers who brought them into the faith and into existence and to look to the providences of God that gave them birth. "Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged"; a call to look back to the great heritage we have received from the hands of God and from the hands of our forefathers – blessings incomparable that we enjoy today.
The three sermons thus far prepared from this text are first, the one today, The Christian Martyr, or The Story of the New Testament Church. The sermon next Sunday will be entitled, The Church and the State. And the third Sunday it will be Christianity and Communism as we face our most formidable and implacable foe.
The sermon today, The Christian Martyr: The Story of the Christian Church: "Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged" [Isaiah 51:1]. Sometimes it is most difficult to follow the story of the true New Testament church because it has been drowned in blood, in persecution, in flame and fagot and fire and sword. The same hand that carried the sword to smite God’s people also carried the torch to burn their books. Many of these Christian authors were turned to ashes by the very flames of the literature that they wrote.
But out of the ashes and out of the blood there ever arose the witnessing church in a godless, pagan, and heathen world. Somehow, it has in it the living Spirit of God. And though decimated and destroyed in this place, or in this area, it rises from the ruins to shine and to glorify the Lord.
A New Testament church is not known by a name, nor is it known by its ability to follow an unbroken succession back to the days of John the Baptist. But a New Testament church is distinguished by its apostolic principles and characteristics and its godly confirmation to the revelation of the truth in the New Testament. You could organize a New Testament church tomorrow on a lonely isle in the Pacific, following the pattern of the revelation of God in the New Testament Scriptures. I haven’t time this morning to follow the great apostolic principles that characterize a New Testament church. Maybe God will give us that opportunity some other day, some other hour.
But this time, this day, we are following the story of these witnesses for God that is written in human blood. For the story began in martyrdom, in suffering, and in death. It started with John the Baptist, a man sent from God with a message and an ordinance from heaven [Matthew 3:1-12; John 1:29-36]. He preached that it was not enough that a man be born physically, that a man belong to a chosen family and race, for he preached that God was able of these very stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And he preached the message that we must repent and accept in faith the Messiah, the Christ, that God has sent to save us from our sin. And he also had an ordinance that depicted that marvelous life in the Christian faith; death and burial and a resurrection to a new life in Him [Romans 6:3-5]. He signed the warrant for his death when, standing, he preached fearlessly the truth of the living God, and this great Baptist died in his own blood [Mark 6:14-28].
The marvelous Master and Messiah that he introduced, Jesus the Christ, was also baptized in water and also was baptized in blood. On the cross, the crimson of His life was spilled out on the ground [John 19:34], and He died for the remission of our sin and the salvation of our souls [Matthew 26:26-28]. And the story continued in the same martyrdom through the apostles. All of them were executed except one, the sainted John, who was exiled to die of exposure and starvation on the lonely isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9]. They had said to Him, "Lord, we are able to drink the cup that Thou dost drink and to be baptized with the baptism wherewithal Thou art baptized." And the Lord replied to those apostles, "You shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink. And you shall indeed be baptized with the baptism wherewithal I am baptized" [Matthew 20:22-23]; and as our Lord died – so all of the apostles were executed except the sainted John, who was exiled in his ancient age to die of exposure and starvation.
Then after the days of the apostles, the struggling New Testament church found itself like a little ship in a vast sea of paganism and heathenism. It struggled in a witness in a Roman world of idolatry, Caesar worship, and Roman imperialism. It’s a strange thing that I read in the Bible and in history. One of the finest, noblest books ever written, and one that had a profound influence on the world, was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – like Pilgrim’s Progress, a volume that shaped the English-speaking world.
In that Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he names ten imperial Caesarean persecutions of the church in the first three hundred years. And to my amazement, in the address of our Lord to the church at [Smyrna], which stands for that era of apostolic Christianity of the first three hundred years, the Lord addressing the church at [Smyrna] says, "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: but be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" [Revelation 2:10]. The Lord says to the church at [Smyrna] that stands for the apostolic church in chronological story, "thou shalt suffer ten days," and when I pick up Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he lists ten terrible decimations and persecutions of the Christian church. Of the ten, I choose five.
First: the Neronian. Nero died by his own hand, a suicide, in 68 AD. The persecution arose from the burning of Rome. You see, Nero had an ambition to build a golden palace in a vast and spacious ground in the heart of the imperial city. So he set it afire to burn it down. And as the days passed and the suffering of the people, they began to point the finger toward Nero, saying, "You did it in order to clear the way for the erection of your golden palace." In order to avert suspicion from himself, Nero said, "I did it not. But these despised and outcast Christians, they did it. They did it."
And by the way, that gave rise to the first secular historic reference to Jesus the Christ. For, Suetonius and Tacitus, ancient historians who are telling the story of Nero and the burning of Rome, had to explain who these despised Christians were. So Tacitus and Suetonius said, "They are named after a certain Jesus who is called the Christ, who was executed under Pontius Pilate in Judea." The Christians first suffered by imperial decree under Nero, and in those days of bloodshed and burning, Paul was beheaded on the Ostian way, and Simon Peter was crucified head-down somewhere in the Levant – the first persecution, Neronian in 68 AD.
The second one by Domitian who died in 96 AD; Domitian looked upon the Christians as atheists. He said, "They worship at no temple. They bow at no altar, and their God is invisible, without image and representation." For the Christians said their God was in heaven, and their altar was in glory, and their God was not seen of men. He had entered into the Holy of Holies, beyond the veil. So they were looked upon by the Romans as atheists, and they were persecuted unto the death. In that Domitian persecution, Ignatius, the pastor of the church at Antioch, was brought to the Roman Coliseum and exposed there to the beasts, the lions, the ravenous, carnivorous, enraged animals.
I think there’s no one of us but has seen the picture of that Roman Coliseum and Ignatius, God’s pastor of the church in Antioch, standing with his head lifted heavenward, unperturbed and fearless, as the cages were opened and the hungry, ravenous, carnivorous lions leaped forward to the prey.
I saw the martyr at the stake,
The flames could not his courage shake,
Nor death his soul appall;
I asked him whence his strength was giv’n;
He looked triumphantly to Heav’n,
And answered, "Christ is all."
["Christ Is All," anonymous]
Ignatius, the pastor of the church at Antioch, exposed to the wild beasts before the thousands who tiered up to watch the gore and the blood of this man of God destroyed by ravenous lions.
In that persecution of Domitian, John was exiled to Patmos [Revelation 1:9] from his beloved congregation and people in Ephesus, to die on that rocky isle of exposure and starvation. And it was only in the death of Domitian that he had opportunity to return to Ephesus and there to die as a fellow servant of those who love Jesus.
The third imperial persecution that I choose is that of Trajan. Trajan died in 117 AD. It was to the emperor Trajan that Pliny the Younger, the proconsul of Bithynia, just south of the Black Sea in Asia Minor, it was to Trajan the emperor that Pliny the Younger wrote the letter saying, "All Bithynia is turning away from heathen gods. The temples are empty, and the altars are desecrated without sacrifice, and these Christians have won the Eastern world. What shall we do?" And Trajan replied to Pliny the Younger, "Arrest each man who says he’s a Christian. Take him into the temple and if he bows before the image of Caesar and casts a pinch of incense on the altar fire, exonerate him. But when you arrest a Christian and bring him before the Caesarean image, if he refuses to bow and if he refuses to burn incense on the sacred fire, execute him." And once again, a terrible and awesome persecution began against the New Testament churches, the people of God.
The fourth of these five I have chosen is the persecution under the Emperor Decius. Decius died in 251 AD. One of the things that happened in the Roman Empire concerning the persecution of the Christians lay in a slanderous report that was made about them that was universally believed. I have in my hands here, I have a copy of a circulated report by a great Roman jurist. And he is describing there, supposedly authentically, a service of the Christian. "They are labeled as cannibals. They drink blood, human. And they eat flesh, human." And, of course, the thing that lay back of a slanderous report like that is to be found in the Lord’s Supper. "This is My body. . .eat in remembrance of Me. This is My blood. . .drink in remembrance of Me" [1 Corinthians 11:24-25]. And using that as a background, the slanderers and the bitter, implacable enemies of the Christian faith in the days of the Roman Empire, said, "The Christians eat their flesh, and they drink their blood, these that are sacrificed in their unholy sacrifices before God." And there began again and anew a terrible decimation and persecution of the Christian people.
The fifth that I name is the Diocletian persecution. That was one of the most vigorous and ferocious and fiercest of all. Diocletian died in 305 AD. Diocletian saw that these men who preached the gospel of the Son of God held a Book in their hand, the Holy Scriptures. So the great aim of the Diocletian persecution was to destroy the Bible, and with it these who opened it, read it, and believed it. So triumphant was Diocletian in his persecution of the Christians and in his destruction of the Word, burning it from one side of the empire to the other, and burning also, and executing also, those who possessed a copy and refused to recount the faith; so triumphant was Diocletian that, in honor of his great victory over the stamping out of the Christian faith, he struck a coin, a Roman coin. On one side is the image of Diocletian, the imperialist Caesar with a laurel crown of victory upon his brow. And on the other side of the coin there is a picture of the god, Jupiter, hurling a thunderbolt from his hand and beneath him, trampling under his feet, is a Christian. And Diocletian not only struck the coin in triumph over the Christian faith, but he raised an altar, he raised a great column over a Bible that had been burned, and on that column he wrote these words, Nomine Christianorum Extincto es"; "The name of the Christian is forever destroyed," forever perished, extinct. That was in 305 AD.
Do you know who followed Diocletian? The Emperor Constantine, whose mother was a British Christian girl by the name of Helena. And he turned to the faith, and out of the ashes of the burning and the persecution of Diocletian, there arose a more glorious witness to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It was Constantine, the emperor, who presided over the first council of the pastors of the Roman Empire, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. And had we attended that conference of God’s bishops and pastors and elders, they would have been an unusual and pathetic sight for us. Some of them, their eyes had been gouged out by the Diocletian persecution. Some of them, their hands had been cut off by the Diocletian persecution. Some of them, their tongues had been torn out by the Diocletian persecution. Some of them were scarred and maimed terribly by the Diocletian persecution. And the emperor thought he had destroyed the faith.
I have but a moment to follow after the story of blood, and fire, and flame, and fagot, and martyrdom through the centuries that arrive to our present day. Of all of them, I choose just three. One: the terrible sword that devastated the churches in North Africa, in the Levant, in Asia Minor, and finally in Constantinople by Mohammed and his caliphs that followed after. In that day, they believed in the propagation of the faith by the sword. And the Christians died by the thousands, the thousands, and the uncounted thousands, and the church almost ceased to exist throughout North Africa, throughout Palestine and Syria, and throughout the great provinces of Asia Minor, and finally in the destruction of the Christian Constantinople. The blood that flowed through those years literally looked like rivers: these martyrs who laid down their life for the faith.
And the second of those great, awesome days of terror and martyrdom: I refer to the Inquisition, when Christian turned against Christian and when by the thousands and the thousands and the hundreds of thousands through those centuries, the church was devastated and laid waste by a mistaken and unholy and un-understanding zeal – using the arm of the state and the power of the government to destroy the people of God.
And third, and last: I refer now to the suffering and the martyrdom of God’s people and God’s children in the most formidable foe that the Christian faith has ever faced: that of atheistic, Red communism. We’re sometimes inclined to think we understand the Christian died for his faith two thousand years ago. Yes, we understand the Christian poured out his blood for the sake of Christ six hundred years ago. Yes, we understand, having read in medieval history, the awesome days when Christian slew Christian in the days of the Inquisition. But we live in another day; we live in an enlightened brotherhood. We live in a day of peace and quiet for those who love God. Never has there been a foe so vicious and so ferocious and so committed as the foe we face this present moment and this present hour in Red, atheistic communism.
I listen to a traveler who had come back from China, and I heard him describe his standing on the exact spot where a church had been executed to it’s last member by the ferocious and atheistic Chinese. All of the members of the church had been gathered and placed inside the church house and one by one taken out the front door and executed in Chinese fashion, with their heads cut off by the sword – today, standing in that place, where every member of the church had perished by the sword. So far as we know, there is no viable living, open church in China today. They have all been destroyed, all of them; their people executed. They have died by the hundreds of thousands. And they’re dying today. The only church that abides today in China is one of which we know nothing; an underground witness to the faith of Christ.
A man came to me not too long ago, and he said, "Do you remember that man who walked by your side in Kharkov, in central Russia?" On the way to a little Baptist church, always on the edge of the city, always cast out: in a city of six million, such as Moscow, one allowed to be open, in order that we might go and say, "Oh, look at the liberty they have in communist Russia," as a showpiece. A damnable deception on the part of those bloodthirsty atheists. The man said to me, "Do you remember that man who walked by your side in the blackness of the night with his big heavy coat on in Kharkov going to the little Baptist church?"
I said, "I certainly do, I certainly do. That’s the man who reached inside the folds of his big heavy coat and pulled out a Bible. And with great pride and rejoicing, showed me his Bible and gave me to understand that if they knew that he loved it and cared for it, he would forfeit his life, talking to me."
The man, the traveler said, "Do you remember that man?"
I said, "I can never forget him."
"Well," the traveler said to me, "did you know he had been accosted, he had been condemned, he had been executed? Did you know that he paid for that with his life?"
I said, "No. No, I did not know it."
Well, he said, "He has. That man now is a martyr to the Christian faith."
When I was in the First Baptist Church in Prague, the capital of communist Czechoslovakia, I never saw a church so bowed in hurt in my life. Their pastor, who had been their undershepherd for years and years, God’s true man, their pastor, had been send by the communist government to the frontier that faces Poland. And of his destiny they knew nothing. His wife was there, his children were there, but he had been sent to the frontier facing Poland, and they knew nothing of his whereabouts. And the man that the communist government had sent to the church, the people said to me, "We think he’s a communist agent. He’s no pastor of the flock. Our pastor is either dead or exposed on the frontier that faces Poland."
I was in a service of these evangelicals and some of these men said, who were translating the Word of God, some of these men said, "We heard you preach there." In one of the services of this evangelical convocation of America, they had pictures for some and names for many other pastors who had laid down their lives in South Vietnam when it was overrun by the communists. These men are pouring out their blood on the ground today! They are dying today! They’re paying for the faith with their life today, this hour, this moment, this minute.
How do I feel about this thing? I can tell you exactly how I feel about it. In the twenty-third chapter of 2 Samuel, there is the story of David, who is a fugitive in a cave called Adullam. And the Philistines have overrun Judea, and a garrison is placed in Bethlehem, the city of the great king David. And standing with his men, a fugitive, David 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 their master, and king, and lord, and leader, "Oh for a drink of water from the well which is by the gate of Bethlehem." And those three mighty men went through the Philistine army and went through that garrison, and from the well by the gate of Bethlehem, they drew a draft of water and carried it through the lines again back to their leader and their king, David. And when David received it from their hands, David said, "This is the blood of these men who have jeopardized their lives for me. I cannot drink it." And the Book says in the next verse that David took the water and poured it out on the ground as a libation, an offering unto the Lord [2 Samuel 23:16-17].
I feel exactly that way about us. The Book I hold in my hand has been paid for and bought by human blood and human sacrifice. The door that is open, through which we entered today, freely, I have seen doors of churches opened by the uncounted numbers in the communist world, and especially Russia; and we enter in without molestation or fear of arrest. And the services in which I preach with no agents standing to see what I might say that might contravene the political ideology of the communist government, and therefore be arrested and shipped away into some Siberia; these gifts, I receive from the hands of these men who have laid down their lives for us. And this church that is open, we receive as a gift from their gracious hands. And the opportunity to preach the gospel of the grace of the Son of God, I receive as a gift from their martyred hands. And, as such, the Book and the sacred sanctuary, the church, and the opportunity to preach, I receive as the blood of men who jeopardized and laid down their lives for us. And I offer them as a libation, as a thanksgiving, as a gratitude to God.
O God, thank Thee for the open Book for which men have laid down their lives. Thank Thee, Lord, for the glorious church for which they’ve laid down their lives. Thank Thee, Lord, for the open door for which freedom they laid down their lives. And thank Thee, Lord, for the privilege to preach the gospel of the Son of God without fear of arrest or imprisonment or exile.
These are gifts that we receive from their dying hands. How could I look upon it summarily, peripherally, lightly, banely? It costs human blood and human life.
Ah, Lord, that God will grant to us to be as faithful unto death in our day and in our generation as they have in theirs and as these, our brethren, who live behind iron and bamboo curtains!
Our time is far spent. In this moment of appeal, has God spoken to your heart? "I am no atheist. I believe in God. I believe in the holy record God has given of His Son. I want to be counted among those who call upon the name of the Lord." Has God spoken to your heart today? If He has, this day would you look in faith, in trust, in the forgiveness of sin, would you look to heaven and be saved? "Lord, write my name in the Book of Life [Revelation 3:5, 20:15]. Count me among those who love Thy name, who call upon Thee, who believe in Thee."
Of the thousands of you who have listened on the television and on the radio, wherever you are, this day would you make it a day of decision and declaration? "Dear God, this day I give my heart in faith and in trust to Thee. I ask Thee to come into my heart, to live in my house, to walk with me down this pilgrim way, to be my guide, my guest in the home where I live, to help me in my business and in every trial I shall ever face. Then, Lord, I look to Thee to stand by me in the hour of my death and at the great judgment day of Almighty God." Would you ask Him into your heart and house and business and life today? "Lord, this day I decide for Thee."
And in the great throng of people that press into this auditorium this hour, in the balconies round, you, there’s time and to spare, come. On this lower floor, down one of these aisles, "This day, I give my heart to Christ and here I am." A family you, coming, a couple you, coming, just one somebody you, coming, putting your life with us, coming to accept Christ, coming to be baptized, coming to put your life in the circle and circumference and communion of this dear church, as the Lord shall press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now. And in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up walking down that aisle. "Here I am, pastor. Here I come. I make it now." May God bless you in the way, may angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.