Martyrdom precedes persecution, not the other way around
We must learn how the Bible tells stories of persecution and make sure our modern accounts reflect biblical theology.
Unfortunately, these days many accounts of Christian persecution are told like news stories designed to advance the narrative that Christians are increasingly in danger and in need of the prayers of other Christians and the protection of governments. The accounts make the persecutor the actor, the martyr the victim, and God the absentee deity who must be summoned back to the scene by our prayers in order to put an end to the violence.
Biblically, however, martyrdom is the cause of persecution, not the other way around. Martyrdom means making a witness: We witness to the character of God in the midst of those who remain slaves to sin and who are mobilized by the enemy to oppose the good news. Wherever a witness to the character of God is made, the enemy mobilizes his slaves to silence it. But the most vital part of the witness is yet to come: The character of God is fully revealed only on the Cross, where Christ willingly enters into suffering love rather than revile those who persecute him. Christ calls us, his witnesses, to follow him by taking up our own crosses: Thus, our witness to the character of God is complete when we voluntarily suffer in love rather than revile our own persecutors.
This biblical understanding should re-train what we pay attention to in martyrdom. What is important is the witness to the character of God, not the world’s predictable violent response to that witness. We don’t pray in order to summon God to the scene; instead, we give thanks because God has entered the scene, through the witness of the martyr.
So we pray Romans 8:17 for the persecuted: As they share in the sufferings of Christ as his co-heirs, may they be glorified with Christ. We pray 2 Corinthians 1:5 for the persecuted: As the sufferings of Christ overflow to them, so also may the comfort of Christ overflow to them. And instead of calling on governments to protect Christians as though we were an endangered species, we pray 2 Timothy 1:8: That God by his power may grant us to join the persecuted in suffering for the gospel.
That is what makes the stories of Asia Bibi, Pastor John Cao, Cha Deoksun, and the Iraq Bakery Christians so important. They are not victims of violence whose lives testify to the need for greater governmental protection of Christians. They are signs of Christ’s daily advance into the very heart of darkness to liberate captives. We praise God that he has never forgotten those trapped in sin. We imitate those who have responded to the call of Christ to take up their crosses and not revile those who hang us upon them. And our word to the nations is not “Protect us” but in the words of Early Rain Church Pastor Wang Yi, “You are engaging a battle against Christ that you cannot win.”
Jesus Christ is Lord. Our suffering is not the result of our weakness but rather of the merciful, unconquerable love of our Lord for sinners who know not what they do.