August/ September 2018 - Vol. 99
martyrdom of Paul the Apostle
Paul the Apostle martyred at Rome: "I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" - 2 Timothy 4:7

Normal Christian Martyrdom
by Josef Tson

Christianity is a religion of martyrdom because its founder was a martyr. Jesus was the faithful witness" – in Greek, “martyr” (Revelation 1:5).

Martyrdom does not seem a pleasant subject to most of us, and we do not usually speak of Christianity or Jesus this way. But that is because we do not see it as Jesus sees it. Martyrdom is really one of the greatest subjects in the world.

Jesus understood that his victory would be won by dying. His method for building his church, as he explained it to the disciples, was this: "I am going to Jerusalem. There I will be arrested, beaten, and crucified" (see Matthew 16:21).

This method was also to be his way of extending his church once he had established it. The most frequently quoted saying of Jesus to his disciples was "Take up your cross and follow me" (see Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; 10:21; Luke 9:23; 14:27). In other words, Jesus told his followers, “I am going to build my church by my cross and by your crosses."

How many of us today "spiritualize away" the teaching of the New Testament on the cross? We draw back from a literal reading. But when Jesus told his disciples that they had to take up their crosses, he knew in fact that they were going to bear witness to the gospel with their lives. He was training them for literal crucifixion.
Blood and Seed

This literal call to martyrdom was one of the secrets of Christianity's success in its first centuries. In the second century a lawyer, Tertullian, was converted when he saw Christians singing as they went out to die. Later he wrote a book about martyrdom, in which he made a statement that became famous: “The blood of the martyrs is seed" – seed of new Christians, seed of the church.

In the first centuries, when Christians were murdered everywhere, everyone who became a Christian knew that martyrdom might be their portion. Those early Christians were far from trying to "spiritualize away" Jesus' teaching on martyrdom.

Indeed, they sought martyrdom. Some of them wanted martyrdom so badly that the church found it necessary to instruct people that if a person provoked his own martyrdom, he disqualified himself.

Origen, who became a famous theologian in the third century, was 17 when his father was sentenced to death. Origen said, “Tomorrow when my father is burned at the stake, I will go there and provoke the governor to have me martyred too." To save him, his mother took all his clothes out of the house that night. In the morning he could not go out because he had no clothes to put on. Only in this way was he spared.

In the same period Cyprian, an African bishop, said, "When persecution comes, God's soldiers are put to the test, and heaven is open to martyrs. We have not enlisted in an army merely to think of peace and to decline battle, for we see that the Lord has taken first place in the conflict."

In the next century Augustine wrote, "The martyrs were bound, jailed, scourged, racked, burned, rent, butchered-and they multiplied."

In the fourth century, Gregory the Great said, “The death of the martyrs blossoms in the lives of the faithful."

Those Christians in the first centuries understood the teaching of Christ that Christians win by losing, conquer by dying. This is what explains the victory of the church after 300 years of martyrdom. They conquered by their blood.

When I first read these things, I wondered what sort of gospel these early Christians heard. The preachers who made Christians who were willing to be martyrs-who even had to be held back from provoking their own martyrdom – must have preached a powerful message. Some of what I have learned about martyrdom comes from studying their reflections on the scriptures.

What Is Achieved?

What is the theology of martyrdom?

In Revelation 6:11 we read that the martyrs cried from under the altar for God's judgment to come, and they were told to wait until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been." Why does God require a number of his children to be crucified, starting with his First Begotten? What does martyrdom achieve? How is martyrdom effective in God's strategy in history?

The first achievement of martyrdom is the defeat of Satan.

In Revelation 12 we have a scene of a war in heaven. Satan in thrown down. Then we read this comment: “They," that is, the martyrs, "conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, because they did not love their lives even unto death." In other words, when the martyrs made their testimony and were butchered for their loyalty to Jesus, Satan fell down.

How? The book of Job gives us a clue.

There was an argument in heaven. God said that Job was perfect. Satan could not challenge that, but, he said to God, "What is Job's motivation? He worships you because you give him things. He is the richest man in the land. Of course, he worships you for that. Take away all he has, and he will curse you."

God's honor was at stake. All heaven watched trembling. What was God going to do?

God had no other way to defend his honor than to say, “Go and take away all I gave him, and we will see."

When the tornadoes came and destroyed all Job had, and when messengers came one after another telling him the horrible truth, all heaven was watching his lips for the curse that Satan had insisted was to come. But Job stood tall to make his comment: "God has given. God has taken away. God's name be praised."

At that moment all heaven applauded.

Satan went to God again and said, “Let him suffer. Let that pain go into the marrow of his bones, and then he will curse you."

Then as Job was in excruciating pain, his wife and friends came and said, “Don't you see it's the end? Why don't you curse God and die?” That was exactly what Satan wanted. But Job, fed up with those exhortations, replied, "Look, let me clarify my attitude to God. I believe he commits a terrible injustice against me and I don't know why, but even if he kills me I will still praise

I told my interrogator: “Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. If you kill me, my sermons will speak ten times louder than before." He sent me home.

At that moment Satan was put to shame utterly and completely. He was dishonored. God had the victory.

Is that a once-upon-a-time story? No, it is a window open to heaven. In the New Testament we find it beautifully repeated in 1 Corinthians 4:9. Paul describes the apostles as they are scourged and beaten and thrown from one place to another, and then he says, "For God has made us a spectacle for the whole cosmos, both angels and man." Paul's view is that we are on a stage and the whole cosmos, including the angels, watches us.

Wherever I am, whatever I do, I am watched. Either I put my Father to shame by turning from his ways, or I put Satan to shame by giving glory to God. Whether I like it or not, I am a spectacle, watched by the whole cosmos. This is how we should understand that we are called to defeat Satan by our suffering and martyrdom.

For Your Salvation

A second purpose in suffering and martyrdom is the salvation of the world.

We are called to suffer and die for the salvation of the world? If I did not have the Scriptures to support that statement, I would not dare say it.

In 2 Corinthians 1:6, Paul tells the Corinthians, “I suffer for your comfort and salvation." How can Paul say it? Isn't Christ's sacrifice complete? Isn't his atonement sufficient? Yes, it is. But still there is a sense in which Paul can say, "I suffer for your salvation." What is that sense?

Paul explains it in 2 Timothy 2:10. “I suffer for the elect so that they may obtain the salvation which is in Jesus Christ." Salvation is in Jesus Christ, and nowhere else. But, Paul is saying, if I had remained a pastor in Antioch, in that affluent and peaceful city, in that wonderful church with so many prophets and such great blessings, nobody in Asia Minor or Europe would have been saved. In order for them to be saved, I have had to accept being beaten with rods, scourged, stoned, treated as the scum of the earth, becoming a walking death. But when I walk like this, wounded and bleeding, people see the love of God, people hear the message of the cross, and they are saved.

If we stay in the safety of our affluent churches and we do not accept the cross, others may not be saved. How many are not saved because we don't accept the cross?

Often in my country, Romania, people must accept demotions in their jobs when they become Christians. If someone in a very high position is converted to Jesus Christ and joins the church, immediately the authorities will hold a public meeting to expose him as a backward creature and have him publicly demoted or fired.

I had a man in an important position whom I baptized come to me and ask, "Now what shall I do? They will convene three or four thousand people to expose me and mock me. They will give me five minutes to defend myself. How should I do it?"

"Brother," I told him, "defending yourself is the only thing you shouldn't do. This is your unique chance to tell them who you were before, and what Jesus made of you; who Jesus is, and what he is for you now.''

His face shone and he said, "Brother Joseph, I know what I am going to do." And he did it well  – so well that afterwards he was severely demoted. He lost almost half of his salary. But he kept coming to me after that saying, "Brother Joseph, you know I cannot walk in that factory now without someone coming up to me. Wherever I go, somebody pulls me in a corner, looks around to see that nobody sees him talking to me, and then whispers, 'Give me the address of your church,' or 'Tell me more about Jesus,' or 'Do you have a Bible for me?'”

Every kind of suffering can become a ministry for other people's salvation.

Third, the ministry of suffering and dying enriches the life of the church.

In an epistle from prison Paul tells the Colossians, "I am rejoicing in what I am suffering for you, because I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his body the Church" (1:24). How can we understand this mysterious saying?

It is actually very simple. Paul is saying, I am one with Christ, and Christ continues to suffer through me. He was her bride by suffering for her. He is working today to make his bride more beautiful, and he does it, again, by means of suffering: his suffering in us.

Paul says in Philippians 3:10 that he wants to know Christ and to become a fellow-sufferer with Christ. Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12-13, “Brothers, do not consider this persecution that has come upon you to be a strange thing. But rather rejoice because you are participating in the sufferings of Christ."

This union with Christ is the most beautiful subject in the Christian life. It means that I am not a lone fighter here: I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Rumania, he suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honour to share his sufferings. As Christ suffers in us, he enriches the church.

The Impact of Death

Fourth, martyrdom is a witness to the truth.

I mentioned that Jesus Christ is called the "faithful witness" in Revelation 1:5. Paul reminds Timothy, who apparently is going through a persecution, to "remember Christ who made that great testimony" (1 Tim. 6:13). He is referring to what John describes in his gospel: Jesus said to Pilate, “I was born into this world to bear witness to the truth" (18:37).

For years I wanted to save my life, and I was losing it. Now that I wanted to lose it, I was winning it. Somebody said those words before, but they had not sunk in.

Jesus is the embodiment of the truth. His coming to us to bear witness to the truth meant coming into the kingdom of this world, which is under the rule of the father of lies, the king of deception. When the truth came, it hurt. The light shining in this darkness immediately disturbed everyone – and they killed the truth.

But it is by dying that the truth makes its impact in this kingdom of falsehood. “When I am lifted up,” Jesus said, referring to his cross, "I will attract the whole world to myself" (John 12:32). The truth conquers by self-sacrifice.

Jesus gives us the assignment of bearing witness to the truth as he has done, even to the point of suffering and death. He says to his followers, “You are my witnesses. If you do not bear witness to me before this wicked generation, I will not bear witness to you before my Father.”

When I preached in Romania, I knew that people were afraid to bear witness to Christ because they might lose their jobs. So I described the picture: “Christ is up there near the throne of God. He looks at you, here in this auditorium, and all the angels in heaven follow his gaze. If you raise your hand and you testify, 'Christ is my Lord,' Christ turns to his Father and says, 'Father, that one is my brother or sister.' You witness here that he is Lord; he witnesses there that you are his brother or sister."

Without Hope of Success

This is my outline of the theology of martyrdom. Let us see how it works in practice.

Years ago I ran away from my country to study theology at Oxford. In 1972, when I was ready to go back home, I discussed my plans with some fellow students. They pointed out that I might be arrested at the border.

One student asked, "Joseph, what chances do you have of successfully implementing your plans?" I smiled and said to myself, "Now this is typically Western thinking." Chances of success? I never thought in those terms. My thinking was in terms of obedience. I knew that the king said, "Go," and I had to say, "Yes, sir," and go.

But I did turn the question around and ask God, "What if I ask you about success?"

And he said, "My answer is in Matthew 10:16: 'I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.' Tell me. What chance does a sheep surrounded by wolves have of surviving five minutes, let alone of converting the wolves? Joseph, that's how I send you: totally defenseless and without a reasonable hope of success. If you are willing to go like that, go. If you are not willing to be in that position, don't go."

That experience deeply affected all my thinking. From that time I asked myself, Why does God send me in such a seemingly hopeless way? As I studied the question, I came to the understanding that I have sketched.

I started to teach my wife this insight into the gospel that suffering and dying is a ministry that God might require from me. If the Lord said, "Joseph, I want to seal your ministry with your life," would I say, "No, Lord, I won't give you that”? What a glorious day it was when Elizabeth, my dear wife, knelt down with me and said, “Lord, I give you Joseph for that ministry." From that day she was the best fighter of the two of us. She always helped me to stand up under the greatest pressure and threats.

After our return, as I preached uninhibitedly and wrote paper after paper, harassment and arrests came. One day during interrogation an officer threatened to kill me. Then I said, "Sir, let me explain that issue to you. Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. Sir, you know my sermons are all over the country on tapes now. If you kill me, I will be sprinkling them with my blood. Whoever listens to them after that will say, 'I'd better listen. This man sealed it with his blood.' They will speak ten times louder than before. So, go on and kill me. I win the supreme victory then." He sent me home.

One of the officer's colleagues was interrogating one of my colleagues, another preacher. That officer commented, "We know that Joseph Tson would love to be a martyr, but we are not such big fools as to fulfill his wish." That pastor came to me to tell me that even if I wanted them to, the authorities would not kill me.

That gave me pause. For years I was a Christian who was cautious and low-keyed because I wanted to survive. I had accepted all the restrictions the authorities put on me because I wanted to live. Now I wanted to die, and they wouldn't oblige. Now I could do whatever I wanted in Romania. For years I wanted to save my life, and I was losing it. Now that I wanted to lose it, I was winning it.

Somebody said those words before, but they had not sunk in my mind.

The greatest joy I have now when I communicate with the younger generation of Christians in my country is that I know that they consider suffering and dying for the Lord a privilege, not a calamity. When I hear that they are in trouble, I phone them and try to comfort them. But often the response I get is this: "Don't worry about that. I consider this a privilege."

Martyrdom in Your Country?

Every country has had to be opened to the Gospel by somebody's blood. Somebody had to sprinkle the ground with his blood in order to claim the territory for God. Only the kind of Christianity which understands suffering and dying as a ministry, a ministry that has effects in heaven, a ministry that has effects now and in all eternity – only that kind of Christianity is able to conquer.

Many hope that God will spare Christians persecution. But do not look at it like that. If persecution were to happen in your country, God would be saying, "Now I want my dear children to participate in the most glorious event in history – martyrdom. Now I want them to complete the victory over Satan. I want them to continue the salvation of the world through their blood. I want them to enrich the life of the body of Christ. I want them to seal their testimony to my truth." Persecution here would not be a disaster, but a great honor – the greatest honor.

This article is adapted from the original article, Normal Christian Martyrdom, which first appeared in Pastoral Renewal, June, 1986, Ann Arbor, Michigan,USA.

Josef Tson is an evangelist and the former president of the Romanian Missionary Society.

top illustration: "The Martyrdom of St. Paul" by Robert Reid, an original painting at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City
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