Sophia Jones offers moving tribute to the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS, sharing about their everyday lives before martyrdom. The 21 are described as
laborers, gone for months on end, who sent home hard-earned money to feed entire families. They left their impoverished home in Egypt to work in Libya for a better future, despite the dangers.
Hani Abdel Messihah, 32, is “gentle and kind, always making a joke whenever he could.” Yousef Shoukry, 24, is “a quiet young man with the heart of a child… All he wanted to do was find a job and start a family.” His faith gave him the confidence to go to Libya. “I have one God, he’s the same here and there,” he told his mother. Maged Suleiman Shahata, 40, was “born into poverty and so were his children. But the father of three was determined to change their futures.”
These are quality men of faith. And yet what is so remarkable about their martyrdom is that they were not church leaders whose martyrdom came as a result of a life of discipleship that increasingly put them perpendicular to the principalities and powers of the world; instead, they appear to have been individuals out looking for work, apprehended simply because of their Christian identity, yet who, after they were apprehended, lived up to that Christian identity in every possible way through their witness. They confessed and did not deny.
This has me looking at John’s typology of Christian maturity in 1 John 2, wherein John distinguishes between little children, young men, and fathers. Who were these 21?
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:12-14, NASB).
There is of course no way to know for sure, but I might suggest that the 21 were “little children” who became “young men” in our family of faith in the final moments of their lives.Their extraordinary professions of faith remind us that the strength is all from God and not from us.
And yet in church history there is also a tradition that “fathers”–the top leaders of the Christian movement worldwide in their time–model uncompromising faithfulness for the rest of the family by living lives of discipleship that do place them perpendicular to the world and thus (and often voluntarily) lead steadily toward the cross.
Ignatius and Polycarp are perhaps paradigmatic in that regard. They willingly offered the sacrifice of martyrdom, and they wrote letters along the way to the young men and little children who did not want them to die and who questioned whether their sacrifice was the right thing for them to do.
The story of Jesus demonstrates the reason why in scripture the “fathers” precede the “young men” and the “little children” into martyrdom: Young men and little children sometimes have willing spirits but weak flesh when the time of sacrifice is at hand:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” But he said to Him, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” And He said, “I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:31-34, NASB).
In the scriptural order, fathers advance to martyrdom at the vanguard of the family, and they share why they are going on the way. This does not mean that only fathers are martyred, or that all fathers are martyred, or that young men or little children are spared martyrdom, or that their witness is less valuable or mature or important. But it does suggest that fathers are martyred, and that part of being a father is living a life of faith in full knowledge of where it will lead; not backing away from the cost; and even helping others to understand and accept what will happen, and why it is not a tragedy.
So let me turn the question to you and ask:
Who is the last “father” you can think of–the last global-level top Christian leader who steadily lived a life perpendicular to the world–who knew that he/she was advancing toward martyrdom, and who was dissuaded by young men and little children not to make the sacrifice, and who responded by helping them to think theologically and properly about why martyrdom is the logical outcome of faithful discipleship lived amidst the principalities and powers of the world? And do you think that there may be too many “little children” and not enough “fathers” among recent Christian marytrs?