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. 

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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4 Responses to Martyrdom precedes persecution, not the other way around

  1. Joe Sanders says:

    The post reminds me of how the Lord through VOM USA teaching to the Voice Volunteers (myself and my wife), helped me think it through in presenting the brethren not as victims but as Victors in Christ as well as extensive reading of Pastor and Mrs. Wurmbrand so that the audience feels that its not a hopeless situation but very much hopeful in seeing the Kingdom of God advanced. Lately I have been trying concentrate on the seeing by faith and not by sight lens. It is well that this kind of perspective teaching like what you posted goes on, otherwise some might not feel it is worthwhile to support our family. Thank you for the reminder Pastor Foley.

  2. Jacquelynne H. Titus says:

    Totally agree. Yet I still weep with those who weep and I can’t help but want their pain relieved. We know that when we feel loved, we can endure more. Yes, it is a gift from our heavenly Father (Phil. 1:29), but pain is real. Before I send our brothers and sisters letters which I have carried everywhere gathering signatures and handing out prayer slips I cut stickers, glitter, shine, color… things to remind them life is not grey like the walls of their cells and dirty prison uniform. God has filled the world with creatures, I remind them. Scripture -a double edged sword to pierce the hearts of the persecutors and draw them to Christ and to encourage our brethren. Signatures assuring them of the prayers of many of their brethren. (I make short summaries and include their picture and the website where they can find out more.) Hebrews 10:25 tells us to encourage one another and the day of His return is closer now than when I first believed.

    • Pastor Foley says:

      Good word, Jacquelynne! (I posted your great suggestions about writing letters to prisoners on my Facebook page–no one does this work better than you.) My main concern in the blog post is to help us refocus on the witness of the martyrs, not the violence of the persecutors. That is not intended to downplay in any way the reality of the pain they experience, but it is to properly locate it: It is the advance of God into the kingdom of darkness, not the advance of darkness into the Kingdom of God.

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