Faith is trust in all of the promises of God

In the Bible, faith is trust in all of the promises of God. Faith is not biblical when it emphasizes only a “subset” of biblical promises that match our personal interests, circumstances, or understanding. In the time of Jesus, some Jews emphasized God’s promises of national deliverance.[i] Today, evangelists often single out one promise of God—e.g., “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”[ii]—and portray it as the sole test of faith. Others build ministries focused on healing or prosperity. Still others write books that list each of the promises of God under alphabetized headings for easy reference, so readers can locate the specific promises that meet their need at that moment.[iii] In each case, God becomes reduced to a single promise, or to the sum of the promises that we want to see fulfilled.

But all of God’s promises are interwoven, interdependent, and inseparable. No promise of God stands alone. Each promise of God is fulfilled in interaction with all the other promises of God. Each fulfilled promise confounds, not confirms, human expectation.[iv] Each promise broadens, or even completely changes, our understanding of who God is. God’s promises are not like a series of individual snapshots in a photo album. Instead, God’s promises are like threads that are woven together into a vast but single tapestry. As each thread is added, the appearance of the whole tapestry is transformed. The God revealed by the whole tapestry is different than the God revealed by a single thread.  The God of the whole tapestry is the Christian God, the god of the single thread is a human idol. When Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he extracts a single thread of promise from the tapestry: God’s promise of angelic protection in Psalm 91.[v] Jesus shows Satan—and us—that faith is not biblical unless it trusts in the God of the whole tapestry, i.e., “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[vi]

Faith in a subset of promises ultimately leads to the rejection of the God of all promise, as shown in the rejection of Jesus at the hands of his contemporaries.[vii] Throughout Christian history, as the church has had to deal with various doctrinal disputes, it has always ultimately determined that faith in subsets of God’s promises (rather than on the totality of the promises of God) is heresy. The church has also insisted that all of the promises of God in the Old Testament remain a part of God’s tapestry; the promises of God in the New Testament are woven into the promises of God in the Old Testament. Likewise, the church has insisted that the people of God in the Old Testament are continuous with the people of God in the New Testament: Just as God does not replace one set of promises with another, God does not replace Israel with the church. Instead, there is one people of faith in the world: those who put their trust in all of the promises of God and the God of all promises.[viii]

[i] Acts 1:6 shows that these promises are still the ones predominantly on the minds of Jesus’ closest disciples, even at the moment of his ascension.

[ii] Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 31:34 for one of the ways in which God makes this promise of personal relationship.

[iii] Cf. the many editions and versions of Jack Countryman’s gift book, God’s Promises for Your Every Need.

[iv] The fulfillment of one promise can even seem to prevent the fulfillment of another promise, at least according to human understanding. Consider the promise of God to David that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne, a promise seemingly contradicted by the violent end of the kingly lineage of David at the time of exile. The coming of Christ, born of a virgin, of the lineage of David, shows both promises to be true, though in a way that human understanding could never have predicted.

[v] Cf. Matthew 4:6.

[vi] Cf. Matthew 4:4.

[vii] Cf. John 5:39.

[viii] For Luther’s development of this idea, see J.S. Preus, 1969. One of Martin Luther’s Reformation breakthroughs was to locate the origin of the church with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, gathered together to hear the Word of God.

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Martyrs witness to the promises of God

To what does the Christian martyr bear witness?

In the world’s definition of witness, witnesses testify to what they have personally seen or heard. If we were to develop our understanding of Christian martyrdom based on that definition, we might assume that witness must refer to the Apostles’ eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But that would make all Christians who lived after the Apostles to be only indirect witnesses, that is, witnesses to something that we ourselves did not see or hear but instead only believed based on the Apostles’ testimony. In court, such statements would not be admissible as evidence but would instead be classified as “hearsay”, which means reporting the testimony of someone else. But this is not all that Christ has in mind for martyrs. Christ is doing something greater than raising up secondhand witnesses.

Some Christians might say that martyrs witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. But biblically, martyrs are more than just witnesses to their own faith. When we think about our faith, we often have in mind our personal belief in the existence of God (e.g., “I believe God is real”), or in the events recorded in the Bible (e.g., “I believe Jesus was born of a virgin”), or our theological interpretations of events (e.g., “I believe my sins are forgiven because Jesus Christ died on the cross for me”), or personal spiritual experiences we have had (e.g., “I believe Jesus delivered me from alcohol addiction”).

But this is not how statements of faith appear in scripture. In scripture, statements of faith usually contain a phrase like, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet”.[i] That is because scripture does not emphasize faith in God’s existence, or in specific events, theological meanings, or personal experiences. Instead, scripture emphasizes the promises of God and their fulfillment.

When the risen Jesus meets the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he does not chastise them for failing to believe eyewitness reports. He does not tell them that they should have believed the report of the women who saw the empty tomb,[ii] the angels at the tomb who announced to the women that Jesus was alive,[iii] or the companions of the disciples who then went to the tomb and found it exactly as the women had testified.[iv] Instead, Jesus chastises them for failing to believe “all that the prophets have spoken”.[v] Biblical faith is always faith in all that God has promised.

[i] Cf. Mt. 1:22; Jn. 12:38; Rom. 1:2.

[ii] Luke 24:22.

[iii] Luke 24:23.

[iv] Luke 24:24.

[v] Luke 24:25.

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We will be his martyrs. For the Bible tells us so.

Martyrdom is not a special calling Jesus gives only to the apostles or to a small number of bold Christians at special moments in history. In fact, martyr is a common term in the Bible. It appears more than two hundred times in the New Testament and is used for many people and situations.[i] It is used even of Jesus himself in Revelation 1:5, where he is called “the faithful martyr”. Biblically, martyr is a much more common description of Jesus’ followers than other words like preacher. Words related to martyrdom appear six times more frequently in the New Testament than words related to preaching.[ii]

In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his church for martyrdom. He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The word translated witnesses is the Greek word martyres, or martyrs. You will be my martyrs to the ends of the earth, says Jesus.

It is important to note the form of Jesus’ statement. It is not an invitation (“Anyone who would be my martyr, come”), a command (“Be my martyrs”), or an ethical appeal (“You should be my martyrs”), which we would then accept or reject. Rather, the Greek word esesthe, or will be, is future middle indicative tense, [iii] which means simply that what is stated will become true. Jesus is revealing something about us that is presently hidden from us and the world: We will be his martyrs.

As we will see throughout this book, Jesus’ words are not mere exhortations or predictions. Instead, his words create what he speaks. Luther calls a word spoken by God a verbum efficax, “an effective, accomplishing Word”.[iv]  When God speaks, what he speaks comes into existence. At the beginning of the Bible God says, “Let there be light,” and light comes into existence. In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “You will be my martyrs”, and then the process of our martyrdom begins. It is the word he speaks that makes us martyrs.

This is very different than the common Christian understanding of martyrdom. Martyrdom is usually not understood as something Jesus does to us through his word. Martyrdom is usually described as something the martyr does for Jesus (i.e., self-sacrifice), or something that enemies do to the martyr. For example, Christians often say that a martyr is “someone who is killed for their beliefs”. This leads us to think of martyrdom as the supreme test of faith in the face of persecution. It is a test that we worry we might fail if it came to us. We thus esteem martyrs highly. We are amazed by their bold faith and strong wills. We hope that we ourselves will never have to face tests of faith like they faced.

But in scripture, a martyr is one whom Christ transforms into a witness. That transformation is Christ’s work, not the martyr’s. Martyrdom is not an achievement of the martyr. It is not the Lord’s test of the martyr’s faith or preparation. Christ even commands martyrs with regard to the time of testing, “Do not worry about how to respond or what to say.”[v] When the martyr appears to falter and fail, even this is part of Christ’s ongoing process of forming the martyr.[vi] Through the whole process, Christ is revealing to the martyr and the world the strength of God, which is made perfect in human weakness[vii]–not in spite of such weakness. Martyrdom is Christ displaying his power, authority, and faithfulness, to the martyr, the church, and the world.

If we trust this, our fear of being martyred will dissipate. We will see that martyrdom is Christ’s work on us, which he will bring to completion for his glory.[viii] We will understand that the veneration we formerly gave to martyrs rightly belongs to Christ alone. We will no longer praise the martyr for his faithfulness to Christ. Instead, we will praise Christ for his faithfulness to the martyr.

[i] Trites, 1983, p. 9.

[ii] Selwyn, 1964, p. 395.

[iii] “Ἔσεσθε”, n.d.

[iv] Bayer, 2008, p. 53.

[v] Matthew 10:19 (BSB).

[vi] Cf. Luke 22:31.

[vii] 2 Corinthians 2:12.

[viii] Cf. Philippians 1:6.

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