At last Saturday’s prayer meeting for persecuted Christians I felt completely out of my depth; “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). This feeling flowed from a talk by a local Coptic priest as we gathered to remember the beheading of 21 young Orthodox men in Libya. Of the centuries old history of oppression in Egypt Fr. Abram said,
‘Suffering is our daily bread.’
His words culminated in a call for the Australian Church to repent over its unprepared state to suffer for Christ. As we watched a video in which a brother of two of the martyrs spoke of the honour of suffering for Christ the Spirit’s “groanings” in our midst were “too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). This inarticulate cry of the Spirit is a call to enter a space where we must let go of our familiar patterns of spirituality. The Australian Church stands at a crossroads, it can remain compromised and ignored by “Caesar” or it can tread the pathway of saints and martyrs (Rev 2:12-29; 5:8 etc.). Only the latter holds out promise for the genuine visitation of God we all so desperately need.
A Message of the Spirit
Pope Francis has been prophetically encouraging cooperation between different groupings of Christians (ecumenism) in the context of persecution;
‘In this moment of prayer for unity, I would also like to remember our martyrs, the martyrs of today. They are witnesses to Jesus Christ, and they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians. Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong. They are Christians and for that they are persecuted. This, brothers and sisters, is the ecumenism of blood.’
Genuine Church-wide Christian unity can only come through identifying together with all those who throughout the world are shedding their blood for Jesus. Whatever their Christian label, “Catholic”, “Protestant”, “Orthodox”, God has declared persecuted believers “worthy to suffer on account of the name” of Jesus (Acts 5:41). In a time when great tribulation has come upon the Church the Spirit is calling us enter an unfamiliar deep space (Acts 14:22; 1 Cor 2:10). We are being called to vindicate the righteousness of God at a time when increasing numbers of men and women are denying the existence of a God of justice (Ps 14:1; Ezek 18:25).
With the Lord’s reputation more at stake than ever in a world of intensifying evils we must return anew to the final revelation of his righteousness in Christ (Rom 1:16-17).
Jesus explained his submission to the baptism of John in exactly these terms, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt 3:15). Christ’s submersion and coming up from the Jordan prophetically symbolised his impending death and resurrection.
Only the death-and-resurrection of the Word made flesh can manifest the full extent of divine justice in this world (John 1:14; Acts 17:30-31; Rom 3:21-26). Only by Christ taking upon himself the world’s ills in death then rising from death triumphant is God’s righteousness vindicated once and for all (2 Cor 5:16-21).
The glory of the resurrected Jesus is the proof that all the sufferings of human existence are worth it! In testifying that God “was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit” Paul sees the glorious resurrection of Jesus as vindicating all that Christ taught and showed of the righteousness of the kingdom of God (1 Tim 3:16; Matt 6:33). To put one’s trust in the crucified and risen Jesus is to accept that God deals with humans justly, to reject the gospel is to deny God’s righteousness. The fruit of such a denial is condemnation (John 3:18).
Longing that we might embrace his righteousness and be saved, the Lord calls into existence a martyr Church for the sake of revealing his justice to the world.
This is at the heart of the mystery of martyrdom; a mystery that Western Christians have long forgotten.
Jesus Vindicated Through Us
Paul is a perfect example of the vindication of God’s righteousness in a human life for the sake of others. In “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” whilst living in “the power of his resurrection” the apostle uncovers the lie that suffering is an unnecessary evil that should never be permitted by a good and just God (Col 1:24; Phil 3:10). His agonised but triumphant life reveals the life of Jesus as the one life worthy of living. Paul had but one goal, “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20). His joyful endurance of countless trials in the knowledge of impending execution was a living vindication of the Lord (Acts 16:23-25; 2 Tim 4:18). To consider such things takes us into deep and unfamiliar spiritual waters.
The martyrs of Christ are not simply role models of forgiving love; they have the honour of bringing near the Last Judgement.
‘Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake’ (Phil 1:28-29).
At the moment when the knives touched the necks of our 21 Coptic martyrs they cried out in unison “Jesus!” and the presence of the End drew very near to all who heard their testimony. At the moment of their slaughter God visited the earth, a portal opened into the eternal realms of heaven and hell because their triumph over appalling evil vindicated the righteousness of God the Lamb (Rev 5:6; 13:10). This is the sort of divine presence we so desperately need in Australia today; beginning in the Church.
A sense of being reckoned “worthy to suffer on account of the name” is the missing dimension that alone can make the Australian Church spiritually whole. Since; “There are other ways to be a martyr than physical death” (Fr. Abram), we cannot with good conscience escape such a call. At the End we will share in the joy of the saints and martyrs in heaven, ““All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Rev 15:4). Yet just how many Australians will be in this international assembly depends on our willingness to obey the Spirit’s voice to be a martyr Church that vindicates the righteousness of God through suffering by resurrection power.
For the sake of the Lord’s reputation it is time to “die daily” to our petty personal concerns and to live solely for the sake of the name of Jesus (1 Cor 15:31).
Be encouraged, for I see the Lord working with increasing power in our midst. The external pressures upon the Church, whether by Islam or the gay lobby, are a divinely timed opportunity for a fundamental shift in our priorities. More insidious pressures will however come. At the crossroads some Australian Christians will walk on in compromise whilst others will embrace the way of saints and martyrs; the former will oppose the latter (John 13:18; 1 John 2:18-19). They too must be loved and forgiven as we bring near the End and vindicate the righteousness of God. This is exactly what it means to be like Jesus in such an evil world and to worthily suffer for his name.