In the Shadow of Death
AD 2007, Nigeria: Christianah Oluwasesin, a known disciple of Christ, was soon to leave the government high school in the city of Gombe, and be reunited with her husband, Femi. However, her students first had to complete an exam which would test their knowledge of Islam. She collected backpacks and books to thus prevent cheating, piling them at the front of the class. One student began to cry, announcing that there was a Quran in her bag that was now “desecrated” due to contact with a Christian. The class employed corporate anger and threatened the teacher. A faculty member secured Christianah in one of the school’s private restrooms as the angry class dispersed and spread news of the “outrage.”
Radical Muslims living nearby were attracted to the incident and upon discovering Christianah’s refuge they forcefully overcame her, dragged her out of the school, clubbed her to death, then burned her body… (Voice of the Martyrs, Jan. 2009, p7)
AD 304, Roman province of Mauritania: Timothy, a church deacon, and his wife Maura had only been married a few weeks when persecution swiftly struck. The provincial governor, Arrianus, arrested them for the “crime” of preserving and teaching the Holy Scriptures and ordered them to relinquish any written Scriptures they possessed so they could be burned. Timothy refused and proclaimed that had he any children he would sooner turn them over to the governor as a sacrifice, but never the Word of God.
Furious, Arrianus had Timothy’s eyes burned out with a hot iron. Welcoming the torment, thus further infuriating Arrianus, Timothy was then hung by his feet with a weight tied around his neck and a gag jammed into his mouth. Maura was forced to witness her husband’s torture, under threat of suffering the same if Timothy did not recant his faith or give up the Holy Scriptures. She begged him to recant lest she suffer. When the gag was removed from his mouth so he could reply, rather than relent in agreement with his wife, he charged her with misplaced love and declared his determination to die for his faith in Jesus Christ. Mustering newfound resolution, Maura resolved to emulate her husband’s courage and either follow or accompany him to a glorious death. Unable to break either soul with the severest torments, Arrianus had Timothy and Maura crucified… (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 2001, p35-36)
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles… And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved“ (Matt. 10:16-22).
Jesus’ words may at times frighten the timid disciple, with good reason, for true disciples of Christ will surely encounter persecution of some kind at some point in their life sojourn. Understanding that Jesus came to earth to bring “not peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34), is the first step toward “losing one’s life for the sake of Christ, in order to find one’s life” (10:39). And Jesus Himself reveals to us explicitly how such a path is to be trod: “…he who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (10:38). Only the true disciple can comprehend this paradigm in that Christ is the only One Who reveals to His own what their crosses indeed are. In the cases above, the “crosses” were ultimately martyrdom, in perfect imitation of Christ, the Ultimate Martyr, Who set before us the prized way to “live life and die death” in full expectation of the Resurrection (Hebrews 5:1-2).
The first-century Church suffered false accusation, inquisition, war, unrelenting torment, and gratuitous death. The Roman Empire did much to induce tremendous violence and then promote spiritual haughtiness through its initially anti-Christian governmental behemoth, then later through its subtly beguiling marriage of church and state.
Nothing has changed. Persecution, specifically martyrdom, in our modern era alone has surpassed in magnitude the entire span of Roman dominance. North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Eurasia, Belarus, Indonesia, Cuba, Chiapas (Mexico), and Columbia (South America) are categorized as Restricted or Hostile Nations. Restricted nations consist of countries where Christian resources (Bibles, etc) are prohibited and where government-sanctioned practices and/or anti-Christian laws promote the harassment, robbery, imprisonment, or killing of Christians. Hostile nations/areas consist of the circumstance wherein governments attempt to provide security/protection for Christians but routinely fail.
Though just as the first century Church experienced exponential growth under extreme duress, so too does the twenty-first century Church. Moreover, in stark comparison to the Western Church of today, where affluence and floundering faith are the norm, the “persecuted Church” residing in the aforementioned regions presently displays explosive growth despite being “underground” or in predominantly Islamic territories. Where persecution is minimal, discipleship demands a ferocious adherence to single-minded obedience to Jesus Christ, a concept magnificently detailed in the third chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship.
When one is not challenged from without toward spiritual growth, one must challenge oneself from within, and this contradicts the tendencies of the flesh which trend toward idleness, apathy, and selfishness… all enemies of self-discipline. Yet in the shadow of death one is driven toward Him Who holds Life, and the darker the shadow the more urgently one desires to remain in His grasp, even to the point of forsaking one’s life for His sake. And those who find themselves in such a blessed circumstance assuredly count it a privilege to take up their cross that so resembles that which Christ Himself bore.
Persecution, of all stripes, allows the Passion of the Christ to become the Passion of the Church, since we must be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). The Western Church would do well to be ever mindful of its “soft” persecution in comparison to other members of the Church Body worldwide, for if we do not feel the pain of those who suffer for His name’s sake, then we have become dead. The clearer our vision of God, the clearer our vision of life shall be, including discerning the moment we may have to lay down that life.
Well acquainted with both persecution and sacrifice and their nuanced contexts, whereas deliverance could be “from death” or “from earthly life,” David penned a volume of psalms vividly expressing instances of fear, but also of grand contentment designed to encourage the child of the Most High God that He is our Shepherd and we shall not want for anything if He is indeed our Treasure above all else…
“Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; they are mighty who would destroy me, being my enemies wrongfully… Draw near to my soul and redeem it, deliver me because of my enemies. Let Your Salvation, O God, set me up on high. I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify Him with thanksgiving. This also shall please the Lord better than an ox or bull… Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me…”
(Psalm 69:4, 18, 29-31; 23:4)