June 29 is International Day of the Martyr
Most of us are familiar with the idiom, “passing the torch”. It suggests passing down a work or responsibility to another person. You will find it mostly used today in the business sense, when a corporate head retires and hands his vision and game plan off to someone who is generally younger, and probably less tired, to continue to build upon. This someone would be hand-picked, and highly trusted, most likely, because if a person is going to spend their entire life building on what they believe is a sure foundation, it is unlikely they would just put it up on Ebay in the end.
But in light of the temporality of earthly pursuits, I prefer to think of this phrase in terms of faith. The Bible speaks frequently of “light” and “lamps” as signifying the effect the Gospel has on a sin-darkened world in which believers are exhorted to keep lamps trimmed and lit – so I believe the phrase comes into full bloom when used of spiritual things. A church with a burned-out lampstand is not spoken of too highly in God’s economy, simply because the darker life gets, the brighter we must shine to draw people to Christ.
What good are we to lost souls if we blend right into the shadowy, undiscernable cultural landscape that threatens to envelope us all? Therefore, it remains for those who are running the race of faith, who have held high the standard and light of the gospel, to not bend to the cultural pressures of relevancy and compromise, and light the way for the next generation of torch-bearers. This is not an afterthought, but a duty that requires fore-thought and wisdom.
Speaking of dark days, we are surely in them, as sure as I have both feet planted in middle age. I have my road map laid out in front of me for the path God has put me on, and this pilgrim is navigating a course: the straightest line possible to the kingdom to come. I haven’t got time for distractions or sideshows. And having been on the road for some time now, I also have a good idea of where the snares and potholes, distractions and sideshows lie. I’m not driven by any “purposes”, and thankfully I am too old to “emerge”, because let’s be honest and say that I am not the demographic those folks are looking for. Let’s hear it for being too old and tired to be duped by the latest wind blowing through the trees! I have a road to stay on and my batteries are reserved for life-saving emergencies.
Now, I am not afraid of the dark, because I have an unending power source. But one thing, I admit, does cause me a bit of alarm. In looking around at fellow faithful torch-bearers who are nearing the end of their own journey, I find myself anxious about who is in line to pass their torches on to – torches of expository teaching, pure doctrine, and the heart of a pilgrim just passing through this life. How I respect such today, and how few I see anymore traveling this road.
Then too there are those whose influence today is very widespread, who believe that these very torches of which I speak are nearly extinguished, and should be replaced altogether by the unnatural light of sideshows hawking social activism, shallow programs, false unity, and experiential deceptions. Am I likening today’s church to a three-ring circus? It is an analogy that has merit, I’m afraid. We must pray that God raises up godly men and women who are uncompromising, unafraid, mature, bold and have eternity stamped on their foreheads to help us navigate the deep woods of the last days, as evangelicalism is being continually re-invented by more gurus and pied pipers than I can count. What we really need are more Chuck Smiths and Dave Hunts, not more best-selling figments of the Church’s imagination. Authors of fables.
So we find ourselves with an immediate need of more God-fearing shepherds to discern and lead and tend the sheep, as there are lamps that must be kept lit. And so it has been since the early days of the church, when the power of God sustained a highly persecuted minority who had given all they had and were for the truth of the gospel.
There is an example recorded for posterity of a faceless and uncelebrated generation that loved not their own lives to the point of leaving you and me to inherit their greatest possession – the Gospel. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend.
Do we ever pause to think about their great sacrifice for us? There are national holidays for much lesser commemorations than the sacrifice of martyrdom. What have we done with this priceless inheritance? Have we tainted their memory by putting the lowest possible value on it, or will we preserve and value it to the utmost by passing it along to those whom God has entrusted to us?
There is a favorite song of mine from the early ‘90s by Whiteheart entitled, The Flame Passes On, in which they sing about the courageous men and women who gave their lives for their faith, those whose stories are preserved by Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This classic book tells the remarkable story of the unsuccessful attempt to crush the new “movement” called Christianity, and how a time of horrific persecution actually brought about the very opposite effect intended.
Instead of wiping out those who resisted the required Roman religion, the true church grew larger as people witnessed with their own eyes a conviction, a belief in something – no, Someone – so deeply rooted that it would actually cause a person to give their very life in defense – thereby keeping the light of faith alive for the generations to come. Since these saints are barely a footnote, if that, in secular history, we owe a great debt to Mr. John Foxe for his retelling of their fate in all its painful and convicting detail.
If we look at who the world glorifies today, and compare them to these sold-out servants of Jesus, it is all too obvious that the devil switched the price tags in today’s marketing of values and earthly jewels; and so it is no wonder that the church is full of freak shows instead of faithful servants.
What kind of people were these who laid down their lives? Super saints who had achieved some lofty level of maturity, worthy of glorification? Or maybe just husbands and wives, merchants, young people – people who found something bigger than themselves and so much more worthy than the worldly wisdom of the day. People who struggled with self and sin, joy and despair, whose days were made up of 24 hours just like yours and mine. But people who left behind themselves and their own lives and decided to follow Jesus no matter what. The world behind me, the cross before me.
Do yourself a favor: take a close look at what consumes you, at what your life says about your convictions, and what YOU will be passing on. Because you may not realize it, but your life is a book, a thesis, a billboard even. You are passing something on every day, as people watch you and see if you live what you say you do. Even a very young child will often repeat what he hears from adults word for word. Older children will let you know who they admire, just listen in on their conversations for a time. And our young adults gravitate toward making heroes out of today’s celebrities who appear more and more like the reincarnations of the very gods of the ancient world, thereby becoming the gods of this age.
Those who are celebrated and admired in this age hope to leave a public legacy. They would like history to remember them favorably. They, and we, would like to leave a mark in the world, hopefully even leaving it a bit better than we found it. We might draw up a last will and testament to provide for loved ones materially. However, only those who have found salvation in Jesus have a real and lasting opportunity to affect someone’s life for all eternity. What an awesome responsibility!
How then does this knowledge of the potential impact we could have on others change the way we live, raise our families, spend our time – and even how we die? The money, recreation, forms of government and vain philosophies of the current empire I don’t need – but every good and perfect gift from the Father above, the Father of Lights, is all I have to pass along to those who will come after me. The light of faith held high, not kept under a bushel of ecumenical and shallow professions of religious unity will live on long after I am gone.
These departed saints did not know you and I; but they knew a higher calling and because of their faithfulness so can we. And lest you think, as some teach today, that these servants of God deserve any glory, only God gets glory and these would have it no other way. John Foxe put it best when he said that he decided to write the accounts of the early martyrs so that “the wonderful works of God within the church will be visible to all who might profit from them.”
Now, is there any profit to be had for our generation from the accounts of those who were despised, whipped, tortured, torn apart by animals and stoned? Any profit for us to know that whatever went wrong in the Empire was blamed on the Christians? Any profit in hearing of the stoning of Stephen, the martyrdom of Paul (crucified), James the brother of John (beheaded), Andrew (crucifixion), Mark (burning) Bartholomew (crucified and beheaded), James the brother of Jesus (thrown off the Temple then beaten and buried on the spot), and Simon (crucified)? Those of whom the world was not worthy.
Yes, I am persuaded there is much profit. And unless we do an itemized list of true valuables, we will lose all track of what was purchased for future reference.
To list the valuable and precious things in much of Christendom today is a grievous exercise. Let’s see, there’s self-esteem, health and wealth, finding our purpose, holding a ‘conversation’, instant experiential gratification, charismatic signs and wonders, seeker services, ecumenical unity, political redemption, social justice, and legislating morality.
In fact, ecumenical state-sponsored religion was the very reason for t
heir persecution, and yet today’s wide road to heaven is filled with evangelicals who have utterly lost sight of the great sacrificial cost some paid to reject this loathsome ‘all roads lead to God’ compromise. When I realize that not only did my Saviour pay for my salvation with His own blood, but others paid an equally high personal price to pass on the one true faith, it’s value increases, and compels me to handle it in such a way as to preserve and honor it’s worth.
I challenge you to read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for yourself on occasion. It affords us all an ‘attitude adjustment’, keeping our heads on straight in a crooked generation so that when the world beckons us to go after that one thing that will improve our life or ministry, we will remember that if the day comes that we will be required to give up all for Christ, we won’t hesitate for a minute to try and save our lives for the sake of any little ‘empires’ we may have built on this earth. Though none go with me, still I will follow.
Even though it’s been relatively cost-free to live as Christians in America, that could change overnight. Hate crime legislation will spread and spread until there are no more safe corners to preach the gospel. Speaking out against any kind of sin will soon become a crime. Are we ready to dig our heels in and take our stands, or is that just too high a price to pay? There are already countless believers in foreign lands who have one foot in jail at any given time, who are silenced or imprisoned for their beliefs, and who knew going in that there was a cost to count. But I fear that American easy-believe-ism will one day show the shallowness of most of what passes for Christianity in our materialistic culture, and we will feel shame.
When Paul was in prison in Rome, he knew he may not live much longer. In 2Timothy we find Paul “passing the torch” to young Timothy. Here is a good check list to help us count the cost: Paul was not ashamed of the gospel (1:8,12) he suffered for it according to the power of God (1:8), he instructed Timothy to ‘retain the standard of sound words’ (1:13) and to be diligent to ‘handle accurately the word of truth’. He warned of a day when men ‘would not endure sound doctrine and turn aside to myths’ (4:3,4) and he boldly encouraged Timothy to follow his teachings, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love and perseverance, persecutions and sufferings.
When we look on our own lives, is there someone you could admonish to follow your teachings, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions and sufferings? How convicting! What a challenge, this high calling, is it not? It makes me want to purge anything from my life that suggests anything other than a pure, undiluted walk, and that will show anyone who is watching what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Paul also tells Timothy that ‘if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not with the prize unless he competes according to the rules’ (2:5). We are in a race – we train, we compete, we want to finish well. There are rules in any competition, and to break them threatens to disqualify us. To win the wreath, the crown, the reward, we must be disciplined. We run with a goal in sight, so we must stay on course and cast off those things which hinder and sidetrack. This is no time for a lackadaisical approach to spiritual things. This is not a time for distractions and sideshows.
Each generation must decide for itself what legacy they will leave. I don’t know about you, but I have no intention of giving my life for anyone’s definition of purpose, or anything that passes for ‘emerging’, or my own self-esteem, or any political allegiance. But for the One Who gave me life – I am already committed to the death. To live is Christ, to die is gain.
Careful attention must be paid to our teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions and sufferings so that if the Lord tarries, and we have to pass the faith on to an increasingly dark and unbelieving generation, my prayer is that they will be able to point to us and say they know Him because of our uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus and His glorious gospel.
Pass it on!