Scripture Reference: Revelation 2, Revelation 6
The Third Reich And The Blood Of The MartyrsDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 13, 1994
Selected highlights from this sermon
What can we say to the martyrs and rescuers who defended the Jews during the Holocaust? Was their suffering in vain? What about those who are dying for Christ today? Does suffering have any value?
Christ told the suffering church of Smyrna that they labored with purpose. Some would die. Some would be poor and imprisoned. But God promised them a crown, and were encouraged to continue choosing the path of death.
Sometimes the Gospel of Christ has to be communicated in more than just words. In fact, unless the Gospel message is backed up by deeds, the words have a hollow ring. And there are times when even the deeds are not enough, and only martyrdom really gets the message across.
In the nineteenth century there was a man by the name of Michael Baumgarten, who was excommunicated from his church, who said these words, “There are times in which lectures and publications no longer suffice to communicate the necessary truth. At such times the deeds and the sufferings of the saints must create a new alphabet in order to reveal again the secret of the truth. It is the suffering and the martyrdom of the saints that reveals the new alphabet.”
Many of you will know, of course, that this is number seven in a series of messages in which we have looked at the Third Reich through the lens of Scripture. Today we’re going to talk about the biblical doctrine of suffering and martyrdom. And if you were here last week when we spoke about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you know that he understood martyrdom all too well, and was put to death in a concentration camp in Flossenbürg. In a lecture he said, “We must not be surprised if once again our churches will return to the time when the blood of the martyrs will be required. But even if we have the courage and faith to spill it, this blood will not be as innocent or as clear as that of the first martyrs. Much of the guilt will lie in our own blood,” he said. And so it was.
Now the question we need to ask is, “What would have happened is all the pastors and their congregations in the land of Germany would have stood against Hitler? Martin Niemöller, who himself did do just that, said that there were about 14,000 pastors in Germany and, of course, that many congregations. He said that at the beginning of the Jewish persecution, “If we had seen that it was Jesus who was persecuted, the least of these our brethren, if we had confessed Him, for all I know, God would have stood with us, and the whole sequence of events might have taken a different course. And if we had been willing to go with Him to death, the number of victims might have been only ten thousand.” We don’t know that for sure, but that’s a possibility. But every once in a while, God gives to His church, and it is much more frequent than we think, the opportunity of declaring its faith through martyrdom, yes, even through death.
What we’d like to do today is to discuss the concept of suffering and martyrdom, and we do so for a number of different reasons. First of all, are you aware that there are more people who have been put to death for the cause of Christ in this century than in all the previous centuries of church history combined? We forget that. Tens of thousands and millions put to death under the hand of Communism and in other parts of the world where revolution has tried to stamp out the Christian faith.
Also, what we need to do is, as a church, understand that God expects us to suffer because the Bible says that all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. It is the badge of the church. Love comes first. Suffering always is a close second.
When I was in Morocco a number of years ago, I discovered that there were only two hundred known believers who had converted from the Muslim faith to Christianity. Someone made the statement, and I think they were accurate, that until the church understands suffering and martyrdom it will not grow in countries like that because it is only when Christians refrain from being silent and declare themselves, it is then that the church begins to grow. And to quote the words of Tertullian, “It is then that the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church.”
What is a martyr, by the way? A martyr is someone who deliberately chooses the path of death. It is a choice. Strictly speaking, the six million Jews who were killed in concentration camps were not martyrs. And the reason is because this was not something they chose. It was not that they had an option. They had the responsibility of simply being born with the wrong last name, and it is that that put them to death. But a martyr is someone who could remain silent. A martyr is someone who could deny the faith and who could live, but nevertheless, chooses to die.
Another characteristic of a martyr is that he has a cause that he believes is so great that life itself is not considered to be ultimately valuable. Scripture says in the book of Revelation regarding the martyrs during the time of the Antichrist, “They counted not their lives dear unto themselves.” They believed that there was a reason to die that was more important than their own life.
Now, martyrs have come for many different causes. There have been political martyrs. There have been religious martyrs. Also, there have been those who have died for freedom. All of us, I think, remember the students who in Tiananmen Square stood up against those tanks, and those tanks rolled over them. Those students were dying for the cause of freedom.
Let me ask you something. Do you think this morning that you are sitting next to somebody who would be willing to be a martyr if the times called for it? There is a man by the name of David Gushee who, for years, has studied the rescuers during the Holocaust, that is those non-Jews who stuck up for the Jews, people like Corrie ten Boom and her family. And he has discovered that there are about 12,000 that have been recognized to be rescuers, that is they took in Jews. They fed Jews. The hid Jews. They did whatever they could do to spare the lives of Jewish people. In fact, the estimate is, however, that even though only 12,000 have been specifically identified by name, the estimate is that there were about 100,000 of these rescuers who stood against the system, risked their lives, and were willing to die for their cause.
Interestingly... Again it is an estimate that every rescuer rescued at least one Jew, so there were about 100,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust who would not have done so were it not for those who were willing to put their lives on the line and possibly become martyrs for the cause that they believed in.
What is a rescuer like? And in studying a rescuer we really study the characteristics of a martyr because many of these people knew that their life was at risk doing this. Well, according to Mr. Gushee, first of all, they come from diverse backgrounds. There are rich and poor, and there are young and old, and it is very difficult to predict in advance who might be a rescuer and who might not be.
Secondly, he noticed that they usually came from stable homes, homes in which there was teaching regarding justice and social problems being solved through love and caring, and the willingness of one individual to sacrifice for another. And their motivation... Well, they had a variety of reasons, but one of those that were most important on the list is that when they knew someone who was a Jew (perhaps he was their doctor, or their attorney, or their store manager) they were more willing to risk their lives for a person like that than for someone whom they didn’t know. And that squares with the biblical data when the Scripture says that “a man is willing to lay down his life for his friends.” No greater love has a man than this: that the man be willing to die for his friends. And then Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you.” The stronger our friendships in the church, in our families, and among the body, the greater the degree of sacrifice we are willing to make on their behalf.
So they were motivated through personal friendships, through group influence, through families, through churches. And of course, one of the things that you might guess is, it was much easier to be a martyr if, as a church, everyone agreed to be martyrs, everyone agreed to be rescuers. It was much easier for individuals to sign on than to stand for that which was right and to do it alone.
Now this man says that one of the most universal characteristics of rescuers is that they do not want to be thanked. They just consider that they were doing their duty. And of course there were many Christians among the rescuers who saw in Jesus Christ their pattern. They asked the question, “What would Jesus do?” and the answer was clear. If someone came knocking at His door, would He save them or would He turn them out onto the street? And that, for many believers, was the motivation to become rescuers, and many of those rescuers, of course, ended up becoming martyrs.
Well, what we want to do today, as always, is to turn to the Scripture. And we want to study today not only a theology of martyrdom, but a theology of suffering, and I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to the book of Revelation, chapter 2 where we have the story of the church at Smyrna. That very name, Smyrna, has in it the word myrrh which was a spice that was used, as you know, oftentimes. And it had a very beautiful smell connected with it. The bark of a certain tree was taken and crushed, and it had a most pleasant aroma. Myrrh was used oftentimes to even embalm bodies, but myrrh was symbolic of suffering. And the church in Smyrna knew all about it.
It was dangerous to be a Christian at Smyrna. The reason is because this town competed with many others to build a temple to Tiberius, and there was a bust of Caesar and everyone was expected to take some incense and to burn it and to acknowledge Caesar as lord. And of course, most of the Christians didn’t do that, and they paid for that severely through suffering.
We pick up the text in chapter 2, verse 8. Jesus is writing a letter to the church at Smyrna. “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The first and the last, who was dead and has come to life,’ he says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty, but you are rich, and the blasphemy of those who are Jews and say they are Jews but are not, and they are from the synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.’”
Let’s pass through this passage of Scripture rather quickly just noting some of the characteristics of this suffering church. What does Jesus say about them? First of all, He says, “I know your poverty.” Smyrna was a very cosmopolitan city with lots of business and industry. Why were the Christians so poor? Well, it’s because they couldn’t cheat like others, and therefore they missed out on some of the fat profits, but more importantly than that, there were those within the city who wouldn’t do business with them. They were ostracized. They were spoken against, and they were poor because they loved Jesus.
Let us never forget that there are people today who are poor because they love Jesus. Jesus said, “I know your poverty. I also know that you are experiencing slander.” Notice what the text of Scripture says here: “Those who say that they are Jews, but they are blaspheming.” You need to understand that there were Jews that were exempt from the need to worship Caesar. A special dispensation was given to them, and so they used this freedom to harass the Christians, to tattle on them, to make up lies about them. And Jesus said that these Jews are really from the synagogue of Satan. What a strong term. But the Christians had to endure the grief. They had to put up with the harassment. They had to put up with all of the things that were said about them that were so completely untrue and they had to endure those lies. Jesus said, “I know that you are enduring that.”
Then notice prison. He says, “The devil will cast some of you into prison,” and the prisons in those days were very different from the prisons that we have today. Now, they didn’t get free meals in prison, perhaps a slice of bread from time to time, and a cup of water. Very messy and dirty and smelly, and yet you look at the history of the church and you discover that prisons in Caesarea and Jerusalem and Philippi and elsewhere—those dirty places were sanctified by the presence of believing Christians who were there and who prayed and who stayed there, and many of them died in those messy places. Jesus said, “The devil is going to cast some of you into prison.”
And next notice, “be faithful unto death. Some of you will die.” And some did. In the history of the church there is a man by the name of Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna. In [A.D.] 155 he became a very famous martyr. At the age of 86 he was asked to deny Christ, and he said, “I cannot deny Him. Eighty and six years he has been faithful to me. I cannot now be unfaithful to Him.” So what happened is they brought him to the place of execution. They were going to burn him, and they thought that they would have to tie him to some wood. But he told them that that was unnecessary because he said, “I’m not going to run away. I will have the grace to die here.” And he made a very famous speech in which he said, “You threaten me with fire that burns for a short time for you do not know that the fire that awaits the wicked is coming to you. Why are you waiting? Come do what you will with me.” And he died. So Jesus is saying to this church, “Behold, some of you are going to really suffer.”
Now, what I’d like to do in the next few moments that are left to me is to give you five characteristics of Christ because, you see, what Jesus does is He becomes the hub of our suffering. When we begin to suffer, He becomes the center of it all. Everything begins to point to Him, and He makes sense out of what we are experiencing. And the outline that I have all today just happens just like Aaron who said that he threw the gold into the furnace and out came a golden calf. In the very same way, I just threw some words together and they all began with the letter “P” and you’ll notice that they are there in your outline that is published in your bulletin.
Let’s go. Number one, the presence of Christ. Notice in the text. “I know your tribulation and your poverty. I know it. Your ways are not hidden from me. I understand what you are going through. There is no detail of your pain that escapes my notice. I know. I know. And I say to you today who are going through a trial... It may not be martyrdom. In fact, not a one of us who is here today has been martyred. That’s a requirement actually to come to [The] Moody Church. But God knows your suffering.
You’ve heard me say it before that when Stephen was stoned, the first Christian martyr, throughout the whole New Testament you find that Jesus is always seated at the right hand of God the Father. This is the only time when it says, “He was standing at the right hand of God the Father.” As Stephen had the privilege of looking into heaven he saw Christ awaiting him. And it’s almost as if Jesus was saying, “Be faithful, Stephen. Hang in. Soon we will be together, but be faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life.” How different trials look from heaven.
You know, I cannot help but think that of all those confessing pastors that I told you about a few messages ago who originally opposed Hitler and then, in the end, swore allegiance to him...I can’t help but think how different it all would have looked if they had seen their trial from the standpoint of heaven. Most of them are dead now. Many of them probably were true Christians. Many of them were not true Christians, but either way, from the standpoint of eternity, how different our trials look, and Jesus is saying to a church that is suffering, “I know what you are going through. Be faithful unto death, and when that happens, I will be there to meet you on the other side.” I know the presence of Christ.
Secondly, notice the power of Christ. Verse 10: “Behold the devil is going to throw some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.” What an explosive text! First of all, I want you to notice that Christ’s power controls the source of the suffering, and the source of the suffering is the devil.
You know, there is a teaching today that we as Christians never have to encounter the devil. We never have to accept anything that comes to us from Satan because, after all, we have triumphed in Christ. Well, we have triumphed in Christ, and we need not accept anything from Satan when it is sinful, when it is a temptation, when it is an addiction. Over that we are victorious in Christ, though accepting that victory is oftentimes a tremendous struggle. But hear carefully. There are many trials hat come to us from the devil. But though they come to us and the immediate cause is Satan, the ultimate cause is God, and God controls the devil and says, “Thus far, and no farther. Stop here.” The book of Job is a good example of that. And when Paul had his thorn in the flesh, it was a messenger of Satan. Here is an evil being who seeks my destruction and God uses that evil being, not to destroy me, but to refine me. And that’s why Luther has said that the devil even is God’s devil. Christ controls the suffering.
Notice that He not only controls the source of the suffering but He even controls its extent. He says, “You will suffer ten days.” We don’t know how to interpret that. Does it mean ten literal days? That’s possible. Does it mean ten eras of persecution, as some people interpret it? I do not know, but this much I do know. However we interpret it, it is Jesus who prescribes the time limit. “You will suffer ten days and all the hosts of hell and all the forces of wickedness in the world cannot stretch it into eleven if I say that the length of time is ten.”
My dear friend, today, when you are going through that kiln, the furnace of affliction, Jesus Christ not only has His hand on the thermostat, but He also has His hand on the timer, and He controls both, and He is a part of it because He is all-powerful.
Just think with me about a truck going along an expressway, and a piece of metal falls off of that truck and lands onto the expressway, and behind it is a van driven by a Christian man, a pastor and his wife, with six children. And this piece of metal hits the gas tank, and causes an explosion. Six children die. They can pull only one from the wreckage and he dies later, and the parents live. Have you ever thought of all the contingencies that surround something that you and I call an accident? There was no reason why that piece of metal had to fall from the truck right there. And furthermore, after it had fallen it could have skidded into the ditch. Furthermore, the van could have begun five minutes later or five minutes earlier, and the vehicle that would have hit that piece of metal may have hit a different vehicle and gotten a flat tire rather than having the gasoline tank punctured. And obviously it could have been on a different day other than the day in which elections were being held when the pastor was visiting another son of his in Milwaukee. And you begin to think of all the contingencies, and you say, “Oh God, why?”
I want you to know today that what we perceive as randomness... Randomness is controlled by a loving heavenly Father who says, “All things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” even if it involves a piece of metal falling onto an expressway and an explosion of a gas tank and six dead children.
I’ve said it now. I’ve said it. I can’t say that I could live it. I marvel at the ability of the parents to accept it, but the Scriptures tells us that suffering ultimately must be seen as coming from the hands of God, and not the contingencies of men. “I know your poverty. I know what you are going through, and you will be tried ten days.” The thermostat and the timer is in Christ’s hands.
Thirdly, we notice here in this text also the purpose of Christ. Why? Why all this suffering? Why six dead children? I almost said ten because I was thinking of the book of Job. Why? Notice what it says. It says that you may be tried. That’s it! You say, “Well, does that mean that God opens His diary and asks us to read it, and now we can tell exactly what He’s up to, and what His ultimate purpose was? No. The testing has to do with the testing of our faith, and faith believes, and faith trusts even when sight does not have all of its questions answered. And just as in the Scripture here, so today God takes us through suffering, and all suffering... Follow this very carefully today, my friend, you who are hurting because of a ruptured relationship, because of your injustice of being wrongly released from your job, because of emotional turmoil and trouble. Listen to me very carefully. Because it comes from the hand of a sovereign Christ it is never meaningless. There is no such thing as random stupidity. There is purpose that you might be tried.
Now, of course, the church in Germany experienced a trial, and unfortunately many people failed. Many people passed. And we do not know, or we do not sit in judgment upon them because we do not know whether we would pass or fail if a fire of affliction really came to us. All that we know is that God expects suffering to produce testing. And, of course, during the days of Antichrist if we had time we could look into the book of Revelation and there we would discover that there are those who bow before the beast and take his mark and his image. Why? It’s because they believe that their existence, their life, is the most important thing. And they say, “In order to survive, in order for my family to survive, I will bow before the beast.”
Then there are going to be those, the Scripture says, who are going to be put to death. They will be beheaded because... remember we read in Revelation 13 that authority was given to him over every tribe and dominion and every nation upon the earth, and he beheaded all of those who would not get onto his agenda.
Notice that the text always says that the purpose of testing and martyrdom and trials is that we might go on believing. God loves to be believed. He loves to be believed. He loves it when we trust Him and so He says, “The only way I can elicit all of this trust is to put people in circumstances in which it appears as if I am not for them, and to see whether they will trust that I am even when it looks as if I’m against them. And so the Scripture says that the purpose of Christ is clear.
Next, the promise of Christ! “Be faithful unto death,” He says, “and I will give you the crown of life” in the last part of verse 10. That’s the promise. And who is making the promise? Well, notice how this letter to Smyrna opens. He says in the middle of verse 8, “I am the first and the last who was dead and has come to life.” Jesus is saying, “I’ve been through it.” Do you realize today, my friend, that there is nothing that God will ever ask you and me to go through, nothing but that He Himself has already endured it? And the final thing we will go through is death itself, and we will be shepherded through the experience by someone who was dead and is alive, and “because I live, you shall live also.” He takes us all the way home to the Father, the promise of Christ.
Is it any wonder that He said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake, for so persecuted they the prophets that were there before you?” Some of you, for the sake of Christ, have endured a little bit of persecution. You have been ostracized in your job. You have been spoken against. You have been demoted because you are a Christian. You have been excluded from the parties because you are a Christian. And you feel a bit of pain. Jesus would say, “Oh, blessed are you. Blessed are you if it is for my name’s sake.”
Finally, we see the punishment of Christ. For this I want you to turn to Revelation chapter 6, a very interesting passage. It says in verse 9, “And when he broke the fifth seal I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God and because of the testimony which they had maintained. And they cried out with a loud voice saying, ‘How long, oh Lord, holy and true, will thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those that dwell upon the earth? And there was given to each of them a white robe, and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed, even as they had been, should be completed also.”
A number of interesting issues! You may say, “Well, what does the soul look like?” I saw the souls of those who were beneath the altar! Well, it could be that word soul means persons. On the other hand, maybe the soul takes certain physical characteristics. Have you ever thought of what believers are like in heaven today because they don’t have their permanent bodies yet, do they? The resurrection is still future, and the question is, “Do they get intermediate bodies or are they just souls in heaven?” And if they are souls they have to be able to talk, and to be able to hear, and to be able to worship. Maybe your soul can take physical characteristics. But what’s interesting from our standpoint, in addition to that, is that Jesus is saying that “I am not yet judging the world because all those who are to be martyred have not yet been martyred.” The matter is not finished, but when the matter is finished, those who perpetrated the evil...(Yes, every Nazi, but not just the Nazis) Those who have persecuted believers throughout all the ages, and the Romans, and the Communists, and all those who created martyrs for the cause of Jesus Christ will personally and individually be judged by God and will be dealt with. And when our hearts cry to God for justice and we say, “How long, oh Lord?” can you endure this evil world? How long can you put up with the immorality and the violence and the despair and the real terrible evils? The answer is that the day is coming when justice will be meticulously meted out so that throughout all of eternity we will sing “Just and true are thy ways, thou king of saints.”
Well, I need to wrap this up. Will you remember, number one, that no suffering is ever meaningless? No suffering is ever meaningless. Whatever it is that you are enduring, the pressures at work, the struggles of the soul, God is working in your life. He is trying to refine you. He is trying to rebuke the evil. He is working in your life and mine to make us like Jesus, and that is part of the equation. And He says to you today, “I know.”
Secondly, will we remember that suffering is a test of love. I quoted it earlier. “Greater love has no man than this but that a man will lay down his life for his friends,” and many of us may not die as martyrs, but we can prove our love for Jesus through being willing to go through the testing that He puts us through, and to hang in and to go on believing even when believing does not seem to make a lot of human sense.
As I think about martyrdom and its characteristics, the best example really is of Jesus Himself. He says, “I was dead and I am alive.” He’s the ultimate martyr because number one, He died voluntarily. “No man takes my life from me. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This I have received from my father.”
Tonight in our Bible study we are going to be looking at the text which says that God handed Christ over. It says, “He delivered him up. He handed him over.” It was a choice made by God the Father, and God the Son, and it was made voluntarily. Jesus Christ was the ultimate martyr, dying voluntarily. He died for a cause that He believed was bigger than His individual happiness, “who for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is even now on the right hand of the throne of God who also makes intercession for us.” He pleased not Himself, but He said obedience to the Father and redeeming humanity is worth it. And aren’t you glad that He reasoned that way, because we are sinners? We are big sinners, and were it not for God’s grace and His power and His forgiveness we’d be alienated from God forever. We are part of fallen humanity.
Oh how the world likes to vilify people, even that mother, bless her, who drowned her two sons, we would like to be able see a picture of her on television, and notice that she has horns growing out of her forehead. Oh, it’s a ghastly thing. I admit that, but I’d give anything to be able to talk with her. I’ve even thought I’d get on a plane and fly out there if I thought the prison officials would let me talk with her. And to explain to her that it is for sinners that Jesus died, because even some who are listening today have done some pretty terrible things if the truth were known. And Christ died to redeem us, to make us members of His family, and He did it for us. And because of His obedience, we live.
Christ had a theory of obligation which most martyrs had, and that was that silence is complicity. There were many bystanders, you see, in Nazi Germany who said, “Well, I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to remain silent. I’m not going to hurt the Jews but I’m not going to get involved in their plight either.” And then there were many others who said, “You know, silence is complicity. If we do nothing we become part of the crime. Jesus could have stayed in heaven and said, “Look, it’s Adam and Eve! They’re the ones who started the mess. Why should I become involved in their pain? I’ll just stay out of it.” But Jesus was willing to become a part of our pain, that we might be redeemed and belong to Him forever.
Have you received Him? Have you accepted that gift? Have you accepted Him as your substitute? That’s how you become a member of His family, and then you inherit all the blessings that we talked about today, blessings even in the midst of suffering.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we thank You today for this church, the church in Smyrna, a church that You did not rebuke, that You encouraged. And we pray today for those who are facing martyrdom, and there are Christians like that around the world. We pray Lord, though, also help us to live for Christ in the little things that are far less than that. And we pray that we might rejoice when we have the privilege of suffering for You.
And we pray for those who are suffering for various reasons that may not be directly connected to a witness for Christ. We pray that they will be encouraged and strengthened. Help them to know that they also are in Your loving hand. And then, Father, we ask that You might make us faithful, faithful to believe and to trust no matter what. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.