Have you ever wondered how your faith would hold up if you were persecuted for believing in Jesus? I have. When times are good it’s easy to stick to my convictions, but what would I do if I had to deny my faith or face prison, torture, or – death?
Of course, my sincerest hope is that I would stand firm, no matter what, but I also know that I’m not particularly brave and I don’t like pain. If I’m honest, my idea of dying would be to pass away quietly in my sleep.
Not violently at the hands of someone else!
Yet, we hear stories of those who endured imprisonment, torture, intense suffering, threat of death, and did not deny their Lord. Have you ever wondered how they were able to do it? Is there a ‘secret’ that Christian martyrs have known about? Will we have the ‘right stuff’ if the time comes?
Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, pick up His cross and come after me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24&25
It’s that whole cross and dying thing that I wonder if I will do well with.
Let me introduce you to a famous martyrologist (one who collects histories of martyrs). Perhaps you’ve heard of him, after all, he wrote one of the most read books on martyrs of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries called, The Actes and Monuments of these Perillious Times Touching Matters of the Church.
Not familiar with that title?
How about Fox’s Book of Martyrs of the World? This is one of many, many pocket-sized, abridged and graphically toned-down versions edited for the modern reader. Most books are anywhere from 200 – 400 pages.
The original, which was often referred to as Actes & Monuments, was written and first published in 1563. That first edition was 1,800 pages long! The second and third editions were twice as long.
That was one thick book!
I can barely finish a 300-page book.
John Foxe starts by recounting how and where the apostles laid down their lives for Christ. According to Foxe’s account, which he took from early historians of the time, all the disciples met gruesome deaths, except for the Apostle John.
He died at the age of one hundred while caring for believers in Ephesus, after his exile on the Island of Patmos where he wrote the Book of Revelation.
HOW SOME of the DISCIPLES WILLINGLY met DEATH
JAMES, the brother of John (Son’s of Thunder), was the first of the twelve disciples to die for his belief in Jesus as the Son of God. In Acts 12:2 James was killed by the sword by order of King Herod, but the historian Clement recounts that whoever was involved in accusing James felt such remorse at causing his death, that he stood with James and confessed he, too, was a Christ follower. He asked James to forgive him, which he did, and they both were beheaded in A.D. 36.
Tradition says that Thomas was killed while preaching the gospel in India. Simon the Zealot, who preached in Northwest Africa and Britain, was crucified. Bartholomew preached the gospel in India, even translating Matthew’s gospel into their tongue. He was later beaten, crucified and beheaded in Armenia.
Andrew, Peter’s brother who introduced him to Jesus, preached fearlessly in Rome, encouraging people to leave the worship of false gods and turn to Christ, while the senate was forcing everyone, including Christians, to bow down to them. The rulers of Rome declared this ‘superstitious sect’ illegal and ordered Andrew to stop, or he would be crucified. Andrew replied, “I would not have preached the honor and glory of the cross if I feared the death of the cross.”
Philip preached for years to the barbarian people who often invaded Rome and Greece, and was eventually stoned and crucified by them in Phrygia (modern day Turkey). It is said Matthew was killed with a spear by the Egyptian king after he converted most of Ethiopia and Egypt.
Peter was encouraged to escape Jerusalem during intense persecution by Emperor Nero. The account goes that as he was leaving through the city’s gates, he was met by Jesus, who told Peter He was to be crucified again. The historian, Jerome, wrote that Peter understood that he, Peter, was meant to die, and so he turned around and went back into the city. Not long after, he was arrested and crucified. However, Peter requested that he be crucified upside down, as he was not worthy to die the same as his Lord.
DEATH of JAMES, the BOND-SERVANT and HALF-BROTHER of JESUS
John Foxe gives much more detail to the story of Jesus’s half brother, James’ death. James is not to be confused with James, son of Alphaeus, another one of the twelve (Mat 10:3). If you remember from Scripture, James, son of Joseph and Mary, along with other family members (John 7:6) were not convinced that Jesus was the Son of God – until after Jesus rose from the grave. It was then James was convinced that Jesus was the Christ and not just his earthly brother. In fact, James opens his letter (James 1:1) by describing himself as ‘a bond-servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ’.
Foxe recounts how well loved and respected James was. How he was often referred to as ‘The Just’ or ‘the safeguard of the people’ because he spent the rest of his life interceding for the people on his knees. In fact, James spent so much time on them that it’s said his knees were hard and callused like a camel.
As the gospel began spreading some of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees were coming to faith in Christ. Apparently those who refused to, felt threatened. During Passover, when Jerusalem was crowded with people, they persuaded James to stand on top of the temple and convince the people to stop believing in Jesus who had been crucified and was now dead! Instead, James testified that Jesus was “sitting at the right hand of the Most High, and would return on the clouds of heaven”.
The religious leaders threw him off the temple.
But James didn’t die from the fall, instead he got on his knees and prayed for those who tried to kill him. Someone in the crowd hit him on the head and ended the life of this humble Christ-follower.
THE BIG QUESTION
I get why these men were willing to endure suffering and death. They’d been with Jesus.
What about the millions of other believers in Jesus down through the centuries? How were they willing and able to endure some of the most horrible torture and deaths imaginable? This is what makes John Foxe’s book so intriguing to read and morbid!
I hope you’ll watch for my next blog where I dig deeper into John Foxe’s world and the stories he was so passionate about keeping alive. Stories about everyday, ordinary people like you and me, who were willing to suffer and die for Someone they had not actually met, at least not in the flesh.
In John Foxe and his Book of Martyr’s: Part Two learn more about the man and the stories he was so passionate about keeping alive. I’m certain they will reveal the ‘secret’ of how and why so many were faithful to the end.
Let’s stay encouraged and continue to persevere.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Feel free to leave a comment below if you learned something that encouraged you!