(54) Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.
(55) But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
(56) And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
(57) But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.
(58) Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
(59) And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
(60) And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
One of my heroes has always been Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945). Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian. During WWII, he was also a participant in the German resistance movement against the Nazis. You might not know that the Nazis largely took over the Christian church in Germany. Bonhoeffer led a movement that founded an underground church. He also became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. The Gestapo discovered the plot. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 and sent to a concentration camp. He was executed in April 1945, 23 days before Nazis surrendered.
Now Bonhoeffer is certainly a Christian hero, but I have a question for you. Is he a martyr? Heroes sacrifice themselves for a greater good. Their actions may be violent or not. They may die or not. Anyone who has ever seen an action movie is familiar with heroes. We think of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. We think of Superman. He used to save the world at least once in every comic book issue--but those heroes are not martyrs.
Let us talk abut the first martyr: Stephen. The setting is the city of Jerusalem about the year 30. The story of Stephen is found in the book of Acts, chapters six and seven. The church elected Stephen as one of the first deacons. Acts says he was full of the Holy Spirit. The early Christian community chose him to take care of the money. The purpose of this money was to take care of the widows, orphans and poor people—which was a good purpose, and Stephen was a good man for the purpose, but Stephen went far beyond that mission. He became one of the leading speakers and debaters of the young church. He spoke about Jesus and he was so effective that groups of Jews became angry at him, so much so that they wanted to do away with him. He was too successful, and apparently he was not gentle in his methods, so they plotted to have Stephen killed. They made false accusations against him; they brought him to a trial. Stephen made a long speech in his own defense and that speech goes on and on in chapter six. He recited the history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and the other Old Testament heroes. Suddenly, in verse fifty-one of chapter seven, he changes tactics. This long, “educational” speech abruptly turns nasty. Stephen says: “You stiff-necked people. You people are hard hearted toward the things of God. You people have wax in your ears. You do not hear the words of God. You fathers persecuted the prophets, and now you betrayed and killed the Messiah.” Well, Stephen’s bluntness made everybody mad. The “court” became an angry mob. The mob grabbed Stephen, hauled him outside and threw him into a pit. They then started to throw stones at him. This was the normal way the Jews executed people in the first century. Today we call it lynch law, but that was all they had at the time. As Stephen was dying, he moaned: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus spoke these same words from the cross. Jesus forgave his executioners. Stephen shows us who his Lord is by doing the same thing Jesus did, and they murdered him, as they murdered Jesus. So, Stephen was the first martyr of the church.
Let us make a few observations about martyrs. Today, martyrs get bad press because of fanatical Muslim terrorists who claim to be martyrs for their faith. Osama Ben Laden was killed a week or so ago in Pakistan. Was he a martyr? I am sure fanatical Moslems will say yes, but I disagree. There is an enormous difference between a crazed terrorist and a martyr. A terrorist kills other people; a martyr dies so that others might live.
Our English word “martyr” is directly from the Greek, “martus,” which means “witness” or “one who bears witness.” A “marturia” is a testimony. The verb “martureo” means “to witness” or “to bear witness to.” Acts 1:8 says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." That is, you are to be my martyrs in Jerusalem, Judea and the ends of the earth. A witness is a person who speaks for his or her faith in such a way that the person may be killed for expressing their faith.
So martyrs by definition are people who do not keep their faith private. Martyrs are people who talk and often talk at the wrong times. There is a saying “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Martyrs do not know that saying. They refuse to keep their mouths shut, and therefore they get into trouble. Martyrs are killed not for their convictions, but for expressing their convictions. Many people believe in Christ and have Christian values, and no one ever bothers them. The key is to keep your mouth shut and nobody will bother you. However, as soon as you open your mouth about Christ, you may start becoming a martyr. So Stephen had this problem. He could not shut up about Jesus.
Other martyrs have the same problem. Ignatius was a disciple or student of the Apostle John who became a leader in the church. Because of his testimony for Christ, he was arrested, taken to Rome. Around 108 AD, during the reign of the emperor Trajan, Ignatius was thrown to the lions in the Colosseum and eaten alive. He was killed for publicly speaking the truth about God and Christ. Again, Ignatius got in trouble, not because he had religious convictions but because he expressed clearly and forcefully those convictions.
Some people are martys for the ideals of Christ. Jacobo Timerman (6 January 1923 – 11 November 1999) was an Argentine journalist who got in trouble for writing the truth too forcefully. From 1971 to 1977, Timerman published the left-leaning daily La Opinión. Under his leadership, this paper publicized the human rights violations of the Argentine government during what they now call the “Dirty War.” The military government was involved in “disappearing” thousands of people. In 1977, Timerman was arrested by the military. He was subjected to electric shock torture. He was beaten. He was put in solitary confinement. These experiences were chronicled in his 1981 book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, and a 1983 movie by the same name. In other words. You do not get in trouble for being silent; you get in trouble when you speak the truth publicly.
We need to mention Bishop Romero of El Salvador. He could have been a nice, plain, Roman Catholic Bishop and kept his mouth shut about atrocities committed by the ruling military junta. However, he spoke out against the government “death squads” that roamed the country killing at will.
Romero was shot on March 1980, while celebrating Mass. In his homily he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression, to stop violating human rights. He was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharist. His blood spilled over the altar along with the contents of the chalice. He could have remained silent. Nothing much happens to you if you remain silent. However, a witness, a martyr, is a person who cannot be quite about injustice. They cannot be quite because of Jesus.
So the first characteristic of a martyr is that they speak the truth of Christ to their society.
The second characteristic of a martyr is that they are willing to switch from third person to second person. From “they” to “you.” In Acts 7, Stephen’s speech is really boring. It goes on and on about Jewish history until verse 51 when he changes suddenly and says, “YOU!” You stiff necked people. You hard hearted people. You people with wax in your ears. You people who betrayed Jesus. You people who worship your religious traditions.” “You” is a powerful word that changes everything.
The greatest “you” story of the Bible is the story of King David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. King David was up on his balcony. He looked down at the neighboring veranda and saw a gorgeous woman. He lusted after Bathsheba passionately. He arranged for her to come to him and he made love with her. Bathsheba got pregnant. So what did David do? He arranged for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, a warrior, to be sent to the frontline of battle so Uriah would be killed, and Uriah was killed. But the prophet Nathan saw through David’s schemes. The prophet Nathan came to David and told the king a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep. King David said, “The rich man should be killed.” And Nathan said to the King: “You are the man.” Wow. What an indictment against the king. Nathan had the courage to use the word, “You.” He spoke directly to David.
That is what all prophets do. They have the guts to move from the safety of the third person, he or she or it, to the second person, you. They point their fingers and say, “You…are the guilty one.”
The same was true of Martin Luther King Jr. He had the guts to stand up in Alabama and Georgia and talk about visible and invisible racism in all its ugliness. You could go to the North say the same things and people would say, “”How progressive. How insightful. How moral.” But as soon as the prophet says, YOU. You are the guilty one, the speech then changes from progressive thought into attack on our character. Prophets attack our sinful character. They show us who we really are, and we do not like that very much. That is why prophets often become martyrs.
A third characteristic of a martyr is not only what they say but also when and where they say it. For example, back in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era, if I declared that I was a Christian, I could disappear into a Gulag, a concentration camp. If I said the same thing in the United States, nobody would even notice. Again, If you talk about Christ and social justice in church among believing friends, everyone congratulates you upon being a fine upstanding citizen; however, in certain situations and certain epochs of history, the same words can get you killed.
Today our politicians live by their polls. If polls say they should have a certain opinion, that is their opinion. If the polls say another opinion is popular, the astute politician changes opinions. A martyr is just the opposite. A martyr is not a person who checks the wind of public opinion, and then determines what he or she will say. They just say what they believe no matter the consequences.
That leads us to the fourth characteristic of a martyr. They are willing to die. They are not necessarily seeking death. They do not want to die, but they are willing to die for Jesus Christ that others might live in justice and freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not want to die, but he decided that Hitler was an insanely cruel man who was out to conquer the whole world. Hitler had to be stopped. Bonhoeffer was planning Hitler’s assassination, when he was arrested. I asked the question earlier: was Bonhoeffer a martyr? Some would say that he was trying to kill a person therefore he cannot be a martyr. Given the person he was trying to kill, I say that the only shame is that he did not succeed.
Let us think about another martyr: Sir Thomas More. Sir Thomas More was the Chancellor of England who refused to endorse King Henry VIII's wish to divorce his aging wife Catherine of Aragon, who could not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress. There is a fabulous play entitled, A Man for All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More directly confronts King Henry VIII with his infidelity. The king chopped off his head for that. Again, Thomas More could not keep quite. He spoke the truth in the wrong time and wrong place.
But let me tell you about an American Martyr. Jean Donovan was an American lay missionary who was murdered along with three nuns in El Salvador by a military death squad while volunteering to do charity work during the civil war there. There was a TV special about her entitled, The Rose of December. She went down to El Salvador to help the thousands of children who had lost parents and family during the war. She flew out of El Salvador to England for a wedding and all of her friends said to her, “Stay here Jean, if you go back you will be killed.” But she would not, she had to go back to El Salvador, to her orphans. In December 1980, she drove to the airport to pick up three nuns. As she was returning, her vehicle was ambushed by soldiers of the thug government that was running El Salvador. She was raped, killed and her body thrown into a grave.
Christian martyrs believe passionately in Jesus Christ. These martyrs do not hide behind the safety of silence; they move from the safe “they” to the personal “you;” they speak God’s Word when and where it is not safe to speak the truth; and they are willing to die for the truth of Jesus Christ.
Martyrs inspire us. Martyrs encourage us. Martyrs lift us up so that we are more committed to Jesus Christ. We think God for them. We thank God for every person who ever put their life on the line for Jesus, or for the way of Jesus, or for truth and justice and love. We pray that God will help us to be more like them.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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