The theme for Preaching Conference 2021 was ‘Stand Firm: Lessons from 1 Peter’. One of the key emphases that were highlighted by the speakers was the need to be ready to face hostile times with humility, courage, and fortitude. As Peter exhorts his readers: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13) With this article I would like to reflect on a key resource that we have at our disposal as we seek to stand firm for the sake of the gospel: The example of other believers, both past and present.
The earliest generations of believers took it as a given that examples of God-enabled ‘courage under fire’ should be seen as object lessons of how to conduct themselves when they themselves face ‘fiery trials’ (cf. 1 Peter 4:12).
This attitude was encouraged by the author of Hebrews as he exhorted his readers to draw inspiration from the sufferings of believers from ages past: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35–38) After recounting these sufferings the author makes the point that the suffering believers he spoke about did not receive the fulness of the promise as revealed in Christ. The implication is clear, those who are heirs of the promise should be even more willing to walk the path of suffering for the sake of their Lord. Always mindful of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1) spurring them on.
The accounts of martyrdom and suffering (for example the stoning of Stephen, Acts 6:8–7:60) in the New Testament should, in light of the above, be seen as more than the retelling of historical events. Believers were also supposed to learn and draw inspiration from them during times of trial. Such times could, of course, be extremely intense. Waves of ferocious persecution crashed against the early church, furnishing ever more examples of what it means to suffer for the sake of the gospel.
To cite but one example among many. A second century work entitled, ‘The Martyrdom of Polycarp’ describes how Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey), met his end (circa 155 AD) by being burned at the stake after refusing to offer sacrifices to the Roman emperor. His final words bore eloquent testimony to his faithfulness to the One who had always been faithful to him: “86 years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
The importance of learning from the martyrs (those who died for their faith) and confessors (those who suffered terribly for their faith yet remained faithful) became an essential part of how early Christians understood their faith. Wherever the gospel spread, and where people suffered for its sake, the stories of those who suffered were retold so that believers could draw strength and inspiration from them. This tradition was carried over into Protestantism after the Reformation. In fact, in the English-speaking world ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’ (focussing heavily on the sufferings of English believers under the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’) was long deemed to be essential reading for all Protestant believers.
Right into the 20th century we can point to examples where the martyrdom of fellow believers brought the worldwide church together in a desire to draw strength from their courage and faithfulness to the Lord. One example was the 1953 killing of five young men who were seeking to bring the gospel to a remote tribe in the Amazon. Christians around the world were so moved by their sacrifice that it led to a wave of volunteers for mission service in the same part of the world. The words of one of the missionaries, Jim Elliot, became a kind of motto for these missionaries, and many other Christians besides: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose”.
Inspiring as the memory of the martyrdom of Jim Elliot and his friends still are, there is a significant gap between Christian attitudes to suffering in 1953 and 2021. It seems to me that the present generation of believers are far less ready to draw lessons and courage from the travails of fellow Christians. It is not that we do not have many examples of courageous faith in the worldwide church. Large numbers of our fellow believers are being horribly persecuted, and even killed, all around the world. Sadly, this reality often does not feature heavily in the self-understanding of many modern Christians.
The reasons behind this sad situation are complex and I will not be able to fully analyse the tendency among some modern Christians to disregard the sufferings of other believers in a short article like this. It is, however, important to note that our ignorance harms us spiritually, as we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn from those who could help inspire us to greater devotion and acts of service. This is obviously only part of the problem since there are clear biblical and moral imperatives calling us to stand with those who are suffering. We are commanded to serve them and pray for them as people who take the exhortation of Hebrews 13:3 seriously: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body.” This is perhaps easier to do when those who are suffering are in our own communities, but distance is no excuse. There are many organisations (of whom ‘Open Doors’ and ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ are perhaps best known) that can help us to effectively connect with the persecuted church around the world and to pray for suffering Christians in a more informed way.
Since we are part of one body ‘standing firm’ involves not only the readiness to endure suffering ourselves but also to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who are in the eye of the storm, whether they are next to us or half a world away. This will constantly remind us of the fact that the faith that we confess is so much more than just a personal preference. It is, in fact, a gift from God that is ‘more precious than gold’ (1 Peter 1:7). In the process we will also be strengthened for the journey that may lay ahead. Knowing that whatever may come we, and our persecuted brothers and sisters, are in the best of hands. As the Apostle Peter reminded his readers: “let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).