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Martyrdom & Persecution

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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June 16, 2022 12:01 am

Martyrdom & Persecution

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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June 16, 2022 12:01 am

Christians who have enjoyed peace and security in the West now face an increasing hostility to their faith. How should we respond? Today, R.C. Sproul explains what we can learn from past believers who sacrificed everything for the name of Christ.

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Our fathers who established the church, those beyond the apostles, not to mention the apostles, were people who had to learn courage, endurance, to give the full testimony of the faith. It was difficult to relate to the persecution and physical threats that the apostles and those early followers of Jesus faced. I found it hard to fathom that modern day pastors and missionaries faced the very real possibility they may lose their lives for preaching the gospel in certain parts of the world. But those of us who have lived in the relative peace and security of the West sense a shift in the way we're viewed as Christians now. More and more, there seems to be not just opposition, but open hostility to biblical truth, and we need to know how to respond. It turns out that we can learn much from faithful Christians of the past. Here's Dr. R.C.

Sproul. The one word that stands out, it seems to me, in terms of its repetitive use in the New Testament that is conspicuous by its presence and conversely conspicuous by its absence in so much contemporary Christian discussion is the word endurance. But there's a whole mentality among Christendom today that seems to suggest that the Christian life is a pleasure trip. I've said many times, I get very upset when I hear ministers or evangelists say, come to Jesus and all your problems will be over, because that's just not true. That's when life starts to get complicated.

That's when you're playing for keeps, you see. And so we're all called to be involved in endurance. Well, we know that martyrdom was not a matter simply for the great heroes of the faith in the early centuries of Christendom, but it was part of the risk involved in the rank-and-file Christian life. The thing that will often strike the historian of the early church when he studies the correspondence that has survived of the Christians of that day, sometimes we have letters and epistles written by people who were not distinguished as great scholars or great preachers or great evangelists or missionaries, but rank-and-file Christians. And the thing, frankly, that has often really startled me as I read some of that literature is the casual way in which martyrdom is dealt with, the casualness of it. I read one writer and he was talking about, well, I'm sorry to pass along to you the news that Aunt Sally last week was martyred at Cyprus and Cousin Tim at age 18. He was beheaded at Lyceus.

And it goes on and on and on. And it just seems like when you read these accounts of people talking about their families and everything that nobody dies, that everybody's martyred. Nobody dies in their beds from a good old age. And in fact, the one particular author that I had in mind of this letter made the statement, he said, well, when I am martyred, not when I die, or not if I am martyred, but when I am martyred. It was tacitly assumed, you see, by the rank-and-file Christian that ultimately they would die in the arena.

And that assumption was not without reason. And so what I'm trying to get across is that the Christian people, our fathers who established the church, those beyond the apostles, not to mention the apostles, were people who had to learn courage, endurance to give the full testimony of the faith. When we go into the early church and into the second century, perhaps the greatest example of Christian martyrdom is found in the case of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. And one of the most prized possessions that we have from antiquity is a document that gives us a description of the martyrdom of Polycarp. And I'd like to take the time to read to you some of the portions from the martyrdom of Polycarp. And there, the chief of police, Herod and his father, Nicetas, met him, that is Polycarp, and transferred him to their carriage and tried to persuade him as they sat beside him, saying, What harm is there to say, Lord Caesar, and to offer incense and all that sort of thing, and to save yourself?

As all that Polycarp and the other bishops were required to do at that time was to say the loyalty oath, Kaiser curios, Caesar is Lord, and to offer incense to the image of the emperor. What harm is there in that, they say to this man who at this point is somewhere probably in his nineties? At first he did not answer them, but when they persisted he said, and this is I think one of the all-time great quotes of Christendom, I am not going to do what you advise me.

Sounds like Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. I would prefer not to. I am not going to do what you advise me. Then when they failed to persuade him, they uttered dire threats and made him get out with such speed that in dismounting from the carriage he bruised his shin. But without turning around as though nothing had happened, he proceeded swiftly and was led into the arena, there being such a tumult in the arena that no one could be heard. But as Polycarp was entering the arena, a voice from heaven came to him saying, be strong Polycarp and play the man.

Oh, I like that. Be strong Polycarp and play the man. They heard a voice from heaven saying, Polycarp, be a man.

No one saw the one speaking, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And when finally he was brought up, there was a great tumult on hearing that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, he tried to persuade him to deny the faith, saying, have respect to your age. And other things that customarily follow this, such as, quote, swear by the fortune of Caesar, change your mind, say simply, away with the atheists. Noting, of course, that the Christians were considered atheists by the Romans because they did not believe in the pantheon of gods of the polytheistic Romans. But Polycarp looked with earnest face at the whole crowd of lawless heathen in the arena and motioned to them with his hand. Then groaning and looking up to heaven, he said, away with the atheists.

He said what they wanted to say, but he was talking about the different group of people that they wanted him to talk about. But the proconsul was insistent. He said, take the oath and I shall release you.

Curse Christ. Polycarp replied, eighty and six years I have served him and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me? And upon his persisting still and saying, swear by the fortune of Caesar, he answered, if you vainly suppose that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly. I am a Christian. And if you desire to learn the teaching of Christianity, appoint a day and give me a hearing.

Can you imagine that? The proconsul said, try to persuade the people. Polycarp said, you I should deem worthy of an account, for we have been taught to render honor as it is befitting to rulers and authorities appointed by God, so far as it does us no harm. But as for these, I do not consider them worthy that I should make a defense to them. And the proconsul said, I have wild beasts.

I'll throw you to them if you don't change your mind. But he said, call them for repentance from the better to the worse is not permitted us. But it is noble to change from what is evil to what is righteous. This guy is telling Polycarp to repent. He says, well, I'd be happy to repent, but I'm not allowed to repent from the good to the bad. And what you're asking me to repent to is bad.

And what you're asking me to repent of is righteous. And again, he said to him, I shall have you consume with fire if you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind. But Polycarp said, the fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little, for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and the everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious.

But why do you delay? Come, do what you will. And when he had said these things and many more besides, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace. So not only did it not fall with dismay at the things said to him, but on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished and sent his own herald into the midst of the arena to proclaim three times, Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian. And when this was said by the herald, the entire crowd of heathen and Jews who lived in Smyrna shouted with uncontrollable anger and a great cry, this one is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods who teaches many not to sacrifice nor to worship. Such things they shouted and asked the Asiarch Philip that he let loose a lion in Polycarp.

But he said it was not possible for him to do so since he had brought the wild beast sports to a close. Then they decided to shout with one accord that he burned Polycarp alive, for it was necessary that the vision which he had appeared to him about his pillow should be fulfilled. He had seen a vision allegedly before where his pillow had become inflamed. And these things happened with such dispatch, quicker than could be told, the crowds in so great a hurry together would, from the workshops and the baths, the Jews being especially zealous as usual, to assist with this. And when the fire was ready, and he had divested himself of all his clothes and unfastened his belt, he tried to take off his shoes, though he was not heretofore in the habit of doing this, because each of the faithful always bide with one another as to which of them would be first to touch his body. For he had always been honored, even before his martyrdom, for his holy life. Straightway then they set about him the material prepared for the pyre. And when they were about to nail him, he said, Leave me as I am, for he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you so desire from the nails.

So they did not nail him, but they tied him. And with his hands put behind him and tied, like a noble ram out of a great flock ready for sacrifice, a burnt offering ready and acceptable to God, he looked up to heaven, and he said, Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in Thy presence, I bless Thee, because Thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Thy Christ, for resurrection to eternal life of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit, among whom may I be received in Thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as Thou hast prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled Thou that art the true God without any falsehood. For this and for everything I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, Thy beloved servant, through whom be glory to Thee with Him and the Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come.

Amen. And when he had concluded Thee, amen, and finished his prayer, the men attending to the fire lighted it. And when the flame flashed forth, we saw a miracle, we to whom it was given to see.

And we are preserved in order to relate to you the rest that happened. For the fire made the shape of a vaulted chamber, like a ship's sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr. And as he was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in the furnace, and we perceived such a sweet aroma as the breath of incense or some other precious spice.

At length, when the lawless men saw that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, a great quantity of blood came forth so that the fire was quenched, and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. And certainly the most admirable polycarp was one of these elect, in whose times among us he showed himself an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna. Okay, so that's just a part of the account of the martyrdom of one Christian from the early church, the martyrdom of polycarp. It's interesting and fascinating, I hope to whet your appetite to read of some of the others, of the men who prayed each night that God would not allow them to be freed from martyrdom, but that they would have this unspeakable privilege.

And they didn't want to be denied that privilege of going out as a final witness to their Lord. Okay then, I'd like to move quickly then to the fourth century, just to give you a very quick capsule sketch of one of the great men in the history of the church prior to the time of Augustine. And I'm speaking of Athanasius, whose name is associated historically with one of the greatest controversies of the Christian church, namely the controversy with the Arians, where the whole matter of the deity of Christ was under severe question. Athanasius was born at the very end of the third century in the year 298, being Egyptian by birth, though he was educated in the finest Greek fashion, spending the bulk of his life in the cultural center, by this time in Western history, namely at Alexandria.

He died in the year 373. As a very young boy, he lived through and survived the great persecution of Diocletian. And the memories of the kind of martyrdom that was commonplace, and as was witnessed by the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, stayed with Athanasius throughout his life.

Many of his friends and relatives were killed in the arena when he was still a small boy. During his life, he became a very close friend of a man who is called St. Anthony by the Roman Catholic Church. Anthony is the one who began the practice of monasticism by retiring into the desert to live the ascetic life, in a life of contemplation and self-denial. And Anthony had an enormous influence on Athanasius, as Athanasius lived his life and was noted for his gentleness of speech, and his calmness of spirit, and his incredible ability for self-sacrifice. He went to the Council of Nicaea in 325, but only as a deacon. It's a fact of history that many people fail to realize, because the Arian controversy always provokes a discussion of the role of Athanasius and Arius, because the Arian controversy finalized and culminated in the Council of Nicaea, which then produced the Nicene Creed. But Athanasius was only a deacon there. The leading proponent for Orthodoxy at that time was Bishop Alexander, who at the time was Bishop of Alexandria. But after the Council, Alexander died, and then Athanasius became the Bishop of Alexandria. And he was the one who fought the fight for Christendom for the next 50 years to consolidate and implement the Confession of Faith that was contained at the Council of Nicaea.

Incidentally, an ecumenical decision, a conciliar statement that is perhaps of all conciliar statements, still more widely used in the history of the Church than any other document, namely the Nicene Creed that came out of that Council. But when Athanasius came to become elected to be the Bishop of Alexandria, there was opposition to him for that post, not because of the question of his competence or a question of his piety, but the question that was raised with respect to Athanasius was his age. He was presumably just under 30 years old when he was elected Bishop of Alexandria.

Can you imagine? I mean, that would be like a Roman Catholic priest at age 29 becoming a cardinal. The thing that stands out about Athanasius as an example of one of the early fathers was not simply his brilliance and his productivity as a scholar and his classic work on the incarnation of Christ, which was very timely in terms of dealing with the crisis of the doctrine of the personal work of Christ. But what stands out is his principle of endurance in the midst of charity because his enemies in his life were not the pagans or the Roman soldiers, but it was the heretics of the Church, those who had made a profession of faith and who were fellow members of the Christian community that sought to destroy him.

And there's a certain sense in which it's much easier to bear the hostility and the persecution of the world, of the secular world, but to take it within the fellowship of the Church demands extraordinary gifts of patience and charity and perseverance. This man, who was Bishop of Alexandria, was exiled from his church and from his homeland several times, and he spent a good many years in exile. So many times did the power structure change in the ancient church at this time that whenever the orthodox power were in, they would invite Athanasius to come back and lead them. He'd come back and pretty soon the political structure would change and the Arians would gain control, and as soon as they would gain control, they'd call a robber synod or a little council together, and they would exile Athanasius and call him heretic. And he'd be betrayed by friends again and again and again, and his whole history of his life is the history of patient endurance in the midst of unspeakable treachery and unspeakable persecution. And he'd go away again, and he'd be kicked out of his country, and he'd go out in solitude and loneliness, and then the people would come back again and say, Athanasius, come on back.

We need you. Now, how many times can a man put up with that sort of thing? It reminds me of Calvin, who was kicked out of Geneva and then asked to return. He came back, and everything was all right the second time. But imagine coming and getting kicked out a second time and then having Pharaoh come to him and saying, Come on, John, we need you back there.

I know I'd think twice before I'd go back to that situation. But he did this again and again and again. Always maintaining this spirit of sweetness and gentleness and charity towards his enemies. If you want to have a study of a man of dignity, study the life of Athanasius. The thing that stands out most in my mind is this man's epitaph. The epitaph was simple. Athanasius contra mundum. That was his epitaph. Athanasius contra mundum.

What does that mean? Contra means what? Against mundum.

What's mundane mean? Worldly. Contra mundum. Against the world. Athanasius contra mundum. A man who stood against the world. Every time you say the Apostles' Creed, every time you say the Nicene Creed, every time you confess the deity of Jesus Christ and do it safely within the context of the Christian church, you ought to think of this man who stood against the world through exile after exile after exile, through bitter attack after bitter attack, bitter attack, once everybody disagreed, who fought to the death to maintain the integrity of the Christian confessional faith of the deity of Jesus Christ. Are we ready to do the same? When persecution knocks on our door, will we face it faithfully?

I think in light of our current cultural crisis, these are questions that are important to settle now, aren't they? You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Thursday. I'm Lee Webb, and this week we have brought you several messages that have not seen the light of day for many, many years. We have a deep archive of messages from Dr. R.C. Sproul, and we make them available to a special group of ministry friends that we call ministry partners. Julie is a ministry partner who first heard of Dr. Sproul because Renewing Your Mind is on her local radio station. Listen to what she had to say. For some providential reason, Dr. Sproul came up and I started listening to him.

I'm like, wait, that sounds right. This is what I have been missing from other teachers. And when I was in Texas, I started following Dr. Sproul online. I started listening to his sermons, to Renewing Your Mind, to the conferences that's on RefNet. So that's kind of the way that I found out, and the Lord used him to bring me to him. And I was regenerated through the teaching of Dr. Sproul and the grace of God. I'm joined here in the Renewing Your Mind studios by my colleague, Nathan W. Bingham. And Nathan, that's quite a testimony, isn't it?

It really is. So encouraging to hear Julie's story and to hear her list, some of the ways that Ligonier has been used in her life by Dr. Sproul, not to mention the Lord using Ligonier and Dr. Sproul's teaching to bring her to saving faith. You know, Lee, I'm always surprised when I talk to a ministry partner and I discover that they're not aware of the breadth of Ligonier's outreach and the outreach that they support through their monthly giving, whether it's us broadcasting into Iran and throughout the Middle East, whether it's sending study Bibles to pastors and Christian leaders throughout Africa, whether it's supporting military chaplains or equipping prisoners who have been converted behind bars. This broadcast, this podcast, Renewing Your Mind and the library of other podcasts that we produce, whether it's Simply Put, ultimately with R.C. Sproul, Ask Ligonier. There are so many podcasts that we're releasing every single week.

Table Talk magazine, of course, Lee, I know a favorite of yours. And these resources, Nathan, allowed us to reach 56 million people. Is that correct?

That's right. 56.5 million people, Lee, were reached. And that is all made possible thanks to our ministry partner. So when you become a ministry partner, you're joining thousands of other like-minded Christians and you're reaching millions of people every month collectively. So if you are a ministry partner, know that we could have not reached that many people without your prayerful support. If you're not a ministry partner but you'd like to join this special group of people, we invite you to sign up.

You can do that online at, or you can call us. My colleagues will be happy to take your call at 800-435-4343. Tomorrow we have another special message from the Ligonier Archives by Dr. Sproul. It's Joy in Christ from Paul's letter to the Philippians. We hope you'll join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-04 12:50:31 / 2023-04-04 13:00:12 / 10

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