The Impact of Martyrdom on the 21st Century
Saturday April 19th 2008
I was invited to speak on the topic of martyrdom. Specifically its impact on the 21st century. Of course, my own experience with martyrdom is very narrow. So this is going to be a very personal account of the impact of martyrdom in the 21st century.
It struck me that very little has changed since the first century. In the first century if you slit the throat of a Christian he died a painful death. His body was eventually collected and buried. His friends would gather to mourn and talk about his death and try to find meaning in his sacrifice.
And I’m sure that most of you are aware of the events of last year in Malatya in Eastern Turkey. A year ago yesterday, in fact, three of our friends were killed, their throats slit. This is likely to be a difficult story for me to tell, even a year later. I apologize for that.
Malatya is a city of 500,000 people. And it is almost entirely Muslim. We moved to Malatya together with another family in 2006. We joined three other Christian families who had moved to Malatya a few years earlier. That group included a German family, Tilmann and Susanne Geske, a Turkish family, Necati and Shemsa Aydin, and a British family.
By the time we arrived there was a growing fellowship of 15-20 Turkish believers. My wife jumped into language learning and I started in right away sharing the gospel with friends and neighbors. Within a few months I was doing small Bible studies with about 10 Turkish men, a couple of whom made commitments to Christ.
Necati was the pastor of the fellowship and he was also running a branch of a Christian publishing company in Malatya. He was a very well known Christian, a gifted preacher and a passionate evangelist. Necati had come from a conservative Muslim background and his entire family had disowned him as a result of his decision to follow Christ.
Necati brought another young Turkish Christian to work at the company with him. Ugur Yuksel was engaged to be married. He was from a small village in Eastern Turkey. A deep thinker and a bold believer.
On April 18th last year, Tilmann, Necati, and Ugur were working in the office of the Christian publishing company in downtown Malatya. Five young Muslim men came to the office pretending to be interested in the gospel. Apparently one or two of them had met with Necati before. He let them in and served tea as they sat around the little table in his office.
At around 11:00 in the morning the five young men tied up Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur. They tied them to their office chairs, with their arms and hands behind their backs. During the next hour and half they were tortured with knives as the killers apparently demanded that they renounce Christ and accept Islam. When they each insisted that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Muslim men slit the throats of Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur, one at a time.
The police were called when one of the other Turkish workers tried to get in the office and realized that something was wrong inside. When the police arrived, the five killers were still inside. Four of them surrendered and one of them tried to escape from the third floor balcony, breaking his neck on the sidewalk below.
Tilmann and Necati were found dead in the office and Ugur was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance with serious wounds all over his body. I arrived on the scene as the ambulances were leaving for the hospital and I followed in a taxi.
I was waiting together with our British friend under armed guard at the hospital. The military police wanted us to identify who it was in surgery, so they took a picture with a digital camera and brought it out to us. It was Ugur. He had been wearing a cross around his neck. A few hours later I received the news from the doctor that Ugur hadn’t survived surgery.
My family was waiting at home with an intern from our church who was scheduled to give English lessons at that office just shortly after the murders took place.
Word quickly spread throughout Turkey and phone calls and visitors began to arrive. Within a few hours our house was full of visitors from other cities. Turkish pastors, other Christians, friends and family of the victims.
Within a few days Tilmann was buried in Malatya. We sang hymns in Turkish that Tilmann had written. Ugur was buried secretly in his home town. His family insisted on a Muslim funeral and I wonder what they did with the cross he wore around his neck. Necati was buried in Izmir at a funeral attended by hundreds of believers from around the world.
These were the first Turkish Protestant martyrs in the history of the republic of Turkey.
As I said. Not much has changed. We have hardly come very far. Even in the 21st century, When you slit the throat of a Christian, he dies a painful death. His body is collected and buried and his friends try to find meaning in his sacrifice.
So this morning I’d like to say a few things about martyrdom and it’s impact in the 21st century. Then I’ll talk briefly about a Christian response to martyrdom.
1. So, addressing my topic, the first thing I’d like to say is that Martyrdom is deadly.
The most obvious impact of course is death. It doesn’t do us any good to have romantic notions of martyrdom. It’s deadly. It’s not glamorous. All the ethereal, poetic images about martyrdom dissolve as your friends are wheeled by in bloody gurneys.
I’m reminded of Joseph of Arimathea who, together with some of the women, took down the body of Jesus from the cross. What an awful task. To handle the dead body of your friend, your leader, your hero. The dead body of a man. Cold and bloody. I imagine joseph carrying the body down the road to wherever the tomb was.
Martyrdom is deadly... But it is worth it. He is worth it.
Of course Jesus is the evidence of that. We don’t try in vain to find meaning in the sacrifice of Jesus, or in the deaths of those who followed him. There is meaning there. There is life after death. Resurrection is real.
And it is a great privilege to have a cause worth dying for. In fact, there is no other cause worth dying for. And no other cause worth living for.
God is worth suffering for. He is worth going to Malatya for. He is worth being tortured for. And the only way to be convinced of that is to meet Him. To have a genuine encounter with the God who proved that martyrdom is not in vain. The God who suffered on the cross and shook off death as if it were just a long nap.
But still, people aren’t lining up to go to the hard places of the world. This is not because God isn’t calling them there. It’s because you might die there. I can tell you that my family back home gets this. They understand in a unique way that martyrdom is deadly, because I’m sure that since April 18th they have all imagined my own death. My own father is angry that I insist on staying. He has a good imagination.
Let’s look at a passage from Paul.
2 Corinthians 4:7-15
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
Hear these words in the voice of Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur.
It is written, “I believed, therefore I have spoken.” With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
It is no small thing that while death was at work in Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur, the life that exists in the fellowship that remains would not have been possible without them.
A couple weeks after the murders I went into the office after the police had removed the yellow tape. They had wiped most of the blood up, but it was still everywhere. And the tea cups were still on the table. Evidence of the way that these men served the people of Turkey, the people of Malatya. All this is for their benefit. And for God’s glory. And He is worth it.
2. The second thing that I’d like to say is that Martyrdom is Unjust.
This was what struck me the hardest in the days and weeks after the murders. What a grave injustice. That men who had already given so much should be asked to give again.
Ugur met his fiancee years ago. When they announced their intention to marry, her father refused to give his daughter to a Christian. So he waited and prayed. Just a couple weeks before the murders we celebrated with Ugur. Her father had finally begun to agree to let them marry.
Tilmann left a wife and three children behind. Necati left a wife and two children.
Martyrdom is unjust. That such great men could be slain by such small men. That such unworthy adversaries are given satisfaction at our expense.
And of course, the sacrifice of Jesus was just such an injustice.
It is the painful reality of this age that the will of God, the justice of God, is contested by evil, evil of a supernatural enemy, evil of our own human choosing. Evil is pervasive. It has infected everything. And this is the only way we can make sense of such an injustice.
Martyrdom is unjust. But His Kingdom is coming.
And by the example of Jesus, it is in the most heinous injustice ever carried out that the scales of justice are tipped forever in our favor. It is in the very suffering of injustice, in the act of martyrdom that his kingdom comes.
The infection of evil is usurped by the strategy of God to grow the seeds of the kingdom among us.
And there will be a day when injustice is no more. When suffering is vindicated. When the will of God is no longer contested. His kingdom is coming, growing up around us. And we participate in its arrival.
Today, the trial of the five young men is underway. The story still consumes news headlines, as the press finds new angles to exploit. We pray for justice and His kingdom is coming in that courtroom.
The lawyers representing the families of the martyrs have been receiving death threats since the beginning of the trial. The head attorney is an atheist. And yet he continues to risk his life to defend us. Martyrdom is unjust.
3. And Finally, Martyrdom is Scandalous.
After the murders hundreds of people told me how sorry they were that such a thing had happened. Most of them wanted to assure me that Turkey was really a safe place, that it was unthinkable to kill people for religion.
And it became popular to jump on the condemnation bandwagon. Local and national leaders all released statements: “I condemn the attacks...” Turks didn’t want this to marr the reputation of their country...
And still so many of our neighbors stopped talking to us. In a terrific irony, the neighbors were afraid of us. We were dangerous. Martyrdom is scandalous.
The murders were quickly politicized, in much the same way that Jesus’ death was politicized. No one wanted to take responsibility for what happened. The authorities sought to cover-up the resurrection. Conspiracy theories were invented and spread...
The local media instantly began casting suspicion on the martyrs. The murderers were only a footnote.
What were these agitators doing in Malatya anyway? Who were they really working for? Almost immediately, grand conspiracy theories began to float around the media.
The crank on the propaganda machine began to turn and out came some of the most ridiculous accusations and theories.
Martyrdom is scandalous. But it pays more than they can imagine.
Jesus of course tells us in Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Necati, Ugur and Tilmann are well-compensated. And it looks like I might be racking up quite a stash up there as well.
Martyrdom is deadly
Martyrdom is unjust
Martyrdom is scandalous
So how do we respond to martyrdom? What can we do? Let me share three practical ideas:
1. Struggle against injustice
We work for human rights in the nations. For the right to live the life of Christ in Turkey. Human rights is a Christian concept. We fight to see laws changed, to see accurate portrayals in the media, to see justice done when Christians are persecuted.
2. Maintain a Christ-like willingness to suffer
We don’t stop proclaiming the gospel. We don’t stop living the life of Christ in the nations. And we look for the courage to be willing to suffer, as Hebrews 13:13 says, “bearing the disgrace he bore.” Ultimately we aren’t surprised when Christians suffer. Jesus suffered. He told us we would suffer.
3. Care for the Suffering
Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We can write letters to suffering or imprisoned Christians. We can pray for the situation of persecuted people around the world. We can sponsor and financially support the work of the gospel in difficult places, and we can commit to visit or even to live out our lives among those who are suffering.