I normally have several books by my bedside – all of which I am reading bits of, according to what takes my fancy on any particular evening. But, this past week two very different books have grabbed my attention, essentially for the same basic reason.
The books are Back to Jerusalem by Paul Hattaway – being the story of those extraordinarily brave Chinese leaders who have laid down their lives to take the Gospel from China back to Jerusalem, through the strongholds of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, where the peoples are largely unreached by the good news of Jesus. This is a movement which originated in the middle of the last century – a movement which has cost the lives of hundreds of Christian martyrs, whose blood is on the land.
The other book is a much older tome, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, a great Christian classic which in Victorian England stood alongside Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as the two books, after the Bible, which every Christian should read. I have only ever dipped into the book in the past, it has been awaiting the time when the Holy Spirit prompted me to absorb the incredible stories of those who, down the centuries, have given their lives for their faith. That time came this past week.
So, a week later I have almost finished Back to Jerusalem and, so far, have managed about 30% of Fox. But my spiritual life and calling has been challenged to the very core as I have read the stories of extraordinary courage and fortitude, as both young and old, men and women suffered the cruellest of unspeakable tortures and means of execution, rather than renounce their faith in Jesus and deny their Lord, even when knowing what terrible sufferings lay ahead of them on earth.
But it was what lay ahead of them in Heaven which shone so powerfully in their hearts, that kept them utterly faithful to their calling and destiny to the very end. Countless thousands down the centuries have lived the reality of Matthew 10:38-39 and have found their lives through martyrdom: ”Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find their lives.”
As I have meditated on why God had me read these two books at this time, I found myself analysing the reasons why men could act with such terrible and unjustified cruelty. Ultimately, I realised, that their demonically inspired murderous actions were, invariably, because their victims refused to acknowledge and accede to the wrong beliefs of their accusers.
During the ten waves of Roman persecution, it was the Christians’ refusal to sacrifice to the idols of the state, in which the Emperors and their governors believed, which brought down the powers that be upon their heads. To oppose the authorities in this way was considered to be an act of rebellion, even treason, and this always carried with it the threat of death. Then when things went wrong for Rome, it was sometimes said that it was the fault of the Christians and, as a result, general persecutions broke out with instructions to kill all Christians. When, what the authorities believed in was being rejected, all Christians became an enemy of the state.
I, personally, am a descendant of Huguenots who managed to escape from France during some of the most terrible and bloody persecutions ever recorded, as the Church of Rome tried to eliminate all protestant believers from France. And in the UK, in the days of Queen ‘bloody’ Mary, refusal to believe in the Roman doctrines and acknowledge the Pope as the head of the Church, lit the fires of martyrdom beneath thousands including Bishops Ridley, Latimer and Archbishop Cranmer in Oxford. I could hardly read the terrible things that Rome did to Protestants in the Spanish Inquisition.
And in China refusal to stop believing in Jesus hit directly at the atheistic beliefs of the communist government. Members of the house churches became enemies of the state and, over the last seventy years, millions have paid the ultimate price for faithfulness to their Saviour and Lord.
It is believed that there were more martyrs for the faith in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries put together!
And today, in the middle East, we have seen how the beliefs of radical Islamists have caused them to execute a similar brutal judgement on anyone (Christian, Jew or, even, Muslim) who dares to think and believe differently from the leaders of ISIS.
There is a spirit behind all such murderous persecutions of believers. It is cruel, it is antichrist and it rides on the back of a spirit of religion. Anyone who dares to think or believe differently from the adherents of this religion, whatever its name may be, becomes a victim of their hatred and poison. In the world, today, we have many different recognised religions, but we also have a religion which adherents would not want it called as such, but which is as much a religion as any other – for it is motivated by false belief.
In essence, that belief is humanism, which declares in one way or another that there is no such thing as a Holy God to whom we are answerable and that, in the moral realm, man is god of his own choices and is free to do whatever he likes especially, it seems, in terms of marriage, sexual relationships and abortion. Anyone who dares to think differently becomes an object of vitriolic persecution, powered by the same antichrist spirit that has caused the deaths of millions of martyr-saints in the past two thousand years.
Anyone in the UK, who saw Tim Farron resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats, after the recent election, was watching that antichrist spirit at work, driving him from office for holding orthodox Christian views. Tragically what, essentially, Tim Farron was saying is that in the UK, it is no longer possible for a practising Christian, with orthodox views, to remain leader of a political party. And that is a conclusion that believers would have to reach in many other of our western nations also.
But even more sadly, the church has fallen victim to the pressures of humanism. Instead of being salt and light in a fallen world, boldly proclaiming the truth of Scripture to what is now a post-Christian society, it is increasingly drawing upon the beliefs and ways of the world for its moral direction, as opposed to being faithful to its founder and teaching the Word of God.
In my student days, on my way from Christ Church to the science laboratories to the north of Oxford, I would cross Broad Street at the very spot where a large brass cross in the road had been put to mark the very spot where Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer were burned at the stake. We may not burn people at the stake today for holding the same orthodox, scriptural views as those noble Bishops but, make no mistake, it was the same antichrist spirit which called for the head of Tim Farron!
I pray that the Churches of our nation, as they deliberate on the issues of the day such as abortion, gender and marriage, in their councils and synods, will remember our blood-splattered land and not betray those who laid down their lives so that the Word of God could be freely available. These are severely testing days for those who want to remain faithful to the word of truth.