Living Martyrs – Lenten Season 2019
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12: 1,2 NIV).
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39 NIV).
The Roman Road – Day 43 “Living Martyrs”
One of the greatest periods of spiritual power in the history of the church was in the early church, in the first 400 years especially, when the church went from a persecuted minority to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.
This was accomplished really because of one thing and one thing only. Many ordinary Christians took this verse in Romans 12:1,2 seriously. They were willing to become living sacrifices and pay the ultimate price for following their Lord and Saviour.
From the night parties of Nero who burnt Christians at the stake for entertainment and illumination to the systematic persecution by the State just before the final, reluctant, capitulation of Rome in the face of the barbarian invasions on the one hand and the persistent witness of Christians on the other hand that demonstrated that their faith made a real difference in their lives. There is transforming power in a life lived as a living sacrifice.
The Book of Revelations is particularly revealing about this strategy that God is using to overcome evil in the world. The issue is bigger than just ourselves or our own comfort and security. There are eternal issues at stake. Entire peoples are in danger.
The Book of Revelations gives us a view of the cosmic battle from God’s point of view and our place in it. John makes it clear that the secret weapon that God uses to defeat Evil is the living martyrs in his army of believers who were willing to sacrifice their lives daily in self-denial and sometimes, literally, in death.
Christians were killed outright. Some were thrown to the lions for the sport and entertainment of the crowd. Their faith and steadfast assurance was a testimony to the crowds that their God was worth dying for. Some were beheaded. Some were given the opportunity to recant, to turn back from their folly and join Roman society once again. And some did. But many, many did not.
And that was not only true of those who lived under Roman rule in the early years. It has been true throughout the history of the church. Even today. In some parts of the Middle East and Africa, Christians are still persecuted and killed for their faith. Their witness will not be forgotten.
I remember one story that came out of the communist persecution of Christians in China. Apparently a number of people were lined up ready to be shot for their decision not to recant their commitment to follow Christ. The man in charge of the firing squad gave them one last chance to step out of line, reject Christ, and walk away scot free. One man did just that but before the colonel could order the rest to be shot, someone from the crowd walked over and took his place. The colonel asked him what he was doing and the man replied. “I saw someone throw down his crown and I decided to pick it up for myself.” The colonel just shook his head and ordered them all to be shot on the spot.
Yes, there is a special crown for those who are martyred for their faith. It is a particularly beautiful idea that God so values the death of his saints that he has a special reward for those who would not hold on to this life at the expense of their eternal home with God.
Jesus said it clearly in Matthew 16:25 that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It seems a bit radical to most people today but this has always been the fundamental concept of Christianity.
Anything less than this attitude is simply religion and not true spiritual worship.
Look at what Jesus says. He doesn’t say that you have to die as a martyr for the cause. That may happen but that is not what he is saying here. He says “whoever would save his live will lose it.” Whoever “would” speaks of an attitude, a way of thinking, a priority. If protecting your own life, your own interests, your own desires is your focus and attitude, you have missed what Christianity is all about. It isn’t about you. It’s about Christ. It’s about following him which means that we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross (in confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation) every day and follow Him.
At first glance this idea of Paul’s that we need to learn to become “living sacrifices” seems to be a bit contradictory. How can you be both “living” and a “sacrifice” at the same time? Isn’t a “sacrifice” by definition dead? Yes, usually. It is the same concept as a “living martyr” from the Book of Revelations. Yes, you may actually die as a martyr in a particular situation but it isn’t just the dying that was a witness to the Romans (or the Chinese) but rather the way that these people lived who were ready to die.
That is what Jesus was talking about. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Yes, you will find life in the afterlife but it is also true in this life. Many of us have experienced it first hand.
Our walk in the Spirit is marked by a certain attitude, a certain sureness, that nothing can shake, nothing can take away. “For I am convinced,” Paul tells us in Romans 8:38,39 NIV, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If you truly believe that, you have nothing to fear. It doesn’t happen overnight but with time you will grow into the maturity of that assurance of faith. It is also an evidence and a gift of the Holy Spirit within. And if you have that assurance that niether life nor death can separate you from the love of God then what are you worried about? Your focus changes. Your priorities change. Your values are transformed.
The only issue is to live life with a focus on the Kingdom of God, pleasing God, being involved in the things that he is concerned about. Finding out his good, pleasing and perfect will and doing it. Continuing to be transformed by the renewing of your mind through the Word of God. The focus is not on building our own kingdoms or even protecting our own lives at any cost.
How many movies and books have we watched were the principal character does everything in his power to protect his life and the life of his family. So far, so good. We have a responsibility to protect those we love and those we come into contact with. The hero always makes the decision to fight for life often putting his own life in danger. The villian always seems to take the coward’s way out and tries to protect his own life at the expense of others. In the movies, the hero always wins the day and the villian dies anyway even after all of his selfish efforts to try to save his own life at any cost.
The problem is that real life is not a Hollywood movie. Often the hero just dies. Often the ones he is trying to protect also die. Often the villian, the selfish one, lives. That’s the way life is sometimes, often times. Until you factor God in.
And this is the key point. Even if you die, you live. Even if you fail, you win.
Because the issue isn’t staying alive at any cost but living life as a living sacrifice focused on the will of God rather than on your own life. You have given your life to God. It has been bought with a price. You are now protected for eternity. Nothing can permanently harm you. Eternal life is what matters and it frees you from the mundane concerns of a life that is often fickle and unpredictable. You are protected eternally, even if you are in danger in this life.
The problem is that this focus, this approach to life, takes faith. You have to believe that eternal life is yours. You have to keep eternity in view in order to deal with the realities of this world. That is how living martyrs, living sacrifices, look at the world. They are willing to make sacrifices in this life because their focus, their desire, their hope is in the life to come.
You won’t have that kind of faith the first day but it will come. It will grow as you use it. It will become stronger as you understand more, as your mind is transformed by the truth of the Word of God. Give it time. But it is important to know that this is the ultimate goal. This is your significance in God’s eyes. Your identity as a child of God is secure. Your purpose is clear but perhaps you didn’t understand how significant, how important you are in God’s plans. Now you do.
In an earlier post we said that the nature of our struggle is not just against the sinful nature within but that it also has a goal which was to learn how to suffer as Jesus did. When we join him in his suffering, we will also join him in his glory (Romans 8:17). We do not suffer for our own sins. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But, like Christ Jesus, we can suffer for others. We can become living sacrifices, living witnesses of the transforming power of God in our lives, living martyrs willing to sacrifice this life and its pleasures and desires for the life to come, for a relationship with the God who loved us enough to save us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). That is the focus of being a living sacrifice. It isn’t just about what we give up, what we put to death, what we sacrifice in this life for the life to come. It’s about WHY. The WHY is key.
I often pray this verse as a prayer. I say to God that I am willing to sacrifice anything, change anything in my life, give up whatever He wants me to give up, crucify my flesh, my sinful nature, transform my attitudes, whatever it takes if it will improve my witness to my children, my wife, my friends, my church family. You see, our witness matters. It matters a lot. It is essential. This is our significance. We are necessary to God’s plan to overcome evil in the lives of real people, people that we know and love, so that they can be born again into newness of life.
It matters to me that my children come to the Lord. If you think that is automatic, you are sadly mistaken. The promises of Scripture about our kids is based on the assumption that we have a dynamic, real witness to our relationship with God. It is not to be taken lightly. It is a burden of glory to be a real witness to the transforming power of God in my life. The eternal destiny of my children is at stake.
Let’s go a little deeper.
There are three parts to these verses in Romans 12:1,2. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The first part is the main idea of living sacrifices.
In view of God’s mercy towards you, it is not too much to ask that your life becomes a ministry, a witness to others. That is your spiritual worship. Don’t play games with God. It isn’t about singing hymns and raising your hands and giving an offering on Sunday morning. Your spiritual worship is a life that is a living sacrifice, a real, authentic witness of what it means to be a living martyr who lives by faith and is therefore able to give up this world and this life to live on a differnt plane, a different level of life as a constant real witness of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within. That is what our spiritual worship is.
Jesus reminds us in John 4:24 that God is looking for worshippers who worship him in spirit and in truth. Now you know what he meant. It is impossible to get to this place of spiritual worship without walking in the Spirit on a regular basis, dealing with your sinful nature, and struggling with your old man/woman. But as you practice living out your life as a living sacrifice, which is your spiritual worship, you will realize that it can’t be faked, it has to be real by definition. And it can only be done as your mind is transformed by the renewing power of the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word always go together.
So the truth of an authentic walk with God empowered by the transforming truth of the Word of God applied in your life by the Holy Spirit who brings you into this Resurrection Maturity, creates your spiritual worship. That is how we worship in spirit and in truth.
So the first part is about real Christianity.
The second part tells you how it will be done.
Through the transforming power of the Word of God as it renews your mind. But there is still an exhortation not to be conformed to the patterns and thinking of the world which prioritizes their own safety and life above everything else at any cost. We must still be involved. It isn’t automatic. We are a key part of this sanctification process. We need to deny ourselves, deny the world, deny the Devil his influence in our lives and be willing to be transformed by God’s way of looking at things.
The final part is clearly the consequences of the focus of our lives and the means of our transformation.
It is in that context that we will know and approve the good, pleasing and perfect will of God. Our problem is that we don’t really like God’s agenda very much. We realize that God may allow people to be hurt, to endure pain, to be uncomfortable, to lose money, to experience rejection, persecution and suffering. God’s agenda in this evil and dangerous world is understandable but it goes against what our agenda usually is – which is to protect ourselves and make our lives the main priority. That is not what it means to live by faith.
To live by faith is to give our lives over to his care, knowing that we may suffer and even die in the service of His purpose and goals in this world. We are often uncomfortable with his agenda at first but as we mature and grow in Christ and our minds are transformed, we will begin to accept and approve of God’s will. We will see that this is the price that needs to be paid for an effective witness to those that we love. The stakes are too high, too important for us to play games with our witness, our sacrifice, our martyrdom. When we accept and approve of God’s will for our lives, our transformation will become a source of power and anointing in our evangelism and witness.
It is not that God’s will is sometimes good, sometimes pleasing and sometimes perfect. We are not evaluating God’s will according to what we think is good, pleasing and perfect (although I have heard sermons doing that very thing). All of God’s will is always good, pleasing and perfect. It is we who are transformed. We who gain a new perspective. We who realize that God’s will for us to become a living sacrifice for the sake of our children, our friends, our family is always good, and is very pleasing to us (in terms of the goal) and is absolutely perfect in all ways and at all times.
Perfect because it is rooted in love.
What that means is that everyone I come into contact with is on purpose. There are no accidents, no coincidences. My life and witness is important. This significance, this life ministry, this burden of glory is the ultimate purpose of my life. My identity is in Christ. My purpose is to follow Him and my significance is that my witness matters. These three things create meaning in my life. It’s what makes it all worthwhile. That is a transforming power that can change everything about me and make me more like Christ. That is the glory of God’s character in me.
Everything that Jesus said about us suddenly becomes clear. It means that I become a fountain of living water to refresh those around me. It means that I am a light on a hill. I am salt. I bear fruit and that fruit is the lives of those I come in contact with. I am a true disciple. A follower. A Christian. It is real and it is powerful.
That is the normal (even if uncommon) Christian life.
And it is available to us all.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, I want to be a fountain of living water. I want to be salt and light in the life of my family and for the sake of my kids. I want to be a living sacrifice. I am not sure that I am up to it. The struggle is hard against my sinful nature but you said that you would help me. More than that, there is no way that I can do it without you. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. I am still involved and I still need to deny myself and enter into the struggle. But I know from experience that it only seems hard. Once I start, you are always right there to help me, to empower me, to get me through the rough spots. It’s almost as if you are just waiting to see me take the first step, to show that I am willing and then you are there in an instant to help. Thank you for that, Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.