Geaux Therefore

Blood of the Martyrs pt. 1

By Dr. Rex Butler


The goal of this series of articles is to examine early Christian martyr stories and to compare them with contemporary accounts of persecution according to content, themes, players, and actions. Widespread global persecution in the past one hundred years is the continuation of persecution that began during the early centuries of the church.

Watchman Nee, one of the great Chinese pastors of the twentieth century, once preached on persecution through a sermon without words. On a Sunday when his church was infiltrated by a Communist spy, he decided not to speak. Instead he picked up a glass of water and began to shake it until all the water spilled out. Next he threw it to the ground and shattered it into many shards. He continued to smash the glass by stomping on it and grinding it with his heel. Finally, after the fragments were scattered across the floor, he ended the service in silence.

What was the point of this wordless sermon? According to Randy Alcorn, who wrote Safely Home about persecution in China, “In attempting to destroy the church, the government has spread it. Instead of holding the church safely in its hand, the state has lost control of it…. The more [China’s government] stalk and stomp, the more they spread the church with their own heels.”

This truth was just as evident in the early church of the Roman Empire as it is in the contemporary world of persecution. At the turn of the third century, Tertullian, the Carthaginian teacher who bore witness to Christian martyrdom, famously wrote: “Yet nothing whatsoever is accomplished by your cruelties, even when each is more heinous than the last. Instead they serve as an enticement to our religion. Indeed, we supply a greater yield whenever you cut us down. The blood of Christians is seed!” More recently, during a visit to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a pastor from Bangladesh expressed a similar sentiment: “Persecution is the rain that causes the church to grow.” He said this in spite of – or because of – his loss of employment, his property, and his family due to persecution from Muslims. He also reported that a house church pastor had been hanged because of his faith in Jesus Christ.

Ronald Boyd-Macmillan, a modern researcher of persecution, relates an interesting story that illustrates the point made by Tertullian and the Bangladeshi pastor. In 1990, he was in Beijing to meet covertly with three elderly Chinese Christians. He was surprised when they offered up a toast “in memory of the man who did more than any other to bring to our beloved China the largest scale revival in the history of Christianity! To Mao Zedong!” They explained: “He closed the churches, jailed the pastors, burned the Bibles – annihilated the visible church. Many Christians died. It was a horrible time.” But, after Mao’s death, “the few evangelists that were left … began to go and preach the gospel in the countryside.” Those who heard the gospel realized that Mao could not save them – because he died – but Jesus, who rose from the dead and lives, is the true savior. Boyd-Macmillan concluded the story: “We laughed. We almost felt sorry for Mao, doing his worst to finish the church off and all the while laying the foundation for the world’s biggest revival.” Then he added that the statistics of the revival in China are impossible to determine, but “whatever figure you use, it still constitutes the largest numerical revival in the history of Christianity.”

In 203, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus issued an edict that prohibited conversions away from pagan worship of the Roman gods to Christianity, and the persecution that ensued focused on new Christians and their teachers. In defiance of this edict, a faithful group of Christians in Carthage, North Africa, gave their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ, and their story is told in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. One interesting feature of the Passion was the witness of the imprisoned Christians to Pudens, the jailer. According to Perpetua, “the junior officer in charge of the prison, named Pudens, began to honor us because he recognized the spiritual power at work in us.” Saturus continued to evangelize Pudens, even in the arena. Before Saturus faced the leopard, he said to Pudens: “It has all come down to this, exactly as I foresaw and predicted. Until this moment I haven’t been touched by any of the beasts. So believe me now with all your heart. Watch and see, I’m going back in there to be finished off by one bite of a leopard.” Indeed, Saturus was dealt a death blow by the leopard, and his final encounter with Pudens was recorded by the eyewitness: “‘Farewell! Remember me and my faith. Don’t let these things dismay you. Be strengthened instead!’ As Saturus was speaking, he asked Pudens for his finger ring, which he dipped in his wound and handed back as an inheritance. In this way Saturus left behind a symbol and reminder of his bloody martyrdom.”

Faithful Christians who suffer today continue in the tradition of Saturus and the Carthaginian martyrs to witness to those around them, whether their jailers or their fellow prisoners. One example is the Chinese Christian, Brother Yun, known as “The Heavenly Man.” In the 1980s, Brother Yun was arrested multiple times for leading several house churches, secretly preaching and baptizing in Communist China. During his second imprisonment, he conducted a seventy-four-day fast without food or water. At the conclusion of the fast, although he had been tortured by the prison guard and was weak from deprivation, he was able, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to stand and preach to his fellow inmates. According to Brother Yun’s account, “After I spoke it was a though a bomb dropped on the men! They couldn’t help themselves. The cell leader was the first to come and fall on his knees…. The other prisoners also knelt down, including the Muslim. They cried out in a loud voice, ‘What must we do to be saved?…” Every one of those sin-hardened men received the Lord Jesus Christ, repenting of their sins with many tears.” Because there was very little water available, Brother Yun baptized each of the men with a few drops. A prison guard witnessed these events and was amazed to hear Brother Yun’s message and to see the prisoners’ conversions.

The faithful witnesses of martyrs from Perpetua and Saturus to Brother Yun and countless others brings us full circle to the earlier discussion of Tertullian’s famous dictum: “The blood of Christians is seed!” The very name “martyr” comes from the Greek word that means “witness.” The witness that began with the persecution and martyrdom of the early church continues today in the contemporary suffering of Christians around the globe.

Dr. Rex Butler is a professor of church history and patristics and currently occupies the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.