June 2- 8
Martyrs and Their Murderers
READ FOR THIS WEEK'S STUDY: 2 Chron. 24:17-22; Jer. 26:20-23; Matt. 14:1-11; Acts 7:54-8:2; John 21:18, 19.
MEMORY TEXT: "'Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'" (Matt. 5:10, RSV).
KEY THOUGHT: The Greek word for "martyr" comes from the same word also translated "witness." Preferring death to dishonoring God makes a Christian martyr the ultimate witness, for he or she has made the ultimate sacrifice.
WHY STUDY MARTYRS? Skip the wax museum at Niagara Falls devoted to torture. Bypass the exhibit in Rothenburg, Germany, featuring medieval torture. Don't bother to read Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Who needs such graphic reminders of our race's penchant for evil?
"History," said James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Sadly, the inhumanity of human history is not a dream but a reality.
What advantage, then, can it be for us to study biblical martyrs? After all, Paul admonishes, "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor. 13:3, RSV). Why not study love instead?
Because the scriptural references are there, that's why. The record stretches from Genesis to Revelation, from the death of the righteous Abel (Gen. 4:8) to the harlot woman "drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (Rev. 17:6b, RSV). If it's in Scripture, there's reason for it. This week we'll see if we can find out why.
"But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord" (2 Chron. 24:21, RSV).
The background to the story of Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada (not Zechariah the minor prophet) is tragically simple. King Joash, seven-years old when he came to the throne, was influenced for good by the priest Jehoiada. However, after Jehoiada died, the king was turned in the wrong direction by the princes of Judah. "Now after the death of Jehoiada the princes of Judah came and did obeisance to the king; then the king hearkened to them. And they [the princes] forsook the house of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their guilt" (vss. 17, 18, RSV).
These wicked princes came and "did obeisance" to the king, as if they were to learn and be subject to him. Yet who ultimately ended up listening to whom? What's the lesson there?
As always, the Lord did not sit by while His people destroyed themselves. "He sent prophets to them, to bring them back to the Lord; and they testified against them, but they would not listen" (vs. 19, NRSV). Eventually Zechariah, "the son of Jehoiada the priest" (vs. 20), was sent with a message that called them back to the commands that the Lord had given them. In verse 20, Zechariah says that their disobedience was making it impossible for the Lord to prosper them. "Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper?" (RSV).
In other words, at the heart of the prophet's message is the same message given time and again by God to His people, which is to obey and thus live and prosper in Me. Yet, time and again, God's people, showing lack of faith, don't listen, thinking they can do it better on their own. How tragic the consequences have been and, in fact, will always be when God's professed people take that course.
|Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this story is that it was a people truly called out by God who, refusing to listen to the prophet, ordered his death. What lessons can we, also as a church called out by God, learn from this story?|
"There was another man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Uriah. . . . And when King Jehoiakim. . . heard his words, the king sought to put him to death. . . .Then. . . certain men fetched Uriah from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who slew him with the sword and cast his dead body into the burial place of the common people" (Jer. 26:20-23b, RSV).
Though little is said about Uriah (not Bathsheba's husband), his death needs to be studied in the context of Jeremiah's ministry. Before Uriah is even mentioned, the chapter deals with Jeremiah's message to Judah about repentance and obedience. However, the message didn't ring well with the priests and the prophets, who said "to the princes and to all the people, 'This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears" (vs. 11, RSV).
What significance is there that it was the "priests and the prophets" who were speaking against Jeremiah? What other examples in Scripture show those who are supposed to be servants of the Lord working against Him?
Jeremiah then launches into an impassioned argument for his case.
Point one: The Lord is the One who sent me (vs. 12).
Point two: If you mend your ways, the Lord" 'will repent of the evil which he has pronounced against you'" (vs. 13, RSV).
Point three: "'But as for me, behold, I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you' "(vs. 14, RSV).
Point four: "'But one thing is certain: If you kill me, " 'you will bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants.' "It was God who sent me (vs. 15, RSV).
Evidently, Jeremiah's persuasion prevailed, because the vote was not to put him to death; however, these men still hadn't changed their evil ways. Indeed, Uriah "prophesied against this city and against this land in words like those of Jeremiah" (vs. 21, RSV), for which he was killed.
|Jeremiah was spared, Uriah wasn't; yet Scripture gives no explanation, or excuses, justifying this outcome. How often do things happen in our lives in which we get no explanation or justification?|
"At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; and he said to his servants, 'This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.' For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; because John said to him, 'It is not lawful for you to have her'" (Matt. 14:1-4, RSV).
Consider the situation of John the Baptist. Here was a man speaking for God, a man clearly moved by the Holy Spirit. Even before John's birth, the Lord had marked him for a special ministry. "For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). Look at what Jesus said about him: "For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 7:28).
And, yet, not only was he taken prisoner by a wicked kinghe was then put to death due to the anger and lusts of a depraved woman and her daughter. Hardly the most noble reason to die. Hardly something that would instill faith in those who believed that John was serving the Lord.
|"Jesus did not interpose to deliver His servant. He knew that John would bear the test. Gladly would the Saviour have come to John, to brighten the dungeon gloom with His own presence. But He was not to place Himself in the hands of enemies and imperil His own mission. Gladly would He have delivered His faithful servant. But for the sake of thousands who in after years must pass from prison to death, John was to drink the cup of martyrdom. As the followers of Jesus should languish in lonely cells, or perish by the sword, the rack, or the fagot, . . . what a stay to their hearts would be the thought that John the Baptist, to whose faithfulness Christ Himself had borne witness, had passed through a similar experience!"The Desire of Ages, p. 224.|
|It's easy to look back and judge how people should act. However, if you were one of either John's or Christ's disciples, how easy it would have been for John's imprisonment and then death to bring discouragement and doubt. In what ways do we allow similar things that happen to us to cause the same questions, the same doubts in our minds? What can we learn from the story of John that will help us keep trusting God in all situations?|
"Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58, RSV).
As background to his stoning, read Stephen's response to the high priest's accusation that Stephen had spoken against Moses, God, the Holy Place, and the law (see Acts 7:1-53).
Stephen, the foremost of the seven deacons, was a man of deep piety and faith. Though Jewish, he spoke Greek and was familiar with the customs and manners of the Greeks. He was very active in the cause of Christ and so good at what he did that people "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake" (Acts 6:10). His success, in many ways, helped seal his doom. If he were weak, vacillating, ineffective, he probably would have been spared.
Summarize Stephen's most forceful accusations. See verses 51-53. Why do you think the leaders were so enraged?
Could it be because they knew the truth of his words?
Look at the difference between the death of John the Baptist and Stephen. John, rotting in a dank, dark, and lonely dungeon, is killed as a result of a drunken oath; in contrast, Stephen, speaking before a massive crowd and offering a powerful, public testimony to Christ, is just before his death "full of the Holy Spirit," who gives him a vision of "heaven. . . and. . . the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55, 56, RSV). Stephen, in one sense, went out "in a blaze of glory," as compared to John's rather "ignoble" demise. Ellen White wrote that Stephen's godly demeanor in death greatly impacted Saul of Tarsus, who eventually became the apostle Paul. Yet however different the circumstances of their deaths, both John and Stephen were faithful servants of Christ.
|Elisabeth Elliott's missionary husband was killed by Indians in South America Elisabeth responded by converting to Christ the very natives who had martyred her husband In many ways, the deaths of martyrs takes on a significance according to the way we react to them. How does our reaction to Christian martyrs (or any tragedy) give them a meaning they otherwise might not have?|
" 'Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go' "(John 21:18, RSV).
This text is the only reference to the way Peter died, a statement by Christ foretelling the manner of Peter's death (John 21:19).
Through His words to Peter, Christ showed that He knew not only that Peter would die for Him but how. Nevertheless, Jesus still said to him, "Follow me." What does this tell us about how much serving Christ can cost?
|"Stretch forth thy hands. An obvious reference to crucifixion (see vs. 19). According to tradition,. . . Peter met death by crucifixion with his head down, on the plea that to be crucified like his Master was too great an honor for the one who had denied his Lord (see AA 537, 538). "The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1072.|
Peter was highly chosen and favored among the disciples. Then, three times, he denied his Lord. He was eventually restored to favor, even becoming one of the authors of the New Testament. Finally, he died a martyr's death.
Despite his eventual victory in Christ, Peter did have spiritual lows. Even after being restored to favor with Christ, he still blundered. (See Gal. 2:11-20).
Yet Peter endured, even to the end, which is not surprising, especially when you read his epistles. In them, Peter showed he understood the trials that those who served Christ would face and how little these trials were in contrast to the reward that awaits the faithful at the Second Coming. "Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:
That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:6, 7).
English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote: "If there is no immortality, I will throw myself into the sea." In so many words, he expressed the futility of life without the hope of eternity. Though we might never face a martyr's death, in what ways does the hope of eternity help us endure the trials we face here?
FURTHER STUDY: Thwarted Murderers and Their Targets.
This week's lesson reviewed the martyrdoms of five of God's messengers. But not all persecutors of God's people claimed success. The Bible record testifies to many who were spared death, their would-be murderers thwarted.
Notice the references in 2 Peter 2:4-8 that Peter uses as support for his assertion that God can both protect the righteous and punish the wicked:
|God Can Preserve||God Can Destroy|
These examples prove, consequently, that "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority" (2 Pet. 2:9, 10, RSV).
SUMMARY: Those called to serve Christ might have to do so at the cost of their lives. Considering the reward, the price is cheap enough.
Joseph Wilba was a busy advisor to the former prime minister of Chad. His work was fulfilling, but he felt spiritually empty. He needed a relationship with God, but church attendance disappointed him.
One day while driving to an appointment, the need to seek God became so overwhelming that Wilba ordered his driver to stop the car. "God has called me, and I must obey!" he said later. He returned home a different man. His only desire was to find God. He fasted and prayed that God would show him a church that follows the Bible.
One day he met a man selling books on the street. He asked the man what church he represented, and the man named the Adventist church. Wilba knew nothing about this church, but something about this man impressed him. Wilba invited him to his home.
The man invited Wilba's family to visit the Adventist church, but Wilba hesitated. However, his wife urged him to give the church a try.
Wilba found the worship service compelling. The people sang with such enthusiasm, and the sermon was straight from the Bible. But the fellowship among believers touched him most. The family decided to return.
When the pastor visited the family the following week, Wilba asked him, "Why do you worship on Saturday instead of Sunday?" The pastor showed Wilba Bible texts regarding the Sabbath. As they studied, God opened Wilba's eyes. He wondered how so many could be wrong when the Bible was so clear. In the face of the evidence, Wilba knew he must obey. He quit working on Saturdays so he could attend church.
Wilba's boss, the prime minister, asked him why he no longer attended meetings on Saturdays. Wilba explained that God commands His followers to worship Him on the seventh day, the Sabbath, and he had to obey.
The prime minister told him that if he wished to worship God on Saturday he should quit his job. Then he watched Wilba's reaction. Would he obey God's commands if it meant losing his job? But Wilba had already made his decision. He told the prime minister, "I must obey God, and if that means losing my job, then I am willing to trust God to provide another job."
Silence filled the room. The prime minister, seeing that Wilba was serious, gave him permission to worship God on Saturday and keep his job. Three months later Wilba, his wife, and daughter were baptized.
(continued next week)
Joseph Wilba was advisor to the former prime minister of Chad and a local elder in the Adventist church in N'Djamena, Chad.
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