In John 16:33, Jesus said that “[i]n the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” In the 20 centuries since our Lord spoke these haunting yet hopeful words, they’ve proven true. In fact, in terms of absolute numbers, we live in the worst period of persecution against Christians in history. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined, and the 21st century is shaping up to be at least as deadly, but likely more.
According to Open Doors International’s latest World Watch List, 312 million Christians face “extreme” or “very high” levels of persecution—1 in 5 in Africa; 2 in 5 in Asia. Last year was the worst year on record for persecution, with 5,500 Christians killed for reasons related to their faith, more than 2,000 churches attacked, and over 4,500 Christians detained or imprisoned. For the most part, each year of the past decade has been worse than the previous year.
Writing of the persecutions that plagued God’s people in the early days of Christianity, Tertullian claimed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Though particularly intense persecution has, at times, led to a decrease in overall Church numbers, the Church has grown far beyond the wildest imagination of Jesus’ first followers. Stories of the faithful who endured persecution and faced martyrdom have been a catalyst for that growth.
In 1563, historian John Foxe told many of the earliest stories in a book that would become one of the most widely read works in the English language. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs chronicles hundreds of Christians who gave their lives or were persecuted for their faith from the New Testament all the way to his day. Through generations of expansions and editions, it became an indispensable classic.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was written from a Protestant perspective and, almost 50 years older than the King James Bible, is a challenging read. Recently, a pair of daring authors took up Foxe’s mantle to tell the stories of the martyrs afresh for modern readers. In The New Book of Christian Martyrs, Johnnie Moore and Dr. Jerry Pattengale of Indiana Wesleyan University offer accounts of heroes of the faith from the first to the 21st centuries.
Written in a fast-paced and richly informative style, with reference to important historical sources, Moore and Pattengale make cultural connections and frequently quote Foxe’s best “vintage” passages about the martyrs. Throughout, they seem constantly aware that they are writing to a Christian Church vastly larger, more global, and by some measures more persecuted than it was in Foxe’s day.
Dr. Pattengale joined Shane Morris on a recent Upstream podcast to talk about The New Book of Christian Martyrs. He covered a number of stories from the book in the episode and connected the ancient martyrs to modern victims of persecution.
Perpetua and Felicita were two newly converted and young Christian mothers who were killed in the arena at Carthage in 203. At the time, Perpetua, a noblewoman, was nursing her newborn. Despite entreaties by her friends and family, Perpetua and Felicita refused to denounce Christ or worship the emperor.
Perpetua’s diary was likely preserved by Tertullian, who tells how, on the day of her execution, she and her companions faced leopards, wild boars, and a raging bull. Perpetua was eventually gored and tossed across the arena but took the time to fix her hair before soldiers finished her off. As Tertullian reports, she did so because “it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”
Eighteen centuries later, in February 2015, 21 Coptic Christians displayed a similar dignity as they prepared to meet Christ from a beach in Syria. Pattengale and Moore compare their orange jumpsuits to the jerseys of a sports team, ready to leave it all on the field for their Captain. In the moment before their masked executioners beheaded them, the Coptic 21 sang a line from the hymn, “Ya Rabbi Yassu,”—“my Lord Jesus.”
Thanks to an Islamic State propaganda video, millions witnessed their martyrdom. As the book notes, ISIS’s objective “backfired” when the video galvanized the world against their cause and became a source of pride and celebration for Coptic Christians. In the words of Revelation, the world saw 21 young men conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”
In a time when our brothers and sisters face more persecution than ever, the stories from across times and cultures told in The New Book of Christian Martyrs will inform your faith and your prayers. As Tertullian and Foxe believed, such stories can fuel the growth of a Church whose Lord overcame the world and will ultimately grant rest from all persecution.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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