Today we commemorate the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ lived in and through the nameless and numberless throng that laid down their life for Christ’s sake. Many were violently executed; some were tortured and died in prison. Many died in the great persecutions in Rome or Russia; some were killed secretly. Some saw the faces of their tormenters; some never knew they were headed for death until the sword or the bullet or the bomb struck. However, in every case these Christian martyrs did not die needlessly. For the Lord mingled their blood with His own in the cup of salvation so that He might fertilize and strengthen the faithful in all times and places.
And now we celebrate, as we do each year, the reward that the Lord has given them. I call it a reward not because they sought it, but because they had to struggle and endure privation before it was given to them. And I call it a reward not because it they were competing to get it, but because it is the prize that is given to all those who endure to the end. For surely you have heard that “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Mt 10.22; 24.13; Mk 13.13). And so they endured—not by their own strength but by the mercy of God. And so they are saved—not because they exceeded us in natural ability and courage, but because the Spirit of our God gave them the words to speak, and the strength to persevere, and the faith to look beyond their affliction and pain, to the life in the Lord God who lives for them and with them and in them.
So now the souls of these unnamed righteous heroes are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. (Wisdom of Solomon 3.1-6)
But our duty today is not simply to remember, or to celebrate, or to congratulate anonymous martyrs with the hope that we might live up to their example. For who wishes their death to be our death? And surely heaven is not gained only by those who suffer bodily violence.
Rather, our duty is to understand two things. First, that the death of the martyrs clearly shows that Our Lord will see us through anything—even the worst—that we will ever endure. And second, that like them we will certainly endure afflictions of soul, if not also body; and torments of the mind, if not of the flesh; and the onslaught of the invisible devil and demons, if not visible torturers and executioners. For it is most certainly true that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim 3.12).
Yet this happens not because Our Lord afflicts us in this life so that we might better appreciate the life of the world to come; and not because we are being punished now to see if we are worthy of the prize of heaven. Rather, we suffer and are persecuted and endure hardship because we have been baptized in the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and His blood by His Supper still nourishes us, body and soul. That blood is our salvation. But that blood also reminds us that our life and communion in Him participates not only in His victory, but also in His death; not only in His joy, but also in His suffering. For we know that since we partake of His sufferings, we will also share in His consolation. (2 Cor 1.17)
The Lord Jesus Himself testifies of this when He says,
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me.” (Jn 15.18-21)
The One who sent the Lord is the Father. And He sent Him to bless us. That blessing comes through the death of Our Lord, and then also the drowning and death of our sinful self. And that blessing raises us to newness of life, just as Our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of His Father. (Rom 6.4)
Yet in this life, we are constantly being put to death. And in this life, we are continually hounded by the devil who throws our past against us; and by the world which urges us to live as if God doesn’t matter; and by our flesh which so easily succumbs, and then also attacks us with all manner of sickness and pain.
Yet what does Our Lord say to all this? “Blessed are you.” Blessed are you not because you have the innate strength and nerve to get through, but because you’re wrapped in the Lord Jesus who knows the way and is your escape. And blessed are you not because you can do it, but because the Lord Jesus has both done it for you and now lives it in you. And blessed are you not because you’ve chosen the right path and are on your way, but because the Lord Himself is your Way, your Truth, your Life, and—in the end—your Resurrection. And so blessed are you not because you’ll make it if you just hang in there, but because the Lord has already made it, so you—enveloped in Him by the Spirit—have nothing to fear.
So rejoice and be exceedingly glad. For your heavenly reward is great, and far exceeds both your present cross and your imagined expectations.
So arm yourselves also with the same mind as Christ, who suffered for us in the flesh. For he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4.1-2)