Since the beginning, since the disciples disembarked two-by-two from the flood of Pentecost, the concepts of “death” and “evangelism” have been bound together as closely and solemnly as a suicide pact. Even Jesus’ inaugural mission briefings were coupled with strict instructions should any disciple be caught or captured:
“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13: 9-11)
In his teaching, Jesus would often use hyperbole to sharpen his point: there is not a “splinter” in our eye that needs removing, rather an entire “plank” sticking out like a diving board. Perhaps his disciples were secretly hoping that all of the cryptic talk about being “arrested” or “handed over” was just classic Jesus hyperbole—Jesusisms. It wasn’t. It was actually understatement, as Jesus informs them they’ll be “handed over” but omits telling them to what. The “what” would include: lions, crucifixion, gladiators, torture, stoning, burning, and beheading, but no need to get bogged down in details which they’d discover soon enough. So gruesome, in fact, was the treatment of the early Christians that the Greek word for “witness” (marturion) became synonymous with death, giving us our word “martyr.”
But the semantic migration of the word “witness” into “martyr,” isn’t merely historical irony, it’s precisely how Jesus meant for a “witness” to be defined. It is how he himself defined the role of a witness:
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)
While Jesus obviously has his own death in mind as the initial inference, the statement is also a general description of the principle, pattern and nature of Christian witness and missions: How does the church grow? A kernel of wheat falls to the ground. What is the secret of evangelism? A kernel of wheat must be willing to fall to the ground. What is the power of evangelism? The falling to the ground of the kernel of wheat. What will keep the gospel from spreading? If the kernel of wheat refuses to fall to the ground. We follow the example of Jesus in his death; we are lemmings with a purpose.
I think we understand this martyr concept, relating to it is the problem. Few of us have ever faced the possibility of dying as a result of our witness. I never have. At least that I know of. Perhaps I’ve foisted myself on some unwilling listener and while pontificating them into submission, they’ve secretly schemed to bludgeon me with a shoe or puncture my voice box with a pen, but, again, not that I know of.
The truth is, most of us have never faced the threat of violence or physical death in proclaiming the gospel and most likely never will. This can leave us feeling quite removed from the whole martyr/witness concept, but not because we have a narrow view of evangelism. I think the problem is that we have a narrow view of death.
As a concept, death is much bigger than a funeral, just as love is not reducible to a wedding. The death or “cross carrying” of discipleship involves, among other things, a willingness to die, whether we are ever called to do so or not. Cross carrying discipleship is a way of life that requires a continual dying to self; a string of smaller “deaths” where we experience the cessation of life in some area of our life but not our life as a whole; i.e. the death of our reputation, the death of our pride, our ego, a dream, a relationship etc.
It’s clearly not my place or prerogative to stretch the biblical definition of death. But this expanded horizon is clearly what’s in view through the Scripture’s rather elastic use of the concept, where we are admonished to “take up our cross,” “die to sin,” “die to the world,” and so many, many other deaths beyond the funeral variety.
If we can stretch our understanding of death to see it more broadly, more dynamically, more biblically, I think we’ll find that to some degree we’ve already experienced death in our attempts to share Christ with others.
It is in our willingness to die and in our little deaths (death to ego, reputation, etc.) that spiritual power and life is unleashed.
It is not insignificant to think about what you would do if you were put in a situation in which witnessing for Christ might put your life in jeopardy. Not insignificant, but certainly not very relevant for most us. What is relevant is the choices we make each day in this regard, and it’s from these daily choices that we can extrapolate outward to the if-someone-put-a-gun–to-your-head scenario. Here the concern is that in focusing on the big D of death we entirely miss the little d’s: the daily deaths which wholly comprise the Christian life, making it one long cross-carrying affair.
I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have shared the gospel in my years of ministry. I can tell you that for every occasion where I said “yes” to the Spirit, I’ve also said “No, I’m tired, I’m off the clock, get someone else.” The difference in my responses lies in the choice of how I will approach that day: either open to how God will use me, or focused on accomplishing my agenda. It really is that simple, simple to describe, that is.
Whenever I leave my home for any extended period of time I usually take my laptop with me. And in just about any location that I open my computer, it reminds me that as I sit there occupying a space in physical reality, there is an invisible highway of communication going on around me: messages and images flying through my head.
And so I have a choice to make: do I connect to the wifi network or do I live in peaceful obliviousness to it? The question is always answered by cost analysis: sometimes I’m willing to pay to be in the hotspot, sometimes I’m not.
Whenever I venture out into the world of people, I have the same fundamental choice to make regarding witness and mission. The simple question that comes onto my screen of consciousness is “Are you open to being used . . . or not?” “Are you available to be led and guided toward opportunities to be a witness for Christ today . . . or not?”
The above post was excerpted from “A Million Ways To Die” (Cook, 2010) by Rick James. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Rick James is on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ and serves as the publisher of CruPress.