the people of the cross: how we respond

On Sunday, a video purporting to show ISIS beheading 21 Egyptian Christian men, “people of the cross,” was released by groups claiming loyalty to the Islamic State. In it, the men are dressed in orange jumpsuits as they’re led along a beach, each with a masked militant in tow. After a message by one of the militants, the Coptic Christian men are beheaded simultaneously, face down.

Murder is heartbreaking and wrong, but there is something gut-wrenching about being a Christian and hearing of the murder of 21 fellow Christians. Fellow brothers in Christ. Because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and in his resurrection, we who have put our faith in him are, in a very real way, part of the family of God, adopted as children of God, and co-heirs of the kingdom. We are literally family.

The names of the 21 men (via @spulliam):

21

There are many emotions Christians are feeling right now: righteous anger, sadness, and confusion. These are all appropriate responses to such a heinous crime, and now is a time to mourn for our departed brothers and their families. But even more so, now is a time to pray. When we pray, we remember and acknowledge our helplessness and need for our great God to intervene.

Pray for their families, that they may experience the great grace of God.

Pray for the persecuted Church, for their safety and that they may persevere. There are many who face the threat of torture and death every day.

Pray that our faith would be emboldened to live as these men, sacrificing everything for the name of Jesus. Oh that we would see that Jesus is better!

 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but 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 also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Jesus, John 15:18-21

Pray for those who murdered our brothers, that the Lord would save even among them! The apostle Paul, before he became a follower of Jesus, was one who stood by and approved the execution of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr. Saul (as he was known) went on to ravage the Church, dragging men and women into prison, intent on destroying the Christian movement. He was so feared, that even when he became a believer of Jesus, many Christians were wary and still afraid. And it was this terrorist that Jesus found and saved. It was this Saul who went on to become one of the greatest missionaries the world has ever seen. Oh that this would be a modern story! Would you pray with me that God would radically save a Saul from this evil group to radically transform the Arab world!

Our response as Christians is not violence against Muslims or mosques. Ours is not a struggle against flesh and blood and people. The members of ISIS are not our enemy. We war against cosmic powers over this present darkness and spiritual forces of evil. (Ephesians 6:12) This is spiritual warfare and the enemy is the devil.

Amid this tragedy, we have hope. The book of Revelation isn’t a sci-fi map of the future, but tells the reality of how the war is already won. This is not a cosmic tug-of-war where the victor is still unknown. The enemy is defeated. What Jesus began in his death and resurrection, he will finish when he comes back and puts the enemy under his feet and restores all things. There will judgement upon all wickedness and unrighteousness. The dragon, the serpent from the Garden of Eden, is still writhing, trying to take down people with him because he knows his time is coming up.

In Revelation 6:11 and 20:4, we see a picture of those who lost their lives for the sake of Jesus, including those who lost their heads in chapter 20. The end of Hebrews 11 mentions those who suffered great injustice, torture, and death for the sake of the gospel, “of whom the world was not worthy.” (v. 38)

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

Revelation 12:11

Conquerors. Overcomers by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony. They loved not their lives, even unto death.

Jesus puts heads back on and restores all things. We look forward to the day King Jesus returns to restore creation and make all things new. Until then, we pray and push back the powers of darkness.

One of the greatest ironies is that, historically, the killing of Christians has never slowed down the Church; it has fueled her growth. What’s meant as a deterrent and attempt to dissuade “people of the cross” has done the opposite.

We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.

-Tertullian

Let us mourn, brothers and sisters, and let us pray. May the Church grow and the name of Jesus be advanced! May the justice of the Lord come quickly.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39

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Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image…

Revelation 20:4

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When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Revelation 6:9-11

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a life worth living

During my sophomore year at UT, a couple friends and I joined a community group at the church we went to. Unsure of what to expect and without a car, we accepted a ride from the leader of the group and met Ronnie Smith who would love us, challenge us, and help us grow in our love for Jesus. 

We bonded because we had both been raised in very similar church backgrounds, and over the course of the next few years, he would consistently meet with me and push me to love God with my head, heart, and hands. He influenced the Bible I bought, the books I read in my spare time and the preachers I listened to. Years before I ever heard the names of Matt Chandler or Mark Driscoll, Ronnie pointed me to Jonathan Edwards and John Piper to discover the beauty of the glory of God and the overwhelming joy and satisfaction that is found when God is glorified in us. When I fought against notion of God’s complete sovereignty, Ronnie would patiently show me passage after passage in the Bible that proved otherwise, and the word “predestined” went from being an uncomfortably ugly word to one of the most beautiful indicators of the grace of God. He encouraged my teaching gifts and when I wasn’t faithful in the little things, he lovingly rebuked me. In typical sarcastic wit, humor, and passionate zeal, he would remind me that Jesus was the center of God’s story, not me. He was a good friend and mentor.

He moved to Libya to teach Chemistry with his wife, Anita, and young son, Hosea. On Thursday, December 5, 2013 while taking an early morning jog, Ronnie was shot and killed in the city of Benghazi.

To read more about Anita’s story, and her response to the shooting, including her response to Ronnie’s death, you can watch here and here, and read her open letter here

Amid the sorrow and grief, a friend called me that afternoon and asked the following question: “Brice, what are we going to do? How are we going to respond to Ronnie pouring out his life in love of God and people?” It’s an excellent question for all of us.

Ronnie left behind a legacy, but it was born out of his recognition that God loves the whole world and uses us to make it better. It was born out of his recognition that his life was not his own. A life changed by the gospel compels you to live for Someone greater than yourself, and that Someone is the blazing center of everything: Jesus. That is a life worth living. Whether we eat or drink or study or work, we do it all for the glory of God. For Ronnie, this meant moving with his family to teach chemistry to the Libyan students at the International School Benghazi, risking safety and abandoning certain comforts. We follow the example of Jesus who left the comfort of heaven and poured out His life for us, even to the point of death. We do not back away from the prospect of death, but press forward with the promise of life eternal. As John Piper said, “Let the replacements flood the world.”

I’d like to leave you with one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard, and it was one given by Ronnie at the Austin Stone Community Church. He compiled a list of Bible verses and passages, and organized them in such a way as to tell the story of the Bible. The entire sermon is composed strictly of Bible verses and is all preached from memory, sharing the story of creation, fall, salvation and restoration that is recorded within the pages of Scripture. This is the true story of Love that captivated Ronnie, and I pray that through it, we see that God has been working all things for His glory and our ultimate good.  This is the history of redemption.

Ronnie did not waste his life. I pray that we do not either.

If you would like to purchase a copy of  The History of Redemption as a beautifully illustrated hardback book, you can purchase it here. Proceeds from the sales will go to the Smith family.

If you would like to support Anita and Hosea with a gift, please click here.