Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave 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 the One who sent Me. (John 15:20–21)
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. (Psalm 44:22)
A little background
The church has known martyrs as long as it has known Jesus. Jesus promised persecution would come and the church did not have to wait long. Stephen, the first martyr died in Acts 7, and so church history began.
And, as long as we have had martyrs we have stopped to remember them. The church has always paused to pay our respects to those whose witness of the gospel cost them the ultimate price, their very own lives.
Early in church history individual local martyrs were celebrated in various countries and cities. But, as the numbers of martyrs grew the early church fathers began to combine the local celebrations into one day of remembrance when the churches would pause to remember those who shed their own blood declaring the gospel of Jesus, and to pray for those who were being persecuted.
All Saints Day
The early church celebrated the martyrs on All Saints Day, and they chose the first Sunday after Pentecost as their celebration day. The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the same date.
However, in the early eighth century the western or Catholic Church changed the date to November 1 at the direction of Pope Gregory III. In parts of Europe and Ireland a fall harvest festival with dark and evil undertones was also celebrated the evening of October 31 through the evening of November 1. Some believe the pope chose that date so that All Saints Day would override the pagan celebration of Samhain or what we would call Halloween. Obviously that did not work out well and what we call Halloween looks more like Samhain than it does All Saints Day.
The ancient Irish church, having come out of the pagan traditions of Samhain, refused to move the celebration date and kept All Saints Day as a spring celebration.
In English our words saint and holy come from the same Greek word hagos. In the Old English it is translated as hallowed. Therefore, November 1 became All Hallowed Day, with October 31 as the evening before or All Hallowed Eve, which in time we abbreviated to Halloween.
In America the day to pause and remember the martyrs and the persecuted church has been completely overshadowed by a Halloween celebration of all things evil and sugary.
Why I pause to remember the persecuted church and martyrs of the faith.
But, let me tell you why I still pause to remember the persecuted church and martyrs of the faith. It has been estimated that between 33 AD and 2000 AD, more than 70 million Christians have been killed for refusing to deny Christ. That averages out to just over 35 thousand a year. But in the first decade of the 21st century almost 2 million Christians have been martyred for refusing to deny Jesus Christ. That is about 200 thousand a year. The numbers are staggering, but Jesus warned us they would be.
Each year the church has the opportunity to stop and remember those whose faith in Jesus Christ cost them their lives, and those who are currently being persecuted. For as long as the church has existed we have stopped to honor those who were martyred for the faith. On All Saints Day or All Hallowed Day, I stand in a tradition more than nineteen hundred years old and I pray for the persecuted and remember those who died.
This year it means more to me than ever before because I recently met some of the persecuted. For six days we sat together, we ate together. I listened to their stories and we wept together. Let me share just one story with you.
When the persecutors came we fled to the jungle. They came after us but God sent a rain storm and it covered us so they could not see us. My sister gave birth in the jungle, in the rain, in the mud, but we had an umbrella. My two pastors were burned to death. We thought we found help at a refugee center but the water tanks had arsenic and hundreds were dying. The smell of the bodies was terrible. We fled to a large city and hid in a slum. Today I live in a small hut in the slum and I pastor a small church of about fifty people.”
With tears in my eyes I asked him, “Aren’t you angry? Bitter toward these men who have done this to you?”
The question embarrassed him and looking down he said “I have no anger in my heart for them. We do not know the plan of God. Perhaps God wanted me in the slum to win souls for Him.”
And that is why I pray for the persecuted and remember the martyrs, because they are better men than I am!
Guest blogger: David Lawson