But If Not
December 5, 1999
The word martyr has the sound of antiquity about it. It’s a word that belongs to the days of Jesus and the apostles, and to the persecuted early Christians who were thrown to the lions in Rome. A few of us have read in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs about the persecution of God’s children across the centuries. And perhaps we have heard about terrible suffering in the Sudan where Christians are being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
For most of us the word martyr belongs to another time and another place. It seems rather remote from where we live today. If we think that, we are wrong. More Christians have been killed for their faith in this century than in all previous centuries combined.
That leads me to ask a simple question: Could such a thing ever happen here? Could any of us ever be called upon to pay the ultimate price for our faith? No less an authority than Robert Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism, and professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, says the answer is yes. He sees suffering ahead for the church in the West. He notes, “It’s when the night closes in that we see the stars. God loves us too much to leave us in our complacency.”
I think he’s right. Our day of complacency will come to an end in the new century. I don’t think there is serious doubt about this. Our culture is fading and the freedoms we have enjoyed may pass with it.
The Southern Baptists Come to Chicago
One has only to think of the controversy surrounding the Southern Baptists and their plans to send 100,000 missionaries to Chicago next year. A letter written by the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and 39 other major Christian and Jewish institutions, warns that the Southern Baptists may create a climate in which “hate crimes” can occur.
The letter is an attempt to publicly intimidate the Baptists into changing their plans. It represents a profound spiritual compromise based on a rejection of the gospel of Christ. The people who wrote that letter are all for Christianity in general but woe to anyone who proclaims, “Jesus is Lord and he is the only way to heaven.” To say that in our pluralistic society, to declare that there is only one way to God, is to risk not only public ridicule but also open hostility. The day may not be far away when witnessing for Christ to your classmates or to your coworkers or to your neighbors will itself be a “hate crime.” And what will we do then?
In our day many Christians are praying fervently for revival in the American church. What would happen if God did revive us? John Armstrong answers this way:
I am personally convinced, the longer I ponder this question, that we should expect a general increase in suffering if God were to grant us a true awakening. Such a move of God would, by definition, equip the church to face days of amazing spiritual opportunity. I also think it is becoming increasingly obvious that such opportunity would also be linked with incredible personal difficulty!
Perhaps you’ve heard of Tertullian, the famous second-century lawyer who was converted by watching Christians sing as they marched to their deaths. No wonder he gave us this famous statement: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” St. Augustine wrote, “The martyrs were bound, jailed, scourged, wracked, burned, rent, butchered—and they multiplied.”
The suffering of the faithful is still part of God’s plan. That is no less true today than in the second century. And it was true in Daniel’s day when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood before mighty King Nebuchadnezzar. When he ordered all his leaders to bow down before the golden image, they and they alone refused. When called to give an account of their disobedience, they replied that the king could do what he wanted, but their God could deliver them, and no matter what happened to them, they would not bow down.
Their heroic words speak across the centuries to us today. Let’s take a few moments to consider what they said and what it means for us as we stand on the brink of a new millennium. I urge you to pay close attention. You may need this truth sooner than you think.
I. An Absolute Conviction
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it” (Daniel 3:17a). This might be called Applied Theology 101. They did not doubt the king’s intention to throw them into the blazing furnace. They didn’t doubt his ability or his willingness to act if necessary. I am sure they had seen firsthand how cruel he could be to anyone who crossed him.
What gave them the confidence to speak so boldly? Three little words: God is able. What a thought this is. They knew their God and they knew what he could do.
God is able to deliver! God is able to save! God is able to rescue! And how did they know that? They remembered what he had done in the past.
He spoke and the stars flew into the skies.
He spoke and the planets began spinning around the sun.
He spoke and the lion roared and the eagle soared and the fish began to swim.
He took a lump of clay and made a man.
Then he took the man’s rib and made a woman.
He turned a rod into a serpent and back into a rod again.
He sent a wind and the Red Sea parted.
He set a table in the wilderness and fed his children manna and quail.
He brought forth water from a rock.
He caused the walls of Jericho to come a’tumblin’ down.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had been taught these stories since they were tiny children. Because they knew their God, they knew what he could do. Therefore, in their own time of crisis, they knew beyond any shadow of doubt that God is able.
Let me say it plainly. Because they knew what God had done in the past, they knew what he could do in the present. This is the great value that comes from learning God’s Word. You discover who God is, what he has done, and what he can do. Knowing God gives you the strength to stand your ground no matter who is standing against you.
II. A Strong Hope
“And he will rescue us from your hand, O king” (Daniel 3:17b). There is a strong note of optimism in their voices as they stand before the mightiest man in the world. The fiery furnace was not too many yards away, certainly within eyesight, I would think. They knew the price for disobedience and they disobeyed anyway. Why? Because they believed deep in their soul that somehow, someway, God would rescue them. They expected some kind of deliverance. They didn’t know how or what or where or when.
Now what made them talk like this? I answer very simply. They had a big God. They believed in a God who could do anything. That’s why Hebrews 11:34 refers to them when it says, “By faith they quenched the fury of the flames.” Here is strong optimism at a time when hope seemed gone.
As I wrote those words my mind went back to a day 25 years ago when I was just married and newly enrolled as a first-year student at Dallas Theological Seminary. A month or so into the first semester my Mom called with the bad news that my father was sick and had been taken to the hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. We made a quick trip, saw my father, and then returned to Dallas. A few days later my Mom called again and said we’d better come back to Birmingham as quickly as possible. So we packed our bags, hopped in our little green 1974 Ford Pinto and headed for the airport. I seem to recall that there wasn’t much traffic that day, perhaps it was on a Sunday. As we drove north on Central Expressway I saw a billboard sponsored by a stock brokerage firm. It featured a digital readout showing the change in the Dow Jones average. Since it was the weekend, there were no figures to quote. The sign read +0.00. Plus zero. That seemed to be a good way to summarize my faith at that moment. My father was gravely ill (and would eventually die), but we were going back with as much faith as we could muster.
That’s where the three young men were. Humanly speaking, their chances of survival were zero. But because of God, at least it was plus zero.
Many of you stand in that same spot this morning. The circumstances seem stacked against you, but because of God, you can always be at plus zero. That’s a lot better than minus zero, which is where you are when you don’t know God at all.
On Thursday I traveled to Wheaton to meet with a group of pastors. We gathered to pray for a Christian leader who has been struggling with a serious, debilitating illness. After anointing him with oil, we knelt and prayed together. I was struck by a sense of God’s presence as one man after another cried out to God to show mercy on our friend. Almost to a man we said the same thing, “Lord, we don’t know if you will but we don’t doubt that you can, and we pray that you will heal our friend.” We prayed because of our strong hope in God. That’s important because if you aren’t convinced about God’s power then why bother to pray at all?
III. An Unwavering Resolve
“But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:18). And so we come to the most powerful words of all. There are various stages in the life of faith and this may be the highest of all. Here they are saying, “We know God can deliver us but we don’t know if he will deliver, but either way, we still won’t bow down before your golden image.” Basically they were signing their own death warrant, and they knew it. How many of us would have that kind of courage?
Talk about the Moral Majority. This is God’s Moral Minority. They knew it was better to die a thousand times with God’s approval than to live one day without it. Better a fiery furnace than to live with the fire of a guilty conscience burning in your soul. They could die, but they dare not sin! Their convictions were not for sale. Not at any price, not even their own lives.
What a noble example of faith. They hoped for a miracle but they didn’t demand one. They left everything in the hands of God!
Consider that little phrase: “but if not.”
We want our prayers answered—but if not!
We want long life and good health—but if not!
We want our children to prosper—but if not!
We want to see miracles happen—but if not!
If God says no to your cherished dreams and your fondest hopes, will you still trust him? If God says no to your plans for the future, will you still serve him? If God says no when through your tears you pray for those you love, will you still follow him?
This brings us face to face with a doctrine we don’t talk about very much: The Unpredictability of God. That means God does what he wants to do, not what we expect him to do.
These three young men had a big God and they knew that their personal deliverance might not be the most important thing to him. That’s a key insight because for most of us, when we get in a tight place, the only thing we can think about is making sure we get out okay. So when we pray, we say, “O Lord, please get me out of this jam.” And sometimes we even say, “If it be thy will,” but we don’t say that very loudly because we hope God’s will is the same as ours.
But often it isn’t. We see through a glass darkly. At best we see only a glimmer of God’s purposes, like peeking through a pinhole. But God sees the whole panorama of history stretched out before him.
There are so many mysteries in life. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God,” which means he knows why everything happens but he’s not telling anyone else. Consider these mysteries: In Acts 12 the Apostle James was killed with the sword; in the same chapter the Apostle Peter was miraculously delivered. Why? Hezekiah asks for and is given 15 more years of life, yet Rachel dies in childbirth on her way to Bethlehem. Why?
One man gets cancer and dies at 42, another lives to be 85. Why?
One child does well and another struggles all his life. Why?
One family knows prosperity and seems to have it made while another can barely make ends meet. Why?
Your friend is promoted and you are passed over yet you do better work. Why?
One man dies while working out while a little girl is run over by a car and jumps up with nothing but a few bruises. Why?
Two soldiers go to war, only one comes home. Why?
One child is born healthy, another with serious retardation. Why?
Some prayers are answered, others apparently never answered. Why?
The list could be extended to infinity. There are so many mysteries in the universe. None have clear answers. In the end there is only one answer. I call it The First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and we’re not! Psalm 115:3 reminds us that “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” Any questions? No, not from me.
What we find in Daniel 3 is faith in God, not just faith in God’s deliverance. These young men are saying, “We are sure of God, but we are not sure what God will do.” No prosperity theology here.
The Other Side of Faith
A few moments ago I quoted Hebrews 11:34. But there is more to the story than that. If I left the matter there, I would be leaving a very incomplete picture. It sounds too easy. But living by faith is often very difficult. And it doesn’t always end up the way we would like.
Suppose we ask the question this way: Does living by faith mean you will always receive a miracle? The answer must be no. The end of Hebrews 11 makes that very clear. Verses 33-35a record the Triumphs of Faith:
Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received their dead back to life again.
That’s a wonderful list and we can all think of the great biblical heroes who did these things. But that is only part of the story. Verses 35b-38 record the Trials of Faith:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned and they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Who are these poor, benighted souls? What have they done to deserve such punishment? The writer simply calls them “others.” They are “others” who lived by faith. These men and women who endured such torment were living by faith just as much as Noah, Abraham, Moses or Joshua. Their faith was not weaker. If anything, their faith was stronger because it enabled them to endure incredible suffering. They are not “lesser” saints because they found no miracle. If anything, they are “greater” saints because they were faithful even when things didn’t work out right.
Even Until Death
Years ago when I first came as your pastor, I preached a series of sermons on our Church Covenant. We hardly ever mention the covenant, and some of you probably didn’t know we had one. It’s a document that describes the kind of commitments we are making to each other and to the Lord when we join this church. Here is one part of our Church Covenant: “We do, therefore, in his strength promise…that we will in all conditions, even unto death, strive to live to the glory of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
The last part is clear. We are to live to the glory of God. But the phrase “in all conditions” sounds like Hebrews 11. And the phrase “even until death” sounds like the “others” in 11:35-38. Did the writers of our Church Covenant really expect us to take that seriously? Are we promising to be faithful even unto death? I think the answer must be yes. We hope it never comes to that. We pray that it doesn’t. But it might.
The Triumph of John and Betty Stam
One final story and I am done. Do the names John and Betty Stam ring a bell with you? In the early 1930s, they were missionaries in China. John and Betty met while students at Moody Bible Institute, fell in love, but decided to postpone marriage because John was planning to serve in a dangerous part of China where it wouldn’t be safe to have a wife with him. When they graduated, Betty went to China first and John followed a year or so later. By an act of God’s providence they met in Shanghai, got engaged, and were married in China in 1933. A year later, in September 1934, their daughter, Helen Priscilla, was born. Later that fall they were transferred to a mission station in an area where Communist bandits had been active. Without warning the Communists overran the city where they lived on December 6. That same day John Stam wrote a letter to the mission headquarters in Shanghai with the news that they had been taken hostage by the Communists who were demanding $20,000 in ransom money, which was an enormous sum back then. He told his captors that he doubted the mission would pay the money. The Communists taunted them by discussing when they were going to kill the baby to be rid of it. A man heard the conversation and stepped forward to plead for the baby’s life. It’s your life or the baby’s, the Communists replied. “I am willing,” he replied, and was hacked to pieces.
The next day John and Betty and the baby were marched over the mountains to a nearby town. The postmaster of the small village recognized John and asked where the group was going. Speaking of his captors, he replied, “I don’t know where they are going, but we are going to heaven.” That night he was tied to a bedpost while Betty was left free to care for young Helen. The next morning John and Betty, dressed only in their underclothes, were marched through the village while the Communists called for people to witness their execution. They were taken to a little hill outside of town, near a stand of pine trees. One man, a Christian doctor, fell to knees, pleading for their lives. He was taken away to be killed.
Then John Stam was ordered to kneel. Onlookers marveled at his calmness. He began to speak to the crowd, no doubt intending to give his Christian testimony, when a soldier cut his throat. Betty shuddered, fell to her knees beside him, and she too was decapitated. She was 28 and John was 27 years old.
And what of their young daughter? When the Communists took John and Betty away, they left the baby behind. For some reason they never went back to get her. Thirty hours later a Chinese Christian evangelist found her still in her sleeping bed, alive and well. Taking the baby, the friend hid her in large rice basket carried on a bamboo pole. He had no money, but inside the sleeping bed Betty had tucked away a clean nightdress, some diapers, and two five-dollar bills—just enough to pay the men who carried her 100 miles to safety and the Chinese mothers who fed her along the way. A few days later she was safely delivered to Betty’s parents. When the story of the martyrdom of John and Betty Stam reached the West, it shocked and stirred an entire generation of Christians to consider the call to world missions.
65 Years Ago
I mention this story for two reasons. First, we ought not to forget the sacrifice of those who have gone before us. This Wednesday, December 8, marks exactly 65 years to the day when John and Betty Stam were executed for their faith. The gospel road is paved with the blood of the martyrs. Second, we learn something important about the ways of God from this story. The parents were brutally killed but their little daughter was saved. A family friend wrote these words concerning the miraculous deliverance of Helen Priscilla: “Everything about her deliverance tells of God’s love and power. If He could bring a tiny, helpless infant through such dangers to perfect safety, surely he no less could have saved the lives of her precious parents had that been in his divine plan.”
Three little words echo across the years, from the plains to Dura in Babylon to a remote Chinese village to the prosperous suburb of Oak Park: “But if not.”
We all hope and pray to live long lives in peace and safety. No one wants to be a martyr for Christ. But the days may be coming, and perhaps are not that far away, when some of us may be called upon to make the ultimate choice.
In all these things we have the Word of God as our hope and strength. Fear not and trust in Him. Our God is able to deliver us. But if not, may we be found faithful to Christ, even unto death. Amen.