FIRST-PERSON: Is there a Tertullian among us today?

by Rudy González, posted Tuesday, May 12, 2015 (4 years ago)

SAN ANTONIO (BP) -- It was the Carthaginian church father, Tertullian (ca. AD 150-225), who, upon contemplating the terrible carnage of his fellow Christians, dared to remark, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the gospel." He said it at a time when countless Christians were being put to death for their faith and the future of Christianity still hung in the balance.

But this father of the church was a man of faith who rejected the persecution of his generation's ghastly goal, choosing instead to interpret it in light of the Christian hope that does not disappoint. Tertullian believed that these deaths would germinate for the furtherance of the Gospel (see John 12:24-25).

In this vein, you have to marvel at language and wonder if Greek didn't develop for just such an eventuality. I am referring to "martus," a small Greek word with a semantic domain broad enough to encircle the call to be a witness and be expanded to include the possible fate of martyrdom (Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13; 17:6). You wouldn't necessarily realize it by just reading a text like Acts 1:8 in English, but the risen Lord's charge to His disciples was ostensibly to be witnesses to the world. Nevertheless, was He signaling that being a witness would result in martyrdom being visited upon His church?

Some might just want to chalk up this semantic nexus to an idiosyncrasy of the Greek language, but Jesus makes this interrelated connection in other ways as well. After all, the same Lord who said His followers would be hated by all (Matthew 10:22) also expected they would take the Gospel to the nations for a witness (Matthew 24:14). Peter is another case in point. This man, who before the crucifixion and resurrection was adverse to any kind of personal peril, makes a startling connection that many of us often miss. In his first epistle, he writes:

"And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed" (1 Peter 3:13-14a)

With respect to this passage, we miss an important point simply because many of us have settled it in our minds that its focus is essentially apologetic. For the record, I do not doubt that this text has great apologetic value, but that, in fact, may be secondary to something more visceral. Note the preponderance of words and terms in the broader context (vv. 13-17) that suggest something perilous is happening. Peter writes with the sure expectation, or perhaps knowledge, that his readers are or will be harmed (v. 13); suffer (vv. 14, 17); be intimidated (v. 14), slandered and reviled (v. 16). All this for no reason other than that they are Christians. Sound familiar?

These believers were not arm chair apologists pondering logical arguments for the existence of God, or the reliability of the Scriptures, or the truthfulness of the resurrection from behind the comfort of a desk or a university lectern. They were being challenged to stand for Christ at great personal peril. And it is precisely in such a vexing context that Peter offers a radical outlook for these believers in harm's way. He does so by asking a rhetorical question that screams for the only possible response -- NO ONE! That's right; no one can harm us if we prove zealous for what is good (v. 13). And the radicalness continues, "But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed." Thus, Peter posits a "win-win" scenario for doing evangelism in trying times. Dear reader, we are living in just such a moment!

We would have to be deaf and blind to not know what is happening to Christians in many places around the world, and yet it is a fact that most Christians don't know or, apparently, don't seem to care. The latest reports estimate that approximately 100 million Christians are facing persecution, with roughly 100,000 Christians dying for their faith each year. I am not holding my breath waiting for those in power to say a word about this global atrocity, for the things of this world are passing (1 John 2:8, 17). But our response is what really matters at this crucial moment. And so I ask, is the blood of today's Copt, Syrian, Libyan, Sudanese and Nigerian martyrs (among many others) still the seed for evangelism, or is it spilling tragically onto the beaches of Libya, there to be diluted by the Mediterranean?

We know that only the blood of Christ can take away our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7-9), but the blood of the faithful is never silent. Before Christ, the blood of the prophets and Abel called out for justice (Genesis 4:9; Matthew 23:30). But in this interim moment of grace, when Paul admits his complicity in shedding the blood of Stephen, God responds, not with vengeance but with a mandate: "Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles" (Acts 22:20-21). God's response to the shed blood of a saint is to double down on evangelism!

Mei génoito! "May it never be" that we should squander this powerful moment. Let us be modern-day Tertullians and dare to believe that the blood of our Christian brothers being shed can be the seed that God will plant to raise up a powerful evangelistic effort. Fact: It was the courage of Christian slaves as they were being slaughtered in gladiatorial arenas that caused Tertullian to turn to Christ in faith. And most recently, it was the faith of 20 Copt martyrs that caused a non-believer from Chad to embrace Christ, becoming the 21st believer to die at the hands of ISIS on that same day. I know of nothing that would honor our martyrs more than for the church to proclaim the Gospel for a witness in our city streets and around the world. Let's do it in the power of the Spirit; many will hear and believe!

Rudy González is professor of New Testament and director of the William R. Marshall Center for Theological Studies in San Antonio, Texas, a campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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