Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Although the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians occurred a couple of weeks ago, I continue to ponder what this means to these Christians immediately affected, and also to us, albeit more indirectly. We affirm with Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Furthermore, we can affirm with the writer of Hebrews that “In your [our] struggle against sin you [we] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4), but we also affirm that some have and some will.
Related to the death of these Coptic Christians is the perpetrators of this death. One ponders the rise and spread of ISIS and the implications of their brutal and gruesome and heartless atrocities committed against fellow human beings, those created in the image of God.
Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt and vice chair of the Lausanne Movement, responded to the martyrdom of these Christians with a biblical reference: The World Was Not Worthy of Them. The full context of this expression is important to read (emphasis mine): “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:37-38).
In the immediate wake of this news, Atallah arrived at the Bible Society office distraught and discouraged about what had occurred. He was a bit taken aback when a young coworker stated she was “very encouraged” by what happened. In her words,
I am encouraged, because now I know that what we’ve been taught in history books about Egyptian Christians being martyred for their faith isn’t just history but that there are Christians today who are brave enough to face death rather than deny their Lord! When I saw those young men praying as they were being prepared for execution, and then many of them shouting “O Lord Jesus” as their throats were being slit, I realized the gospel can still help us to hold onto the promises of God even when facing death.
If the earlier Hebrews texts applies to what they experienced from others, this text from Hebrews explains how they responded the way they did, and it provides a way to pray for them, and us.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (Heb. 10:32-39).
Atallah lists these prayer requests:
From a fellow Christian removed physically but engaged spiritually, Tom Schreiner provides a biblical and pastoral response from one here in the United States: “A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS Execution of 21 Christians”
Finally, I include a powerful response/statement by Ramez Atallah, mentioned above, who seeks to live faithfully in the midst of this martyrdom of fellow Christians. He recognizes God is sovereign, and this terrible slaughter provides a unique providential opportunity, although divine but not one humanly chosen, for the spread of the gospel.
Shortly after the martyrdom of the 21 Christians, Atallah and his partners in the gospel at the Bible Society of Egypt wrote and printed a Scripture tract. This brief yet incredibly amazing story is captured in the article How Libya’s Martyrs Are Witnessing to Egypt The article begins,
Undaunted by the slaughter of 21 Christians in Libya, the director of the Bible Society of Egypt saw a golden gospel opportunity.
“We must have a Scripture tract ready to distribute to the nation as soon as possible,” Ramez Atallah told his staff the evening an ISIS-linked group released its gruesome propaganda video. Less than 36 hours later, Two Rows by the Sea was sent to the printer.
One week later, 1.65 million copies have been distributed in the Bible Society’s largest campaign ever.
The tract is entitled Two Rows By The Sea, the content I have included below. Click on the link to see and read the tract, which adds powerfully to the words.
I thank the Lord for the faithful witness of these dear brothers and sisters. Even if one is in chains, the gospel is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9), so may these tracts bear gospel fruit (Jn. 15)!
Two Rows By the Sea
Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.
A Question . . .
Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?
Which Row Pleases God?
Matthew 10:28, 32, 33
Which Row Understands?
1 Peter 4:12-14; John 16:2-4
Which Row Sees?
Which Row Will Prevail?