Lessons from Anabaptist Martyrs

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The Martyrs Mirror is a work by Thielemen J. van Braght who recorded a history of the sufferings and martyrdom of the Anabaptist people throughout history. It is not my goal to give a thorough history of the Anabaptist Martyrs here, because you can read it for yourself in the pages of the Bloody Theater. I hope to pique your interest in reading that book and stimulate your faith so you can grow in your personal walk with God. I believe that as we look into history that we should be challenged today to “live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:12b).
People in the culture around us express an attitude of entitlement and selfishness. The people of God deny themselves and are grateful to God for what they have. Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).  We live in a time when the world around us promotes the creeds of humanism, self-love, and prosperity. Tolerance and compromise is the world’s standard today. God is calling us to wake from our sleep and serve Him (Ephesians 5: 14-17).
In the Old Testament the Israelites received the following admonition in the context of coming into a good land. “Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God… Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage;” (Deuteronomy 8: 11a, 12-14). I hope that we would be sobered and challenged not only as we consider that we could be called to face persecution yet again, but also as we face the imminent danger of having it so good that we drift away from God.
We are experiencing the privileges of religious freedom and living in a land of relative plenty, but in a sense, we are now living in a more dangerous time than when our forefathers willingly spilled their blood for the cause of Christ. In his invocation, T. J. van Braght confesses that he wished that he could have been a partaker with the martyrs. I hope that we can be inspired with this kind of enthusiasm as we contemplate history.
Who are the Anabaptists? Most dictionaries would associate the Anabaptists with Protestantism. However, the Anabaptists were neither Catholic nor Protestant. The word Anabaptist comes from the Latin that was spoken in the state churches of that time. The prefix ana means over again and the root baptismos means baptism. So Anabaptist literally means baptized over again. We have a saying in Spanish, “Not everything that glitters is gold.”  Not all so called Anabaptists were Christ Followers either. The devil has done his best throughout history to put a black name on the true children of God. There are some atrocities attributed to so-called Anabaptists in history, such as war and polygamy.  Believer’s baptism, non-resistance and non-participation in politics have always been earmarks of true Christianity. In this article, we will be referring to the Anabaptists as those that subscribed to the doctrines that have always set God’s people apart, since the time of the apostles.
A martyr is someone who is killed for his faith. Since the time of Christ’s death for the sins of the world, men and women have been called to identify with and be a witness for Him by shedding their own blood.  Christ’s martyrs are people of conviction that take God’s word very seriously. My intent is to take a brief walk through the centuries past and look at some of the issues they faced that led to them giving their lives for the cause of Christ.
The Jews charged the early Christians of blasphemy in the church’s infancy. Stephen boldly preached the gospel anyway, even though it cost him a painful death. A wave of persecution followed. The beautiful thing about this difficult time was that the truth could not be squelched. As the opposition grew, so did the spread of the gospel. In the middle of this, God called Saul of Tarsus, once a persecutor, and he (known as Paul) became a clear voice for the gospel. He eventually sealed his testimony of Christ’s gospel with his own blood when Nero ordered him to be decapitated in Rome. Many saints refused to deny Christ in this era and though they lost their temporal lives, they gained eternal life.
Bartholomew led the brother of an idol worshipping king to Christ. The king accused him of perverting his brother and unsettling the worship of the idols. For this, he was tortured, beaten, crucified upside down, and then flayed alive. Finally they beheaded him. Space will not permit us to tell of many others that followed Jesus’ example of laying down his life. Some were beheaded, stoned, or burned. Others were roasted, scalded or dipped in boiling oil. All of them understood that the battle we fight is a spiritual battle, and that even more dangerous than laying down a temporal life is the danger of living a life of compromise and ease.
Under the Roman emperors, the Christians faced ten waves of persecution. Nero proclaimed that all Christians should be put to death, and throughout the whole Roman Empire the persecution was fierce. They were accused of burning the city of Rome, a deed which Nero himself may have done for sport. Every crime imaginable was laid to their blame. The Christians were fed to wild beasts, crucified, burned alive, and covered with fuel to be lit up as torches at night in Nero’s gardens. Near the end of the first century, there was a second wave of persecution under the emperor Domitian. In this persecution Luke, Antipas, and Timothy were martyred; and it is likely that it was in this time period that the apostle John was exiled. The emperors Trajan and Marcus Aurelius brought about the third and fourth general persecutions in the second century. While the emperor Trajan was offering sacrifices to the gods in the temple at Antioch, Ignatius publicly reproved him. For this, he was sentenced to be fed to the wild beasts in a Roman circus. At his death, he was able to witness to a large crowd before the lions tore him to pieces. Polycarp’s story of martyrdom is a very encouraging story as well. At the time of his death, an execution by burning which took place before a large crowd, his testimony was, “I have now served my Lord Christ Jesus eighty-six years, and He has never done me any harm. How can I deny my King who hath hitherto preserved me from all evil and so faithfully redeemed me?” When the fire did not harm him, he was pierced with a sword and bled to death. History is not exactly sure what initiated the fifth general persecution, but it is possible that it started because the Christians refused to take part in Emperor Severus’ victory in civil war. When he noticed that there were people that did not celebrate by joining in the festivities of victory, nor did they swear by the emperor’s fortune, he accused them of despising and hating the emperor. False rumors spread about supposed atrocities committed by the Christians and persecution ensued. More false accusations started the sixth persecution when the Christians were blamed for natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms. In the seventh persecution, the Christians were persecuted for the crime of being a Christian. Nicephorus is quoted in the Martyrs Mirror as saying, “That to count the martyrs of this time would be as easy as to undertake to count the sands of the seashore.” The eighth persecution happened because Emperor Valerian decreed that it was illegal for Christians to assemble and they continued meeting anyway. The Emperor Aurelian began the ninth persecution. Some Christians were killed, but at the moment the decrees against them were presented to him for his signature, God smote his hand with lameness and prevented him from signing them. Soon after this, the emperor died. The tenth persecution was a joint effort between the two Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Apostate Christians incited them against the true Anabaptists and persecution against the faithful was initiated when they did not obey the decree to sacrifice to the gods. Thousands gave their lives for Christ. These rulers were so determined to exterminate Christianity, but it was impossible.
After this, instead of the church being in the world, Constantine brought the world into the church. This introduced the beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church. It became popular to be a Christian, and suddenly the church and the state were working together. Soon the state church began using force to establish “Christianity”. True Christians did not go along with infant baptism and forced membership of this state Church. An era of counterfeit was born and “Christianity” began persecuting the true Christians. True Christians continued to spread the gospel, however, and wherever they went persecution followed them. During the fifth century Honoric, the king of the Vandals, was eaten alive by lice and worms. This was God’s judgement on him for his barbaric persecution against the Christians. 
By the sixth century, the Roman Church had established papal authority and was reaching its height of influence in the world. The world was plunged into the dark ages. Throughout the dark ages there always was a candle of truth shining, but the oppressive Roman Church worked hard to extinguish the truth. In the eight century, the Islamic religion was born in the East. Through Islam, the devil tried to kill off Christ’s bride in the east while he used the Roman Church as his vector of attack in the west. Many, including the Vandals, Danes, and Arabians persecuted Christians up through the fifteenth century. One example of faithfulness is the Thessalonian church who continued in the tradition of the apostles all throughout those dark times. 
Persecution was still intense in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was the era of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant movement in many ways was no better than the Roman Catholic Church. They also aspired to use the sword to establish “Christianity”. They too, persecuted the true children of God. The stories of the faithful throughout history are a challenge for us to be committed to Christ today, no matter the cost.
Today I am asking myself some questions. What makes me love myself so much? What can be more dangerous than a life of ease? Why do I cringe at the thought of persecution? Why do I look for approval from mainstream Christianity? Why do I try to fit into the culture? Am I willing to stand out as a person that refuses to be involved in politics? What can I do for Christ to take advantage of these times of peace? Why do I forget that today a brother or sister in Christ is facing persecution for Christ’s sake and stands in need of my prayers? Should I wait for persecution to let the world know that I am a Christian? What does Christ want me to do with the opportunities I have today to tell others about him? Does Jesus know that I love him? Do others?
John 15: 18-19 “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own:but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”