Often people wonder why bad things happen to good people and why God has allowed millions of His faithful followers to be martyred by governments or various religious groups over the years.
Just before Jesus was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said to His disciples, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master’ (John 13:16). 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 Him who sent Me” (John 15:18–21).
People who do not understand God, have a problem believing the one who comes to them with a message from God. When that message is diametrically opposed to the way they are used to living, they object to having their sins reproved. Just a few days before the crucifixion, Jesus again warned His disciples that they would be persecuted and delivered up to the synagogues and prisons. Although they would be brought before kings and rulers for His name’s sake, it would be an occasion for a testimony. They need not worry beforehand how to answer the charges, because they would be given an answer at that time which their adversaries would not be able to contradict or resist. They would even be betrayed by their family members and some of them would even be put to death. (See Luke 21:12–16.)
This prophecy by Jesus was fulfilled in a marked manner. In fact, there were multiple attempts to kill all the apostles, and all but John met with violent deaths. Because God had more work for John to do, he was miraculously delivered from a violent attempt on his life.
After the resurrection, Jesus predicted that Peter would glorify God by dying a martyr’s death. Notice what He said in John 21:18, 19: “ ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.’ This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ ”
That prediction was fulfilled right to the letter. When Peter was old, he and the apostle Paul both yielded up their lives as martyrs for Christ in the city of Rome, as seed for a vast harvest of millions of saints and martyrs since that time. About the time of Paul’s second arrest in Rome, Peter was also apprehended and thrust into prison. Peter had made himself especially obnoxious to Nero because he had had great success in exposing the deceptions and defeating the plots of Simon Magus, the sorcerer who had followed him to Rome to oppose and hinder the work of the gospel.
Nero was a believer in magic, and therefore he was greatly incensed against the apostle and was prompted to order his arrest. The emperor’s malice against Paul was also heightened by the fact that there were members of the imperial household, Caesar’s household, as well as other persons of distinction who had become Christians in the city of Rome as a result of Paul’s being a prisoner there for two years prior to his arrest.
Because of his malice, Nero decided to cut Paul’s life short as soon as he could find a plausible pretext for so doing. Nero’s mind had been so impressed by the force of the apostle’s words at his last trial that he deferred making a decision in the case. Paul was neither acquitted nor condemned. However, the sentence was only deferred, and it was not long before a decision was reached and pronounced that consigned the apostle to a martyr’s grave. Being a Roman citizen, he could not be subjected to torture. Therefore, he was sentenced to be beheaded.
Peter, being a Jew and a foreigner and not a Roman citizen, was condemned to be scourged and crucified. In prospect of this fearful death, the apostle remembered his great sin when he had denied Jesus during the time of His trial. His only thought was how unworthy he was to be put to death in the same manner as was his Master. Peter had sincerely repented of his sin and had been given a high commission by the Lord, but he could never forgive himself.
The two apostles, Paul and Peter, had been separated for many years in their labors because of their different commissions. Peter’s commission was to preach the gospel especially to the Jews. Paul had been commissioned to preach the gospel especially to the Gentiles. But the time and place of their martyrdom was similar, both in the region of Rome. Peter entreated his executioners as a last favor that he might be nailed to the cross with his head downward. His request was granted and, in this manner, died the great apostle Peter.
Paul was led in a private manner to the place of his execution. His persecutors were alarmed at the extent of his influence and were afraid that converts might be won to Christianity even by the scenes of his death. Few spectators were allowed to be present. But even the hardened soldiers, who attended him and listened to his words saw with amazement that he was cheerful, and even joyous, at the prospect of such a death. His spirit of forgiveness toward his murderers and his unwavering confidence in Christ right up to the end, proved a fragrance of life unto life to some who witnessed his martyrdom.
More than one person erelong accepted Christ due to Paul’s witness. To the latest hour of his life, Paul demonstrated the truth of what he had written to the Corinthian church. It says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels [that is, the gospel] that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ‘I believed and therefore I spoke,’ we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18).
In his life, Paul demonstrated the truth of which he spoke and wrote, which gave such convincing power to his preaching and to his deportment. The prophet Isaiah said, “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3).
Paul experienced heaven-born, heaven-generated peace. It was written on his countenance, and responsible for winning so many souls to the gospel. Paul had what so many desired and did not have.
As Paul walked toward the place of his execution, he did not see the glimmering sword that was so soon to make him a martyr, nor did he see his executioner. Rather, his mind was in a conversation with the Eternal, saying, “O, Lord, You are my comfort, and You are my portion. When will I embrace you? When will I see You for myself with no dimming veil between?” Since his conversion, Paul had carried with him the very atmosphere of heaven. Everyone who had associated with him had seen this. They had felt the influence of his connection with Christ and the companionship of angels. “The unstudied, unconscious influence of a holy life is the most convincing sermon that can be given in favor of Christianity.” Sketches from the Life of Paul, 331. Allowing yourself to get into an argument may simply provoke opposition, but a godly example has a power that is impossible to completely resist.
Paul lost sight of his own sufferings, but he was concerned about his associates that were with him. He knew that in a few minutes he would be leaving them to cope with prejudice, and hatred, and persecution; so he endeavored to strengthen and encourage the few Christians who had accompanied him to the place of his execution. He repeated to them the exceeding precious promises given to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. He assured them that nothing would fail of all that the Lord had spoken concerning His tried and faithful ones. He assured them as he wrote to Timothy, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12).
Christians might be oppressed for a little season with heaviness because of manifold trials and temptations. They may be destitute of earthly comfort, but they can encourage their hearts by those words. That day will come, the glad morning of peace. The perfect day will come. Paul declared to his brethren that it had not appeared to those who lived in the times of the Old Testament, the great and good things that were going to be given to those who believed in Jesus. Those who lived in Old Testament times desired, he said, to see the things that we see, and to hear the things which we hear. But they died without the sight or the knowledge. The greater light which we have received since Christ has come has made us more accountable because we know more.
Jesus said, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches” (Luke 16:10, 11)? Again in Luke 12:47, 48, Jesus said, “That servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
Christians can behold the ladder that Jacob saw, the ladder that stretches from earth to heaven. That ladder represents Jesus Christ, who connected this earth with the infinite resources of heaven. Paul, looking toward the future, saw that there would be men and women in future ages who would not consider or hold their lives dear to themselves, but they would hold aloft the banner of the cross amid the dark mazes of infidelity. He heard in his mind these witnesses to Jesus as the Son of the Most High God, the Saviour of the world. He heard the martyrs’ shout of triumph, their fearless testimony for the faith that they know is true. It fell upon his ear from the rack, the torture chamber, the stake, the dungeon, from the dens and caves of the earth where, as he wrote, “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:37, 38).
With a continually increasing assurance, he heard the Christian of future ages saying, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” He knew that for him there awaited a crown of life. He knew the promise that Jesus gave in John 6:40 where He said to the Jews, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
The Jews wanted deliverance from the Romans. They wanted a Messiah that would set up a temporal kingdom in this world. When Pilate asked Jesus if He was a king, the Jews interjected, “This man is against Caesar because He calls Himself a king.” And Pilate said to Him, “Are you a king” (John 18:37, first part)? And Jesus said, “You say rightly that I am a king.” But “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (verses 37, last part, 36).
The kingdom that the Lord came to set up is a kingdom of righteousness. It is a kingdom that is established in the heart. Until the heart is cured from the leprosy of sin, no person can be given the gift of eternal life. For this reason, Jesus said to the Jews, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20, 21).
The kingdom of God is within you; it has to do with a change in heart, a change in spirit that is worked out by the Holy Spirit. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was not a physical kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom, one of righteousness.
Revelation 11:15 says, “The seventh angel sounded: and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!’ ” The time is coming when the nations of this world will all come to an end and Christ will establish a kingdom that will last forever (Daniel 2; Revelation 11). That was the kingdom that the apostle Paul was looking forward to. He was looking forward to that time when the Lord would come and he would be given a crown of life. He would be resurrected. Therefore he wasn’t afraid to die; he knew that death was just a moment of silence and darkness until his Lord would return and take him and all the other saints out of this world. He says, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6–8).
It has been almost 20 centuries since Paul, the aged, poured out his blood as a witness for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. No faithful hand recorded for the generations to come the last scenes in the life of this holy man, but inspiration has preserved his dying testimony. Like a trumpet peal his voice has rung out through the ages, nerving with his own courage thousands of faithful witnesses for Christ, and awakening in thousands of sorrow-stricken hearts the echo of his own triumphant joy.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.