Sermon illustrations



A 25 & 50 Year Martyrdom

RPaul Stevens, Professor Emeritus at Regent College, was visiting the Wedding Church in Cana of Galilee with his wife Gail when a hilarious event took place. After introducing himself to the resident Roman Catholic clergyman, Father Joseph, he told him that he and his wife were there celebrating their 25thanniversary. Joseph shouted: “Mama Mia, twenty five years of martyrdom! Gail’s parents were also on the trip and shared that they were celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. Brother Joseph again shouted: “Mama Mia, a fifty-year martyrdom!”

While certainly meant to be a joke, the point is still clear: our call to sacrifice for each other should never be discounted. Father Joseph’s comments reveal a theology of vocation for all Christians, that whether we sacrifice by taking ordination vows or by marriage (or both potentially, as is the case for Protestants), we all are called to sacrifice in whichever covenant we choose.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Be of Good Comfort

Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, two men burned at the stake for their faith in Oxford in 1555.  According to sources, as the flames leapt up, Latimer was heard to say calmly, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”

Adapted by Stuart R Strachan Jr.

Blandina: One of the Last Roman Martyrs

“I am a Christian and we commit no wrongdoing,” insisted Blandina, a young slave girl persecuted during the second century massacre of nineteen thousand Christians in the city of Lyons, Gaul (France). The frail Blandina endured so many afflictions she exhausted and baffled her torturers. A letter sent to Christians in Asia Minor described her ordeal: “Blandina was filled with such power as to be delivered and raised above those who were torturing her by turns from morning till evening in every manner, so that they acknowledged that they were conquered, and could do nothing more to her.

And they were astonished by her endurance, as her entire body was mangled and broken and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to destroy life, not to speak of so many and so great sufferings ” Still, Blandina claimed her faith and innocence.

After this, the tortures increased. Blandina was thrown to the wild beasts, speared with a gauntlet, roasted on an iron chair and suspended on a stake while exposed to wild beasts again. The report to Asia Minor claimed that from a distance, Blandina appeared “as if hanging on a cross.” The beasts wouldn’t touch the girl, and soldiers returned her to prison. As one of the last martyrs, Blandina finally was stuffed into a net, tossed by a wild steer and killed with a dagger. Persecutors burned her body and dumped its ashes into the Tiber River. The letter writer from Lyons emphasized, “The heathen themselves confessed that never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.

Christian art usually depicts Blandina surrounded by beasts. Her charred body shaped into a cross and Peter’s upside-down crucifixion uncomfortably expose the irony of Christ’s death and resurrection. Faith in the meaning of Christ’s cross ignites persecution, but the triumph of that same cross empowers us to endure it.

Taken from The Mystery of the Cross by Judith Couchman Copyright (c) 2009 by Judith Couchman. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Christian Persecution & The Real Power

What is the witness of the church in times of persecution? The historical record demonstrates that persecutions of Christians were regular and prolific in the first centuries of the church, especially in the second and third centuries as the church began to spread significantly.

In 215 AD, Scapula, the leader of the Roman province of Carthage (modern day North Africa), led a campaign to to stop the spread of the church. The historian Tertullian wrote a four-page letter to the Roman administration to stop the torture and execution of everyday church members. One of Tertullian’s points, was that there were thousands of Christians in that region of North Africa. Was Scapula going to kill all of them? Instead of fighting back with weapons, Tertuallian offers to lead a protest at the seat of justice in Carthage, the place of justice for the Roman Empire.

 “What will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every sex and every age and every rank, when they present themselves before you?” he inquires.

Scholar John Dickson comments:

Tertullian’s boldness is striking. Ancient Christians were not timid. They did not adopt a posture of peaceful resistance through a kind of slave mentality of the bullied. Nor was their religion an opiate that dulled them to social realities here and now. In fact, reading the early sources, it is clear they actually felt like they were the victors!

They believed that true power to change the world lay not in politics, the judiciary, or the military but in the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, Zondervan, 2021.

The Courage of the First Disciples

These disciples turned the world upside down because they saw a dead man come back to life by the power of God. And whatever that “knowing” and “seeing” did in them, it did it at a deep level because they spent their lives talking about Him and doing what He did. Further, they weren’t just fair-weather friends. They stuck it out. Even when it got tough.

  • Peter was crucified upside down.
  • Andrew—the brother of Peter—was scourged, and then tied rather than nailed to a cross, so that he would suffer longer. Andrew lived for two days, during which he preached to passersby.
  • James (son of Zebedee, aka James the Greater) was arrested and led to a place of execution, whereby his unnamed accuser was moved by his courage. He not only repented and converted on the spot but asked to be executed alongside James. The Roman executioners obliged, and both men were beheaded simultaneously. John was boiled alive. When that didn’t work, they exiled him to Patmos where some say he died. Philip was scourged in Heliopolis (Egypt), thrown into prison, and crucified.
  • Bartholomew, by two accounts, was either beaten and then crucified or skinned alive and beheaded.
  • Thomas was run through with a spear.
  • Matthew was stabbed in the back in Ethiopia.
  • James (son of Alphaeus, aka James the Less) was head of the church in Jerusalem and one of the longest-living apostles, perhaps exceeded only by John. At the age of ninety-four, he was beaten and stoned by persecutors, who then killed him by hitting him in the head with a club.
  • Thaddaeus, aka Judas or Jude, was crucified at Edessa (the name of cities in both Turkey and Greece) in AD 72.
  • Simon the Canaanite was crucified in England.

What would do this in these men? …They believed something so deeply that they did not turn tail and run when the executioner appeared with blood dripping off his axe. Would you? Would I?

Charles Martin, They Turned the World Upside Down: A Storyteller’s Journey with Those Who Dared to Follow Jesus, Thomas Nelson, 2021.

A Crown of Thorns

John Huss, the Bohemian reformer, was burned at the stake in 1415. Before his accusers lit the fire, they placed on his head a crown of paper with painted devils on it. He answered this mockery by saying, “My Lord, Jesus Christ, for my sake, wore a crown of thorns; why should not I then, for His sake, wear this light crown, be it ever so ignominious? Truly I will do it willingly.”

After the wood was stacked up to Huss’ neck, the Duke of Bavaria asked him to renounce his preaching. Trusting completely in God’s Word, Huss replied, “In the truth of the gospel which I preached, I die willingly and joyfully today.” The wood was ignited, and Huss died while singing, “Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, have mercy on me.”

Our Daily Bread

The Disciples Died for the Truth

Every one of the disciples faced the test of torture, and all but the apostle John were martyred for their teachings and beliefs. People will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie. If ever a person tells the truth, it is on his or her deathbed.

Taken from Know Why You Believe by Paul E. Little Copyright (c) 2008 p.64 by Paul E. Little. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

An Outline of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life

The outline of Bonhoeffer’s story is well known.  In 1927 he was a student earning a doctorate in theology from Berlin University at the age of twenty-one.  In 1930 he was a debater crossing theological swords with the liberal establishment at Union Theological Seminary, New York.  In 1931 he was a teacher exegeting issues of Christian ethics and the nature of the Church at Berlin University.  Bonhoeffer, it seemed, was destined for the life of an academic.  But the ominous storm clouds of the Third Reich changed everything.

By 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an activist attacking the idolatrous “Aryan Clause,” which excluded Jews from civil service.  By 1934 he was a leader in the newly formed “Confessing Church,” prophetically denouncing the heretical defections of the “German Christians” [Protestants who supported Hitler].  By 1935 he was a professor establishing a clandestine seminary at Finkenwalde—an institution where “pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship can be taken seriously.”

By 1937 he was an author attacking “cheap grace”—that is, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”  By 1939 he was a double agent seeking the defeat of his own nation and deeply involved in the conspiracy to assassinate the Führer.  By 1943 he was a prisoner living out the days of misfortune “equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win,” and at the same time feeling “restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage.”

By 1944 he was a theologian from a prison cell, searching ever searching, for a “religionless Christianity” in which “man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.”  And finally, in the gray dawn of Sunday, 8 April 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a martyr, whispering to his fellow prisoners as he left his cell to be hanged on the Flossenbürg gallows, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”

Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, 73-74).

Play the Man

Like a scene straight out of Gladiator, Polycarp was dragged into the Roman Colosseum. Discipled by the apostle John himself, the aged bishop faithfully and selflessly led the church at Smyrna through the persecution prophesied by his spiritual father. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer,” writes John in Revelation 2:10. “Be faithful, even to the point of death.” John had died a half century before, but his voice still echoed in Polycarp’s ears as the Colosseum crowd chanted, “Let loose the lion!” That’s when Polycarp heard a voice from heaven that was audible above the crowd: strong, Polycarp. Play the man”.

Days before, Roman bounty hunters had tracked him down. Instead of fleeing, Polycarp fed them a meal. Perhaps that’s why they granted his last request—an hour of prayer. Two hours later, many of those who heard the way Polycarp prayed actually repented of their sin on the spot. They did not, however, relent of their mission. Like Jesus entering Jerusalem, Polycarp was led into the city of Smyrna on a donkey. The Roman proconsul implored Polycarp to recant. “Swear by the genius of Caesar!” Polycarp held his tongue, held his ground. The proconsul prodded. “Swear, and I will release thee; revile the Christ!”

“Eighty and six years have I served Him,” said Polycarp. “And He has done me no wrong! How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The die was cast.

Polycarp was led to the center of the Colosseum where three times the proconsul announced, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” The bloodthirsty crowd chanted for death by beast, but the proconsul opted for fire. As his executioners seized his wrists to nail him to the stake, Polycarp stopped them. “He who gives me strength to endure the fire will enable me to do so without the help of your nails.”

As the pyre was lit on fire, Polycarp prayed one last prayer: “I bless you because you have thought me worthy of this day and this hour to be numbered among your martyrs in the cup of your Christ.” Soon the flames engulfed him, but strangely they did not consume him. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before him. Polycarp was fireproof. Instead of the stench of burning flesh, the scent of frankincense wafted through the Colosseum.

Using a spear, the executioner stabbed Polycarp through the flames. Polycarp bled out, but not before the twelfth martyr of Smyrna had lived out John’s exhortation: be faithful even to the “point of death. Polycarp died fearlessly and faithfully. And the way he died forever changed the way those eyewitnesses lived. He did what the voice from heaven had commanded. Polycarp played the man.

Mark Batterson, Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, Baker Books, 2017.

The Spectacle in the Arena

The apostles were like a capstone spectacle in the arena, the supreme sacrifice to satisfy the bloodlust of the world. In their weakness, pain, and suffering, they become to this world just another form of public theater” (θέατρον). In reality, martyrs embraced their deaths with less drama.

Historians believe that early Christian martyrs slaughtered before throngs in the Colloseum welcomed death to the degree that it made their killings rather boring in comparison to the deplorables who begged for mercy and were shown none, or, more spectacularly, who fought with zest and zeal to defend their lives, in vain.

Christian composure in the face of death meant that the martyrs publicly rejected both the role of victor and the role of defeated foe—fearless in the face of death, they stood before the mobs and subverted the whole spectacle-making industry of Rome. Nevertheless, Christians were killed to satisfy bloodthirsty spectators. Historians believe that Nero had the apostle Paul beheaded in Rome during this post-fire rage against Christianity, doubtlessly staging Paul’s death as a bloody spectacle of its own.

Taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, © 2019, pp,100-101. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Rescuing His Pursuer

In sixteenth-century Holland, the Mennonites were outlawed and, when caught, often executed. One of them, Dirk Willens, was being chased across an icefield when his pursuer broke through and fell in.

In response to his cries for help, Willens returned and saved him from the waters. The pursuer was grateful and astonished that he would do such a thing but nevertheless arrested him, as he thought it his duty to do. A few days later Willens was executed by being burned at the stake in the town of Asperen. It was precisely his Christlikeness that brought on his execution.

Ronald A. Wells, History Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989)

Within Four Days of Seeing Jesus

In December 1666, Hugh MacHale, the youngest and most gallant of the Covenanters (a 17th century pro-Presbyterian group in Scotland), was brought to his trial in Edinburgh. He was given four days to live and then marched back to the prison. And in the crowd on the street, many were weeping that one so young and so gallant should have only four days more to see the sun shine.

But there were no tears in the eyes of this young Gallahad of the faith. “Trust in God!” he cried to the crowd as he marched past. “Trust in God.” And then suddenly he saw a friend of his own standing on the edge of the crowd, and he shouted to him, “Good news; wonderful good news! I am within four days of enjoying the sight of Jesus, my Savior!”

James S. Stewart, “The Rending of the Veil,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 57.

See Also Illustrations on Death, Sacrifice, Service, Suffering