Roughly two months before Easter 2015, twenty-one ISIS-captured Egyptian prisoners appeared in pictures and video in the now expected bright orange jumpsuits that have become the execution garb of the Islamic State. These particular prisoners were the first captives outside of Syria and Iraq publicly beheaded by the Islamic State terrorists. These prisoners were also all Christians who would not deny, but rather publicly proclaim, their faith in their Savior—Jesus Christ, crucified and risen—a faith their executioners deplored and condemned.
As each executioner gripped a prisoner’s shoulder with one hand, clutching a knife in the other, a caption scrolled across the screen: “People of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church” – a description of the Coptic Christians. One of the terrorists unleashed a rambling diatribe: “Recently you have seen us on the hills of al-Sham and on Dabiq’s plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross delusion for a long time … O crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes … The sea you have hidden sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in—we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”
Moments later, the executioners would wield their knives against the necks of their captives.
In the grainy video the victims were calm. There were no cries or outbursts. Instead, WORLD Magazine (Issue: “Daniels of the Year,” Dec.12, 2015) reports the men gazed up to heaven with prayers tumbling out in whispered final words: “Ya Rabbi Yasou.” Translation: “My Lord Jesus.” In the final images, the waves closest to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea appeared to turn red with their blood.
God forbid that we should forget these brothers in the faith by getting used to, accustomed to, or paralyzed by these gruesome episodes of persecution and martyrdom! Although life in the United States has gone on since September 11, 2001, things have definitely changed. We’ve been involved in a continuing war on terrorism. Many of our sons and daughters have faced incredible dangers, and some have died for the cause of freedom. We’ve become more accustomed to the minor inconveniences of being more security conscious. We show up at the airport two hours early now. We are more careful with our mail. We are prepared to go through a metal detector at a sporting event or concert. We are more observant of suspicious behavior around us.
Our world has indeed changed. Since the events of 9/11, and the continuing acts of terrorism around the globe, we have come to realize—as so much of the world already knew—that we live in an age of terror. Shortly, we will be celebrating Easter in a world that is much different than it was just a generation ago. But know this: even though the world has changed, Easter hasn’t CHANGED. The event that transpired on that first resurrection Sunday some 2,000 years ago supersedes any event that has taken place before or since.
Christ’s resurrection that first Easter morning renders powerless all acts of terror! The events of Easter morning render the following powerless for the believer: war, and death, and sickness, and pain, and sorrow, and despair, and heartbreak, and loneliness, and sin, and every other awful thing that has plagued humanity since the fall of our first parents.
The world has changed. The message, power, and hope of Easter hasn’t changed. The events of Easter morning demonstrate and declare these foundational truths of Christianity: Jesus Christ is Lord. He has power over death; He has power over, and completely paid for, sin; He has power to make a difference in your life.
As we gather to celebrate this Easter, we are reminded again that we should confidently live for, and respond to, the risen Lord Jesus the same way His first followers responded that Easter morning.
Matthew 28:1-10 tells the story. As Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” went to Jesus’ tomb, there was a violent earthquake, and the stone that covered the tomb was rolled away. An angel of the Lord appeared and said … “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him.'”
As the women hurried away, the Bible says they were “afraid yet filled with joy” and suddenly Jesus greeted them. They fell at His feet to worship Him, and He said, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see Me.”On the basis of those simple words God still encourages and empowers three life-changing responses just like He did on that first Easter.
First, we are to … FACE Our Fears! During His ministry on earth Jesus continually commanded his followers to “fear not.” After His resurrection, one of the very first statements He made was “Do not be afraid …” (v. 10) Why would Jesus say this? Isn’t fear an emotion that we can’t control? It’s certainly not the kind of ‘feeling’ we would choose, is it? Typically, fear hits us like a tidal wave when we’re least prepared for it. Have you ever noticed a suspicious symptom in your body, like a pain in your chest or numbness or a lump—and you’re seized by fear?
Or have you ever fallen asleep on the couch waiting for your teenager to come home, and then woken up way after their curfew to realize they’re still not home? You’re overcome with fear, wondering what could have happened.
Or have you ever gone to work in the morning and your boss greets you by saying, “Don’t bother taking off your coat?” That introduces you to a whole new type of fear, doesn’t it?
Fear affects us physiologically. Our heart beats faster, our stomach does flip-flops, our hands begin to shake, it becomes difficult to breathe, and so on. But the worst effect fear has on us is that is paralyzes us. It causes us to do nothing, or—even worse—it causes us to want to run away.
Fear is an overpowering emotion, and certainly not an emotion we would willingly choose to feel. Yet, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” as if it is a simple matter of choice. Do you know what? It IS a simple matter of choice, and here’s why. Jesus is not referring to our emotions as much as he is referring to our thoughts and actions. He’s saying, “Do not think fearfully; do not act fearfully.”
Because of past and present terrorist activities, many people choose to put their lives on hold. This also happens when we experience a personal crisis, such as a health problem or the death of someone close to us. We let the uncertainty of the future cause us to put our lives on hold.
Jesus is saying that we don’t have to do that. He says, in effect, “I have the power over life and death, and I have the power over any challenge you face. No act of war can separate you from my love. No health problem can separate you from My love or My presence. No divorce, no failed business, no sin can separate you from My mercy.” At the end of this chapter in Matthew He reminds us, “And surely I Am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20).
Because of the resurrection, we don’t have to live in fear. The resurrection tells us that Jesus Christ is Lord of all; if He can conquer death, He can conquer anything. How do we face our fears? We respond with faith—thoughts of faith, and acts of faith. Fear is a feeling, and we no longer have to live by our feelings; we live by faith. We face our fears by thinking “in faith” (this is why what we believe—doctrine—is so important) and walking “in faith” (this is why obedience is so important).
A second response that God encourages and empowers is that we … FOCUS on the Mission. Look again at what Jesus said: “Go and tell my brothers …” (v.10). Just as Jesus gave those faithful women a message for the other disciples, Jesus has given us a message for all the world: “Tell them that I am alive.” In the resurrection accounts found in each of the four gospels, Jesus emphasizes this mission He has also given us:
- “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV).
- “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15 NIV).
- “… repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations …” (Luke 24:47 NIV).
- “… as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21 NIV).
Jesus’ second encouragement for his followers after His resurrection was, “Go and tell others.” In this age of terror, this message is more important than ever before. The world needs to hear that Jesus Christ is Lord, and He has power over sin and death. We’ve got a great story to tell—a freeing TRUTH to share—and the world desperately needs to hear it.
Have you heard the saying, “The best defense is a good offense?” As a nation, we certainly need to be able to defend ourselves from the assaults of those who wish to attack freedom and do us harm. However, the best solution to the terrorism is to introduce every tribe, every nation, and every soul on the planet to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend.” This is how God wants us to “destroy” our enemies. His desire is for us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone. Our mission—as members of congregations and as individuals—is more important now than it ever was before.
A third response that God encourages and empowers is that we … Have FAITH In God’s Promises. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see Me.”
“There they will see Me.” This is His promise: as we are on a mission, “I’ll be there, I’ll show up.”
Imagine how the women who witnessed the resurrected Jesus must have felt as they told His other followers what they were to do. They told them, “Pack your bags, make the journey into Galilee, and there you will see Jesus—alive and in the flesh!” I wonder if they had any doubts. I wonder if they second-guessed themselves. I wonder if they thought it was just their imagination. I wonder if they wondered if they went to Galilee would He really be there. I wonder if they thought they would look foolish. I don’t know if such thoughts crossed their minds, but I do know this: they were willing to risk their reputation and rely on the promises of Jesus. And they certainly weren’t disappointed!
If you attend church every week, I am certain that bold promises are made from your pulpit (or they should be) … because they are based on God’s truthful Word! God’s Word is attended by and inhabited by the Holy Spirit of God who creates, enables, encourages, and empowers! Undoubtedly you hear:
- Trust Jesus Christ and His accomplished work of salvation and He will turn your life around;
- Believe in Him—trust in the Lord with all your heart—and He will fill your heart with His presence and your life with His power;
- Go to Him with your burdens, and He will bear them for you;
- Confess your sins to Him and He will forgive you—fully, finally, freely;
- Give Him your sorrows, your fears, your broken dreams, your worries, and He will replace them with joy and peace and love and fulfillment.
These are bold promises, but they are made without hesitation because God’s under-shepherds—pastors—know they can rely on the promises of Jesus. We know that He will do what He said He will do! Why? “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through Him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20 NIV).
And as the prophet recounts: “This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23 NIV). Great, indeed, is God’s faithfulness!
We live by the promises of God. He is our hope. Without Him, we have no hope, no certainty, no blessed eternity. As we face uncertain times, we cannot put our trust in ourselves, our economy, our company, our country, or in anyone or anything else. Our only hope is to put our hope and faith only in Him.
In Al Our, the small village from which thirteen of the slain Coptic Christians had come, the local priest told reporters that, when word of the mass execution reached the families, screams poured from every house and every street. At the mass funeral that would take place a few days later without coffins, families displayed pictures of their slain relatives, and hundreds of villagers mourned. One father would recount how his son went to Libya to earn enough money to start a family, but met a different outcome: “He left to marry heaven, where he’ll meet Christ.” Malak Shoukry told NPR, after watching his brother, Yousef, die in the video. “I heard him calling, ‘O Jesus,’ as he was beheaded. I’m proud of him. He is a martyr for Christ.”
Yes, our world has changed! But even though the world has changed, EASTER HASN’T CHANGED. We celebrate it this year the same as it should be celebrated every year, the same as it was celebrated on that first Easter day. Through God’s demonstrated Easter encouragement and power let us …
FACE our fears by thinking and acting in faith;
FOCUS on the mission by telling others about the life-changing power of Jesus Christ; and
Have FAITH in God’s promises that He will always be there, that He will show up—in our lives and in the lives of all who put their trust in Him.
One day we, too, will leave this earth and meet our beloved and beautiful resurrected Christ face to face.
In His Holy Name, Amen. s.D.g.
Execution photo used by permission from Reuters/Reuters TV. Crosses in sand (c) ImagineGolf/iStock.