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James was one of Jesus¬í most important apostles. He was one of the inner circle who saw Jesus raise Jairus¬í daughter from the dead, who went with Jesus to the Mount of Transfiguration and who was called by Jesus to go further into the Garden of Gethsemane.
We know from Scripture that James had the potential to become a very strong leader. Mark 3:17 tells us that Jesus gave James and John the nickname "Boanerges" or sons of thunder. That designation suggests these brothers were strong-minded, aggressive individuals.
We may get a somewhat negative impression of James from the fact that he and his brother sought, through their mother, high places in Christ¬ís Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-21; Mark 10:35-37). But Jesus often calls strong, ambitious, aggressive individuals into His service.
When we think of early church leaders we immediately think of Peter and of John. But James clearly occupied a position that was comparable to these better known men. In Acts 12, Herod was seeking to strike a blow against the work of the Lord. He singled out and put to death James because he was a recognized leader among the followers of Christ (Acts 12:1-2).
Members of the Early Church, then, must have wondered why God allowed James to be martyred. Of course, they would have understood that being a Christian does not make a person immune to life¬ís difficulties. Accidents, tragedies, illnesses touch the lives of believers and unbelievers alike.
Still, they had to know that the Lord could have supernaturally delivered James if He had chosen to do so. In fact, the Lord did deliver Peter from the execution that Herod planned for him (Acts 12:6-10). Someone, therefore, surely asked the question, "If the Lord could deliver Peter from prison and from impending martyrdom, why was James allowed to die?"
Some Lessons For Us
My own questions about the premature deaths of Christian workers are never entirely answered. Perhaps you have wondered about such things. However, I think there are some lessons that we can learn from such tragedies.
1. These events remind us that we are at war.
Dr. A. W. Tozer once said, "Most Christians act as if coming to Christ is being invited to a picnic. We should understand that we enter into a war."
God¬ís work in this world is a direct assault upon the kingdom of darkness. We cannot be a part of Christ¬ís Kingdom without being, in some measure, involved in battles.
Again and again this happens: when the Lord begins to work in a significant way in a particular area of the world and people start to come to Christ in significant numbers, civic strife or political turmoil or social upheaval will begin to hinder the Lord¬ís work. This phenomenon simply indicates that Satan will not give up territory without a fight.
We understand, too, that war produces casualties. Visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., some time, and you will see a vivid illustration of the tragic but inevitable consequences of conflicts. We should not be surprised, then, when there are casualties in the spiritual war that is going on between the forces of Christ and the armies of Satan.
2. The work of Jesus Christ inevitably involves sacrifice and suffering. A few years ago about 2,000 Christians were gathered for a deeper life conference in Hong Kong. The song leader for one evening service led the congregation in a spirited singing of a chorus that proclaimed, "It pays to serve Jesus." Dr. Philip Teng, who was the speaker for that service, came to the pulpit after the congregation finished singing that chorus. His first words were, "It does not pay to serve Jesus. It costs."
The apostle Paul spoke in Colossians 1:24 of filling up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ¬ís afflictions. Paul understood that while Christ has provided salvation, it must still be propagated. And Paul understood that just as it cost Jesus to make salvation possible, it will cost His followers to see that that salvation is applied to individual human lives.
The early church leader Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." And that is as true today as it was in the first three or four centuries of the church¬ís history.
Protected by Prayer
3. Christian workers must be upheld in prayer. This is another lesson that we should learn from what is described in the early chapters of the Book of Acts. After James was martyred and while Peter was still in prison, the Church earnestly prayed to God for him (Acts 12:5). In Romans 15:30-32, Paul asked fellow Christians to pray for him that he should be delivered from those who would seek to do him harm. A similar request is recorded in Second Thessalonians 3:1-2.
I do not completely understand the relationship between prayer and the sovereignty of God. However, the New Testament seems to teach that we can provide a covering for those who serve the Lord by praying for them and that such a covering will protect them from harm that would otherwise come to their lives.
In my lifetime I have heard many stories of people who were awakened at night or even sometimes during the day were given a special impression to pray for a particular missionary or Christian worker. Later those individuals learned that those for whom they were praying were in life-threatening situations and were delivered. If those prayers had nothing to do with the rescue of those people in their critical time of need, why did God bother to stir up people to pray for them?
The well-being of pastors, evangelists, missionaries and other Christian workers depends in some measure upon our intercession on their behalf. We must recognize our responsibility to pray for those who serve the Lord.
4. Despite all its enemies will seek to do, the Church still will triumph. This is the fourth truth we should keep in mind when we consider James¬í martyrdom. That certainly is the message that comes through the New Testament. That message also is illustrated from church history.
All my life I have had an intense interest in China. With others, I watched with disappointment when missionaries were forced to evacuate China in 1949 and 1950. I listened with an aching heart to reports that came out of China during the period of the cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976. We know now that during that period Christian believers were subjected to some of the most terrible sufferings that followers of Christ ever have had to endure.
Since 1979 I have visited mainland China four times. I have seen with my own eyes what reliable reports from others have revealed. The church of Jesus Christ in China not only has survived, it is stronger now than it has ever been before.
We may not always understand why those who serve the Lord must lay down their lives. Suffering and sacrifice will never be easy, especially when it touches our own lives or those with whom we are closely associated. But Christ is building His Church, and that Church will ultimately be triumphant. Herod put James to death, but the Church in the Book of Acts continued to take territory from Satan and bring people into Christ¬ís Kingdom. The Church moves forward and will continue to do so until Jesus comes.