Rabbi’s Reflections – Sunday, May 17, 2020 

Shavuah Tov,

Counting the Omer – Day 36

Here is the proper blessing to be said each day.  This is how Jewish people fulfill the command to count.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹֽמֶר

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech Ha-Olam, Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav, Vitzivanu Al Sefirat Ha-Omer.

Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us about the counting of the Omer.  Today is five weeks and one day of the counting of the Omer.

Will You Ever March in “Stephen’s Army?” PAST Martyrdom (Part 1)

By Dr. and Senator Raymond Finney

INTRODUCTION: Throughout history there marches an “army” of men, women, and children– Believers– who have been murdered because of their faith in Yeshua. This army of martyrs now numbers in the millions. More martyrs are added daily. The greatest number of martyrs will come in the future.

We all know that martyrdom is now happening in the world. If you believe the Bible, you realize that you or your family may be at risk for future martyrdom. Study with me in this short RR series, as we explore past, present, and future martyrdom, and God’s rewards for the martyr.

Rabbi’s note:  Jewish martyrs are said to have died “Al Kiddush HaShem,” meaning “for the sanctification of the name.”  The same could be said of Christian martyrs.  It is a high honor to sanctify the name of God both in life and in death.  End RN.

EARLY BODY OF BELIEVERS: The first assembly of Believers was established on the Day of Pentecost in ca AD 33 (AD 30? AD 32?). This congregation, divinely infused by the Ruach ha-Kodesh, is described in Acts, chapter 2. These Believers were despised by both Jews and Romans.

The Good News of Yeshua was spread throughout the world by faithful Believers. Someone loved Yeshua and loved you enough to share the simple Gospel message with you, bringing you to your present level of faith and your blessed hope of eternal life in Heaven. Believers have forfeited their lives (have been martyred) to bring the Gospel to you. Do you appropriately treasure this Gospel and those who sacrificed to deliver it?

One of the world’s greatest scientists-mathematicians, Isaac Newton, said: “If I have seen farther than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” As a Believer, you should be able to paraphrase Newton to say: “If I have seen the way to Heaven, it is by standing on the shoulders of Believers who lived– and died! – before me and who kept the Gospel message alive.” You will never know until you enter Heaven how many persons spread the Gospel message before someone shared it with you. You will be in Heaven because a long line– an “army” – of Believers kept telling the simple story about Yeshua. Have you done your share to spread the Gospel to others? (They might like to join you in Heaven.)

Throughout history, many, if not most, Jewish people would not accept this new faith in Yeshua, believing instead that a triune God was contrary  to their core belief in one God (as expressed in the Sh’ma Yisrael, Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Romans were at first tolerant of this Yeshua movement, as long as no trouble resulted (that is, as long as Pax Romana– the Roman peace– was not disturbed). In time, economic upheavals and citizen unrest in the Roman Empire caused Rome to blame Believers for the Empire’s problems. (Compare the Roman blame of Believers in ancient times with Hitler blaming Jews for the economic problems of the Third Reich.) Being a Believer in the Roman Empire prior to the fourth century AD (prior to Emperor Constantine I) was very dangerous.

ETYMOLOGY OF MARTYR: English “martyr” translates Greek martus (martys). The Greek word martus (martys) occurs thirty-four times in the B’rit Chadashah. The word literally means “witness,” and it is usually translated “witness,” rather than “martyr” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). A martyr is a witness because he/ she  bears the ultimate, costliest testimony of the truth of a matter by his/ her death. 

Think for a moment about the strong witness martyrs for Yeshua have provided. Believers persecuted by the Romans would have been spared death, if they had been willing to recant their belief in Yeshua as Savior and Son of God. There is no record of any Believer choosing to recant faith to save his/ her life. Perhaps they recalled Yeshua’s words (Matthew 10:32-33): “Therefore whoever acknowledges Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Eternal life in Heaven was far more important than a few more years of earthly life.

Contemporaneous historical records indicate that Yeshua followers were filled with joy, as they went to horrible deaths in the Colosseum and elsewhere. They sang hymns, laughed, and forgave the soldiers who prodded them along their way. The  soldiers were confused by these “crazy” people. Why should Believers have fear, though? In their minds and hearts, these Believers were about to enter eternity to live with their precious Yeshua. By their bravery (“craziness” to the Romans), they embodied the true meaning of martyrdom. They bore witness to the Romans, then– and to us, now– that a better life awaits the Believer after death.

STEPHEN: In this RR, I offer a thought of an “army” of martyrs who follow Stephen (“Stephen’s Army”). Stephen was the first martyred Believer identified by name in the Bible (Acts 7:54-60): When they heard these things, they became enraged and began gnashing their teeth at him. But Stephen [SIDELIGHT 1], full of the Ruach ha-Kodesh, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God– and Yeshua standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing [SIDELIGHT 2] at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears; and crying out with a loud voice, they rushed at him with one impulse. Driving him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul [SIDELIGHT 3]. They went on stoning Stephen as he was calling out, “Lord Yeshua, receive my spirit!” Then he fell on his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” [SIDELIGHT 4] After he said this, he died.

SIDELIGHT 1: If you want to know more about the exemplary character of Stephen, read Acts 6:5-15. END sidelight.

SIDELIGHT 2: Yeshua is usually depicted in Scriptures as seated at the right hand of God the Father. In this passage, Stephen saw Yeshua standing at the right hand of God. Is this significant? Did Yeshua stand in great respect for the martyr Stephen– and the millions of martyrs who would follow him? When we accord someone great respect today, we give a standing ovation. END sidelight.

SIDELIGHT 3: In this passage, the young Saul was an early persecutor of Believers. After his conversion on the Damascus Road, his name was changed to Paul (Acts 22:5-16). Paul became the most faithful promoter of Yeshua as the Messiah and Son of God. In his defense in Jerusalem, Paul acknowledged and lamented his role in Stephen’s death (Acts 22:20). END sidelight.

SIDELIGHT 4: In this passage, notice Stephen’s forgiveness of those killing him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Stephen learned forgiveness from Yeshua. As Yeshua was dying, He also asked forgiveness for those who were crucifying Him (Luke 23:34a): But Yeshua was saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” …. END sidelight.  

MATYRDOM OF EARLY BELIEVERS: I discuss, following, early martyrs as examples, certainly not a complete listing of all martyrs. British historian John Foxe published a book in 1563, entitled “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” This book may be read free online at: https://ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/home.html . 

Foxe’s book chronicles several things, including:

** The DEPRAVITY of enemies of the cross that was employed in an attempt to remove the faith of Christians/ Believers from the world. The Roman Empire was not the true enemy of Yeshua’s followers. Satan was the enemy, as it has been since the first pronouncement of eternal warfare between Yeshua and Satan (Genesis 3:15): [Adonai Elohim said to the serpent, or Satan] “I will put animosity between you and the woman– between your seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will crush his heel.” This verse (part of the Adamic Covenant) has been called the protoevangelium, because it is the first proclamation of the Gospel. God foretold a battle between Yeshua and Satan, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the end of the Second Battle of Gog and Magog (see an earlier RR). Satan would “crush Yeshua’s heel” at the crucifixion. Yeshua will “crush Satan’s head” when Satan is cast into the Lake of Fire (Hell) for eternity. The war between Satan (who will be part of the Tribulation’s Unholy Trinity) and Believers will be especially evil during the Tribulation.

** The unshakable FAITH of early Believers in Yeshua. If some literary-minded Jews had banded together to fabricate a story about Yeshua, whom they claimed was the long-promised Messiah, surely someone would have “cracked” and exposed the plot. Yet, no one did because they believed– no, they knew– what they had seen. Yeshua died, was resurrected, and ascended to the Father. The promise that they, too, would die, be resurrected, and spend eternity in Heaven was far more important to them than gaining a few extra years of earthly life.

** The JOY and SERENITY of Believers, as they faced death, stood in stark contrast to nonbelievers, as they faced death. Believers were assured of a life far greater than anything they had ever experienced. And, I suspect the Comforter– the Ruach ha-Kodesh– walked beside each Believer giving him/ her supernatural comfort (Philippians 4:7): And the shalom of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Messiah Yeshua. 

** Christianity experienced explosive GROWTH during this time of persecution. It is a historical truth that any time Satan tries to extinguish faith in Yeshua is the time of greatest growth in salvation (growth in Believers’ number and dedication).

In Chapter 1, Foxe lists the way some early leaders (apostles and others) met their deaths. Many ancient records were not kept or were lost. Foxe wrote his book centuries after these martyrs’ deaths, and his account may mix facts and traditions. Nonetheless, consider his record:

** Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem at Passover following Yeshua’s death (one year after Yeshua’s crucifixion, or ca AD 34). Two-thousand other Believers were martyred at about the time of Stephen’s martyrdom.

** James (Jacob) the Great– son of Zebedee, elder brother of John, and cousin of Yeshua– was martyred during the persecution imposed by Herod Agrippa, governor of Judea, to ingratiate himself to the Jewish elite class. It is claimed that as the apostle was led to his place of execution, his accuser was so impressed by James’ courage that he fell at James’ feet, begged forgiveness, and accepted Yeshua as Savior. Both men– the accused and the accuser– were beheaded at the same time. This martyrdom occurred in AD 44.

** Philip served as a missionary in upper Asia. At Heliopolis in Phrygia (Turkey?), he was scourged, imprisoned, and crucified. This martyrdom occurred in AD 54.

** Matthew, a toll-collector, wrote the Gospel bearing his name in Hebrew, which was later translated into Greek by James (Jacob) the Less. Matthew served as a  missionary to Parthia and Ethiopia. In Nadabah, Ethiopia, Matthew was slain with a halberd in AD 60. (Explanation: A halberd, a weapon in use during Foxe’s lifetime, was a battle ax and pike mounted on a six-foot long pole.) Other sources have claimed that Matthew was burned, stoned to death, or beheaded.

** James (Jacob) the Less, Yeshua’s half-brother, was author of the epistle which bears his name. At the age of ninety-four years, he was beaten and stoned in Jerusalem by Jews. The coup de grace for the wounded apostle was a heavy blow to the head with a fuller’s club. (Fulling was a process to make cloth appear cleaner and brighter by pounding, or fulling, it with a heavy club, a fuller’s club.)

** Matthias, elected to fill the vacancy left by Judas Iscariot, may have been stoned and beheaded in Jerusalem.

** Andrew, brother of Simon bar-Jonah (Peter), preached the Gospel throughout Asia. When he entered Edessa, Greece, he was crucified. Ancient peoples used several designs for crosses. We usually think of a Roman (Latin) cross, which looks like a small case “t ” (†). Also used was the tau cross, which resembled the Greek letter tau, or our capital “T.” Andrew was crucified on a cross, with both bottom ends buried in the ground, which resembles our “X.” This cross, now known as “St. Andrew’s cross,” is one of the two crosses in the United Kingdom’s flag, the other cross being St. George’s cross. (St. Andrew’s cross represents Scotland; St. George’s cross, England.) Other designs for crosses were used. 

** Mark, born a Levite Jew, was brought to faith in Christianity by Peter. Peter, a rough fisherman, was probably poorly educated. Mark served as Peter’s amanuensis. (Amanuensis compares to our secretary or stenographer.) Mark was literate enough to write his Gospel in Greek. Mark was martyred in Alexandria, Egypt by being dragged behind a chariot and being torn limb from limb.

** Peter, born Simon bar-Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah), was nicknamed Cephas (Aramaic Cephas = Stone) or Petros (Greek Petros = Stone; or, Petros = English Peter). Tradition has Peter’s death occur in Rome. Some students question whether Peter, “apostle to the Jews,” was ever in Rome. Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles,” did journey to Rome. The rest of this paragraph is based on Roman Catholic Church tradition: Rome’s Emperor Nero decreed the Apostle Peter should be killed. Peter was convinced he should leave Rome for safety. Coming to a gate of Rome, Peter saw Yeshua entering into Rome through the gate Peter sought to exit. Peter asked the Lord where He was going. Yeshua answered, “I am come again to be crucified.” Peter, then, understood that Yeshua would allow Himself to be crucified a second time for Peter. A shamed Peter turned around and returned to his Roman home to await arrest. Jerome states that Peter told the Romans he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Yeshua. Peter was, then, crucified upside down, his feet nailed to the top of the cross and hands at the bottom.

SIDELIGHT:  Although Simon bar-Jonah’s nickname was Stone (Aramaic Cephas, Greek Petros), Yeshua used a different Greek word, petra (petra = massive rock,   cliff), to indicate that Yeshua’s faith would be built on the petra, the massive stone rejected by the builders and prophesied by Daniel and the psalmist, and not on the pebble, or Peter (Matthew 16:18). This view is the interpretation of me and many others, but is opposite to the interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church. The faith congregation Yeshua intended to build (Matthew 16:18) is usually translated  “church” in most Bibles but “community” in the TLV translation. Although translators may clumsily stumble around translating this verse (church, community, etc.), the Greek text is clearer, using ekklesia. Ekklesia literally means, “the called out ones” – which complements other Scriptures about faithful followers of Yeshua being called out from the world for a life of service and example. END sidelight.

** Paul (Saul, before his conversion) did more to spread faith in Yeshua than any other apostle. Roman Emperor Nero decreed death for Paul and sent Ferega and Parthemius to arrest him. Finding Paul preaching the Gospel to a crowd of people, they asked him to pray for them, that they might be saved. Then, soldiers arrived and led Paul to his place of execution, where he was beheaded. As a Roman citizen, Paul could not legally be crucified.

** Jude (called Thaddeus) was the brother of James. He was crucified at Edessa (in present-day Greece) in AD 72.

** Bartholomew (Nathaneal) preached in several countries, including India. He  translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was cruelly beaten and crucified by idolaters of that country. Some accounts say he was flayed (skinned alive) before decapitation.

** Thomas (called Didymus; translated = “the Twin”) preached the Gospel in Parthia (Parthia = now part of northeastern Iran) and India. Pagan priests raged against the Gospel. He was martyred by being impaled upon a spear. 

** Luke– evangelist, author of the Gospel by his name and probably the Book of Acts, physician, and Paul’s traveling companion– spread the Gospel in several Middle Eastern nations. Idolatrous priests in Greece hanged him on an olive tree.

** Simon Zelotes preached the Gospel in Mauritania, Africa, and in Britain. He was crucified in Britain in AD 74.

** John, the Beloved Disciple, was James the Great’s brother. John founded churches in Smyrna, Pergamos, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Thyatira. He was arrested in Ephesus and ordered to be sent to Rome. Notice that: (1) the Book of Revelation was dictated by Yeshua and angels to John; and (2) Yeshua addressed letters to seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, and John founded six of those churches and worshiped in the seventh. Tradition states that John was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil in Rome, but miraculously escaped without injury. Then, Emperor Domitian banished him to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation in his old age. John, the last of Yeshua’s disciples to die (in ca AD 100), was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.

** Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus, was martyred in ca AD 61 (?) or AD 73 (?) in Salamis, Cyprus. By tradition, enraged Jews attacked Barnabas, as he spoke in the synagogue, dragged him outside, tortured him, and stoned him to death.

** Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Yeshua, was not martyred, but hanged himself in shame and remorse (Matthew 27:3-10). Judas was apparently paid thirty pieces of silver by Jewish priests to betray Yeshua. He later tried to return the silver, but the priests would not accept this “blood money.” Different accounts of the details of Judas’ death occur in the B’rit Chadashah and the Apocrypha.

Foxe ends the first chapter of his book on martyrs with this statement: “And yet, notwithstanding all these continual persecutions and horrible punishments, the Church daily increased, deeply rooted in the doctrine of the apostles and of men apostolical, and watered plentously with the blood of saints.” This pattern of persecution, followed by a growth explosion, has held from the very beginning to the present time, and is prophesied for the future. The more Satan attempts to rebel against and defeat God, the more God’s children react and build up faith in God. God will not be defeated, nor will His children be defeated.

CONCLUSION: In this RR, I have concentrated almost exclusively on the earliest martyrs (Stephen and Yeshua’s apostles of the first century). Space does not permit adequate discussion of the millions of other past martyrs, martyrs who began the march in “Stephen’s army” before our lifetime. Throughout these past years, countless Christians, Believers, and Jews have been murdered (martyred) because of their faith in God. My lack of space to discuss their deaths should not be interpreted as belittling their sacrifices. In next RRs in this series, I will discuss present-day persecutions and martyrdom, found in today’s news reports, and future persecutions and martyrdom, foretold in prophetic Bible passages.

“Stephen’s army” has marched– still marches and will march until the Lord returns– as witness to the truth of Yeshua as our Savior. Will you or your family ever join the ranks of this blessed army? Be ready to take your place in this army  and even forfeit your life, if required. Yeshua will bless you for your sacrifice. Shalom  and Maranatha.