Do you have a comfortable home? Can you travel safely from your house to work or school without fear of being arrested or killed? Are your loved ones able to live without fear of being physically persecuted for their faith?
Chances are, if you live in America, these all apply to you. You are probably not lacking for food or clothing. You do not sleep in a prison cell. You attend church services in a nice, decently air-conditioned building in plain sight of the whole town.
In some countries, Christians have to meet secretly to worship. Sometimes they are arrested for worshipping God. Sometimes they are killed. But you already know all of that, so I will not go into it.
Growing up in the American church culture, I have heard two phrases over and over: “The cost of following Christ” and “on fire for Jesus.” Each time I heard the first, it was in the somber context of Christian persecution or martyrdom. But the second was always in the context of excitement and emotion. This confused me. When they said someone was “on fire for Jesus,” I knew what they meant. They meant someone was excited, eager to do something, to get their hands dirty. There was a little reckless attitude thrown in there, too. I could not help but think of someone else when I heard that phrase.
You may have heard about him. He was a man on fire for Jesus. No, he didn’t attend a youth conference with an exciting speaker. He did not go on a mission trip or get pumped at a Christian rock concert. He was on fire for Jesus. Literally. His name was Polycarp.
A short version of his story is this: Polycarp was a pastor in Smyrna during a time of great persecution. The people of Smyrna decided the best way to destroy the church in their area would be by executing Polycarp. They found him, and he welcomed them with food and drink. After allowing him to pray for two hours, they arrested him and took him to an arena. There he humbly, but with the courage of Christ, proclaimed: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior.” They tied him to a pole, piled fuel around him and lit it on fire. As his body burned, the Christians say that his face remained joyful and serene.
Isn’t it amazing how cheaply we throw around certain words? “On fire for Jesus” takes on an entirely new meaning looking at the martyrdom of Polycarp – not to mention the Christians Nero turned into burning torches to light his garden parties. Yes, that happened.
There is a true cost to being a Christian. A person on fire for Jesus, like Polycarp, is a person willing to pay the cost of following Christ.
Who better to tell us about this cost than one of the most famous Christian martyrs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer? In the Cost of Discipleship, he wrote:
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” (Emphasis added.)
The last thing I want to do is downplay the grace highlighted in the quote above. Such an unimaginable, infinite grace is more than enough to cause us to sing for all eternity. But in our thankfulness for this amazing grace, let’s not lose sight of the very real cost.
Luke 14:28-30, 33 says, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? …So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”
I’ve heard someone ask a pastor once – “Would you take a bullet for Jesus?” His answer has haunted me. “What scares me more than a bullet is waking up every morning with the choice to either live or die – live for this world, or to die to self and live for Christ.”
We must face martyrdom every morning. The moment our minds are able to think after waking, we have a choice. Will we deny the cross and live as if Christ mattered nothing to us? Or will we nail our sinful desires, our thought-lives, our resources, our freedoms, our rights – yes, even our flesh and lives– to this cross in order to gain Christ? Is He worth more than just words and sentiment?
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” Bonhoeffer said.
What does this look like? You wake up in the morning, and before anything can get to you, you resolve to hold onto Christ and let go of everything – everything– else. You say to yourself: “I am a sinner, and there is nothing but sin in me. God is holy, and He cannot even look at sin. I must have Christ, and I will not loose my grip on Him. I will pursue Him, because my life depends on it.”
Are you willing to pay the cost and be set on fire for Jesus?