One day in April of 2007 I was sitting in my office in Richmond when I received a call from a friend. “Some guys have been held hostage and we believe they may have been murdered. We don’t know who they are, but they are in Malatya!”
Malatya is a city in Turkey where friends of mine were involved in Christian ministry to the local community. I have known one of them, from England, since the early 1990s. The others are from the United States. As further information began to emerge from the events of that day in 2007, I learned that a German translator, a Turkish pastor and a Turkish Bible student had been brutally murdered by five young Turkish nationalists who stated that they did what they did for the sake of the Turkish nation. One of them carried a note which said in Turkish: “They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away,”[i]
My friends and their families were physically unharmed but the impact on their lives was devastating. During the following weeks they moved to Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. There the growing community of young local believers and international church-workers has developed several successful initiatives that are discipling Turks, and ministering to the large Iraqi and Syrian refugee community. One of the families that was displaced from Malatya eventually moved back there and established a worshipping community among the local deaf population.
In the weeks following this tragedy, I found myself doing a lot of soul-searching. A long history of Christian martyrdom has become an integral and essential part of the experience of the church. Despite this I still found myself asking the Lord why such an event had to happen in Turkey, a modern nation, keenly endeavoring to find favor among Western liberal democracies.
I was led to the book of Revelation and the words:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.[ii]
It seemed to me that these words placed the three men who died in Malatya, firmly in the category of “The Awaited Ones”. I don’t find this to be an encouraging idea, however, cast against the backdrop of an eternity that only the Lord God understands, the idea of a pre-determined cast of martyrs can be appreciated even when not fully understood.
The New International Version of the Bible translates Paul’s well known words in his first letter to the Corinthians as he speaks of the present state of the believer: For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.[iii] The mirrors of Paul’s day were of polished metal, not glass, so any reflection would be darkened and clear only to the extent of the perfection of the metal surface. However, the Greek word here translated as reflection is better translated as obscurely, because it has the same root as the word for riddle or enigma. Paul is conveying the message that our present view of God is far from perfect; it is shrouded in mysteries.
We have just passed through the season of commemorating the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the moment of his death we are reminded that the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. We understand this to mean that God was tearing down that which symbolized the separation between himself and man created by the sin of man. In all our imperfections, I believe there are times when we get glimpses of that other world where God dwells in unapproachable light[iv]. We cannot know what the three men in Malatya saw as they experienced the moment of their deaths. However, we do know that Stephen, the first martyr, had such a glimpse of eternity as he stood before his accusers and said: I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.[v] For a moment, two worlds came together, and one who was about to die could describe what he saw in that realm of unapproachable light. Unlike John’s revelation, Stephen did not see souls of those martyred dwelling below the altar, because he was yet to take the first place there.
Torn and mangled and covered over in our own blood, we cry out as loud as we are able that we are worshippers of God through Christ,[vi] are some immortal words from the pen of the second century writer Tertullian. He understood that martyrdom played an extricable role in the advance of the Kingdom of God. The idea that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church is a further thought ascribed to him when he writes: the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more[vii]
In March I was visiting in the city of Ankara and attended Sunday worship at a Turkish church. During the preaching a young woman leaned forward behind me and my traveling companions and began to translate into English for us. At the end of the service we turned to thank her. She introduced herself as German-born but raised in Turkey. The more she spoke, the more I realized that she was the daughter of the Bible translator who died ten years earlier. I had heard her mother speak in an American church in 2011. She had said that after her husband’s funeral she had gathered her children together and asked what they should now do. Her husband and their father was never coming back, they were still living in Malatya and she was unsure what they should do next. Her older daughter, aged thirteen at the time, and who now stood before us had replied with words to the effect that: Daddy came to live among these people and to share the love of Jesus with them; How could we possibly leave? The family stayed. She herself had come to Ankara to study and is a full part of the witness of the local church in the city.
The martyrdom of God’s servants will not slow the advance of the church. I am convinced that the church in Turkey today is stronger than it was ten years ago, and the blood of these three men was not shed in vain.
Necati Aydin, Tilmann Geske & Uğur Yüksel died for their faith in Jesus Christ in Malatya, Turkey, on April 18, 2007. Ten years on we remember, with gratitude, their lives and witness to the Gospel.
[i] Quoted in Christianity Today – “Finally: Killers of Malatya Martyrs Sentenced to Life in Turkish Prison”- 9/28/2016
[ii] Revelation 6:9-11 (NIV)
[iii] I Corinthians 13:12
[iv] I Tim 6:16
[v] Acts 7:56
[vi] The Apology of Tertullian – trans. William Reeve – (The Ancient & Modern Library of Theological Literature, vol. 31 – Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh – London) – 1889 – p.68
[vii] Ibid – p.144