Cancer may cause great suffering, pain, and even death. Thanks be to God miraculous healings do happen, and treatment and medicine continue to advance. Nonetheless, far more often than we wish suffering and death must be faced.
These frightening manifestations of cancer’s cruel tyranny need not be considered meaningless, purposeless, and tragic. We need not regard ourselves as victims and losers. Instead, we can, by faith, embrace cancer’s threat, our suffering, and even our death as a uniquely powerful and important opportunity to proclaim our faith in Jesus and achieve the greatest victory.
In short, cancer is an opportunity to be a martyr for Jesus. Today martyrs get a bad rap. We think of religious fanatics, zealots willing to blow themselves up to kill others in the name of their god and religion. Or we might think of people who delight in overextending themselves so they can evoke our sympathy and praise. In Christianity, martyrdom means something entirely different. A martyr is one who bears witness of the truth and suffers death in the cause of Christ. It can also mean "witness."  It is to continue to believe and proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord, through words and actions, no matter what happens through everything until we die. As martyrs, we never stop telling everyone of God’s goodness, even when things are bad.
Admittedly most of us don’t want to suffer for anything or anyone. It’s hard to imagine God wanting or allowing us to suffer, let alone calling us to suffer for him. But this was the experience of many of the first Christians (and sadly many still today). In the Bible, Stephen is the first Christian martyr (Acts 22:20). In the book of Revelation, we find many more martyrs.
The book of Revelation is a circular letter written to several first century churches. Not long before John wrote and sent it to the churches, the roman emperor Nero had ordered wide-spread persecution of Christians. Nero regarded himself as God and demanded to be worshipped and given total allegiance. He threatened, tortured, and killed Christian in horrible ways, if they would not denounce Christ and proclaim him as Lord. While some gave in, others refused at the cost of death, instead choosing martyrdom.
By the time of Revelation, Nero was dead, and a new emperor had taken the throne. Nonetheless, the threat remained. Revelation 2:13 names Antipas as a Christian martyr, killed in those days. John expected the persecution to get much worse and encouraged Christians to hold true to their faith in Jesus no matter the cost. He promised Jesus’s abiding presence and a heavenly reward. In Revelation, chapter 6, we are given a vision of the throne room of heaven. Among the many wonders and those engaged in worshipping Jesus, the triumphant lamb of God, we see the martyrs. “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” (Revelation 6:9 NIV). In Revelation 7:14, we see a multitude “who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Later, in 17:6, John shows us a woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
These martyrs have given their lives to remain faithful to Jesus. In doing so, they have won the greatest victory and received the greatest prize. They worship and serve him day and night in his heavenly Tabernacle. They will never again hunger, thirst, or shed a tear. They will watch as Jesus defeats Satan and all evil and death once and for all. They will be judged righteous, receive resurrected bodies, and behold and be part of the new heaven and earth. It's important to note that in Revelation, Jesus never transports the persecuted Christians on earth to heaven in a way that bypasses suffering and death. In Revelation, there is no “rapture” contrary to our pop culture. Christians aren’t beamed up while others are left behind. “For Christians, the experience of being called into God’s heavenly world is no escapist rapture; in John’s revelation Christian’s go to the presence of God through tribulation and martyrdom, not instead of it.” Does this mean you and I must be killed for believing in Jesus to go to heaven? Yes and no. In the United States today, we are unlikely to be put to death for being a Christian or persecuted in any life-threatening way. Thank God! But in this world, you will have trouble (John 16:33). And whether it is cancer or something else life threatening, causes suffering, takes your life, or not; through it all, until the very end, Jesus calls us to remain faithful. In other words, we are all meant to be martyrs.
The call to be a martyr invites cancer patients to rethink and reimagine what having cancer can mean. It can have a high and holy purpose. It can also inspire us to rethink our prayers. We should still pray for physical healing, but we should pray far more for the ability to remain faithful to Jesus. We can strive, hope, and look forward to joining the multitude of martyrs waiting for our arrival in heaven.
Michael David Gira, Jr.