Sermon audio here.
The liturgical calendar absolutely refuses to let us forget the meaning of the Savior’s birth. Whether it’s any number of the Holy week texts we’ve already heard this Advent or the suffering of His followers, which were highlighted last week and today, we see that the Christ was born to die, and that those who follow Him must first go the way of the cross before being raised up in glory.
Today we celebrate the festival of St. Thomas, whom we usually remember as the apostle who doubted. Yet, even His doubt became an opportunity for Christ to prove His Divinity. The risen Christ appeared to them in the flesh, scars and all. True God, yet true Man.
But there’s much more to St. Thomas than just his doubting. In fact, Thomas was a bold confessor of the faith, who, at least at one point, was ready to die with Jesus. We hear about this in the events surrounding the death of Lazarus, which St. John records in the 11th chapter of His Holy Gospel:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha… So the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, he whom You love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it He said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”…
Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”… Jesus answered… “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”
Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”[i]
Getting to Judea to see Lazarus, for our Lord and His disciples, wasn’t as easy as catching the nearest donkey or calling up Uber. The disciples must have thought Jesus was crazy for even suggesting such a thing. So they spoke up: Um, Lord—seeing Lazarus would be great and all, but don’t you remember the angry mob of Jews that tried to kill us the last time we were there?
But our Lord insisted on going. And then Thomas spoke up, not with cowardice or denial, but with a bold confession: Let us also go, that we may die with Him. Here’s Thomas, knowing full well what sort of hostility they would face in Judea, yet was prepared to go with Jesus anyway and encouraged the others to do likewise. Here we see that according to the Spirit at work within him, Thomas would rather have died than question our Lord.
And this raises the question for us today, dear saints: are you ready to die for Christ? Do you take your faith that seriously? Are you willing to suffer all, even death, rather than deny Christ? If you’ve been confirmed, you promised as much in your confirmation vows.
This is worth pondering. If you had the choice between death and denying Christ, what would you choose? Do we really have to take Christianity so seriously that we’d actually die for Jesus? Aren’t they just words? Can’t you say one thing with your lips and believe something else in your heart?
Popular wisdom would have you believe so. But popular wisdom, it turns out, is just that: it’s popular. The gate is wide and the way is popular that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.[ii]
Salvation is the narrow way. Our Lord teaches the difficult truth that what comes out of your mouth proceeds from your heart. If you feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things, you’d rather die than deny Christ. And yet, we reject Him daily for things that aren’t nearly as serious as matters of life and death. Repent.
Our Lord says:
“Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven.”[iii]
When we fall in love and we have children, we say things like, “I would do anything for you.” And no doubt most newlyweds and parents would be prepared to follow though and even die for their beloved, if necessary.
But what about your First Love, Jesus? To the Christians at Ephesus, our Lord said,
“I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent.”[iv]
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedengo knew they couldn’t bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image or even go through the motions of doing so, even though it meant being thrown into a burning, fiery furnace. They knew God to be a jealous God, and they trusted Him with their lives.
Have no fear of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Do you trust Jesus with your life? Would you die for Him? There may be no more painful question for us to ponder, as it reveals the unbelief in our hearts—that even if you managed to remain faithful unto death, should it come to that, your flesh would wage war against you, cause you to doubt, and urge you to save your skin at all costs.
Near the end of World War II, Russia came into the Baltic Countries and began to impose communism, persecuting any Christians who refused to denounce Christ. There was a famous choirmaster who served in Riga, Latvia, there at the beautiful Lutheran Cathedral. He had a wife and two children.
Well, the communists came in and decided to make an example of him in the public square. They took him, his wife, and his two children and put a gun to his head. “Deny Christ,” they demanded. Three times: deny Christ, deny Christ. And he was going to, but his wife urged him to be faithful: “Don’t do it!” So he refused.
And he thought he was going to die. Instead, they took the gun from his head and put it on the head of his wife and his two children. “Now deny Christ”—three times they shouted at him. Again, his wife spoke up: “Don’t do it. We’ll go to heaven.” Again, at her urging, he refused to deny Christ. So they killed his wife and two children and told him to go free.[v]
Satan hates Jesus, he hates that you follow him, and he will do everything he can to get you to deny Christ. But our Lord promises, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”[vi]
The Latvian choirmaster was given the choice to gain the world and forfeit his soul. Given the choice between Christ and Satan, heaven and hell, he chose the One and only thing that’s needful. How profoundly the words of Mighty Fortress must have struck him from that time onward:
And take they our life,
goods, fame, child, and wife,
though these all be gone,
our victr’y has been won;
the Kingdom our remaineth.[vii]
Beloved, this is our confidence, in life and in death: our victr’y has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth. Jesus has died for your sin, your unbelief, rose again, and has opened heaven to you.
The early church father, Polycarp, was also killed for his confession of Christ. The Roman emperor demanded that his subjects worship him as god or suffer death. When the captain of the police came to Polycarp, he tried to reason with him and asked, “What harm is there in saying, “Caesar is Lord,” and offering incense?”
In other words, “Come on, Polycarp, just do this one small thing. It’s no big deal. Then this will all go away and your life can get back to normal. They’re just words. You don’t even have to mean them.”
But Polycarp refused to blaspheme Christ. He knew our Lord’s teaching, that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart; that with the mouth one confesses and is saved.[viii] So he answered:
“I am not going to do what you counsel me… 86 years I have been [Christ’s] servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme My King who saved me? [ix]
So they got the fire ready, and Polycarp said:
“You threaten with fire that burns for a season and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment which is reserved for the ungodly. Why do you delay? Come, do what you will with me.”[x]
The apostles and countless Christians rejoiced that Christ counted them worthy to suffer for His Name—as did Thomas, who eventually died as a martyr.[xi] He remembered our Lord’s Word:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”[xii]
You may know the word martyr means “witness”, and the martyrs got their title because they made the ultimate confession of Christ. They witnessed to their faith in the most powerful way: with their blood.
Countless converts have been made by the testimony of the martyrs’ blood. The SS doctor who oversaw the execution of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the end of World War II was so moved by Bonhoeffer’s witness to Christ in his death that afterwards, he became a Christian.[xiii]
Following Christ is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Satan hates you for it, and he cannot bear to see you live one single hour.[xiv] He will give you no rest, night or day, until you deny Christ. Don’t do it. The worst he can do is kill your body, should God permit it.
But fear not the foe, O little flock. Christ is risen. He holds in His hand the keys of Death and Hades. Nothing could deter Jesus from confessing you before His Father with His blood. Be faithful unto death, and He will give you the crown of life.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] St. John 11:1, 3–4; 7–8; 11–16
[ii] cf. St. Matthew 7:13–14
[iii] St. Matthew 10:32–33
[iv] Revelation 2:4–5
[v] This story was related by Rev. Dr. Louis Brighton in the class I took with him on Revelation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Pastor Brighton had known the choirmaster personally.
[vi] Revelation 2:10
[vii] LSB, 656; st. 4
[viii] St. Matthew 15:18;
[ix] MartPol. 8:2; 9:3
[x] MartPol. 11:2
[xi] Acts 5:41
[xii] St. Matthew 5:11–12
[xiii] Also recounted in a lecture on Revelation by Brighton.
[xiv] Large Catechism, V. The Sacrament of the Altar, 81.