In commemoration of All Saints Day, I’ve decided to post a meditation I had to write for a class last year. Before you read about how St. Bartholomew is relevant today, be sure to look at Michelangelo’s rendering of Bartholomew at the Last Judgment and this icon of Bartholomew.
The call to follow Christ is the call to give up one’s life. Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done (16:24-27).” Members of the early church knew far too well that obeying Christ’s call could result in martyrdom for His sake. Taking that threat into consideration, they continued to proclaim Christ with boldness.
Many of the Twelve Apostles were martyred for their profession of Jesus Christ. Church tradition maintains that Bartholomew, who could also be known as Nathaniel, was one of the Apostles who saw a brutal death because of his faithfulness to the gospel of Christ. There is very little said about him within the New Testament texts, but tradition teaches that after Christ’s ascension into heaven, Bartholomew set out on a missionary journey which resulted in Armenia. There, he preached the gospel and was martyred. He was skinned alive and either beheaded or crucified upside down.
Bartholomew is an easy character to identify in Christian artwork and iconography. He is usually portrayed in carrying a knife in one hand. His skin is hanging from his other arm. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, he stands before the triumphant Christ bearing witness to the atrocities performed against Christ’s followers throughout history. In many icons, he again testifies to the countless martyrs who followed Christ’s example in death.
The image is grotesque. No one wants to think about losing their life – especially in such a hideous manner. The message, however, is empowering and challenging. Most Christians in western civilization will not face the flaying knife, or any other manner of execution, for following Christ. Because there is no immanent threat to one’s life, St. Bartholomew stares back at us and reminds us to remain bold in our faith. If he and countless others could continue to live in obedience to Christ under the threat of death, we can face whatever persecution we face with that same strength and peace. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them during future trials, saying, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world (16:33)!” No matter the form of persecution – including rejection, harassment, or death – the call to take up one’s cross is the call to follow Christ with reckless abandon of our own will and desires.
St. Bartholomew reminds us that there are many Christians who still live under the very real threat that their lives could be taken at any moment. Although the threat of martyrdom is not prevalent in the West that does not mean it does not still exist. Christians worldwide are persecuted every day for their faith.
According to Voice of the Martyrs, there are more Christian martyrs from the 20th century than from the preceding nineteen centuries combined! That means the infamous age of persecution under the Romans did not produce as many martyrs as our current age. The hostility towards Christians has continued to increase, in spite of the common idea that this is an age of tolerance.
In Vietnam and China, many Christian leaders have been imprisoned for “illegal evangelistic activities” – preaching Christ and His gospel. Christians meet in secret house churches under the constant threat that they could be arrested for meeting in a church that is not sanctioned by the State. The tightening grips of these regimes, however, have been unsuccessful. In fact, the churches in China and Vietnam multiply daily.
Christians in Islamic nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, face harsh penalties for following Christ. Many pastors and new converts are imprisoned for proclaiming Christ. These nations say they are tolerant of faiths other than Islam, but their actions prove otherwise.
These are just a few examples of the persecution that continues throughout the world today. Although it is unlikely that they face being skinned alive, many Christians live with an understanding of the choice St. Bartholomew faced when preaching in Armenia. They serve as testimonies to Christians who do not face the threat of persecution that “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (Phil. 1:21).”
The image of St. Bartholomew calls upon us to pray for the persecuted church around the world. It tells us the story of the millions of Christians who have given their lives for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. It is a startling reminder that the price of following Jesus Christ is not cheap. It is not a road that will be traveled lightly. There will be trials and persecution of all kinds. In the end, it could cost the believer everything – including the loss of life. It is the example of St. Bartholomew that encourages the believer to press on towards the prize, knowing full well the costs involved. It is with that same confidence that we face the perils of following the Lord of all things.
In our workplaces, neighborhoods, the marketplace, homes, and everywhere we live our lives, may the boldness of St. Bartholomew empower us to preach the gospel at all times in all circumstances, regardless of the potential punishment.