21 Coptic Christians: Calling on Yesua for Strength that Never Drains Away
Posted by Abdu Murray, on February 22, 2015
“I can do all things through him who gives me strength,” Paul writes in Philippians 4:13. The faithful cling to those words when hanging on the cliff of difficult circumstances or challenges. More than once I’ve prayed those words as I stood on the cusp of some anxiety-inducing situation.
They are comforting, empowering words. We’ve heard them preached hundreds of times. But there are times when someone’s living out Scripture penetrates the fog of our familiarity and illuminates a fuller meaning. Twenty-one men I have never met have done that for me.
By now, the video showing ISIS’s vicious murders of 21 Coptic Christians has burned itself into our consciousness. As the blades touched their necks, the victims shouted or mouthed the words Ya Rab Yesua!, “Oh, Lord Jesus!” They called out to the Light of the World as cowardly men robed in darkness brutalized them.
Consider the lives of those men—many of them appeared to be so young—just before that dark day. As youths, they played in dusty Middle Eastern streets with the carefree attitude that only children can display—even if only momentarily—amidst the tragedies their homeland endures. How far away those playful moments must have felt as they were faced with a terrible ultimatum. Did thoughts of those days rush through their heads? Did they wonder how much it would hurt before they would meet their Heavenly Father? Did they scan the horizon of the Mediterranean hoping for some angelic host or armed troupe to save them from such terror?
That’s what makes their sturdy faith in Yesua all the more astounding. We’ve seen journalists, foreign aid workers, and now 21 Christians beheaded while kneeling. In the embers of our outrage we might think that if we were in that situation, we’d face our death with William Wallace-style defiance, perhaps yelling out some profound statement that would tell our captors that they could not break us. But the reality is that such defiance is often illusory. An article some time back about how a certain country metes out capital punishment through public beheadings describes the surprising fact that the condemned tend not to fight even as they walk up to the spot where their lives will end. They simply kneel or lay there, surrendering to their fate. “Their strength drains away,” the country’s chief executioner said. They have no fight left in them. That’s why ISIS’s victims seem so strangely passive in the moments before the imminent brutality. Our hearts melt. Our knees buckle. Our “strength drains away.”
But appearances are deceiving. The strength of those 21 men did not drain away. Statistically, they should have melted before their captors’ ravenous barbarity. Such are the outcomes that result from mere human strength that drains away. But those Christians refused to renounce Christ and instead called on him. They did the remarkable for one reason: they could do all things through Christ who gave them strength that does not drain away.
What Yesua did through them deepens Philippians 4:13’s words. We rely on that verse in adversity-ridden times with the expectation that things will work out in our favor in the end. But those Christians have taught me that those words mean much more. Yesua strengthens us incredibly when we are faced with the incredible. We can do all things, including standing strong even when we know that we will not be delivered from our earthly trouble.
We’d like to think that we could look into the eyes of our would-be executioners and profess Christ. But if we’re genuinely reflective, we have to ponder whether we really would. And yet this I’ve learned from 21 men I’ve never met: I can do it through Christ who gives me strength. Their faithfulness in the face of terror has revolutionized how I see Paul’s familiar words to the Philippians. For that, I am eternally grateful to them and the God who gave them the strength.
They’ve taught me to see another commonly quoted verse afresh. Paul writes that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37, ESV). Westerners tend to quote these words triumphalistically. Neither Satan nor any challenge life can throw at us has a chance because we are the conquerors of conquerors.
But what about those faithful Egyptian Christians? They were not delivered from the physical pain, terror, and ultimate tragedies plotted against them by murderous thugs. Were they not more than conquerors?
Yes. In fact they were in a way that surpasses our common understanding. Consider the context of Paul’s words. We are more than conquerors through Christ as we face our troubles, including persecution and even death (v. 35). And he tells us that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ (vv. 38-39). And it is in that—the unseverable love of Yesua—that we are more than conquerors even when it appears that we’ve been conquered. Had those men renounced their faith in Yesua, they would have been conquered.
The cowardly radicals thought themselves to have conquered the Christian men simply because they had them on their knees. Yet those very same Christians were more than their conquerors because they cleaved to Yesua even in the face of the unspeakable. Each one of them was something more than a conqueror—something different than and better than a conqueror—because they emulated the One they professed to love.
Rome had no army to match the angel armies of the Living God. Yet Yesua did not sound the charge as he was dragged to court and brutalized. He came to give His life as a ransom for many. How ironic that Yesua sacrificed himself to give eternal life to the very people who sought His death! Yesua faced a terrible and inevitable pain at the hands of sin’s ugliness. Yet He did not lose heart and His strength did not drain away. He endured the cross because of the joy set before Him—the salvation of those who would trust Him.
Perhaps something similar was working in the hearts and minds of those 21 men. They endured their fate with Christ-imbued strength because of the joy set before them—the eternal presence of God.
That’s what it truly means to be able to do all things through Christ who strengthens us and to be more than conquerors. We can have the strength to do all things, including enduring the unspeakable, because we have Christ in us. James Stewart beautifully describes how Yesua is more than—and different than—an earthly conqueror:
They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to his feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out his doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had God with his back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.
That is the Yesua who gives us strength that does not drain away.
“Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2). In their God-given resolve, those 21 Christian mouths praised the Author of life in the face of death. In them, God established divine strength when human strength would have drained away. Those men have established a hope for such strength in me. I can hardly wait to thank them face to face when I see them with Yesua.
 James Stewart, The Strong Name (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), p. 55.