Sure evidence of death is the progressive stiffening of the corpse as muscle proteins coagulate. The condition is called rigormortis, and forensic specialists can determine the time of death by measuring how far along the stiffening has progressed. When rigormortis is complete the body is stiff. The low brow vernacular for a dead body, frequently heard in gangster movies, is simply: “a stiff.”
The sight of a pale, prone, and stiff corpse lying on a morgue’s cold stainless steel table is a depressingly hopeless scene. If the corpse is a loved one, the scene is oppressive, heavy with sadness. Apart from the power of our life-giving Creator to vivify that loved one, life itself would ring with hopelessness.
Yet we are far from hopeless. We know the hope of the dead is the speech of God, his call to “Wake up O Sleeper! Wake up my son, my daughter! Arise! Come forth to me!” When similar words were said to Jesus, as he lay stiffly on a cold rock slab, he immediately stood up! and walked out of the tomb. He now lives forever.
Death spells the end of all our thoughts and movements. Death is poignantly observed as the state of rigormortis overtakes our once active body. There is nothing we can do about its eventual arrival. One day we will all die.
There is an equally serious condition to that described above, yet it is a state we can do something about. It is spiritual in nature. It is a spiritual condition common to the living—including many of us Christians.
This spiritual condition can be described as a death-like case of inflexibility, immobility, stiffening, rigidity, coldness—a case of spiritual rigormortis. Unfortunately, this is not a rare phenomenon. Rather than following death, it precedes it among many Christians.
Specifically, what is spiritual rigormortis? It is the inability to move Godward; to change, to grow, to stand up for Jesus. In fact, it is the unwillingness to stand up for anything important–if standing up requires risk, money, time, inconvenience, or “heaven forbid,” effort.
Rigormortis Christians are spectators, sitting on their duffs, either watching and grousing about an evil world getting more evil, or critiquing those stand-up Christians as they strive, grow and attempt to do some work for God. These sedentary watcher-Christians are not likely to admit that they are in a spiritually dead condition. In fact, if they found themselves in a bull-session discussion of Christian martyrdom, from the comforts of home or local church they would probably give all present the impression they would stand up for Jesus and die if necessary. This points up another fact about rigormortis Christians, the only thing that moves is their mouth. But talk alone is never a substitute for action.
About 250 A.D. the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian began a murderous campaign of persecution against Christians. Roman fortunes of empire were then in decline and the rapidly growing Christian movement was a convenient scapegoat to be blamed. While persecutions against Christians came from time to time, this was the first systematic attempt by the empire to crush Christianity.
In his history of the last days of Rome, Richard E. Rubenstein describes the imperial plan: “The strategy was simple: all subjects were ordered to sacrifice to the immortal gods or else risk the death penalty.” How do you think the persecution proceeded? Would most Christians stand up for Jesus and refuse to do sacrificial worship to the Roman gods? Would most cave in to save their skins?
The plan worked and one reason for its success was the condition of the church itself. “The Christian movement had grown rapidly and now included large numbers of respectable citizens who had no taste for martyrdom or imprisonment. Far more of its members obeyed imperial orders or bribed their way out of trouble than risked the emperor’s displeasure. In the first year of the persecution, says one historian, ‘Christians joined with their pagan neighbors in a rush to sacrifice,’ and ‘the Christian church practically collapsed.’”
The state terror continued for a decade, and amazingly, the church emerged stronger than ever. Among the ranks of believers sifting and sorting ensued. No room on the fence was available for sitting or straddling. It was stand up time before the high throne of Yahweh. Many failed the test and denied the Savior before men. But a strange thing happened. “Although the great majority of laypeople and many churchmen played it safe, the heroism of a few was a more potent public influence than the compromises of the many. Particularly notable was the bravery of Christian women. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, who barely escaped martyrdom himself, describes how a local mob, worked up to a bloodthirsty pitch by the authorities,
seized the wonderful old lady Apollonia, battered her till they knocked out all her teeth, built a pyre in front of the city, and threatened to burn her alive unless she repeated after them their heathen incantations. She asked for a breathing-space, and when they released her, jumped without hesitation into the fire and was burnt to ashes.”
The self-sacrificing examples of so many brave Christians drew the admiration of Rome’s pagan populace and many were drawn to join such a demonstratively committed community of believers. The Church then experienced a tidal wave of conversions.
More Martyrs and Heroes
God gives us many true heroes to inspire and guide us toward taking stands for him and for righteousness. Take those three young Jewish men who choose to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than break the first commandment by worshipping king Nebuchadnezzar’s image of Gold. Or consider Esther who risked her life to save the Jewish people from genocide. Remember the example of Deborah, who when the men of Israel lacked the courage to stand against the Canaanite king who had been cruelly oppressing them, stood up and joined the battle. God made her army a “thunderbolt” and gave her a glorious victory. Steven stood up to the religious leaders of the Jewish nation and gave them a most inspired account of their national history and sins, and of their responsibility for the recent murder of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He was stoned to death while seeing heaven opened and beholding Jesus at the right hand of God. The biblical list of martyrs and heroes is long.
Modern day martyrs are innumerable. There was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who so stricken with such great loathing over the plight of the Jews, joined a plot to overthrow Hitler and was hanged by the Nazis. And the German pastor Martin Niemoller, who in 1934 personally admonished the Fuhrer Adolph Hitler to cease his anti-Christian attacks, his crude infusion of pagan German mythology and his persecution of Jews. He was threatened but would not be silenced. His house was bombed, he was imprisoned, and finally died in Dachau concentration camp.
Thousands of German pastors and priests were killed by the Nazis for resisting the crimes of an illegitimate and evil state. They stood up for something. They did not have rigormortis. They were not prone. Their Christianity required them to not remain neutral. Sadly, they were a minority as many more thousands of clergymen and most of the German Christian church choose to go along with the Reich.
In the last century, more Christians have died standing up for righteousness than at any time since the church began. Hundreds of thousands have died in the last two decades in countries like the Sudan and China. We are warned that persecution will increase before an end is finally made at the return of Christ.
I know it can be hollow to talk of being faithful to martyrdom when such talk is made from the comforts and safety of my American home. However, the Bible makes it plain that if we are devout and self-sacrificing in our daily living now, God will give us the strength to pay the ultimate price should it ever be required. We should pray for safety, not martyrdom. In fact, we are nowhere counseled to seek martyrdom and are permitted to flee it when possible. But when faced with the sword, and fleeing is not possible, it is either stand up for Jesus or deny him.But we should not fool ourselves; if we are not spiritually standing up for anything now, we won’t stand at that final test. If I am not a dynamic, moving, growing, and “doing” Christian now, it is unlikely I will have the spiritual backbone and will to pass such a test.
The fact is, virtually all of you reading this will never face such a spiritual showdown as emperors Decius and Valerian forced on our fellow Christians 1800 years ago. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t being tested because we are—right now, every day in every way. The test is this: love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength; stand up now and walk the Way of God; join in proclaiming his truth; take on his divine nature by becoming like Christ; and be full of love and good works to all your neighbors.
Which brings us back to the frighteningly serious condition I’ve called spiritual rigormortis. This condition is the mirror opposite of standing up for the Cause of Christ and actively working to further the coming of the Kingdom of God. It would be healthy for us to give ourselves a private “physical” to see if we are rigormortis Christians. We could ask ourselves:
- Do I stand up to myself? Do I deny my self indulgences; do I battle laxity, ambivalence, tolerance and casualness toward sin? Do I refuse acceptance of whatever the fallen culture dishes out? Do I pray for a loving, serving, and giving spirit and to be used of God for his plans?
- Do I stand before God in humility asking him to actively direct my life? Do I submit my will to his greater will? Do I seek the clarity of his judgment on questions of right and wrong? Do I manifest conviction on the things of God? Am I moving Godward in mind and character and love?
- Do I stand up to others either to serve or resist: serving others at their point of need; resisting evil doers who would lead me away from The Way. Am I bold to share my faith and eternal hope with those in my circle of influence? Do I stand up for my beliefs and for what is right? Am I willing to draw lines at major issues, at core values? Am I afraid to stand up and be counted for Christ in the presence of men?
Frozen in Time
There are Christian folk I know who are frozen in time with a set of doctrines. To them, Christianity is a nice set of “the one and only true doctrines.” Like a bag of heavenly golf clubs, these doctrines will allow the user to shoot through the course of life with a winning score.
But doctrines are not Christianity. Dynamically moving Godward, becoming like Christ, is true Christianity. Doctrines summarize truths of Scripture. They are important and some are more important than others—the “weightier matters”–as Christ clearly labeled them in Matthew 23:23. Doctrines are the bones that, rightly put together, help define what the body of truth should look like. But they are not the body, they are not God. One can intellectually embrace the right doctrines and remain a rigormortis Christian, or worse yet, an enemy of God.
As the First Vice-President of the Bible Sabbath Association, I believe with deep conviction that the Sabbath is an important truth of God –a signal doctrine that points to the identity of God himself as Creator, and to our relationship with him. But I also can state with even greater conviction, that the Sabbath is only a part of the Story of God and being a Sabbath-keeper does not equate with being a Christian. If that is a truth, and I believe it is, we Sabbatarians will be judged on how we stand up for Jesus on all counts of Christian behavior, not just the Sabbath.
There is a danger to thinking one has it figured out doctrinally. Such thinking provides deceptive camouflage to unregenerate, self-centered living. One can “feel” right while “acting” wrong. If anything is plain in Scripture, it is that God will always judge us by what we do and how we act, not with our doctrine-set, our pretensions, or our Christian camouflage. A lukewarm condition in some respects is more dangerous that stone cold for it allows for easy self-deception of one’s sorry spiritual condition. Lukewarm is but a stage toward spiritual death.
God knows a stiff when he sees one. He can take our hand and feel it is cold. He can watch our Christian life and see that it is spent in the prone position. If you are concerned that you are not standing up for righteousness in every area of your life, concerned that you are growing cold or already there; that you are spiritually stiff, not growing and not moving Godward…there is hope if you want help. Not only can our Great God resurrect the dead and have them stand up and live, he can also resurrect a Christian with a case of rigormortis.
The first verse from one of my favorite songs, Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, reads like this:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldier of the cross;
Lift high his royal banner, It must not suffer loss:
From victory unto victory his army shall he lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.
There is no rank for immobile Christians in the Army of God. Join me in praying to our Lord for the conviction to become hot, mobile, active, and stand-up Christians.
 Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God—The struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, New York, Harcourt, 1999, 18.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Dan 3:12 ff.
 Est 4:12-17.
 Jdg 4.
 Ac 7.
 Vincent Carroll & David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2002, 119-121.
 Mt 10:32-33.
 Dt 6:5.
 Rev 3:15-17.