One of the most significant truths Jesus Christ revealed to His disciples
before He was betrayed and crucified is this: "In the world you have
tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (John
16:33). This phrase would help the early Christians in everyday sacrificial
living and, for some, be their song as they willingly gave up their
lives for the Lord. The martyrdom experience became widespread after
Jesus ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit filled His people. The
empowering work of the Spirit brought a supernatural boldness to the
Body and caused them to be change agents in their areas of influence.
The Example of Polycarp
Polycarp, one such famous martyr, demonstrated uncommon boldness in
the face of persecution. When a Roman governor threatened to send wild
animals after him in pursuit, Polycarp said, "Bring on your beasts."
To the offer of a fiery death at the stake, Polycarp resolutely responded,
"You try to frighten me with the fire that burns for an hour, and you
forget the fire of hell that never goes out" (Shelley 37). What could
possibly compel a man or woman to boldness and determination amidst
such horrible circumstances leading to the most horrific of deaths?
The Earliest Martyrdom
To explain martyrdom, we look to the first occurrence in the New Testament
Church. Stephen was a man "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (Acts 6:3)
who "was performing great wonders and signs" (v. 8). When accused of
blasphemy, he gave his defense of how Jesus was the Messiah and everything
God had promised in ages past. Infuriated by his words and valid accusations
of them, the Sanhedrin had him stoned to death. And though his body
died, this disciple's spirit soared because even in death he was a victor
- Christ had overcome the world. Stephen's story reveals two main components
that comprise martyrdom: testimony of the Lord and resulting death.
The Greek word that the New Testament uses for one who gives his or
her life in the name of Jesus is means "one who bears witness by his
death; one who can or does affirm what he has seen or heard or know"
(Vine 680). When challenged, Stephen could not help but speak of the
Gospel of Christ. He had been captured by a love so divine; (as the
old hymn goes) it demanded his soul, his life, his all. The wonderful
Cross, experienced in the life of this young man, issued forth testimony
about the Lord.
Teachings in the New Testament on Persecution
Besides the lessons from Stephen's death, one can gain much on the
topic of martyrdom from the teachings of Jesus. In Matthew 16:24-25,
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up His cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
A basic principle to be seen here is that martyrdom operates outside
of a worldly viewpoint. Loss is seen as gain. Taking up a cross
is viewed as taking up a crown. Yes, this passage relates to the Christian
life as a while, but in the area of martyrdom it clearly shows that
it functions according to the eternal viewpoint of God. It runs contrary
to the patterns of this world.
Secondly, this passage (also found in Luke 14:27) teaches us
that every believer can be a martyr and is expected to have the
question of willingness settled long before a potential situation arises.
Every believer is to carry his or her figurative cross around through
daily life. From the moment that an individual follows Christ, that
person's death certificate is signed. The significance in Christ's word
picture is that the believer who follows Christ has died to his or her
own ways and is ready to follow Him wherever He leads.
Scripture counts those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness
as those who are blessed (Matthew 5:10). One sees that this can apply
to martyrs in view of Paul's writings - Christ has become to us "wisdom,
and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Corinthians
1:13). God looks with favor upon those who receive punishment for His
Name. Christian martyrs are motivated by love for Jesus and willingly
chose to die rather than deny Him.
The Prophetic Revelation of Martyrdom
John's prophetic revelation gives a description of martyrdom after
death. While in heaven, the apostle saw the souls of those "who had
been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony
which they had maintained" (Revelations 6:9). They are clothed in white
robes, representing purity. This purity does not result from dying for
Jesus, but rather from the cleansing power of Christ and the Holy Spirit
while on earth. When the fullness of the Bride of Christ reaches heaven,
there is no distinction between martyrs and those who never experience
martyrdom (Revelations 19:7-8).
The Biblical Position
The Bible states generalities that can be applied to martyrdom, but
never boldly overstates the issue. It is the writer's firm belief that
this was done inspirationally by the Holy Spirit so that man wouldn't
seek martyrdom out in order to reach an elevated status in heaven. Living
an abiding life in the presence of God amidst a fallen world is just
as worthy as dying for the Savior. Both are motivated out of love, "[presenting]
your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is
your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1).
No matter in what capacity one fights in this cosmic struggle, the adversary is always the devil. The Apostle John saw him as a great red dragon warring against God's children through the beasts from the sea and land, standing for imperial power and imperial worship accordingly (Shelley 45). It is these two monsters that the saints war against today in China, America, Sudan, and every part of the earth. The struggle hasn't changed nor have the weapons. The conquering blow that the early Christian martyrs employed is the same that is valid and ready for us today. They conquered the enemy, "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" (Revelations 12:11).
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language.
Word Publishing. Dallas, Texas. 1995.
The Holy Bible. New American Standard. Zondervan. Grand
Rapids, Michigan. 2002.
Vine, W.E. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New
Testament Words. Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, Tennessee. 1996.