Martyrdom is a word we rarely use in our modern world; mainly because we don’t believe truth is worthy of our death. Our pejorative use of the term betrays how little we think of those who willingly sacrifice self for something which transcends their temporal comfort; “Don’t make yourself a martyr!” And we mean it—martyrs are far too zealous to be any fun. Of course, there are more than enough people willing to fight for their cause—to be martyr makers—but very few willing to die for it. One may enjoy professional football, and even give a good swing at the fan with the opposing colors painted on their face, but I doubt any would take a bullet for the glory of the gridiron. While we may appreciate our jobs, very few find their labor so compelling that they would sacrifice family and fortune to maintain it—you just find another one.
Thus, we discover the emptiness of our modern world: if there is nothing worth dying for, there is certainly nothing worth living for. To be fair, something/someone must be unimaginably valuable so as to justify such great sacrifice. Who/what could even come to close? The message of the early church was Jesus and the gospel.
The word “martyr” simply means “witness” and its use was originally Jewish in nature. During the Maccabean revolt under Antiochus IV, certain pious Jews passively resisted the evil regime and willingly died for their traditions. Moving forward the term was frequently used of those who gave their lives “witnessing” to certain truths. Later, under the Roman persecution of the Christians, the word equally became synonymous because those witnessing to the resurrection were so frequently slaughtered. Yet, as Tertullian noted, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Persecution and martyrdom would only open the door wider for the kingdom as people saw the great hope of these early disciples and sought an answer (1 Pet. 3:15).
Other than Jesus, the first martyr we see within the Christian church is Stephen in Acts 7. The cause of his martyrdom is the same as it was for every Christian: he witnessed to the truth. He spoke about the stubborn wickedness of the Jewish people against God’s anointed leaders. He spoke about their rejection of Jesus and thus their rejection of God. He told their story, but not from an angle they preferred—and they killed him for it. Yet, as his body was pelted with stones and the blood coursed from his body, he saw the resurrected Lord and subsequently prayed for the forgiveness of his murders (Acts 7:56-60).
This is the quintessential picture of the church confronting the pagan world: exposing and declaring their sin out of love and forgiving their rejections and persecutions. The church battles the extremes of this position in every generation. We tend to either expose sin out of fear, malice, or arrogance or we refuse to speak out for similar reasons. The only way we can accomplish this balance is, like our brother Stephen, keeping our eyes on the resurrected Lord. Jesus is the goal; the one who endured and conquered (the faithful witness, Rev. 1:5) and promises the same victory to his faithful church.