Question: "Christian martyrdom - what does the Bible say? Should Christians desire to become martyrs?"
Answer: The dictionary defines a martyr as “a person who is killed because of his religious or other beliefs.” Interestingly enough, the English word martyr is really a word transliterated from the original Greek martur, which simply means “witness.” The reason why this word became synonymous with dying for one’s religious beliefs is that the early Christian witnesses were often persecuted and/or killed for their witness.
As evidence of this, consider the story of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, recorded in Acts 6:8–7:53. After being anointed as one of the first deacons in the church, Stephen immediately began doing mighty works among the people. As is usually the case when the Holy Spirit is mightily at work and the gospel is going forth, the forces of darkness arise to hinder the work of the kingdom. In this case, several men came to dispute what Stephen was saying, but Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, was able to refute their criticisms. Rather than accept what Stephen was teaching, these men brought false charges against him to the Jewish leaders (Acts 6:11-14). Most of Acts 7 consists of Stephen’s speech to the Jewish leaders in which he essentially summarized the history of Israel up to their rejection of their Messiah.
At the end of the speech, Stephen utters these words, which seal his fate: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).
Now, there was nothing untrue in Stephen’s words. The Jewish leaders were indeed responsible for turning Jesus over to the Romans for execution. Despite Jesus’ miracles and authoritative teaching, the hardness of the Jewish leaders’ hearts kept them from seeing the truth about Jesus. The Jewish leaders, upon hearing Stephen’s words, were enraged and immediately arranged for Stephen’s execution by stoning (v. 58). Stephen was, therefore, the first Christian martyr recorded in Scripture.
The Bible places a premium on faithful believers who pay the ultimate price for their witness. Stephen was granted a glorious vision of heaven before he died, and in this vision, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father (Acts 7:56) as though waiting for Stephen in an attitude of honor for Stephen’s faithful service. As further evidence that martyrs are considered precious in God’s sight, the apostle John saw in his vision of the millennium those martyred for their faith reigning with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4). The apostle Peter, who wrote the most about martyrdom and suffering for one’s faith, said, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you... However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:14, 16). There is also the word of our Lord who pronounced a blessing upon those who are persecuted for His name: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11).
Clearly, the biblical evidence points to the fact that those who are persecuted and suffer for their witness to Christ (up to and including death) are pleasing in God’s sight. Given that, two additional questions arise. First, what if I’m not asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of Christ? God doesn’t call everyone to make the ultimate sacrifice, but the Bible calls all Christians to be prepared to give a defense of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). The key to this passage lies in preparedness. Consider this analogy: those enlisting in the armed services should do so with the understanding that they may be called into battle and may be called upon to die in the service of their country. This is (or should be) the mindset of everyone who joins the military. Clearly, not all enlisted men and women die in the service of their country, and not all are even called into battle. Despite this, they are trained daily to be prepared for battle. The same goes for the Christian. We are in a state of “warfare” (Ephesians 6:12-20), and our Lord may call upon any of us to witness and even be martyred for our faith. Thus, we must be prepared!
The second question that can be asked is, given martyrdom’s “special” status in God’s eyes, should we actually seek martyrdom? Biblically, we can’t make a case for seeking to be martyrs for the cause of Christ. Martyrdom is a great privilege if it is inevitable, but it is not to be sought. Jesus said, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23). Furthermore, reading through the book of Acts, we see that the early church continually fled from intense persecution (Acts 8:1; 9:25, 30; 14:6; 17:10, 14). In each of these biblical examples, we see the early Christians fleeing persecution and taking all necessary precautions for survival. When Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39), He is not calling for people to make an attempt to lose their lives. Rather, He is calling us to be willing to lose our lives for His sake. Those who actively seek the path of martyrdom are not seeking it for the glory of God, but for their own glory. As the old saying goes, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. God’s purpose in martyrdom is the glorification of His name and the building up of His church.