The issue of martyrdom is central to a vibrant Christianity. Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The reality is that the church is called to martyrdom. The Greek word “martus” that is used in the New Testament can be translated in the English to “martyr” or “witness” depending on the context. For example, in Acts 1:8, Jesus called His followers to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. The word for witnesses there is martus. We are called to be His martyrs. Whether or not we are forcibly killed for the gospel is actually a minor issue. Following Jesus requires an inward martyrdom from the word and it’s system. It requires a death to the ways of thinking and understanding that we were born with. In short, we must first be martyrs in our heart if we are to be true witnesses on the earth.
This concept is particularly difficult for western Christians. For one thing, the world is so appealing and comfortable that we find it difficult to root ourselves in an eternal reality. It is just too comfortable in this time and in this age. Secondly, western culture and the church have become intertwined in such a way that we sometimes assume our western culture is the equivalent of a Christian culture. While Christianity and Christian ideals have been a significant influence on western culture, we cannot consider western culture to be equivalent with a kingdom that Jesus clearly said was not of this world.
Martyrdom around the world for the call of Christ is on the rise. The western church is largely ignorant of just how many believers are dying for their faith on a daily basis. The martyrdom of believers is not something that ended after the first few centuries, nor is only isolated to a few places on the earth. Hostility, including physical hostility, towards believers is on the rise. I would highly suggest you check out Voice of the Martyrs to help connect with the persecuted church if you are not familiar with them already.
If it is to shake off its current lethargy, I believe the western church must embrace the call to martyrdom. While we do not yet face physical martyrdom, I believe God is calling for an inward martyrdom to the things of this age and to our own self. This inward martyrdom will require a death to what we have considered life and an embracing of the life that is eternal. Remember, an accurate translation of Matthew 7:14 is that the way that leads to life is both “narrow” and “difficult.” Let me warn you it is painful and difficult and the road has been deserted by many. However, it is still the one way to eternal life and the only way that creates witnesses on the earth that are ablaze with life from an eternal kingdom. There is no other way to be a genuine witness and testimony of Jesus on the earth. We simply must be martyrs to this world and this age, as was Paul who was crucified to this world (Galatians 6:14), before we can be valid, living witnesses on the earth.
There is a great stirring among parts of the church to return to the power and reality of the first century church. I believe this is the moving of God’s Spirit calling us back to apostolic Christianity. Many have focused solely on the method of church that was present in the first century and, while that is important, I believe we must press into the core realities that fueled and motivated the early believers if we are to tap into their power.
Ignatius was an early church leader in Antioch who was martyred in Rome. When he was being taken to Rome, he wrote several letters to various churches. These are the last words of an early Christian leader as he is being taken to the death. What follows is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to the church in Rome. Do not rush over it as a historical artifact, but consider and digest its words carefully. I believe this is the sort of heart that fueled the first century church and the sort of heart we are going to have to have if we are to win the western world for Jesus.
Excerpt from Ignatius letter to the church in Rome:
“I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.
No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.
The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.
The prince of this world is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on God. Let none of you here help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also God’s side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world. Do not harbor envious thoughts. And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die. My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: “Come to the Father”. I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only God’s bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.
I am no longer willing to live a merely human life, and you can bring about my wish if you will. Please, then, do me this favor, so that you in turn may meet with equal kindness. Put briefly, this is my request: believe what I am saying to you. Jesus Christ himself will make it clear to you that I am saying the truth. Only truth can come from that mouth by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me that I may obtain my desire. I have not written to you as a mere man would, but as one who knows the mind of God. If I am condemned to suffer, I will take it that you wish me well. If my case is postponed, I can only think that you wish me harm.”
Now let’s go live it.