Martyrs witness to the promises of God

To what does the Christian martyr bear witness?

In the world’s definition of witness, witnesses testify to what they have personally seen or heard. If we were to develop our understanding of Christian martyrdom based on that definition, we might assume that witness must refer to the Apostles’ eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But that would make all Christians who lived after the Apostles to be only indirect witnesses, that is, witnesses to something that we ourselves did not see or hear but instead only believed based on the Apostles’ testimony. In court, such statements would not be admissible as evidence but would instead be classified as “hearsay”, which means reporting the testimony of someone else. But this is not all that Christ has in mind for martyrs. Christ is doing something greater than raising up secondhand witnesses.

Some Christians might say that martyrs witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. But biblically, martyrs are more than just witnesses to their own faith. When we think about our faith, we often have in mind our personal belief in the existence of God (e.g., “I believe God is real”), or in the events recorded in the Bible (e.g., “I believe Jesus was born of a virgin”), or our theological interpretations of events (e.g., “I believe my sins are forgiven because Jesus Christ died on the cross for me”), or personal spiritual experiences we have had (e.g., “I believe Jesus delivered me from alcohol addiction”).

But this is not how statements of faith appear in scripture. In scripture, statements of faith usually contain a phrase like, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet”.[i] That is because scripture does not emphasize faith in God’s existence, or in specific events, theological meanings, or personal experiences. Instead, scripture emphasizes the promises of God and their fulfillment.

When the risen Jesus meets the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he does not chastise them for failing to believe eyewitness reports. He does not tell them that they should have believed the report of the women who saw the empty tomb,[ii] the angels at the tomb who announced to the women that Jesus was alive,[iii] or the companions of the disciples who then went to the tomb and found it exactly as the women had testified.[iv] Instead, Jesus chastises them for failing to believe “all that the prophets have spoken”.[v] Biblical faith is always faith in all that God has promised.

[i] Cf. Mt. 1:22; Jn. 12:38; Rom. 1:2.

[ii] Luke 24:22.

[iii] Luke 24:23.

[iv] Luke 24:24.

[v] Luke 24:25.

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We will be his martyrs. For the Bible tells us so.

Martyrdom is not a special calling Jesus gives only to the apostles or to a small number of bold Christians at special moments in history. In fact, martyr is a common term in the Bible. It appears more than two hundred times in the New Testament and is used for many people and situations.[i] It is used even of Jesus himself in Revelation 1:5, where he is called “the faithful martyr”. Biblically, martyr is a much more common description of Jesus’ followers than other words like preacher. Words related to martyrdom appear six times more frequently in the New Testament than words related to preaching.[ii]

In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his church for martyrdom. He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The word translated witnesses is the Greek word martyres, or martyrs. You will be my martyrs to the ends of the earth, says Jesus.

It is important to note the form of Jesus’ statement. It is not an invitation (“Anyone who would be my martyr, come”), a command (“Be my martyrs”), or an ethical appeal (“You should be my martyrs”), which we would then accept or reject. Rather, the Greek word esesthe, or will be, is future middle indicative tense, [iii] which means simply that what is stated will become true. Jesus is revealing something about us that is presently hidden from us and the world: We will be his martyrs.

As we will see throughout this book, Jesus’ words are not mere exhortations or predictions. Instead, his words create what he speaks. Luther calls a word spoken by God a verbum efficax, “an effective, accomplishing Word”.[iv]  When God speaks, what he speaks comes into existence. At the beginning of the Bible God says, “Let there be light,” and light comes into existence. In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “You will be my martyrs”, and then the process of our martyrdom begins. It is the word he speaks that makes us martyrs.

This is very different than the common Christian understanding of martyrdom. Martyrdom is usually not understood as something Jesus does to us through his word. Martyrdom is usually described as something the martyr does for Jesus (i.e., self-sacrifice), or something that enemies do to the martyr. For example, Christians often say that a martyr is “someone who is killed for their beliefs”. This leads us to think of martyrdom as the supreme test of faith in the face of persecution. It is a test that we worry we might fail if it came to us. We thus esteem martyrs highly. We are amazed by their bold faith and strong wills. We hope that we ourselves will never have to face tests of faith like they faced.

But in scripture, a martyr is one whom Christ transforms into a witness. That transformation is Christ’s work, not the martyr’s. Martyrdom is not an achievement of the martyr. It is not the Lord’s test of the martyr’s faith or preparation. Christ even commands martyrs with regard to the time of testing, “Do not worry about how to respond or what to say.”[v] When the martyr appears to falter and fail, even this is part of Christ’s ongoing process of forming the martyr.[vi] Through the whole process, Christ is revealing to the martyr and the world the strength of God, which is made perfect in human weakness[vii]–not in spite of such weakness. Martyrdom is Christ displaying his power, authority, and faithfulness, to the martyr, the church, and the world.

If we trust this, our fear of being martyred will dissipate. We will see that martyrdom is Christ’s work on us, which he will bring to completion for his glory.[viii] We will understand that the veneration we formerly gave to martyrs rightly belongs to Christ alone. We will no longer praise the martyr for his faithfulness to Christ. Instead, we will praise Christ for his faithfulness to the martyr.

[i] Trites, 1983, p. 9.

[ii] Selwyn, 1964, p. 395.

[iii] “Ἔσεσθε”, n.d.

[iv] Bayer, 2008, p. 53.

[v] Matthew 10:19 (BSB).

[vi] Cf. Luke 22:31.

[vii] 2 Corinthians 2:12.

[viii] Cf. Philippians 1:6.

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The Cross: The “Rosetta Stone” that restores our right understanding of life and death

In scripture, life and death are not straightforward opposites. Self-preserving life and death-through-sin are often portrayed as identical. The death that enters the world through sin will one day be destroyed.[i] But the death that is Christ’s laid-down life did not enter the world as a result of sin. That death will not be destroyed when sin is destroyed. It is eternal—what the Bible calls eternal life.

Nature reflects Christ’s laid-down life in many ways: the changing seasons, the seed that falls into the ground and dies, the biological cycles of decomposition that renew the soil. These kinds of laying-down-life did not enter the world due to sin, and they will not be banished from the world when death-through-sin is. In Revelation 22:2, we see “the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”. Christ forever lays down his life, yet at the same time he is, and forever will be, “the Living One…alive for ever and ever”.[ii]

Death that results from laying down one’s life is not the opposite of life. It is its essence. Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[iii] He says, “Whoever loses their life will preserve it”.[iv] He does not say that whoever loses their life will one day get it back. He says that true life is preserved (indeed, discovered) only when it is lost for Christ’s sake. That makes little sense in our language, but Jesus says that anyone who follows him will experience this daily through taking up their cross.[v] Every encounter with God is like this: an encounter with Christ’s life-in-death and death-in-life.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls this laid-down, taken-up life his glory.[vi] He prays, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” His having been slain before the foundation of the world, and his being the slain lamb on the throne: this is the glory that Christ had in the Father’s presence before the foundation of the world. It is revealed to the world in the cross. According to Jesus, it is a glory that only God can bestow.[vii] Martyrdom is always the work of God, not man. Martyrdom intersects with human history, but martyrdom is made (i.e., fashioned) from outside of it. Seen from inside history it looks like the work of persecutors and enemies. But seen from outside history it is God’s work alone.

How does this laid-down, taken-up life of God’s son relate to us? We first experience it in our lives as God’s provision for our sin. But there is much more to unfold about it. It is also the guarantee of all of God’s promises. As Paul says in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” It is thus the promise on which all of his other promises rest. As the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:20, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”

But perhaps most importantly, it is in/through/by means of the actual “laid-down, taken-up” life of Christ that we have relationship with God. In John 17:3, Christ calls this “eternal life”: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”[viii] In Philippians 3:10, the Apostle Paul says that our knowledge of God always takes the form of our participation in Christ’s laying down and taking up of his life. Paul writes, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”.

Note the phrase “like him”. Paul says that we become “like him”—like Christ and thus like God—by knowing (i.e., personally participating in) Christ’s sufferings and crucifixion. But in Genesis 3:4, the serpent tells Eve that we become “like God” by knowing good and evil.[ix] Note also in Philippians 3:10 the role death plays. Paul says that the knowledge that makes us like God means “becoming like him in his death”. But in Genesis 3:4, the serpent tells Eve that the knowledge that makes us like God means “You will not certainly die”.[x]

Satan defines life as “not-death”. But scripture defines life as personal participation in Christ’s suffering and laying down his life—or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.  At the heart of eternal life is our personal experience of participating in Christ’s death. This is not merely a one-time tragic penalty for sin but instead the revealing of God’s immortal, unforced, unprompted divine nature. This is his nature which has existed like this unchanged from before the foundation of the world.

Satan cannot even begin to comprehend the idea of a desirable form of knowledge that involves participating in death. Therefore, we fallen humans cannot comprehend that idea either, since we accepted Satan’s lies about life and death. His lies even seep into our Christian thinking. The meaning of Christ’s cross becomes twisted. We regard our dying as the root problem that must be overcome, and so we see the cross as the means by which we are able to access the benefit of personal immortality in a restored, personal relationship with God. But scripturally, the cross is not a means to access a benefit. It is not merely the solution to a problem. It is the revelation of the true nature of God, which we are enabled to partake of through participating in Christ’s own “laying-down” life. Salvation includes much more than just a “restored” or “personal” relationship with God. God reveals to us what the New Testament writers say has been hidden since before the foundation of the world: the cross-bearing Christ as the wisdom and power of God.[xi]

According to scripture, the cross makes it possible for us to know (i.e., to partake of and participate in forever) the life that the Father and Son always share between them—the life revealed through the cross. Christ calls this “eternal life”. But due to our sinful nature we wrongly prefer to see the cross as the fulfillment of Satan’s promise, “You will not certainly die.” We think of salvation as self-preservation and self-fulfillment guaranteed for us by Christ’s death. We want to be saved from any kind of death, even (perhaps especially) death on a cross. We may regard Christ’s death with gratitude, but we certainly do not want to participate in anything like that, certainly not eternally. We regard the cross as a tragic necessity. But Christ regards the cross as the revealing of God’s glorious, eternal nature.

Our wrong understanding causes us to be repelled by Christ’s life-laid-down: God does not offer it to us in order to preserve our life but rather to put it to death, so that we may live by Christ’s laid-down life instead. We are threatened by God’s divine nature of laying-down love and the promises that flow from it. We trust instead Satan’s promise of how to be like God and not die. We cling to that promise, and thus we cling to self-seeking and self-preservation as our way of life.

This is why we human beings always encounter God’s promises as first a “no”. The “no” comes from us toward God, not from God toward us. There is no “no” in God, only a “yes” in Christ. But there is always a “no” from humans toward God. The laid-down life always entails the complete emptying that we human beings—often, even we Christians—can only understand as death, but which God calls eternal life.

The cross-carrying Christ, slain before the foundation of the world, is the stone that human builders continue to reject. His cross remains a stumbling block to Jews (and many Christians) and foolishness to Greeks.[xii] But he and his “laid-down” life are the “Rosetta Stone” for understanding all of God’s promises. In 1799 the Rosetta Stone was discovered, making possible the translation of previously indecipherable Egyptian hieroglyphics. Without taking up Christ’s cross daily, it is impossible for us to correctly understand the promises of God. We will wrongly conclude that faith in God will preserve the very things God is actually seeking to put to death in us, and we will expect to be spared from the very things we understand as death but which God gives as participation in his eternal life. If we do not interpret God’s promises according to the cross, we will misinterpret them. We will think they lead to self-preservation and self-fulfillment, either in this life or in the life to come.

[i] Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[ii] Rev. 1:18.

[iii] John 15:13.

[iv] Luke 17:33.

[v] Cf. Luke 9:23.

[vi] Cf. John 12:23-33.

[vii] Cf. John 5:44.

[viii] John 17:3.

[ix] Cf. Genesis 3:5.

[x] Cf. Genesis 3:4.

[xi] Cf. 1 Corinthians 1-2.

[xii] Cf. Matthew 21:42; 1 Corinthians 1:23.

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