The way of the cross is the essential context for a biblical understanding of martyrdom. We wrongly associate martyrdom with bold and noble action on the part of the martyr: We think of the martyr as enduring persecution and torture, defending the faith, giving his life for Christ. This sounds praiseworthy and causes us to honor the martyr for his self-sacrifice. We imagine Christ appreciatively acknowledging the martyr as the martyr enters heaven triumphantly, with Christ proclaiming, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”[i]
In scripture, however, the emphasis in martyrdom is not on the martyr’s action but God’s. The martyr is not portrayed as standing up for God or defending the faith, because neither God nor the faith needs to be defended. Instead, the martyr is made a martyr by placing his life in God’s hands. The martyr’s only hope in life and death is that God will act according to God’s promises. This means that the martyr will often appear passive, not active, from the standpoint of the world. The martyr’s actions may even appear cowardly, not noble, according to the world’s standards. With patient endurance, the martyr awaits deliverance at God’s hands, in God’s way, according to God’s promises. Because God’s promises are often hidden under the opposite, the martyr is left to look weak and foolish in the eyes of all observers. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For it seems to me that God has displayed us apostles at the end of the procession, like prisoners appointed for death. We have become a spectacle to the whole world, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are dishonored.”[ii]
Jesus is the exemplar. On the way to the cross he looks weak and powerless in the eyes of observers, even his followers. He does not look noble. He looks foolish. The gospel writers do not hide this, nor do they emphasize Christ’s heroic endurance. Instead, they emphasize his trust in his Father. The gospel writers show him living out the words of Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” He does not struggle with his persecutors but with his Father. We overhear him in Luke 22:42 saying to his Father, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” On the cross he addresses his Father, not his followers, when he asks, “Why have you forsaken me?” He understands his followers’ absence but not his Father’s. Yet even his final words are words of trust: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[iii]
In the same way, the martyr commits his spirit into God’s hands, trusting in God’s promises over the forces that futilely seek to overpower us each moment. Christ does not praise martyrs for boldness or sacrifice on his behalf. He commends our simple trust in him.
Martyrdom is thus not bold action for God but rather simple trust in God and his promises. We do not sacrifice ourselves for Christ. Christ prepares us as a sacrifice. Paul writes in Romans 8:36, “As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’” Paul is not complaining. He does not mean that we are badly outnumbered and outmanned by our enemies. Rather, like sheep, our purpose is to be slaughtered. The slaughter is not a tragedy but the purpose for which sheep are born and raised. Christ, the good shepherd, oversees the process from start to finish. He knows the right time for our sacrifice. He determines when and how, and who participates. No part of it happens without his command, consent, and control.
That is why in Romans 12:1, Paul does not urge us to sacrifice ourselves for Christ but instead to present ourselves for sacrifice. To whom are we presenting ourselves? To Christ, who is the one who prepares us for sacrifice, and who prepares others, even our persecutors, for their role in the process. The Father used many people to participate in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In the same way, Christ uses many people to participate in us being sacrificed. But ultimately, just as all things concerning Christ’s death were in the hands of the Father, all things concerning our death are in the hands of Christ. The life that is sacrificed in us is his, not our own. Our own life was put to death for sin on the cross, slain by his word. Now it is his laid-down life that lives in us, and it lives for the purpose of being laid-down again and again. When it is laid down through us, it is not a sacrifice for sin. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, Christ’s sacrifice for sin was “once for all”.[iv] But sacrifice is not only for sin. It is for praise,[v] for doing good and sharing with others,[vi] and for sharing in his holiness.[vii] These sacrifices will never end. They are pleasing to God.[viii] The Apostle Paul says that when we present ourselves to Christ to be used by him as this kind of living sacrifice, God is well-pleased.[ix]
John 3:16 declares that the Father loves the world and thus gives his Son. The Son does not sacrifice himself for the world. He places himself in the Father’s hands, so that the Father may use him as the Father sees fit. In the same way, the Son loves the world and gives his church. The church does not sacrifice itself, whether for Christ or the world. The church simply places itself in the Son’s hands, for the Son to use as he sees fit. The martyr’s role is not to sacrifice himself but to trust in the promises of God. It is up to God, not us, to determine the meaning and purpose of each moment of our lives. This is why, as John notes, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when Christ appears, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is.”[x] Our role is to place ourselves in God’s hands by trusting in his promises, no matter the cost.
In 1563, a book was published that went on to become the most popular book on martyrdom in Christian history. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church (commonly called “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”) tells the stories of martyrs from the beginning of Christianity on up to Foxe’s present time. The book is extraordinary for many reasons. Perhaps what is most extraordinary is how ordinary the martyrs are. In previous books of martyrs, martyrs are portrayed as possessing supernatural strength of both body and soul. They taunt their persecutors and laugh as their bodies are burned. But in Foxe’s book, nearly all the martyrs whose stories are told are very ordinary laypeople living very ordinary Christian lives. They are apprehended and interrogated for simple acts of faithfulness, like reading the Bible and praying the Lord’s Prayer in English. As they face interrogation and torture, they at times even show weakness.
Over the past 18 years, we have had 36 members of our Voice of the Martyrs Korea team whose lives have ended in martyrdom. These 36 were not our boldest preachers. They were not known for their self-control or pain tolerance. They were not especially altruistic or self-sacrificing. They were certainly not our most astute theologians. But what they did have in common was a notable awareness of their own weaknesses. They were not simply humble; they were openly suspicious of themselves. Thus, they were quick to turn outside of themselves and to depend on God, even in little things. Having been suspicious of themselves in little things, it was natural for them to be suspicious of themselves in big things and to trust God instead of themselves in those moments also. In other words, they were martyred long before they laid their bodies down the final time.
[i] Cf. Matthew 25:23.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 4:9-10.
[iii] Luke 23:46.
[iv] Cf. Hebrews 10:10.
[v] Cf. Hebrews 13:15.
[vi] Cf. Hebrews 13:16.
[vii] Cf. Hebrews 12:10.
[viii] Cf. Hebrews 13:16.
[ix] Cf. Romans 12:2.
[x] 1 John 3:2.
[xi] Woolf, 1995, pp. 249-250.
[xii] Ibid, p. 255.