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.