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.