The Bible Says the Love of God is better than life (Ps. 63:3). Throughout church history, there have been those who have taken Him at His word, choosing to believe that it is better to die for the love of God than to live without it. They are the martyrs, who drank most deeply of the cup of suffering and counted it a privilege.
Joseph Tson of the Romanian Missionary Society has said, “Christianity is a religion of martyrdom because its founder was a martyr.” Indeed, the Greek word translated “martyr,” which actually means “witness,” came to refer to those who died for their faith.
In the first-century church (as today), to be a faithful witness often meant death. Stephen was stoned because he gave a faithful witness (Acts 7:59). Later, James became the first apostle to be killed when Herod put him to death with the sword (Acts 12:2). Tradition holds that Paul, Peter, and all of the other apostles except John were put to death. And many other ordinary saints suffered martyrdom as well.
Then, near the end of the New Testament period, the apostle John had a vision of heaven and saw under the altar the souls of those who had been martyred. They cried out to God, asking when He would rise up, show His triumph, and vindicate them (Rev. 6:10)—something the living saints must have wondered, as well.
God’s answer in Revelation 6:11 is stunning. He tells the martyred saints to rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, were completed. The clear implication is that there is a number of martyrs appointed by the Lord, and that number must be fulfilled before the consummation comes. “Rest,” the Lord says, “until the number is completed who are to die as you have died.”
Martyrdom is not something accidental. It does not catch God off guard. It is not unexpected. And it is emphatically not a strategic defeat for the cause of Christ. Oh, it may look like defeat. But it is part of a plan in heaven that no human strategist would ever conceive or could ever design.
The death of Stephen must have stunned the Jerusalem church. God let the church’s most brilliant spokesman be taken, but the persecution that arose after Stephen’s death caused the church to scatter far and wide in missionary service (Acts 8:1, 4). Similarly, the death of James must have rocked the community. God let one of the Twelve, the foundation of the church, be brutally killed, but a great outpouring of prayer was released as the same fate was held over Peter’s head (Acts 12:5). Later, the deaths of Paul and Peter in Rome must have made those in the young movement wonder what would become of them if the two most important leaders could be killed in one persecution. Many wavered, but many also stood strong—and for three centuries Christianity grew in soil that was wet with the blood of the martyrs.
Until Emperor Trajan (about a.d. 98), persecution was permitted but not legal. From Trajan to Decius (about a.d. 250), persecution was legal but mainly local. From Decius, who hated the Christians and feared their impact on his reforms, until the first edict of toleration in 311, persecution not only was legal, it was wide-spread and general.
Here is how one writer described the situation in this third period: “Horror spread everywhere through the congregations; and the number of lapsi (the ones who renounced their faith when threatened) … was enormous. There was no lack, however, of such as remained firm, and suffered martyrdom rather than yielding; and, as the persecution grew wider and more intense, the enthusiasm of the Christians and their power of resistance grew stronger and stronger” (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Vol. 1).
Tertullian, the defender of the faith who died in 225, said to his enemies, “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you: the blood of Christians is [the] seed [of the church]” (Apologeticus 50). And Jerome said about one hundred years later: “The church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it” (Letter 82).
For three hundred years, to be a Christian was an immense risk to one’s life, possessions, and family. It was a test of what a person loved more. At the extremity of that test was martyrdom. But above that martyrdom was a sovereign God who said, “There is an appointed number.”
It remains so today. Martyrs have a special role to play in planting and empowering the church. They have a special role to play in shutting the mouth of Satan, who constantly says that the people of God only serve him because life goes better. And they have a special place in the heavenly choir. The martyrs are not dead. They are alive. And they are praising God in heaven today: The noble army of martyrs continues to praise God because they all said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). They all believed Christ was worth more than life, more than falling in love, more than marrying and having children, more than seeing their children grow up, more than making a name for themselves, more than having the dream spouse, the dream house, and the dream cruise. Christ to them was worth more than all their plans and dreams. They all said, “It is better to be cut off in the midst of my dreams, if I might gain Christ.”
Will you say with the apostle Paul that your heart’s desire is that Christ be exalted in your body, whether by life or by death? Do you love Jesus this much? Do you love Him so much that to lose everything in order to be with Him (2 Cor. 5:8) would be gain?
Do you love Christ more than life?