A Christian martyr is someone who died for his or her faith, rather than renounce Christ. Ever since Stephen was stoned to death outside Jerusalem (Acts 7), Christians around the world have suffered and died for the sake of Christ. There are many lessons we can learn from the testimony of the martyrs. Each person who is bold enough to give up his life for Christ has a unique lesson to teach us. This article will discuss a few lessons we can glean from Christian martyrs as a whole.
Christian martyrs teach us that we can stand for God no matter the circumstances. Millions of people throughout history have willingly died for their faith. If they can do it, so can we. That does not mean we should seek out suffering or death for Christ, but it does mean that, if we are presented with the choice of “die or deny Christ,” we should be bold and cling to Christ. Our love for God should take us as far as God’s love for us took Him—to death. Jesus prepared His disciples for persecution: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33). Martyrs show us what it looks like to stand firm in not denying Jesus.
Another lesson Christian martyrs teach us is that we will receive a reward for standing for our faith. Revelation 20:4–6 paints a picture of the reward awaiting the Christian martyrs who die during the future Tribulation: “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. . . . This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection.”
Jesus attached a blessing to the suffering Christians face in this world: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). As he died Stephen caught a glimpse of the glory awaiting him: “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Interestingly, the Greek word translated “crown” in the New Testament is stephanos (the source of Stephen’s name).
Christian martyrs are a model of grace under pressure. They teach us how to handle persecution of any kind. Stephen died with grace on his lips: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). He forgave his murderers, and his forgiveness echoed that of Christ Himself (Luke 23:34).
Those who persecute Christians often have a goal of humiliating them and making them believe the hatred toward them is justified. But Jesus told us ahead of time of their true motivation: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18–19). The numerous Christian martyrs throughout history were killed because they were chosen by Christ and do not belong to the world.
Christian martyrs also provide evidence that the Bible is true. The writers of the Bible, most of whom were martyred, held to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection to the very end. Some people might die for a lie they think is true, but no one dies for a lie he knows to be false. The Christian martyrs knew what they believed was true.
When we press into knowing God personally and truly begin living for God, we will become a target for those who hate God. The spiritual battle is real, and so are the rewards. We are serving a real God who really loves us, who was really willing to die for us, and who really rewards us for standing for Him.
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Researching Christian martyrdom through the centuries is a worthwhile study. There are some great books available that tell the stories of those who gave everything for Jesus. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments is one example, and D. C. Talk’s book Jesus Freaks is another.