A Theology of Martyrdom — The Greatest Privilege of the Christian Life

Here in America, the church of Jesus Christ has for the most part enjoyed a peaceful Christendom. But throughout church history we know that Christians have endured some of the most grievous seasons of persecution known to man. Even now in the Middle East, North Korea, China, and India an intense season of persecution is sweeping over the followers of Jesus Christ.

It is hard for us who may have only experienced mere social rejection or embarrassment to understand what it truly means to lay down our lives for the sake of Christ.

Recently, I came across some stories about Christian Martyrdom which caused me to look differently at the death of God’s saints. The following believers died for their belief in Jesus Christ; they viewed their life as nothing compared to all that Christ has done. To them dying for Christ is the greatest privilege of the Christian life.

Stephen – the first Martyr

“Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:58-60)

Stephen sets the tone as the first of many Christian martyrs. He died not with a last shout of angry words or a hope of revenge falling on his murderers, but with the glory of the risen Christ within view. Stephen’s hope as his life came to an end was to go out like Jesus did, forgiving those who had no idea what they were doing.

I love the way my pastor, Scott Hagan described Stephen’s martyrdom,

“While being stoned, Stephen saw what Caleb and Joshua saw beyond the giants of Canaan. Stephen saw a God whose earth was His footstool. A God so great He made the giants look like grasshoppers. What the people casting the stones could not see were the rose pedals being poured over Stephen. The stones suddenly felt like feathers. He who wept over Stephens hurts… He who bled for his sins and prayed over his weaknesses… was now within clear view.” 1

After enduring the anger of his persecutors, the Bible says that Stephen simply fell asleep (Acts 7:60).

Polycarp’s Vision

Marc Galli’s book, “131 Christians Everyone Should Know” describes the humble demeanor of Polycarp – Bishop of Smyrna in 116 A.D. – and his vision which called him to lay down his life for Christ.

When Roman officials suddenly decided to arrest him for his faith, he decided it was best to wait for them at his home. His friends pleaded with him to flee, so to calm their nerves he decided to retreat to a small estate outside of town. But while in prayer, Polycarp received a Vision, a Vision which revealed to him that he was to die for Christ.

When his friends urged him to run, Polycarp welcomed the Roman soldiers, saying, “God’s will be done.” He was escorted to the proconsul, Statius Quadratus, who interrogated him and threatened him with death by burning at the stake. Polycarp replied, “While the proconsul’s fire lasts but a little while, the fires of judgment reserved for the ungodly cannot be quenched.” He then concluded, “But why do you delay? Come do what you will.”

Denisa – A sixteen year old Martyr

The Fox’s book of Martyrs tells the story of Denisa a sixteen year old who died boldly for the sake of Christ.

Under the persecution of Decius in A.D. 249, a Christian man named Nichomashus was brought before the proconsul and ordered to sacrifice to the pagan idols. Nichomashus replied, “I cannot pay that respect to devils, which is only due to the Almighty.” The proconsul being enraged by his speech tortured him until he became frail and recanted. Moments after, realizing what he had done, he fell into the greatest of agonies, dropped down on the ground and died immediately.

Denisa, a young woman of only sixteen years of age, who witnessed the recanting of faith by Nichomashus, suddenly shouted, “O unhappy wretch, why would you buy a moment’s ease at the expense of a miserable eternity!” Optimus, hearing this, called to her, and Denisa avowing herself to be a Christian, was beheaded, by the order of the proconsul.

A Theology of Martyrdom

Joseph Tson, a Romanian pastor, survived great persecution during the Communist regime in Romania. He and members of his church became part of the revival God used to break the Soviet grip on his nation.

When Tson was faced with imprisonment and the possibility of death, a fellow believer challenged him with what he calls the “theology of martyrdom.” Tson calls it the “greatest privilege of the Christian life – to give your life for Christ.” But, he adds, “You must be counted worthy to die for Christ!” Despite all of Tson’s personal suffering and that of his family, when freed from danger, he lamented, “We were not worthy!” 2

Tson’s lament could have easily been another man’s jubilation. But Joseph Tson viewed dying for Christ as a great reward.

We all ought to remember our brothers and sisters who hold fast to their faith, even unto death, all over the world. Although we may view death fearfully, they are unafraid to be counted worthy to die for our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

  1. Hagan, Scott. They Felt The Spirit’s Touch. Florida: Charisma House, 2003
  2. Hinson, Ed., Couch, Mal. Gen. Ed. The book of Revelation: Unlocking the Future. AMG Publishers, 1999