Martyrdom is a subject that elicits grievous, gruesome, grotesque images of believers mercilessly and maliciously thrown to lions or stoned to death. Did you know that more Christians died as martyrs in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined leading up to 1900? With deep gratitude we call to mind those who suffer to the point of death sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
 Luke records the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7:54-60, “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’
“Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
We discover accounts of believers down through the ages who have given their lives for “the faith once delivered to the saints” in the following books: Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, By Life or By Death, By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the 20th Century and Some Gave All: Four Stories of Missionary Martyrs: Heroes of the Faith. Current information is available from a ministry known as “The Voice of the Martyrs.”
The writer to the Hebrews shares in Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. . .” pointing back to Hebrews 11:35-40, where we read, “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”
Luke records the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The word translated “witnesses” is the Greek word martereo or martyrs. Since Jesus here restates the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20, we could call Acts 1:8 “the martyr’s commission.”
We discover the martyr’s communion in Philippians 3:9-11, where Saul now named Paul, clearly expresses, “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Later Paul writes to Timothy, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Victor Kuligin wisely states in Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said, “Even though as his disciples we should expect persecution, this does not mean we should go looking for trouble or picking fights. Walking around with a martyr complex is not what Jesus expects; nor would it make the gospel attractive. If we are following Jesus, rest assured persecution will come our way. We will not need to go hunting for it or purposefully creating it.”
We sense the martyr’s commitment in 2 Timothy 1:11-12, where we read these powerful words of Paul the apostle, “I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”
He also writes in 2 Timothy 4:6-7, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
While many have heard of Jim Elliot, martyred missionary to the Aucas, few have heard of his older brother named Bert. Bert Elliot shares, “When their mother asked Jesus for her sons to be seated at His side, Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking… Can you drink the cup I am about to drink?’”
Bert explains, “I like to think of my brother Jim as having drunk that cup at an early age, like James. James was decapitated as one of the first martyrs. Jim wrote in his journal shortly before his death, ‘In Thee lives the spirit of the great short-lived One. Art thou sufficient for this, oh my soul?’”
Bert concludes, “I think that it’s not the length of one’s life; it’s the consecration of that life. You can drink that cup by dying, like my brother, at an early age, or you can drink that cup day by day, year by year, as I have done.”
Bert and Colleen Elliot served as missionaries in Peru for 60 years.
John records the martyr’s commendation by our Lord, who recognizes “Anitpas my faithful martyr” (Revelation 2:13). Also in Revelation 2:9-10 we read Jesus’ words to the church in Smyrna, “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Dr. J.C. Ryle exhorts, “Let us be willing to do anything, and suffer anything, and give up everything for Christ’s sake. It may cost us something for a few years, but great will be the reward in eternity.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon reveals something of the martyr’s communication in the following sermon excerpt, “Ask the martyrs who gave their lives up for their Master, ‘Was he with them to the end?’ The placid smiles upon their countenances while enduring the most painful death were evident testimonies that God is true. Their joyous songs, the clapping of their hands amidst the fire, and their exultation even on the rack, or when rotting in some loathsome dungeon – all these have proved how faithful the Lord has been.”
Before Dr. John G. Paton became a missionary to the New Hebrides, a Mr. Dickson warned him, “You will be eaten by cannibals!” To which Paton humbly responded:
“Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”
Remember some gave all.

By Dr. Franklin L. Kirksey is pastor of First Baptist Church of Spanish Fort, Alabama and author of Sound Biblical Preaching: Giving the Bible a Voice. All Rights Reserved.


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Dr. Franklin L. Kirksey is pastor of First Baptist Church of Spanish Fort, Alabama where he has served since 2004. Kirksey has served churches in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina.

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