Martyrdom and the Sword in Early Christianity

| July 26, 2012 | Comments (2)
Christians in the Roman empire getting eaten for their faith.

Christians in the Roman empire getting eaten for their faith.

Martyrdom means dying for one’s faith. The New Testament predicts that some disciples will die for the faith, but why? In which context? What are the rewards?


Early Christianity:

The Theology of Martyrdom

Some passages in the New Testament deal with martyrdom.

Luke 9:23-24 is about the personal cost of discipleship, and discipleship means getting training, learning. The verses say:

23 Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24; cf. 14:27; Matt. 10:38-39; 16:24; Mark 8:34)

These verses appear in the context of Jesus predicting his own death in Jerusalem, where he will have to pick up his cross and carry it to the place of crucifixion outside of the city and put it in the hole where Roman soldiers would hoist it up.

In the New Covenant, which the disciples could join or refuse, they had to know the terms of the agreement, the contract. All of them would have to take up their cross daily – not a one-time act. They would have to lose their old or former way of living for themselves and find their new life. Their strong attachment to money, fame, and comfort will have to be renounced in the new kingdom Jesus was ushering in.

The cross means that they must follow Jesus no matter what, on a daily basis; a “daily martyrdom” is continuous. Are they willing to join this new movement?

The next verses are still about the cost of discipleship, but it takes on another level of risk. Luke 21:12-13, 16-19 say:

12 “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 This will result in your being witnesses to them… 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 All men will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By standing firm you will gain life. (Luke 21:12-13, 16-19)

These verses come in the context of the end times, when persecution would be intense. But we should not limit the passages just to that ultimate timeframe, for in one sense we are living in the end times right now (Hebrews 1:2). This intensity could happen at any time. Disciples must be willing to be delivered to the authorities of various sorts – religious or secular – so that we can be witnesses to them.

We shall see, below, that Paul the apostle and others fulfilled these verses. But the trouble does not stop there for the disciples. Sometimes even family members will betray the new follower and learner of Jesus and turn him over to death by the authorities.

This persecution and possible death happens in the Islamic world, when a Muslim converts to Christ.[3]

But the disciple should stand firm, and no hair will be harmed. This promise of no harm cannot be literal, since he may lose his life, but the image refers to no eternal or spiritual loss. This is martyrdom that does not come from waging military war, but spiritual war, by preaching the gospel.

The next verses say that some disciples may be crucified by the Jerusalem religious establishment or its agents. One verse reads:

34 Therefore I am sending you [the Jewish leadership] prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. (Matt. 23:34)

And another one says:

2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. (John 16:2)

The context of Matt. 23:34 is Jesus’ lengthy denunciation of the Jerusalem religious establishment and its agents. The second-person pronoun “you” and “your” addresses them directly. And John 16:2 appears in the context of Jesus’ final words to his disciple before being arrested. Both verses say religious leaders will kill and crucify some of Jesus’ disciples and believe they render service to God.

The apostle James, one of the twelve, was not directly killed by the religious establishment, but by Herod Agrippa, who was zealous for the religious law, as we shall see, below.

Before Paul’s conversion he used to persecute and imprison disciples, and he approved of Stephen’s martyrdom – the first one in recorded church history – when Paul stood by, while the crowd stoned Stephen to death (Acts 6:11-8:1). Paul thought he was serving God, and so did those who arrested Stephen. “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place [the temple] and against the law,” said the false witnesses (Acts 6:13).

In the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 the author extols the courage of men and women of God in the past:

36 …Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:36-38)

The author goes on to say (12:1) that since we believers are surrounded with “such a great cloud of witnesses” (those great men and women in the past in the Hall of Faith), we should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” us and “run with perseverance the race” of our course of life.

Thus, martyrdom tests our level of commitment and purifies and strengthens us.

The final verse in this brief section on martyrdom in early Christianity is about specific persecution of the church of the city Smyrna, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The verse says:

10 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. (Revelation 2:10)

Jesus speaks to the apostle John the revelator and tells the church through John that the members must be faithful during persecution, even to the point of death. To encourage them, Jesus reminds them of the crown of life – eternal life. The context of this promised gift is that these Christians were already converted and committed to Christ.

Their future martyrdom would not guarantee them a place in heaven, for the born-again experience (John 3:3) already assured them of that. Rather, during their tough times, they may consider wavering and wobbling and turn back from following Christ.

He has to remind them that a crown of life awaits those who remain faithful. Christians who understand Biblical theology do not draw the conclusion that martyrdom gets them a fast-track to heaven in a religious war or even after suffering unjust persecution.
Examples of Martyrs

Christians in the early church fulfilled and carried out these verses on being persecuted and even dying for their faith. Peter and James were the two closest disciples of Jesus, the inner core.[4]Though Paul was not part of the inner core because he converted after the crucifixion and resurrection, he too saw the risen Jesus, though Paul was the last of the apostles to do so, as though “abnormally born” (his words in 1 Corinthians 15:7).

All three of them had a reason to pick up swords to fight their way out of persecution. Yet none of them died as holy warriors. They passed away as godly peaceful martyrs preaching the good news and teaching the faith.

Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, lived a full life attuned to the new kingdom, after the death and resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter was changed, but his change would get tested.

He and John the apostle faced a trial before the Sanhedrin or the high court of Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-22). Though ordered to stop teaching, they kept doing what they were called to do. Then he and the other apostles were arrested, imprisoned, released by an angel, re-arrested, flogged, and told not to preach again. At no time did he disobey God and stop preaching his message (Acts 5:17-42). He initiated civil disobedience for a godly cause, the gospel, an initiative that has inspired persecuted peoples everywhere for many centuries afterwards.[5]

About ten years later, Herod Agrippa arrested Peter and threw him in jail. Yet an angel helped him escape, so he went back to the church, who had been praying for him. He told them what had happened. He thought it best to leave, and no doubt took his wife with him (Acts 12:1-19). Sometime after Herod’s death (Acts 12:19-24), Peter and she came back to the capital, where he continued to lead the church there (Acts 15:1-35). At a time unknown to us, Peter and his wife seem to have left Jerusalem and Galilee for good.[6] Eventually they made their way to Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Church tradition takes up the events that occurred in their lives.

When Peter and his wife arrived in the huge city, a community of Christians thrived. This was to be their new home. The community realized right away that Peter had evolved into a great leader. He was part of the inner core of the twelve disciples. He told his stories that he had witnessed firsthand, as an eyewitness of Jesus. Peter was soon given – or maybe it happened naturally and gradually – the position of the bishop of Rome, the first one.[7]

Then tragedy struck. If this tradition can be believed, his wife was arrested and then led away to be executed. We do not know the reason, but it was surely because of being persecuted for the gospel. He tried to comfort her in her inevitable death by focusing on the temporariness of life and the eternity of heaven. “My dear, remember the Lord,” he told her. She was going home, and he would see her soon, hoping to encourage her.[8]

Then he too was martyred under Nero (ruled 54-68), by being crucified upside down because, presumably, he felt unworthy to be crucified right-side up, as Jesus was. A third-century Roman elder could still point to the cemetery where Peter was buried in Rome.[9]

Peter joined his wife at last, in heaven.

Like Peter, James was also a member of the inner core of the twelve disciples. He is about to learn the lessons of trials and death. As Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem where, he foreknew, death awaited him, James’s mother asked him to allow her two sons (John the apostle was the other son) to sit on either side of Jesus, left and right, in his kingdom.

Jesus replied with an answer they did not fully understand. He asked, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they quickly and confidently answered. But the cup refers to suffering and possibly death (Matt. 20:20-28). In James’s case, he was hauled before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-42). Like Peter, he too was flogged, but stood firm for the gospel.

The bitterest cup of suffering came about ten years later. Herod Agrippa was zealous to keep the law and sought the favor of the Jerusalem religious establishment.[10] He arrested James, and before anyone in the church had time to react, Herod ordered him beheaded in about A.D. 44.

James had indeed drunk the cup of suffering, even death.


Paul used to persecute the church, in an extra-zealous season of his life, and he did it out of love for the law and service to God (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-9; 22:4; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13). But then he too had his own Pentecost, so to speak. He was on the road to Damascus, when a light flashed around him. He heard a voice asking him why he was persecuting him (Jesus, that is, the church). Scales covered his eyes, and he had to be led by the hand to Damascus. The powerful became the helpless.

While fasting, he got prayer from a disciple, and the scales fell off his eyes. The “violent” (Paul’s word in Titus 1:13) persecutor became the peaceful apostle who proclaimed his message without the sword.

It was at this change of heart and new direction that Jesus said he was going to show Paul how much he would suffer for Jesus’ name (Acts 9:15-16). Time would tell how accurate that prophecy would become.

The persecutions, including beatings, stoning, riots, and imprisonment from which Paul suffered are too numerous to sketch out here, but towards the last one-fourth of the book of Acts, he was arrested by Jewish authorities and then protected and taken to Rome by the Roman authorities. After a series of complicated court appeals, charges, counter charges, and narrow escapes, he found himself under house arrest in Rome for two years. He was permitted to preach and had a certain freedom (Acts 28:11-30).

The strongest evidence, taking Acts and 1 and 2 Timothy into consideration, though scholars debate the question, says that Paul was acquitted, probably because no one appeared to testify against him. He was released and left Rome.

Then he came back to the capital about two years later, whereupon he was re-arrested, found guilty, and beheaded, tradition says, by Nero, in about A.D. 65-66. Paul writes his departing words, which some have used on their gravestones today:

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (1 Timothy 4:6-8)

The words perfectly encapsulate Paul’s life on earth and his hope for a reward in heaven.


The New Testament doctrine of martyrdom teaches that the believer may suffer unjust persecution from preaching the gospel alone. In no way does the New Testament use the terms of a business transaction. Instead, it recognized the sociological fact that early Christianity was in competition with other religions, like Judaism and paganism. As the new religion rubbed against the earlier two, sparks flew. The new “sectarians” or Christians were in the powerless position and so were on the receiving end of persecution that sometimes resulted in death, in the extreme cases.

It was not too difficult to predict that in the heated religious environment of the larger ancient Mediterranean world, some competitors would believe that persecuting the new “threatening” religion would have to happen, inevitably; the new religion must be confronted and eliminated.

But Jesus had not picked up the sword to attack people. He died an unjust death – though planned and used by God, according to New Testament theology – in Jerusalem at the hands of his persecutors.

His later followers walked in his footsteps. They too suffered sometimes from unjust persecution and were put to death in notable cases. This martyrdom has nothing to do with Christians’ initiating military war and imposing taxes and flogging people in the Roman empire.

Rather, violence was inflicted on the peaceful Christians. In no recorded case in early Christianity are these nonaggressive and peaceful examples contradicted. The warpath of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and the Medieval crusaders does not set the institutional genetic code in the very origins of Christianity in the New Testament.

Only Jesus does. And he and his disciples turned the world upside down by simple proclamation.


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