June 29: Celebrating the Day of the Christian Martyr

June 29th every year marks the martyrdom of the Apostle Paul according to the tradition of many churches. On this day, Christians around the world usually take out some time to honour the sacrifice and legacy of those who have given their lives for the advancement of the gospel.

June 29: Celebrating the Day of the Christian Martyr

I read a story from the Voice of Matyrs Ministry Newsletter. It was a spring day in 2020 when Islamist insurgents in Mozambique gathered everyone in one Pastor Matateu’s village to ask them a single question: “What is your religion?”

Those who answered “Christian” were decapitated. Pastors and their families were killed in torturous ways. In all, 70 villagers were killed before the insurgents reportedly raised an Islamic flag and declared the establishment of Sharia.

Pastor Matateu and his family managed to flee with several other families in his village. Fearing for their lives, they hid in the bush for more than a month. The attacks in the region drove more than 800,000 people, both Christians like Pastor Matateu and nominal Muslims, farther south, where they had to live in camps for displaced people.

Although traumatized by the extreme violence they have witnessed and the losses they have suffered, Pastor Matateu and other pastors continued to serve Christ by serving their neighbors. They distributed food to the hungry and shared the gospel with displaced Muslims. They also taught Christians how to use solar-powered audio Bibles, and they led worship services for those living in the camps.

Whether fictional (which I doubt) or not, things like this still happen daily across nations of the world.
Today, persecution comes in many forms and it doesn't have to be brutal. Sometimes, persecution can be subtle and worse than physical pain or torture as we will later see in this piece.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

— Matthew 5:10

The word martyr comes from the Koine word μάρτυς, mártys, which means "witness" or "testimony" and it is used as such all through the New Testament. According to history, the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity with time and that closed up the gap that distinguished witnessing from suffering. In Christianity today, a martyr is a person who dies because of their believe in Jesus. In years of the early church, stories depict this often occurring through death by sawing, stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment.

At first, the term applied to Apostles but since Christians started to undergo persecution, the term became widespread to anyone who suffered hardships for their faith. Finally, it was restricted to those who are killed for their faith. This is one of many reasons why in western Christian art, martyrs are often shown holding a palm frond as an attribute, representing the victory of spirit over flesh, and it was widely believed that a picture of a palm on a tomb meant that a martyr was buried there.

The use of the word mártys in non-biblical Greek was primarily in a legal context. It was used for a person who speaks from personal observation. The martyr, when used in a non-legal context, may also signify a proclamation that the speaker believes to be truthful. The term was used by Aristotle for observations, but also for ethical judgments and expressions of moral conviction that can not be empirically observed. There are several examples where Plato uses the term to signify "witness to truth", including in Laws.

The Greek word martyr signifies a "witness" who testifies to a fact he has knowledge about from personal observation. It is in this sense that the term first appears in the Book of Acts, in reference to the Apostles as "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ. In Acts 1:22, Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples regarding the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection".

The Apostles, according to tradition, faced grave dangers until eventually almost all suffered death for their convictions. Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martyrs came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death. From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who suffers death rather than deny his faith. St. John, at the end of the first century, employs the word with this meaning. A distinction between martyrs and confessors is traceable to the latter part of the second century: those only were martyrs who had suffered the extreme penalty, whereas the title of confessors was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief, by bravely enduring imprisonment or torture, but were not put to death. Yet the term martyr was still sometimes applied during the third century to persons still living, as, for instance, by Cyprian who gave the title of martyrs to a number of bishops, priests, and laymen condemned to penal servitude in the mines.

It is believed that the concept of voluntary death for God developed out of  a strong belief in Him. You can recount numerous martyrdoms suffered by Jews resisting the Hellenizing of their Seleucid overlords, being executed for such crimes as observing the Sabbath, circumcising their children or refusing to eat pork or meat sacrificed to foreign gods. With few exceptions, this assumption has lasted from the early Christian period to this day, accepted both by Jews and Christians.

Many have described martyrdom as a living tradition of self-sacrifice for a cause, a preparedness if necessary to defy an unjust ruler, in favour of one. Martyrdom played a major role in the civic life of the Roman empire. It ran its course in the great urban spaces of the agora and the amphitheater, the principal settings for public discourse and for public spectacle. It depended upon the urban rituals of the imperial cult and the interrogation protocols of local and provincial magistrates. The prisons and brothels of the cities gave further opportunities for the display of the martyr’s faith.

Tertullian, one of the 2nd century Church Fathers wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church", implying that a martyr's willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others.

The age of martyrs also forced the church to confront theological issues such as the proper response to those Christians who "lapsed" and renounced the Christian faith to save their lives: were they to be allowed back into the Church? Some felt they should not, while others said they could. In the end, it was agreed to allow them in after a period of penance.

"Martyrdom for the faith ...became a central feature in the Christian experience." For evangelicals who read the New Testament as an inerrant history of the primitive church, the understanding that to be a Christian is to be persecuted is obvious, if not inescapable"

The "eschatological ideology"[citation needed] of martyrdom was based on an irony found in the Pauline epistles: "to live outside of Christ is to die, and to die in Christ is to live." In Ad Martyras, Tertullian writes that some Christians "eagerly desired it" (et ultro appetita) martyrdom.

The martyr homilies were written in ancient Greek by authors such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Asterius of Amasea, John Chrysostom and Hesychius of Jerusalem. These homilies were part of the hagiographical tradition of saints and martyrs.

This experience, and the associated martyrs and apologists, would have significant historical and theological consequences for the developing faith.

Among other things, persecution sparked the devotion of the saints, facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity, prompted defenses and explanations of Christianity (the "apologies") and, in its aftermath, raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church.

Stephen was the first martyr reported in the New Testament. He was accused of blasphemy and stoned by the Sanhedrin under the Levitical law. Many of the apostles were martyrs in like manner including Peter (John 21:19; 1 Peter 5:1; and 2 Peter 1:12–15) and Paul (2 Timothy 4:6–7). Also, James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned by Jewish authorities under the charge of law breaking, which is similar to the Christian perception of Stephen's martyrdom as being a result of stoning for the penalty of law breaking. Furthermore, there is a report regarding the martyrdom of James son of Zebedee in Acts 12:1–2, and knowledge that both John and James son of Zebedee ended up martyred appears to be reflected in Mark 10:39.

How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs

Persecution in the Early Church: Did You Know?

Christians held a theology of martyrdom that gave them courage to endure.

What Should We Do If Our Compassion Runs Out?
In the second century, then, martyr became a technical term for a person who had died for Christ, while confessor was defined as one who proclaimed Christ's lordship at trial but did not suffer the death penalty.

They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors.' "

Being a Christian does not mean that you have to suffer, however the lives of martyrs became a source of inspiration for some Christians, and their relics were honored. 

In its first three centuries, the Christian church endured frequent persecution by Roman authorities. Most times, these empire-wide persecution which were directed from the seat of government in Rome. Christians were the targets of persecution because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the emperor as divine. In the Roman Empire, refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor or the empire's gods was tantamount to refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to one's country.

Martyrdom soon became a formative experience and influenced how Christians justified or condemned the use of violence in later generations. Thus, the collective memory of religious suffering found in early Christian works on the historical experience of persecution, religious suffering and martyrdom shaped Christian culture and identity.

Historians recognize that during the Early Middle Ages, the Christian populations living in the lands invaded by the Arab Muslim armies between the 7th and 10th centuries AD suffered religious discrimination, religious persecution, religious violence, and martyrdom multiple times at the hands of Arab Muslim officials and rulers. Christians under Muslim rule were considered inferior to muslims along with Jews, Samaritans, Gnostics, Mandeans, and Zoroastrians. Christians and other religious minorities thus faced religious discrimination and religious persecution in that they were banned from proselytising (for Christians, it was forbidden to evangelize or spread Christianity) in the lands invaded by the Arab Muslims on pain of death, they were banned from bearing arms, undertaking certain professions, and were obligated to dress differently in order to distinguish themselves from Arabs. Under sharia, Non-Muslims were obligated to pay jizya and kharaj taxes, together with periodic heavy ransom levied upon Christian communities by Muslim rulers in order to fund military campaigns, all of which contributed a significant proportion of income to the Islamic states while conversely reducing many Christians to poverty, and these financial and social hardships forced many Christians to convert to Islam. Christians unable to pay these taxes were forced to surrender their children to the Muslim rulers as payment who would sell them as slaves to Muslim households where they were forced to convert to Islam. Many Christian martyrs were executed under the Islamic death penalty for defending their Christian faith through dramatic acts of resistance such as refusing to convert to Islam, repudiation of the Islamic religion and subsequent reconversion to Christianity, and blasphemy towards Muslim beliefs.


Stephen: The First Martyr  

St. Stephen was a Christian deacon in Jerusalem and the first Christian martyr, whose apology before the Sanhedrin in Act 7 points to a distinct strand of belief in early Christianity. His defense of his faith before the rabbinic court enraged his Jewish audience, and he was taken out of the city and stoned to death. His final words, a prayer of forgiveness for his attackers (Acts of the Apostles 7:60), echo those of Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34). 

The name Stephen is Greek, and Acts 6 tells us that he was a Hellenist (a foreign-born Jew who spoke Greek). He lived in Jerusalem and became a Christian. The Hellenist converts, who probably formed a minority in the early Christian community, complained that the care of their elderly widows was neglected by the Hebrew-speaking majority. The Apostles presented the matter to the congregation and, pleading the press of responsibilities, instructed it to select seven deacons for this community service. They were chosen and ordained, and Stephen, who became the best known of the seven, was recognized as a man with special gifts as an evangelist. He engaged in religious discussions among the adherents of synagogues of Diaspora Jews in the capital. Growth in the number of Jewish converts, including “many of the priests,” provoked a reaction. He was summoned before the Sanhedrin, the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem, and charged with speaking against “this holy place and the law.” The charge is very general; the report of his defense before the Sanhedrin is the primary resource for learning what Stephen stood for.

Stephen’s response was Jewish in its concerns, and in form it followed Hellenistic rhetorical conventions (Joshua 24:2–14; Acts of the Apostles 3:12–26). Many scholars see a Samaritan connection to Stephen’s community, postulating that it may have migrated there when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 ce. They assume that the speech may have been modified in its transmission through the years between its delivery and its incorporation in St. Luke’s text which appears as Acts of the Apostles. In any event, what Stephen seems to say about temple and law would not have displeased Samaritan ears either, though it is probably Stephen’s independent and original conviction.

Stephen was bitterly opposed to the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial cult. He revered the Law of Moses but considered the temple cult an illegitimate part of it. For Stephen, Moses was “both ruler and deliverer” (Acts of the Apostles 7:35); he had delivered “living oracles,” the true law, and he had promised that God would raise up another prophet (Jesus) as he had raised up Moses (7:37). Stephen seems to think of Jesus as the “restorer of Mosaic religion.” In his discourse, he sets Aaron over against Moses, the Temple over against the tent, and Solomon, who built the Temple, over against David, who was persuaded not to. For Stephen, the building of the Temple was a bit of idolatry, comparable to Aaron’s golden calf; “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands” (7:48).

Stephen’s feelings about the Temple seem to have been more completely negative than those of the first Christians generally; the latter, including St. Paul, continued to frequent it. Its sacrificial rites served in many ways to shape the theological interpretation of salvation through the death of Jesus. There is no hint that Stephen assigned doctrinal significance to the death of Jesus. On the other hand, it has been suggested that he may have been the first to anticipate the return (Second Coming) of Jesus. In a moment of rapture, at the close of his apology, he saw the heavens opened and “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The title “Son of Man,” with its intensely eschatological-apocalyptic connotations, is used in the New Testament only by Jesus himself, with this single exception from the mouth of Stephen. For St. Paul, Jesus had brought deliverance from the “curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). For Stephen, deliverance still awaits the rebirth of the Mosaic tradition in its purity. Though Stephen was an intensely committed follower of Jesus, his faith may have rested as much on the old basis as on the new. Stephen, to whose fate the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus assented, spoke for an overwhelmingly Jewish, pre-Pauline Christian movement, the precise outlines of which are not easily recoverable, because they have been covered by layers of great change.



Day of the Christian Matyr 2022

About two-thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live in dangerous neighbourhoods. They are often poor. They often belong to ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. And they are often at risk.

By church tradition, June 29 marks the martyrdom of the Apostle Paul. This year, Christians around the world will take time on June 29 and throughout that weekend to honor the legacy of those who have sacrificed their lives for the advancement of the gospel. According to a recent study, an average of eight Christians are killed for their beliefs every day while 276 Christian homes are burned or destroyed every week. In just the last year, there have been:

• Over 260 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution

• 2,983 Christians killed for their faith

• 9,488 churches and other Christian buildings attacked.

• 3,711 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned

In terms of lives lost, families separated, people imprisoned, and churches shut down, the 21st century has, so far, been the worst period of persecution against Christians in recorded history.

These numbers are heartbreaking. And yet, they do not tell the whole story. James 1:2-4 says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

That joy is what we see when we hear from Christians all over the world who suffer because they serve Jesus. God cares for His people, and He will never leave or forsake them.

Here is the latest data from Open Doors. It indicates Christian persecution is higher today than at any other time in modern history:

• 260 Million: In the top 50 World Watch List countries alone, 260 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ.

• 1 in 9: Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution

• 6%: The rise in the number of Christians in the top 50 countries on the 2020 World Watch List (WWL) who experience high levels of persecution. (from the 2019 reporting period to 2020’s)

• 2,983: Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the top 50 WWL countries.

• 3,711: Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in the top 50 WWL countries.

•9,488: churches or Christian buildings attacked in the top 50 WWL countries.

• 6 out of 7: In seven of the countries in the World Watch List’s top 10, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression.

• 11: Countries scoring in the “extreme” level for their persecution of Christians. Six years ago, North Korea was the only one. Hitler, Mao, Stalin and other dictators do their best to eliminate Christianity, they want total allegiance to their rule.

• 19: Consecutive years North Korea has ranked No. 1 as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians. After North Korea is Afghanistan (No. 2), followed by Somalia (No. 3), Libya (No. 4), Pakistan (No. 5), Eritrea (No. 6), Sudan (No. 7), Yemen (No. 8), Iran (No. 9), and India (No. 10).

The church in Iran is the largest in their history and by many accounts there are more Christians now in China than in the U.S. Tertullian, an early Christian author said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

As Christians how can we help? First we can pray for Christians everywhere, prayer makes a big difference. People need financial support- it might be for rebuilding their homes or church. There are organizations that work directly with persecuted Christians, Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors and a local missions group New Covenant Missions is doing a great work in Africa. Don’t forget our persecuted brethren.

In the movie, God's not Dead, we see how 


Today, as we celebrate the sacrifies of Christian Martyrs all over the world, I hope you are encouraged to renew your hope in Christ, and inspire your family, group, class or church to be bold witnesses for Christ no matter the cost.

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