Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.
In those brief words, John records the very first announcement of someone—Mary Magdalene—who had physically seen the risen Christ. It is an astounding moment in the gospel of John, and in human history. Ever since that first resurrection day morning, as people have encountered the living Lord, the importance of witness has rung true to the calling of the scriptures:
Witnesses. Ambassadors. These are really big ideas. When we step into the role of a witness for Jesus or an ambassador for Christ, we are embracing one of life’s great privileges—but it is not without peril. Or without cost. The Greek term translated witness is the word martures, from which we get the word martyr. The word itself simply means “one who testifies or bears witness.” But, throughout the ensuing years—and even into our own day—testifying to the risen Christ has so often resulted in persecution, animosity, and, yes, martyrdom, that the word for witness has become the equivalent of someone who is killed for their beliefs—especially as it relates to believing the gospel of Jesus.
Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death for testifying to the reality of the Christ (Acts 7). Saul of Tarsus—who would later become the Paul quoted above—is first seen on the pages of scripture as endorsing and assisting in the murder of Stephen before launching his own extensive persecution of the early believers in Jesus. Not long after that, James, the brother of John, was executed by Herod for being a follower of Christ (Acts 12). Paul’s own suffering for the Savior is extensively catalogued in 2 Corinthians 11, and church traditions tell us that, of the Eleven disciples of Jesus, only John did not die a martyr’s death. In the closing book of the Bible, Revelation 2:8-11 records Jesus’ personal words of encouragement to the suffering church at Smyrna. Clearly, being a witness for Jesus has the potential to be very costly indeed.
For the first 300 or so years after the events of the gospels, followers of Christ suffered greatly for their faith as institutionalized persecution became the order of the Roman government. Throughout the middle ages, persecutions continued against Christ-followers—sometimes by the church itself. In my own lifetime, the suffering of Christians in the Soviet Union was government policy that divided families, took lives, and struck fear into the hearts of people who bore witness to Christ’s cross and resurrection.
To understand the history of martyrdom in the Christian faith, I would encourage you to read Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs by John Foxe. It is both tragically heartbreaking and wonderfully inspirational. For more insight into the persecution of Christ-followers in our own day, check out the website of The Voice of the Martyrs at www.persecution.com. There, you will find important information about the suffering church of today, and how to better pray for them, and help them.