From its beginning the church has had to deal with persecution, threats to its very existence, and torment for the sake of Christ. In the book of John, Jesus promised his followers that as long as the world hated him, it would also hate them (John 15:18). Even before Jesus came to earth, before the term “Christian” originated and the cross became the way to salvation, those who truly loved and followed God’s word were persecuted and destroyed.
This should not surprise the people of God. “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the word,” says Jesus in John 17:16. The world despises those who proclaim the cross. Even in the days of the Old Testament and the prophets, those who did evil persecuted and murdered those very prophets who came bearing the word of God. Hebrews 11 says, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (verses 35b-38, ESV). If these were the prophets who had not yet received the true Gospel, being persecuted by the very people who were at one time just as willing as they to proclaim the name of God, it is not hard to imagine that things grew even worse once the gospel began to spread to the pagan nations surrounding Israel.
The first martyr for the sake of Christ was Stephen, stoned to death for daring to defy the Jewish Sanhedrin and follow Jesus. From there, persecution spread out across Judea, Israel, and everywhere else the church took the Good News—not only the Jewish authorities, but also the Roman and Asian leaders got involved in trying to stop the progress of the church.
Christians were burned alive and blamed for setting the city of Rome on fire under the evil emperor Nero. The Colosseum and the Roman arenas sent a sporadic stream of Christians who refused to recant their beliefs, which lead to many deaths, whether it was by fighting lions or other animals or by being tortured or burned alive in front of a screaming crowd. Thousands of brave men, women, and even children met their fates in this way, refusing to submit to a demand that would have saved their lives but lost their souls. Their love for God was stronger than their desire to live.
Famous martyrs passed through the gates of death and refused to turn from their God—people like Polycarp, Justin, Perpetua, Blandina, the apostles, Cyprian, and many others. Even today, Christians still die for the sake of the gospel. Many well-known men and women gave their lives for God, but there were thousands whose names are not known to most modern-day Christians. Even though they have not become legendary, their sacrifices were no less valuable.
As blood still seeps into the ground even today, the church would do well to remember the words of the historian Tertullian in the fourth century: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The persecution of the church and its spread often go hand in hand. Church history is awash in blood. Without the blood, however, there would be no church history.
In the church today, especially in countries where persecution is not violent or even seems non-existent, it can be hard to find a reason to remember the martyrs and their stories. Even so, it is crucial to keep them in mind—Hebrews 12:1 says that believers are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” many of whom are mentioned in the preceding chapter and that because of their witness, it is crucial that the Christian “lay aside every weight” and “run with endurance the race.” All true believers will be counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (Acts 5:41, ESV). For some that is death at the hands of a cruel ruler; for others, dishonor may well consist of light ridicule or teasing. Knowing the stories of those who stood firm even in the face of the worst the world has to offer can encourage Christians today as they go through their own personal trials. This is why it is important to remember the martyrs. They considered it pure joy to face trials of various kinds (James 1:2) and so should modern believers.