Much of the Christian life can sometimes sound syrupy: martyrdom does not and cannot. Even in an age of cynicism, we still remember, respect, and honor those who have given their lives for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, as Christians living today in the United States, our primary attitude today towards martyrs tends to be pity: pity for those robbed of life, beaten down by evil, and prevented by violence from serving God. All this then usually lead us to fervent prayer that we and our families be forever spared the blessed gift of martyrdom!
Of course, this is hardly the perspective of the Holy Scriptures or of the Church at its strongest. Over the last few days, I have been studying the second century account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (a city in modern-day Turkey). As the story unfolds, the focus is neither on the brutality of his execution nor on a call to rally around his death. Rather, the narrative hones in on the conformity of Polycarp’s life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only does Polycarp proclaim with his lips the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, suffered, died, and was raised on behalf of sinners and now reigns as King, but even the tiny details of Polycarp’s life and execution correspond with the life and execution of his Lord and Savior and, in the process, bear witness to the Gospel.
In a similar way, the Apostle Paul describes for the Philippians his own passionate desire to be found in Christ and justified through faith on the basis of Christ’s righteousness in the hope that he himself “might know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming made like him in his death, if by any means [he] might attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Paul, who would one day be martyred in Rome, understood that the goal of the Christian life is to become like Christ in every detail possible. This means that, for the present age, our highest joy is to become like Christ by suffering like him, at the hands of wicked men and women, and even to give up our lives to death if we are called upon to do so.
But becoming like Christ in his suffering and death also means becoming like him in his victory. For this reason, the Apostle John in the book of the Revelation describes Christians, reigning with Christ, as “those who were beheaded on account of the testimony of Jesus and on account of the Word of God” but who, in doing so, “conquered [their Accuser] on account of the blood of the Lamb and on account of the word of their testimony, and did not love their life even unto death.” Just as by dying on the cross Christ conquered our guilt, our sin, our enemies, and even our death, in martyrdom we also conquer the forces of evil, not through force but through the power of his Gospel proclaimed by individuals whose lives increasingly mirror and reflect his life.
Thinking through the implications of this for my own life and for Christians more generally, I think we ought to draw two conclusions. First, I think we need to understand that “missions” means “martyrdom”. Cross-cultural Christian ministry is not simply a hip project for bored people, an alternative lifestyle for the poor Christians who simply will not fit into regular life in the United States, or even the means to a personal sense of fulfillment and productivity. Missionaries who cross cultural boundaries to make disciples of Jesus Christ are called to renounce every right that we have on our own lives, fortunes, locations, priorities, and privileges, all in order to bear witness to his Good News, a Gospel which is robust enough to merit both the world’s persecuting fury and the disciple’s trust and endurance in the face of that persecution. Missions entails suffering, martyrdom, and conformity to Christ.
But second, I think that we also need to understand that “the Christian life” means “martyrdom”. While martyrs deserve our remembrance and respect, they do not deserve our pity. Rather martyrs like the Apostles “have been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Name” by God himself: they share in that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” that directs us all to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by proclaiming him with our lips and by becoming like him in his life and death. Our chief desire as Christians should not be to live comfortable, easy, prosperous, or otherwise “successful” lives, but to become like Christ in every way possible. The Christian life entails suffering, martyrdom, and conformity to Christ.
We may never be burnt at the stake like Polycarp, beheaded like Paul, or crucified upside down like Peter. But we are all called to lives in which we share in the sufferings of Christ, as John puts it, “for the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus!”