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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Significance of Martyrdom

In the early church, martyrdom was seen as the moment in which a true Christian attained to God. In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius of Antioch said, “Nevertheless, according to the will of God, I have been thought worthy [of this honour], not that I have any sense [of having deserved it], but by the grace of God, which I wish may be perfectly given to me, that through your prayers, I may attain to God.” [1] Martyrdom was an act of God’s grace, and functioned as an assumed step in the process of salvation.

As a step in a believer’s salvation, it was a moment to be desired. While writing to the Romans, Ignatius explained his yearning for martyrdom, which is deeply unsettling to read in a modern church setting that no longer knows suffering first hand:

I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God]. [2]

In the same letter, he even referred to martyrdom as one of the best possible occurrences in a person’s life. “It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth.” [3]

It was in martyrdom that Christians could be uniquely united to Christ by sharing in His sufferings.

He who is near to the sword is near to God; he that is among the wild beasts is in the company with God; provided only he be so in the name of Jesus Christ. I undergo all these things that I may suffer together with Him, He who became a perfect man inwardly strengthening me. [4]

The early church gave both Eucharistic language and baptismal language to the act of martyrdom. “I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” [5] By having one’s own body broken and one’s own blood shed in death for the sake of Christ, a Christian could truly partake in the body and blood of Christ. It also served as the fulfillment to the call of baptism. “My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that liveth and speaketh, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father.” [6]

On the other side of this sharing in Christ’s sufferings, was reunion with Christ Himself. “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breaking, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” [7]

As a result of their deaths and unique union with Christ, they were viewed by the early church as examples of how to obtain the faith and served as the pattern for how to overcome in Christ:

[Polycarp] was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world. [8]

While martyrdom is not the pattern for the Christian life, and was not even the norm in the eary Church, the courageous testimony of these elder brothers and sisters should serve to strengthen our faith and provide courage in our own testimonies of the faith.

[1] Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. XI

[2] Epistle to the Romans, ch. IV

[3] Ibid., ch. VI

[4] Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. IV

[5] Epistle to the Romans, ch. VII

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. ch. V

[8] The Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. XIX

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