Our English words ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’ originate in New Testament Greek words, which referred to ‘witnesses’ and the ‘testimony’ witnesses bore. For example:
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32)
“And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…” (Acts 4:33)
However, the meaning of words can sometimes evolve, in certain environments. By the beginning of the Second Century it appears that, among Christians, these words evolved from simply referring to a witness (or the testimony they bore) to being used to describe a Christian who was killed for his or her witness; that is, for their professed faith in Jesus Christ. This is how the words have been received into the English language. A Christian martyr is someone who has been killed for his or her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Martyrdom is, then, the ultimate physical experience of Christian persecution. In the New Testament the first Christian martyr (using the definition, above) was Stephen, who was stoned to death by a Jewish mob (see Acts 6:8 – 7:60). Others followed.
Down the centuries history records many martyrdoms of Christians who, in the face of opposition and threat, maintained their faith in Christ and who continued to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace in Christ alone – eventually paying the ultimate price for doing so.
In a number of places in our world today the martyrdom of Christians continues. In the past two decades the west African nation of Nigeria has seen an appalling catalogue of killing of Christians by various Islamist groups. In India Christian pastors and other leaders have been killed by Hindu nationalists seeking to silence their proclamation of the gospel.
Martyrdom leaves in its trail not only obvious grief but, very often, trauma for those who have witnessed acts of violence, as well as further suffering and hardship for families.
That is why supporting the families of Christian martyrs has been one of the key activities of Release International over the past 50 years of ministry.
In 2018, to encourage further support in this area, Release International launched an annual Day of the Christian Martyr. Held usually on June 29th, this event gives churches in the UK and Ireland an opportunity to support, and to pray for, the families of today’s martyrs for Christ and the gospel.