In Anne of Windy Poplars, book four of the beloved Anne of Green Gables series, Anne refers to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs after she lends it to a friend. As she says, “I don’t like reading about martyrs because they always make me feel petty and ashamed … ashamed to admit I hate to get out of bed on frosty mornings and shrink from a visit to the dentist!” (L. M. Montgomery, Bantam). Considering the sacrifice of martyrs, Anne feels convicted about worrying over simple, trivial tasks.
Many people also feel “petty and ashamed” when they measure their life against Christian martyrs in history. We can overemphasize martyrs by viewing believers who willingly gave up their lives for Christ as “super” Christians.
Many people in the early church did this when they began venerating martyrs, thinking they had greater power to intercede for them. However, there is also the risk of underemphasizing Christian martyrs in history and ignoring the examples of their faithful lives.
While we do not want to focus too much on martyrs, to the point of worshiping them, we should try to learn from their experiences.
Learning about the stories of Christian martyrs can strengthen our faith by teaching us about the power of love and forgiveness, obedience, and the need to have an eternal mindset.
Through the stories of believers who died for their faith, we are reminded that the risk of following Jesus is worth the cost.
1. The Power of Love and Forgiveness
Many martyrs in church history displayed a Christlike love toward their enemies. A strong example of this was the missionaries who sought to evangelize the Waodani people in Ecuador through Operation Auca.
Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian met with the Waodani after making contact through airplane flights performed by Nate Saint.
The group of five missionaries sought to share the gospel with the unreached tribe but were speared to death by the Waodani on January 8, 1956.
As a result of their deaths, numerous people around the world learned of the work of the missionaries and desired to help in the mission. Many other Christians chose to devote their lives to serving Jesus in unreached areas.
In addition to the widespread coverage that increased interest in missions, the legacy of the five men’s lives continued through their families’ response to the event. Elisabeth Elliot worked among the Waodani, the people who killed her husband, to bring them the gospel.
Through her efforts and those of others, including Rachel Saint (Nate Saint’s sister), many Waodani people trusted in Christ.
Steve Saint (the son of Nate Saint) also befriended one of the leaders of the tribe, Mincaye. Although Mincaye was one of many Waodani that had killed Steve’s father and the other missionaries, he chose to show grace instead of hatred or revenge. They developed a strong bond — a testimony to the love and forgiveness of Christ.
The five men who served in Ecuador left a legacy of love and faith to their families and to Christians today. Although they could have avoided the Waodani, a tribe notoriously known for violence, the missionaries showed love and care for these lost people.
Operation Auca was the result of love for a people group who needed to hear the wonderful news of Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf. Love drove them to meet with the Waodani that day in 1956.
Also, the response of the martyrs’ families displays the power of forgiveness. They did not return evil for evil but rather chose to forgive the people who had killed the five men (Romans 12:17). As Jesus said: “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
The lives and deaths of Christian martyrs also remind us of the seriousness of obeying Jesus’ command.
Christ told His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
This was not just a command for the 11 disciples, but for all followers of Christ. We are commanded to go out into the world, tell people about the good news of Jesus, and disciple them.
At times, obeying Jesus will involve discomfort, suffering, and even death. An example of the risk of taking the gospel to others is John Chau, who was killed in 2018. He learned about the Sentinelese and wanted to take the gospel to them.
Initiating contact with the unreached people group proved dangerous since they ended up killing Chau. His actions have been criticized since his death, by Christians and secular groups alike. However, Chau chose to follow Christ despite the peril.
He valued taking the gospel to unreached people even though it cost his life. Chau is viewed as a fool by many people, but he lived according to God’s wisdom, not the wisdom of the world. As Scripture says, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:19, NLT).
Like John Chau, many other Christians chose to follow Christ’s command instead of living a life of comfort. Missionaries Betty and John Stam worked among the Chinese but were killed by communists in 1934.
Their obedience meant surrendering all for Jesus, even submitting to death for the sake of the gospel. As believers, we can learn from Chau and the Stam’s lives and deaths since they exemplify the cost of discipleship.
When Jesus calls us, He tells us to lay down our lives and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). At times, this might mean physically giving up our lives for the sake of the gospel.
3. Faith and Eternal Focus
In addition to teaching us about the power of love, forgiveness, and obedience, Christian martyrs also help us to understand the need to stay grounded in faith and adopt an eternal focus.
Scripture talks about the prophets of old and the Christian martyrs who endured pain, persecution, and death (Hebrews 11:35-38).
They could endure such pain because of faith in God and hope for the future. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).
Paul, who church tradition says was beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, was not afraid to taste death because of his faith and eternal focus. As he wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Since Paul had an eternal focus and knew he would face the Judgment Seat of Christ, he sought to run the race of life focused on eternity with Christ (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
The prize he sought was an everlasting crown representative of a reward for his faithfulness as a follower (1 Corinthians 9:25). Adopting a heavenly mindset aided Paul in enduring hardship, suffering, and death for the cause of Jesus.
Just as Paul and other martyrs found the strength to face death for the sake of Christ, so also can we find encouragement to face trials because of faith. Scripture urges us to “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
When we are looking forward to our heavenly home and walking in faith, we can stay focused on serving Jesus instead of chasing temporal comfort (Galatians 5:16; Hebrews 11:16; 12:1-3).
Why Does This Matter?
Throughout time, believers have faced persecution and martyrdom because of their faith. We can feel defeated by the stories of their life or ignore their examples, but if we are wise, we can learn from the Christian martyrs of history.
Love, forgiveness, obedience, faith, and an eternal mindset are all topics that martyrs can teach us through their lives and deaths.
Martyrs are not “super” Christians. Rather, they are believers who followed Jesus wholeheartedly because of their love for Him. Like them, we also can live devoted lives to Jesus, even if it might involve dying for the testimony of our faith.
As Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of martyr Jim Elliot, eloquently said, “There is nothing worth living for, unless it is worth dying for.” The testimony of martyrs reminds us that living for Christ is worth the risk and cost.
For further reading:
What Is a Martyr? Definition and Meaning
How Can We Help Persecuted Christians?
How to Live Out Faith Found in Hebrews 11
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Azaliya
Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.