Radically Devoted to the Gospel
Attempting to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) in their day was deadly for the Apostles. Yet history tells us that they prized faithfulness to that commission above their own lives and well-being. Moreover, they sought to help other believers reframe their kingdom trials as they themselves had done:
“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (Phil 1:29-30).
Granted? What kind of suffering could be regarded as a gift? What kind of single-minded focus could eclipse all other interests and pursuits under the sun? What kind of life purpose could be loftier than life itself?
For the Apostles, only one thing could command such radical devotion—the gospel and its worldwide success. When Paul sought to “pass the baton” of his Great Commission passion to his young disciple, Timothy, he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:5-8:
“Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist [euangelistēs, ‘a gospelizer’], discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Shortly thereafter, Paul’s tongue and pen were silenced. Yet his worldwide influence remains to this day. The same is true for the other lesser known martyrs of the 1st century. Their witness in the face of certain death changed the world.
The Phenomenon of Apostolic Martyrdom
The martyrdom of some Apostles is more established than others, as historians have different degrees of certainty concerning the circumstances of their deaths. For example, most historians would not take issue with the credibility of the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, or James. Accounts for other Apostles likewise have much historical credibility. Some apostolic martyr traditions, however, lack definitive support.
Still, it is widely accepted that all but one of the Apostles died a martyr’s death, even if we can’t be sure of all of the details in every case. Amidst some uncertainty, one thing is clear—the reason given for their death was the same in every account. They were killed because they claimed to have seen Christ risen from the dead. The Apostles all died because of an unwavering, unrelenting claim that “Jesus is Lord” because he rose again from the dead in bodily form. In short, they died for Easter.
In that sense, the gruesome deaths of the Apostles are a gift to the church. They contribute much to an overall apologetic by answering the “How do you know?” question concerning the central tenant of Christianity—viz., the resurrection of Jesus. People will often die for what they believe to be true (wrong though their beliefs may be; e.g., the 9/11 bombers), but they will almost never die for what they know to be false. When the choice is between your life and your lie, your life will win every time.
When the choice is between your life and your lie, your life will win every time.
Had the Apostles known the resurrection to be a falsehood, at least one of them surely would have “come clean” at some point. Instead, history tells us that all of them maintained their belief in the resurrection up to and including the moment of their execution. That none of them recanted argues convincingly that the resurrection was no fabrication to them. They were witnesses to the risen Christ, and they could not un-see what they had seen. Nor could they recant, for that would have been the lie.
The Martyrs’ Roll Call
In summary, the martyrs’ roll call is as follows:
• Stephen—stoned to death by the Sanhedrin right outside Jerusalem in 35 AD
• James, the son of Zebedee—beheaded by Herod Agrippa for preaching in the Temple in 45 AD
• Phillip—flogged and crucified in Phrygia in 54 AD
• James, the brother of Jesus—thrown from Herod’s temple, and then clubbed to death in 62 AD
• Peter—crucified upside down in Rome in 64 AD
• Matthew—beheaded in Ethiopia in 65 AD
• Paul—beheaded in Rome in 67 AD
• Mark—dragged to death through the streets of Alexandria with a rope around his neck in 68 AD
• Andrew—crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece in 70 AD
• Thomas—tortured and speared to death by an angry mob in India in 70 AD
• Nathanael—skinned alive and crucified upside down in Armenia in 70 AD
• Matthais—stoned while being crucified in Ethiopia in 70 AD
• James, the son of Alphaeus—crucified in Lower Egypt in 71 AD for preaching the gospel
• Thaddeus—beaten with sticks by an angry mob in Persia in 72 AD
• Simon the Zealot—crucified by the governor of Syria in 74 AD
• John—boiled in hot oil yet survived, only to be exiled to Patmos near the end of the 1st century (and possibly martyred later, according to one stream of evidence).
How could they do it? How could they surrender their lives when a simple recanting of their faith could have spared them?
They were witnesses to the risen Christ, and they could not un-see what they had seen. Nor could they recant, for that would have been the lie.
Their Motivation—Becoming Like Christ
The martyrs’ mindset is captured well by Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:7-11:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Alistair Begg captures well the sentiment of the 1st century witnesses—men who could not and would not recant their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, or relativize him to the status of just another god among many:
Steve Green honors the original martyrs in this stirring musical tribute to their sacrifice, noting how they couldn’t recant because they saw the glory of God in the face of Christ:
Courage for Today
The martyrs’ mindset may seem unrealistic and unattainable in our day, but it is important to keep in mind that:
(a) God gives extraordinary grace where it is needed; and
(b) God gives extraordinary assignments to ordinary people.
This is to his glory, and it can inspire believers to be courageous today. We very may well need that courage in the years to come. So study the martyrs. Learn what enabled them to “surrender it all for the sake of the call.”