Christianity is a religion of martyrdom because
its founder was a martyr. Jesus was the faithful
witness" – in Greek, “martyr” (Revelation 1:5).
Martyrdom does not seem a pleasant subject to
most of us, and we do not usually speak of
Christianity or Jesus this way. But that is
because we do not see it as Jesus sees it.
Martyrdom is really one of the greatest subjects
in the world.
Jesus understood that his victory would be won
by dying. His method for building his church, as
he explained it to the disciples, was this: "I
am going to Jerusalem. There I will be arrested,
beaten, and crucified" (see Matthew 16:21).
This method was also to be his way of extending
his church once he had established it. The most
frequently quoted saying of Jesus to his
disciples was "Take up your cross and follow me"
(see Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; 10:21; Luke
9:23; 14:27). In other words, Jesus told his
followers, “I am going to build my church by my
cross and by your crosses."
How many of us today "spiritualize away" the
teaching of the New Testament on the cross? We
draw back from a literal reading. But when Jesus
told his disciples that they had to take up
their crosses, he knew in fact that they were
going to bear witness to the gospel with their
lives. He was training them for literal
Blood and Seed
This literal call to martyrdom was one of the
secrets of Christianity's success in its first
centuries. In the second century a lawyer,
Tertullian, was converted when he saw Christians
singing as they went out to die. Later he wrote
a book about martyrdom, in which he made a
statement that became famous: “The blood of the
martyrs is seed" – seed of new Christians, seed
of the church.
In the first centuries, when Christians were
murdered everywhere, everyone who became a
Christian knew that martyrdom might be their
portion. Those early Christians were far from
trying to "spiritualize away" Jesus' teaching on
Indeed, they sought martyrdom. Some of them
wanted martyrdom so badly that the church found
it necessary to instruct people that if a person
provoked his own martyrdom, he disqualified
Origen, who became a famous theologian in the
third century, was 17 when his father was
sentenced to death. Origen said, “Tomorrow when
my father is burned at the stake, I will go
there and provoke the governor to have me
martyred too." To save him, his mother took all
his clothes out of the house that night. In the
morning he could not go out because he had no
clothes to put on. Only in this way was he
In the same period Cyprian, an African bishop,
said, "When persecution comes, God's soldiers
are put to the test, and heaven is open to
martyrs. We have not enlisted in an army merely
to think of peace and to decline battle, for we
see that the Lord has taken first place in the
In the next century Augustine wrote, "The
martyrs were bound, jailed, scourged, racked,
burned, rent, butchered-and they multiplied."
In the fourth century, Gregory the Great said,
“The death of the martyrs blossoms in the lives
of the faithful."
Those Christians in the first centuries
understood the teaching of Christ that
Christians win by losing, conquer by dying. This
is what explains the victory of the church after
300 years of martyrdom. They conquered by their
When I first read these things, I wondered what
sort of gospel these early Christians heard. The
preachers who made Christians who were willing
to be martyrs-who even had to be held back from
provoking their own martyrdom – must have
preached a powerful message. Some of what I have
learned about martyrdom comes from studying
their reflections on the scriptures.
What Is Achieved?
What is the theology of martyrdom?
In Revelation 6:11 we read that the martyrs
cried from under the altar for God's judgment to
come, and they were told to wait until the
number of their fellow servants and their
brethren should be complete, who were to be
killed as they themselves had been." Why does
God require a number of his children to be
crucified, starting with his First Begotten?
What does martyrdom achieve? How is martyrdom
effective in God's strategy in history?
The first achievement of martyrdom is the
defeat of Satan.
In Revelation 12 we have a scene of a war in
heaven. Satan in thrown down. Then we read this
comment: “They," that is, the martyrs,
"conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by
the word of their testimony, because they did
not love their lives even unto death." In other
words, when the martyrs made their testimony and
were butchered for their loyalty to Jesus, Satan
How? The book of Job gives us a clue.
There was an argument in heaven. God said that
Job was perfect. Satan could not challenge that,
but, he said to God, "What is Job's motivation?
He worships you because you give him things. He
is the richest man in the land. Of course, he
worships you for that. Take away all he has, and
he will curse you."
God's honor was at stake. All heaven watched
trembling. What was God going to do?
God had no other way to defend his honor than to
say, “Go and take away all I gave him, and we
When the tornadoes came and destroyed all Job
had, and when messengers came one after another
telling him the horrible truth, all heaven was
watching his lips for the curse that Satan had
insisted was to come. But Job stood tall to make
his comment: "God has given. God has taken away.
God's name be praised."
At that moment all heaven applauded.
Satan went to God again and said, “Let him
suffer. Let that pain go into the marrow of his
bones, and then he will curse you."
Then as Job was in excruciating pain, his wife
and friends came and said, “Don't you see it's
the end? Why don't you curse God and die?” That
was exactly what Satan wanted. But Job, fed up
with those exhortations, replied, "Look, let me
clarify my attitude to God. I believe he commits
a terrible injustice against me and I don't know
why, but even if he kills me I will still praise
I told my interrogator: “Your supreme weapon is
killing. My supreme weapon is dying. If you kill
me, my sermons will speak ten times louder than
before." He sent me home.
At that moment Satan was put to shame utterly
and completely. He was dishonored. God had the
Is that a once-upon-a-time story? No, it is a
window open to heaven. In the New Testament we
find it beautifully repeated in 1 Corinthians
4:9. Paul describes the apostles as they are
scourged and beaten and thrown from one place to
another, and then he says, "For God has made us
a spectacle for the whole cosmos, both angels
and man." Paul's view is that we are on a stage
and the whole cosmos, including the angels,
Wherever I am, whatever I do, I am watched.
Either I put my Father to shame by turning from
his ways, or I put Satan to shame by giving
glory to God. Whether I like it or not, I am a
spectacle, watched by the whole cosmos. This is
how we should understand that we are called to
defeat Satan by our suffering and martyrdom.
For Your Salvation
A second purpose in suffering and martyrdom
is the salvation of the world.
We are called to suffer and die for the
salvation of the world? If I did not have the S
to support that statement, I would not dare say
In 2 Corinthians 1:6, Paul tells the
Corinthians, “I suffer for your comfort and salvation
How can Paul say it? Isn't Christ's sacrifice
complete? Isn't his atonement sufficient? Yes,
it is. But still there is a sense in which Paul
can say, "I suffer for your salvation." What is
Paul explains it in 2 Timothy 2:10. “I suffer
for the elect so that they may obtain the
salvation which is in Jesus Christ." Salvation
is in Jesus Christ, and nowhere else. But, Paul
is saying, if I had remained a pastor in
Antioch, in that affluent and peaceful city, in
that wonderful church with so many prophets and
such great blessings, nobody in Asia Minor or
Europe would have been saved. In order for them
to be saved, I have had to accept being beaten
with rods, scourged, stoned, treated as the scum
of the earth, becoming a walking death. But when
I walk like this, wounded and bleeding, people
see the love of God, people hear the message of
the cross, and they are saved.
If we stay in the safety of our affluent
churches and we do not accept the cross, others
may not be saved. How many are not saved because
we don't accept the cross?
Often in my country, Romania, people must accept
demotions in their jobs when they become
Christians. If someone in a very high position
is converted to Jesus Christ and joins the
church, immediately the authorities will hold a
public meeting to expose him as a backward
creature and have him publicly demoted or fired.
I had a man in an important position whom I
baptized come to me and ask, "Now what shall I
do? They will convene three or four thousand
people to expose me and mock me. They will give
me five minutes to defend myself. How should I
"Brother," I told him, "defending yourself is
the only thing you shouldn't do. This is your
unique chance to tell them who you were before,
and what Jesus made of you; who Jesus is, and
what he is for you now.''
His face shone and he said, "Brother Joseph, I
know what I am going to do." And he did it
well – so well that afterwards he was
severely demoted. He lost almost half of his
salary. But he kept coming to me after that
saying, "Brother Joseph, you know I cannot walk
in that factory now without someone coming up to
me. Wherever I go, somebody pulls me in a
corner, looks around to see that nobody sees him
talking to me, and then whispers, 'Give me the
address of your church,' or 'Tell me more about
Jesus,' or 'Do you have a Bible for me?'”
Every kind of suffering can become a ministry
for other people's salvation.
Third, the ministry of suffering and dying
enriches the life of the church.
In an epistle from prison Paul tells the
Colossians, "I am rejoicing in what I am
suffering for you, because I complete what is
lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his body
the Church" (1:24). How can we understand this
It is actually very simple. Paul is saying, I am
one with Christ, and Christ continues to suffer
through me. He was her bride by suffering for
her. He is working today to make his bride more
beautiful, and he does it, again, by means of
suffering: his suffering in us.
Paul says in Philippians 3:10 that he wants to
know Christ and to become a fellow-sufferer with
Christ. Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12-13,
“Brothers, do not consider this persecution that
has come upon you to be a strange thing. But
rather rejoice because you are participating in
the sufferings of Christ."
This union with Christ is the most beautiful
subject in the Christian life. It means that I
am not a lone fighter here: I am an extension of
Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Rumania, he
suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I
only had the honour to share his sufferings. As
Christ suffers in us, he enriches the church.
The Impact of Death
Fourth, martyrdom is a witness to the truth.
I mentioned that Jesus Christ is called the
"faithful witness" in Revelation 1:5. Paul
reminds Timothy, who apparently is going through
a persecution, to "remember Christ who made that
great testimony" (1 Tim. 6:13). He is referring
to what John describes in his gospel: Jesus said
to Pilate, “I was born into this world to bear
witness to the truth" (18:37).
For years I wanted to save my life, and I was
losing it. Now that I wanted to lose it, I was
winning it. Somebody said those words before,
but they had not sunk in.
Jesus is the embodiment of the truth. His coming
to us to bear witness to the truth meant coming
into the kingdom of this world, which is under
the rule of the father of lies, the king of
deception. When the truth came, it hurt. The
light shining in this darkness immediately
disturbed everyone – and they killed the truth.
But it is by dying that the truth makes its
impact in this kingdom of falsehood. “When I am
lifted up,” Jesus said, referring to his cross,
"I will attract the whole world to myself" (John
12:32). The truth conquers by self-sacrifice.
Jesus gives us the assignment of bearing witness
to the truth as he has done, even to the point
of suffering and death. He says to his
followers, “You are my witnesses. If you do not
bear witness to me before this wicked
generation, I will not bear witness to you
before my Father.”
When I preached in Romania, I knew that people
were afraid to bear witness to Christ because
they might lose their jobs. So I described the
picture: “Christ is up there near the throne of
God. He looks at you, here in this auditorium,
and all the angels in heaven follow his gaze. If
you raise your hand and you testify, 'Christ is
my Lord,' Christ turns to his Father and says,
'Father, that one is my brother or sister.' You
witness here that he is Lord; he witnesses there
that you are his brother or sister."
Without Hope of Success
This is my outline of the theology of martyrdom.
Let us see how it works in practice.
Years ago I ran away from my country to study
theology at Oxford. In 1972, when I was ready to
go back home, I discussed my plans with some
fellow students. They pointed out that I might
be arrested at the border.
One student asked, "Joseph, what chances do you
have of successfully implementing your plans?" I
smiled and said to myself, "Now this is
typically Western thinking." Chances of success?
I never thought in those terms. My thinking was
in terms of obedience. I knew that the king
said, "Go," and I had to say, "Yes, sir," and
But I did turn the question around and ask God,
"What if I ask you about success?"
And he said, "My answer is in Matthew 10:16: 'I
send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.' Tell
me. What chance does a sheep surrounded by
wolves have of surviving five minutes, let alone
of converting the wolves? Joseph, that's how I
send you: totally defenseless and without a
reasonable hope of success. If you are willing
to go like that, go. If you are not willing to
be in that position, don't go."
That experience deeply affected all my thinking.
From that time I asked myself, Why does God send
me in such a seemingly hopeless way? As I
studied the question, I came to the
understanding that I have sketched.
I started to teach my wife this insight into the
gospel that suffering and dying is a ministry
that God might require from me. If the Lord
said, "Joseph, I want to seal your ministry with
your life," would I say, "No, Lord, I won't give
you that”? What a glorious day it was when
Elizabeth, my dear wife, knelt down with me and
said, “Lord, I give you Joseph for that
ministry." From that day she was the best
fighter of the two of us. She always helped me
to stand up under the greatest pressure and
After our return, as I preached uninhibitedly
and wrote paper after paper, harassment and
arrests came. One day during interrogation an
officer threatened to kill me. Then I said,
"Sir, let me explain that issue to you. Your
supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is
dying. Sir, you know my sermons are all over the
country on tapes now. If you kill me, I will be
sprinkling them with my blood. Whoever listens
to them after that will say, 'I'd better listen.
This man sealed it with his blood.' They will
speak ten times louder than before. So, go on
and kill me. I win the supreme victory then." He
sent me home.
One of the officer's colleagues was
interrogating one of my colleagues, another
preacher. That officer commented, "We know that
Joseph Tson would love to be a martyr, but we
are not such big fools as to fulfill his wish."
That pastor came to me to tell me that even if I
wanted them to, the authorities would not kill
That gave me pause. For years I was a Christian
who was cautious and low-keyed because I wanted
to survive. I had accepted all the restrictions
the authorities put on me because I wanted to
live. Now I wanted to die, and they wouldn't
oblige. Now I could do whatever I wanted in
Romania. For years I wanted to save my life, and
I was losing it. Now that I wanted to lose it, I
was winning it.
Somebody said those words before, but they had
not sunk in my mind.
The greatest joy I have now when I communicate
with the younger generation of Christians in my
country is that I know that they consider
suffering and dying for the Lord a privilege,
not a calamity. When I hear that they are in
trouble, I phone them and try to comfort them.
But often the response I get is this: "Don't
worry about that. I consider this a privilege."
Martyrdom in Your Country?
Every country has had to be opened to the Gospel
by somebody's blood. Somebody had to sprinkle
the ground with his blood in order to claim the
territory for God. Only the kind of Christianity
which understands suffering and dying as a
ministry, a ministry that has effects in heaven,
a ministry that has effects now and in all
eternity – only that kind of Christianity is
able to conquer.
Many hope that God will spare Christians
persecution. But do not look at it like that. If
persecution were to happen in your country, God
would be saying, "Now I want my dear children to
participate in the most glorious event in
history – martyrdom. Now I want them to complete
the victory over Satan. I want them to continue
the salvation of the world through their blood.
I want them to enrich the life of the body of
Christ. I want them to seal their testimony to
my truth." Persecution here would not be a
disaster, but a great honor – the greatest
adapted from the original article, Normal
Christian Martyrdom, which first
appeared in Pastoral Renewal, June,
1986, Ann Arbor, Michigan,USA.
Josef Tson is an evangelist and the former
president of the Romanian Missionary
illustration: "The Martyrdom of St.
Paul" by Robert Reid, an original
painting at the Church of St. Paul the
Apostle in New York City