t’s odd to think of the Holy Spirit giving someone a spiritual gift which is used just one time. However, martyrdom is such a grace.
World Christian Trends defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility” (Barrett and Johnson).
Between 7,000 and 8,000 Christians die as martyrs every year, according to the International Society for Human Rights. Some say the number is much higher.
In the Scriptures, a martyr is “one who bears witness by his death.” The first Christian martyr was Stephen, who was stoned to death for his Christian testimony. This happened before the apostle Paul’s conversion. Paul later testified, “When the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:20 NKJV).
As a fearless Christian who himself became a martyr, Paul applied Psalm 44:22 to his life: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; we were accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Rom. 8:36 NKJV).
In Revelation 2:13, the Lord told the church at Pergamos: “I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city” (Rev. 2:13 NLT).
Who was Antipas? All we know is what this scripture says─he was fatally loyal to Christ in a city where emperor worship and a snake cult flourished. Tradition says he was burned to death inside a bronze bull.
In the century following Antipas’ death, the Christians’ refusal to worship Roman gods was cited as the cause of natural disasters. “As the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, the distinctions between witnessing and suffering became blurred and finally nonexistent,” said William G. Bixler (“How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs,” Christian History).
The same can be said about many places today─being a Christian witness automatically means suffering, and perhaps death.
In the small African country of Eritrea (population, 4.4 million), the government’s crackdown on Evangelical and Pentecostal groups has been ongoing for 15 years. Thousands of Christians have fled the nation, while hundreds are in prison. Incarcerated Christians are sometimes locked inside metal shipping containers in military camps.
A Christian mother of three, Fikadu Debesay, died as a martyr in August, three months after her arrest. The desert camp where she was being held, in the northern Red Sea region of Eritrea, is known for its oppressive heat and aridity. Her husband is still imprisoned.
In North Korea, countless Christians have died in labor camps. One who survived, 62-year-old Korean-Canadian pastor Kyeon Soo Lim, labored in bitter conditions for two and a half years. He faced “overwhelming loneliness,” suffered frostbite, and lost 51 pounds before he was released and allowed to return to Canada in August.
Four months earlier, Naseem Faheem was killed by a suicide bomber as he guarded Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt. Sixteen people were killed, but Naseem’s actions probably saved dozens of others. His widow told a Muslim television interviewer, Amr Adeeb, that she forgave the bomber. Adeeb responded, “May God have mercy on Naseem Faheem. He is a hero and a martyr and a great example to all of us.”
An early Christian martyr was Polycarp, the bishop of Syria. He was taken before the Roman proconsul in AD 156 for his refusal to worship the emperor. When the proconsul ordered him to curse Christ, Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”
Not Polycarp, not Naseem Faheem, not Fikadu Debesay, nor any of the other of millions of believers who have died for their Christian faith were born with the gift of martyrdom. Like the other spiritual gifts, the Holy Spirit graces a believer with this gift in the time of need.
If you or I are ever ordered, “Curse Christ or die,” may the Holy Spirit empower us to bear witness through our death.