“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.” (Psalm 116:15)
Martyrdom in the Old Testament:
Cain and Abel: The history of sacrifice and martyrdom began in the Garden of Eden with Cain killing his brother Abel simply because God was pleased with Cain’s sacrifice and rejected his.
Joseph, the son of Jacob: was sold into slavery by his brothers because his father showed more compassion and love to him than to the rest of his brothers plus he told them his dream that he was to be exalted above his brothers.
Martyrdom of Shmoni and her seven sons:
“Early in the morning the faithful Shmoni offered prayer to God saying: God do my Judgement. From the cruel Antiochus: For he is slaughtering my sons like lambs: and he is threatening me as a lion.” (Khudra volume III page 328 Commemoration of Shmoni and her seven sons)
Daniel and his two friends were cast into Furness of fire were saved by the Lord.
Martyrdom in Christianity and the New Testament:
Martyrdom has been an important part of our Christian Church history from the moment of its birth. It first started with the persecution of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and then His followers. The Church is purchased by the precious blood of our Lord shed on the Cross. Jesus Christ baptized the Cross with His precious blood and the Church is continually being baptized by the innocent blood of Martyrs. The history of the Church witnesses that Martyrdom contributed greatly towards spreading the Gospel of Salvation to the four corners of the world. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs won more souls to the Lord than any preacher.
Jesus being honest to His followers informed them that the people who hated him will also hate them. Thus, since the establishment of the Holy Church faithful Christians have been severely persecuted by members of Pagan religions and vicious kings. Those Christians who were killed for the sake of their faith were called martyrs because they were killed while witnessing to their faith.
“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. “You will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles…V.21 “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.” Matthew 10:17-21
Christians were called atheists because they wouldn’t worship Caesar as God or worship gods made by the hands of people. They didn’t accept any created being to be worshiped along with God the creator of heaven and earth. Some cowards compromised yet some did not and they were killed. In the first few centuries there were 6 million martyrs.
The history of the Church is ornamented with martyrdom. We believe not everyone can receive the unperishable crown of martyrdom. Martyrdom is a gift given by the Holy Spirit to some special and courageous men and women. Reading the biography of the martyred Saints we are astonished the way our martyrs courageously, and without fear, endured their unspeakable sufferings from the hands of barbarian kings. Our martyrs accepted death with joy, peace and meekness that made even their persecutors marvel and ask “what was their motive”? Thus the martyrs, by enduring the severe pains of their suffering and the shedding of their precious blood destroyed the weapons of brutal and evil kings and rulers.
Under the Roman emperors innocent Christians were severely tortured and murdered including woman and children, the young and old. Many families died for the sake of their faith in terrible ways. History records that some Christians were drowned in rivers and lakes, some were burned by fire and yet many of them beheaded. It is said for several weeks the countryside was lit up by Christians that were torched at the stake. But with all this being done the Church increased. No one could say anything against the brave faith illustrated by these martyrs facing death, God’s grace was upon them, even more so in their death.
“Christ the Savior of the world. By grace suffered on our behalf. And paved the path to the Kingdom. And on his path walked the martyrs. And gave their body unto torturing with iron comb. And unto the burning and torments. And purchased by the blood of their necks the eternally promised life.” (Khudra volume II page 571 Friday of confessors)
Afterward, the Roman Empire became the greatest enemy to the new Christian faith. They did everything possible to destroy Christianity. But the ‘gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ It started with Nero and ended with King Constantine. Therefore, the seed of the Church is the blood of her martyrs.
St. Paul the apostle, who once was known as Saul of Tarsus the persecutor of the Church of Christ, wrote these words.
“who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to fight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mocking and scourging’s, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned; they were sawn in two, were tempted, and were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”
“The most powerful Saint George. Has despised death and sword and the bitter cuts and all kinds of sufferings. And labored mighty things and miracles. He brought back every man to the truth. Blessed is He who made the athlete victorious. ? So that by His power he might overcome the error.” (Khudra, Volume II page 697 Commemoration of Saint George)
Some of the most vicious persecutions were under the watch of Emperor Trajan.
Clement and Eusibuis wrote of their history. This statement has echoed over the centuries of time “The seed of the church is built on the blood of the martyrs.” Death was such a common way to go that it was called the baptism of blood.
The first martyr of the Christian Church:
Saint Steven was a deacon. After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ Saint Steven became the first martyr of the Christian Church. He courageously brought to the attention of the Pharisees and scribes how their fathers abounded their God in the wilderness, persecuted the Prophets and finally did not listen to the life-giving words of Jesus Christ, they crucified him.
“Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers.” (Acts 7:52) (Matthew 23)
According to Saint Luke they swiftly stoned Saint Steven to death.
“There arose a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem;” and that “they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”
It is said that about two thousand Christians, suffered martyrdom during this time as Acts 11:19 tells us “those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.”
Many apostles accepted the crown of Martyrdom during the persecution of the early church.
“The first fruit of the martyrs of Christ you have become. In the likeness of Able the first righteous O Saint Steven. While you were rebuking in the congregations of the wicked people. You were seen that you have the person of an Angle. Because of that they were being disturbed by jealousy. And by the stones of stoning (storming) they first killed you. O the one who has put on the victory of the one who crowned him (his lord” (Khudra volume I page 726 the Commemoration of Saint Steven)
The martyrs became unconcerned for anything materialistic or worldly.
“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and
The Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
“For we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” (1Timothy 6:7-8)
“As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; and poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing and yet possessing all things.” (2 Corinthians 6:10)
“Martyrs when they sow the world will depart and the truth will persevere. Left the buildings and properties. And possessions which are vanity. And loved the fear of God. And their necks they submitted to the sword. And behold they are prepared to inherit the Kingdom.” (Khudra volume II page 571 Friday of confessors)
It became so that they desired for the soul to be released from the body.
“For I am in a straight between two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.” (Philippians 1:23)
“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2).
God will punish those who persecuted the church:
For the sake of the hope of resurrection and life after death the soil of the East and west was stained by the precious blood of the martyrs. All of the Saints which include those who were persecuted for the sake of God during the Old Testament time and the New Testament will participate in the joy of the Resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come. Therefore persecution and suffering for the sake of God was not strange to the prophets and saints of the Old and New Testament but rather was a regular way of life.
“Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, “that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” (Matthew 23:34-35)
The word martyr:
The word martyr is derived from the word witness. The word witness was first used for the apostles who preached the gospel of Salvation and gave witness to the new Christian faith. Later, it was used to describe the confessors who suffered for the sake of their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And finally it was used for all those people who were slaughtered for the sake of their faith in the Lord.
Thus those Christians who were killed for their faith were called martyrs because they were killed while they were witnessing their faith. Jesus told His disciples they will become His witnesses first in Jerusalem then in Judea and to the ends of the world. Jesus, by saying this to His disciples meant they will be killed for His name’s sake and will be crowned with the crown of martyrdom.
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The followers of Christ in general and the Holy Apostles in particular paid a great price for maintaining their faith in the Lord.
Saint George the Martyr confessed the Lord at the presence of the heathens. The martyrs were martyred and Jesus will crown them with unperishable crowns.
“Honored is your struggle and exalted is your supplication O George the Martyr. Because you have confessed your Lord at the presence of heathens and you scolded them by your victory. Your Lord who sows your struggle placed the crown of glory on your head. And behold you are prepared to inherit the Kingdom.” (Khudra, Volume II page 697 Commemoration of Saint George)
“Who both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets and have persecuted us; and they please not God and are contrary to all men. Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always; for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16)
The Martyrs by their struggle embarrassed the adversary:
“Christ the Savior of the world. The great king of glory. Martyrs who loved and believed in Him have embarrassed the adversary. And know with the angles are delighted in the highest, standing at the presence of God. The opponent and his mighty have oppressed under their feet.” (Khudra volume II page 571 Friday of confessors)
Sacrificial love of God:
Christianity is the product of the sacrificial love of God who gave His only begotten Son our lord and Savior Jesus Christ to die on the Cross on behalf of the sins of the world. We learn from the Sacred Scriptures that the God that Christians worship is love and all creatures receive their love from Him.
“He that loves not knows not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. There was high visibility of love in the early Church, it showed in the sacrifices they made as the apostle John wrote “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16-17)
- Suffering is the sign of Love:
For Christian believers, suffering and death for the sake of the life giving name of our Lord Jesus Christ was the sign of ultimate love.
“Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
As the soul is to the body, so is a Christian to the world. The soul lives in the body but it is not
part of the body. Likewise, while the body has enmity against the soul and fights against it, the soul loves the body. The soul is eternal in a body that dies and the Christian is a stranger in a temporary world looking forward to his eternal home in heaven.
[“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and
Eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
“And the world passes away, and the lust thereof; but he that does the will of God abides
Forever.” (1 John 2:17)]
- Pain is fellowship with the suffering Lord: Martyrs by enduring the severe pains and suffering participate with the suffering of the Lord on the Cross for our salvation.
“And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with [Him] that we may be also glorified together.” (Romans 8:17)
“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death.” (Phil 3:10)
- Christians are strangers to this world:
“And if you call on the Father, who without respect of persons judges according to every man’s work, pass the time of your journey here in fear.” (1 Peter 1:17)
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and
Were persuaded of them and embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” (Hebrews 11:13)
“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, while we are at home in the body, we are
Absent from the Lord; (for we walk by faith, not by sight.) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
- Christians are Citizens of heaven:
Believing that Christians are citizens of heaven and their residence here on earth is temporary made it much easier for the martyrs to joyfully approach the drinking of the cup of death for the sake of eternal life in the Kingdom of heaven.
“To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away, reserved in heaven for you.” (1 Peter 1:4)
- Death will lead to glory:
“Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides
Alone but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life shall lose it and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” (John 12:24-25)
“And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer
With Him that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18)
“It is a faithful saying: for if we were dead with Him, we shall also live with Him.” (2 Timothy 2:11)
The sign of the Cross becomes the symbol of love:
Jesus Christ by shedding His precious blood on the wood of torture has baptized it into the life giving Cross which became the symbol of peace. Vertically between man and God; and horizontally between man and his fellow man. Many see in the sign of the cross the emblem of victory over sin, Satan and death.
Christianity was built on the sufferings of the Cross. Take the suffering, death, burial, and Resurrection out of Christianity there will be no Christianity. Christianity is the religion of the Cross. You cannot separate the Cross of suffering from Christianity. Thus, to follow the Lord means to deny yourself, carry the Cross, and follow the Lord.
The Holy church will continually face persecution here on earth till the second coming of the Lord from heaven.
“Yes and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
“For he said, because the Lord has sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16)
According to the Sacred Scripture God the father will bless those who are persecuted for His name’s sake. Peter says the glory of God rests on that person who is persecuted for righteousness sake.
Martyrs in the Early Church:
Martyrdom of James the Son of Zebedee: The martyrdom of James the son of Zebedee is recorded in the book of the acts of the Holy Apostles.
“Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also.” (Acts 12:1-3)
Martyrdom of Ss, Peter and Paul
Peter was captured and imprisoned though his time had not yet come to be crowned the angel of God rescued him from the prison while the whole Church was praying for him. Both Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome about the year 66 A.D., during the persecution under Emperor Nero. Paul was beheaded by the sword and Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same manner as his Lord. The tradition says Peter requested to be crucified upside down so his mouth will be were the feet of the Lord were so he could kiss the feet of the lord.
“We are not ashamed O Jesus of your gospel cried out the truthful preachers. Peter the head of the Apostles. And Paul the teacher of the gentiles. Who in Rome the great city. Finished the course of their labor. Peter by the suffering of the Cross. And Paul was crowned by the sword. By the hands of Neron the evil King the blood of saints was shed. Behold it is kept for them the unperishable crown.” (Khudra, Volume I page 679 Commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul)
Martyrdom of Saint Andrew:
Saint Andrew the brother of Peter who evangelized in Asia Minor, Turkey of today, and in Greece was crucified on an “X”-shaped cross. It is known today as St. Andrew’s Cross.
Martyrdom of Philip:
Philip ministered in Carthage North Africa and in Asia Minor. He was arrested, tormented and thrown into prison. Later he was crucified at Heliopolis, in Phrygia A. D. 54
Martyrdom of Simon the Zealot:
Simon the Zealot was ministering in Persia, and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god.
Martyrdom of Saint Mark:
Mark preached in Egypt and was killed and pulled to pieces by the people of Alexandria.
Martyrdom of Matias:
Matias, who replaced Judas Iscariot preached in Israel was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded.
Martyrdom of Saint James:
James the first bishop of Jerusalem’s church; known as brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle of Saint James died in 62 A.D., The members of the Sanhedrin, Pharisees and Sadducees gathered in Jerusalem then asked Saint James to proclaim that Jesus was not the promised Messiah. Saint James however instead of cursing the name of the Lord shouted that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God and judge of the world. This act of James provoked the Jews to anger. They arrested Saint James and threw him off the temple and then he was beaten and while he was stoned to death he prayed in the same manner Jesus did.
“Father forgive them they know not what they do.” finally he was killed.”
Martyrdom of Polycarp:
One of the fathers who bravely defended Christianity and sacrificed his precious life for the sake of his faith is Polycarp. When Polycarp was brought before the judge, and commanded to reject and blaspheme Christ, he decisively answered,
“Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong, how then can I blaspheme my king who hath saved me?” He suffered Martyrdom in Smyrna. Polycarp who lived from 69-155 A.D.
Rev.12:11: “And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb by the word of their testimony and they did not love their lives unto death.”
“Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire”
(Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3). Polycarp joined six others who were scourged and beheaded; he was burned at the stake by Antoninus Pius in the market place before a crowd.
Martyrdom of Ignatius:
Ignatius was a close friend of Polycarp. He became bishop of Antioch; he was fed to the lions at the Colosseum of Rome under Trajan in 117 AD.
Before his exit “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!”
As he heard the lions roaring, he said. “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” (Foxes book of Martyr’s)
Justin is known as a Martyr and apologist. He opposed Marcion who rejected the Old Testament and issued his own book of the New Testament in which contained part of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s epistles only. He courageously wrote a defense of Christianity addressed to the Emperor Augustus Caesar saying: “You can kill us. But you cannot hurt us.” Justin was beheaded at Rome and martyred in l67 AD.
The first two centuries, after the Holy apostles slept in peace, were the most critical time for establishing the basis against all the heresies that would try to destroy the Orthodox teaching of the church. Some certain men bravely preserved the scriptures and rejected the false teachings of many people who claimed had apostolic authority. These people spoke boldly against the philosophies of their day and stood firm against those who were trying to change the nature of God and Christ. These people did not compromise their faith and decided to defend the truth and most of them were martyred for the sake of their faith.
These brave fathers of the Holy Church wrote about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that there is one God in three persons. They also defended the divinity and humanity of our lord Jesus Christ. As soon as the Roman Empire conquered the world the Holy Church begun to experience severe persecution. According to the history of persecution the majority of Christian martyrs received their crown of martyrdom one hundred years before the universal council of Nicaea which took place in 325 AD. At this time the Church enjoyed its legal freedom and was no longer underground.
Tertullian stated,” no man would be willing to die unless he knew he had the truth.” In countries that are communist, Muslim and anti-Christian there are many that face the same choice the early Church did, reject Jesus or die. There are those being persecuted who experientially know the meaning of carrying their cross.
In John 15 Jesus tells the apostle how he has chosen them for their mission and that they are no longer part of the world and its kingdom but are now of God’s kingdom, in vs.20
“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”
It is first the saints that are persecuted and killed as John witnesses the fifth seal being opened, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” (Rev 6:9)
Vatican City, May 12, 2015 / 12:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).– In a message sent Sunday to the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Francis said advances toward reconciliation are strengthened by the martyrs and that Christians must unite to confront shared global challenges.
“Today more than ever we are united by the ecumenism of blood, which further encourages us on the path towards peace and reconciliation,” Pope Francis wrote May 10 to Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria.
Fathers of the Church call Martyrs the friends of Christ:
Sa“Blessed be unto you O consecrated Martyr the friend of Christ. For offering yourself unto the griefs and sufferings for the sake of His love. Because of that He has invited you to be with him in heavenly Kingdom.” (Khudra volume I page 736 the Commemoration of Saint Steven)
Commemoration of the saints and the Martyrs:
“Blessed be unto you O consecrated Martyr. The friend of the heavenly bridegroom. Because of the deeds of your behavior. Which were done in perfect and true love. Behold your commemoration has been celebrated. In the Church the fiancé of Christ. And the Angles in heaven are crying out. In groups and teams are saying. Come enter O holy Martyr into the Kingdome prepared for you. The one your Lord in His love has prepared for you because you have fulfilled all His commandments. And now we are beseeching compassion and the forgiveness of sins from you O our savior: so that we also might be made worthy by your compassion. To enjoy the heavenly bliss with your Saints.” (Khudra volume I page 731 the Commemoration of Saint Steven)
The Martyrs believed the Lord will reward them:
“Sing O church along with the Martyrs. The blessed Choire which has been crowned. And gave their neck unto the dreadful sword of their persecutors. And they did not doubt the power which was hidden from all. They have believed that they will receive the reward. On behalf of the confession of His great name. The clowds of light carried their souls. And Flying. They ascended into heaven. And behold their bones are celebrated as those of the Apostles. So that they might become lawyers on behalf of our souls. And beseech mercy upon us all.” (Khudra volume II page 573 Friday of confessors)
The summary of the teaching of the Church on sacrifice and martyrdom:
“Your strength O my Lord is mighty and cannot be conquered. Which has strengthened the holy Martyrs in their struggle? And your glorified and unconquerable aid which assisted the righteous confessors during their sufferings. And your true hope that does not act unfaithfully. Which comforted the victorious Athletics with their tortures? And for the sake of your love they intoxicated their souls and submitted their bodies to suffering. And because of your compassion towards them they let their blood flow like water. And they hated the world and its lusts. They loved your name and they suffered for the sake of the unshaken hope. He (The Lord) will strengthen our weakness to walk without being worn away on their steps. And will assist our enfeebles to walk without delay on their paths. And will guide our souls to imitate their manners. And will comfort our hearts to be likened to their patience. And to conquer sufferings and demnes after their manners. And to disdain the Pagans and ungodly as they did. And to make us all worthy to enjoy the blessings which are kept for them. And to enter their mansions and be welcomed under their shelters. …” (Khudra volume II page 586 Morning Prayer, Friday of the confessors)
Saints in heaven intercede on behalf of believers:
In the book of Revelation we read that the twenty-four elders who have left the world are worshipping before the throne of God and offering the prayers of the people on earth to God. It is written:
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) (Hebrews 12:1-22)
“Famous heroes you were called O martyrs in the Holy Church. As unto a tower and strong walls the Church takes refuge in you. Glory be to the power which is hidden in you. By his aid you endured sufferings and different kinds of deaths. The Church also collected and placed your bones. And marvelous temples built on your honor. And behold all aids flow from them. In honor and for the glory of Jesus who has crowned.” (Khudra volume II page 576 Friday of confessors)
Rev. Fr. Cor-Bishop Gewargis Toma
Parish Priest of Saint Andrews Church
Glenview, Illinois, U.S.A.