According to the Scriptures, being a witness for Christ is, in most respects, synonymous with martyrdom.
While not all Christians face literal martyrdom in their lifetime, the call to carry a cross is a call to each and every one of us. Jesus Christ was the first true and faithful Martyr (Rev. 1:5), and all Christians should consider his own witness as an example for our lives.
In certain parts of the evangelical church today, there is a focus on “winning lost souls.” People will go door-to-door, confront strangers on the street, and corner co-workers in the break room. These activities are even termed “witnessing.” But are these sorts of drive-by evangelism or confrontational encounters really what it means to be a witness for the Gospel?
The New Testament paints a different picture when it comes to being a faithful witness. In fact, the English word witness is a translation of the Greek μάρτυς or martys—martyr. Translating this word as both witness and martyr can be confusing, especially considering how the word has been misused in our present, English-speaking context.
In the book of Revelation, we read of:
Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead … —Rev. 1:5
As well as:
… the Amen, the faithful and true witness. —Rev. 3:14
In both cases, the word witness is a reference to martyrdom; that is, the death of Jesus Christ. Already by the end of the first century, as exhibited in the catacombs, Jesus Christ represents the first, faithful, and true Martyr—the true Man or Adam, reversing the curse of the first. That curse was death, and so Jesus Christ as the true Adam has reversed the curse through his victory over both death and Hades, a victory won in his resurrection and ascension. The early liturgical practices of the underground Church involved gathering around the tomb of a martyr or Saint, celebrating the Eucharist above their relics. This practice was canonized in the Orthodox Church by the necessary consecration of altars with the relics of a Saint (Canon 7 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council).
The apostolic Church had within her very DNA a martyr cult derived from the first, true Martyr. By following Christ in both suffering and death, the early martyrs were partaking of the true life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When they gathered to say thanks and partake of the one loaf of the Eucharist, they did so in the presence of these fallen martyrs’ relics. This calls to mind the apostle Paul’s admonition that we are “buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Even in the face of death, we find victory.
The martyr cult of the early Church is also exemplified by the martyr stories of Saints like Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch (early-second century A.D.). To be a Christian is not only to be a martyr (in whatever way this plays out in our individual lives), but to follow Christ as a true man—as a man reversing the curse of death (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon 3:1–9). For Polycarp, his hour of martyrdom was joined with a voice from heaven:
Be strong, and show yourself a man.
It was through a humiliating death that Polycarp would show himself to be a man—a true human being after the ultimate and true Adam—following in the footsteps of Christ who himself became silent in his suffering (Matt. 27:12–14). To be a man in this context is not machoism or strength as in the world’s eyes, but rather a quiet and courageous humility.
Considering Christ’s example, along with the numerous examples of martyrdom in the early Church, I can’t help but be ashamed at the way I once used the word witness.
Pestering strangers at a coffee shop about your local church community is not being a martyr, nor is it being a “faithful and true witness” as the Scriptures define it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should hide our faith or refuse to speak of it. But the way we present ourselves to others is far more valuable as a witness after the manner of Christ and the early (or present day) martyrs—a “witness” centered on humility, suffering, and self-sacrifice.