What is a martyr?

The word, "martyr," comes from the Greek (martus) meaning "a witness." The word has multiple meanings in the New Testament:

  • One bearing witness in a court of justice (Matthew 18:16, 26:65; Acts 6:13, 7:58; Hebrews 10:28; 1 Timothy 5:19)
  • One bearing testimony to the truth of what he has seen or known (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8,22; Romans 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:5,10; 1 John 1:2)
  • One who bears witness of the truth and suffers even to the point of death in the cause of Christ (Acts 22:20, Revelation 2:13, Revelation 17:6)

By the end of the 1st century, the term referred to those who were witnesses to the faithfulness of God and their commitment to Him by choosing to suffer death rather than deny Christ or His work, sacrificing in order to further the Kingdom of God, and enduring great suffering for their Christian witness and/or identity.

John Pobee in his book, Persecution and Martyrdom in the Theology of Paul, notes that a biblical martyr was characterized by three things:

  1. Suffering, whether it issues in death or not
  2. His suffering is seen as a witness to his zeal for or devotion to God
  3. His devotion is rooted in a conviction about the sovereign omnipotence and transcendence of God