Stephen is the first believer in Christ to be killed for his faith. The story is recorded in Acts chapter 7, and is worth re-reading. Stephen’s life was taken from him because he professed Jesus as Lord and Savior, crucified by men but risen from the dead. Luke records that from that day, a great persecution arose against the Church. Stephen was the first in a long line of martyrs for the faith.
The word in the Greek that we translate as “Martyr” means “One who gives a witness.” In our context, a martyr is someone who suffers for some cause. When we think about martyrs in the Christian realm, we think about those who have been put to death for the faith – the most extreme form of suffering or persecution. It is a testament to the great number of Christians who suffered and who were put to death for their witness that the word “martyr” has come to be synonymous with being killed for the sake of Christ.
One well-known martyr in the early Church was Polycarp, who was born in 69AD. Tradition says that Polycarp was a student of the apostle John, and that John himself ordained him as bishop in Smyrna (in modern-day Turkey). Polycarp was a bishop at a time of great persecution.
The pagan crowds, knowing that he was a Christian, insisted that Polycarp be brought to the arena. Officials went looking for him, but fellow Christians kept moving him from farm to farm. Roman soldiers finally found him in a small cottage. He was taken into the city on a donkey. The captain of the troops met him and asked, “What’s the harm in saying ‘Caesar is Lord’ and offering a pinch of incense? Save yourself.” But Polycarp did not respond. They persisted. He answered, “I won’t do it.”
Polycarp was eighty-six when he was brought to the arena. Legend says that he heard a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”
In the arena, the proconsul also attempted to persuade him to worship Caesar as a god. “Swear by Caesar. Change your mind! Curse Christ!” Polycarp calmly replied, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? I am a Christian. I swear by Christ. If you want me to teach you the faith, tell me when.”
The proconsul countered, “I have wild beasts.”
“Call them,” responded Polycarp.
“I will burn you with fire,” said the proconsul.
“Your fire lasts for an hour,” replied Polycarp, “There is an eternal fire that will burn the wicked. Why do you delay? Do what you will.”
The crowds clamored for his death. Three times it was announced, “Polycarp is a Christian!”
His hands were tied behind him and wood was brought for the fire. Polycarp prayed as he gazed upward. “Lord God Almighty, Father of Your beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of You…. I bless You because You have deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ for resurrection to eternal life of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit…. For this and for everything I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Servant, through whom be glory to You with Him and the Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen.” Polycarp was martyred in the mid-second century.
All Christians have a cross to bear. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). For some, this means physical suffering or even death because of their witness. Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” To the world, it looks as though Stephen and Polycarp lost their lives for the memory of a dead man. But in reality, they found their lives for eternity because of their faith in the risen Son of God, who died that they might live. Thank God for their witness. Thank God for the gift of Christ Jesus!
God be with you as you live the life of a Christian, as salt and light in the darkness of this world. God give you His strength as you daily take up your cross and follow Jesus, praying also for your fellow saints at University Hills Lutheran Church and for your brothers and sisters in the faith around the world. I thank God for you.
Peace in Christ Jesus our Lord,
(Content taken from Rev. Brian Wolfmueller’s book, A Martyr’s Faith in a Faithless World, pp. 102-103. Rev. Wolfmueller’s book is available at cph.org or on Amazon.)