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ISIS has beheaded twenty-0ne Egyptian Christians in Libya. What should the Church do? How do we respond? How should we think about their sacrifice? Why does God let this kind of thing happen? It’s days like this that we need a theology of martyrdom.

We call these murdered Egyptian Christians “martyrs,” but what do we even mean by that? Most often people will call anyone who died for any cause a “martyr,” but the word’s usage has its origins in a distinctively Christian experience.

Originally, the Greek word martys merely meant someone who gave testimony—a witness. It didn’t have any connotations of violent death, but during the sporadic Roman persecutions, the early Church began calling those who died for their faith “martyrs.” Why? How were their deaths a witness?

Some of these martyrs verbally testified—bore witness—to their faith in Christ before they were killed, but the martyrs didn’t have to witness with words. Their deaths testified to their faith. With their deaths they testified that they would gladly suffer the killing of this body because their ultimate hope was that Christ would provide for them a new body in the Resurrection.

The martyrs didn’t have to die. They could have abandoned Christ and embraced the religion of everyone else in their society, but they counted Christ and his Resurrection more valuable than clinging to life in this tattered body. These Egyptian Christians didn’t have to die either. How easy it would have been for them to have converted to Islam. Both their lives and their deaths witnessed to their trust in Christ’s sufficiency as they lived in a land resistant to their beliefs.

The early Church said that the martyrs received a crown for witnessing to the point of death. This crown, however, wasn’t a crown of ruling. It was the stephanos, the wreath of leaves awarded to someone who had triumphed at an athletic competition. God gives them this prize because of the extraordinary steadfastness exhibited in testifying through death.

The early Church honored its martyrs, and we should do the same with the twenty Egyptian martyrs because in spite of our denominational divisions, the body of Christ remains undivided. These martyrs are our martyrs. When the enemies of God persecute one part of the body, we all feel it. Ultimately, they are attacking Christ, who is our head. When Saul attacked the Church, Jesus asked, “Saul, why do you persecute me?”

If our theology of martyrdom testifies to the belief in Christ’s resurrection and the belief in the future resurrection of the dead, what should our practice be? What should those of us who are not threatened with beheading do? 

First, we must pray. We must remember that we are persecuted in the persecution of our brothers and sisters around the world. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us. We must not hate the terrorists. We must pray for them, and ask that the Holy Spirit might use the witness of martyrs to save the souls of God’s enemies. Souls are saved through the proclamation of the good news. Is there a bolder proclamation of the Christian’s steadfast hope in the Resurrection than martyrdom? Pray that the enemies of God will be converted. Weren’t we all enemies of God at one time?

Second, we must heed the martyrs’ example and be faithful witnesses to Christ and his Resurrection no matter what our circumstances. Their testimony is our testimony, and the martyrs stephanos is no different than the prize that Paul offers to all faithful Christians in 1 Corinthians 9.

In 397, Augustine of Hippo exhorted his congregation to live with a theology of martyrdom even though the Roman state no longer persecuted the Church. He says that we shouldn’t hope to experience the same kind of persecution that the martyrs did, but he also says that this world provides ample opportunity for a steadfast witness to Christ because of its trials and temptations. We still war against sin and death, and a faithful witness to Christ in the midst of the struggle wins the martyr’s prize. He said, “Your feast day is not indeed in the calendar, but your crown is ready waiting for you” (Sermon 306E).

The manner of the martyrs’ testimony is extraordinary, but the content of their testimony should be common to all Christians. The martyrs’ extraordinary steadfastness encourages us to faithfulness in our own less extraordinary proclamation of Christ and his Resurrection.

Collin Garbarino is assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.

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