Recovering a Theology of Martyrdom

When I first read as a child about early Christian martyrs, I was fascinated but puzzled. I was fascinated by their willingness to follow Jesus to death, to witness (the meaning of martyr) through their deaths. I could see the necessity and even beauty of martyrdom, but I was puzzled by the early church’s treating it as a prize, as a kind of Academy Award, something to be sought after. It is one thing to have martyrdom happen to you, it is an entirely another to prize it. That I didn’t understand. Oddly enough the only place that preserves this early Christian attitude to martyrdom is Islam.

This lost view of martyrdom is rooted in two things: Jesus’ Passion and a rich view of the Gospel as an entering into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s look today just at Jesus’ Passion.

A Distaste for the Cross

I never particularly liked Jesus’ Passion. We needed it for salvation, but it wasn’t something you studied or meditated on. It was something you got through, like a trip to the dentist. That is until God took me through some prolonged suffering, and I began to read the Passion accounts through the lens of his love. What was Jesus like as a person during his Passion? How did he relate to people? As I immersed myself in his Passion, I was stunned. For instance at Jesus’ seizure at Gethsemane in the space of a few minutes, Jesus protects his disciples, reaches out to Judas, offers himself, rebukes Peter, heals Malchus’s ear, rebukes the priests, in short, deflates a tense situation. He is a Bruce Lee of love. He is anything but silent and passive.

In Jesus’ conversation with Pilate, Jesus cares for a cynical thug. Pilate begins the joke that runs all through the Passion, “Jesus is King of the Jews”. The joke is picked up by the soldiers’ mock worship service of Jesus and ends up as a sign posted over his cross. Jesus responds (John 18:33-38) to Pilate’s mocking with thoughtful, penetrating questions and gracious answers that eventually reach Pilate’s heart. In fact, Jesus turns the interrogation into an incisive examination of Pilate. Jesus loves an enemy.

"No One Ever Died That Way Before"

No one ever died that way before. The Passion created a new template for dying, for love. The previous template, celebrated by Jesus’ contemporaries, was the well-known Maccabean story of a mother and her seven sons who are tortured to death by Antiochus (167 BC) for refusing to eat pork. While they are dying, the second son calls Antiochus “You accursed fiend… (7:9); the fifth son tells Antiochus, “Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.” The seventh brother calls him, “You wretch, vilest of men!” Jesus’ “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” stands in sharp contrast.

Seduced by Love

Jesus not only eschews the Jewish way of dying (passionately cursing your enemies) but also the Greek Stoic way of dying exemplified by Socrates dispassionately drinking the cup of poison. Jesus’ third way stunned his followers. Under tremendous pressure, incredible love poured out. The young church wanted to copy that way of dying. They were seduced by it. It captured their hearts and their imagination. Paul wanted his whole life to be characterized by that kind of dying love, “…always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (II Cor. 4:10). In fact, Paul wanted to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). More on that in Part 2.


Paul Miller is author of A Praying Life and Love Walked Among Us. For further study of Jesus’ Passion see Unit V of The Person of Jesus Study (, Part V of Love Walked Among Us, and chapter 25 of A Praying Life.