On February 15, 2015, members of ISIS beheaded 20 Coptic Christians (plus one from Ghana) on the beach in Sirte, Libya. To trumpet their brutality, they posted a high-quality video of the event online for the world to see.
Most of the slain men hailed from a poor village in Upper Egypt and were working in Libya to send money home to support their families. During their 43-day captivity in which they were tortured, their captors ordered them daily to recite the Islamic shahadah (“I declare there is no other god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”). Each day the captives refused.
Just before they were executed, the martyrs were heard softly but boldly declaring in Arabic, “Ya Rabbi Yessua” (“O Lord Jesus”). While the world watched a barbaric massacre, they also heard a verbal testimony of Christian faith amid severe persecution. Such witness in suffering follows the pattern of martyrs in the early church and offers a model for Christian disciples in the future.
Martyrs in the Early Church
Through their suffering witness, the 21 imitated the examples of many martyrs from the early church period, particularly before the early fourth century when Constantine came to power and gave peace to the church in the empire. Though most discrimination against Christians occurred at the local community level, at times governors and even emperors also persecuted the church.
When Christians appeared in court or before the authorities, they often declared their allegiance to Christ. For example, in Pergamum (Asia Minor) in the mid-third century, a believer named Carpus refused to make pagan sacrifices, confessing, “I am a Christian . . . and I venerate Christ the Son of God.” His fellow martyr Papylus added, “I have served Christ from my youth, and I have never offered sacrifice to idols. I am a Christian.”
Other Christians confessed their faith in creed-like fashion, even clarifying aspects of the gospel. During his trial, which resulted in exile and later execution, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) testified, “I am a Christian and a bishop. I recognize no other gods but the one true God who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that is in them.”
Responding to the Prefect Rusticus’s questions about the nature of his faith, Justin Martyr (d. 165) answered,
I have committed myself to the true doctrines of the Christians . . . the belief that we piously hold regarding the God of the Christians, whom alone we hold to be the craftsman of the whole world from the beginning, and also regarding Jesus Christ, the child of God, who was foretold by the prophets as one who was to come down to mankind as a herald of salvation and teacher of good doctrines.
Witness amid Suffering
Each of these early followers of Christ earned the distinction of being a martyr. While the word “martyr” in essence means “a witness” (martus) or “to witness” (martureo), by the second century, the term began to refer to those who witnessed unto Christ through laying down their lives.
This could lead to the conclusion that martyrdom simply means a person dying for being a Christian. But these martyrs died for their faith while continuing to give verbal witness for their hope in Christ. The early Christians preached the gospel and used words because those words were necessary.
These martyrs died for their faith while continuing to give verbal witness for their hope in Christ.
They were also able to testify during persecution—to be faithful Christian martyrs—because they were first disciples. For the early church, the pre-baptismal discipleship curriculum was a creed, a statement of faith that summarized the gospel and provided a window into the whole of Scripture and the story of salvation. Sometimes called the rule of faith, these creedal statements eventually developed into the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which were then recited weekly in corporate worship.
The trial testimonies of many early Christians sounded like parts of a creed. And this makes perfect sense. When pressured to deny their faith, they leaned into the core of their spiritual formation and articulated the essence of their faith. On one hand, they were preaching the gospel to themselves, which sustained them in persecution. On the other hand, their testimonies were a clear and articulate witness to their interrogators and everyone else in the vicinity.
Discipling Future Witnesses
The body of sacred biography that emerged from the early church (often called “Acts of the Martyrs“) reminds us that its martyrs clung tightly to the gospel by remembering the creeds and confessing them before others.
The early church reminds us that its martyrs clung tightly to the gospel by remembering the creeds and confessing them before others.
Together, the 21 martyrs of 2015 and the early Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire have much to teach the global church today. They recognized that part of following Jesus was the expectation of suffering, even laying down their lives instead of denying their faith or bowing to idols. When pressured and squeezed by their persecutors, they articulated the gospel to the point of death.
But we also see that faithfulness in the moment of testing is often the fruit of earlier discipleship. One significant way the church prepares its members for persecution is through its gospel-centered worship and creeds. Those who witness as faithful martyrs can do so because they’ve been trained to treasure Christ and suffer well for his sake.