To Speak of Jesus Is to Speak of Martyrdom

Jesus Is the Prototype of the Martyr
Jesus is the archetype of the martyr. “Early Christianity defined the work of Christ in the categories of martyr theology, and interpreted the fate of the martyrs according to the fate of Christ.”1 A letter written to the churches in Vienne and Lyon in 177 AD calls him, “Christ the faithful and true martyr.” The prediction of his martyrdom accompanies his whole earthly ministry from the very beginning (e.g., Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 10:17-19; 26:2).

The Passion takes up the longest part of the Gospels and relates Judas’ betrayal; the false accusations; the illegal trial, torture, and the excruciating execution at the hands of Israel’s leaders; and the Roman government in great detail. Paul consistently presents Jesus as the archetype of the martyr and as an example for all Christians.2 The early Church’s documents on martyrdom thus considered Jesus to be the prototype of the martyr, who could not be excelled by any other.

To Die for Friends Is the Highest Form of Love
To give one’s life for others is the highest form of love in this world. Because Jesus clearly taught, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13), a Christian’s love is continually oriented toward Jesus’ greatest sacrifice: his death on the cross.

Ephesians 5:2 reads, “…and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” For this reason, the husband should be willing to die for his wife—a denial of any dictatorial ideas of “headship.” Ephesians 5:25 reads, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The early Church did well to consider martyrdom for Jesus’ sake the highest proof of one’s love for God.

All Persecution Is Actually Directed toward Jesus
Jesus is the actual object of all persecution. For this reason, Jesus asks Saul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14) and identifies himself as “… Jesus whom you persecute” (Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15).

The true reason for Christian suffering is Christ, who justifies the contradiction: “The clearer the Church recognizes Christ and testifies of him, the more certain it will encounter the contradiction, the confrontation, and the hatred of the Antichrist.”3

Jesus himself frequently reminded the disciples that they would be persecuted for his sake (e.g., Matthew 10:22; Luke 21:17). Matthew 16:25 reads, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” and Luke 21:12 reads, “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.”

Continuation of the Suffering of Christ
The suffering of the Christian is distinctive because it continues Christ’s sufferings. The re-collection of Golgotha is essential to an understanding of the Church’s sufferings. Howard A. Snyder describes the cross as the guarantee of the Church’s suffering, not its escape from persecution.4

Paul did not regard his own suffering as redemptive5, but still described it as “fellowship with the suffering of Christ.” In 2 Corinthians 1:5 (“For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”), Paul relates suffering under persecution with the sufferings of Christ. He repeats the idea more explicitly in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

Again, in Galatians 6:17, he writes, “Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus,” and in Philippians 3:10 he wishes to “…know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” In 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, he adds,

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

In his words about “fire” and “testing,” Peter shares Paul’s view and writes, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

Jesus as Role Model; the Martyrs as Role Models
Jesus’ martyrdom makes him our role model when we suffer persecution. Jesus himself suf-fered just as much as the martyrs of his Church and more: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15).

The suffering of the Christian is distinctive
because it continues Christ’s sufferings.

Martin Luther wrote, “The Lord Christ had to suffer persecution at the hands of the devil and the world: we should not desire anything better.”6 Jesus reminds his disciples, “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.'If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also” (John 15:20; for the context, read 18-21). When we read his words, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16), we must remember that he is the Lamb of God sent among the wolves to suffer and die peacefully for others.

His own example, which plays such an important role in the New Testament7, includes his suffering and his dealing with persecution. Paul knew that the reality of his own sufferings had taught Timothy to handle such situations:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, pa-tience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:10-12)

The Thessalonians also became not only imitators of Paul, Silas, and Timothy under persecution, but also role models for the believers in neighboring provinces: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7).

First Thessalonians 2:14-15 reads,

For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men…

A Theology of the Cross (“Theologia Crucis”)
Without the offence of the cross there would be no persecution. Ethelbert Stauffer, writing about the discussion of the persecution of Christ and the apostles, says, “This ‘theology of martyrdom’ finds the center of its framework and its meaning in the fact of the cross.”8

Paul thus writes9, “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished” (Galatians 5:11). Without the cross, there would be no persecution. He accused his opponents of being circumcised only to escape persecution: “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12; see also verse 14).

The word of the cross may be foolishness to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 1:18), an impediment to the Jews, and nonsense to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), but it is the center of salvation history. The heart of the apostolic message is thus “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The message of the cross is thus the glory of the gospel as well as its foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Galatians 6:11-14). Theology is either a theology of the cross (“theolgia crucis”) or no theology at all, as Martin Luther and John Calvin have insisted.


1. Stauffer, Ethelbert. 1933. “Märtyrertheologie und Täuferbewegung.” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 52:547-548.

2. See Pobee, John S. 1985. Persecution and Martyrdom in the Theology of Paul. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 74-92.

3. Martin Luther‘s Sämtliche Schriften. 1986. Ed. Joh. Georg Walch. Harms: Groß Oesingen (reprinting of 1910). Vol. V, 106.

4. Snyder, Howard A. 1977. The Community of the King. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press.

5. See also the “Martyrdom of Polycarp.” 1972. In The Acts of Christian Martyrs. Ed. Herbert Musurillo, 2-21. Oxford: Clarendon Press. The descriptions of the martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. 155-157 A.D.), for example, distinguish between the redemptive sufferings of Christ and the sufferings of the martyrs.

6. Martin Luther’s Sämtliche Schriften, Vol. III, 691.

7. See Schirrmacher, Thomas. 2000. “Jesus as Master Educator and Trainer.” Training for Crosscultural Ministries. World Evangelical Fellowship. 2:1-4.

8. Stauffer, 1933, 546.

Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher is professor of ethics and sociology of religion in Germany and Turkey. He is also president of Martin Bucer Theological Seminary, spokesman for human rights of the World Evangelical Alliance, and director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (Bonn, Cape Town, Colombo). Schirrmacher has four doctorates (theology, cultural anthropology, ethics, and sociology of religions).