Some Thoughts About Martyrs and Martyrdom

According to, “martyr” most commonly refers to “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion.”

I recently read an article which asserts that as many as 160,000 Christians each year give up their lives because of their allegiance to Christ. Dan Wooding, journalist and co-host of the “Window on the World” radio show went on to write that “according to current rates, one in every 200 Christians can expect to be martyred.”

I have no way to verify either number, but I suspect the 160,000 figure is high. Trying to arrive at an even moderately accurate estimate is notoriously difficult. The “Center for the Study of Global Christianity” of Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary once put the estimate at 100,000 Christian martyrs per year, but then walked back their estimate.

Some other less specific estimates I’ve seen indicate that the number of Christian martyrs each year is certainly in the thousands and likely in the tens of thousands. Such numbers, sadly, seem to me to have the ring of truth—a truth well worth much pondering and prayer.

Todd Nettleton of “Voice of the Martyrs” tells the story of a Tajikistan pastor named Sergei Bessarab who, in 2004, was shot to death as he was playing his guitar and leading worship in a small city named Isfara where he and his wife had planted a church.

Bessarab had been in prison for criminal activities (real ones) and was finally led to Christ by another prisoner (also named Sergei). Bessarab resisted for a long time, but he eventually became a man of deep faith, led many in the prison to Christ, and, after his release, was often back at the prison ministering to the inmates there.

As the number of Bessarab’s converts grew, the local newspaper sounded the alarm which would lead to the son of the leader of a local mosque firing thirteen bullets into Bessarab on that sad night. But the prison ministry went on and grew. Bessarab’s friend, Sergei, predicted that the time would come when Christians would meet the man who killed Pastor Bessarab and tell him about Christ.

The murderer was convicted and sent to prison. His cellmate was a Christian who had been discipled by Bessarab. And, yes, Sergei Bessarab’s killer did give his life to Christ, accepting the hardship and danger such a decision meant for him. One day, Nettleton writes, these two men who many would have written off as “lost causes” will stand side by side as brothers joyfully worshiping their Lord.

An amazing story, but such stories abound, from the first Christian martyr, Stephen, to the believer put to death across the world from us five minutes ago. We know so few of their names, but Christ knows them all. They are still, as the Apostle John would write in Revelation, “those who are victorious.”

Strictly speaking, a “martyr” is one who dies, whose blood is shed, for Christ. How many more faithful Christian “witnesses” (the word comes from the Greek “witness) are not executed but have faced and are facing serious suffering and persecution for living out their faith in Christ? Those, too, we should pray for and honor.

Of course, the word has come to also be used in a much more “popular” and colloquial sense. More than a few folks who want our vote or our allegiance regarding any number of political, ideological, or other issuesrational or not, true or not—can be said, in common parlance, to “play the martyr.” It’s a use of the word that is as slimy as the former use is noble.

Think about it. Have you ever seen anyone who looked good trying to “play the martyr” and dress up as a self-professed victim? I’ve tried (I really have!) to think of someone I would esteem as a person of character and maturity, a person worthy of respect, who has appropriated that term personally or who has been willing to accept it from his/her followers. I can think of no one.

But then comes a harder question as this gets personal, and I look inward. Making victimhood a full-time job and an integral part of one’s character, or lack thereof, is weak, wrong, and vile. How many times, though, if I’m honest, have I fallen to the temptation to “temporarily” play the martyr or see myself as a victim and thus feed for a while a dark part of my soul? That’s a dangerous game because personally playing the martyr can’t be done without being seriously self-centered.

Isn’t it striking that the real thing is exactly the opposite? One who is martyred for his or her faith in Christ is not thinking about self at all, just praying that the Lord will be glorified and Christ’s kingdom enlarged. Blood freely given by a true martyr is considered by them as no sacrifice at all compared to Christ’s blood. We honor Christ and we honor them, in all ages, for their utterly selfless victory in their Lord.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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