I read an interesting statistic the other day. 80% of the world’s true believers are living in persecution. A true believer is a follower or disciple of Jesus. People who know who Jesus is and people for whom the Christian faith is central to life and life-shaping. These are people who have encountered the living and loving God and embraced the message that Jesus’s death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave destroyed the power of sin and death. People who have embraced the love of God and whose lives have been totally changed as they became new creatures in Christ.
The 80% of the world’s believers who live in persecution refers to hardship and even death that is the result of being true followers of Jesus and not for some other reason. Not all persecution ends in death. Some does, however. The word martyr describes those who have died for their faith as believers. It is claimed that over the past 20 centuries of the Christian faith, some 70 million believers have been murdered for their faith and can rightly be called martyrs. And, it is estimated that currently more than four hundred believers are killed every day for their faith. Numbers can speak loudly but we must look carefully are how those numbers are determined.
The basic definition is that Christian martyrs are “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility. This definition has five essential and distinct components:
1> Believers in Christ. These are people who have heard the Gospel of the Kingdom and due to the conviction of the Spirit were led to repent with godly sorrow and receive forgiveness for their sins. These are people who have had a life-changing encounter with the love of God the Father and, as a result, have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. These are people who have truly become new creatures in Christ and are living lives focused on the Kingdom. These are people who have received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and thus are able to fulfill John 14:12 and are obedient to the command to “seek and save the lost” regardless of the cost. The number of true Christians is really much smaller than the number who claim to be followers of the Christian faith.
2> Lost their lives. The Christians numbered among the martyrs have actually been put to death. There are many levels of persecution, but martyrdom results in death.
3> Prematurely. Martyrdom is sudden, abrupt, unexpected, and unwanted. It is a death that happens before it “should” happen; it is, in that sense, premature. Had martyrdom not happened, these people would have lived longer.
4> In situations of witness. By definition, the word martyr suggests the idea of witness. In traditional usage, a martyr is a person who bears witness to Christ in his or her own death. So, dying a martyr usually means giving some form of testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ before they die or by the way that they died.
5> As a result of human hostility. The martyr’s death happens at the hands of a persecutor. A human being is involved in the martyrdom.
And we could add that the witness of the martyr stands the test of time. That means at least two things. First, the martyr’s way of living will not later be revealed to be untrue or inauthentic. As people look back and consider the life of the believer who has died, they will see that there was, in fact, true belief. Second, whether we can measure it or not, the death will serve as testimony. The death will encourage and even bear fruit and it will do those things over time. There will be evangelistic impact in the setting where the martyrdom takes place, within the group that sent out the believer, or in both settings.
So, the reported annual number of Christian martyrs might be much higher than the actual number of people who died for their faith. Using these elements contained within the understanding of what constitute a martyr an accurate count is really hard to obtain and there is little gained by guessing at and then publishing the “estimate” number of martyrs annually.