Jesus’ execution solved nothing for his opponents. Quite the contrary. As reports went abroad of the Master’s empty tomb, His popularity took an upturn. The followers would be opposed, in turn, as their Master had been opposed. Opposition was an unavoidable part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had made it clear that such opposition would be universal, marked by Roman crucifixions and Jewish scourging (Mt. 23:34). And He assured His disciples that, contrary to all appearances, persecution would be the occasion of great blessings. “Blessed,” He said, “are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Mt. 5:10).
Thus, persecution became, for the Church, a sign of success, a mark of resemblance to Jesus.
Two chapters of the Acts of the Apostles are dedicated to the story of Stephen, the first disciple to be persecuted unto death. Stephen’s story provided Christians a framework for the understanding of all subsequent persecutions. In every detail, Stephen’s life and death are presented as a faithful imitation of the Passion of Jesus. Much later in the book, one of the Apostles would apply a term to Stephen that has become the Church’s technical term for a Christian who is persecuted unto death. Stephen is called God’s martyros (Acts 22:20). To Greek speakers of the first century, the word meant simply “witness” — a witness in a court of law. But the word came to have a special meaning for Christians and would soon be reserved for those who gave Christian testimony with their very lives.
The Church saw the death of the martyrs in sacrificial terms. In the book of Revelation, John saw “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness [mar-tyrian] they had borne” (Rev. 6:9). The word he uses for altar means “place of sacrifice.” The martyrs are those who most perfectly carry out the exhortation of the Apostle Paul: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).
The early Christians looked at martyrdom as the most perfect imitation of the Eucharistic Christ. As Jesus laid down His life (John 15:13), He made an offering of His Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine (Luke 22:19-20). He identified Himself with those elements (John 6:51-56). So did the martyrs, in their turn. St. Paul foresaw that he would “be poured as a libation,” a “sacrificial offering” (Phil. 2:17; see also 2 Tim. 4:6).
Martyrdom was indeed a vivid and compelling witness to the communion of life Christ shared with His disciples. “But if we have died with Christ,” Paul said, “we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). Christians could be God’s children only if they were willing to share the suffering of the only-begotten Son — “we are . . . heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).
Editor’s note: This article is the sixth part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c). Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.