Martus – A Call to Martyrdom?

Word of the Week

December 26, 2020

Aiming for the New Year

The echoes of our family Christmas celebration are starting to fade, and we are starting to look ahead to the new year.  You will discover several new features as we enter 2021:

  • The new Web site is up! Check it out at
  • “Word of the Week” notifications will start coming through Mailchimp’s automatic service, so that we can handle the rapidly expanding list of subscribers.
  • The new online Word Study course will go online January 1.
  • The Comments feature at the end of the weekly article is back, and I invite you to ask questions about anything in the New Testament

Martus – A Call to Martyrdom?

We live in an increasingly pagan world.  America is following Europe in careening toward a postchristian worldview, and the effects are increasingly obvious. Biblical illiteracy is as epidemic as the coronavirus, and hostile voices are becoming more shrill.  Worldwide, Christians are being martyred for their faith in Christ.

That is the world we face when we read Christ’s commission in Acts 1:8:

And you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

You may be tempted to despair when you consider the global situation.  But remember the state of the world when Jesus first spoke these words.

  • Only the inhabitants of a small country in a remote corner of the world even knew that Jesus existed.
  • Of those who knew of him, most disregarded or rejected him.
  • His biggest crowd after the resurrection numbered about 500 (1 Corinthians 15:6), and only 120 remained to form the nucleus of the Christian movement (Acts 1:15).

In the face of impossible odds, Jesus instructed his followers to be witnesses.  And the same commission applies to us.

The Greek word for “witness” is martus, the root of our word martyr.  And there were times when it was used to describe people who died for their faith in Christ.  So we may legitimately ask, “Is Christ calling his people to be martyrs?”

Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of martus.

The common theme in all of its uses is “one who attests to the facts, one who confirms the truth of something.

The word was originally used in a courtroom setting.  A witness would describe the facts of a case, stating what he knew from personal experience. The law of Moses demanded the testimony of at least two or three witnesses to condemn a person (Deuteronomy 19:18; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Hebrews 10:28) and the New Testament refers to witnesses in legal proceedings (Matthew 26:65; Acts 6:13; 7:58) or in a church setting (1 Timothy 5:19).

The word was also used outside the courtroom.

  • The apostles were witnesses of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:22). When they chose a replacement for Judas, the new apostle had to be someone with personal experience of His ministry and resurrection.  All through the book of Acts, they served as eyewitness testimony to confirm the Lord’s death and resurrection (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31).
  • Paul called upon God as his witness – “God knows and will testify that I am sincere in my ministry” (Romans 1:9; 2Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). He also reminded the Thessalonians that they themselves knew by experience that he had ministered honorably (1 Thessalonians 2:10).

A martus is not normally a martyr.  It is a witness who is willing to testify about the facts of a case, or to confirm the truth of a statement.  In Acts 1:8, Jesus was not calling his followers to be slaughtered for their testimony.

However, he didn’t rule out the possibility of persecution and death.

  • Stephen died as a martus (Acts 22:20).
  • Antipas was slain as a martus (Revelation 2:13).
  • The two witnesses in the Tribulation were killed (Revelation 11:3, 7).
  • The harlot representing Babylon is described as “drunk with the blood . . . of the witnesses of Jesus (Revelation 17:6).

An uncompromising witness giving testimony for the truth can get in deep trouble.  In the New Testament, martus primarily focused on giving clear testimony.  Martyrdom was a possible result, but it wasn’t until the second century persecutions that the word took on the specialized meaning of “one who loses his or her life because of their stand for Christ.”

Does God want me to be a martyr?  Probably not.  But He does want me to confirm the truth of the gospel message, regardless of the consequences.  In the days ahead, we will probably have ample opportunities to put this command into practice.




Q: Why do some Bibles translate John 3:16 as “God sent his only begotten son,” while others say “his only son” or “his one and only son”?


A:  The Greek word is monogenēs, which comes from a combination of monos (the usual word for “only) and genes (probably from the verb “to become a father, to produce a child”).  It occurs 9 times in the New Testament.  It generally describes the only child in a family (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). However, Hebrews 11:17 uses it to describe Isaac, who was Abraham’s second child.  Either “only” or “only begotten” are possible translations.

Usually a person becomes a monogenēs son by physical birth.  However, the Bible describes Christ as the Son of God (John 3:16; 1:14, 18; 3:18; 1 John 4:9).  That raises a problem because the Bible teaches elsewhere that Christ is eternal.  He has always been fully God, even though he became a human at the first Christmas in Bethlehem.

At the same time, Jesus often talked about a Father-Son relationship with God (see John 17).  This was an eternal relationship, not one that began with a birth.  Ver

Some Bibles say “only” or “one and only” to avoid the impression that God the Son had a birth (literal or figurative) at a particular time.

Other Bibles say “only begotten” to recognize the eternal Father-Son relationship in the Trinity.

The linguistic and theological discussions on this point can get very complicated, but this is the trimmed-down answer to the question.

Coming Up

Next week, we’re going to look at a word with two sides:  God may call on us to comfort the afflicted or to afflict the comfortable!

©Ezra Project 2020


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *