Martyrs are known for their conviction and testimony. They are models of faithfulness because they were willing to die for what they believe. Many traditions uphold martyrs as quintessential examples of devotion to God. A common question people ask about Christianity is whether or not Jesus Christ was a martyr.
The Greek word for martyr is applied to Jesus Christ twice in the book of Revelation. In both cases, it’s translated “witness,” which is the word’s literal meaning. The definition of the word in English refers to someone who dies for their beliefs. Traditionally, Stephen is called the first Christian martyr.
Is the Greek meaning of “martyr” different than its common use in English? Why does John call Jesus a martyr? Does the New Testament ever describe martyrs as people who died for their faith? Why does Paul call God the Father called a martyr? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see Why Was Jesus Christ Crucified? to learn more.
Comparison: The Greek Meaning of Martyr and its Use in English
The Greek word martyr always means “witness,” as in someone who observed and testified to something, and sometimes refers to a faithful person who died for their beliefs. In the New Testament, the word mostly means someone who saw something and told others the truth about it.
Over time, “martyr” developed a nuanced connotation, from meaning someone who testified to something they saw to someone who did so to the point of death. The English word “martyr,” in common usage, mostly refers to someone who died for their testimony.
In summary, the New Testament refers to Jesus as a martyr, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as the most common use of the term in English. Testifying to the truth, and dying as a result of testifying to the truth, have overlapping meanings, but they aren’t identical.
John calls Jesus a martyr twice
John calls Jesus a martyr in Revelation 1:5 and 3:14. All major English Bible translations render the word “witness,” not “martyr.”
- Revelation 1:5, “and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood”
- Revelation 3:14, “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”
|Translations||witness or witnesses|
Why doesn’t any translation use the word “martyr” in these verses? Translations opt for the word “witness” instead of “martyr” because the exact phrases, “faithful witness” and “true witness,” don’t explicitly refer to Jesus’ death. Rather, they are references to his testimony to the truth.
Also see Where Was Jesus Christ Crucified? to learn more.
Does martyr ever refer to people who died for their faith?
The New Testament uses the word martyr to describe people who died for their faith. The difference between them and Jesus is that those who died for their faith had put their trust in Jesus.
Jesus died, in part, for what he believed about himself, the Father, sin, and salvation. Yet in another sense, he died for who he was. Other martyrs didn’t die for who they were from birth like Jesus did; they paid the ultimate price because they were uncompromising followers of Jesus.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr
Traditionally, Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr, not Jesus. When Stephen is stoned to death for his faith in Jesus, he responds, “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).
Saul, later called Paul, witnessed Stephen’s death, and it influenced him — a persecutor of Christians — to follow Jesus himself. Later in Acts, Paul refers to Stephen as a martyr. Some English translations render the word “witness,” while others opt for “martyr” because the context explicitly refers to Jesus’ death.
|ESV||“And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.”|
|KJV||“And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him.”|
|NASB||“And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him.”|
|NIV||“And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.”|
|NLT||“And I was in complete agreement when your witness Stephen was killed. I stood by and kept the coats they took off when they stoned him.”|
Antipas was killed for his faith in Christ
The Antipas that John mentions in Revelation 2:13 isn’t Herod Antipas who the Gospels say ordered the murder of John the Baptist. Very little is known about the Antipas that Revelation mentions. One tradition says that he was burned to death during the reign of Domitian, but scholars question the trustworthiness of the source.
- The phrase “Antipas my faithful witness” uses the Greek word for martyr (martys). As seen below, some translations render it “witness” and others “martyr.”
- The phrase “was killed” isn’t the same Greek word, but is the past tense of a word meaning to take the life of someone (apokteino). Most translations render the word “killed,” though one opts for slain, and another “martyred” (NLT).
Also see Why Did Jesus Turn Water Into Wine? to learn more.
|ESV||“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”|
|KJV||“I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.”|
|NASB||“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”|
|NIV||“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.”|
|NLT||“I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city.”|
Christian martyrs in Revelation
John uses the Greek word martyr to describe Jesus twice, but he uses it to describe followers of Jesus who were killed for their faith as well. The context of the verse is often called “The Great Prostitute and the Beast.”
In his vision, John sees the faithful believers who died for their faith. The Greek word John comes from the word martyr, though in this case, it’s plural (martyron).
|ESV||“And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly.”|
|KJV||“And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”|
|NASB||“And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly.”|
|NIV||“I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished.”|
|NLT||“I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus. I stared at her in complete amazement.”|
Also see What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? to learn more.
The Greek word martyr elsewhere in the New Testament
From the uses listed below, it’s clear that not every New Testament reference to a “martyr” implies death. For example, God the Father is called a martyr multiple times in Paul’s letters even though he didn’t die on the cross.
Similarly, the “witnesses” Matthew mentions in a passage on church discipline have nothing to do with their death, but their role in correcting a person’s wayward behavior.
- God the Father: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you” (Rom. 1:9; cf. 2 Cor. 1:23; Phil. 1:8)
- Witnesses of the antichrist: “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth” (Rev. 11:3).
- Legal use: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16; cf. Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 5:19).
- Historic use: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1; cf. Luke 11:48; Acts 1:8)
Also see What Year Was Jesus Christ Crucified? to learn more.
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