They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins…
The word "martyr" properly means "a witness," but is used to denote exclusively one who has suffered death for the Christian faith. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the chief and most glorious of Martyrs, as having "before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession" (1 Timothy 6:13); but we do not call Him a martyr, as being much more than a martyr. He was not only a martyr; He was an atoning sacrifice. He is the supreme object of our love, gratitude, and reverence. Next to Him we honour the noble army of martyrs; not indeed comparing them with Him, "who is above all, God blessed for ever," or as if they in suffering had any part in the work of reconciliation, but because they have approached most closely to His pattern of all His servants. Now it may be said that many men suffer pain, as great as martyrdom, from disease, and in other ways: again, that it does not follow that those who happened to be martyred were always the most useful and active defenders of the faith; and therefore that in honouring the martyrs we are honouring with especial honour those to whom indeed we may be peculiarly indebted (as in the case of apostles), but nevertheless who may have been but ordinary men, who happened to stand in the most exposed place, in the way of persecution, and were slain as if by chance, because the sword met them first. But this, it is plain, would be a strange way of reasoning in any parallel case. We are grateful to those who have done us favours, rather than to those who might or would, if it had so happened. But in truth, if we could view the matter considerately, we shall find that (as far as human judgment can decide on such a point), the martyrs of the primitive times were, as such, men of a very elevated faith; not only our benefactors, but far our superiors. For let us consider what it was then to be a martyr.
1. It was to be a voluntary sufferer. Men, perhaps, suffer in various diseases more than the martyrs did, but they cannot help themselves. Again, it has frequently happened that men have been persecuted for their religion without having expected it, or being able to avert it. These in one sense indeed are martyrs; and we naturally think affectionately of those who have suffered in our cause, whether voluntarily or not. But this was not the ease with the primitive martyrs. They knew beforehand clearly enough the consequences of preaching the gospel; they had frequent warnings brought home to them of the sufferings in store for them if they persevered in their labours of brotherly love. Death, their final suffering, was but the concummation of a life of anticipated death. Consider how distressing anxiety is; how irritating and wearing it is to be in constant excitement, with the duty of maintaining calmness and steadiness in the midst of it; and how especially inviting any prospect of tranquillity would appear in such circumstances; and then we shall have some notion of a Christian's condition under a persecuting heathen government. I put aside for the present the peculiar reproach and contempt which was the lot of the primitive Church, and their actual privations. Let us merely consider them as harassed, shaken as wheat in a sieve. Under such circumstances the stoutest hearts are in danger of failing. Thus the Church is sifted, the cowardly falling off, the faithful continuing firm, though in dejection and perplexity. Among these latter are the martyrs; not accidental victims, taken at random, but the picked and choice ones, the elect remnant, a sacrifice well pleasing to God, because a costly gift, the finest wheat flour of the Chinch: men who have been warned what to expect from their profession, and have had many opportunities of relinquishing it, but have "borne and had patience, and for Christ's name sake have laboured and have not fainted."
2. But, in the next place, the suffering itself of martyrdom was in some respects peculiar. It was a death, cruel in itself, publicly inflicted, and heightened by the fierce exultation of a malevolent populace. The unseen God alone was their Comforter, and this invests the scene of their suffering with supernatural majesty, and awes us when we think of them. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me" (Psalm 23:4). A martyrdom is a season of God's especial power in the eye of faith, as great as if a miracle were visibly wrought. It is a fellowship of Christ's sufferings, a commemoration of His death, a representation filling up in figure," that which is behind of His afflictions, for His Body's sake, which is the Church" (Colossians 1:24). And thus, being an august solemnity in itself, and a kind of sacrament, a baptism of blood, it worthily finishes that long searching trial which I have already described as being its usual forerunner in primitive times. To conclude. It is useful to reflect on subjects such as that I have now laid before you, in order to humble ourselves. What are our petty sufferings, which we make so much of, to their pains and sorrows, who lost their friends, and then their own lives for Christ's sake; who were assaulted by all kinds of temptations, the sophistry of Antichrist, the blandishments of the world, the terrors of the sword, the weariness of suspense, and yet fainted not? How far above ours are both their afflictions, and their consolations under them!
(J. H. Newman, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;