“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed. . .that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” St. Paul in Romans 12:2 NKJV
Jesus began his public ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing at about age thirty, using the town of Capernaum as his main base. Here, as in the two neighboring towns of Korazin and Bethsaida, he lamented the people’s apathy and unbelief in spite of his having performed many miracles in their presence (Matthew 11:21–24). He healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf. He miraculously fed five thousand with seven loaves and two fish. He never entertained an evil thought; he practiced no deceit, had no selfish desires, engaged in no false pretenses, harmed no one, and voiced no guile or hatred, even to those who maligned and mistreated him. He understood people like no other person did, and he spoke and taught as one “who had authority” (Matthew 7:29), a fact that even his critics admitted. Yet he received no honor or accolades. He had no home of his own. He once described his plight, saying, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). To top it off, his own people crucified him.
This man’s unique and exemplary life, and his suffering, death, and physical resurrection from the dead transformed his handpicked disciples as well as the lives of many others. As he once said, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV). The lives that he transformed in turn changed and transformed much of the world: its morals, ethics, health care, education, economics, science, law, the fine arts, and government. These changes, often not recognized, are still largely operative in the West, continuing to produce many positive effects that are also present in some non-Western areas of the world.
Jesus’ disciples originally were plain, ordinary Jewish citizens. Several were fishermen, one came from the socially despised tax collectors, and the others similarly came from low-ranking occupations. They had different personalities and temperaments. One was overconfident, two craved special recognition, another was skeptical, and still another was a self-serving miser.
The evening before his trial and crucifixion, when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, his disciples lacked the stamina to stay awake in order to support and comfort him. A few hours later one of them—the overconfident Peter—even denied knowing him. The next morning, as Jesus was crucified, all except John hid in fear. No one would have guessed at this time that these fear-stricken individuals and their associates would in a few years be accused by some of the Jews of having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6 NKJV) by their preaching and teaching the message that Christ had entrusted to them.
When Pontius Pilate crucified Christ, it appeared to his disciples that everything had come to an end. Seeing the fate of their teacher and master, they feared for their lives. What they had been privileged to see and hear for three years now seemed to be a mistaken dream. Apparently, Jesus was just another man—and a badly mistaken one. They acted like sheep without a shepherd. Most surprising of all was their failure to remember what he had explicitly told them earlier, that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22).
The third day after Jesus had undergone the cruelest and most inhumane form of execution known to man, he physically rose from the dead. Three female friends of the disciples went to the tomb early Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices. When they arrived at the tomb, they were shocked to find the stone rolled aside and the tomb empty. Only the linen cloths in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped lay empty in the tomb. Luke says that the women ran to tell the disciples, but “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Nonetheless, Peter and John decided to go and see for themselves.
Indeed, they too found the tomb empty.
As Peter and John returned home, Mary tarried at the tomb, weeping. An unknown man at the tomb asked why she was crying. Thinking the man was the gardener, she asked him where he had put Jesus’ body. The man then called Mary by her name. At that moment she realized that she was talking not to the gardener but to the risen Christ. After this encounter, she again went to the disciples. This time she reported that she had not just seen the tomb empty, but that she had actually seen and spoken with the resurrected Jesus.
That Sunday evening, while ten of the fear-stricken disciples (Thomas being absent) were together in a tightly closed room, Jesus entered, locked doors notwithstanding. As he appeared, he said, “Peace be with you.” Next he showed them his pierced hands and feet. This appearance brought joy to the disciples (John 20:19–20). It was the beginning of the transformation that would soon make them courageous proclaimers and defenders of his resurrection from the dead.
Soon after Christ appeared to his disciples, they told the formerly absent Thomas that the risen Lord had appeared to them behind locked doors. Thomas, however, refused to believe them, saying he needed to see and touch Christ’s wounded hands and side before he would believe such a preposterous report. He was not about to accept their account on the basis of mere faith. He wanted concrete, empirical evidence. Eight days later Jesus gave Thomas the requested evidence when he again entered the same locked room. This time Thomas was present, and Jesus asked him to touch his pierced hands and side. Upon confronting the empirical evidence of the risen Christ’s body, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). His confession, the most significant one in the entire Bible, declared that this risen Jesus was not just a man but also God.
Encountering the physically resurrected body of Christ transformed Thomas from a skeptic to a believer. However, his fearful, doubting companions, who already had experienced great joy a week earlier, still needed more assurance. Jesus recognized their need. Thus, between the time of his resurrection on Easter and his ascension to heaven (a period of forty days), he made at least ten specific post-resurrection appearances. Twenty years or so after Christ’s resurrection, Paul, the onetime persecutor of Christians, defended the historical fact of Christ’s physical resurrection by telling some of the skeptics in Corinth that the risen Christ had appeared to some five hundred people on one occasion (1 Corinthians 15:6). Many of these individuals, said Paul, were still alive. Skeptics could ask them, if they did not want to believe the eyewitness accounts by him and the disciples.
In order to get the disciples to dismiss the thought that he might merely be a spirit, Jesus asked them on one occasion (similar to his encounter with Thomas) to touch his wounded hands and feet. Then he added, “A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” To give them even more certainty, he supported this statement with further empirical evidence by asking if they had any food to eat. In response they handed him a piece of broiled fish, which he ate in their presence (Luke 24:37–43). These appearances fortified the disciples’ first joyful experience, and they now became fully convinced that he had indeed risen from the dead.
The appearances of Christ’s physically resurrected body not only transformed the disciples from fear and doubt, but it also enabled them to understand what Jesus had told them before his crucifixion. He said, “ I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25– 26), and also, “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). They finally understood that he would someday also raise them from the dead and that they, as believers in him and his resurrection, would live forever.
Now that they understood the full meaning of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, they were not only transformed, but they were also motivated to proclaim that message in various parts of the world without fear. Thus, not many years later, when threatened by the Roman authorities, Peter and John said fearlessly, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Another time Peter told his fellow Christians, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). They knew Christ’s physical resurrection was a historical fact, similar to all other facts in history. Unlike many modern liberal theologians, such as those who are part of the current “Jesus Seminar,” who say that most of the words and acts of Jesus in the New Testament did not happen but are merely the words of his disciples and not of Jesus himself—unlike these, the apostles and disciples of Jesus knew (not just believed) that what they reported had empirically transpired.
So convinced and motivated were they that, according to well-attested tradition, all except the Apostle John signed their testimony in blood by dying for what they preached and wrote. Tradition and legends say that Matthew was killed by a sword in Ethiopia; Mark died after being dragged by horses through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt; Luke was hanged in Greece; Peter was crucified upside down; James the Just (half brother of Jesus) was clubbed to death in Jerusalem; James the son of Zebedee was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in Jerusalem; Bartholomew was beaten to death in Turkey; Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece; Thomas was reportedly stabbed to death in India; Jude was killed with arrows; Matthias, successor to Judas, was stoned and then beheaded; Barnabas was stoned to death; Paul was beheaded under Nero in Rome.1
As stated in the introduction, men do not die for stories they contrive.
The power of Christ’s gospel to transform individuals did not begin and end with his handpicked disciples. It also transformed countless others, and these individuals in various ways left their mark in history. They were individuals found in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and other places throughout the world.
The English word martyr comes from the Greek martyr, meaning a witness, a word that early in the church’s life came to mean more than witnessing. It soon referred to Christians who in times of persecution died as witnesses to the Christian faith. The word also became a verb as historians wrote about Christians being “martyred.” Thus, every time we hear the word martyr today, it takes us back to the countless transformed followers of Christ who suffered some of the most severe, barbaric persecutions known to humankind for their Christian beliefs.
The first Christian martyr was Stephen, a deacon who preached to the Hellenistic Jews in one of Jerusalem’s many synagogues. Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, says that Stephen was “full of God’s grace and power, [and] did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). The number of Christians in Jerusalem increased rapidly. However, some of Stephen’s fellow Jews despised his message and its effects, so they brought him before a religious council.