Part 2: The blood of the martyrs
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”
The church begins and ends with Christ; this is an important truth that we all must struggle with as we study the history of our faith. At the same time the church is an extension of the communal life of those who followed Christ, his disciples, and I believe in order for us to start the journey of knowing the origins of our faith it is important to get ourselves acquainted with the people who according to Sacred Scriptures paved the way for the spread of Christianity in the known world.
What is a disciple?
What is surprising with present day Christians is that not only do they know so little about the history of the faith they profess but also is that they know so little about their Bible characters especially those in the New Testament Gospels.
So to start we must first define what is meant by the word disciples in the context of the early church, since the word is so loosely used these days to pertain to someone within the church who is mentored by another Christian who is said to be more ‘mature in their walk with Christ.’
In order to define this we must again go back to our statement that ‘the church begins and ends in Christ’ – what is meant by this definition is that the church finds its origins in the historical figure of Jesus upon whom the church is established. So in order to define what a disciple is one must go to the person of Jesus who called people to walk with Him according to the Gospel narratives.
The reason why I give stress to the phrase ‘walk with Him’ is because the theological definition of the word disciple generally means “follower” or “pupil”, it is applied to other Biblical characters, such as John the Baptist (John 1:35) and Isaiah (Isaiah 8:16). In other words it finds its essence in a person that walks or follows the Person who called them- Jesus. So a disciple is basically one who follows Jesus Christ, but it is not enough to say that a disciple is merely one who follows for there are many who followed Him because if we would look at the word ‘disciple’ closely in the English language it is there that we will find the root word that is ‘discipline’ a word whose etymology traces it from Latin ‘disciplina’ which is often used to refer to teaching or learning, from someone as discipulus pupil. Therefore a disciple is also one who has chosen to be a follower that strictly adheres to the things that are demanded of him by the One he follows and in the Bible there are twelve that gave up their all and dedicated their lives to Him.
Who were the 12 disciples?
In order to identify who they are one must go to the Scriptures specifically the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in order to name them one by one.
|Matt 10:2||Mark 3:16||Luke 6:14||Acts 1:13|
|James son of Alphaeus||James son of Alphaeus||James son of Alphaeus||James son of Alphaeus|
|James son of Zebedee||James son of Zebedee||James||James|
|Judas Iscariot||Judas Iscariot||Judas Iscariot||(not named)|
|Simon (who is called Peter)||Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter)||Simon (whom he named Peter)||Peter|
|Simon the Zealot||Simon the Zealot||Simon who was called the Zealot||Simon the Zealot|
|Thaddaeus||Thaddaeus||Judas son of James||Judas son of James|
What is the difference between a disciple and an apostle?
I believe most of us would never bother to ask such distinction but I believe that there is much confusion upon the use of such terms since distinguishing the two terms are especially helpful in establishing the role the people who followed Christ in the spreading of the Gospel.
As we have defined earlier a disciple can simply be looked at as a pupil, a student, or a follower of Christ. While an apostle is one who is appointed as an ambassador of the Gospel.
In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus chose an original ‘inner circle’ of twelve disciples, who were themselves to ‘make disciples’ i.e. followers of ‘all nations’. The twelve would eventually pave the way for more people who would accept the Gospel and would eventually become one of the many disciples of Jesus.
The term apostollos in the Greek from which we get our word Apostle literally means ‘one sent forth.’ This is close to the meaning above. Apparently both terms were used while Jesus was on the earth.
And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles. Luke 6:13 (King James Version)
The term apostle came to be exclusively used after the Ascension of Jesus. Peter in the Christian assembly gave the qualifications for an apostle as a preliminary to the choice of the replacement for Judas.
Wherefore of these men which have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. Acts 1:21-22 (King James Version)
The term apostle was also applied to Paul, who, although he did not meet the above qualifications, was personally set apart as an apostle to the Gentiles by Christ himself. The so-called ‘apostolic age’ ended when the last one died around 100AD and of course, there could be no more as Jesus had left the earth.
The apostles became leaders and teachers as well as evangelists in the early church. They did indeed make many disciples, who were all learners as they had originally been, as indeed is any true Christian today. But, although many are in positions of teaching authority in the Christian church today there are no true apostles in the Biblical sense.
Who knows what happened to the disciples?
Michael Patton, writing about what really happened to the disciples by the end of their earthly ministries pointed that:
”There are many legends concerning their deaths which makes the historical evidence hard to interpret since many times the accounts conflict with one another.”1
Therefore if we are to be historically accurate with what we are saying we must first establish the sources of the accounts of the disciples’ fate.
Luke the Evangelist He was a native of Antioch, the capital of Syria. He was by profession a physician. Converted by Paul and became his disciple and companion in his travels, and fellow-labourer in the ministry of the Gospel. He wrote in Greek, about twenty-four years after our Jesus’ Ascension.
He was the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
In his Gospel he writes:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 New International Version)
It is there that states that unlike most of the Gospel authors he was not an eyewitness to the death and resurrection of Jesus but that he carefully investigated what happened in the life of Chris because he believes that it is good to give an orderly account of it.
He further goes on in the Acts of the Apostles to chart the beginnings of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to the upper room at Pentecost where he goes on the tell of the life of the Apostolic church, the martyrdom of Stephen and James, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus up until the time when Paul reached Rome, where he concludes the Book of Acts with a statement saying:
“Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:28 New International Version)
Hippolytus of Rome (180-230) According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia Hippolytus was a presbyter of the Church of Rome at the beginning of the third century2. He was said to have been a disciple of Irenaeus, who was said to be a disciple of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna (present day Izmir, Turkey) who was said to have been a disciple of John the Beloved.
Hippolytus was said to be among the most important theologians and the most prolific religious writers of the Church in the pre-Constantinian era. His apostolic tradition of provides a single source of evidence on the inner life and religious polity of the early Christian Church. His work brings out the value of this treatise for the study of early Christian institutions, and the spirit of the primitive Church.
Eusebius of Caesarea (260- 341 AD) He is often referred to as the Father of Church History, because of his work in recording the history of the early Christian church, especially Chronicle and Ecclesiastical History Eusebius Pamphili, was Bishop of Cæsarea in Palestine.
According to his Church History or Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius wrote that what he was written was in fact the second attempted history (the doctor Luke who wrote the Gospel and Acts is first) of the Christian Church, as a chronologically-ordered account, based on earlier sources, and complete from the period of the Apostles to his own epoch.
It is with the written accounts of the abovementioned writers that we will try to piece together the fate that befell that of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
The blood of the martyrs
The Church Father Tertullian, once said that: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
The depth of his insight is something that has been lost among many believers today, and I believe that part of that is because often believers never really discovered what happened to the first few that followed Jesus, after all not all of their deaths are mentioned in the Bible. Yet I believe that there is value in knowing what happened to the disciples for they were our forerunners it is they who paved the way for us to know the cost of living a life that seeks to seriously follow Christ, to know of the ‘cruciform life.’
A life which Jimmy Davis, defines as a life that – “is shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross. The cross, representing the life, death, and resurrected life of Jesus as He is offered in the gospel, is the soul-shaping core of the disciple’s existence.”3
Much can be said of the story of the disciples’ ultimate faith and that is why I have chosen to borrow the summary of their lives that Michael Patton wrote in his article, What Happened to the Twelve Apostles:
The Apostle James
James, the Apostle of the Lord, was the second recorded martyr after Christ’s death (Stephen was the first). His death is recorded in Acts 12:2 where it is told that Herod Agrippa killed him with a sword. Clemens Alexandrinus and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History II.2) both tell how the executioner witnessed the courage and un-recanting spirit of James and was then convinced of Christ resurrection and was executed along with James.
The Apostle Peter
Although, just before the crucifixion, Peter denied three times that he even knew Christ, after the resurrection he did not do so again. Peter, just as Jesus told him in John 21:18-19, was crucified by Roman executioners because he could not deny his master again. According to Eusebius, he thought himself unworthy to be crucified as his Master, and, therefore, he asked to be crucified wit his head downward.
The Apostle Andrew
Andrew, who introduced his brother Peter to Christ, went to join Peter with Christ in eternity six years after Peter’s death. After preaching Christ’s resurrection to the Scythians and Thracians, he too was crucified for his faith. As Hippolytus tells us, Andrew was hanged on an olive tree at Patrae, a town in Achaia.
The Apostle Thomas
Thomas is known as ‘doubting Thomas’ because of his reluctance to believe the other Apostles’ witness of the resurrection. After they told him that Christ was alive, he stated “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). After this, Christ did appear to him, and Thomas believed unto death. Thomas sealed his testimony as he was thrust through with pine spears, tormented with red-hot plates, and burned alive.
The Apostle Philip
Philip was corrected by Christ when he asked Christ to “show us the Father, then this will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Christ responded, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father ‘?” (John 14:9). Philip later saw the glory of Christ after the resurrection and undoubtedly reflected with amazement on Christ’s response to his request. Philip evangelized in Phrygia where hostile Jews had him tortured and then crucified.
The Apostle Matthew
Matthew, the tax collector, so desperately wanted the Jews to accept Christ. He wrote The Gospel According to Matthew about ten years before his death. Because of this, one can see, contained within his Gospel, the faith for which he spilled his blood. Matthew surely remembered his resurrected Savior’s words, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), when he professed the resurrected Christ unto his death by beheading at Nad-Davar.
The Apostle Nathanael (Bartholomew)
Nathanael, whose name means “gift of God,” was truly given as a gift to the Church through his martyrdom. Nathanael was the first to profess, early in Christ’s ministry, that Christ was the Son of God (John 1:49). He later paid for this profession through a hideous death. Unwilling to recant of his proclamation of a risen Christ, he was flayed and then crucified.
The Apostle James the Lesser
James was appointed to be the head of the Jerusalem church for many years after Christ’s death. In this, he undoubtedly came in contact with many hostile Jews (the same ones who killed Christ and stated “His [Christ’s] blood be on us and our children” (Matt. 27:25). In order to make James deny Christ’s resurrection, these men positioned him at the top of the Temple for all to see and hear. James, unwilling to deny what he knew to be true, was cast down from the Temple and finally beaten to death with a fuller’s club to the head.
The Apostle Simon the Zealot
Simon was a Jewish zealot who strived to set his people free from Roman oppression. After he saw with his own eyes that Christ had been resurrected, he became a zealot of the Gospel. Historians tell of the many different places that Simon proclaimed the good news of Christ’s resurrection: Egypt, Cyrene, Africa, Mauritania, Britain, Lybia, and Persia. His rest finally came when he verified his testimony and went to be with Christ, being crucified by a governor in Syria.
The Apostle Judas Thaddeus
Judas questioned the Lord: “Judas said to him (not Iscariot), Lord, how is it that you will show yourself to us, and not unto the world?” (John 14:22). After he witnessed Christ’s resurrection, Judas then knew the answer to his question. After preaching the risen Christ to those in Mesopotamia in the midst of pagan priests, Judas was beaten to death with sticks, sealing his testimony in blood.
The Apostle Matthias
Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot (the betrayer of Christ who hanged himself) as the twelfth Apostle of Christ (Acts 1:26). It is believed by most that Matthias was one of the seventy that Christ sent out during his earthly ministry (Luke 10:1). This qualifies him to be an apostle. Matthias, of which the least is known, is said by Eusebius to have preached in Ethiopia. He was later stoned while hanging upon a cross.
The Apostle John
John is the only one of the twelve Apostles to have died a natural death. Although he did not die a martyr’s death, he did live a martyr’s life. He was exiled to the Island of Patmos under the Emperor Domitian for his proclamation of the risen Christ. It was there that he wrote the last book in the Bible, Revelation. Some traditions state that he was thrown into boiling oil “before the Latin Gate,” where he was not killed but undoubtedly scarred for the rest of his life.
The Apostle Paul
Paul, himself a persecutor of the Christian faith (Galatians 1:13), was brought to repentance on his way to Damascus by an appearance of the risen Christ. Ironically, Paul was heading for Damascus to arrest those who held to Christ’s resurrection. Paul was the greatest skeptic there was until he saw the truth of the resurrection. He then devoted his life to the proclamation of the living Christ. Writing to the Corinthians, defending his ministry, Paul tells of his sufferings for the name of Christ: “In labors more abundant, in beatings above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths often. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once was I stoned, three times I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeys often, in storms on the water, in danger of robbers, in danger by mine own countrymen, in danger by the heathen, in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in the sea, among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” (2 Cor. 11:23-27). Finally, Paul met his death at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero when he was beheaded in Rome.4
Nathan Pitchford, in an article that he wrote in Reformation Theology entitled The Blood of the Martyrs offers interesting observation about martyrdom:
“The famous observation of Tertullian that, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” has a depth of insight which is all too often lost on believers today. We have no trouble thinking of persecution and martyrdom as a great obstacle to the spread of the gospel which will not, however, be successful in hindering Church growth. We would have no problem affirming that the blood of the martyrs is a hurdle which, by God’s grace, can be overcome. But to say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is an altogether different concept. If martyrdom is a surmountable obstacle to the growth of the Church, then the Church might advance just as well, even better, without it. But if the blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the Church, then without it, the Church does not grow. Without martyrdom, the Church would never have taken root in the world of Tertullian. Without martyrdom, the Church would not have spread to the Auca Indians in South America, or to China or Burma or the islands of the South Seas. The blood of the martyrs is a necessary means for the worldwide application of Christ’s great redemptive accomplishment. This is the full force of Tertullian’s insight.”5
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that: “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” 5 I believe that as Christians the story of the ultimate fate that befell the twelve followers of Christ reminds us of the radical call for costly discipleship. For if we are dead serious in our commitment to follow Christ we must be prepared to bear witness to Christ by living a life that demands us to follow what Jesus does and that is to live a life in accordance to the will of the God whom we call Father even to the point of death and for some even a violent death.
If the story of the church begins and ends with Christ we must then remember that in the beginning of the church Christ died and gave us His all so that we who would later be summoned in the community of faith that gathers around Him. Is not fair then for us now to understand that the call of discipleship goes to the point of martyrdom which is not a mere romanticized notion of wilful self-poverty and self-pitying that we experience whenever we exhibit self-righteousness in our dealings with people.
It is my hope that this study would all the more help us count the cost of following Christ as individuals and as a church.
1 Patton, Michael – What happened to the twelve apostles? http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2007/09/what-happened-to-the-twelve-apostles/
2 Kirsch, Johann Peter – St. Hippolytus of Rome.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07360c.htm
3 Davis, Jimmy – What is the Cruciform Life? http://cruciformlife.wordpress.com/2008/08/15/what-is-the-cruciform-life/
4 Pitchford, Nathan – The Blood of the Martyrs http://www.reformationtheology.com/2006/05/the_blood_of_the_martyrs.php
5 Bonhoeffer , Dietrich – As quoted in http://www.tentmaker.org/Quotes/discipleshipquotes.htm