In the great Hall of Faith, the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, one reads of the faithful patriarchs, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and others. “Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions... They were stoned, they were sawed in two...” (Hebrews 11:32-33, 37).
Sawed in two? Early tradition suggests that Isaiah was executed by Judah’s evil king Manasseh by being “sawed in two.” If true, Isaiah was a very rare, if not unique, Old Testament martyr.
Stephen is often referred to as the first Christian martyr. When the Deacon (Acts 6:5) was finished preaching, the religious zealots “were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him. Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He said, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ They yelled at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ He knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ And after saying this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:54–60).
Don’t miss that little detail... Jesus, “the Son of Man (was) standing at the right hand of God!” In no other place in the Scriptures is Jesus spoken of as standing beside the throne of God. He’s always seated beside His Father. But in honor of Stephen’s martyrdom, Jesus stood.
James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John, was also martyred. “King Herod (Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great) violently attacked some who belonged to the church, and he executed James, John’s brother, with the sword” (Acts 12:1–2). James was the first of the apostles to die for the sake of the gospel, and the only one whose death is recorded in the New Testament. Tradition says that each of the others also died as martyrs.
John the Baptist was executed, martyred, by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and uncle of Herod Agrippa I. The Gospel of Mark records the sad episode. “Herod himself had given orders to arrest John and to chain him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ So Herodias held a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing he was a righteous and holy man... An opportune time came on his birthday, when Herod gave a banquet for his nobles, military commanders, and the leading men of Galilee. When Herodias’s own daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you.’ ... She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ ‘John the Baptist’s head,’ she said. At once she hurried to the king and said, ‘I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a platter immediately.’ Although the king was deeply distressed, because of his oaths and the guests he did not want to refuse her. The king immediately sent for an executioner and commanded him to bring John’s head. So he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl” (Mark 6:17–28).
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). All gave some, and some gave all. John the Baptist, the greatest of lowly servants, gave all.
All Scripture quotations, except as otherwise noted, are from
Holman Bible Publishers’ Christian Standard Bible.