Martyrdom and salvation

Thu, 15/03/2012 - 10:12

I have argued that “salvation” in the context of Peter’s sermons in the early chapters of Acts means the salvation of at least some part of Israel from the coming disaster of the war against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the humiliation of a nation. This prospect is part and parcel of the “word” that is proclaimed by the disciples in Jerusalem: only those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved and will experience the life of the age to come. But what of those who lose their lives for the sake of this gospel? Yinka asks the question:

Wondering how martydom of the righteous plays into this. In what sense is one who has called on the name of the lord, only to lose his/her head, ‘saved’?

One way to approach this would be to say that at the individual level, in the New Testament context, “salvation” consists basically of being incorporated into a saved people: the individual shares in the salvation of the community, in the new creation life of the community, in the historical viability of the community, in the hope that this community will inherit the nations (cf. Rom. 4:13). Our context is different today, but in principle there is no reason why we should not speak of personal salvation in similar terms. Faith does not get us to heaven. Faith gets us into the community of God’s people.

But the “salvation” of the community was gained through martyrdom—Christ’s martyrdom in the first place, but practically speaking also through the martyrdom—the self-sacrifice—of those who, in obedience to him, took up their cross and followed him down the dangerous path leading to life.

Those who lost their lives in the course of this eschatological transition, for the sake of the gospel, were not so much “saved” as became part of the means of salvation. So Paul was able to speak about his own Christlike sufferings as being for the sake of the mission and destiny of the church:

Now I rejoice in the sufferings for your sake and I complete what is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ in my flesh for the sake of his body, which is the church…. (Col. 1:24, my translation)

What he is saying here is that he has not yet suffered, in his own flesh, to the degree that Christ suffered—that is to the point of death, so that he too might be raised with Christ (cf. Phil. 3:10-11). Those who suffer as Jesus suffered will not so much be “saved” as vindicated and rewarded by being given the same authority as Jesus to reign with him in heaven throughout the coming ages (cf. Rev. 20:4).

Comments

Hello Andrew, it’s a while since we were in touch. I’ve been ill for a while and reduced to hermit mode. Martyrdom is subject I’ve come back to again and again these past few years. I have had a couple of pieces in the Mennonite Weekly Review: http://radref.blogspot.com/search/label/martyrdom, including an interesting exchange with Jim Juhnke. Anabaptists have unsurprisingly, rather a preoccupation with martyrdom. There is a good deal that might be said that is positive, with regard to a martyr consciousness. I suspect though, that it is a short step from acknowledging that the salvation of the community was gained through martyrdom, to a more ideological approach that utilizes martyrdom in support of claims an institution (i.e. the Church) makes about itself. Andrew Shanks makes this kind of argument, adapting Nietsche.

Hi, Phil. Nice to hear from you again. Sorry to hear about the illness.

You make some good points in your post. It would be important to differentiate between the sort of martyrdom anticipated by the early church (and exemplified in Jesus) from the later “ideological” distortions. Even within the early period there was considerable criticism of what sometimes seemed like a cult of martyrdom.

Hi Andrew, Thanks for the elaboration. I especially appreciate the Paul connection here. The resurrection theme seems very much at home with this interpretation.

So what does this mean for the ecclesia today? If I’m correct, you’ve argued that the ‘great renewal’ is pretty much what we on this side if history have to endure ? Look forward to ? (hard to describe concretely), Another million dollar existential question arises: where is the step by step guide to having ones name written in the book of life ? If you haven’t written that book yet, you should start soon :D

What it means for the church today is that our story includes the transformative events of the first few centuries, culminating in the victory of Jesus over paganism. That means that we are a people under Jesus as Lord, we exist as such only because of his self-giving, we are empowered by the Spirit, we tell our story from Abraham, through the history of Old Testament Israel, through the eschatological crisis described in the New Testament, through the history of the church, we proclaim the good news which is in various ways implied in this story, and we endeavour to live up to our calling to be God’s new creation people, in all respects, in the midst of the nations, for the sake of his glory. I think that will ensure that we participate in God’s final renewal of all things.

Thanks Andrew !

Andrew,

Great post. I agree with what you are saying here, but it raises some other questions in my mind, speciffically, how does individual resurrection after death relate to all of this? Is this promise for martyrs only? For the people of God only? Will anyone outside of the people of God participate?

Just interested in your perspective…

Brian, I’m always happy to give my perspective…

I think that the New Testament inherits, in the first place, the belief that in a time of eschatological crisis righteous Jews who suffer and are killed, the faithful martyrs, will be raised in order to enjoy their vindication and the life of the age to come.

Secondly, this collective but strictly limited resurrection is anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus, who becomes the firstborn of many brethren who will suffer as he suffered.

Thirdly, as the vision of the early church reaches beyond the immediate crisis of the clash with paganism, the idea of a final resurrection of all the dead is entertained.

I have set this argument out in more detail in a post on resurrection from the dead. A post on the first resurrection and another on the resurrection of the sleeping saints from their tombs in Matthew 27:52-53 may also be of interest.

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