Martyrs and Overcomers

In Revelation, overcoming saints persevere in the “testimony of Jesus,” no matter the cost, “even unto death.” 

Cross at night - Photo by phil thep on Unsplash
Two themes repeat frequently in the 
Book of Revelation, “witness” and “overcoming,” and the two are closely related. Beginning with Jesus in his own “martyrdom” on the Cross, his followers are summoned to persevere in his “testimony,” and thereby, they “overcome” to emerge victorious, especially in the city of “New Jerusalem.” They are to “overcome, just as I overcame.” - [Photo by phil thep on Unsplash].

Jesus is presented to the “seven churches of Asia” as the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” By “faithful witness” is meant the “witness” that he gave in his sacrificial death. By shedding his blood, “he freed us from our sins and made a kingdom, priests for his God.” And now, he is the “first and last” who possesses authority even over “death and Hades” because “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” – (Revelation 1:5, 1:18).

The Greek term rendered “witness” or ‘martur’ is the term from which the English noun ‘martyr’ is derived. In secular Greek, it was used for a “witness,” especially one who gave testimony in legal proceedings. While by the first century the term may not have assumed the full idea of “martyr” in the sense of one who gives his life for a cause, as applied in Revelation, it certainly approaches that sense; that is, the “saints” who give “testimony” for Jesus pay the consequences for doing so (Strong’s - #G3144).

Similarly, John is introduced as one who “bore witness of the word of God and of the testimony of Jesus.” Consequently, he found himself banished to the isle of Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” In this context, the “word of God” is, effectively, synonymous with the “testimony of Jesus.” And it was not just any testimony, but the “testimony” about Jesus that placed the Apostle in personal jeopardy.

Testimony” translates the related Greek noun ‘martyria,’ which means “testimony, witness.” It is related to the term ‘martur’ and refers to the “testimony” given by a “witness” (Strong’s - #G3141). While John may not have paid for his “testimony” with his life, he certainly paid a heavy price by losing his freedom and legal rights. But he was by no means the first or the last Christian to do so.

Previously, in the city of Pergamos, the saint named ‘Antipas’ was “killed among you, where Satan dwells.” In his letter to the congregation, Jesus called this martyr “my faithful witness [martyr],” using the same term applied to himself in the prologue – (Revelation 2:13).

When the fifth seal was opened - “underneath the altar” - John saw the souls of saints who had been “slain for the word of God, and for the testimony [martyria] which they held,” just as John had been exiled because of his “witness” for the “word of God” and the “testimony of Jesus” – (Revelation 6:9-11).

In chapter 12, having failed to destroy the “woman clothed with the sun” or her “son,” the enraged “Dragon” set out to “wage war with the rest of her seed, those that keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.” Again, saints were killed because of the “testimony of Jesus.” And Satan was not alone in his vendetta, for later, the “great harlot, Babylon” was seen “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses [martyrs] of Jesus.”  – (Revelation 12:17, 17:6).

At the commencement of the “thousand years,” judgment was made on behalf of the saints who had been “beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and the word of God, and had not worshipped the beast, neither his image and received not its mark upon their forehead and upon their hand.” Once again, the “word of God” and the “testimony of Jesus” are paired. That the “witnesses” were killed is beyond doubt, as is the reason for it. But now added to the list is their refusal to render homage to the “beast” - (Revelation 20:4).

Not only was Jesus the “faithful witness,” he was the first to “overcome.” In chapter 5, John wept bitterly because no one could be found who was “worthy” to open the “scroll sealed with seven seals.” That is, until he heard one of the “twenty-four elders” command him to “weep not, for the lion of the tribe of Judah has overcome to open the scroll.” When he looked, instead of the “lion,” he saw the “Lamb as having been slain.” That is, Jesus “overcame” and qualified to open the “sealed scroll” through his sacrificial death – (Revelation 5:5-6).

At the end of each of the letters to the “seven churches,” the reader finds promises made to the “one who overcomes.” The overcomer will “eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God,” not be harmed by the “second death,” eat of the “hidden manna,” receive authority over the nations, not have his name “blotted out of the book of life,” become a “pillar” in the sanctuary in “New Jerusalem,” and will sit with Jesus on “my Father’s throne.”
The churches of Asia “overcame” by rejecting the deceptions of the “false apostles,” the “Nicolaitans,” the “teachings of Balaam,” and “Jezebel, who taught my servants to eat meat offered to idols.” “Overcoming” believers persevere through tribulations, bear faithful “witness,” and refuse to compromise with the surrounding pagan society, even when doing so means their impoverishment or death.

Most critically, the saints “overcome” by refusing to render homage to the “beast from the sea” or its image, and by not taking its “mark” or “number,” even though the “false prophet” causes those who refuse to do so to be put to death.
  • (Revelation 15:2) – “And I saw, as it were, a sea of glass mingled with fire; and them that overcame the beast and its image, and the number of its name, standing by the sea of glass, having harps of God.
Likewise, at the start of the “thousand years,” “judgment was given” for the saints because they suffered martyrdom for their “testimony,” and because they refused the “mark of the beast.”

Finally, after the “Dragon” was expelled from heaven, a voice declared that the “brethren overcame” the Devil by the “blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony, and because they loved not their lives unto death” - (Revelation 12:11).

Thus, giving “faithful testimony” and “overcoming” Satan are two sides of the same coin. Put another way, bearing faithful “witness” is how the persevering saint “overcomes” the “Dragon,” his plans and attacks, and his earthly vassals, especially deceivers and the “beast from the sea.”

None of this means that every saint must die a martyr’s death. While John suffered banishment for the “testimony of Jesus,” he was not executed, at least, not in the book. Again, by the time Revelation was written, the Greek term ‘martur’ did not necessarily mean dying for one’s beliefs, though certainly, it is often used that way in the book.

Moreover, in Asia, some believers suffered “imprisonment,” others were accused falsely by members of the “synagogue of Satan.” Not all members of the congregations experienced martyrdom. Regardless, Jesus exhorted the churches to be “faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

The last clause provides the key for how believers “overcome” – “faithful unto death.” Likewise, the brethren “overcame” the “Dragon” because they did not “love their lives unto death.” It is that level of absolute allegiance to Jesus that separates “overcomers” from those who “eat meat offered to idols.” To “overcome,” the saint must persevere in his or her “witness” for Jesus whatever the consequences may be.




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