“We are all angels and martyrs.” On the face of it this statement may seem absurd. After all, these words have meaning in common usage that does not seem to fit us or our circumstances. Angels are various non-human heavenly, divine or spiritual beings, created or eternal, which dwell with God in heaven. Martyrs are those who die for what they believe. How then could we say that all of us are angels or martyrs, much less both?
Particularly around Christmas time we remember that scripture is filled with stories of angles visiting people. Mary, Joseph and Zeccharia and the Shepherds are all visited by angels to bring word about the coming of Jesus and John. (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2) People describe scenes in which they have been visited with angels who have brought encouragement, hope or a word of wisdom. Others pray for protection from their guardian angels. Of individuals who come to a person’s aid in a significant way it may even be said, “She was my guardian angel. I could never have made it through this time without her.”
While scripture does describe scenes in which angels act as protectors, this is not their primary role. Most notable of these instances is Psalm 91:11-12, which is then quoted by the devil during Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness “for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Luke 4:10-11).
The Greek word here is aggelos – meaning “messenger,” or more simply, “one who is sent”. One example of this meaning is found in Malachi 3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. This text was quoted by the gospel writers to highlight the role of John the Baptist. For example, in Mark 1 1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [Mark wrongly ascribes the 1:2 quote and conflates it with the one from Isaiah 40:3.]
Martyr is a word we do not typically recognize from scripture because we normally translate it into English differently. The Greek words “marturia” (noun) and “martureo” (verb) have their root in the noun “martus” meaning WITNESS and used originally in a legal sense, as in Matthew 18: 15 If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses…. The meanings of all forms of the word relates to the idea of witness and testimony of a truth observed and believed. The first named Christian martyr was Stephen (Acts 7:54-60).
This became the root of its common meaning as it came into English. Though the use of the word has Christian origins, other faiths use the term as well. It has come to generally mean any who suffers for a cause important to them. It is even used to describe someone who is over-exaggerating the degree to which she is suffering in a situation, “He’s being such a martyr about having to work this weekend.”
Another instructive text for this discussion is Isaiah 52: 7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Paul takes up this passage in Romans 10 to connect the role of preachers with the ancient prophets in the ongoing evangelistic stream – 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Here we have one who comes as a messenger – a place where we would expect to see the word angelos as described above. The Greek word in the text from Isaiah is euangelidzo, meaning “to bring good news.” This is the origin of the word evangelize, and the root from which we have the English words gospel, evangelist.
Christians love the word Gospel, and we love the idea that Jesus comes to proclaim Good News: 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1)
Many of us are less comfortable with the idea of evangelism, or that we are to be evangelists. Jesus’ instruction to the 12 apostles, and later to the 70 disciples in Luke 10, was this: As you go, proclaim the good news [gospel / euangelion]: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 10:7) And Jesus says of himself, quoting Isaiah 61: “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, (Luke 4:18)
Jesus comes as The Good News. Those of us who are his followers are called to be witnesses and messengers of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are called to be martyrs and angels.
Thanks for the vocabulary lesson. What does all of this mean for us now? Perhaps we can ask one or more of these questions:
- How do the common uses of these two words, ANGEL and MARTYR, impact how I might live out my faith?
- Am I being a faithful messenger and witness?
- Does my message help people live more faithfully and protect them from harm?
- Does my witness for Christ place me in any kind of stressful situation, in opposition to any powers?
- To whom am I being sent? What is the message I am asked to carry to them? How do they need to hear it?
Our job as church is to explore these questions, wrestle with and embrace the answers, trusting that the Holy Spirit will inspire and animate our message.