Heading toward a fuller understanding of what it means to live incarnational lives, whether you stay in your local parish or are sent out to cross into another culture and incarnate Christ in that context, we should first investigate some key words from the gospels to build an appropriate understanding of what it means to “bear witness” to the gospel.
Witness, testimony. Maybe some of you have heard this before, but it is a good reminder: the word “witness” and “testimony” are the same word in the Scriptures. To bear witness, false witness, give a testimony, “his testimony is true”, and every other instance, are built on the same root word in Greek. And that is not all. The root on which they are built is the word martyr. So, intentionally transposing these words in English will help us feel some of the nuance that word holds in all of its various contexts:
“There was a man missioned from God, whose name was John. This man came for a martyrdom, to bear forth a living martyrdom of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear forth a living martyrdom of that Light.” By the way, I will use “living martyrdom” quite a lot to clarify a difference between the meaning of this word and our misconceived definition of martyrdom as only meaning death. (Jn 1:6-8)
“You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a living martyrdom to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18)
And, one of the few uses of “martyr” in the English New Testament—remember, in Greek, it is a all over the place as these examples show—St. Paul speaks of the proto-martyr Stephen: “And when the blood of Your testifier Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:20)
The Apostle John, speaking of his own testimony: “This is the disciple who martyrs out these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his martyrdom is true.” (John 21:24)
Here is what St. John the Forerunner says of Jesus Christ’s testimony: “And what He has seen and heard, that He martyrizes; and no one receives His living martyrdom. He who has received the living martyrdom which he is living has certified that God is true. (John 3:32-33)
And then, Christ himself takes this word, this living martyrdom, to another level. (As a warning, this verse can be quite confusing, even when read in context. It is easy to miss that the “our” and “we” is Christ speaking of himself and the Holy Trinity.) “‘Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and are martyring what We have seen, and you do not receive Our living martyrdom. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’” Christ makes an interesting distinction: speaking and martyring are different. That is, speaking and witnessing are different. Christ’s living martyrdom is what has been seen, that is, life in the Trinity. Meaning, the witness that is lived out, the living martyrdom, is the life in the Trinity. And we, as we are united to Christ, are to live out this life within our lives, in the flesh, “on earth as it is in heaven”. Our living martyrdom is life in Christ, Christ in us, lived out in whatever context in which we find ourselves. (John 3:11-12)
For a final example, which is obviously speaking of martyrs (that is, who received a killed martyrdom), our English translations do not actually use the word martyr: “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the martyrdom which they were possessing [while still in earth].” This last verb is not translatable into English: they were in the process of possessing/obtaining/having their martyrdom…meaning, their life was the possessing of the martyrdom, not the moment of their killing. (Rev 6:9)
Thinking back to the proto-martyr Stephen, I have a question: was he the first martyr because of his death or because of his life? He is one of these martyrs under the throne seen by the Apostle John. He did not attain his martyrdom when he was killed; he was in the process of possessing his martyrdom in life, and this lived-out testimony and witness were sealed and finalized at his killing.
All of this directly applies to us, too. Living out our martyrdom, killing our earthly passions, that the image of God, Jesus Christ in us, may be manifested in our mortal flesh. That is incarnating the good news, and therefore, that is evangelism. And if sent out to do that in another place, that is missions.