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Why Foreign Missions? 20f. The Gospel According to Paul—Word Study 3: Martyrion/Martyreō

Why Foreign Missions? 20f. The Gospel According to Paul—Word Study 3: Martyrion/Martyreō

Not only is the Gospel something to proclaim (see the previous study); it is also a ‘testimony’ or ‘witness.’  This study will explore the significance of the Gospel as a witness by looking at the verb (martyreō) and the noun (martyrion).

While the word is widely used in the Bible (195 times in 170 verses in the New Testament and 529 times in 472 verses in the entire Bible[1]), its relevance to a study on the content of the Gospel is limited to a few verses in Paul, several in the Johannine literature, and a couple verses in Acts.  Once again, the content of the Gospel is seen to be about Jesus Christ.  However, one of the passages in this study (1 Tim. 2.3-7) expands the search for the Gospel’s content to include the use of Israel’s confessional statement in the Shema.  The following study, then, reaffirms that Jesus is the content of the Gospel, but it also provides us a way to understand the interesting link for Paul between Israel’s confession and the Gospel.

‘Martyrionin Paul

1. 1 Corinthians 1.4-7

The first use of maryrion of interest is in 1 Cor. 1.4-7:

1 Corinthians 1:4-7  4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,  5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind--  6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you--  7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One might, conceivably, take ‘testimony of Christ’ (martyrion tou Christou) as a subjective Genitive, such that the meaning is ‘a witness that Christ himself gives.’  In that case, the speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts would be understood as Christ’s witness among believers.  While that is true, the meaning that I prefer takes the phrase as an objective Genitive: ‘the witness about Christ’ that the Church gives in its enriched speech and knowledge.  Paul gives thanks for the Corinthian church’s strong witness to Christ.  In this way, there is parity between Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel and the Church’s witness of the Gospel.  This witness of the church is not merely verbal; whatever the church is and does is to be a witness about Christ.  In this way, v. 7 is also significant.  The church’s witness about Christ is conducted through its spiritual gifts that bear witness to the truth of Christ, and this is a witness that will be proven as true when our Lord Jesus Christ is revealed at his second coming.  To the extent that the power of God is evident in the church through spiritual gifts, the church functions as a testimony to the truth of the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Paul is subtly correcting the Corinthians while praising them in this thanksgiving at the beginning of his letter.  They have not tied their understanding of the power of God to the cross (1 Cor. 1.17-18), their experience of spiritual speech (tongues and prophecy; 1 Cor. 14), spiritual knowledge (1 Cor. 8-10), and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12) to a witness about the death and resurrection of Christ.  Some have even denied a future resurrection (1 Cor. 15.12), such that they see their present life as a witness to the future coming of Christ.  Thus, while Paul offers thanksgiving for elements of the truth in the Corinthian church’s witness of Christ, he also has much to critique about their witness.  In such a use of the phrase ‘witness of Christ,’ we see how much more Paul has in mind than a proclamation of the Gospel in word.  One can witness without words, and the church is itself a witness to the world about Christ Jesus.

2. Second Thessalonians 1.10

Another passage of interest is 2 Thes. 1.10:

2 Thessalonians 1:6-10   6 For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,  7 and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels  8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,  10 when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The proclamation of the Gospel is a testimony.  Just as the correct response to hearing the proclamation is faith, so too the correct response to hearing the testimony is belief (English has two words, ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ while the Greek is the same).  The content of the witness is, in this case, focussed on the future coming of Jesus.  The reason for this focus is that this church has been confused by a false prophecy or forged letter that claimed that Jesus had already returned—that the day of the Lord was already present (2 Th. 2.1-2).  As in 1 Corinthians, Paul places in his thanksgiving at the beginning of the letter an indication of the error in regard to the Gospel into which this church has fallen.  Unlike 1 Corinthians, the error is not focussed on the cross and resurrection of Jesus but is focussed on the future coming of Christ.  The cross, resurrection, and future coming of Christ are all part of the Gospel to be believed.

3. 1 Timothy 2.3-7 and Paul’s Use of the Shema

A third text using the term ‘witness’ in relation to the Gospel is 1 Tim. 2.3-7.  This passage allows us to include a brief study of Paul’s use of the Shema in his writings to describe the content of the Gospel.  The Shema is a daily prayer composed of Dt. 6.4-9; 11.13-21; and Num. 15.37-41.  Of significance for our purposes is only the first verse:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (Dt. 6.4).

Commentators are aware of Paul’s use of the Shema, but they typically do not notice that Paul’s use of the Shema is related to his understanding of the Gospel’s content.  Yet, since Israel’s unique witness to the world was its belief in one God, and one might expect that Paul would connect this witness to the Gospel, the Church’s and his own witness to the world.  Indeed, Paul does this very thing in 1 Tim. 2.3-7:

3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,  4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  5 For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human,  6 who gave himself a ransom for all-- this was attested at the right time.  7 For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

The witness given at the right time (v. 6; the Greek might be rendered as ‘who gave himself a ransom for all, the witness at the right time’) in this passage is a witness that interprets the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Jesus’ death was a ‘ransom [antilutron] for all.’  Paul’s words in v. 7 indicate further that Jesus’ death as a ransom for all gets at the core of his Gospel, for it is the substance of the message he offers as a herald, apostle, and teacher.  Also interesting is how Paul’s alteration of the Shema, Israel’s own ‘Gospel,’ as it were, serves as a statement of Paul’s Gospel witness: one God, one mediator, who gave himself as a ransom for all.  The ‘for all’ (v. 6) relates to the Shema precisely because, if there is only one God, then there is only one God for all instead of each nation having its own god or gods.  That is, the Jews’ Shema is the basis for a universal Gospel, in Paul’s view.
Paul appears to use the Shema not only in 1 Tim. 2.5-6 but also in 1 Cor. 8.6; Rom. 3.30; and Eph. 4.4-6.  In 1 Corinthians 8.6 he says,

yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord [kurios], Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Paul’s expansion of the Shema in 1 Cor. 8.6 involves understanding ‘Lord’ in the Greek of Deuteronomy 6.4-5 (the beginning of the Shema) to refer to Jesus, as follows:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD [Greek: kurios] is our God, the LORD alone.  5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Dt. 6.4-5).

As Richard Bauckham notes in reference to 1 Cor. 8.6, Paul

is redefining monotheism as christological monotheism.  If he were understood as adding the one Lord to the one God of whom the Shema` speaks, then, from the perspective of Jewish monotheism, he would certainly be producing not christological monotheism but outright ditheism….  Thus, in Paul’s quite unprecedented reformulation of the Shema`, the unique identity of the one God consists of the one God, the Father, and the one Lord, his Messiah.[2]

If 1 Cor. 8.6 witnesses Paul’s emendation of the Shema to include Jesus as the one Lord and mediator between God and men, then Rom .3.27 witnesses Paul’s emendation of the Shema to include a confirmation that justification (or righteousness) comes through faith for both Jews and Gentiles—that is, for all.  Romans 3.27-31 states,

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.  28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.  29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,  30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.  31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

The Shema is also the basis for Paul’s theology in Eph. 4.4-6:[3]

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The oneness of God is the reason for every other oneness of the believers.  In fact, Eph. 4.4-6 offers a Trinitarian version of the Shema:

                One body, one Spirit, one hope
                One Lord, one faith, one baptism
                One God and Father of all—above all, through all, in all

The unity of God is the Trinitarian fullness of God, ‘God in three Persons,’ as the Church will later say.  It is not a tri-theism, which would mean a plurality.  The monotheistic confession of Israel’s Shema is the very basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  Also, the Trinitarian unity of God is the basis for the unity of the Church and its faith.  Furthermore, it is the basis for God’s universal fatherhood,[4] as in Rom. 3.29-30 and Eph. 4.6. 

This reflection on the Shema in a Trinitarian statement is something that Paul explored before writing Ephesians in 1 Cor. 12.4-7:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;  6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Thus 1 Tim. 2.6-7 combines the expansion of the Shema in 1 Cor. 8.6; Rom. 3.27-31 and Eph. 5.4-6 (a passage that is paralleled in 1 Cor. 12.4-7 and again affirms unity among believers).  1 Tim. 2.6-7 does not include the Trinitarian expansion of Eph. 5.4-6 and 1 Cor. 12.4-7, however.  The witness of Judaism, that there is one God who should be obeyed by every Israelite, becomes the witness of the Church, that there is one God, with Jesus Christ sharing in the divine identity, serving as a mediator between God and humanity, and giving himself as a ransom for all, both Jews and Gentiles.  This is the substance of the ‘witness’ given at the proper time that constitutes Paul’s Gospel (1 Tim. 2.5-7).

Earlier (study 20b), I discussed Gordon Fee’s argument that, in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, there is a Trinitarian dimension to the Gospel’s content.  The previous paragraphs have found this in Paul outside the Corinthian correspondence in Eph. 5.4-6.  There may also be some further evidence of this outside of Paul in Hebrews 2.1-4 (note the Trinitarian declaration in my italics and structuring):

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty,  3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was
*declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, 
*4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles,
*and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

To be sure, the content of the Gospel is not typically stated in a Trinitarian form, even though this comes to be the form for the Apostles’ Creed much later.  The focus is usually Christological, as we have it in, e.g., 2 Tim. 1.8, which also uses the term ‘martyrion’:

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony [martyrion] about our Lord[5] or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.

The Johannine Literature

The term ‘martyrion’ as a way of speaking about the message of the early Church that is focussed on Jesus is common in the Johannine literature.  For example,1 John 5.6-10:

6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.  7 There are three that testify:  8 the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.  9 If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.  10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.  11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

Here again, with the term ‘martyrion,’ we find the content of the Gospel to be Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn. 1.2; 4.14).  The Gospel of John also understands Jesus’ message, a revelation of the Father, to be a ‘witness’ or ‘testimony’ (e.g., Jn. 3.33; 18.37), and God’s witness to be about Jesus (Jn. 5.31; 8.18).  Jesus’ works, inasmuch as they are given Jesus by the Father, also function as the Father’s witness about Jesus (Jn. 5.36; 10.25).  The Scriptures also testify about Jesus (Jn. 5.39), the Spirit will testify about Jesus (Jn. 15.26), and the disciples testify about Jesus (Jn. 15.27).  In other words, the Gospel is understood as a ‘witness’ that centres on Jesus.

The same can be said in regard to the book of Revelation.  In Revelation, the ‘word of God’ is another way of speaking about the ‘testimony’ or ‘testimony of Jesus Christ’ (Rev. 1.2, 9; 6.9; 20.4), and Christian ‘testimony’ is what is otherwise spoken of as proclaiming the Gospel about Jesus (Rev. 11.7; 12.11, 17; 17.6; 19.10.  Moreover, John the Baptist and the disciples are witnesses—eye-witnesses—to Jesus (Jn. 1.17f, 15, 19; 19.35; 21.24).

The Book of Acts

Similarly, Acts has two verses that affirm that Jesus is the content of the Gospel.  The apostles are eyewitnesses who can witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 4.33) just as Paul, who was not an eyewitness, witnesses about Jesus (Acts 22.18).


This study affirms what we find through other word studies and methods of examining the content of the Gospel.  By examining the use of the term ‘witness’ as a verb (martyreō) and as a noun (martyrion) in relevant New Testament passages in Paul’s letters, John’s writings, and Acts, we have seen that the Church’s witness was a witness about Jesus Christ.

In this study, Paul’s use of ‘martyrion’ in 1 Tim. 2.6 raised a further point of interest in regard to the Gospel and its content: the relation between Israel’s testimony in the Shema and the Church’s testimony in the Gospel.  Paul adapts the Shema to the Christ-focussed Gospel.  The Christian (Paul and Hebrews) adaptation can also be stated in a Trinitarian way.  Whether Jesus is understood as participating in the identity of the One God or whether the Trinity is understood as the fullness of the One God, the early Church continued to affirm that there is only One God.  In addition to Christology and Trinitarian theology, Paul found the Shema to be a way to affirm that there is a single plan of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.  He also found in the Shema’s affirmation of God’s Oneness the grounds for unity among God’s people, the Church, and God’s fatherhood over all peoples of the earth.

The significance of such a study might be stated in how erroneous understandings of the Christian Gospel fail to understand what has been observed here.  Any who would attempt to articulate the Christian faith apart from Jesus at its very centre are manufacturers of another Gospel altogether.  Second, any who would attempt to downplay the significance of the Trinity in Christian teaching have not noticed the relationship between Israelite monotheism in the Shema and the Christian Trinitarian Gospel.  Third, any who would attempt to understand the Gospel as only for a particular group of people, not for all people, have failed to understand the Fatherhood of God and the good news that He offers to all people.  Fourth, God’s universal Fatherhood is not the same as universal salvation: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Church’s witness to the world about Jesus Christ.  It is a witness that must be believed or received.

[1] Many of the times the word is used in the Old Testament occur in the phrase ‘tent of witness’—the tabernacle.
[2] +Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), p. 38.
[3] +Andrew Lincoln also sees that the Shema underlies this passage (Ephesians (Word Commentaries, Vol. 42; Waco, TX: Word, 1990), p. 240).
[4] I say this because of Rom. 3.29-30, already discussed, as well as because of Eph. 3.14-15: ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,  15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.’  See +Markus Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 (Anchor Bible, Vol. 34a; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), p. 471; Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians, p. 240.  Contra +Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), p. 519.  Paul’s point is that the basis for unity in the Church and its faith—which applies only to Christians, as Hoehner points out—is the Trinity and God’s universal fatherhood—which applies to all.
[5] This is, again, an Objective Genitive: the witness of our Lord (to martyrion tou kyriou).