They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:11)
For almost three hundred years, Christianity grew in soil that was wet with the blood of the martyrs.
Until the Emperor Trajan (about AD 98), persecution was permitted but not legal. From Trajan to Decius (about AD 250), persecution was legal, but mainly local. From Decius, who hated the Christians and feared their impact on his reforms, until the first edict of toleration in 311, the persecution was not only legal but widespread and general.
One writer described the situation in this third period:
Horror spread everywhere through the congregations; and the number of lapsi [the ones who renounced their faith when threatened]… was enormous. There was no lack, however, of such as remained firm, and suffered martyrdom rather than yielding; and, as the persecution grew wider and more intense, the enthusiasm of the Christians and their power of resistance grew stronger and stronger.
So, for three hundred years, to be a Christian was an act of immense risk to your life and possessions and family. It was a test of what you loved more. And at the extremity of that test was martyrdom.
And above that martyrdom was a sovereign God who said there is an appointed number. They have a special role to play in planting and empowering the church. They have a special role to play in shutting the mouth of Satan, who constantly says that the people of God serve him only because life goes better (Job 1:9–11).
Martyrdom is not something accidental. It is not taking God off guard. It is not unexpected. And it is emphatically not a strategic defeat for the cause of Christ.
It may look like defeat. But it is part of a plan in heaven that no human strategist would ever conceive or could ever design. And it will triumph for all those who endure to the end by faith in God’s grace.