The second-century church father Tertullian lived in Carthage, North Africa, when persecution of Christians was at its apex. In those days, the blood of martyrs soaked the earth as believers were fed to the lions, beaten, whipped, sawed in half, put to death by sword, burned in the fire, and chained in prisons. Tertullian maintained that the more Christians were persecuted and “mown down,” the more they would multiply because “the blood of Christians is seed” (“The Apology,” Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., and Coxe, A. C., ed., Thelwall, S., trans., vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Christian Literature Company, 1885, p. 55).
Tertullian’s statement was later interpreted as “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This loose translation likely developed from Augustine of Hippo’s sermon: “The earth has been filled with the blood of the martyrs as with seed, and from that seed have sprung the crops of the church. They have asserted Christ’s cause more effectively when dead than when they were alive. They assert it today, they preach him today; their tongues are silent, their deeds echo round the world. They were arrested, bound, imprisoned, brought to trial, tortured, burned at the stake, stoned to death, run through, fed to wild beasts. In all their kinds of death they were jeered at as worthless, but ‘precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’” (Wesselschmidt, Q. F., ed., Psalms 51—150, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture OT 8, InterVarsity Press, 2007, p. 293).
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” was just one of Tertullian’s many clever aphorisms. To express the thought in less concise language, persecution forces the church to dig underground and, as a result, causes it to spread out and spring up in other parts of the world. Tertullian’s statement also conveys the idea that the bravery of martyred Christians inspires faith and boldness in those who observe their deaths.
The unintended consequence of persecution is a harvest of fresh souls for the church of Jesus Christ—a living organism that will continue to advance and progress despite all opposition. When the blood of Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, was shed (Acts 7:54), one of the fiercest persecutors of early Christians stood by watching, agreeing with the killing (Acts 8:1; see also Acts 22:20). That man was Saul, who soon became the apostle Paul and eventually perhaps the single most influential Christian evangelist to ever live. Paul, who experienced a miraculous conversion, began planting churches throughout the then-known world and wrote about one fourth of the entire New Testament. Paul’s life and words in Scripture still sprout grains of faith in the hearts of men and women today.
History has borne witness to the truth of Tertullian’s statement. In “The Superintending Providence of God in Foreign Missions,” Arthur Pierson writes of Christian martyrdom as part of God’s plan: “These are but parts of His ways. The pages of the century’s history are here and there written in blood, but even the blood has a golden luster. Martyrs there have been, like John Williams, . . . Abraham Lincoln, and David Livingstone . . . ; but every one of these deaths has been like seed which falls into the ground to die that it may bring forth fruit” (from The Missionary Review of the World, Pierson, A. T., ed., Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1900, p. 326).
“The martyrs were bound, imprisoned, scourged, racked, burnt, rent, butchered—and they multiplied,” observed Augustine (Manser, M., ed., Christian Quotations, 2016). Brilliant Bible commentator Matthew Henry said, “God sometimes raises up many faithful ministers out of the ashes of one” (ibid.).
Today, if you are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where Christian persecution is minimal, you may never have to give the ultimate sacrifice as some believers have had to do. But if God does call you to suffer for the sake of Christ (see Philippians 1:29), you can “consider it an opportunity for great joy” (James 1:2, NLT), knowing “God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats” (1 Peter 3:14, NLT).