THE STUDY OF MARTYRDOM AND IT'S IMPORTANCE
BY C. J. Mendoza
Why study about the
martyrs? Are there any benefits to be derived from the study? And
most important of all, does it bring any glory to God? This article
attempts to answer these questions by providing four reasons why the subject is
important, while also aiming to spark an interest in the subject. Two
stories have been incorporated which will serve to better make the points and
maybe even when the appetite of the 'uninitiated.'
Consider the following: although we are not under persecution ourselves, the body of believers has been a persecuted group throughout their existence. When the writer of Hebrews, in chapter 11 of his epistle, talks about those who were "sawn in half", "stoned", and so forth he is talking about Old Testament saints; the New Testament bears witness to the sufferings then endured; the stories we are going to look at come from the Ante-Nicene period (100-325 A.D., also known as the Age of Persecution), which precedes the Middle Ages and Reformation, times which saw their share of suffering as well. The twentieth century is not without its own group of martyrs either, the body of Christ of which we are but a part is, in places like China, still being persecuted. In this article we will only be looking at a couple of stories, out of the many, from a short period of time, but as stated above the people of God have been a persecuted group throughout their history. This pattern of ongoing suffering has been called THE BURNING BUSH PATTERN, although always in the fire of persecution the people of God are never consumed.
But why bring this up, who is unaware that Christians have suffered in the past and continue to suffer to this day? Maybe less than a minute minority (at least that's my hope), but I brought this up as a reminder to weep with those who weep, as the Bible tells us (Romans 12:15), for many continue to be persecuted, and to give you, Christian, another reason to be thankful to God for His goodness and mercy towards us. To be thankful that we live in a peaceful land in peaceful times.
THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM says that:
1) We need to be patient in adversity, 2) Thankful in prosperity, and 3)
Confident that in the future nothing will separate us from the love of
God. The future is not here yet (but we trust in God for a good outcome),
and we are not in adversity (at least not in the kind the persecuted are), so
we have much to be thankful for. Because of the fact that persecution has been
a part of life throughout history (as we have seen) learning about the martyrs
in the past was common for Christians. In the Early Church, for example,
they had Acts of Martyrs and Books of martyrs for the instruction of
believers. Such a book can be found in most versions of Eusebius
"Ecclesiastical History" (placed between books 8 and 9). The
Puritans taught their children about the martyrs form Foxe's Book of martyrs,
probably the most well known work on the subject.
So even though today the subject is often neglected by those of us who are not under any danger, in the past, when what you believed and stood for could cost you your life, Christians drew strength first of all from God, but also from the example of those in the past.
But still even today the history of the martyrs is an important area of study, for us as Christians, for many reasons. One of which is that:
1) It reminds us of what the cost of being a disciple of Christ can
be. What the price was in ages past and what it continues to be today for
many. (Luke 14:27)
Scriptures like John 16:33 where Jesus warns His disciples that they will have tribulation in this world, and Acts 14:22 where Paul tells the disciples that they must go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God (not your most "seeker-sensitive" words) don't have the same impression on us as they did the early Christians who lived under persecution. But these Scriptures, and those like them (Luke 9:23-25; Acts 20:24; 21:13), are there because persecution has been, and is a reality.
For an example of what following Christ can cost an individual we turn to the first story:
In the beginning of the third century A.D. (202) there was a girl by the name
of Felicitas, her faith in Christ not only cost her, her life but her
motherhood as well. At the time of her arrest she was eight months
pregnant, and because pregnant women were not punished publicly, she, along
with the others who were arrested, were grieved that when the time of execution
came she would be left behind and die alone. The group then,
"joining together in prayer poured forth their united cry to the Lord
three days before the exhibition. Immediately after their prayer her
pains came upon her and she brought forth a little girl, which a certain sister
brought up as her daughter. Standing near by during the time of the
delivery was a guard who, when he saw Felicitas crying from the pain of
childbirth told her: "If you can hardly stand the pain now, what will you
do then you are thrown to the beasts, which are your punishment for refusing to
sacrifice?" She replied, "now it is I that suffer what I
suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I
also am about to suffer for Him." When "the day of their
victory" (execution) arrived, Felicitas, along with another girl, who was
also a young mother, were stripped, covered with nets, and lead out into the
arena. So degrading was the sight of these women that the crowd demanded
that they be allowed to wear robes. Soon they were brought out again and
were exposed to a wild cow that tossed them around; leaving Felicitas crushed
on the ground unable to get up without the aid of Perpetua-who was the other
girl. In a moment of compassion the crowd decided that their lives should
be spared, and they were then recalled. Only to be put to death by the
Here then is an example that sometimes giving up your life is not enough. This girl had to also give up her motherhood, which she could have used as an excuse to save her life. She could have sacrificed to the gods and said that she was only thinking of her child, but no, she confessed her faith and it cost her, her life and motherhood.
One other thing worth pointing out in this story is the way the Christians described the day of execution. They called it "THE DAY OF THEIR VICTORY." 'To them death was victory because it came at the end of a series of battles.
They overcame every obstacle the devil put in their
way. They overcame by the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 12:11)
Another thing we can get out of the study of persecution is that:
2) When we learn about the extent of their suffering, we also learn that to
that extend God is able to sustain His saints.
Regardless of age or sex God was more than able to strengthen the martyrs. Men in their eighties, young girls and boys all of these God was able to sustain
An example of this is the next story:
During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.), a despiser of Christians, the churches of Christ in Lyons and Vienna (modern day France) underwent a severe persecution in the year 177 A.D. Among those arrested was a young slave girl by the name of Blandina. After the authorities examined her and confessed that she was a Christian, she was imprisoned, having been condemned to die. All those arrested feared for Blandina, thinking that she might not be strong enough to bear the tortures she would deny the faith. But to everyone's surprise she "was filled with such power, that her ingenious tormentors who relieved and succeeded each other from morning till night, confessed that they were overcome, and had nothing more that they could inflict upon her. They were amazed that she still continued to breathe after her whole body was torn asunder and pierced, they gave their testimony that a single torture inflicted was of itself sufficient to destroy life, without resorting to so many." But this blessed saint, as a noble wrestler, in the midst of her tortures renewed her strength, and to repeat, "I AM A CHRISTIAN, NO WICKEDNESS IS DOME BY US," was to her, refreshment and relief from pain. Finally when the day of the exhibition arrived Blandina was bound and suspended on a stake as food for the wild beasts; her form gave the appearance of one crucified, and as the rest saw her, through their sister, with their external eyes, they contemplated Him that was crucified for them, and were inspired with great eagerness. Since none of the beasts touched her she was taken down and put away for the meantime. Throughout the following days she was brought out to watch the rest of the believers die (this was done in order to scare her into denying the faith and get her to sacrifice to the gods), which occasion she used to enliven the rest, "like a noble mother [she] encouraged her children, and sent them on before her victorious to the King. "Then at last she was called again and after scourging, after being exposed to the wild beasts, after roasting, she was finally thrown into a net and cast before a bull, and when she had been well tossed by the animal, and had now no longer any sense of what was done to her she died. She endured so much that even the pagans confessed, that no woman among them had ever endured sufferings as many and as great as these.
The story of this girl illustrates well the second point (which was
that God is able to sustain His saints) because as it says in the story itself,
"all those arrested feared for Blandina thinking that she might not be
strong enough to undergo the tortures. "But in the end not only did they
find out that God's grace was sufficient, but He even used her as a means to
strengthen the rest, when as the story says, "they saw through her,
hanging on the stake, Christ crucified for them," which sight impelled
them all the more to suffer for the name of Christ. The one, whom they at
first thought to be the weak link, became later a source of strength, and
finally the one to whom they looked for encouragement.
Again, in this story there is another point worth noticing. That being the attitude of the crowd after the exhibition. We read that they "confessed that no woman among them had ever endured sufferings as many and as great as these." So we can see that some of those who at first cheered for her death, after seeing all her sufferings gained admiration for her endurance, and this was actually one of the things that made the ancients curious about Christianity. They wondered just what it was that caused these people to "despise death," to care so little for their lives. (1) As it says in the Bible, "they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death."
And now we come to the third point, the third reason why it is important to study the history of persecution. And that is:
3) It can serve to strengthen us.
After all that is why these stories were written down in the first place. In the introduction to one of the Acts of Martyrs the writer says that they (the Acts of Martyrs) serve to testify to God's grace and to edify man. They honor God and strengthen men. The person who wrote this appears to have had 1Cor. 10:11 in mind (if not the Scripture at least the principle) where it says that the Scriptures were written for our benefit (i.e., posterity). The author's intention, in writing one of the Acts of Martyrs, was to preserve the story for the instruction of future generations.
The fact that we are not under persecution now, and the possibility that we might never be, does not mean that we cannot benefit from such a study; because to suffer tribulation is simply 'to be troubled.' We all know that other things can cause us affliction or cause us to be troubled besides torture, imprisonment, and the prospect of death. Even in the Bible where the word is mostly used in reference to suffering for the sake of Christ, the word is also used in reference to the pain of childbirth (John 16:21), widowhood (James 1:27), and famine (Acts 7:10).
From personal experience, most, if not all Christians have found encouragement and strength in the Psalms at one time or another. In spite of the fact that the circumstances under which they were written are different from the ones to which we apply them, they are still sources of comfort. Not many of us have had to go into hiding because our lives were threatened like David's life was; nor have all who have recited David's words of repentance in Psalm 51 committed adultery, yet these inspired songs continue to be sources of comfort and strength.
The fourth and final reason why we should study the history of persecution (and I brought this up earlier) is that:
4) The knowledge of persecutions past and present gives another reason to be
thankful to God. It makes us sensitive of His goodness towards us.
In Romans 1:21, it says that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the wicked because although they knew God they neither glorified Him nor gave thanks to Him. In light of what we know about past and present persecutions it would be a great evil on our part to neglect the mercy of God towards us who live in peaceful circumstances. And anytime we take for granted His mercies and fail to give thanks we are as the wicked spoken of in this passage, against whom the wrath of God is revealed. And what a terrible thing it would be, for us as Christians, to be insensible like unbelievers to God's goodness.
It has been said that church history provides a standard of comparison. (2) When a comparison is made you have two or more things you are looking at for consideration, since we are talking about history here, we are talking about the past being one of the things and the present the other. When we hold the past as the standard of comparison and we see just how much suffering the saints of the past had to endure, we cannot help but be thankful to God. We have been spared much suffering. But if we are ignorant of history and are unaware of present persecutions then we fail to appreciate just how good and easy we have it. Our circumstances are indeed, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, those of prosperity.
· In conclusion then I remind you
that Jesus said that he who was not willing to take up his cross and follow Him
was not worthy to be His disciple (Mark 8:34). He made it clear that
there was a price to be paid.
The history of persecutions serve to reminds us of what the cost of being a Christian can be. It reminds us that the cross saints in ages past had to bear were much weightier than the one we bear.
learned (2Cor 12:10) that it was at his weakest point that he was stronger
because he realized that it is when we are at our weakest point that we rely
more on God's grace, and His grace is more than sufficient to sustain us.
The history of persecutions shows us to what extent God is able to sustain His saints.
when He was up on the cross dying for the sins of His people quoted the first
lines of Psalm 22 "My God, why have you forsaken me?" He drew
strength from a Psalm of David.
The history of persecutions can serve to strengthen our faith in times of trouble.
that can teach us about the goodness of God, (His goodness to sustain us in,
and keep us from persecution) and teach us to be grateful, as we ought to be is
The history of persecutions provides us with a reason to be thankful to God. And so, for all these reasons the history of persecutions is worth studying, and for these same reasons it is important that we study it.
(1) "Persecution has generally been found favorable to whatever cause it has been directed against; it somehow enlists the sensibilities of our nature on the side of the persecuted party; and disposes the mind to a more candid and impartial examination of the question in dispute, than we should otherwise posses." (William Jones)
(2) "Church history ought to provide a standard of comparison, it ought to raise our vision of God, and it ought to show, us by countless examples, what faithfulness to Christ truly means." (Iain Murray)