Martyrdom under the Roman Emperors

Having passed in review this martyrdom and having noticed its causes, let us now regard its significance. Before occupying ourselves with this last phase of our subject, it may be well at this juncture to confront the question whether there are available a sufficient amount of reliable materials out of which to construct the lay of the story of this early martyrdom and of Christianity in general in the first, second, and third centuries. These materials are at hand. For the earlier years, that is, from A.D. 33 to circa A.D. 100 they are the New Testament Scriptures—the gospels of Matthew, of Mark, and Luke, the Acts of the apostles, and the epistles with the exception of those written by John, for the years A.D. 33 to circa A.D. 80 and for the last two decades of this century the gospel, the letters, and the Revelations of John, who lived and taught and wrote at Ephesus until A.D. 99 or 100. In addition to the writings of John, we have a few compositions from men who were disciples of the apostles and who, in some instances, outlived them by many years. For the second and third centuries the compiler of Church History gets most of his assistance from the literary productions of the Church Fathers. From Pagan writers he gets little and yet much. What he has from these writers is a history of the civilization and culture of the Roman-Graeco world.

Among all these source-materials, which are copious, none, of course, can compare for relibility with the Holy Scriptures, they being infallible Word of God.

Examining these Scriptures, we find that several of their number contain clear references also to this early martyrdom. But as the Canon of the scriptures was closed circa A.D. 100, these references can be only to persecutions that precede this date. Yet they are, on this account, none the less invaluable. As in these references we have .to do with God’s infallible word, they serve us as an unerring standard in determining the degree of veracity of the testimony of these other source materials respecting the trials and sufferings of God’s people in these early centuries. Let us then have regard to the testimonies of the Scriptures referred to.

Paul explains to his readers that they have reasons to glory in tribulations also, Rom. 5:3. The brethren of the church in Philippi must not allow themselves to be terrified by their adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, “but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:28, 29). The Thessalonians became followers of Paul (and his companions), and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: so that they were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia, I Thess. 1:6, 7. So did they become followers of the churches of God which in Judea “are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: who hath killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us (I Thess. 2:14, 15). He, Paul, is bound to thank God always for these brethren, so that he glories in them in the churches of God for their patience and faith in all their persecutions and tribulations that they endure: which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that they may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which they also suffer: seeing that it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble these brethren. They are to rest assured that when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, He shall take vengeance on their adversaries. They shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, II Thess. 1:1-9. It was the persecution of the Church by the pagan authorities that occasioned the exhortation of Paul to the effect that Timothy and his flock pray “also for kings and for all that are in authority.” Timothy must not conclude that kings, as a class, are reprobated because so many of their number were troubling the church, 1 Ti. 2:1-8. He is further exhorted to be partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God, 2 Ti. 1:8, and to be mindful of the saying: “For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him; if we suffer we shall reign with him; but if we deny him, he shall also deny us.” 2 Ti. 2:11, 12. The brethren to whom the epistle to the Hebrews is addressed, took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing in themselves that they had in heaven a better and enduring substance. Heb. 10:34. This same author includes in the cloud of witnesses by which his readers were compassed about also those “who had trial of crued mockings and scourgings, yea moreover of bonds and imprisonment; they were stoned, they were sawn assunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy.) They wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:26-28). These same brethren (to whom this epistle was written) are exhorted to remember them that are in bonds with them: and them which suffer adversity, “as being yourselves also in the body” (Heb. 18:3). Finally, let them boldly say, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:5b). For despising the poor James rebukes his brethren in this language, “Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do they not blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?” Jas. 2:6, 7. Further on, at Jas. 5:6, he flays these same rich for condemning and killing the just, who does not resist them. The strangers to whom the apostle Peter addresses his epistle are in heaviness through manifold temptation, 1 Pet. 1:6. They must think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try them, as some strange thing happened to them: but rejoice, inasmuch as they are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, 1 Pet. 4:12, 13. The brethren of the church at Smyrna are told that the devil shall cast some of their number into prison, that they may be tried, Rev. 2:10. Babylon, the mother of harlots, is drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus, Rev. 17:6.

Babylon is the world versus the church, the kingdom of God—the world not of any particular period only but of all ages. In John’s day, Babylon was the Graeco-Roman empire as concentrated with its nameless polutions in the city of Rome. That in the vision of John it appears as drunken with the blood of the saints indicates, assuredly, that of those who held fast the name of Christ the number slain was great.

In their totality, these scriptures bespeak widespread and severest persecution. And such, as was seen, is also the testimony of the church fathers. What these scriptures also tell us is that the epistles including the Revelation were directly addressed to the church in persecution, that the hope and the comfort which they hold forth is for a people—the people of God—in tribulation. And the lesson of history is that only when the church finds itself in the crucible of affliction are God’s people especially ready to live by the promise and to know that their Redeemer liveth. It is then that faith is strong and hope lively.

The question is frequently asked why the world kills God’s people only intermittently, why it is not laying violent hands on them today. There is still persecution of the faithful yet not in this form, at least not in our western hemisphere. Is the world today less wicked than the world of the Roman Caesars? The world today is just as wicked, just as unwilling to forsake its abominations and turn to the living God to be saved in the blood of His crucified and resurrected Christ, thus just as intolerant of and antagonistic to the truth and to God’s people, just as selfish and selfcentered, superstitious cruel and inhuman. Then why is the church not being troubled by the world now? One could point to more than one reason perhaps. Yet the longerthis question is pondered the clearer it becomes that the only satisfying answer is: God does not will.

He is not turning the hearts of the Egyptians to hate His people. But it may not be long now. There are foreboding signs. I think now of the thousands upon thousands of priests of the Greek Orthodox Church in Russia slain by Stalin. I think of Hitler’s active and cruel opposition to the church in Germany. I think, finally, of the rising tide of Communism in Europe and on our own continent.

As yet, men need not pay with their lives or with all their worldly goods for holding fast Christ’s name. It costs little to bear the name “Christian.” In general there is willingness to pay but little. Rather than sustain the smallest material loss, the preference is to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. There is little desire to live from right principle. The studied attempt is to steer life’s course clear from the troubles and disturbances incident to confessing Christ’s name before men. When sin is exposed and rebuked in the pulpit, anger kindles and the church is forsaken.

The day in which we live is indeed evil. The love of many has waxed cold. There is wide-spread falling away from the truth. The denial of the fundamentals of the Christian religion is considered scholarly in many a Christian circle: and the community of churches who still want to be known as Reformed are devitalized by insipient Modernism. The carnal element in the church is loud-mouthed and occupies the place of influence. What would happen today if all the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were again employed to induce the Christians to deny Christ’s faith? Would Cyprian, were he still living, again be amazed and appalled at the sight of so many faithless members of the church rushing to the temples of the pagan gods to burn incense at the heathen altars to escape the loss of their goods or free themselves from the penalty of death?

Sceptical writers have expressed the view that the martyrdom of those early centuries, that steadfastness of God’s people in persecution, their remaining faithful unto death, forms no evidence that Christians, in distinction from other men, are the people of true virtue. In support of their view, these writers point to the persecution of Christians by Christians in the later middle ages, and in the 16th century. They point us to the fiendish scenes of the papal crusades against the Albiginses and Waldenses, to the massacre of the Huguenots and to the persecutions of the Protestants by the Duke of Alva. But Christianity is not responsible for the crimes perpetrated in its name by the anti-christian powers within the walls of Zion and bearing the name “Christian”.

We should have nothing but sympathy with the heroic faith manifested by these early martyrs. Wrote the historian Lecky: “The most horrible instances of torture were usually inflicted, either by the populace, or in their presence, in the arena. We read of Christians bound in chains of red-hot iron, while the stench of their half-consumed flesh rose in a suffocating cloud to heaven; of others who were torn to the very bone by shells, or hooks of iron; of holy virgins given over to the lust of the gladiator or to the mercies of the pander; of two hundred and twenty-seven converts sent on one occasion to the mines, each with the sinews of one leg severed by a red hot iron, and with an eye scooped from its socket; of fires so slow that the victims writhed for hours in their agonies; of bodies torn limb from limb, or sprinkled with burning lead; of mingled salt and vinegar poured over the flesh that was bleeding from the rack; of tortures prolonged and varied through entire days. For the love of their Divine Master, for the cause they believed to be true, men, and even weak girls, endured these things without flinching, when one word would have freed them from their sufferings. No opinion we may form of the proceedings of priests in a later age should impair the reverence with which we bend before the martyr’s tomb.”

Now finally a word on the significance of this early martyrdom,. In the foregoing article on this subject I wrote: “these persecutions were God’s work—a work in which the heathen functioned as Ilis agent but on this account none the less responsible. Now both God and the heathen had their own designs. If we be willingly ignorant of the latter—of the designs of God—all our inquiring after the true signifinance of this early martyrdom is a fruitless occupation. What has weight here is not so much why the heathen persecuted the church, but why God willed that they should.”

The answer to this question is again contained in Holy Writ. The apostle Paul glories in tribulations also, because he knows that tribulation worketh patience; and patience experience; and experience hope, Rom. 5:3. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews tells his readers that God chasteneth His people that they might be partakers of His holiness; that chastening afterwards yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them that are exercised thereby, Heb. 12:10, 11. And according to the apostle Peter God’s believing people are now for a season, if need be, in heaviness through manifold temptations that the trial of their faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ, Pet. 1:6, 7. There are more such scriptures expressive of the same sentiment; and in their totality they form the anwer to the question why God willed that early martyrdom and what he accomplished through it, and so set forth its true significance,.

But we are still confronted by the question, what significance this early martyrdom had for the church of subsequent ages, what its meaning is for us. Why did the church of this Dispensation at the very outset of its career and for three long centuries thereafter, have to pass through that valley of the shadows of death. Another question is: Why did God so arrange His providence that persecution in this violent form finally ceased? This last question is to be answered thus: The church has need of periods of “stillness” for intensive and sustained study of the Scriptures and for the expression of the truth of Holy Writ in proper form. Further, it is in the need of “stillness” also for the extension of God’s kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel unto all creatures. But what was first of all necessary is that the church come into the possession of the conclusive evidence that the gates of hell do not prevail against it; that the faith of God’s true people is indestructible, and that real Christianity is indeed the fruitage of the wonder-working power of God’s sovereign grace. And it also first of all had to he demonstrated unto the church how true it is that if believers walk as children of the light before the face of the godless, the world does not know them. It was God’s will that through the ages His people steadfastly fight the good fight of faith and continue their pilgrim’s journey to the everlasting destination, which is the Father’s house, only as armed with this amazing evidence of the indestructibility of their faith.

As we have seen, that age of early martyrdom was already interspersed with brief periods of “stillness”. Then, when persecution again would break out, many apostatized. This, too, was made to come to pass that the church of the centuries that followed might be aware that in times of quiet there are always to be found in the church many who say they are Christians but are not.