In early years of Christianity, many withstood the tests of torturous persecution and martyrdom to the glory of the One whose Name they bore: “Yet, if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter. 4:16). As I have been learning of the history surrounding these men and women who loved Christ more than life on this earth and reflect upon their voices that echo through the centuries, I am led to honor Christ for His suffering, power, and worth.
Martyrdom as Reality
In classical Christian times (roughly 100 to 600 A.D.), persecution varied according to who was in power of the Roman empire at the time—each emperor having the power to create his own policies and climate for Christians. In summary of what I have been learning, here is an anecdotal sketch from these years when martyrdom was a reality for many:
- Nero, who came into power in 54 was a persecutor of Christians, especially in his nearby vicinity. After receiving blame for a widespread fire, he diverted public attention by blaming the Christians.
- Under Domitian existed scattered persecution across the empire for those who participated in “Jewish practices” [in early years, differentiations between Judaism and Christianity were unclear to authorities].
- Emperor Trajan set the policy that, essentially, Christians ought not be sought out with state money, but also ought not be pardoned if accused before imperial authorities.
- In 161, Marcus Aurelius became emperor and saw fit to persecute the Christians more pointedly—believing them to blame for growing challenges, like natural and military disasters.
- Septimius Severus issued a syncretistic edict in 202 intended for the unification of the empire; worship of various gods was permitted as long as Sol Invictus was given superior status.
- Decius, in 250, instated an empire-wide edict that governors and magistrates enforce sacrifice to Roman gods and to the emperor, resulting in amplified persecution of Christians who refused.
- Under Diocletian, who became emperor in 303, another edict was formed. This time, all Christian sites of worship, Christian writings, and Christian acts of worship were illegal, prompting a severe period of hostility.
- The emperor Galerius—who began his influence in Christian persecution—ultimately deemed these edicts and acts futile due to Christian steadfastness. Year 311 saw a cessation of persecution, leading soon to vastly altered times under Constantine’s leadership.
Martyrdom as Honor
Amidst these adverse times, the church regarded martyrdom as an honor. They wrote of Peter having “born his testimony” in martyrdom and of Paul, who “won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith” in his.
Bishop of the church at Antioch, Ignatius, was sentenced to death in 107. He was sent to Rome for trial, and on the way—in one of seven letters—he wrote to the church at Rome,
Only pray that I may have power within and without, so that I may not only say it but also desire it [martyrdom]; that I may not only be called a Christian, but also be found one […] Yet if I shall suffer, then am I a freed-man of Jesus Christ, and I shall rise free in Him […] The farthest bounds of the universe shall profit me nothing, neither the kingdoms of this world. It is good for me to die for Jesus rather than to reign over the farthest bounds of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; Him I desire, who rose again [for our sake].”
Early Christians wrote of the martyrs of their own times,
For who could fail to admire their nobleness and patient endurance and loyalty to the Master? seeing that when they were so torn by lashes that the mechanism of their flesh was visible even as far as the inward veins and arteries, they endured patiently, so that the very bystanders had pity and wept.
One young believer, Germanicus, was advised to deny Christ when facing death to preserve his youth. But he only indicated to authorities his desire to even more quickly “obtain a release from their unrighteous and lawless life.”
Bishop Polycarp of the church at Smyrna was also asked to recant multiple times. Once he replied in faithfulness: “Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And another time he replied with eternal truth: “Thou threatenest that fire which burneth for a season and after a little while is quenched: for thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.” The saints at the time wanted to emulate his example, “seeing that it was after the patter of the Gospel of Christ.”
Martyrdom for Christ’s Glory
When reading these martyrs’ accounts, I think of the temptation to become man-focused. No doubt, these believers’ willingness to die in faithfulness to the Lord is an example to me. At the same time, according to 1 Peter 4:12-14, the glory resting over these faithful men and women belongs to God:
“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
With that in mind, one record has particularly stayed with me because of how it held me back from a man-exalting perspective on martyrdom—the Apostle Peter’s:
…after being scourged, he [the Apostle Peter] was crucified with his head downwards. It is related that he himself chose this painful posture because he did not think he was worthy to suffer in the same manner as the Lord.
Peter didn’t consider that he ought to experience his martyrdom in the same form as Christ—his humility and love for the Lord Himself is evident in his request. His eyes were on Christ, with honor, thinking of how awfully the Lord had it and not wanting to remotely resemble the crucifixion.
In light of the example of many persecuted believers who knew their Lord was worth their lives and thinking of the Apostle Peter who did not consider himself worthy of his martyrdom in view of Christ—taking a step back, I am presently processing what in my life is properly called suffering. I don’t suffer nearly as I think I do. While martyrs expected the slaying fires of this earth to be cold to them,  I recently prayed that I might—please, please—never grow cold to God. I have also been asking for far too little.
Finally, I take tremendous comfort in the Lord’s sacrifice for me, possible because He walked this earth as the God-Man—fully able to relate to my circumstances. At the same time, Peter’s love for the Person Jesus Christ exemplifies that my difficulties are still not reason for me to relativize the cross to my experience—but to all the more live in view of the Lord Himself who hung on the cross and bore the wrath of God.
I am fully God’s through the cross—such is the complete grace of Christ to receive. Yet, I am unworthy to be His, who motivated the faithfulness of His servants to earthly death. I worship, “Lord, you are the worthy, yours is the power, and yours was the suffering.”
 Sources consulted: Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
 “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed August 15, 2017, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/lightfoot/fathers.ii.i.html.
 “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed August 15, 2017, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/lightfoot/fathers.ii.vi.html.
 “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed August 15, 2017, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/lightfoot/fathers.ii.xi.html.
 John Foxe, Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World (Philadelphia: Charles Foster Publishing Co.), 33.
 “[The persecuted] found the fire of their inhuman torturers cold: for they set before their eyes the escape from the eternal fire which is never quenched; while with the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things which are reserved for those that endure patiently, things which neither ear hath heard nor eye hath seen, neither have they entered into the heart of man, but were shown by the Lord to them.” See “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”
Lianna Davis (@liannadavis) is wed to Tyler and mom to two girls, one who lives in heaven and one who lives on earth. You can find more of her writing at lovely Sovereign.