Martyrs of the early church



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The Persecuted Church





Martyrdom has always been common with God's people. Those who truly have a right relationship with God in Christ are persecuted by those who are religious, Pagan or  the rebellious God haters. We can trace this back to when it first began, when Cain who slew his brother Abel, because God accepted his brothers sacrifice and rejected his. Joseph was sold into slavery from his brothers because he shared his dream from God that he was to be exalted above his brothers. Many of these stories are typology of what happened to Jesus. Jesus warned that they hated him they will also hate us who follow him. One of the clear blessings in scripture is upon those who are persecuted for His namesake. Peter says the glory of God rests on that person who is persecuted for righteousness sake.

Heb.11:33-40:  “who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,  quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.  Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.  Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment.   They were stoned, they were sawn in two, 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 mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” The resurrection is what the whole Church and saints of the Old Testament will share together. Being persecuted because of ones commitment to God is not foreign to the saints, it was a normal way of life for the prophets and for the saints.

In Mt. 23 Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day with 7 woes and then makes this assessment in vs.34-35: “Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city,  “that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” They intentionally rejected the righteous just as their forefathers did, so Jesus attributes the guilt of all those who murdered the righteous and the prophets on them. Why so great a sentence? Because they had one before them greater than all the prophets, and saw the greatest amount of miracles and despite all the signs given they still stayed in unbelief.

In Mk.12:1-12 Jesus gave a parable teaching that God sent many servants to his vineyard (Israel) but they ended killing them until finally God said he would send his son (Vs.6-7; Lk.20:13-15). The story illustrates how the prophets were sent to their own people who rejected and killed them. The promise at the end of the story was that the vineyard would be put into the Church's hands to cultivate. However what Israel did to their own prophets they would do to the early church. After Israel was scattered, Rome would do the same and eventually the political Roman Church itself would adopt its policy centuries later for conversion.

Jesus warned those who followed him early on in Mt. 10:17-21: “But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.  “You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles...V.21   “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.

It was not an apostle that was the first martyr, but Stephen. Stephen a deacon became the first martyr because he reminded the Pharisees of their fathers rejection in the wilderness and Jesus’ words in Mt. 23. In one of the greatest and boldest recorded sermons in the bible Stephen states in Acts 7:52 “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers.” Is it any wonder they killed him on the spot! We are told by Luke,  “there arose a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem;” and that “they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” It is said that about two thousand Christians, suffered martyrdom during this time as Acts 11:19 tells us “those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.” 

Jesus said we are to be witnesses of him to the ends of the earth. This also meant martyrs, in the beginning no one understood the sacrifice of what this calling meant. In the time of the Apostles, the term marturus was used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny his testimony to Christ, by penalty of death.

To take up ones cross not only meant suffering, but could very well have meant death to the average believer. It did then and it still does today.  When Jesus said “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) They needed the power of God to sustain them not only in their missionary work but how their mission would end.

Jesus prophesied to the Church in Matt 24:9: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.” We are not to be loved and accepted by the world, if we are then we are not loving God in the correct manner. Jesus said “ Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)

During the persecutions in the early Church many an apostle became a martyr. James the son of Zebedee was beheaded, this is recorded in Acts 12:1-3: “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church.  Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword.  And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also.” But it was not Peter’s time as angel rescued him while the saints prayed. Both Peter and Paul were both eventually martyred in Rome about 66 A.D., during the persecution under Emperor Nero. Paul was beheaded by the sword. Peter was crucified upside down at his request, since he did not feel he was worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.

Andrew preached in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and in Greece and was crucified on an “X”-shaped cross. It is known today as St. Andrew’s Cross.

Philip had a far reaching ministry in Carthage North Africa and in Asia Minor. He converted the wife of a Roman proconsul who retaliated by having Philip arrested, scourged and thrown into prison. Afterwards  he was crucified at Heliopolis, in Phrygia A. D. 54

Simon the Zealot was ministering in Persia, and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god.  Mark was dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria. According to Foxes book of Martyrs Mattias who replaced Judas in the closed group of twelve apostles to Israel was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded.

James who was the pastor of the Jerusalem church; step brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle died in 62 A.D., by his fellow brethren he tried so desperately to reach. The Sanhedrin Pharisees and Sadducees assembled demanding him to declare from the galleries that Jesus was not the Messiah. He went to the roof and instead of blaspheming the name he shouted out Jesus is the Son of God and judge of the world. Enraged the Jews hurled him off the temple he was then beaten and as he was stoned He prayed as Jesus did, “father forgive them they know not what they do.” He finally had his Life ended with a club.

This persecution continued in the early Church as the apostle Paul writes in 1 Thess. 2:14-15: “For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men.” Although it was a Jewish Church in the beginning most of the religious Jews opposed the gospel as Paul explains, “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.”(Rom. 11:28)

Antipas, was a convert from paganism, is spoken of as a "faithful witness by Jesus who wrote to the church of Pergamus in Rev 2:13: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan's throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”

There were known to be 10 waves of persecutions under the Roman emperors. Christians were tortured, even woman and children the young and old- whole families died for their faith in horrible ways. Drowning, burning parts of the body, being torn in pieces, burnings at the stake and being beheaded were commonplace. It is said for several weeks the countryside was lit up by Christians that were torched. But with all this being done the Church increased. No one could say anything against the brave faith illustrated by these martyrs facing death, God’s grace was upon them, even more so in their death.

Some of the most vicious persecutions were under the watch of Emperor Trajan. Ignatius wrote before his exit “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!” As he heard the lions roaring, he said. “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” (Foxes book of Martyr’s)

Matt 5:43: “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,” that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good. These men and many others lived out the command even in their death.

Paul in giving his testimony to Agrippa recalls his witnessing the first martyr  "So I said, 'Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You.  And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:19-20) Certainly this became a seed of truth planted in Paul’s life as he stood by consenting with the others of Stephens death.

Paul later echoed Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Rom. 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Rom. 12:20-21:Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. There was high visibility of love in the early Church, it showed in the sacrifices they made as the apostle John wrote “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16-17)

It is from the writings of the church fathers that we know the history of the early church. Clement and Eusibuis wrote of their history. This statement has echoed over the centuries of time “the seed of the church is built on the blood of the martyrs.” Death was such a common way to go that it was called the baptism of blood. Christians were called atheists because they wouldn’t recognize Caesar as God. They didn't need to have him as their only God, but only add him to Jesus and they would be spared. Many did not compromise, yet some did. In the first few centuries there were 6 million martyrs. 

As the early church developed so did their doctrines. While the apologists gave defense of Christ to the pagan world   challenges came from the inside of the Church that gave rise to Polemicists. Now the Church was in need of bulwarks to protect from the inside what was entrusted to them from the apostles teachings. The last of the apostles were gone and the teachings that were oral when they were alive were now written down. Circulation of the Gospels and Paul's epistles were necessary for the Churches survival, not only to edify but to protect it. The first two hundred years after the apostles were the most crucial time for laying the groundwork against all the heresies that would try to take root inside the fertile yet fragile ground of the new but growing church. There are certain men who stand out in history that helped preserve the scriptures and rejected the forgeries that many claimed had apostolic authority. It is a few of these certain men I will focus on that were bold speakers against the philosophies of their day and stood firm against those from inside the church that distorted the nature of God and Christ. These men were uncompromising, determined to continue in the truth and gave their lives as a consequence as they were martyred for their beliefs.

Today we have many of their writings of which one could put together over ninety percent of the N.T. from their own penmenship. These were also the same men who wrote on the triunity of God’s nature, defending the deity of Christ and kept the monotheistic view among the polytheism of the Roman culture they lived in. Rome had conquered the world and the Church was being persecuted at an enormous rate. All of these martyrs lived one hundred years before the council of Nicaea which was the first official council on doctrine. The Church then was no longer underground but became a legal Christianity, this became a detriment to its cause. Lets look at several of these heroes of the faith that defended the word and delivered the scriptures to their country and us today. Theirs was a testimony of blood that was considered the greatest of honors. Like Stephen who was the first to prove his inner strength of faith he stood as a beacon to his brethren in the Church and to the Pharisee’s who killed him for his preaching.

John the Apostle was the last to survive being the only one to have died a natural death from old age. During Domitian's persecution in the middle 90's, he was banished on the Isle of Patmos. Being exiled he wrote the last book of the New Testament--the Revelation.  It was John who wrote in Rev.12:11: “And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb by the word of their testimony and they did not love their lives unto death.” This was and still is the   approval of God’s grace on every martyr for the Christian faith. Of the many disciples he made, one stands out called Polycarp who lived from 69-155 A.D. The writings tell us he was a disciple of Peter, Paul and John. He became the chief presbyter over the church at Smyrna and taught Irenaeus of Lyons who was one of the greatest theologians we know of in his time. Irenaeus succeeded bishop Pothirus when he died in the persecutions, Irenaeus died in 190 A.D.. Rev 2:10

When Polycarp was  brought before the judge, and commanded to reject and blaspheme Christ, he decisively answered, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong, how then can I blaspheme my king who hath saved me?"  It is written of Polycarp “So it befell the blessed Polycarp, who having with those from Philadelphia suffered martyrdom in Smyrna--twelve in all--is especially remembered more than the others by all men, so that he is talked of even by the heathen in every place: for he showed himself not only a notable teacher, but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, seeing that it was after the pattern of the Gospel of Christ.” (Mart Poly 19:1)

"Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3). Polycarp joined six others who were scourged and beheaded, he was burned at the stake by Antoninus Pius in  the market place before a crowd.

Ignatius who was a friend of Polycarp became bishop at Antioch, he was fed to the lions at the Colosseum of Rome under Trajan in 117 AD..

Justin Martyr an apologist for the faith confronted Marcion who rejected the Old Testament and issued his own New Testament in which consisted part of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s epistles only. He was so bold he wrote a defense of Christianity addressed to the Emperor Augustus Caesar wrote, “You can kill us. But you cannot hurt us.” Justin also died a martyr beheaded at Rome in l67 AD..

Origen (who seemed to waver between right doctrine of God's nature and sometimes heresy in other areas) defended the Christian faith against the pagans, in 250 A.D. was put in chains and terribly tortured.

In 250 A.D., the cry was “Cyprian to the lions, Cyprian to the beasts.” In 257 AD, Cyprian was brought before the proconsul, who exiled him to a little city on the Lybian sea. On the death of this proconsul, Aspasius Paturnus had Cyprian returned to Carthage, but was soon after seized, and carried before the new governor, who condemned him to be beheaded; his sentence was executed on the September14, 258 A.D.

It was the most confusing and challenging when the persecutions broke out from within the Church’s walls. It was later when the Arians had gained full control that the former deacon, Athanasius came to the forefront to battle long and hard over their doctrine of Christ being a creature only and not deity in man. Historian Philip Schaff comments on the Arian movement stating, “Arianism was a religious political war against the spirit of the Christian revelation by the spirit of the world, which, after, having persecuted the Church three hundred years from without, sought under the Christian name to reduce her by degrading Christ to the category of the temporal and the created, and Christianity to the level of natural religion.” (Schaff and Wace Nicene and post Nicene fathers, vol.4 p.385 Against the Arians ii 70).

 It became THE issue in the Church and for the next 50 years Arianism became a major movement inside the Church from Rome. There were many others who defended Christ as God and the doctrine of the triune nature but did not have the privilege to give their lives but continued to live for the truth. Athanasius defending the deity and tri-unity of God's nature was almost killed within the church as disputes of doctrine became overheated.

In 353 A.D. Constantius Constantine’s son became the ruler over the whole empire, he was a pro Arian sympathizer like his father. In 356 A.D. Athanasius was attacked during his Church service by Arians who brought along with them 5,000 Roman troops. He escaped with His life, and spent the next 6 years in exile with monks in the surrounding area. Athanasius was exiled over five times until the Arian influence finally disintegrated and the controversy culminated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The rift that divided the Church for 50 years would finally end.

Remember what Jesus said before Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world my followers would fight.” The early Church did not take up the sword but instead laid down their lives, but it wasn't many centuries later when a deceived church wanted to take over the world religiously and politically. By doing this they forfeited being the Church that Christ found. One is not to fight for their faith when they are persecuted for it. The Scripture instructs the believers “He that leadeth into captivity, shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword.” The only time martyrs is mentioned specifically is in Rev 17:6 when John sees the counterfeit Church annihilating the saints he writes “I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.”

Tertullian stated,” no man would be willing to die unless he knew he had the truth.”  In countries that are communist and Muslim and anti Christian there are many that face the same choice the early Church did, reject Jesus or die. There are those being persecuted who experientially know the meaning of  carrying their cross. Here in America we give some of our money and a little of our time and feel we have done our duty. This is incomparable to those who give their lives. In 1997-98 in about 60 different countries there were 160,000 Christians each year (that we know of) that gave their lives for the faith.  That is approximately 450 a day. The highest percentage comes from Islamic fundamentalists. Persecution of Christians continues on the upswing, and the gospel may soon be considered a hate crime. Imagine the very thing that shows the Love of God for the people of the world will soon be silenced in the name of peace and unity for mankind. 

    “ Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.( Psalm 116:15)              We need to remember our brethren in our prayers.

John 15 Jesus tells the apostle how has chosen them for their mission and that they are no longer part of the world and its kingdom but are now of God's kingdom, in vs.20 “Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

We are to be salt and light in a corrupting world. We are to be an influence on the world not the world influencing us. We are to stand against and hold back the corrupting influence of sin and sinners who want to influence others, especially the young. We are in the world but separated for service to Christ. When we stand up for righteousness that is found in Christ and God’s word we should expect people to be against us. But it is not us they are really against, but God-his standard and principles.

Jesus said about the end of time before his return when all the things are in place, “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the assemblies and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name's sake.”( Luke 21:12)

It is first the saints in the tribulation that are persecuted and killed as John witnesses the fifth seal being opened, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” (Rev 6:9) They were given white robes waiting for the full number of the brethren to be killed as they were, found in Rev.7. As they are finished being persecuted by Satan, God begins sealing 144,000 Jewish believers to be even greater witnesses. It is then Satan turns to Israel who will be his target of persecuted for the last 31/2 years.

I don’t believe that the bible teaches the Church will go through the great tribulation, however much of the church throughout the world has already been under great persecution much like the early church. While we are not experiencing a physical persecution here in America yet (except for a few instances), should we be so comfortable in saying that it cannot happen here in America as in other countries?

Today in America and other prosperous countries we are left hardly knowing the truth despite all the Christian programmingon TV. Many want to Christianize the world, and it probably won't be long before we make the same mistakes of abandoning the power of the gospel and showing the light  of Christ in us and instead want to use force to convert others. Any religion that uses force shows that it is weak in convincing people that it has something from God. Using force to enforce ones religion (Christian or not) proves they do not represent the true God.

Because of pressure from the world and other religions we are unwilling to speak out against those who misrepresent Christ or hate Him. Tolerance is rotting our witness in society.  Unlike the early Church they grew from contending openly for the faith, they grew from contention. Few do this any longer and would certainly be unwilling to die for him if it became necessary. It has become the silence of the Lambs. The path of least resistance is chosen, we have in some ways become as tolerant as some liberals.  We may one day soon need to have the courage the first century Church had or go out with a whimper.




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