Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Drama of Persecution

"There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials by a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the Word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has ever know. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won." ~ Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol III: Caesar and Christ (pg. 652)

Tertullian of the late 2nd century Church said, "The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church." I think there is a lot of merit to this statement both during Tertullian’s time and today. The word "martyr" in the Bible also could be translated "witness," which I think is fitting in the case of the majority of the martyrs of the early Church.

The endurance of the martyrs did not go unnoticed in the Roman Empire. Justin Martyr himself was brought to belief in Christ by the witness of Christian martyrs. In his Defence he states, "I myself... used to hear Christians abused, but when I found them fearless in the face of death and all that men think terrible, it dawned on me that they could not possibly be living wickedness and self-indulgence." Justin was convicted by the Spirit on the account of Christian martyrs. He too later became a martyr for Christ and one of the most influential apologists of the early Church. The witness of the martyrs also influenced Emperor Antoninus. After a letter from Justin, Antoninus later wrote to the Council of Asia and said, "You get them into serious trouble by your accusations of atheism, and thereby strengthen their existing determination... If accused they would choose apparent death rather than life, for the sake of their own god. And so they are the real winners... whenever they happen your courage fails you, providing a painful contrast between our morale and theirs..." It is not likely that Antoninus was ever a believer, probably quite the opposite, but his letter to the Council of Asia shows respect of the Christians when he says, "they are the real winners."

This witness that convicted Justin and engendered a respect in Emperor Antoninus was seen by much of the Empire. There are even stories of the executioners themselves seemingly being converted on account of the Christian they were about to martyr. Eusebius tells us of Basilides who was the soldier who lead Potamiaena to her execution. He had great respect for her and her witness, which led him to later be martyred for being a Christian. This was the influence of the martyrs on many those who watched them die and knew of what they died for. The persecution of the Church raised up witnesses, true witnesses, for Christ and their resolve drew people to the Church.

I think it should also be noted that the persecutions separated the "wheat from the chaff" in several senses. First, the persecutions were a means of preserving the true doctrines of the Church. Many of the false doctrines in the Church died out because of the pressure from the Empire, but God’s truth continued on. Marcion’s heresy and Gnosticism, for example, died out during the age of persecution (though Gnosticism died much more slowly). The Arian heresy was over thrown by men who "bore in their bodies the branding-marks of Jesus" (according to Athanasius) at the Council of Nicea. As Apolinarius said in his defense of Christianity against the Phrygian heresy, "Is there one person… among those from Montanus… who was persecuted by the Jews or killed by the wicked? Not one." In addition, Diocletian’s edict that terminated Christianity caused the Christians to have to decide which texts were worth dying for and which were not. As a result, many heretical (or at least non-canonical) texts all but died out during this time, and the canonical books we able to live on and eventually become part of the Bible that we have today. In this, one can see the hand of God in the preservation of the canon through these dark times. Finally, like the seeds that sprung up quickly but were then choked by weeds, the continuous pressure from society and the Empire drove away from their profession those who accepted Christianity merely in an external fashion. Those truly in union with Christ were sustained and strengthened by Him even to the point of torture and death. Again, one can see the hand of God sustaining the true believers of the Church through these dark times in order to build the Church up in Him.

Persecution showed the world that God’s plans are like the foundations of the earth—they will outlast any nation or people. The persecution of the Jews and Romans was enough to kill off those cults that rose up claiming to be Christian, but the truth of God’s Word stood strong. The Roman pagans who persecuted the Christians did not last, but those they persecuted grew in number. They hammered away at the Church but their hammers broke and the Church stood strong. "Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won."

By His Grace,

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