“Praise be to thee, O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, that thou didst deem me, a sinner, also worthy of this part in thee!” Whoever spoke this sentence is loud and clear in their praise and worship of Jesus. It seems there is something in their life which has given them joy and that they are astounded that through such experience Jesus is allowing them to experience this part of Himself. What is even more incredible than this statement itself is the position of the man who said it. His name was Carpus and he was a Christian in the 2nd century in the Roman Empire. In A.D. 165 he and a man named Papylus were arrested for being Christians. They were tortured with the goal that they would sacrifice to various gods of the Empire. In the midst of the torture, Carpus simply kept repeating, “I am a Christian.” During the torture Papylus let them know in plain words, “I have served God since my youth. I have never sacrificed to idols. I am a Christian… There is nothing I can say which is greater or more wonderful than this.” Because they would not cooperate, they were sentenced to be burned alive. That quote at the beginning was said by Carpus while the flames engulfed his body.
I am currently reading a book called, “Water from a Deep Well” by Gerald Sittser where he walks through much of the history of the church. In the first chapter he tells the story I wrote above as well as others and he couches it with a statement that I believe many of us could benefit from emulating. He writes, “Their story does not make me want to die a martyr’s death; it is too gruesome and horrible for that. But it does make me want to live a martyr’s life, for they had the courage to give their lives completely to Jesus Christ.” Reading that statement caused me to pause and pray for that kind of courage. Far too often, far too many of us live comfortable Christian lives.
Looking back on those Christians who lived during that heavy persecution in the Roman Empire, and even looking at many Christians around the world today, we can learn much about what it means to live a martyr’s life. Reading about these early Christians, we see that their courage boils down to one simple fact: They were citizens of Heaven before they were citizens of Rome, causing them to live courageously in several ways.
- They opted out of common forms of entertainment. In that culture, there were two main forms of entertainment, the “games” and the theatre. The “games” would be gladiator battles and other blood filled activities in the Coliseum and the theatre was often filled with sexual promiscuity. Human life is precious and valuable, and so the Christians of this time understood that anything that devalues human life is not to be a source of entertainment. It seems that Christians in the West during the 21st century could use a higher level of discernment when it comes to what we enjoy as entertainment. The question we ought to ask ourselves: does what we are watching and listening to grow our affections for Jesus and glorify God?
- They had an understanding of their true citizenship. In that time, being a Roman citizen was an incredible source of pride and would be the most important part of a person’s identity. The Christians, however, did not hold it in that high of a regard. Instead, they were good citizens of Rome who did civic duties but their ultimate focus was on the Kingdom of God. In fact, Christians, because their undying love for Jesus far exceeded their love of their country, were sometimes accused of being, “anti-Roman.” It is one thing to patriotically do our civic duty, but it is a problem if our national pride exceeds, or is equal to, our devotion to Jesus.
- They dedicated their lives and worshipped only one God. In those times, there was a panoply of gods and people worshipped multiple gods. The Roman culture believed that religion was obscure and there were many “right” paths. Christians stood firm in their belief that their God was the only true God and only they had the actual Truth. This looks a little different in our day because people typically are not polytheistic (believing in many gods), but the pervasive teaching in our culture is that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, and Christians claim they do. People also dedicate their lives, time, and money to many pursuits, and followers of Christ stand in opposition to that as their lives, time, and money are used to glorify God before and above all else.
- They cared for those who were hurting. In that culture, widows, orphans, and even sometimes children were considered of no value and could be left for dead. The church took the opposite tactic and welcomed them, cared for them, and served them in incredible ways. There are plenty of people who are hurting in our time that we ought to serve and care for. May we answer the call and serve those who are hurting and point them to Jesus while we pray for them constantly.
- They cared for the sick. In those days there were some crazy plagues. 2 in particular were in the years 165 and 250, where it is estimated that 1/4 of the population died. The Christians responded vastly differently than the rest of the culture. They preached Truth in the midst of these severe trials. Not only did they offer theological explanations, but they actually cared for and served the sick. They believed that because God loved them when they did not deserve it that they were to love and serve others. In our day there are many who are sick and many who are isolated. We can respond so differently than the world by visiting and praying with and for those who have been afflicted with whatever sickness.
Imitating their example is not an easy task, this is why living a martyr’s life takes courage. It takes tremendous courage to make your walk with Jesus the number one focus of your life. Even though we do not necessarily face the threat of death, living a martyr’s life is possible for all of us. In order to do this, I think the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quite helpful. He makes a distinction between two ideas: cheap grace versus costly grace. The basic idea is that when we remain in our comfortable lives and do not put our faith into action, we cheapen what Jesus did for us. Costly grace takes the grace that has been given to us freely and understands that it costs a great deal. Costly grace understands that you have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20) which in turn causes you to live differently than your neighbors, coworkers, and even family members. Jesus invites us to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24) when we follow Him, which is a call for us to put to death the things our sinful flesh wants so we can follow Jesus in complete joy, peace, and love. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Every call of Jesus is a call to death.”
While many of us reading this will never die a martyr’s death, we are all called to live a martyr’s courageous life. Will we respond to this incredible call?