Thinking About Their Death and Our Life
Before I took a hiatus on blogging I was talking about the early church and the lessons we can learn from them. I was thinking through how the early church launched and how it survived and concluded that one of the main reasons was its simplicity. But now I'm thinking there's one more factor we should consider. Martyrdom.
The earliest martyrs didn't want to die. They were regular people like us. They didn't seek out martyrdom, but, when it found them, they didn't shrink away from it.
One of the first to lose his life for the sake of his faith in Jesus was Ignatius. He was from Antioch (where believers were first called Christians). He had been a close friend of the Apostle John, and he believed in the "Catholic" church. By that he meant that The Church isn't an umbrella organization consisting of lots of individual churches scattered across the world; rather, The Church is one Church meeting in different places.
He was sentenced to death during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Ten soldiers arrested him and escorted him from one city to the next on his way to Rome. During that trip he wrote seven letters. Six of them were written to Christians in various cities (Ephesus, Magnesia, Philadelphia, Rome, Smyrna and Tralles). His final letter was written to his friend Polycarp.
In his letters, he thanked people for being so kind to him, and he encouraged them to remain faithful no matter how bad the persecution may become. He urged Polycarp to "stand firm like an anvil under the hammer." He wrote:
I would rather die for Christ than rule the whole earth. Leave me to the beasts that I may by them be a partaker of God...welcome nails and cross, welcome broken bones, bruised body, welcome all diabolical torture, if I may but obtain the Lord Jesus Christ.
He knew he would die, and he begged his friends not to do anything to delay it. He endured a torture that is difficult to imagine. He was beaten, and when I say "beaten" I mean in an unimaginably brutal sort of way. Then they poured fiery coals into his hands. Then they took sheets of paper, dipped them in oil, stuck them to his body and lit them on fire. Then they tore the flesh off his body with pliers. And then they allowed wild beasts to kill and eat him. He was 72 years old at the time.
I don't know that I could endure that -- especially if I knew that all I had to do was recant my faith. If I knew there was a way to avoid the horrible torture they put Ignatius through...I am not proud of it...but I'm honest enough to say I don't really know what I would do. I know what I hope I would do, but I also know that I often disappoint myself.
Ignatius endured, though. And, because he did, his letters to other Christians -- especially his letter to Polycarp -- had more weight. They read his words, and they saw the way he died. And it meant something to them about how they could live.
I wonder: Does Ignatius still matter? To us? Does his death impact the way we live?