At the end of last year, I read a book called “Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction,” by Bryan M. Litfin. It was a wonderful introduction to the lives, beliefs and struggles of early Christians who had a hugely significant impact on the development of the church. Aside from learning a lot, there was one story that absolutely shook me. I literally thought about it for weeks. Each time it came to mind, there was a little earthquake in my soul.
I find this story incredibly convicting, and I want to share it with you today as we approach Easter.
The year was 203 AD. It was a time that Christians were severely persecuted by the Romans and a countless number were killed for their beliefs. Perpetua and her handmaiden, Felicity, were two of these early martyrs.
Perpetua was a young woman with a nursing infant. When she was accused of being a Christian, authorities threw her into a filthy, dark prison, and took away her baby. Some of Perpetua’s writings have been preserved, and she noted during that time that she was “extremely distressed” with anxiety for her infant. Some Christian deacons bribed the guards to move her to a better part of the prison, where she finally nursed her son. He had grown faint with hunger.
When Perpetua appeared before the local governor for her trial, her father pulled her aside, holding out her son, and cried, “Have pity on your baby!” The governor added, “Spare the infancy of your boy, and offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.” The governor then asked Perpetua the final question for conviction:
“Are you a Christian?”
Perpetua resolutely replied, “Yes. I am a Christian.”
It was official: she would be devoured by wild beasts for her beliefs. She was removed to await her penalty and that was the last time she ever saw her baby.
As she and fellow Christians marched toward the arena, Perpetua sang psalms. The first two Christians killed that day were attacked by a leopard, then bound in the stocks to be accosted by a bear. Next up, Perpetua and Felicity were stripped and led to the arena floor.
The Romans were ashamed when they saw the women’s naked bodies, for they could see how young they were, and Felicity’s breasts were still dripping with milk from her recent childbirth. The onlookers demanded they be clothed in tunics to ease their consciences.
They were clothed and returned to the arena. A wild heifer knocked Perpetua over and immediately mauled her. She could barely stand. In the midst of her suffering, she exhorted her fellow martyrs to stand firm. One by one, these Christians were torn into pieces that day. Perpetua was the last to die. She was killed by the sword – having guided the trembling hand of the young gladiator to her own throat.
I knew there used to be a lot of persecution and that people died for their beliefs, but reading the intimate details about the deaths of these two young women in a motherly stage of life similar to my own gripped my soul. I don’t know about you, but the word “martyr” subconsciously evokes an image of someone who was incredibly different from me: someone who lived a looooong time ago, had a halo like in one of those strange medieval paintings, and was carried along by some kind of superhuman faith that made them impervious to the threat of pain.
Then I read about Perpetua’s anxious separation from her baby; her father’s passionate plea to hide her beliefs; the crowd’s emotional reaction to seeing the naked bodies of two young women; and the very raw, human detail that Felicity’s breasts were still dripping with milk.
These were real people, just like you and me. They just lived at a time when they didn’t get to have the comfortable faith we have today.
I think faith is “tough” because I have trouble understanding things like God’s will and Canaanite genocide. Tough? That’s not tough. Having a Bible to study, the time to think about these things, and living in a country with the freedom to do so makes those questions a comfortable luxury.
Why would two young women without that luxury choose to give up everything and face a brutal death for their beliefs?
Because they believed whole-heartedly in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It all came down to Easter. If Jesus wasn’t who he said he was, and wasn’t raised from the dead, there would have been no need for them to die for their faith. All the other “issues” we Christians can get lost in are the fine print of Christianity. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, nothing else matters and our faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
This Easter, I pray we can all experience even a small portion of the spiritual conviction these young martyrs had, finding their life’s meaning in nothing other than the power of a risen Savior.