The persecution that the Early Church (pre 325AD) endured and the martyrdom of many is sobering, to say the least. The mentality of the early church towards persecution for the faith, was a passionate desire to joyfully endure whatever torture their persecutors sought fit; despite knowing they were not only innocent of any crime, but they were also innocent of any malice towards their own persecutors. Sincerely reflecting Christ, their lives had truly become not their own (ref 1 Corinthians 6:19). The church was actually growing, despite the intense persecution and threat of martyrdom. It is hard to imagine being truly persecuted for the faith, especially to the point of martyrdom, but Jesus said throughout His time on this earth that we, as His disciples, would experience persecution for the Word’s sake (Mark 4:17) and those who lose their life for His sake will find it (ref Luke 9:24). If we call ourselves Christians, we shouldn’t be surprised when we experience persecution. We should embrace persecution and in fact desire it, because of the perfection of our faith that it brings.
Jesus warned His disciples to expect persecution, because He was persecuted. He said,
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 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.”( John 15:18-20)
Jesus also said to His disciples:
“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24) And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12).
In the Psalms we read “Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His saints.”(Psalms 116:15). Apostle Paul, writing to the church exhorts them for following His godly example and reminds them that they will be persecuted for being disciples: “But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:10-12)
Saint Clement, a first-century Bishop of the Early Church writes the following:
But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience. (1)
Saint Clement explains how the Apostles Paul and Peter, through enduring persecution righteously and patiently, were then worthy for the glory of God and we should use them as our example.
Cyprian, a third-century Early Church Father writes:
Moreover, if the Christian know and keep fast under what condition and what law he has believed, he will be aware that he must suffer more than others in the world, since he must struggle more with the attacks of the devil. Holy Scripture teaches and forewarns, saying, “My son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in righteousness and fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation.” (Sirach 2:1, 4) And again: “In pain endure, and in thy humility have patience; for gold and silver is tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.” (Sirach 2:5) (2)
Here Cyprian states that the Christian should know and understand that persecution is in the nature of our walk on the straight and narrow path, and through patient endurance in persecution, we are tried and proven acceptable to Christ.
Earlier I mentioned the Church grew because of persecution. In his History of the Christian Church (1958-1890), Schaff writes:
The history of persecution by hostile powers; as by Judaism and Heathenism in the first three centuries, and by Mohammedanism in the middle age. This apparent repression of the church proves a purifying process, brings out the moral heroism of martyrdom, and thus works in the end for the spread and establishment of Christianity. (3)
Tertullian, a second-century Early Church Father confirms that the growth of the church was due to persecution:
The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. (4)
Tertullian states here that martyrdom is actually the foundation of the church. We can understand this because Jesus sacrificed His life for all of us by going to the cross and said if anyone else wishes to follow Him, he must take up his cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Paul followed in the footsteps of Christ when he announced “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31). Paul was reinforcing that Christ’s followers are also required to sacrifice our life (martyrdom) for the life of others, thus creating the foundation of the church.
Lactantius, a third-century Early Church Father explains in more detail why persecution caused the church to grow:
Lest they should be as much corrupted by ease as their forefathers had been by indulgence, it was His will that they should be oppressed by those in whose power He placed them. . . . There is another reason why He permits persecutions to be carried on against us: so that the people of God may be increased. And it is not difficult to show how or why this happens. First of all, great numbers are driven from the worship of the false gods by their hatred of cruelty. . . . [Second,] someone will invariably desire to know what that good thing is that is defended even to death. What is it that is preferred to all things that are pleasant and beloved in this life? For neither the loss of goods or the deprivation of light, nor bodily pain, nor tortures of their vital organs can deter Christians from it. These things have a great effect! And these causes have always especially increased the number of our followers. (5)
Firstly, Lactantius explains that it was God’s will that the church should be persecuted, so that they didn’t fall into corruption and a lax attitude like their ancestors, because of an ease of life. He also explains that many people were attracted to Christianity because they hated the cruelty they saw the martyrs undergo by their persecutors. The passion in which the martyrs gave their lives was so attractive and inspiring, because if something was worth giving their lives for in such a torturous way, it must be worth investigating.
Cyprian confirms Lactantius’ writing above regarding the reason God allows Christians to be persecuted:
The Lord has desired his family to be tested. Because a long peace had corrupted the discipline that had been divinely delivered to us, the heavenly rebuke has aroused our faith. For our faith was slipping and (I might say) slumbering. Although we deserved more for our sins, yet the most merciful Lord has so moderated all things that all that has happened has seemed more like a trial than a persecution. (6)
Cyprian explains, similarly to what Lactantius stated above, that God saw the discipline of the Christians had grown lax, (this is the ‘peace’ he mentions), so God allowed the persecutions and trials to take place, to cause the Christians to strive for a more holy and righteous walk.
The persecution we as Christians are to endure isn’t just a physical one that leads to death. In fact, the most important persecution that we all must endure is referring to a much deeper, spiritual concept, the persecutions in our soul. All the desires and temptations of this world, and vices of the flesh are what persecute our soul and ultimately bring a distance between us and God. Spiritual martyrdom is speaking of giving up our desires, our will and our passions, overcoming our vices to become one with Christ. That’s the true death to self, the death of our carnal nature.
Clement of Alexandria confirms this:
There is a persecution which arises from without, from men assailing the faithful,
. . . But the most painful is internal persecution, which proceeds from each man’s own soul being vexed by impious lusts, and diverse pleasures, and base hopes, and destructive dreams. . . More grievous and painful is this persecution, which arises from within, which is ever with a man, and which the persecuted cannot escape; for he carries the enemy about everywhere in himself. . . With such persecution . . . procure peace for yourself, free yourself from protracted persecutions; turn from them to the Gospel; choose before all the Saviour and Advocate and Paraclete of your soul, the Prince of life. “For the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (7)
Here Clement states that the most painful persecution is the lust of our flesh troubling our soul, and the only way for us to overcome that persecution is to turn fully to the Lord and allow the Lord to take the place of all desires that are contrary to Him. In another place Clement also writes:
“Blessed, then, are the peacemakers,” (Mat 5:9 S.) who have subdued and tamed the law which wars against the disposition of the mind, the menaces of anger, and the baits of lust, and the other passions which war against the reason; who, having lived in the knowledge both of good works and true reason, shall be reinstated in adoption, which is dearer. . . They also are peacemakers, who teach those who war against the stratagems of sin to have recourse to faith and peace.” (8)
Clement likens the persecution of the saints to the war in our carnal mind, which Paul states is at enmity (war) with God (Romans 8:7). The carnal mind is the sin in us persecuting our soul. Clement also states here that the peacemakers are they that overcome the vices of this flesh and who teach others to overcome the flesh also.
Arnobius, a third-century Early Church Father, writes this beautiful exhortation to persecution and martyrdom, and its benefits:
The bitterness of persecution of which you speak is our deliverance and not our oppression. Your ill treatment will not bring evil upon us. Rather, it will lead us to the light of liberty. (9)
He goes on to write:
Your flames, banishments, tortures, and monsters with which you tear in pieces and rend asunder our bodies do not rob us of life. They only free us from our flesh. (10)
If you are being persecuted, be encouraged. In our Christian walk we are to expect persecution, not be afraid of it or run from it, but desire it. The Early Church was all of the same mind that persecution is what strengthens our inner spirit-man and leads us through patient endurance to eternal life with Christ. Persecution is for the growth of our faith, our proving, and ultimately our salvation. Jesus spoke to His disciples this beautiful word of exhortation: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). Through following the example of Christ, taking up our own cross and enduring persecution, we too can overcome the vices that persecute our soul and come into the glory.
- St Clement- The first Epistle to the Corinthians
- Cyprian- Treaties VII on the mortality
- History of the Christian Church, Vol 1, Philip Schaff
- Tertullian- Apology
- Lactantius- Divine Institutes, Ch XXIII
- Cyprian- The Treatises of Cyprian, Treatise III
- Clement of Alexandria- Rich Man, Ch XXV
- Clement of Alexandria- Stromata, Book IV
- Arnobius, Against Heathens- Book II
- Arnobius- Against Heathens, Book II
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.