Christ’s crucifixion has long been restrained within the Body of Christ. Most who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection understand that He paid the ultimate price for mankind (which is true), however, the passion of the cross was an illustration of a significant commission about the life we as Christians should live. To live, emulating the passion of Christ was an understanding the Early Church carried with utmost reverence. To touch this subject there is hesitancy (not for lack of desire, rather a serious admiration), but it is an integral topic to be explored by believers; to know what it truly means to have the passion of Christ within us, His fellow heirs (Romans 8:17).
Men, women, and children of the earliest Church, unwilling to deny Christ’s name, died for the faith, enduring the passion of martyrdom. They did not believe in the heresies found circulating amongst Christian sects today, such as ‘once saved, always saved’, or ‘Jesus paid it all at the cross, so I am free to live my life as I please’. Rather, the Early Church understood that there is a price to pay for our salvation, and that price is full surrender.
Exhorting His Apostles, Jesus said,
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). [emphasis added]
Notice Jesus does not claim that merely believing in Him or saying a ‘sinner’s prayer’ is the requirement to follow Him, rather it is to follow in His footsteps- taking up our cross too. The Apostle Paul understood this, hence he stated to the Church in Corinth, “I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:31). If Jesus paid it all at the cross, why was Paul striving to die after Christ’s resurrection? Clearly this death Paul endured daily was not physical, rather he was dying to himself, to all his carnal desires. The word ‘deny’ (as mentioned in Matthew 16:24) in Greek is aparneomai, and means to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests (1). To follow Christ requires a selflessness that goes beyond simply professing to be a Christian; it is a lifestyle walking in the same pattern Christ laid before us.
The successors of the 12 Apostles, the Ante Nicene Fathers, esteemed their predecessors for their unwavering commitment to the faith. St. Clement, a first-century Church Father and representative of the Apostle Paul, wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians concerning the martyrdom of Peter and Paul:
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. (2) To these men who spent their lives in the practice of holiness, there is to be added a great multitude of the elect, who, having through envy endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example. (3)
St. Clement exhibits the attitude the earliest Church held towards those martyred for their faith; utmost respect for the noble examples they were. He emphasizes that Peter and Paul spent their lives practicing holiness, a command God gives us in His Law (Torah): “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 20:7, 20:26, cf. 1 Peter 1:16; 1 Thessalonians 4:7). Peter and Paul didn’t just believe in Christ, they pursued to live a life of holiness just as He did, ultimately paying the price of martyrdom, as He did.
Ignatius of Antioch, a second-century Church Father and disciple of the Apostle John, so desperately desired to be with the Lord, that he entreated the Church in Rome not to deny him of his expected martyrdom.
I write to all the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable goodwill towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God. … But when I suffer, I shall be the freedman of Jesus Christ, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being in bonds for Him, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain. (4) Now I begin to be a disciple, and have no desire after anything visible or invisible, that I may attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let breakings, tearings, and separations of bones; let cutting off of members; let bruising to pieces of the whole body; and let the very torment of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ. (5)
Ignatius anticipated martyrdom, knowing that for the sake of his belief in Jesus Christ he would be thrown before wild beasts. His passion to be absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8) far outweighed any fear of losing his physical life. Ignatius had learned that the desires of this world were vanity; meaningless compared to the true life he would gain after attaining to Christ.
All the ends of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die for the sake of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. “For what is a man profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) I long after the Lord, the Son of the true God and Father, even Jesus Christ. Him I seek, who died for us and rose again. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me in attaining to life; for Jesus is the life of believers. Do not wish to keep me in a state of death, for life without Christ is death. While I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of Christ, my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened. (6) The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be ye on my side, that is, on the side of God. Do not speak of Jesus Christ, and yet prefer this world to Him. (7)
Ignatius understood the importance of his soul being saved and pursuing the passion of Christ to do so. He had a revelation of Jesus’ commission to his disciples (Matthew 16:24-25), clearly understanding that to follow Christ required a sacrifice of self-denial, and in his circumstance (as well as many others), this meant ultimately dying for his faith. We must pay close attention to Ignatius’ final remark- warning Christians not to speak of Christ yet prefer this world to Him (7). We see here the likeness to his spiritual father, the Apostle John, who wrote in the same vein:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world- the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life- is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-16).
John articulates that to hold on to the lust of the flesh, the desires of this world, would mean to forsake eternal life. On the contrary, those who do the will of God, and are dying to their own desires, abide forever with Him. In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15), and later, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (John 14:21). If we are not sold out for God’s Word, being obedient to His will and surrendering our own, how can we say we love Him?
Clement of Alexandria, a second-third century Church Father and well-renowned teacher at the catechetical school of Alexandria, Stated,
If the confession to God is martyrdom, each soul which has lived purely in the knowledge of God, which has obeyed the commandments, is a witness both by life and word, in whatever way it may be released from the body, – shedding faith as blood along its whole life till its departure. (8)
Clement articulates something so profound, that living a life purely in the knowledge of God, and obeying His Word, is thus a life confessing martyrdom. Why is this so? Because a life sold out for God, requires a death to self; obedience requires sacrifice. This is why Paul could say “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20); through Paul’s obedience to God, he had died to himself, and thus Christ was resurrected within him. Clement also writes, “We call martyrdom perfection, not because the man comes to the end of his life as others, but because he has exhibited the perfect work of love.” (8). The perfect work of love is made clear by Jesus Himself, who spoke in the Gospel of John: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” (John 15:12-14) [emphasis added]. A life of surrender, death to self, is a life that exhibits the perfect work of love, just as Christ did.
Does fulfilling the passion of Christ, partaking in his death and resurrection, mean we must endure a physical death as many of our forefathers did? For some, yes. Even today, around the world we have seen Christians persecuted for their faith, leading to brutal deaths. However, the death process we go through daily (that must not be forsaken), is dying to our own desires; letting go of ourselves and laying our lives down for others. For “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25). The Early Church’s groaning to imitate the passion of Christ through martyrdom is inspiring in the very least. It is difficult to put into words how one’s heart is deeply moved by reading of such fervor. I pray this inspires us to pick up our cross, dying daily, not merely as hearers of the Word, but doers (James 1:22). “For the Lord’s passion is the sacrifice which we offer, we ought to do nothing else than what He did.” (9).
To God be the glory, forever and ever.
- Thayer’s Greek Definitions: ‘Deny’ (G533)
- St. Clement, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Ch. V [emphasis added]
- St. Clement, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Ch. VI [emphasis added]
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, Ch. IV [emphasis added]
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, Ch. V [emphasis added]
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, Ch. VI [emphasis added]
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, Ch. VII [emphasis added]
- Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Bk. IV. Chap. IV [emphasis added]
- Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle LXII
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.