The Early Church had no fear of death, they were zealous for it, not by some irrational emotion, but by a love for the truth. The Apostle Paul stated, “prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 AMP) and “we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23) He further revealed this inward groaning when he wrote “For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:4) The Earliest Christians fully understood that this life was a burden. They no longer wished to be bound by the chains of this mere life that is but a vapor (James 4:14), but they vehemently despised the things of the world.
There is a deep passion in the heart of a believer who desires to be found a worthy partaker of the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). The Early Church did not believe Jesus ‘did it all on the cross’ and therefore any work on our part is just dead works. The Apostle Paul clearly reveals that is not the case, otherwise you would have to say that he was in error when saying “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ,” (Colossians 1:24). Christ requires all of us to be partakers in His sufferings if we are to be followers of Him “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:38) In order to be considered a follower of Christ we are required to pick up our cross. This may seem like a tall order, however as it is written “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). The course of death is a way of life that the Early Christians understood better than we know today and thus were inspired by the examples they witnessed before them. They recognized that true freedom was being separated from this earthly life, and joining with the eternal. It was more than physically dying; it was about putting to death the lust of the flesh – that was the freedom they craved. Irenaeus describes this desire below:
“The body indeed is dead, because of sin; but the Spirit is life, because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies, because of His Spirit dwelling in you.” (Rom 8:10, etc.) And again he says, in the Epistle to the Romans, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.” (Rom 8:13) [Now by these words] he does not prohibit them from living their lives in the flesh, for he was himself in the flesh when he wrote to them; but he cuts away the lusts of the flesh, those which bring death upon a man. And for this reason he says in continuation, “But if ye through the Spirit do mortify the works of the flesh, ye shall live. For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” (1)
Irenaeus expounded the meaning of the type of death that sets us free from the bondage of this world (this life); no longer being a slave to sin but being free in life of the Spirit. This is the way of life that modern Christianity has lost. The church has lost the art of putting to death the old man along with it’s deeds (Colossians 3:9). How many ministers do we hear today giving an exhortation to martyrdom and putting to death sin? Not only exhorting us to do so but showing us how to walk this out? The Early Church was proficient at being a living sacrifice.
Putting to death their old man, prepared them to be martyrs; they were already martyrs before they died. This is the pattern. Jesus told His disciples to pick up their cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24), in other words, Jesus was already bearing His cross before his crucifixion at Golgotha. Jesus’ nature cannot be seen through us unless we do as described by the Apostle Paul, “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:10) Hence the zeal for the Early Christians to further die to themselves, so that Jesus may manifest through them.
While most believers today are fearful of an oncoming persecution and pray that they ‘get raptured’ before they face any form of suffering, the Early Church were enthusiastic to endure suffering; just as our Lord suffered and the apostles. Paul rejoiced in his sufferings (Colossians 1:24), and this sentiment was infectious among early Christians, which is evident with the writings of Ignatius, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, “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.” (2) By putting to death the things of this world, their hopes were set on the coming glory that the apostles were revealing to them; this was the essence of the burning passion to be partakers of the sufferings of Christ. They were not afraid of a natural death, for they had already died to the lust of the world and had no attachments that would hold them back. Thus, when facing the lion pits, torture, crucifixions, they were not cowards praying to be raptured away, instead they worshiped the Almighty God.
Persecutions and tribulations train us to become Christ-like. Suffering was not viewed as torture to avoid, but an opportunity to gain Christ and His likeness. Ignatius gives us insight into how persecution is viewed and gives a luminous example.
“From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]” (3)
Even when showing love to his enemies, they became increasingly aggressive in their treatment of Ignatius, however this did not discourage him from his faith. He did not question God as to why He was allowing this to happen, he fully understood and was grateful for the opportunity. How do you not love the heart of a martyr, a worshipper of the King of kings, a lover of truth. How can one read their writings and not be in awe of their lives, their wisdom, their passion? One of the major keys to being a fearless martyr and rejoicing in the face of adversity is to be free from the bondage of this world. This next passage is one of the most beautiful inscriptions to have ever been written. Ignatius writes of his deep passion to attain Christ:
“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, tearing’s, 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.” (4)
I have difficulty reading this passage with dry eyes. The Early Church makes suffering sound romantic. This is the heart of a true Christian who desires to be like our Savior, who is in love with the Word and desires nothing more than to attain Jesus Christ. One who is willing to face Satan himself, to become like our Savior. Having this love does not come by hearing about bible stories, this comes by the mystery of Christ Jesus being revealed. To die is truly to live. Amen.
1. Irenaeus-Against Heresies Book 5 Ch. X
2. Ignatius-Epistle to the Romans Ch. IV
3. Ignatius- Epistle to the Romans Ch. V
4. Ignatius- Epistle to the Romans Ch. V
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010, unless stated otherwise.