Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”, Act 2 scene 2
Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs watered the seed of the early church.” The persecution of the early church, instead of stopping the growth of the church, fanned the flame of evangelism and growth.
I was reading yesterday about how the most fierce persecution of “Christians” came under the reign of Mary Queen of Scotts. Foxes “Book of Martyrs” was published after her reign and about three-quarters of the book covers the period of Mary. This term “Bloody Mary” comes from her reign of terror.
Much of the persecution in the early was localized to various sections of Rome. Although many view the persecution as generalized across the whole of the Roman Empire, that’s not the case. At times Christians were free to practice their religion as they wished. It all depended on the emperor at the time. One of the most cruel emperors was Marcus Aurelius. This is interesting because he was a poet and a philosopher. I remember reading his Meditations when I was a teenager and being very impressed with his beautiful words. I didn’t realize at the time that he had given the order to murder thousands of disciples. (If you have seen the movie “Gladiator,” Aurelius is the emperor at the beginning of the movie who dies.)
However, neither Aurelius nor any emperor after him was able to stop Christianity. I believe this is because Christians had the example of Jesus before them. Jesus died and rose. Early Christians understood that if they died for the cause of Christ, then he would bring them back to life.
I often think of how I would have fared in the days of persecution. I remember walking through the Coliseum in Rome. It’s debated, but most believe that this was one of the places in Rome where our brothers and sisters were fed to the lions. I asked myself as I was standing in the Coliseum, “What would you have done if you had been captured?” I don’t know for sure. I think a good test is this: How much am I willing to die to self each and every day for Jesus? If I’m not willing to die to self today, it’s unlikely that I would have been willing to face death by the cross or mutilation by the lions.
I believe church history should not only inform us about the past, but it should educate and inspire us for today. So, as we live out this day, let’s remember our brothers and sisters from the early church who were willing to die for the cause. Let’s allow their conviction and commitment to inspire us to RISE UP and live for God today and everyday.