What Today’s Jesus Followers Should Learn from the Early Martyrs

Did you know early believers were persecuted for being atheists?

They were.

Since the early Christians refused to believe or acknowledge the Roman gods, the primary charge against them was one of atheism, and in Roman culture that was a serious matter.

You see, the Romans were a very pious people who (unlike the Greeks) really believed in their gods. They believed one had to sacrifice to and worship them in order to avoid disaster, and if disaster came it was because the gods were not pleased.

The early Christians, by their refusal to bow knee to the false gods and goddesses of Rome, put themselves in position to be easy scapegoats anytime some sort of disaster struck. The Romans believed their refusal to worship put the entire community in danger, and this is why persecutions against the early Christians often followed a Roman loss in battle or a natural disaster like an earthquake. The gods were displeased, and it was the Christians’ fault – they had to be punished!

What’s more, there was a general hatred of Christians that went beyond the charge of atheism. It was popularly rumored that Christians were involved in black magic and cannibalism since they claimed to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a man who died on a Roman cross. They also were thought to have been incestuous, since they commonly referred to one another as brother and sister even though some using those terms were husband and wife.

While there are only a couple of major, Empire-wide persecutions recorded in early church history, regional persecutions based upon the whims of officials at the local level were common. I will not give a detailed account here, but the punishment wrought on Christians of every age and gender was so cruel and heartless it’s beyond comprehension.

Equally surreal is the fact that all that cruelty could have easily been avoided by believers had they agreed to make a quick sacrifice to a Roman god or the Emperor (who was worshiped as a god all over the Empire by the Imperial Cult). Sacrifices were often as simple as putting a pinch of incense in a fire and repeating some sort of phrase (like “The Emperor is Lord”). Clemency was readily available and happily given to those who agreed to sacrifice. The Roman leaders mostly just wanted to keep the peace, and demanding strict adherence to the State religion did so by keeping the people unified.

But those who were to become martyrs refused to go with the crowd. They simply would not bow knee to any religion separate from following Jesus – they wouldn’t even do so insincerely in order to save their own lives.

The early martyrs refused to coalesce into Roman culture because the Roman gods were not their own and Roman values meant little to them. They believed to call anyone Lord other than Jesus was an affront to His Lordship, and they were willing to die horrific deaths as a witness to Christ’s divine rule and the depth of their commitment to Him.

The martyrs’ understanding of themselves and their reality played a huge role in keeping them motivated. They believed the earthly powers oppressing them were merely tools in the hands of Satan, and he was ultimately their enemy – not the Romans. The common Christians of the day believed the martyrs to be warriors in the battle against evil itself, and believed their willingness to die horrible deaths for their King was a direct offense against the darkness.

Believe it or not, many early Christians actually aspired to become martyrs, and that only happened one way – through death. As a result, every martyr was baptized twice – once in water, and once more in blood – and both of their baptisms served as testimonies of their faith.

The early martyrs did not concede, they did not apologize, they did not negotiate, and even their oppressors came to know the name of Jesus (many would decide to follow Him after witnessing their faith).

Lessons for Christians in contemporary culture?

While it is true that physical persecution is as rampant as ever in various parts of the world today, contemporary Christians are not being martyred in the United States. Additionally, ancient Roman culture is different from contemporary American culture in many striking ways:

  • In Roman culture, Caesar was lord; in our culture, the individual is lord.
  • In Roman culture, the State told you what you had to believe; in our culture, the State tells you to believe whatever you want.
  • In Roman culture, religious freedom was a liability; in our culture, religious freedom is a right.
  • In Roman culture, Christians were marginalized and oppressed; in our culture, Christians are empowered and accepted.
  • In Roman culture, being a Christian could get you killed; in our culture, being a Christian could get you elected.
  • In Roman culture, real Christians were those who would die willingly for their faith; in our culture, “real” Christians are those who spend an hour or two a week attending a church service.

Quite the contrast, and, given these differences, is there a lesson Christians living in the United States today should learn from the early martyrs?

I believe there is – allow me to elaborate.

The early Christians believed they were in a spiritual war with Satan as their ultimate enemy. While the Roman government, its emperors, governors, prefects, and soldiers were the ones carrying out the oppression, Satan was the one pulling the strings, and he was the real enemy.

My question for the Church today is this: do we believe Satan is as active now as the martyrs believed he was in earlier centuries, and, if so, what tools is he using to attack us today?

I would like to suggest that Satan is just as active today as he ever was among the martyrs, only his strategy and weapons have changed.

While Satan attacked the early Christians with persecutions, he attacks contemporary Christians with pillows, and I do not mean he swings them at us like a teenage girl at slumber party.

What I mean is that things are so comfortable today for most Christians that it’s all too easy for believers to become complacent and adopt the prevailing “I’m okay, you’re okay, what you or I believe does not ultimately matter” attitude of the culture we find ourselves in.

In short, Satan wants us to go to sleep and remain asleep so we won’t cause him any trouble.

The persecution in early church history was awful. The Christians paid a horrible price for living in that era, and, while I enjoy the freedom we revel in today (that the martyrs would likely be envious of), I also recognize it as a double-edged sword. With freedom comes individualism and pluralism – concepts, attitudes, and ways of thinking that have some positives, but can also easily lead a person into becoming self-centered, self-absorbed, and complacent thereby removing Jesus from their heart’s throne.

Today, Satan’s primary weapon of attack is not the government. The government is not forcing us to submit to Caesar as a god or to openly worship idols at pagan temples. Satan’s attack is much more subtle than that, but his ultimate goal is still the same: he wants Jesus removed from the throne of our hearts and replaced with something less.

In the first century Satan attempted to force Christians into putting Caesar on that throne – in contemporary society he attempts to trick us into putting ourselves on it.

In the midst of our comfort we are our own worst enemies, and if it’s true that Satan rules the powers and authorities of this world and the church in the United States isn’t being persecuted, it may not be because we’re safe – it may be because we’re asleep.

What can the contemporary Church learn from the early martyr tradition?

The same enemy the early Christians faced is the same enemy we face today and he’s just as active as ever. While his weapons may look different and his strategy has been adjusted, his ultimate goal is the same – to destroy the Church by deceiving believers into becoming idolaters.

The early Christians rejected idolatry by standing up and proclaiming Jesus as Lord in thought, word, and deed without fear of the prevailing culture. Our mandate today is the same.

The Church must reject idolatry, rise from the pillow, and boldly be the body of Christ – the crucified and risen King.

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4 thoughts on “What Today’s Jesus Followers Should Learn from the Early Martyrs

  1. K. Rex Butts says:

    Great post!!! The one thing I would suggest is that while Satan does not use the government to attack Christians in the way he does where Christians are physically persecuted by the government, Satan still uses the American (and other nations) government as a tool against us. What I mean is that long before American even gained her independence from England, the leaders that shaped the ethos of what became America did so from the framework of a story that is counter to the biblical/gospel story. That American story borrowed enough religious concepts from Christianity to give it the appearance of being Christian but when the onion is peeled back layer by layer, it is revealed as a different story. The proof is in the pudding or the fruit it produces, for the story has legitimized a wide array of unjust and unethical practices. Added to that, and even more problematic, is the fact that the American story cannot conceive that their is another King to whom all people, powers, and authorities must submit.

    Any ways, I don’t know if we will ever face persecution as Christians or not. But one thing I am convinced of is that we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, will never have the courage to be a martyr for Christ if we do not have the conviction of a martyr now.

    Grace and Peace,


  2. Jenny says:

    Whenever I’m reminded of these issues, it makes me realize that, from the Roman perspective, persecuting Christians made sense because, from the Roman perspective, Christians were terrible people. I think that important point was missing from my education as a child learning about the ancient martyrs. No wonder Paul speaks so often of Christians needing to mind what the surrounding communities thought of them.

    This doesn’t relate to the Romans dealings with Christians, but it’s important to note that they were so pious that they also were horrified by adultery and Greek homosexuality. That’s often ignored by Christians who like to generalize from the lives of many of the Caesars (who are clearly depicted as evil by their own people).

    For the record, I’m glad my fiancé, who’s a preacher, stubbornly refuses to refer to me as “Sister Jennifer.” Even though that sort of wording is used throughout the Song of Songs, it’s way out of my element.

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