Kenneth. A. Krause
The Birth of the Intimate Theology of Suffering
An intimate theology of suffering was strong and common among the believers who were persecuted and martyred in the days of the early church. This intimate theology of suffering did not have its origin in sanitized, safe seminaries, but first in genuine love and affection for the one for whom they suffered.
These early Christians were not surprised to find that they would suffer for being Christians; many in fact were drawn to Christianity through the suffering of those who preceded them in the arena. Their acceptance into the Christian faith was a simultaneous denial of their own lives and hopes for comfort and ambiguity. They no longer lived, but Christ lived in them and the life they then lived, they lived by faith in the Son of God. They chose, much as Moses did, ‘to suffer affliction with the people of God’ rather ‘than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for they had respect unto the recompense of the reward’.
This paper will explore various components of the theology of suffering the early church held to dearly, and show that their conviction of the truth of this doctrine was the sustaining force for them to successfully suffer.
The Beginnings of Suffering Within the Church
Before expounding on the suffering theology these believers clung to, a basic framework of understanding the times and political dynamics of these days should be laid.
Clearly, suffering within the church did not commence during these days nor with Roman emperors. Before the apostles had revelation of the gospel being for all mankind, Gentiles included, they experienced martyrdom when Stephen was stoned under the approval of Saul of Tarsus and certainly it continued on through the times we title ‘the early church’.
‘Between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution and 120 years of toleration and peace’ (Hassatt).
Fluctuations in Severity
There was significant fluctuation in the severity of persecution administered during these times as each emperor had different ideas as to how to deal with Christians though it is safe to say that some persecution of Christians occurred throughout this period of time.
The first persecutors of the church interestingly were not heathens or emperors, but Jews. This was the case when Stephen was martyred and Jews remained the primary persecutors of Christians until Christianity grew numerically enough to be recognized as a faith of its own.
Between Nero and Constantine, there were ten major persecutions worth noting. During the first century there were two sporadic and occasional persecutions, the most recognized of which came under Nero between A.D. 54-68. His early reign in Rome was not characterized by the insanity, which he later displayed. During his final years as emperor he burned four of the fifteen districts in Rome and all but four of the fifteen were damaged. He did this in order to blame, accuse, and then persecute the Christians by various means including burning them at the stake after covering them in tar.
Systematic Persecution – Second Century
During the second century we see a more formal and systematic approach taken to afflict the church. Emperors who persecuted the church during this time include Trajan (98-117) under whom Ignatius was torn by wild beasts, Hadrian (117-138), Antoniinus Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180) under whom Justin Martyr and Polycarp were killed, Commodus (180-193) and Septimus Severus (193-211) under whom Ireneus the bishop of Lyons was killed.
Persecution in the Third Century – Universal Persecution
In the third century the Church experienced her worst persecution when two emperors not only systematically persecuted, but did so universally and attempted, especially under Diocletian, to wipe Christians out and end their religion.
In A.D. 249 Decius, who reigned for only two years took control of the empire and stated early on his objectives in regards to Christians by saying he ‘did not want to create martyrs, but apostates’ (Gonzales 86). Decius was the first emperor to require every citizen to make sacrifices to the emperor, which, of course, was a conflict of interests for Christians who recognized the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When the people would make an acceptable sacrifice to the emperor, a certificate was issued to prove they had done so and when no certificate could be issued by a Christian it would lead to immediate consequences.
The Diocletian Persecution – Sport Killing
The second emperor who universally persecuted the church was Diocletian who reigned from A.D. 248 – 305. Scholars agree that this was the greatest of all persecutions the church has faced, though interestingly, current statistics show that there have been more Christian martyrs in the past one hundred years than all of the nineteen hundred years previous combined.
It was during the reign of Diocletian that sport killing was introduced and the arena was utilized as a venue for killing Christians.
Christianity and Christians Thriving Under Persecution
The year A.D 303 was the worst year of the worst persecution ever faced in this period and the emperor thought he’d finished the job and left so few Christians that they’d certainly die out. What the emperor failed to grasp was the nature of the enemy he was attacking; they were not a group who, when faced with difficulty cowered and shrank back. They were not dependant on one person or a group of leaders to sustain them. The brand of Christianity they lived, which was very much I believe what Jesus had in mind when he established the church, actually thrived under such conditions.
A Spider and a Star Fish
For the sake of illustration, consider two creatures; a spider and a starfish. A spider, like most creatures, has a central processing area (the brain) and appendages who take their orders from one location. If the spider faces an enemy who understands spiders, that enemy will attempt to behead the spider and if successful will have certainly won the battle; the spider will die.
Starfish, though, are another story. They have no brain or central processing location. In fact, each cell in a starfish is just like every other cell, which puzzles scientists to this day because each cell needs to be convinced of the need to move simultaneously in order for it to advance; perhaps explaining why they move so slowly. One would think that the center of a starfish would be the processing area but it is not.
This being the case, when an enemy attacks a starfish and cuts it in two, the starfish will actually grow into two starfish thus multiplying the problem of the enemy. The more you attack a starfish, the more starfish you have to attack, meaning an intelligent enemy will leave a starfish alone.
The Church is a Hybrid of a Spider and a Starfish
The church is a hybrid of a spider and a starfish. She certainly has a head, Jesus Christ, to whom, if we become detached will instantaneously perish, but no enemy on earth or in hell can bring separation from our head.
When structured according to the New Testament pattern the church is also a starfish. Certainly it has leadership and some level of hierarchical structure but when scattered, knows how to regroup and reestablish that structure and therefore multiply.
This has been the case whenever Christians have been persecuted giving a greater degree of meaning to the words of Tertullian when he rightly stated, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’.
More Than The Church Structure and Organization – the Blood of the Martyr Leading on to the Right Theology of Suffering
Though church structure and organization could certainly be studied as well, I believe the primary reason the early church successfully endured persecution was that she had a right theology of suffering and was prepared to endure what came her way. Matthew 12:34 states, ‘Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks’.
Through the recorded speeches and writings of these early sufferers, we have an open window into the richness of love and affection for God they had, as well as a glimpse of their thinking on the issue of suffering and martyrdom. Consider the following points of this theology.
Call to Suffer
These early followers of Christ believed they were called to suffer as Christians and were prepared to suffer when they came to faith. This call to suffer resounds throughout the New Testament which was the source of this and each of the following doctrines discussed thus each of these points will include references from the Scriptures as well as quotes from various early believers.
Consider the following New Testament exhortations, which were originally given only one or two generations before these brothers and sisters suffered:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).
In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know (1 Thessalonians 3:4).
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him (Philippians 1:29).
We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
Jesus, and the apostles certainly articulated an expectation for suffering through these and many other Scriptures, and as we look into the next three hundred years it is evident that they were not surprised by the painful trials that encountered. Good preparation is required for success in any field and certainly for success in facing persecution. There is evidence from Scripture warning the church to prepare for persecution and it’s clear that the church of antiquity had taken those warning seriously.
Preparation for Martyrdom
Joseph Ton in his book, Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven speaks of the practices of the early church in preparing new converts for persecution.
Another element characteristic of early martyrology was the preservation of the body or bones of the martyrs along with the other relics usually retained. These bones were used both in Christian celebrations and in the preparations of other Christians for martyrdom. Here is the very first indication we have about this practice: ‘So we later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter. This passage shows us that in those days, the church deliberately trained her members for martyrdom. It appears that new converts were taught the principles of martyrdom as soon as they enrolled in the baptismal class. This explains the fact that even young Christians demonstrated great readiness for martyrdom… (Ton 333).
The Life of Origen
One of those young men who’d been prepared for martyrdom was Origen. In A.D. 202 persecution broke out in Alexandria, the city Origen lived in as a mere seventeen year old boy. His preparation likely came less from church leaders than it did from his father who was arrested by the Roman officials and sentenced to death for his firm conviction that Jesus Christ was the only Lord. Origen planned to rush to the place of his father’s execution just before it was to happen and declare his faith in Christ as well so he could be martyred with his father.
Somehow Origen’s mother detected his plan, and during the night before his father’s execution, she took all the clothes out of the house. In the morning, Origen could not find anything to put on and was forced to stay in the house. (Ton 356).
The Lord had obviously not intended for this young man to be martyred as such a young age, but his desire to be a martyr was indeed fulfilled much later in life.
The time of his own martyrdom actually came fifty years later. During the great persecution of Decius, Origen was arrested in Caesarea, Palestine, and was submitted to the cruelest of tortures in order to force him to deny his faith. He went victoriously through all forms of torture applied to him, yet it was not given to him to die at the hand of the executioner. His body broken by the tortures, Origen was sent home, where he died shortly in A.D. 254 (Ton 357).
Martyrs from Lyons, France
Another account recorded is that of a group of martyrs from Lyons, France. There were five catechumens, preparing to be initiated into the faith through baptism. ‘These five people – some of whom were in their teens – were charged, not with being Christians, but with having been converted recently, and thus disobeying the imperial edict.’ (Gonzales 83).
Feeling the Very Nearness of Jesus in Their Suffering
A simple yet marvelous theological reality these believers seemed to grasp was the very nearness of Jesus in their suffering. Certainly when Jesus said in Matthew 28:18 that ‘I am with you always, even until the end of the age’ they took him seriously.
Take for example the account of Felicitas.
Felicitas, who was pregnant when arrested, was afraid that her life would be spared for that reason, or that her martyrdom would be postponed and she would not be able to join her four companions…in the eighth month she gave birth to a girl who was then adopted by another Christian woman. Seeing her moan in childbirth, her jailers asked how she expected to be able to face the beasts in the arena. Her answer is typical of the manner in which martyrdom was interpreted: ‘Now my sufferings are only mine. But when I face the beasts there will be another who will live in me. And will suffer for me since I shall be suffering for him. (Gonzales 84).
The Strange Paradigm of Joyful Suffering
Perhaps one of the more outstanding theological paradigms these believers operated in was that of joyful suffering. Ignatius who was, ‘A contemporary of the apostle John, wrote his letters about twelve or thirteen years after John had penned the Book of Revelation (Ton 325).
Pain Turning Into Joy
The verb ‘to suffer’ doesn’t generally instigate emotions of joy and elation as it has rather negative connotation and is defined as ‘feeling or experiencing pain’. New Testament thinking redefines this word as it pertains to suffering according to the will of God.
Consider 1 Peter 4:19, ‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good’ as well as 1 Peter 4:16, ‘However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.’
Then consider the words but more the example of the apostles after they’d been flogged by the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:41, ‘The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.’
Some today dismiss this as first century zeal that has never been nor will be duplicated in the church again yet the example of second and third generation believers is strikingly similar.
Ignatius, who was mentioned earlier, was a disciple of the apostle John. He was one who earnestly desired to be martyred for years before his time came. Once he’d been arrested it was necessary for him to be transported to another place for trial. During the time he was being transported he was chained night and day and treated terribly. He would visit with and write letters to churches along this chained journey he was forced to take and once wrote:
I am writing to all the churches to tell them all that I am, with all my heart, ready to die for God – if only you do not prevent it. I beseech you not to indulge your benevolence at the wrong time. Please let me be thrown to the wild beasts; through them I can reach God. I am God’s wheat; and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may end as the pure bread of Christ. If anything, coax the beasts on to become my sepulcher and to have nothing of my body undevoured so that, when I am dead, I may be no bother to anyone. I shall be really a disciple of Christ if and when the world can no longer see so much as my body. Make petition, then, to the Lord for me, so that by these means I may be made a sacrifice to God (Ton 326).
Ignatius considered it robbery on the part of his fellow believers if they would take measures to prevent his execution and indeed they hastened his request and he was killed.
When Perpetua and Felicita were put into the arena to be gored by a cow, ‘Perpetua asked to be able to retie her hair, for loose hair was a sign of mourning, and this was a joyful day for her’ (Gonzales 84).
Polycarp, who famously said when given a final chance to worship the emperor and be spared persecution in his old age said, ‘For eighty-six years I have served him and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my King who saved me? (Gonzales, 44)’. During his execution when tied to a post, ‘ looked up and prayed out loud: “Lord Sovereign God…I thank you that you have deemed me worthy of this moment, so that, jointly with your martyrs, I may have a share in the cup of Christ…For this…I bless and glorify you. Amen’ (Gonzales 44).
Rich intimacy with Jesus Christ fueled this joy in suffering that can be explained through no natural terms, but only through knowing the genuine love of their Savior who suffered much worse for them.
Seeking to Identify With Christ Through Suffering
The early sufferers believed that through suffering they more fully identified with Jesus Christ and often in fact, sought to identify with Christ through suffering. This is in line with New Testament teaching.
Romans 8:17 says, ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs-heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
Paul states in Philippians 3:10, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.’
This desire to identify with Christ in his sufferings may be the most unique and powerful among the beliefs of the early church. Certainly Ignatius held a deep desire for this as is revealed when he states, ‘When I suffer, I shall be free in Jesus Christ, and with him shall rise again in freedom…I am God’s wheat, to be ground by the teeth of beasts, so that I may be offered as pure bread of Christ. (Gonzales 43). ‘Repeatedly Ignatius expressed his conviction that through martyrdom he would be ‘attaining to God’ or ‘attaining to Jesus Christ’ (Ton 326). Polycarp too had held to the doctrine of identification with Christ through suffering as is made evident when he, ‘called Christians to suffering, to the imitation of Christ, and to the reward that is obtained through suffering and martyrdom’ (Ton 328).
Polycarp himself wrote, ‘Let us persevere by our hope and by the guarantee of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ who…but for our sake, that we might live in Him, endure all things. Let us, then become imitators of his patient endurance, and if we suffer for His name, let us praise Him’ (Ton 329).
When Perpetua was facing her death, ‘her father tried to persuade her to save her life by abandoning her faith. She answered that, just as everything has a name and it is useless to try to give it a different name, she had the name of Christian, and this could not be changed’ (Gonzales 83). Her identity was tied up in the person of Jesus Christ who learned obedience through what he suffered. She and thousands of others during these times sought to know Christ through suffering alongside him.
Paul writes in Philippians 1:14, ‘Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.’ He and the early church believed that through their suffering they were doing more than their service to God, but also they were serving those who witnessed their faithful endurance.
When Ignatius, ‘appealed to the Trallians for brotherly unity, he referred to the authority of his chains: ‘my bonds – which I bear about with me for the cause of Jesus Christ and as a petition that I may reach God – are my exhortations to you.’ He viewed his chains themselves as the grounds for his authority in exhorting them.
Polycarp said, ‘A genuine martyr, one that is ‘according to the gospel,’ is that the suffering child of God does not think of himself; he thinks rather of others, desiring to set them a good example an even suffering for their good’ (Ton 330).
To Suffer Was to Witness
This relationship between suffering and witnessing is evident insomuch as the two words in the early church became blurred beyond distinction. To suffer was to witness – it was to declare your confession of faith in Christ as Lord before all who witnessed the event. A martyr named Sanctus when on trial refused to say anything when interrogated except, ‘I am a Christian’ and when the officials could tolerate him no longer they, ‘fastened plates of heated brass to the tenderest parts of his body. And these were burning, but he himself remained unbending and unyielding, strong in his confession (witness) (Ton 336).
Obey God Rather Than Man
Though the theological beliefs of these examples of faith are vast one more is worth mentioning here. Just as Peter and the Apostles in Acts 5:29 had concluded that when faced with the predicament of obeying God or man stated, ‘We must obey God rather than man’. ‘The Roman Empire demanded from all its subjects the declaration that ‘Caesar is Lord.’
However, the Christians believed and affirmed categorically that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’ They took the word “Lord” in its absolute sense of exclusive sovereignty that cannot be shared with another. They knew that either “Caesar is Lord” or “Jesus Christ is Lord”; these statements cannot both be true. Once they had chosen Jesus Christ as their Lord, they could not also proclaim the sovereignty of Caesar.
For precisely this reason, the Roman emperors could not tolerate the existence of the Christians; their existence was an affront to the emperors sovereignty and an attack on this absolute authority. This is why it was enough for somebody to say “I am a Christian,” to give sufficient reason for being condemned to a violent death’ (Ton 336).
Thelica said, ‘I am concerned only about the law of God, which I have learned. That is the law which I obey, and in which I shall overcome. Besides that law, there is no other’ (Gonzales 102).
Intimate Relations With the Lord Shaped the Theology of Suffering
Clearly the intimate relationship these men and women had with Jesus and his teachings shaped their theology of suffering which not only allowed them to suffer well but to look forward to suffering. May their lives be to us in a day of comfort and separation from suffering; models to follow. May all of their thinking that is true to New Testament Christianity be our thinking as well.
Ton, Joseph. 1997. Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven. New York: The Romanian Missionary Society.
Maurice M. Hassatt, “Martyr.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX (Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
Gonzales, Justo. 1984. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
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