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A Story of Early Christian Persecution

September 9, 2013

Today I am welcoming a great friend of mine, Brett Stewart. I have known Brett for almost four years. He is a devoted husband, an amazing youth pastor, a great preacher, and a growing scholar. I am thankful to have him provide today’s post as he will challenge you and your concept of church and following Christ. After his article you will find his bio.

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Summary of “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas.” (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian24.html)

Perpetua and Felicitas have stories that are foreign to us. Their story is not one of great wealth or life. God did not supply them with everything they could have wanted or needed. God did not grant them long, well-lived lives. In fact, their story seems complete opposite to ours.

Perpetua and Felicitas were two ladies who claimed the name and identify of “Christian” in a time of persecution. When offered the chance to keep quiet and possibly spare themselves from punishment, torture, and most of all, death, they refused. In the midst of suffering, imprisonment, losing family and friends, and being publicly humiliated and killed, they embraced their fate with joy that can only be described as heavenly. Perpetua was a “respectfully born” child. She was not an outcast or an untouchable, but one who came from an established family, with a future of possibilities. Felicitas was a new mother, having just given birth to a baby girl. These women had futures. They had ambitions and desires for life with family and loved ones. At this point, they are no different from us. However, in the midst of an era and culture that despised Christ, these brave ladies exemplified what it meant to be true disciples of Christ and passionate pursuers of God.

They were a modern Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. However, they were not saved from the fire. They faced the imminent death and suffering with full confidence in the hope and faith of eternal life with their savior. They neither hoped for redemption from their enemies nor did they pray for deliverance. They knew their fate and demonstrated, in front of all, that they were proud to proclaim, adopt, and reflect not only the name of Christ, but the radical lifestyle that comes with it. They, along with their fellow Christ servants, were tortured and then slain by the sword. Before their final breath, they kissed one another with a kiss of peace, and proceeded to truly lay down their lives for the sake of knowing and living for Christ; they picked up their cross and follow their Savior.

Implications and Applications

So, why is it important for us to read and look at such a depressing, foreign story? Nothing about this story seems to reflect or apply to our current situation of religious belief and faithfulness in America. Am I preparing you to lay down your life and say goodbye to your family and friends?

We live in a Christian nation, right? Or at least it is a nation of religious freedom. Jesus told his disciples, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account (Matt 5:11).” He also said, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake (Matt 24:9).” And again, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me (John 15:20a; 21).”

Examine what you know of Christianity. Examine our pursuits, our desires, our goals, and our dreams of Christianity in America. Do any of them seem to embrace this concept? Do you think it’s wrong that none of us experience this kind of life and persecution? Does persecution mark true and faithful Christianity?

We must examine the world. It pursues its own desires and engulfs us within our own selfish ambition and gratification. If the world is not for Christ, it is against Christ. Thus, if those who are not Christian are against Christ, they are against us. But why don’t we feel like victims of persecution and attack? Does the world recognize us as its opposite and its enemy? Perhaps one of the reasons that America does not encounter the persecution that almost all of Christian history has experienced is because Christianity has never looked more passive and weak. For the most part, those who claim Christ as the head of their life look no different from the typical, self-pleasing, purpose-driven American.

As we reflect back on Perpetua and Felicitas, maybe persecution does mark true Christianity. What is obviously communicated through the lives and actions of Perpetua and Felicitas is that they are immediately recognized as Christians—those associated with the Christ. Do you think if Christianity in America started to focus more on living for and like Christ in all aspects of life that we might endure more hatred, persecution, and/or opposition? I certainly do. Although we are a nation founded on Christian principles, most do not replicate those values within daily life. The church even has a hard time reflecting some of those similarities to Christ in the middle of a nation that encourages to make the most of ourselves. Instead of focusing on what we could give up for the sake of spreading and reflecting the gospel, we look to what we can gain because we feel God should reward us for our good, moral behaviors and habits. This is certainly not a concept I see within scripture, nor do I see it displayed within the martyrdom and testimony of Perpetua and Felicitas.

As mentioned earlier, we might not be facing imminent death or torture in America for our belief and dedication to Christ, but we are expected to make sacrifices when coming into a relationship with Christ. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” We will probably never be called to a life of martyrdom in America. However, as our nation and culture pursues its own desires and selfish gratifications, we should look less and less like the world, and more like Christ. This requires sacrifice. This requires giving up your life in the sense that it is no longer about what you want or what you think is best. It is surrendering and handing your life over to Christ so that he may live in and through you to further proclaim his glory and salvation to the rest of the world.

If we truly pursue and reflect Christ, it will upset the world and cause them to treat us differently because they do not live for Christ. If we seem to blend in with the values, actions, and ambitions of the world, we need to reexamine the purpose and call of Christianity for our lives. No, we probably will not be facing the threat of death for proclaiming the name of Christ. However, we do surrender our lives and die to the flesh. It is no longer about the goals and ambitions of a good and fruitful life on earth. Perpetua and Felicitas gave up wealth, family, friends, and a life filled with love and comfort all for the sake of faithfully embracing Christ as their redeemer and savior. Surely, we can give up our selfish ambitions so that we might live on earth and one day in eternity proclaiming the name and the glory of Christ our savior and redeemer.

Questions for Further Reflection

What does it look like for us to give up our lives to live and die for Christ?

What might American Christian persecution look like?

What holds us back from fully surrendering and identifying our lives with Christ?

How might you experience persecution or hatred in your city, workplace, environment, etc.?

In times of desperation and suffering, what truths will give you strength and confidence to continue to endure and push on towards the goal of reflecting Christ?

Why is it worth it to give up your life to suffer for Christ?

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Brett Stewart is currently the Youth Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Abilene, Texas (since May 2011). He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Youth and Family Ministry from Abilene Christian University and is currently working on his Master of Divinity (MDiv) from the ACU Graduate School of Theology. Brett has served in local youth ministry for the past seven years. He has been married to his lovely wife, Kirstie, since July 2010. He enjoys music, playing instruments, waterskiing and wakeboarding, Frisbee, sports, reading/studying, reading Koine (New Testament) Greek, and spending time with the family.

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