Scenes From the History of the Early Christians

 •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 12
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write... Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer ... be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,”
IT is interesting to note that it was about the middle of the second century when the gospels and epistles began to be collected into a volume. The epistles had been read chiefly by those in the places to which they were addressed, so that it is not improbable that the Christians at Rome, for instance, were ignorant of that precious letter which the same apostle who wrote to them afterward, addressed to their brethren at Ephesus. The collecting of these scattered epistles was not only of untold value to the Church in those perilous times, but was the means by which, under God's providence, they have been preserved in their integrity.
As we read the history of those times, we cannot but see how constantly some national disaster was made the occasion for a fresh outburst of rage against the Christians. They were counted not only "atheists"—to which charge, their having no temples and paying no sacrificial observance to any deity, seemed to give some color of truth—but "haters of mankind"; while some did not scruple to say that they were devourers of their own children, and guilty of other horrible crimes. There were others, however, who, taking knowledge of their ways, learned to judge them very differently. Among these was Justin Martyr, a native of a Greek town built upon the site of the ancient Shechem, who addressed an eloquent "Apology" to the Emperor Antoninus, and the senate and people of Rome. "I used," he says, "to hear the Christians slandered; but when I saw them fearless of death and of all else which is accounted terrible, I perceived that it was impossible that they should be living in pleasure and wickedness.”
Justin, who received his surname, "Martyr," because he afterward suffered as a witness for Him of whose followers he had thus taken note, tells us how, in his youth, he long sought some firm foundation to rest upon, going from one school of Greek philosophy to another, until he had tried them all, only to be repelled by the falseness which he found either in the doctrine itself, or in the teacher who professed to set it forth. At last—weary and restless—when one day walking by the sea-shore, he was addressed by an old man, who told him that none of the studies which he had so ardently followed, would bring him the peace which he sought, and bade him read the prophets and gospels, and pray that "the gates of light might be opened to him." Justin did indeed find an answer to his prayer, when he turned from the thoughts and guesses of men to the sure word of God.
We next find him traveling in his philosopher's dress through Egypt and Asia, no longer in search of truth, but teaching those doctrines of Christianity which had become so dear to him, to all who would listen. He finally settled in Rome as a Christian teacher, though he still wore his philosopher's mantle, and was soon, with six others—one of them a woman, brought before the prefect, charged with being a Christian.
In answer to the question, "What kind of doctrines do you profess?" he said, "I have endeavored to learn all doctrines, but have settled at last in the true doctrine—that of the Christians.”
When asked where the Christians assembled, he replied that they met where they could; not all in the same place, "for the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by space, being invisible. He fills heaven and earth, and is everywhere worshipped and glorified by the faithful.”
After threatening him and his companions with death if they should persist in their superstition, the prefect asked Justin whether he supposed that, if he died, he would ascend to heaven and there receive his reward. "I do not suppose it; I know and am fully persuaded of it," was the confident answer of this philosopher, who, after his long doubtful quest, had found a sure and steadfast anchor for his soul in a hope that maketh not ashamed. Doubtless his faith encouraged his fellow Christians, for we read that when bidden to offer sacrifice to the gods, they cried out with one accord, "Do what you will; we are Christians, and cannot sacrifice to idols." They were sentenced, in accordance with what was then the law, to be scourged and beheaded, as those who had refused to sacrifice to the gods, and to obey the command of the emperor, and they were led away to their death.
In his "Apology," written some time before, Justin had boldly set forth the injustice of persecuting Christians for their religion when all other religions were tolerated; he had also refuted the false charges brought against them, saying that the crimes of which they were accused might with more truth be laid at the door of their accusers. While speaking of the purity of life of the Christians, and of their faith and patience, he adds these remarkable words, “No one ever believed Socrates in such a manner as to die for his philosophy; but multitudes, even in the lowest ranks, have braved death and danger in the cause of Christ.”
It is not evident that this elaborate defense of the Christians had any effect upon the emperor, to whom it was addressed, nor upon his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius, by whom he was succeeded in the year 161 It was in the reign of the latter that the persecution became more and more deadly and general, for now the local governors all over the empire were directed to seek out the Christians, and no longer to refuse to listen to any accusations brought against them, even by slaves, whose evidence in ordinary cases was worthless.
In the second year of this philosophic, religious emperor, a great calamity came upon the city. The waters of the Tiber rose to such a height that the cattle were swept from their pasture, and many houses were carried away, among them the great buildings on the banks of the river where the corn was stored. This flood was followed by a famine, when the people suffered terribly; and a pestilence, brought from the East by a returning army, seemed to crown their misery. There were rumors, too, of a vast league among distant nations, who were gathering in wild hordes ready to pour down upon Rome, and all these troubles were ascribed to the wrath of the offended gods, a wrath which could be appeased only by the blood of those impious men who had set them at naught.
Along with this desire for vengeance upon the Christians came a general waking up to greater zeal in the performance of religious ceremonies; countless sacrifices were offered, the temples were thronged with suppliants, and great efforts were made to do away with all that which might be supposed to have been offensive to the deities.
It was at the time of this cry of alarm and vengeance that Justin and many others suffered at Rome; but it was in Asia Minor that the persecution raged most fiercely. There the Christians were sought out diligently by those whose zeal was rewarded by receiving the forfeited goods of any who had been apprehended by their means. The story of the faith and courage of the aged Poly-carp, who had been, as we may remember, a disciple of the apostle John, has come down to us in a letter written in the name of the Church at Smyrna to their brethren at Philadelphia.
The writers mention the case of two confessors at Smyrna. one of whom, after boastfully courting persecution, had been so terrified at the first sight of the wild beasts, that he had consented to sacrifice after the heathen fashion; while the other, by his fortitude, had only quickened the rage of the excited populace. The cry, "Away with the atheists!" rang through the arena, presently to be followed by a clamor for the blood of him who was well known as the faithful shepherd of the little flock of Christians in Smyrna.
“Polycarp! seek out Polycarp was heard on all sides. The aged bishop, at the earnest entreaty of his friends, had retired into the country, but was betrayed by his own slaves, who had been tortured to compel them to discover the place of his retreat. He now refused to take any further measures to secure his own safety, and saying," The will of the Lord be done," calmly awaited the coming of those who had been sent to apprehend him. When the officers arrived he ordered food to be set before them, and retired to an upper room," where," the letter says," he stood and prayed for all whom he had ever known, both small and great, worthy and unworthy, and for the whole church throughout the world." Thus he continued praying for two hours, until the officers called for him that they might take him to Smyrna. It was a day of public concourse, and the city was thronged as Polycarp, seated on an ass, closely guarded, passed through the streets. On the way he was met by Herod, the chief magistrate, and his father, who, with much show of respect, took the aged prisoner into their own carriage, and endeavored by fair words and promises to shake his constancy, and to induce him to salute the emperor as lord, and to sacrifice to his statue." What is there," they argued," in saying Lord Cæsar,' or in sacrificing?”
Finding their efforts vain, however, they soon changed their soft words for bitter taunts, and cast him from the chariot.
When he was led to the circus, where the public games and shows were exhibited, a cry of fierce joy burst from the multitude, as they learned that Polycarp had been apprehended.
Again the tempter was near: the proconsul, pitying his age and feebleness, tried to induce him not to answer to his name, but he refused thus to screen himself. "Then," said he, "just swear by the genius of Caesar. Say, Away with the atheists! '”
As his eyes ran slowly along the benches of the great amphitheater, and rested upon the excited masses who filled them, rising rank behind rank, Polycarp waved his hand, and looking up to heaven, he cried, "Away with the atheists!”
“Swear," said the proconsul, thinking he had relented. "Blaspheme Christ, and I release thee.”
“Eighty and six years have I served Him," he replied, as a smile lighted up his countenance, "and He never did me any wrong; how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
Further threats—that he should be cast to the wild beasts, that he should be devoured by fire—failed to move him, and at last the proconsul, wearied and baffled, ordered the herald to proclaim thrice in the midst of the circus, "Polycarp has confessed himself a Christian!”
A shout rose from the crowded benches, "This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the over thrower of our gods!" and the multitude called upon the president of the games to let loose upon him one of the lions, mad with hunger, which had been brought thither to make sport for the citizens, as they tore their prey limb from limb.
The man excused himself, saying the games were already over; and again the wild tumult arose. The cry was now "Let him be burned!" and was followed by a rush to collect wood for the fire. As they were about to fasten him firmly to the stake, Polycarp begged that he might be tied only with cords, adding, "He who gives me strength to endure the fire, will enable me to remain at the pile without moving." His last words were words of thanks to God, who had counted him worthy thus "to drink of Christ's cup.”
When all was over, his disciples tried to gather up what the fire had left of the mortal part of him who had loved them so well, and taught them so long and faithfully, but the Jews besought the governor not to allow them this poor consolation lest, "forsaking the crucified One, they begin to worship this man." "Little did they think," say the writers of the letter, "that it is not possible to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world, and to worship any other. For Him indeed we adore; but the martyrs, as His disciples and followers, we worthily love.”
An epistle written by Polycarp to the church at Philippi has been preserved. It is interesting chiefly because in it he reminds them of the apostle Paul, "who," he says, "when among you, faithfully and constantly taught the word of truth, and when absent wrote you a letter, which, if you diligently study, you will find to be the means of building you up in faith, hope, and love.”
One of the disciples of Polycarp, Irene us, lived on into the beginning of the third century. In a letter, written in his old age, he thus speaks of him: "I could point out the very place where the blessed Polycarp was accustomed to sit and discourse, his gait, his form, his manner of life, his conversations, and what he was accustomed to relate of his familiar intercourse with John, and others who had seen the Lord; how he used to repeat their discourses and speak of the miracles of Christ, and of His doctrine, agreeably to the Holy Scriptures, as he had received them from the eye-witnesses. To these things, by the mercy of God, I listened attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart, and by the grace of God I habitually recall them to my mind.”