© Translation by Elmer M. Hohle of “Der Sieg des Glaubens.” By Theodore Graebner.Monday 15 July 2013 at 6:26 pm.
The Victory of Faith
Stories and descriptive pictures from
the life of ancient Christianity,
presented to the newly confirmed
Pastor in Chicago, Ill.
If they persecute Me, they will also persecute you. John 15:20.
As Jesus spoke to the assembled crowd by the Sea of Galilee about the kingdom of God, He told them the following parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field; which is the tiniest among all seed. When it however grows up, it then is the biggest among the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds come under it from the sky and nest among its branches.”
With this Jesus teaches that His kingdom, even though at the beginning it is quite small, will eventually be spread out over the entire world.
And the Savior promised this kingdom to His believers. It shall have an eternal existence. Also the power of hell shall not overcome it. His church is of course the kingdom of the peace of the Messiah, concerning whose eternal existence the Prophets had already spoken about. The Christian church shall never die out.
The Savior had however also explained to His believers that they would also have to drink from the cup of suffering and through many tribulations enter into His glory. And He indeed had pointed out the huge mass of humanity that surrounded them, pointed out to them their paganism, and admonished His disciples:
“Beware of the people; for they will hand you over to their courts, and will whip you in their places of worship. And people will lead you before princes and kings on account of Me, to testify to them and to the nations. One brother however will hand over the other one to die, and the father the son, and the children will rise up against their parents and help them die. And you will have to be hated by everyone because of My Name.”
And soon these words of Jesus were fulfilled in His church! How quickly Christianity needed His comfort: “Blessed are you, when on account of Me people mock and persecute and speak all sort or evil against you, about which they are lying. Be happy and comforted, it will be very well rewarded to you in heaven. For that’s how they also persecuted the Prophets who preceded you.”
Already at the time while the Apostles still were living there already began – apart from the animosity and persecution of the Jews – persecutions from the side of the Gentile pagans, so that Peter had to admonish and strengthen Christianity to remain of a good mind among the animosity and persecution of the unbelievers; and, to patiently bear up under the suffering that the brethren encountered, even as He also foresaw his own end, – “I know that I soon will have to lay aside my tent.”
A similar role model of the willingness to be offered up for Jesus’ sake was given to the believers by the great Apostle to the Gentiles when he wrote:
“I am all ready to be sacrificed, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight; I have run the race; I have kept the faith. Now there is waiting for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous One will give to me on that day; but not only me , but also all who love to see Him come again.”
Also many in the heat of persecution or out of love for the world – like Demas (2nd Tim. 4:10) – have forsaken the Lord, and became “afraid of those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul,” and have denied the faith. Yet an uncounted massive amount of people have fought a good fight and have regarded everything earthly, also this temporal life, as nothing for the sake of Jesus.
O the wondrous power of the Word of Jesus that dwelled within His sent messengers! Weak senile folks, indeed smart looking ladies, and little babies have entered into this power to become heroic models like have never before been seen in the history of mankind.
You also, dear your Christian, should enter into this power. This faith, which has carried off the victory over paganism, is none other than the faith that now lives in the heart of a Christian. The Gospel, whose victorious race the power of darkness could not keep away from us then, is none other than the message of salvation in Jesus Christ that is now being proclaimed in every nation. This Gospel also has ignited faith in your heart. The warning of the Savior also applies to you: “if they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” However to this also applies the promise: “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My heavenly Father.” So then, as you step out of school, out of the Christian home, into the huge world, the battle of living begins with full seriousness. How others in ancient times obtained this victorious battle, and went out of the militant church into the glory of the church triumphant, we shall be told something more about this in the following chapters.
Reasons for Persecution
Since you are not of the world, rather I have chosen you out of the world, that’s why the world hates you. John 15:19
You most certainly agree that the book of Acts frequently regards the unbelieving Jews as agitators of enmity against the Christians. So also in the after days all sorts of disgraceful defamation and fabricated accusations went out from the Jews against the Christians. And indeed there spread out such casting of suspicions and making of insinuations from among the heathen precisely for the purpose to stir up unrest against the church.
In this there of course was fulfilled the Word of its Master, that one would falsely ascribe the most despicable crimes to the believers. Especially the worship services of the Christians and the celebration of the Sacraments were what induced and motivated them to such most wicked instigations. Thus the Gentiles/heathen sometimes carried out their delusional infatuation, thinking that “they were doing God a service.”
Yet such slandering did not manage to explain – as much as also the hatred of the unbelieving masses was sometimes enraged – the enmity of the heathen world against Christianity. On the contrary Jesus says: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you,” and again: “The world hates them (the believers), for they are not of this world.” It was the enmity of the Darkness against the Light.
Not just in the church, but also in homes, in callings, upon the street the Christians wanted to show themselves as Christians. And the world could not stand that.
Every stride and step required a confession, and every confession brought on danger. If the Christian went out on the street, there stood the images of idols; there he was encountered by a procession of people who with celebration carried these idols. All of those who passed by bowed down before the image of the idol; the Christian did not do it. If he went into a law court, there stood n altar, with incense next to it; and custom required that a person offered up to the Emperor’s statue a small grain of incense.
Or, the Christian would be invited by heathen friends or relatives to family festivity. If he did not go, it then evoked enmity. If he did go, then he could again not avoid thereby giving offence by not participating in the drink offering which was toasted at the beginning and at the end of the meal to the emperor-god.
The entire conversation was entwined about spirits of heathenism. The oath sworn before a judge, the greetings and the thank-offerings, all contained reminders of heathenism. How was a Christian to guard himself not to deny his Christian faith? Many a one had to give up his craft, his business if he turned to Christianity, especially if he before his conversion had been a slave or worker in the temple of an idol, sold incense, was an actor, etc.
Thus the accusation and reproach was not far off: “You are not Romans, you are enemies of the state.” In Christians one would see a dangerous party in the state. If the Emperor’s birthday was celebrated with the showing of divine honor, the homes of the Christians remained dark, their doors were not decorated. If in honor of a victory dramas were presented, no Christian allowed himself to be drawn into the circus, where people entertained and amused themselves by fighting animals and having murderous fencing duels and executions. Might the Christians allow themselves to be called to obedience, be peace keeping subjects, where they also in the worship services prayed for the Emperor, where they punctually paid their taxes – of what help was that to them? The opposition of the customs and practices of the heathen world was too vast. They were regarded as enemies of the human race. Already just the one thing that they refused to glorify the Emperor as being divine was sufficient enough to brand them as enemies of the state. Thus it came to a bloody persecution. First when an emperor ruled in the Roman Empire who himself bowed down to the true God, did the time of persecution come to an end.
The Roman Empire collapsed, but the world of our day is not kindly disposed to Christianity, just like in the first century. Still today the Word of Jesus applies: “The world hates you,” – namely the disciples, -- “for they are not of this world.” Still today every distinct confession of Christianity stirs up enmity from the world. It will not tolerate it that the children of God keep themselves spotless from the sinful joys which they herald; and it churns up every crafty art to bring young Christians to fall away. If the Christian does not give in to the temptation, then there immediately follows persecution, even if also not with sword and torture, as they did at the time of the first Christians, yet still with bitter mockery and hateful rhetoric, which burn in the soul like fire. If we experience such, then it dare not estrange us. For the world today is still filled with hatred towards Jesus and against the disciples of Jesus who follow after His Word.
You shall drink of My cup, and be baptized with the baptism with which I shall be baptized! Matt. 20:23.
During the night between the 18th and 19th of July in 64 A.D. there broke out in a huge flaming fire in the world’s chief capital city of Rome. The fire was started in the garbage-kiosk/cubicle at a circus, in which also many Jews were promoting their business. On the piled up heap of combustible stuff the fire found rich nourishment, and with unfavorable winds the flames were rapidly driven further. In a short time the gigantic circus stood in flames, and with rushing quickness the fire spread over into the city.
Human help was helpless against the fearful might of this burning fire. All efforts of the firefighters and the soldiers, who with war machines tore down the houses in order to take away the fires nourishment, were in vain. For six days the fire raged and after a short time it broke out again in a spared beloved part of the city, so that finally of the fourteen regions of Rome only four were spared, and the giant city had become a smoking heap of rubble and debris. The misfortune was immeasurably huge. Thousands of people lost their lives in this burning of Rome.
One searched for the cause of this fire. Then there arose a rumor, the source of the fire was none other than the Roman Emperor himself!
Now whether Nero – that was the Emperor’s name – carried the guilt for this burning of Rome will never be able to be solidly proven with certainly. It was enough, so that among the people this rumor was quickly spread and was believed by all. One would want to have seen people who tossed firebrands into the houses and at the same time have powerfully hindered the work of the firefighters. Well, the Emperor was to have watched the burning from a tower, played the harp and to it have sung the song about the burning of Troy. One would have thought that the love of beauty and the desire to build by the Emperor and his plans to beautify the chief city; would he have allowed the city to be destroyed in order to replace and establish a new, more magnificent Rome according to his own plans? This much is certain, this rumor found believers of it. Nero could do what he wanted to, but he would not be freed from the thinking – and one already heard talk about requiring the life of the Emperor as atonement for instigating the fire.
It was necessary for him to turn this thinking away from himself. Nero had to place the blame on others whom one could hold responsible for this misdeed. And so the Emperor shoved the blame for burning Rome upon – the Christians! These were people who of course had introduced a “new religion” which the heathen regarded as a “corrupt false faith”. Why might not these adherents to a foreign “false faith” be responsible? To this also came out that the fire had broken out in Jewish quarters; and of course many Jews belonged to the Christian congregation in Rome. Evidence enough; certain Christians were placed under arrest. With the use of frightening tormenting torture one forced them to testify against those whom one saw as making a confession. Thereupon there followed further arrests. Finally there was sitting ‘an enormously immense crowd’ – as one historian at that time described it – in prison, and the rage of the people demanded that the harshest punishment be given for these ‘enemies of the human race’.
Heathen gruesomeness arose anew in carrying out frightening methods of killings with the judgments against these innocent Christians. Some were enclosed in a cell with wild animals and tossed to the dogs that mauled them. Others were given as prizes to the wild beasts in the Amphitheater. In his garden Nero set up poles upon which the Christians were tied or actually were speared, then immediately smeared with tar and wax, and with the approach of darkness were set afire in order to serve as ‘living torches’, as the Emperor drove between them on his chariot and the people jubilated with joy.
Frequently the Christians gathered together in the arena in the presence of the watching people and the wild animals for a final fellowship prayer, and then also in the most difficult moment saw death, and on the other hand they looked with their upward glance at the image of their Redeemer with calmness and joy.
Nero, the most gruesome and blood-thirsty of all emperors, opened up the dance of the persecutors of Christians. Spotted with the blood of his brother, his wife and his own mother, with the blood of a reprobate slave and as a faithless villain, he for all times made his name heinously infamous as the first persecutor of the Christians. Whether the Apostle Paul and Peter were also among his sacrifices in this persecution can not be definitively said. Nero himself died in 68th year after Christ’s birth, also four years after Rome burned. He died a violent death, after he through his unspeakable gruesomeness had brought upon himself the hatred of the entire nation.
You will be dragged before Princes and Kings on account of Me. Matt. 10:18
In the year 100 A.D. their lived in Antioch, in Syria, a man highly regarded, with the name Ignatius. He was to have been instructed in the Christian faith by the Apostle John, and for forty years he was the Bishop of the church in Antioch. Despite the fact that he was so highly respected that he was given the nickname ‘Theophorus’, i.e. ‘the God-bearer’, amidst an insurrection that the people had stirred up against the Christians, he was taken captive and led before the Emperor Trajan.
This emperor had shortly before received a letter from one of his governors, in which he was asked how one was to deal with the Christians. The response from the Emperor pointed out that the Christians were not to be spared by the government, that they yet nevertheless when they are accused were to renounce their Christianity by calling upon the Roman gods, in any case they were to be punished. That’s how blind this otherwise beneficent and just prince was towards Christianity. He regarded it as a harmful false faith against the welfare of the state, whose adherents were to immediately be judged as criminals. As Ignatius was led before him in Antioch, he sentenced him to death, and ordered that he was to be torn apart by wild animals in the Amphitheater in Rome.
As Ignatius heard the sentence pronounced, he folded his hands to pray and said: “I thank You, Lord, that it has pleased You to have me counted worthy to be a witness to Your perfect love, and that You have given me the privilege to be bound with iron chains like Your great Apostle Paul. What I still wish for is that the wild beasts may quickly lacerate me.”
The congregation could not separate itself from their beloved shepherd. He was preceded by a huge number of members of the congregation who walked parallel upon a different road journeying up to Rome. They wanted to wait for him there and prepare the congregation there about his arriving. Ignatius was led to the capitol city by ten soldiers, partly over water, partly over land. In Smyrna, where there was taken a several day delay, he encountered his fellow classmate Polycarp, the Bishop of the congregation there. A large number sent from surrounding Christian congregations joined together there, so that his trip was more like a victory march than like a transporting of a prisoner. He also wrote letter to the Christians at Smyrna and to Bishop Polycarp, in which he at the end admonished: “Be sober as a warrior of God; the appointed goal is imperishable and an eternal life, of which you are assured.” He encouraged and urged the believers to pray without ceasing, and to keep the unity of the Spirit in the church.
Ignatius also sent ahead a letter to the Christians at Rome. He had especially heard that the Roman congregation had the intention to send an advocate to the emperor on his behalf. He nevertheless asked them to hold off doing this since death for him would of course be an entrance into life, and he would ‘like Christ first come into full glory by going to the Father’. It they wished to show him a love, then let it be that they not lodge an appeal for him before men; however to indeed direct their prayers to the Most High that He might provide for him to have a quick and blessed end. “Let me”, he wrote, “be food for the wild animals, through which I may find God. I am God’s grain; through the teeth of the animals I will be ground up, so that I may thereby be found to be as pure bread of Christ.”
Landing in Italy, he with great haste went to Rome. The ship had endured exceptional delays, and the great plays in the in the Amphitheater were coming to an end. The soldiers were afraid that they with their prisoner were going to arrive too late.
Arriving in Rome, the soldiers kept the order to immediately go to the huge, open Theater. In keeping with their orders they brought Ignatius – accompanied by a small group of Roman Christians – into the place of martyrdom. He was thrown before the wild animals; already he heard the roaring of the hungry lions. Then he once more threw himself down to the ground and thanked God with a loud voice that He had made him worthy of such a death. He did not have to suffer long. As he had wished, his life was ended quickly.
“Be faithful unto death, thus I will give you the crown of life.” (Jesus to the soul-caretaker of the congregation at Smyrna.) Rev. 2:10
The unconverted person has an enmity towards God, against His Word and His church. If the devil needed the blood-hound Nero in his attempt to uproot the church, --- it was also an easy thing for him to utilize the otherwise so fair-minded and moderate Trajan for persecuting Christendom. And now we have to talk about a persecution that was hung over the church in 167 A.D. by Emperor Mark Aurel. Mark Aurel was a serious minded man and was heaped with praise by historians of his time as a righteous ruler. Nevertheless he was an unconverted man, and therefore we should not be surprised when also this so-called ‘good’ Emperor spotted his soul with the murder of Christians.
The hatred by the heathen mass of the population was indeed not shrinking away in Asia Minor. It required heavy sacrifices, especially in Smyrna, where the aged Polycarp still held the office of Bishop – whom we already in the previous account mentioned as being a student of the Apostle John. He was even ordained by the Apostle himself to be the shepherd of the congregation and had converted many who still were eye-witnesses to the works of Jesus. He was held in high regard among all of Christendom; and on account of his venerable appearance he was held in high esteem with a child-like veneration by the members of his congregation in Smyrna.
As the police-spy of the Roman regime’s officer traveled to his residence in a country house nearby Smyrna and searched through the home, Polycarp willingly stepped before him, in that he said: “The Lord’s will be done.” Serenely he went towards the constables. These had still never seen him before, and full of amazement the observed the earnestness and the worthiness of his facial expression. He still hospitable received them, and asked for an hour of time to strengthen himself with prayer. With great intensity he prayed for two hours, so that the soldiers themselves were moved. Then they sat him upon a donkey and led him to the city into a big circus. There Polycarp was led before the advocate of the Roman Empower Mark Aurel.
“Are you Polycarp?” asked the judge.
“Yes, I am,” answered Polycarp.
The judge counseled him, in order to still spare him in his old age, to swear by spirit of the Emperor, and to curse the Christians.
Polycarp with a glance looked at the assembled crowd, made a hand gesture at them and said, with a sigh looking up to heaven: “You shall sweep away these God-despisers!”
However the Judge thereupon stood up and said: “Swear and I will release you; deny Christianity!”
Then Polycarp repeated: “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has never done me any harm; how could I deny my King Who has saved me?”
Once again called upon to show the Emperor divine honor, he said: “I am a Christian.”
The threat of the judge to allow him to be thrown to the wild animals, if he would wait longer to swear off Christianity, was encountered by the Bishop with the demand: “Bring them on; for with us it is a fundamental, principle truth not to turn from what is good to what is bad, instead to convert from unrighteousness to righteousness.”
The Judge then threatened him with wanting to swing him with fire. Polycarp, with a peaceful resignation, spoke these words: “You threaten me with fire, which will burn only for a moment and will quickly be extinguished; but you know not about the fire of the future judgment and the everlasting punishment with is reserved for the godless. But why do you dawdle? Bring it on, what you desire!”
Filled with joyful confidence and a shining face Polycarp said all this, so that the judge himself was amazed. He then through heralds let it be shouted out in the circus: “Polycarp has confessed to being a Christian.”
Then the assembled crowd of pagans and Jews broke out with rage and screamed with loud voices: “away with him! This is a destroyer of our gods, who has taught many to no longer offer sacrifices to the gods and to worship them. Turn the lions loose on him! Others screamed out, one should burn the Bishop, and the judge concluded by sentencing him to the latter.
The old man then took off his outer garment and with his hands tied behind his back, he stepped up on the pile of wood. He thanked God with devout, diligent prayer that He had made him worthy to suffer the death of a martyr for the sake of His Son. Immediately the flames brightly rose up. The people delighted themselves over the torture of the martyr. Finally the executioner stepped up to stick the dagger into his chest. The body was not immediately given to the congregation; rather, according to a Roman custom, after it had burned up were they allowed to gather up their bishop’s bones and bury them.
One will talk about the heroic-minded confession of Polycarp for a long as the world stands. The Christianity and the honorable conduct of this eighty-six year old martyr who rather went into a flaming death than to deny His Savior, is unforgettable. However realize, dear young Christian, also you promised with your confirmation vow to be faithful to the Savior unto death. For this you should also keenly praise the dear God, for the power that once upon a time did not let Ignatius tremble before the raging lions, and that gave the old Polycarp the courage, indeed showing the greatest courage any heroic warriors have ever shown amidst killings – this same power you too have received through faith in the Word of Jesus. If a person ever demanded that you deny your Lord, then also your weak faith will possess the power to attack the enemies of Christ with victorious defiance. God’s power is mighty in the weak. This also reveals itself, and actually in a very special, glorious manner in two young confessors, about whom something is to be read in the next section.
“My Power is made mighty in weakness.” 2 Cor. 12:9.
With Blandina – a young lady with a feeble body – the Lord Christ made known that what appears little and insignificant to humans is regarded as being worthy of great honor by God – on account of the love, that love which a person substantiates with deeds, not just producing them for show.
A horrible persecution raged in the year 176 A.D. against the Christians at Lyon and Vienna in France. One found torturing against the steadfast confessors of such a gruesome kind that one correctly recognized in it the inspiration of the devil. He now appeared to have called upon everything in order to destroy the church of God. Most of all, out of the mass of people who in these difficult times suffered death for witnessing, there towers above them all a poor maiden by the name of Blandina, whose death made a deep impression upon the heathen themselves. She was of such a weak physical condition that her believing mistress was afraid she might have neither the power nor the courage to confess her faith. But by the grace of God she was filled with great zeal for the faith, so that the torture-servants, who took turns in painfully torturing her from early in the morning unto evening, were worn out. They confessed they had been conquered. They testified that they had tried every kind of earthly martyr torture on her without being able to bring Blandina to deny Christ.
“I am a Christian, and nothing evil happens to us,” she contended also under the most severe painful torturing by her tormentors – who had the assignment to force out of her a confession of doing shameful deeds, which one would use as evidence against the Christians.
“We cannot break down her steadfastness,” the torture-servants realized; “there is of course only one kind of martyrdom available for this lady martyr, and that is to take her life.” That’s how God strengthens the courage of his faithful Christians. Blandina was brought back to the executioner.
On the final day of the circus play, she was ordered to be taken there along with a fifteen year old lad named Pontikus. Both had to undergo every conceivable martyrdom, under which Pontikus gave up his spirit. Finally Blandina was wrapped up in a net and thrown in front of a bull, who threw her wrapped body up into the air. Finally she was killed. The heathen were completed astounded over the unshakeable courage of this weak, feeble woman.
A poem by K. Gerok.
Listen! How the hungry beasts growl
Down in the lion’s dungeon so raucous and rough!
Just look at how the benches at the circus are filling up,
Row after row up to the blue heavens!
See, kept for today’s sacrifice,
Oppressively squeezed into a corner of the cellar,
Sit two youthful charming figures,
Festively attired for a martyr’s death.
With a feverish blush Pontikus leaned
Solidly against Blandina’s sisterly heart,
Not of death was this youth afraid,
Just of the final, grime pain.
However the gracious, sublime princess,
Leaned herself over him with her gentle look,
Comforted and reminded the praying lad
Kindly and earnestly like an angel of the Light.
“Let not a young maiden put to shame the young lad
Be brave. Be a valiant, courageous son!
Don’t let two red-hot minutes grieve you,
Short is the battle, superabundantly exuberant is the reward!
With eyes and heart look up to heaven!
Today we will still see each other again up there,
With palms in our hands, with the blessed choir!”
Clinking locks. – A man at death’s threshold,
Outside was a disorderly mood of revelry.
Outside the frightening brightness of daylight!
Pontikus was released and stepped outside. –
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
A short time later the lock clinked again,
Festively Blandina walked through the door,
Saw the young lad’s shredded bodily members,
With songs of praise glanced up to heaven,
Standing like an angel amidst horrid surroundings, ---
Amidst her walking around it became speechless, ---
She kneeled down and endured the rescuing wounds
From the horns of the raging bull.
The ancient Christian divine services.
Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teaching and warning one another with all kinds of wisdom. With thankful hearts sing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God. Col. 3:16.
As a well-instructed confirmed person, you now with the confession are further required that you not only are to be allowed to partake of the Sacrament, but that you now can participate in all parts of the liturgical Christian divine service, following it with understanding. This is a glorious privilege, of which you will make much use, as God indeed also requires of you in His holy Law. As you then now come to church to participate in the divine service, above all else you do it less because you thereby fulfill a requirement of the Law than much more out of love for God’s Word, and with the goal to obtain strengthening of your faith. You come because you have a heartfelt longing to grow in faith and in sanctification. For a Christian not to go to church is inconceivable. From the very beginning on the believers, young and old, designated a time for themselves for God’s Word, and with prayer and singing they there brought the Lord their offerings from their lips. Hear now how this took place in early Christendom.
Justin the Martyr in the year 150 A. D. wrote the following about the divine services of the Christians: “We hold our fellowship assemblies on Sundays; for this is the day on which Jesus Christ, our Savior, rose from the dead.” Two week days were dedicated to the remembrance of the sufferings and death of Christ, namely the Wednesday and the Friday. On these days one would conduct prayer assemblies, also one refrained from eating until 3:00 p.m. There also were days of repentance, on which one would strive to kneel to pray, while on Sunday one would stand.
A heathen reporter, Plinus the Younger, wrote this about the divine services in the first century: “They have the custom to assemble on a designated day before sunrise and to jointly sing hymns to Christ like as if he was a god; in addition they obligated themselves to refrain from robbery, thievery, adultery, lies, deceit and keep themselves pure. Then each one went his own way; however, they soon came back together again in order to eat a common meal.”
Justin the Martyr describes the divine service even more precisely:
“On Sunday there took place a gathering of all those who lived in the cities or in the country. Then the written remembrances of the Apostles (the Gospels) – or the books of the Prophets were read for as long as we had time to do it. After this, when the lectern reader had finished, the Elder (senior pastor) gave a talk of remembrance and of admonishment, urging one to strive after the portrayals from the Scripture. Thereupon we all stood up and performed prayers. After that one brought bread and wine along, and the Elder (pastor) conducted prayers and thanksgivings. The Congregation replied with ‘Amen’, and the consecrated elements (of the Sacrament) were then distributed, which also were brought to the absent by deacons. There followed the gathering of gifts for the support of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the strangers.”
Already in those old ancient times we again find the chief parts of our divine services – portions of Scripture, sermon, prayer, singing and the celebration of the Sacrament. It is to be noted that the holy Lord’s Supper was celebrated every Sunday. Also the antiphonal singing soon became a common, customary practice. The singing of the cantor was antiphonally exchanged with the congregation, and also exchanged between the men and the women in the assembly – who sat separately. Augustine confesses that as he, during the early times of his newly awakened Christian faith, stepped into the church and heard this singing in it, he broke out in tears.
The sermons were usually conducted by the Bishop or the senior pastor, and he actually sat behind the altar table upon a seat that was so high that from there the entire congregation could see him. Usually the seat was veiled by a curtain that was pulled away as soon as the sermon began. The sermon was conducted while seated. In large churches the preacher actually stood up, and also upon a stage in the middle of the ship of the church, upon which, in addition to him, the lector and the cantor also had their place. The sermons seldom lasted longer than a half-hour, the entire worship service perhaps two hours. Usually the congregation stood during the sermon. Also the Scriptural segments were listened to while standing up, and the Psalms and chorales were sung standing. Naturally, the divine service was in every place preached in the language of the country, so that it could be understood by the listeners. Also the
Scriptural segments were translated into the language of the land. A fully toned Amen out of the mouths of the entire congregation concluded the short prayer with which the Bishop or Elder concluded his sermon.
The Lord’s Supper and the feast of love.
The cup that we bless, is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not the fellowship of Christ’s body? 1 Cor. 10:16.
The un-baptized were allowed to participate in the first part of the divine service that was conducted in early times in the forenoon. Only during the times of persecution one brought up the rule that only baptized Christians were allowed to participate in the divine services. One did this because one had to be afraid of the presence of betrayers and spies.
The second part of the divine service arranged the celebration of the Holy Supper. At the time of the Apostles the Lord’s Supper was celebrated daily in many places, and actually in connection with the so-called ‘love-feast’, the Agape. Also still in the second century, as one still received the Lords Supper only on Sunday, it was conducted at the conclusion of the Agape, and actually in the evening. Only baptized Christians were allowed to participate. Soon one of course united the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with the morning divine service.
The deacon standing next to the Bishop called out at the beginning of the celebration: “No one is to have a grudge against another! Let no one be here with a hypocritical mind! Then the deacon spoke the general ecclesiastical prayer, a petition for the church, the entire world, for the Bishop and the secular rulers. Thereupon the Bishop bestowed the sacramental blessing. Then yet each person bowed his head in prayer. Now the communicants stepped up, sorted out according to age and position, men and women separately, then unmarried and widows, and received the holy Sacrament. All received the Supper under both kinds – also bread and wine. At the conclusion the Bishop spoke a prayer, and then the deacon dismissed the congregation with the words: “Depart in peace!”
That’s how Christianity in the first century served their God on Sundays. How often they must have thereby been prepared for spies to betray them or to be oppressed by a vulgar mob with screaming and hurling of stones. Nevertheless Psalms and songs of praise rang forth; one heard, filled with holy earnestness, the unadorned proclamation of the life-giving Word; then a quiet prayer. All received the body and blood of the crucified One, Whom perhaps they soon would follow after into death. All united together for the love-feast; prayerfully they departed with the kiss of peace – and we now understand that often heathens, who only attended the divine service one time, were thereby won over forever.
The time of the first love.
Love one another intensely with a pure heart. 1 Pet. 1:22.
Nothing amazed the heathen more; nothing was more incomprehensible to them, than the love which the Christians showed one another.
“See,” they cried out, “how they love one another!”
Among each other they called themselves ‘Christians’, in remembrance of a Word of their Master: ‘Brothers’. And this brotherly name was not only a simple word, they actually lived like brothers. The congregation was a family; all its members children of a heavenly Father. Each served the other, each prayed for the other.
Also the complete stranger who came from far away, simply brought with him a letter of commendation for his congregation, thus he was received and dealt with as a brother. One astonished heathen said, “They love one another even without knowing one another!” Usually the heathen saw to it that every stranger was dealt with as an enemy.
The Christians took seriously the Word of the Lord: “If anyone asks you for anything, give it to him, and don’t turn away from anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Out of a writing that comes from those ancient times we read: “Don’t be one of those who always stretches out his hands to take, but closes them for giving. Don’t be slow to give, and when you give, don’t do it unwillingly. For you will find out Who the glorious One is Who rewards. Share everything that is yours with the needy brother, and don’t say that it belongs to you.”
Usually a person brought a gift at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The names of those who brought offerings were written on a tablet and named in the prayers. Also in the name of deceased one would bring gifts on the day of their death for the poor, as well as for the support of the pastoral ministry. Also the first fruits of the field and the home one would offer them up for the support of the ‘caretaker of souls’ [pastor], as well as for taking care of the poor.
In front of the places where the Christians gathered, there stood a poor-box, into which everyone placed a small free-will offering every month. If it needed more means, there then was gathered a congregational collection, into which everyone contributed from his earnings. Poor people who had nothing, also of course fasted, in order to give the needy what was spared that way.
The entire care for the poor in the congregation was overseen by the caretaker of souls. He had helpers, called deacons, who gathered the gifts and according to his directions distributed them to the poor. To that end they exactly looked after the needs of the poor.
Those, who during times of persecution were sitting in captivity or had to work in the mines and languished in construction work, thus knew that their own family members were being taken care of through the love of their brothers and thus received new steadfastness. Cyprian writes at the time of the persecution by Decius: “Do not let your zeal for the poor to fail; namely, for those who have not forsaken the camp of Christ, steadfastly and nobly fighting the battle by faith.” If a Christian was taken prisoner on account of his faith, then the congregations with great zeal cared for him. He was visited, he received the necessary food, also pecuniary resources in order to ease the stress of dealing with the situation. Anyone who had nothing would fast for a day and brought the saved food to provide for his imprisoned fellow brother. Especially one would take on the one who had been sentenced to the horribly rewarded job of working in the mines. The thank you letters of such martyrs are still preserved for us about the aid-rendering congregations.
With special love the Christian congregations took care of their widows and orphans. There existed homes for widows, in which these lived together. Only sixty-year-olds, who had a good witness, were taken into them. All, also the younger ones, received support from the congregation, if they needed it.
The orphans were raised at the expense of the congregation. The boys were taught the skills of hand-crafting and thus prepared for a calling. Also people adopted many orphans as their children.
Sick people were taken care of in their homes. There the deacon or pastor would visit them. The deacon had to examine whether the sick were in need, and then had to take care of everything to provide what was necessary.
You know the words of the Apostle: “Be doers of the Word and not only hearers.” This also applies to you! You gave a beautiful confession before the Christian congregation at your confirmation. But in this congregation you should now also serve your Lord Jesus. For that end result you have been enlightened with the Light of the Gospel by the Holy Spirit, so that you now through deeds confess by a pious life, by works of Christian love the faith you confessed with words at the altar. What rich opportunities you will have to make your Savior happy by serving the poor, the sick, the orphans! In every congregation there are people who completely or for a time rely upon the help of fellow believers. There also is for you opportunities, through all kinds of aid-rendering, in every case however to show through kind, sympathetic concern for the suffering of others, so that you are one of those youngsters who did so much good, calmed so much suffering, dried so many tears, as he pilgrimages among people. Anyone who knows Jesus as the Savior will also by faith follow the example that He gave to His disciples.
Perpetua and Felicitas.
Anyone who forsakes homes, or brothers, or sisters, or Father, or mother, or wife, or children, or fields for the sake of My Name, he will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. Matt. 19:29.
“Let this intention/resolve never waver, God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!” That’s what you sing in a confirmation hymn! The ‘resolve’, that the hymn mentions, is of course of the greatest importance for your entire life, indeed for all eternity. In confirmation you renounce the devil and his service, and promise to remain faithful unto death to the confession of the truth of the Holy Scriptures. That’s how serious the matter is. You would rather suffer death than to fall away from the church of Christ. God has always required such confession from His believers, both in the Old and New Covenant. He has however also at all times provided steadfastness to His believers. The Lord does this, since we would actually soon go down if we had to rely upon our own power. How our gracious God strengthens His believers in the hour of temptation and danger so that so that they themselves do not fear the most martyred death, for this yet one more thoughtful example.
In the year 202 A D Emperor Severus decreed a law that forbade with severe punishment the conversion to Christianity, and in general was regarded as charted excuse to persecute the Christians. This time it was particularly in North Africa that the Gospel had to suffer the rage of paganism against Christianity. Just when the conversion to Christianity was with this empirical decree made into a designated transgression, the first in line for persecution was against the catechumens, i.e. those who were thinking about receiving holy Baptism, or such who recently had converted to Christianity.
During this time there especially stand out two women who catch our amazed attention, Perpetua and her friend Felicitas.
Perpetua was a noble descent, just 22 years old, and had an excellent upbringing. Her mother was a Christian, her father still a heathen. She lived with here parents in Carthage when the persecution of the congregation there began. Her father tried to persuade her – in vain – to forego receiving baptism on account of the decree. She received holy Baptism.
Thereupon the constables immediately forced themselves into the home and took Pepetua away to prison. Her father came to her and begged her, in order to spare herself the torture and shame, to deny Christ. She answered: “I can call myself nothing other than what I am, a Christian.”
The hearing began. Yet once more the father tried to persuade his daughter to deny her faith. “Child!” he cried out, “have mercy upon my gray hair, I beseech you, don’t bring such disgrace and shame upon your father! Look at your baby,” – namely she held in her arms her firstborn baby boy born a short time before, - “that after your death he won’t be able to keep living. Don’t bring disgrace upon all of us!” And in tears he threw himself at her feet. Perpetua answered: “Father, when I stand before the judge on the stage, then will happen whatever God wants. For know this, we are not under our own might, but instead in the hand of our God.” And with deep sorrow the Father left her.
The Judge himself was deeply moved. Kindly he spoke to Perpetua: “Have pity on the gray hair of your father, on the tender age of your baby son; make a sacrifice to the Emperor!” She however replied briefly and conclusively: “Never ever!”
“So are you a Christian?” asked the judge.
“I am a Christian!” she repeated.
Now the sentence was decided. She, along with the others who had given the same joyful confession, was judged. They would all be thrown to the animals during the coming festival play. Joyfully they left the court house and returned back to prison.
Among Perpetua’s female companions there was a slave, Felicitas. She too had married young. In prison, shortly after the death sentence was hung over her, she gave birth to a child, which a sister took to herself and later reared it.
Finally the hour arrived. Yet one more time the judged ones, in fellowship received the holy Lord’s Supper; and then without trembling they walked, completely at peace and with dignified demeanor, into the Amphitheater. Coming inside, the men – Revokatus, Saturnius and Sekundulus – turned around once more to the assembled crowd and warned it with the judgment of God. To the judge they shouted out steadfastly and boldly: “Now you have judged us; someday however God will also judge you.”
Upon the men one now turned loose leopards, bears, and wild boars, for them to die their witnessing-death under their teeth. Perpetua with her friend Felicitas were to be ripped apart by a wild cow. By this raging animal they were severely wounded, but not wounded to death. The sharp sword of the executioner first made an end to their lives.
Every year with immeasurable popularity among the believers was celebrated the day of death of these martyrs in Carthage. Still today shines forth the remembrance among Christendom the wondrous mind of faith of these simple Christians, some who were men and women slaves, who amidst the persecution had just become Christians through Baptism, whose faith nevertheless overcame the world.
The Catacombs of Rome.
They, of whom the world was not worthy, wandered around in the wilderness and upon the caves and holes in the ground. Heb. 11:38.
A blessed gain that every child of God has from his Christianity is the certainty of a joyful resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Our Master has arisen and He will someday wake us up. That was the thinking which made the martyrs in ancient times and the warriors of Jesus Christ so cheerful at the time of their death. Even though the body becomes death’s booty and loot – on Judgment Day it will gloriously rise up and be placed before God’s face with joyfulness. The heathen did not know about such joyful hope. Upon heathen tombstones are found expressions like these: “This is my eternal home, here I am, and here I will remain.” How differently the inscriptions on Christian graves read! There we constantly encounter the joyful confidence, which grounds itself upon Jesus’ resurrection; the darkness of the grave was also made bright for the first Christians by the joyful op of life with God. It is worth the effort that we occupy ourselves a bit with the customs and practices of the first Christians at the burial of their dead. And first of all we have to hear something about the Roman Catacombs.
With the word ‘catacomb’ one indicates underground rooms that were used by the first Christians as burial places. The most famous Catacombs are those in Rome. They are wide-layered galleries or passages in the bosom of the earth. They are not under the city itself, rather conveniently located in the hills surrounding the city. Often two such galleries, sometimes even four and five, on top of each other in various stock-works, and crossed over each other in a special stock-work countless times, so that a veritable confusing maze confronted one in going in.
The galleries usually had a width of between two to four feet, thus in general they were very small. Its height varied according to the hardness of the rocks in which they were dug. The rocky walls on both sides were broken through with grave holes or niches, and in each of these niches lay one or more corpses. Often the galleries were crossed over by a square passage that led to a small room. Also in these rooms the walls were crammed full with grave holes.
Sometimes an entire room was designated for one family. One called this a cubicle or sleeping chamber; for death for a Christian is only a sleep. In the back recesses there were found in a kind of niche or offset the grave of a martyr.
In this section were cut out illustrations for the reader to view what was said. In one of our pictures can be seen three of the seven described inscribed entrances [Graebner has a picture in the middle of page 36]. On the other [the picture on page 37] the coffin places are clearly visible, also the grave of a martyr, with the inscription: CORNELIUS MARTYR. Also other inscriptions, in Greek as well as in Latin, are to be differentiated. These contain the information of the name and age of the Christians buried here.
Frequently the Christians conducted their worship services in these underground rooms. Initially this happened of course only on the date of death of those who were laid to rest here, especially the martyrs. As a result one would break through the ceiling of many rooms with a shaft which had its opening in the surface of the ground and brought in light and air into the rooms. In many sections of the Catacombs close to a hundred people could in this way attend the worship service, while an ever greater number were scattered in the rooms of the nearby galleries and there received the Sacrament from the hands of the deacons who had to bring it in to them there. Rooms that had no light shafts were then lit up with torches and lamps.
Already in early times these worship services suddenly interrupted by heathen breaking in. During the times of persecution, those who came together did not know whether the might not suddenly be confronted with a similar fate like those who were named at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as confessors and martyrs, or the plain graves with simple inscriptions that surrounded them. How celebratory serious such a worship must have been, truly initiated in order to strengthen the faith for a joyful confession. While many fell away, the remaining faithful locked themselves up here all the more crowded together in the fellowship of prayer.
The persecutions soon motivated the Christians to cover up from public view the entrance to their underground hideout. One walled off, buried or destroyed the entrance door and steps, and built entrances which led to daylight at a far off place. These entrance ways offered the Christians a means to flee even when their enemies themselves found a track into the Catacombs. If one of the Emperor’s henchmen, perhaps led by a betrayer, were to push his way into the cemetery, the believers could through a few feet of a thick wall of rock separate themselves from him, quietly crawl out another way. There also were steps whose bottom rung could only be reached through a ladder from the bottom. If all the Christians were up on top, one would pull up the ladder and then come out through a remote, out of the way passage way into freedom.
Since the discovery of the Roman Catacombs in the 1578 one has partially researched them and found various kinds of memorabilia. To this belongs, e.g. all sorts of children’s toys, like dolls, bells, and the like. Dolls, whittled out of ivory and bones, one found at times in the graves of girls, likewise also of boys, at times brought out of the same place. Little bells out of bronze and silver belonged to the most loved testimonies of children’s toys. These one found in great numbers in the graves of the children in the Catacombs. Also small clay ‘piggy-banks’ in which the children – namely on New Year’s Day – gathered coin gifts of of money.
In the burial places of the grownups one found jewels and gems, also a great number of hand mirrors out of metal, then also hair pins and combs, earrings and necklaces, and rings out of metal and ivory.
The previously found lamps obviously served mostly for lighting the passageways and rooms. Most of these Christian lamps were made of clay, many also out of bronze, there was even found one made of silver. They ordinarily were shaped in the form of a ship. One of these lamps is built in the form of a sail-ship. And on its rudder sits Christ, and at the front part is portrayed the deceased person – a person who is hurrying to the shores of eternity, carried by the rescuing ship of the church, whose rudder man is the Savior. Worth noting is also the large number of glass and clay jars in which there still can be seen traces of Lord’s Supper wine that they once contained.
On the walls of the Catacombs there still remain scrawled inscriptions that were brought there from the time of their first existence and later by visitors. Just like in our times a visitor, in remembrance of his visit to an important, significant historical place cannot resist to leave behind a testimony of his visit by scribbling his name on the wall, so also in ancient times visitors to the Catacombs could not resist leaving behind such a testimony to their visit. There one finds names scraped into the stone; names like Rusina, Felix, and Maximus, which have been standing there for one and a half thousand years. Next to them are also pious wishes, prayers, greetings to and for friends and relatives – both living and deceased. For fifteen hundred years ago one Christian visited the Catacombs, he came with a heart filled with the most tender, fond remembrances of a certain Sophronia – whether this was his wife, his mother or sister is unknown. In one of the front halls stands the inscription that is engraved into the stone: “Sophronia, may you live with your own!” Farther into the entrance: “Sophronia, may you live with God!” Then the pilgrim wrote on the main altar of the chapel: “Precious Sophronia, you will live with God forever!” And one more at the same place: “Sophronia, you will live!” That’s how in this dwelling of the dead was shown by this visitor the hope of immortality.
* * *
Death is swallowed up in victory. 1 Cor. 15:55.
As can be seen from the pictures in the previous section, the final resting places of the Christians in the Catacombs were seen with inscriptions, which have the name of the deceased, usually also the date of his death, age, status, etc., accompanied with a suitable tomb verse for passing over into the afterlife.
The names of the Christians sometimes still indicated the time of the bloody persecution and the public derision. Mocking and scolding name were laid upon the believers, and they had to bear it instead of their true names. Thus there stands upon one Christian tomb the name ‘Alogius’. Nobody was named that way out of free choice, for the name meant as much as ‘Stupid John’. Another was called ‘Malus’ – the wicked one; again another ‘Injuriosus’ – the harmful, noxious one; ‘Calumniosus’ – the contemptible one. Nobody would name himself like that; these are names; these are the names the hate of the heathen gave to individual Christians, and they had to keep them. This is called suffering shame, disgrace, for the sake of Jesus, right?
The heathen would write on the tomb remembrance of their dead the obituary: ‘May the earth be light for you!’ – ‘May your bones have a good rest!” – Upon Christian tombstones we read words like: ‘God revive you!” – ‘Live with the saints!’ – ‘Live with God!’ – ‘God refresh your soul in the dwelling place of the saints!’ – Or the prayer: ‘Let the soul of Your servant be revived in Abraham’s bosom!”
Upon the Christian graveyards, as well as in the Catacombs, also usually in the burial places of ancient times, we never encounter reproach against the fate or actual threats which the father, the son, the widower, which the members had to encounter against the authorities. An unending well-doing breath of peace and the committing oneself to God’s will wafts one out of this opposition against Christianity. Two expressions turn up again and again: ‘In peace’ and ‘This is what God willed’. Thus we read: ‘Here rests in peace with holy remembrance the Presbyter Euripus, who lived 27 years, 10 months, 18 days’. Again, quite simply: ‘Victoria. In peace’. ‘Maxima. In peace.’ ‘Faustimus. In peace.’
Ever again returns: ‘Sleep in peace’. Also: ‘He has traveled out of this world’, and: ‘Taken up by the Lord’, as well as: ‘He has gone to be with the Lord’.
The inscription upon a simple grave plate: ‘He lives!’ – ‘In peace!’ gave notice to the heathen that the Christians had become confident of everlasting life. Against no article of the Christian faith did the enemies direct their assault with such vigor as against the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. As the bodies of the martyrs at Lyon were burned and their ashes scattered into the Rhine [river], the heathen shouted out with frightful mockery: “Now let us see whether they will be resurrected!” Yet this glorious hope of the Christians was not subdued by any mockery, by any threats, by any, by any martyrdom. Steadfast in the faith they wrote on the tombstones of the sacrificed ones: ‘He has forsaken the world’. –
‘He lives in eternity.’ – ‘He rests in God.’ – ‘In peace.’
Two stone coffins.
And so he comes to peace. Everyone who has lived right will rest on his own bed. Isa. 57:2.
Would you like to know how the Christian congregation in the first three hundred years learned Bible stories? Bible stories, like we use in school, did not exist yet; also no Picture-Bibles. When a person wanted to show the children the holy stories with pictures, one would then go to the burial sites, for there one found stone coffins and marble slab tombs that were decorated with a large quantity of figures from the Bible stories, and on which the children saw placed before them to see what the grownups told them from the Bible.
Here you see such stone a coffin [p. 42] (also look at page 43). [There are two photos of stone coffins carved out with figures of people and one with a Chi Rho] They were found in the Catacombs and now stand in the Latin Museum in Rome.
In the middle of one of these stone coffins are to be seen incorporated the lifetime journey of the married couple. Above on the [upper] left side next to their portrait, is portrayed the feeding of the five thousand. The Savor is blessing the bread and the fish. On the [upper] right is presented the martyr’s death of James and the healing of a blind person. What a wondrous gracefulness in the expression on Jesus’ face! Further back stands the Good Shepherd with a lamb, between Adam and Eve. In the bottom quarters are seen presentations of the following Biblical stories: Jesus heals the hemorrhaging woman; Jonah is tossed into the sea and spit out from the fish; Daniel in the Lion’s Den; the taking into captivity [Babylonian]; Water out of the rock in the wilderness. The last image became of great benefit, and actually as a symbol of the living water, the Gospel.
The other coffin is older, which shows presentations of Christ’s sufferings. In the middle section stands the monogram of Christ [CR] upon a banner – the field-badge of Constantine the Great, called Labarum [Translator note: Labarum = Latin word meaning: A Roman military standard of later times, richly ornamented with gold and precious stones and bearing the effigy of the general. Constantine the Great placed upon it a crown, a cross and the initial letters – CR - Jesus Christus, and made it the imperial standard.] The surrounding border wreath is an emblem of the immortality, how also the fruit picking doves are to remind one about the renewal of the soul in eternity, while the cross, upon which the doves are standing, indicates the tribulations of this temporal life. The guards, which Constantine had placed to guard the holy banner, is presented by two soldiers under the cross – a symbol of the Christian-army, that whether it sleeps or is awake, lives or dies, finds its rest by the cross. Two side sections present the Lord there, of how He bore witness about Himself to Pontius Pilate. Over Him hangs a crown as a reward for those who confess Christ before people. On the other side [left side] is contained a presentation of the Lord, of how He under the guardianship of a soldiers carries His cross. Once again the crown dangles over the configuration, which will be given as a reward to those who carry their cross after the suffering Master.
I am the A and the W [the A and the Z], the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. Rev. 22:13.
Next to these inscriptions we find on ancient Christian memorial drawings a number of noteworthy emblems or symbolical signs.
One of the oldest ones and indeed the most significant of these signs was – the fish. The image of a fish shows up again and again, not only in the Catacombs or upon tombstones in other places, rather also upon rings and different garments, like also on lamps and glass dishes and earthen pots. In the graves of the Catacombs one found a large number of little fish on crystal, ivory and mother-of-pearl, also on expensive stones which many an ear had and were worn around necks.
It retained itself like that because: From the earliest of times on one would indicate Jesus with the words: ‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior’. One would shorten the up in that one only wrote the beginning letter [of each word – aka an acronym]. The Greek initial letter of the word for Jesus was the I; of Christ C; of God Q; of Son U; of Savior S. Thus there stood the initials: ICQUS. If one then left off the periods and let that be one word, a person would then read Icqus - and that is the Greek word for ‘fish’. Instead to then write these letters, one symbolized/drew a fish. This is also an emblem for Christ that contains a complete confession of faith: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the world – a person cannot express the content of the Gospel anymore briefly. That was the Christian faith that the world sought to destroy, but the faith that overcame the world.
Innumerable times one finds this symbol to arouse their courage against the opposition against ancient Christianity. Especially however upon gravestone inscriptions there would be the words ‘In peace’ and next to them the image of a fish. This was a very beloved inscription. Also many times next to the fish there was found the image of an anchor. That was an emblem for hope. Or their was inscribed a dove – an image of the soul of the sleeping ones, like the most often adjoining words ‘Pious soul’ or ‘Innocent soul’ indicated. At times one saw the dove placed there drinking out of a bowl or picking a grape – an emblem which indicated the joy and the drink of eternal salvation that lavished itself upon the soul. Also often the dove carried an olive branch in its beak – once more a symbol of peace. Also frequently the lamb showed up again as an emblematic sign of a Christian, either with or without adding an image of the Good Shepherd.
Very frequently there was used in inscriptions the monogram of Christ. It consisted of the Greek letters CHR [CR] written intertwined together – the beginning letters of Christ’s Name. This sign seemed very appropriate for the first Christians, because the Greek letter Ch [C] is like a cross.
Thus also in the emblems of the Christians everything pointed to Jesus, the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, Who gave up His life on the cross for the sheep.
I am writing to you youths, because you are strong, and God’s Word abides in you, and you have conquered the evil one. 1 John 2:14.
When the power of Jesus showed itself especially in the fearless confession of so many Christians during the times of the great persecutions, it shines forth to us in an ever greater measure in the testifying mindset of a Christian lad, whose name history has preserved for us.
We read in the above account about Blandina about the martyr death of the fifteen year old Pontikus. The same Emperor Mark Aurel, under whom Ponikus so joyfully went to his death, decreed a persecution over the entire Province of Burgundy, in which a young lad also fell as a sacrifice about whose judgment there has been preserved for us a precise message.
Symphoriamus, that was his name, belonged to a prominent family. A noble, pious mother had led him to Christianity. At an idol festival he did not show the required honor to the cloaked statue of the idol. And so he was seized and was dragged before the judge by an enraged crowd of people. To the questions about his name and reason for being there he calmly replied: “My name is Symphorious and I am a Christian.”
“You are a Christian?” responded the Judge. “That you confess to your other Name hardly matters; however, why did refrain from worshiping the idols?”
“Already previously I have confessed that I am a Christian. I worship the living God, Who dwells and reigns in heaven; your idols I will never ever give glory to your idol image, instead I also am prepared, if you will allow me, to shatter it to pieces with the hammer.”
He was flogged with rods and led into jail. At the next hearing one wanted with all kinds of allurements to get him to step away from Christianity. He was going to be lifted up to high honors in the Emperor’s Palace. Otherwise, however, he was going to be martyred and led to his death. Neither allurement nor threatening achieved their goals with Symphorianus. The sentence was read and the lad was lead away for retrial.
On the way to the place of execution in front of the city, his mother called out: “My son! My son! My Symphorianus, remain mindful of the living God! Remain steadfast, persevere steadfastly unto the end!” Fearlessly he kneeled in front of the executioner’s sword and received the stroke of death.
Under Decius another lad, the fifteen year old Dioskorus, was brought before the judge. Also him the official of the Emperor tried to tempt by talking to him, then with torture, but both in vain. Also as he saw his grownup relatives being beaten most horribly, and saw them being led away to a fiery death before his very eyes, he remained faithful to his confession. Astonished over such courage, the judge released him with the decision that he on account of his youthfulness would grant him some more time to come around.
Most of the heathen judges were of course strangers to such kindness. Mercilessly also the children were killed off.
The judge thought he could easily scare the lad Hilarianus. However after all the talking to and threats he had only one answer: “Do what you want with me, I am a Christian!”
“Well then,” repeated the governor, “I will let your nose and ears be cut off.”
“Do it,” retorted the lad, “but I still will remain a Christian!”
As then the death sentence was pronounced upon him, he cried out: “Thanks be to God!”
Also the martyr’s death of the lad Cyrillus in Caesarea is indeed to be placed during the time of persecution under Decius.
Carl Gerok in his ‘Palm-branches’ sung about it like this:
I am a Christian.
I am a Christian! So say you boldly, my child,
With that glancing fresh and friendliness to your teacher;
Yes, with the mouth one is a Christian in a moment,
Yet with the deed, my son, there it is far more difficult;
Take note and learn what this means and is: “I am a Christian.”
Cyrillus was a lad just like you;
The Word of the cross still lay in severe ban,
Yet his mother early in life led him to Christ,
Into the gruesomeness of yet unconverted men;
To them the cheerful lad’s first words were: “I am a Christian.”
There went out a command from Rome to murder,
That one should capture, torture and bind up Christians;
A bloody stream flowed through Caesarea,
The constables took the Praetor with the child,
Who first off asked him: “Speak up, lad, who are you?” “I am a Christian.”
“You are a fool, your father threw you out of your home.
And now, so young, you want to die such a horrible death?”
“O Sir, my Father’s house is in heaven,
Up there I shall inherit better goods;
So get on with it, you executioners, do what you must; I am a Christian.”
The rope was tied around his tender flesh,
Perhaps the courthouse would frighten his foolhardy venture!
He was led away to the high pile of wood,
Where the voraciously greedy little flames where licking their chops,
Yet joyfully he said underneath the murderous scaffold: “I am a Christian.”
The judged warned and pleaded with him for the last time,
The executioners, those inhumane men, were crying;
“Why are your crying over my brief torture?”
That’s how the joyful confessor comforted them,
“O just let me go home, just don’t delay the pain: I am a Christian.”
So then one led the young lamb to the slaughter-bench,
The people lamented loudly, only he remained unafraid,
Quietly upon the martyr-stake he glanced up to heaven,
The flames already had begun to touch and lick at him,
Yet there still echoed out of the fire that was consuming him: “I am a Christian.”
It is finished, the young lad’s noble spirit
Had soared up to the chorus of the victorious,
Where a brother angel showed him the wreath,
Where his mother happily hugged him,
And where his everlasting song of thanks and praise is: “I am a Christian.”
Who by faith conquered kingdoms, did righteousworks, received what was promised, shut the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped death by the sword… Heb. 11:54.
How finally did the Christian faith obtain the victory over the power of the paganism of the Roman Empire? It came about like it always does – the world simply had to simply surrender itself, had to concede, that with all its power and all its cunning it could not dampen the power of God that dwelled within the Christians. Very briefly listen to how heathenism finally had to give up the battle against Christianity.
Once more the fire of persecution blazed up with the penal judicature that Galerious decreed over the church in the Eastern Empire. Through mass murder one sought to eradicate Christianity. One would burn up entire congregations in their houses of God. One entire city with its residents, who were all Christians, was burned up. Galerius released a decree in which he ordered to kill all the Christians with a slowly burning fire. The Governors on their part competed to find newer ways of torture. At times the storm of persecution let up for a short time, only to have it then flare up even more severely. Then there appeared an Emperor’s order that the idol temples were to once more be built; all, men and women, free and salves, including the smallest of children were to be forced to offer up sacrifices and participate in the sacrificial meals. Here the shedding of blood began anew. However heathenism had not exhausted its power. It found itself to be powerless against the quite patience of the Christians. Even the executioners and trial judges were worn out.
Galerius, the instigator of this last persecution, was lying on his death-bed. With living bodily decay, he suffered the greatest of pains. Upon his death-bed he released in the year 311 A D the noteworthy order that discontinued the persecution. It contained in it that it was impossible for him to eradicate Christianity, and that most of the confessors ‘stiff-necked’ stubbornly refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. So he then allowed the Christians to exist and to conduct their gatherings, and added on to the order this sentence: “They now in accordance with this grace shown by us to them should pray to their God for our welfare, for the welfare of the government and their own, so that the government remain undivided on behalf of everyone and they themselves may live confidently.”
With this Galerius conceded that in the long battle Christianity had won the victory. Soon thereafter he died under indescribable agonizing pain.
[A picture of a statue with the inscription below]
Constantine the Great.
And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces. He will remove the disgrace of His people from the whole world. Isa. 25:8.
The official writing, in which the persecution was brought to an end, bears next to the signature of the dying Galerius also the witness signatures’ of Constantine and Licinius. They were two fellow emperors of Glerius, who also along with him reigned over certain parts of the empire.
Constantine was born in Serbia. In his youth he lived in the castle of the horrible Diocletian. His father was the ruler from Gllien, and after his death Constantine was raised up as Emperor by the soldiers. Already back then he availed himself as a friend and protector of the Christians.
After the death of Galerius, he still ruled for quite a long time jointly with Licinius. Now he demonstrated his kind attitude towards the Christians, in that he selected laws that then provided various protections for them, and in that he spent huge sums of money to replace destroyed churches. Yet at that time Constantine was still captive to heathen unbelief. Nevertheless he bore the worthiness of a heathen high priest, participated in the Easter festivals, and otherwise also indicated that he had not yet properly understood Christianity.
He had a bitter enemy in Maxentius, one of his fellow rulers, who ruled over Italy and North Africa. Maxentius showed himself to be so hostile that a civil war was inevitable. With a troop of only 40,000 men Constantine traveled over the Alps to Italy. As one realized that the troop of Maxentius was at minimum three times as strong, a grumbling went through Constantine’s battalions. The hazardous risk seemed so huge. Is it any wonder that Constantine in this situation looked for help from on high?
He himself told that he at that time deliberated a lot as to what god he should seek support from. In his need he prayed to the highest god, which his father had glorified as the sun-god, that he would let him know who he was. One day a miraculous thing appeared to him. As the sun was setting, he especially saw the light of a cross standing on the sun, and next to it from the reflection of the light was inscribed the words: “In this sign be victorious/conquer!” [Translator note: He saw it in Latin: In hoc signo vincit] Disturbed by this and still not sure about the meaning of the sign, Christ appeared to him that night and ordered him to make this sign of the cross into a battle-field emblem, and then with certainty achieve the victory in the battle.
In compliance with this directive Constantine let a standard be prepared with the cross and signature of Christ. That was the labarum. He himself placed a cross on his helmet, and His soldiers drew it on their shields. The slaughter happened on the Vilvischen Bridge to Rome. His lordship won a hard fought, bloody victory over the lordship Maxenius, triumphantly he conducted his entry into Rome, and soon all of Western Europe was under his power. Immediately after his entry into the main city he there let his statue be built with this particular flag staff in his hand and with the inscription: “Through this saving sign, the true sign of bravery, I have freed your city from the yoke this tyrannical despot.”
Upon the field-badge, upon the helmets and shields of the Roman soldiers, as well as also upon the coins there encounter us since that time the cross and the beginning letters [Tr. Note: CR in Greek] of the name of Christ. And even through Constantine was at that time still not ready to confess his conversion to Christianity; he nevertheless soon thereafter in Milan issued the famous edict by which complete freedom of religion was given was given to the entire Roman Empire. This was in the year 313 A D.
Without persecuting the heathen, Constantine tried in every possible way to promote Christianity. “We wish,” he wrote, “that the truth also be imparted to the heathen. However no one undertake to disturb the peace of another person.” If it was impossible to convert the heathen, then one should let them go their own way. Everyone should do what his soul thinks. No one should be forced to believe something against which he inwardly opposes. Without delay the churches now had all their buildings and plots of land saved for them. Also the Emperor handed over great sums for the construction of new houses of God, as well as for the support of the poor; he even provided Bibles for them. In his new residence in Constantinople he built a glorious church. With the opportunity at the great Synod at Nicaea in the year 325 AD he gave the attending Bishops a resplendent banquet.
As at Easter of 337 his health was failing, he became ill, which would be his final illness, he showed up in the church as a Catechumen, i.e., as on who wanted to receive holy Baptism. There he gave a confession of his sins and then gave himself in his heart to receive holy Baptism among the Bishops that were assembled there. Soon thereafter he died. Constantine reigned for thirty-one years, with all his undertakings promoted with unprecedented prosperity. In world history he bore the surname “The Great.” Even though he was not a member of the church until shortly before his death, and his name also was blotched with how many great things on this earth he had spotted with evil deeds, yet he nevertheless had been a instrument in God’s hand to bring about the longed for peace for His church from its enemies.
Julian the Apostate.
Sitting on His throne in heaven, the Lord laughs and mocks them. Ps. 2:4.
Yet one more time heathenism raised itself up again, under Julian the Apostate, who from 361 until 363 as the successor to Constantine reigned over the Roman Empire. Julian was reared as a Christian, but yet before his rising to the throne publically let it be known that he had become a heathen. He was convinced that he had the assignment to once more reestablish heathenism. Yet it was not in his plan to persecute Christians and to bring them to fall away through force. He knew that the Christian faith had victoriously withstood all such attempts. That’s why he attempted to bring it about more hidden and secretly. He took away the privileges that they had obtained from the previous Emperor. With every imaginable method one would try to motivate the Christians to honor the idol gods. Yet Julian still held on. In trying to win this battle he himself soon realized that he was fighting a loosing battle. In every place the temples [of the idols] stood deserted and forsaken. In many places they had collapsed and in their place Christians houses of God were erected. The faith in the gods itself had been extinguished.
At Antioch Julius refurbished a collapsed idol temple. Through the carelessness of a heathen it burned down soon after its dedication. Despite that, one placed the blame on the Christians, and it came to a bloody persecution. Yet, even though a row of confessors fell as a sacrifice, it did not last long. The ecclesiastical teacher Athanasius had it right as he comforted his congregation: “It is only a little cloud, it will soon go away.”
In Jerusalem, in order to please the Jews, Julian wanted to rebuild the Temple. An earthquake put an end to that effort.
Soon thereafter he began a warlike expedition against the Persians. With a powerful army he went against the old enemy of the Empire in the field. At the beginning everything went very well. Finally he nevertheless had to retreat, at which time an enemy’s arrow hit him in the hip. With a loud cry (according to tradition: “You Galilean, You have won the victory!”) he fell to the ground. He was carried into his tent, where after an hour he died.
“I fought the good fight, I ran the race, I kept the faith,” wrote Paul to Timothy in the face of the martyr’s death with which he soon would be confronted.
The life of a Christian today is also a fight. Of course the enemies that confront his soul, in outward appearance, are a less dangerous kind than the enemies of the church in ancient times. Today no heathen world-ruling Nero or Domitian or Decius thirsts for the blood of Christians. [Tr. Note: In this 21st century there are Christians in Africa and other places that are again undergoing such persecution]. No Julian is trying to reestablish the wrecking and ruining of ancient heathenism. The images of the Emperor, before whom one would try to force the Christians to sacrifice incense offerings to, have long since fallen down; and the temples and courthouses into which one demanded the Christians in the first centuries to denounce their Christian faith, have become ruins or have totally disappeared. The ancient heathenism has disappeared. So who then are the enemies who now intend to bring down the Church of God, and take away the faith of the believers – especially the young Christians? It is the huge unbelieving world that surrounds us, the world with its fleshly lusts and lusts of the eye and haughtily proud life-style, with its manifold allurements to sin and to fall away. In the time of the first persecutions, Peter in his first epistle likens the devil to a roaring lion that goes around and seeks who he might devour. If Satan also no longer rages against the body and life of Christians like in ancient ties, he nevertheless is still filled full with gruesome hatred towards Christ and His church, and he stalks after the individual child of God with all sort of allurements of the evil flesh, and tries to extinguish the light of faith through mockery and allurements of the world. To resist these temptations requires as much faith-mindedness as the testing which the church underwent in ancient times. Still always the fight between the Christian and his accusers is a fight of life and death. In this fight you also, young Christian, should prepare yourself as a true warrior of Jesus Christ. And since you out of your own power can accomplish nothing against the enemies of your soul, go into the weapon-closet of God, namely in God’s Word [Tr. Note: cf. Eph. 6:14-16], and there get out for yourself strengthening for the life-long battle against Satan, the evil world and the sinful flesh that confronts you. Thus by the power of the Spirit of God, Who is imparted to you in the Word, there will be doled out and bestowed to you the victorious outcome of the battle. Think often about your Holy Baptism, through which you once entered into the number of God’s children, where the heavenly Father promised you His grace and help for your entire lifetime. Diligently partake of the Sacrament of the Altar, for the strengthening of your faith – which sometimes wants to become so weak; and, for the sealing of God‘s grace to you – which for the sake of Christ’s merits covers up all your transgressions. Endure in such faith until the end, thus you will obtain the blessed goal, which also the heavenly calling holds before you.
[This is not part of the above translation:]
Now the light has gone away;
Father, listen while I pray.
Asking Thee to watch and keep
And to send me quiet sleep.
Jesus, Savior wash away
All that has been wrong today;
Help me ev’ry day to be
Good and gentle, more like Thee.
Let my near and dear ones be
Always near and dear to Thee;
Oh, bring me and all I love
To Thy happy home above.
Now my evening praise I give;
Thou didst die that I might live.
All my blessings come from Thee;
Oh, how good Thou art to me!
Thou, my best and kindest Friend,
Thou wilt love me to the end.
Let me love Thee more and more,
Always better than before.