FAITH & REFLECTION — While still in college I read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It was published in 1563 under the title of The Actes and Monuments by British clergyman and historian John Foxe. This book and other resources reveal that accounts of martyrdom in Christian history are numerous and remarkable. In fact, there was a time in church history that there were so many martyrs and so many more willing to be martyrs, that church leadership had to place stipulations upon what constituted true martyrdom as opposed to someone zealously, but unnecessarily allowing their lives to be forfeit.
One astonishing account, from A.D. 320, tells of 40 men being martyred simultaneously. They are referred to as the 40 martyrs of Sebaste. These men were soldiers in the 12th Legion of Rome’s Imperial Army.
The captain, under the direction of Emperor Licinius, commanded all soldiers to offer homage and sacrifice to the emperor’s favorite pagan god.
By and large, the troops obeyed the Imperial edict. However, 40 of the soldiers were followers of Jesus and they refused. They told their commander, “You can have our armor and even our bodies, but our hearts and our allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ.”
Hearing of this, Licinius decided to make an example of these rebels. It was the middle of winter and they were marched out onto Lake Sebaste, stripped naked and told “Renounce your God and you will be spared from death!” Not a single man recanted, so they were left there overnight.
They huddled together, shivering and preparing to die, but throughout the night, they quoted Scripture and sang hymns about Christ and victory through Him.
Morning revealed that 39 of the men had frozen to death. The one survivor reneged on his commitment to Christ, and was allowed to live. However, the officer in charge that night had been dramatically moved by the men’s bravery, the reciting of Scripture and the words of their hymns. In fact, over the course of his watch, he had come to personal faith in Jesus himself!
To the amazement of all, he broke rank, walked out onto the ice, stripped his clothes and openly confessed his faith in Christ. He was commanded to renounce Jesus, but he refused. Some hours later, 40 Christian men, frozen to death, were carried off the lake.
What is the proper Christian view of this event? Were there 40 victims who lost their lives and one victor who saved his, or were there 40 victorious Christians, and one defeated individual?
Perhaps the opinion of an authority on the topic will help.
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” – Jesus (Matthew 16:25).