Welcome to 2017 Summer Book Club!
This year we will be reading “Water From A Deep Well: Christian Spirituality From Early Martyrs To Modern Missionaries” by Jerry Sittser.
Jerry was one of my favorite professors at Whitworth University. In this book he writes about some of the major movements in the history of Christianity. Each week I will blog about a couple of the main themes of the chapter.
I want to hear from YOU too! We all have a busy travel schedule throughout the summer. This blog is one way to stay in touch with the church while you are away. Please share your thoughts, insights and questions about the book in the comments of the post. Also, if you are traveling somewhere fun, post pictures in the comments!
Week One- Witness
Admittedly, beginning with martyrdom is a strange way to start a book. Yet this is where we must begin because Christians in the first and second centuries were under the constant threat of persecution. The word witness in Greek comes from the root word for martyr in english. These stories of early Christian martyrs are stories of the first Christians witnessing to their faith in Jesus, no matter the cost.
Theme One- Reasons for Persecution
A major theme of this chapter was studying the reasons why early Christians suffered persecution from the Roman government.
Sittser writes “As late as the year A.D. 200, scholars say, the church did not comprise much more than 1 percent of the population. Rome was actually quite tolerant of these new religions. Yet Rome persecuted the Christians. There was something about this one religion that set it apart, making it an obvious target.” (Sittser 32)
Rome was perfectly content with adding new gods to its pantheon of gods. The trouble with Christianity is that it refused to accept Jesus as one God among many. For Christians, Jesus is Lord. In a pluralistic society, Christians were stubbornly exclusive in their belief of one true God.
Early Christians were misunderstood by Roman culture. For example, Rome heard of Christians celebrating the sacrament of communion by eating Jesus’ body (the bread) and drinking his blood (the wine) and accused Christians of cannibalism. In addition, Rome saw that Christians often referred to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and assumed that Christians were practicing incest.
Christians were viewed as anti-Roman because they often separated themselves from Roman culture. They did not attend “the games” in the arena because they did not believe in bloodsport. Christians avoided buying idols in the marketplace and were accused of hampering the Roman economy. “Christians were martyred because they would not bow the knee to Rome, sacrifice to the emperor as a god and treat the empire as if it had ultimate authority.” (Sittser 41)
For these reasons, Christians came under intense persecution of Rome.
Theme Two- Stories Of Martyrdom
Personally, I found it very challenging to read the stories of the early Christians martyrs. These were real people with real families and real hopes for the future. And they were arrested, interrogated and eventually killed because of their faith.
The first Christian martyr story is recorded in our Bible. Stephen is stoned to death by a crowd because he believes Jesus to be the fulfillment of Jewish history. Unfortunately, Stephen was the first of many early Christians who were killed because of their faith.
The story of the young, affluent mother, Perpetua, was especially challenging to read. She lived in North Africa and was a member of a prominent family when she was arrested. She was offered a release from prison if she cursed Christ and made a sacrifice to the emperor. Her own father begged her to give up her faith so that she would live. “Think of your child!” her father pleaded.
Perpetua continued to repeat “I am a Christian” and was condemned to the arena.
Polycarp was an old man by the time he was arrested and put on trial. He was pressured to deny Christ and swear his allegiance to Caesar. His response: “For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Polycarp was then burned at the stake.
A common theme in these early martyrdom stories is that the martyrs do not exhibit much fear in the face of violence. Their trust in God is so high that even when they are facing down the beasts and gladiators in the arena, they continue to worship and praise God. Their stories are truly a remarkable witness to their faith in Jesus.
What are we to do with the stories of these early Christian martyrs?
We can replicate their passion and conviction for the gospel. “The martyrs did not die to prove something to God or earn something from God but to witness to the life they had received as a gift from God. This gift was so precious and priceless to them that they would not keep it a secret…The martyr’s fate might not be ours. But their faith and conviction must be.” (Sittser 48)
In The Comments…
- Share with us your thoughts and reactions to the early martyr stories.
- Post a picture or description of what you did this week!