If you were to ask a theologian what have been the main things that turned Christianity from the small sect it had begun as, to the greatest faith the world has ever known (over 2 billion people are believed to be Christians – nearly 30% of the world’s population and more than any other religion), they tend to come up with 3 main historical events:
- The impact the early Christians had in looking after and caring for all people, including those who persecuted them
- The miraculous conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD where he saw “a cross shaped trophy formed from light”. Within a decade Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire
- The power of the Christian Martyrs who were persecuted or killed for refusing to deny Christ’s divinity
An important part of my coming to faith was when one such theologian was recounting the story of one martyr by the name of Vivia Perpetua. However, the theologian broke down whilst telling the story- so affected was she by the story and what it meant to her. For someone who is trying to be objective about Christian history, that tells you something.
So, although the story of Perpetua is vague in parts thanks to her being perhaps the first ever diarist, we can still read her words today. It is believed that she lived in the early 200AD period and was from what we now regard as modern day Tunisia and she, like other Christians at that time were being persecuted by the Emperor Septimius Severus, because they refused to pay homage to him or the Roman gods.
Now Perpetua was believed to be only 22, already widowed, educated, and was a Christian but had yet to be baptised, and with 4 other Christians from her household she was arrested and thrown into prison, awaiting execution.
Perpetua though was not afraid of being killed as she had a vision one day where she saw a golden ladder, guarded by a fierce animal, she saw herself climbing it and stepping on the animal’s head. When she looked around, she found herself in a green meadow with white robed figures alongside a shepherd who welcomed her and give her food. When she awoke, she understood that she must die for Christ.
After several days in jail she heard that she and her group were to have a court hearing to decide their fate, and Perpetua’s father came to see her to beg that she make the decision to live. Perpetua looked at her father and said:
On that scaffold, whatever God wills shall happen,
For we know that we are not placed in our own power but in that of God.
Perpetua and her band of friends were given a chance to live if they were to recant their faith and honour the Roman gods. Her father continued to urge her to do that, but she said to him these extraordinary words:
Father, do you see this vase here?
“Yes, I do”, he replied
Could it be called by any other name than what it is?
“No”, he said
“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am- a Christian”
Her guards thought highly of Perpetua and her friends and she was able to be Baptised before they were taken to the roman amphitheatre where wild beasts were set on them and Perpetua at the front of them was tossed around by a fierce animal but she saw her servant Felicity wounded. She went to her, took her hand, and raised her up, and the crowd in the arena insisted they be allowed to recover.
Perpetua and her friends then came together in the centre of the area, give each other a farewell kiss of peace and all but Perpetua were run through by a sword. The young executioner who was to seal her fate was shaking and just could not do it, so she guided his hand and sword to her throat.
Perpetua like so many brave Christians down through the ages was true to God’s word. She understood The Truth and it was something that she and her companions were compelled to follow- someone wise once said that “A truth not acted upon becomes a poison”. Perpetua could so easily have followed her father’s wishes and lived on, but she knew that as a Christian she could only honour the one true God and Father. Jesus was and is real and she could not deny Him.
As Christians, we are called to carry out God’s word and work. Often, it is not an easy road we have to travel, it can be easier for us to ignore what we are being called to do but do it we must. There is nothing more urgent today then us listening to God and to follow his wishes. Perpetua showed us the way.