The story of martyrdom in the history of the early church is the story of early Christianity and its spread across time and everywhere. It illuminates the way to the kingdom with the light of true faith granted to us from the Father through His only begotten Son. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This great love was manifested on the cross, as He made Himself a sacrifice of atonement for the whole world, in order to bestow salvation and eternal life to all who believe in him and want to live a life of holiness. The pure life, deeds and virtues of those martyrs are luminous before our eyes, encouraging us to walk in their footsteps to enjoy our eternity.
The heavenly crowns, prepared for the martyrs, are the crowns of martyrdom, victory, chastity, ministry, giving, sacrificial love and witnessing to Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us to bring us holy and blameless before Him in love.
The Christian martyrdom is a practical proof on the truthfulness of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24). Justin Martyr says: “Here you can clearly see that when our heads are cut off and we are crucified, thrown away to the wild beasts, or tied by chains, and put into fire, and suffered all kinds of torture, we do not leave our faith. But as far as we are punished by these tribulations, more Christians are added to the believers in the name of Jesus Christ. The vinedresser cuts vine branches bearing fruit, even to let other branches grow, and this process makes it livelier and more productive. This is what happens with us. The vine implanted by God our Savior, Jesus Christ is His people.”
The Cross before the time of Christ
At the time of Jesus’ death, crucifixion was the most painful and degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. It was considered so horrible that it was used by the Romans only for slaves, those from the provinces under their jurisdiction, and for the worst types of criminals. It was not to be used for a Roman citizen. This is in accord with the Biblical account of Christ’s death, as He was sold for a slave’s price and counted among the criminals. This is also in accord with the church’s history that states that St. Peter was crucified, but St. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded.
Crucifixion as a mean of execution probably grew out of the practice of displaying the heads of captured enemies or criminals on a wood post, like those used to build a wall or erect fortifications. Later, entire bodies were impaled. By Jesus’ time, crucifixion was a common sight.
The suffering of the Cross
Although methods of crucifixion seem to have varied throughout the Roman Empire, through Biblical and historical accounts the basic patter is known. The condemned person was first scourged with a flagellum, a whip of leather thongs with bits of metal or bone attached. This whipping greatly weakened him, who then had to carry the cross to the place of execution. A sign specifying the crime was often placed around the criminal’s neck or on the cross. The person was stripped naked, and according to the old custom, it was allowed for those who fulfilled the process of crucifixion to divide the garments of the crucified person among themselves. Then he was laid on the ground with the crossbeam under his shoulder, and tied or nailed to the cross, the same for the feet. The cross was lifted and secured to a post so that the person’s feet were hanging just off the ground. The height of the cross was about seven feet. This means that the wild animals and the birds of prey were able to snatch peaces from the crucified body.
Although the pain was excruciating and the wounds were bleeding, some victims survived on the cross for days. As in the case of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, the legs of a crucified person were sometimes broken to make him die quickly. This caused massive shock, followed by loss of circulation and heart failure, and asphyxia in case of breaking their legs.
Although completely innocent of all sin, Jesus suffered the most horrible punishment known. But His agonizing death was not an ordinary death, for it was not the final chapter. Jesus turned this apparent defeat into the most glorious victory the world has ever known. Through His suffering and death, He crushed the devil, abolished death, removed sin, and defeated the world, offering salvation to those who believe in Him (John 3:16). Then after His resurrection from the dead three days later, Jesus empowered His disciples with a new message, the Good News to the world, that He had finally defeated the power of sin and death.