The Martyrs of Lyon
24 November 2013
Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven, I have come to the part of the book in which the author examines martyrdom in early Church history. In so doing, he refers extensively to the first book ever written on the subject: Historia Ecclesiastica by fourth-century bishop, historian and theologian, Eusebius of Caesarea.
Because this has been such a well-known book for the past 1,700 years, I'm not sure why I haven't "discovered" it until now! The quickest and cheapest way for me to get a copy was a Kindle version of the book translated into a King-James style of English. I also bought a paper version, somewhat abridged, translated into a much more modern English by Lutheran historian Paul L. Maier — Eusebius: The Church History.
In Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven the author devotes quite a few pages to the account of the Martyrs of Lyon in 177 A.D. Eyewitnesses wrote down the details and sent the letter to the churches which flourished at that time in what is now modern-day Turkey. Eventually the letter, or a copy of it, made its way to Eusebius and was included in his book on Church history in the first quarter of the fourth century. I was surprise to find that this account is NOT included in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.
This story is so astonishing and moving that I want to share it in its entirety below. Keep in mind that the words "witness" and "martyr" in Greek are one and the same, so wherever you see one of these English words in the following account, the other word would be just as valid. The older English translation seems to use the word "witness" more, while the newer version seems to favor "martyr." For these early Christians this distinction was irrelevant — in their way of thinking, to be a witness for Yeshua (Jesus, Isa) was to give up their life for Him.
The intensity of the tribulation here, the awful rage of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed martyrs are beyond description or writing. For the Adversary [Satan], in a foretaste of his future activities (Revelation 12:7-12), attacked us with all his might. He used every means to train his followers against the servants of God, so that we were not only excluded from homes, public baths, and marketplaces, but were even forbidden to appear anywhere. But the grace of God led the conflict against Satan by strengthening the weak, setting them as firm pillars who, through patience, were able to endure all the wrath of the Evil One. They engaged in battle with him, subject to all kinds of shame and injury as they clung to Messiah, demonstrating that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).Although I greatly appreciate Mr. Maier's modern English translation, I was unhappy that he omitted some sentences which I felt added important meaning to the account. Therefore, once I had finished typing out Mr. Maier's version, I compared each paragraph to the old English version, and made the necessary adjustments. Sometimes I had to add back into the story whole sentences. Sometimes I had to reword Mr. Maier's sentences because his version changed the meaning. The resulting account above is therefore a synthesis between the old and the new, giving us the best of both worlds.
First they endured the full abuse of the mob: the shouting, beating, dragging, plundering, imprisonment, stoning, and all that a furious rabble does against its hated enemies. Then they were dragged into the marketplace and indicted by the tribune and the city authorities, and when they confessed Yeshua as Lord they were imprisoned to await the governor's arrival. When they were brought before him and treated very cruelly, Vettius Epagathus intervened, who had observed all the Lord's commandments so meticulously that, despite his youth, his reputation equaled that of the elder Zacharias (Luke 1:5-6). Filled with love for God and neighbor and brimming with anger at the unreasonable judgment against us, he asked for permission to speak in our defense and show that we were neither ungodly nor impious. Those around the tribunal shouted him down, as he was a man of status, and the governor rejected his reasonable request, asking only, "Are you a Christian?" In the clearest manner, Vettius replied that he was and joined the ranks of the martyrs himself. He was called the "advocate of the Christians," but he had the Advocate (Holy Spirit — John 14:16-17) in himself, as evidenced in the love by which he laid down his own life for the defense of the brethren as a true disciple of Messiah, "following the Lamb wherever He goes" (Revelation 14:4).
The rest were then divided, as the first martyrs readily and eagerly made their confession of martyrdom. Others, however, appeared unprepared and untrained — they were not equal to the struggle, and ten of them proved "stillborn," causing us much anguish and restraining the enthusiasm of those not yet arrested. Despite their afflictions, however, they remained with the martyrs and did not desert them. At that point we were all plagued by uncertainty about their confession, not fearing the impending suffering but afraid lest anyone fall away from God.
Lyon and Vienne] were collected. Some of our non-Christian servants were also arrested, since the governor had decreed that we should all be prosecuted. Ensnared by Satan and in dread of the torments they saw the saints suffering, they falsely accused us — prompted by the soldiers — of cannibalism and incest, as well as things we should not even speak or think about. When these rumors spread, people turned against us like beasts, and even those who had previously shown moderation as friends raged against us, fulfilling the Lord's statement, "An time is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God" (John 16:2). Then, finally, the holy martyrs endured sufferings beyond all description as Satan tried to wring blasphemy even from them.
The full fury of the mob, the governor, and the soldiers fell on Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne; on Maturus, a novice but a heroic contender; on Attalus, who had always been a pillar among the Christians in Pergamum; and on Blandina, through whom Messiah proved that what men think lowly God deems worthy of great glory (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). When we were all afraid, and her mistress was herself facing martyrdom and distressed lest she through bodily weakness be unable even to make a confession of Yeshua, Blandina was filled with such power that those who tortured her from morning to night grew exhausted and admitted that they were beaten, for they had nothing left to do to her. They were astounded that she was still alive, since her whole body was smashed and lacerated, and they claimed that any one of the tortures was enough to end life, let alone the cumulative effect of a succession of them. But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, gained in strength while confessing the faith and found comfort and relief for her suffering by saying, "I am a Christian, and nothing wicked happens among us."
Sanctus too endured all the outrageous cruelty with superhuman courage. Although the wicked applied persistent tortures to wring something wrong from him, he resisted with such tenacity that he did not even tell them his own name, race, city of origin, or whether he was slave or free but replied to every question, in Latin, "I am a Christian." Therefore the governor and the torturers were eager to break him, and, when all else failed, they finally pressed red-hot plates of brass against the most tender parts of his body. These were burning, but he remained unyieldingly steadfast in his confession, refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly water of life that flows from Messiah (John 7:37-39). His body was a witness to his torment: it was all one wound, mangled and shorn of human shape, but Yeshua, suffering in that body, manifested His glory, vanquished the Adversary and showed that there is nothing to fear where the Father's love is and nothing painful where Messiah's glory is.
After some days, the wicked again applied the same tortures to the martyr, assuming they would subdue him now that his body was swollen and inflamed — he could not stand even the touch of a hand — or that his dying from torture would terrify the rest. But nothing of the sort happened: beyond all belief, his body arose and stood erect in the midst of these new tortures and regained its former appearance and the use of its limbs. Through the grace of Messiah, then, his second bout on the rack became not torment but healing!
Biblis too, one of those who had denied Yeshua, the Devil brought to torment by forcing her (presumed fragile and broken) to say evil things about us, assuming he had already devoured her and hoping to damn her through blasphemy as well. But she recovered on the rack, awakening as if from a deep sleep, and reminded through her present anguish of the eternal punishment in hell, she contradicted the blasphemers: "How could such people eat children when they are not even permitted to eat the blood of irrational animals?" From then on she confessed that she was a Christian and joined the ranks of the martyrs.
When the tyrannical tortures had been overcome by Messiah through the perseverance of the blessed saints, the Devil thought up other devices: imprisonment in filth and darkness, stretching feet in stocks to the fifth hole, and other atrocities that angry jailers, full of the Devil, inflict on prisoners. Thus, many of them were strangled in prison, while others were tortured so cruelly that it seemed impossible for them to survive, yet they did so. Deprived of human help but strengthened by the Lord and invigorated both in body and soul, they exhorted and encouraged the rest. But the young, recently arrested and unaccustomed to torture, could not endure confinement and died in prison.
The blessed Pothinus, Bishop of Lyons, was more than ninety years old and physically weak. He could scarcely breathe but was fortified by his fervor for martyrdom. Though his body was worn out by old age and disease, his life had been preserved for this moment so that Messiah might triumph in it. He was dragged before the tribunal by soldiers, accompanied by local authorities, and with the populace shouting at him as if he were Yeshua Himself. But he gave a noble witness. When the governor asked him, "Who is the god of the Christians?" he replied, "If you are worthy, you will know." Then he was dragged about mercilessly, pummeled by hands and feet that showed no respect for his age, while those at a distance hurled whatever was at hand at him, all imagining that they were avenging their gods and thinking that they would be guilty of great wickedness and impiety if any possible abuse were omitted. He was thrown into prison, barely breathing, and died two days later.
Then a great outpouring of God occurred, and the measureless mercy of Yeshua was revealed in a rare manner but not beyond the skill of Messiah. Those who had denied Him at the first arrests were imprisoned with the others despite their denial, and also charged as foul murderers and punished doubly, whereas those who confessed their faith were imprisoned as Christians, with no additional charges. For the burden of the faithful was lightened by the joy of martyrdom, the hope of God's promises, love for Messiah, and the Spirit of the Father. But the deniers were tormented by their consciences, as was obvious from the look on their faces, which made them easily distinguishable from the rest. The faithful emerged with a joyful smile, glory, and grace, wearing their chains as jewelry and perfumed with the sweet aroma of Messiah (2 Corinthians 2:14-16), so that some thought they had used earthly cosmetics. The deniers were depressed, humbled, and wretched, ridiculed by the heathen as miserable cowards. They were accused of murder and had lost the one honorable, glorious and life-giving Name. This sight firmed up the rest: those who were arrested confessed their faith without hesitation and ignored the Devil's promptings.
After this, the martyrdoms occurred in all varieties, like so many shapes and colors of flowers woven into one crown to offer the Father. It was proper therefore that these noble "athletes," having endured much suffering and conquering mightily, should receive their own crown, great and incorruptible (1 Corinthians 9:25, James 1:12, Revelation 2:10). Maturus, Sanctus, Blandina, and Attalus were taken to the beasts in a special public exhibition of heathen cruelty at the amphitheater of Lyon. Maturus and Sanctus were again subjected to every torture as if they had not suffered previously, or rather, as if having already conquered their antagonists in many contests, they were now striving for the crown of victory itself. Again they ran the gauntlet of whips, the mauling by beasts, and whatever the crazed mob demanded, and finally the iron chair, which roasted their bodies and tormented them with the stench. Not even then did their persecutors cease, but in mounting frenzy they tried to overpower the martyrs' resistance. Yet they got nothing more from Sanctus than the confession of faith he had made from the beginning.
After their long ordeal, they were finally sacrificed, having been made throughout that day a spectacle to the world (1 Corinthians 4:9), in place of the usual gladiatorial contests. Blandina, however, was hung on a stake and offered as food to wild beasts that were let loose. She appeared as if hanging on a cross, and her constant prayers greatly inspired her fellow victims, who saw the One who was crucified in the form of their sister, to convince all who suffer for Messiah that they have eternal fellowship with the living God. When none of the animals would touch her, she was taken down from the post and returned to the jail, to be reserved for another ordeal so that her victory might encourage the believers. Small, weak, and despised, yet clothed with Messiah the mighty and conquering Athlete, she stirred up the zeal of the believers. Having many times overcome the Adversary throughout her conflict, she sought the incorruptible crown.
The throng loudly demanded Attalus, since he was well known. He entered as a ready contender with a clear conscience, well trained in Christian discipline and a constant witness to the truth. He was led around the amphitheater with a placard carried before him, on which was written, in Latin, "This is Attalus, the Christian." The people were frenzied in fury against him, but when the governor learned that he was a Roman citizen, he ordered him returned to jail with others about whom he had written the emperor and was awaiting a reply.
Their time of respite was not wasted or fruitless. The measureless compassion of Yeshua was revealed through their endurance, and through their continued life the dead were being made alive, the martyrs conferring grace on those who had failed martyrdom. Through them a majority of those who had lapsed were restored and reborn; rekindled with life they learned to confess Messiah. God, who does not desire the death of sinners (Ezekiel 33:11), showed them Him kindness by mercifully inviting them to repent. They went to the tribunal to be interrogated by the governor again, for Caesar Marcus Aurelius had written that they should be tortured to death but that if any recanted they should be set free. At the beginning of a local festival, attended by a vast number of heathen, the governor led them to the tribunal, making a spectacle of them for the throng. Examining them again, he beheaded all who seemed to possess Roman citizenship and sent the rest to the beasts. Messiah was greatly glorified by those who had earlier denied Him but now confessed, contrary to the expectation of the heathen. For they were examined individually with the intention of releasing them, but they confessed and joined the ranks of the martyrs. There were also outsiders who had never had a trace of faith, nor an understanding of the fear of God, nor concern about being without a proper wedding garment (Matthew 22:11-14), but as sons of perdition they blasphemed the Way (Acts 9:2) by their faithless conduct. However, all the rest were added to the Church.
While these were being examined, Alexander, a Phrygian by birth and a physician by profession, who had lived in Gaul [France] for many years and was well known for his love of God and boldness of speech (for he was not without a share of apostolic grace), stood by the tribunal and by gestures urged them to confess Messiah. It seemed to those standing around the tribunal that he was in birth pangs. But the crowd, angry that the deniers were once again confessors, shouted that Alexander was the one responsible. The governor summoned him and asked him who he was. When he replied, "A Christian," the governor was enraged and condemned him to the beasts.
The next day Alexander entered the amphitheater with Attalus, whom the governor, to please the mob, was giving back to the beasts. After enduring all the devices of torture and very great conflict, they were finally sacrificed. Alexander uttered not a sound, communicating with God in his heart, while Attalus, when roasting in the iron chair with the stench rising from his body, told the crowd, in Latin: "Look! Eating men is what you are doing! We neither eat people nor commit any crimes!" When asked God's name, he replied, "God doesn't have a name as a human does."
In addition to all this, on the last day of the games Blandina was again brought in, with Ponticus, a lad of about fifteen. Each day they had been led in to watch the torturing and were urged to swear by the idols. Furious at their steadfast refusal, the ungodly showed no sympathy for the boy's youth or respect for the woman but subjected them to every torture and repeatedly urged them to swear by the idols. Ponticus, encouraged by his sister in the faith so that even the heathen could see that she was assuring and strengthening him, bravely endured each horror until he gave up his spirit. Last of all, the blessed Blandina, like a noble mother who had comforted her children and sent them on triumphantly to the King, rejoiced at her own departure as if invited to a wedding feast. After the whips, the beasts, and the iron chair, she was finally put into a net and thrown to a bull. Having been tossed about by the animal, but feeling none of the things which were happening to her on account of her hope, her firm hold upon what had been entrusted to her, and her communion with Messiah, she also was sacrificed. The heathen themselves admitted that never before had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.
But not even all this was enough to satisfy their madness and cruelty toward the saints. For, incited by the Wild Beast (Satan), these wild and barbarous people were not easily appeased, and their violence found another peculiar opportunity by way of the dead bodies. For, through their lack of human reason, the fact that they had been conquered did not put them to shame, but rather the more inflamed their wrath like that of a wild beast, and aroused both the hatred of governor and people to treat us unjustly, that the Scripture might be fulfilled: "He that is lawless, let him be lawless still, and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still" (Revelation 22:11). Therefore they threw to the dogs those who had died of suffocation in jail, watching day and night to prevent us from burying the bodies. And they exposed the human remains left by the wild beasts and by fire, mangled and charred, and placed the heads of those beheaded by their bodies, and guarded them in like manner by a military guard for many days to prevent burial. Some raged and gnashed their teeth at the dead, desiring to execute more severe vengeance upon them; others laughed and jeered, glorifying their idols for punishing their foes. Even the more reasonable, and those who had seemed to sympathize somewhat, taunted, "Where is their God?" and "What did they get out of their religion, which they preferred to their own lives?" We, however, greatly grieved at not being able to bury the bodies. Though we begged for permission and even offered payment, although we hoped the cover of darkness would aid us, still they kept continual watch, as if the prevention of burial would be of some great advantage to them.
After they were exposed and insulted for six days, the martyrs' bodies were burned to ash and swept by the wicked into the Rhone, which flows nearby, so that not even a trace of them would still appear on the earth. They did this as if to conquer God and defeat their resurrection, saying, "Now let's see if they will rise again, and if their God is able to help them, and to deliver them out of our hands!"
The heartrending yet inspiring story of the Martyrs of Lyon paints a vivid picture of our rapidly-approaching Islamic future. What happened on a small scale there in Lyon, and elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire, will be multipied and magnified to an unheard-of scale as Islam imposes it Sharia law on more and more of the world. Yeshua said of this time:
"For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God's chosen ones." (Matthew 24:21-22)Therefore, we must take this account of early Christian martyrs to heart, and prepare our hearts to face the same suffering so that we can win the same victory. Take special note in the story that there were those who had been prepared and trained for martyrdom, and those who had not. These are times that test men's souls, to reveal, for all to see, what is really inside them. We can also be encouraged by this account that God's abundant grace is there to sustain His children is their time of great need. As the author of Hebrews wrote:
Therefore, since we have a great High Priest who has ascended into heaven, Yeshua the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet He did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Let us fix our eyes on Yeshua, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.... See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:2,3,15)