Posts Tagged ‘Perpetua’

carthageI want to do something a bit different today. I want to tell you the story of a Christian who’s example can both teach us and encourage us to live more faithfully ourselves. And then at the end I will highlight some specific points of  faithfulness in our story from the Scriptures.

Our story takes place in Carthage, North Africa in the early 200’s. So this was 1,800 years ago. Carthage was a part of the Roman empire. It is now in modern day Tunisia.

At this time it was not legal to be a Christian. Now the authorities didn’t usually seek Christians out, but nevertheless if they became known they would try to force them to renounce their faith and to offer up worship to the Roman emperor. But this appears to be an unusual case of when the authorities were actually looking for Christians to persecute.

Several young people, who were being prepared for baptism were caught by the Roman authorities. One of these was a woman named Perpetua. She was 22, well-educated and had an infant son. (Her husband is never mentioned, so perhaps she was a widow.)

This is her story

1. Her arrest. When she was arrested, her father, who was not a Christian, pleaded with her to renounce her faith so that she could be freed. This is what she wrote in her diary: “’Father, do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?’ ‘Yes, I do’, said he. And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’”

2. Her baptism. Not long after this, while still in custody, she and the others were baptized – and she felt strengthened by the Holy Spirit to endure.

3. Life in the prison. After a few days she and the others were taken away to the prison. She wrote, “I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.”

Two deacons from their church came and gave money to the guards, so that these young people could go for a time each day to a more pleasant part of the prison. After being separated from her son for several days, she writes, “Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.”

4. Encounter with her father. Again, from her diary she writes, “A few days later there was a rumor that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me. ‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head – have pity on me your father. . ..  Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride!. . .”

“This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.”

5. The trial. “One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighborhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt (of being a Christian). Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: Perform the sacrifice – have pity on your baby!’“

“Hilarianus the governor . . . said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’ ‘I will not’, I retorted. ‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus. And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ . . . Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts,” which is a death sentence. She went on to write, “we returned to prison in high spirits.” This was to take place in a few days, as a part of the celebration of Caesar’s birthday.

6. Waiting for the punishment. Just after the sentence she learned that her son no longer needed to nurse, and so she was greatly relieved.

She also had a dream in which she saw herself fighting a gladiator. “Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory.”

For their last meal the young people shared in the Lord’s supper together.

7. Her suffering and death. This is an account of a witness, “ . . . they marched from the prison to the amphitheater (see picture at the top of this post) joyfully as though they were going to heaven with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.”

They tried to dress her in the garb of a pagan priestess, but she resisted and they relented. At which point she sang Psalms.

Along with the others, she was forced to run a gauntlet before the gladiators and to be whipped on her back. The narrator tells us, “And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord’s sufferings.”

Perpetua was stripped naked, but when the crowd saw that she was so young, she was allowed her clothing. Then they unleashed a wild cow on her, and it would have had horns for sure. The animal charged and tossed her and she fell on her back. “Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.”

After this she was allowed to go back to the gate, suffering from her wounds. She spoke to some Christians nearby, “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”

Then they were all brought out to the middle of the arena. They gave each other the kiss of peace before they each had their throats cut. Perpetua was the last one. “She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat.” And she died.[Translation from Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford 1972)]

Now let’s look at –

Three characteristics of faithfulness

 – that stand out to me as I think of Perpetua.

1. She was not ashamed of Jesus. Jesus said in Mark 8:38, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

She was fearless in her confession of her faith in Jesus. And so as Jesus said in Matthew 10:32, “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” This is a promise she can certainly claim.

If she could do this in such a difficult situation, how much more should we be challenged and encouraged to have no shame of our Lord in our situations in life where there is no risk to life and limb, but rather to boldly acknowledge our faith in him to others?

2. She rejoiced in suffering. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven . . .”

Her only wrong was being a Christian, but she was killed as a criminal. And yet she rejoiced after the sentence was handed down; when she was whipped she counted it joy to suffer as Jesus had; and she sang songs just before her death.

If she could do this in such a difficult situation, how much more should we be challenged and encouraged to “rejoice in the Lord always” as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, we who are not suffering such persecution? Yet how often do we complain and grumble about our comfortable lives?

3. She gave up her earthy life for Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 10:37-39, “Whoever loves father or mother . . . son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. . . Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This is a strong theme in this story. She gave up her son. She gave up her father and family. She gave up her life. She loved Jesus more than all these. And so, as Jesus said, she will find eternal life in the age to come.

If she could do this in such a difficult situation, how much more should we be challenged and encouraged to give up our earthly lives for the cause of the kingdom, even if in much smaller ways than she did? Often our chief concern is how busy we are with the activities and the enjoyment of this earthly life. But we too are called to give up our earthly lives.


May we all be challenged and encouraged this morning to follow God with greater boldness in our faith, greater joy and thanksgiving in our lives, and greater sacrifice on our part for God’s kingdom.

William Higgins

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