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Perpetua the Martyr

Perpetua the Martyr

by Angela McKnight
- Martyr, Perpetua, Sacrifice, Witness

I recently finished reading a book about an early Christian martyr named Perpetua.  While I have known about her for many years, I had never read a book about her.  Her testimony is powerful, and some of the information we have about her is first-hand because she actually kept a journal during her time in prison leading up to her death.  I invite you to consider her life as an example of living  like Jesus.  

Perpetua was likely born into a wealthy family and was influenced by the cultures of both Roman and Carthage.  She lived in north Africa in the late 100’s AD, less than one hundred years after the death of Jesus on the cross.  The Romans and Carthaginians among whom Perpetua lived in Carthage were predominantly polytheists.  That is, they worshipped multiple gods and even sacrificed to them regularly.  In fact, even human sacrifice was not uncommon in their efforts to please their many gods.  

Although we do not know exactly how Perpetua came to embrace Jesus as her Lord, it is clear both from her life and from her journal that she was indeed a Christian.  She did not worship Jesus as an addition to the other Roman gods, rather she was a monotheist and worshipped only the One True God.  She seemingly stood apart from her family in her devotion to Christ, as there is no concrete evidence that any of her other family members were Christians.  In fact, her father tried desperately to convince her to renounce her faith, but her response to him was, “I cannot be called by anything other than what I am, a Christian” (Salisbury p.82).

Perpetua was married, but there is virtually no information about her husband.  What is known is that she had given birth to a child who was still only an infant at the time of her arrest.  In fact, she actually had her son with her during part of her imprisonment, but she eventually left him in the care of her parents shortly before her death. 

She was taken to prison along with a group of other Christians, including a female slave, Felicity, who actually gave birth while in prison.  The men who were arrested with the two women were friends and fellow worshippers.  One of their church leaders even voluntarily joined them in prison.

During their imprisonment, at least two accounts were recorded of what happened.  Perpetua recorded her feelings and thoughts, along with several spiritually significant visions or dreams that she experienced during her imprisonment.  Throughout her writings, Perpetua demonstrated continual faith in God as well as a determination to maintain her stand for Christ.

There are at least three ways in which Perpetua lived – and died – like Jesus.

  •  She was willing to give up everything to follow God’s will.  

She not only gave her life as a Christian martyr, despite her father’s desperate pleas for her to renounce her faith, but she also left behind her infant son.  As a mother, I cannot imagine how her heart must have broken to know that he would grow up without her.  Yet, she stood firm in her resolve.  She wrote, “It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power” (Salisbury p.89).  Her faith in God was resolute, despite the unbelievable sacrifices she faced.

  •  She thought of others even though she knew she would die soon.

During her imprisonment, Perpetua encouraged her fellow prisoners with hope and courage.  She also shared the hope of the gospel with outsiders who came to see the prisoners.  Furthermore, she presumably thought ahead to Christians who might be inspired to persevere if she wrote down her journey to martyrdom.  

  • She died pointing others to God.

When the sentence was passed on Perpetua and her comrades, she penned these words, “We were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to the prison in high spirits” (Salisbury p.91).  They were joyful to be counted worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ.  

As Perpetua marched toward her death, she began to sing a psalm.  An observer wrote that the martyrs “marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as if they were going to heaven” (Salisbury p.138). Perpetua faced the wild beasts in the arena, and she did not waiver in her resolve.  She persevered and thereby honored God and showed others the truth of her faith.  

Most of us likely will not face martyrdom for Christ, but we can certainly be challenged to stand strong in our faith and to persevere in the midst of difficulties when we consider the example of Perpetua and others who have endured to the point of death.  God is worthy of our allegiance and worship no matter what circumstances we may face.  

For more information on Perpetua, consider viewing the well-crafted animated Torchlighters episode about her life (appropriate for ages 8 and up) or reading the book Perpetua’s Passion by Joyce Salisbury, from which the above quotations were taken.

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