By Dr. Rex Butler
“Lord, we are forty who are engaged in this combat; grant that we may be forty crowned, and that not one be wanting to this sacred number” (quoted by Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, vol. 3, 560). This prayer, which was offered up by Roman soldiers threatened with execution for their faith in Christ, is part of the story of the forty martyrs of Sebaste – a story that features courage, inspiration, and Christian accountability.
At the time of the martyrdom, Licinius was the emperor of the eastern Roman Empire, while Constantine was the emperor in the west. Eight years earlier, Licinius, along with Constantine, had signed the Edict of Milan, which called for an end to persecution of Christians. In 320 A.D., however, Licinius went to war against Contantine, reneged on the agreement, and issued an order to all of his soldiers to sacrifice to the Roman gods and, therefore, to renounce their faith in Christ.
The edict was delivered to the famous, long-serving Twelfth Legion, stationed at the time in Sebaste, Lesser Armenia, which was in the eastern region of what is now Turkey. Among the soldiers of the legion were forty committed Christians, who refused to renounce Christ and worship the Roman gods. The governor of the province endeavored to persuade the soldiers by offering them rewards and by reminding them of the dishonor that would be heaped upon them when they were stripped of their military status. When the forty soldiers remained resolute, the governor threatened them with physical tortures.
Candidus spoke for the others when he said, “No reward is dearer – no honor is greater than Christ our God. You offer us treasure that remains behind and glory that fades away. You seek to make us friends of the emperor, but alienate us from the true King. We desire one gift, the crown of righteousness. We are anxious for one glory, the glory of the heavenly kingdom. We love honors, those of heaven. You threaten fearful torments and call our godliness a crime, but you will not find us fainthearted or attached to this life or easily stricken with terror. For the love of God, we are prepared to endure any kind of torture” (quoted in DC Talk, ed., Jesus Freaks, 96-97).
The governor had them whipped, torn with iron hooks, chained, and imprisoned. While in prison, they encouraged each other to remain faithful not only to Jesus but also to each other – to stand together as forty soldiers for Christ.
Armenia during the month of March is very cold, and the lake near Sebaste was still frozen solid. Therefore, the governor devised a slow, torturous punishment, which he hoped would force the soldiers to relent: he ordered them to strip off their clothes and to stand naked upon the ice. To further entice them, he arranged for a warm bath to be prepared on the shore of the lake to tempt the soldiers to recant and to find relief from their frigid suffering.
The soldiers, however, instead of shrinking from their punishment, ran to the frozen lake, stripping off their armor and clothes as they went. Throughout the night, they encouraged each other as if they were entering a battle – which, indeed, they were! They reminded each other that they had risked their lives for an earthly king; how much more they should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the true King. These warriors for Christ would not flee from the devil. They expected that this one night of suffering would end in an eternity of bliss. Praying the prayer quoted above, they desired that no less than the “sacred number” of forty would complete their martyrdom.
Several hours into the bitterly cold night, one soldier lost his fight against the temptation of the warm bath luring him to the shore and to the renunciation of his faith. He left the ice and sought relief in the hot water, but, because the sudden heat was too much for his system, he died from shock. Satan had deceived this unfortunate soul and stole away both the victory and his life.
The remaining thirty-nine were dismayed that their number was now incomplete, but then they were amazed to participate in a miracle. A sentinel on the shore saw a vision – a heavenly light shone all about the Christians and thirty-nine crowns descended and hovered over their heads. This soldier, moved by the Holy Spirit, determined to confess his faith in Jesus Christ, to join the Christians in their suffering, and to take the place of the deserter. He stripped off his clothes and confessed, “I am a Christian!” Thus, God answered the martyrs’ prayers that their sacred number of forty would be complete. By the next day, all forty Christian soldiers had died – but each of the forty had earned the crown of life (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10).
The story of the forty martyrs of Sebaste spread quickly throughout the region, not only Lesser Armenia, but Cappadocia and all of Christendom, especially after Constantine defeated Licinius in 324 and sponsored Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Churches were built and sermons were preached in honor of the martyrs on the anniversary of their death, March 9, and information about their martyrdom was preserved in homilies by Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ephrem the Syrian monk, who preached only decades after their deaths.
Gregory especially was inspired by the forty martyrs. Although he grew up in a notable Christian family, he shunned the Christian vocation that had been embraced by his older brother and embraced instead a life of leisure. One day, during a family festival honoring the martyrs of Sebaste, which was not far from their home, he fell asleep and dreamed that, as he tried to enter a garden of rest, the forty Christian soldiers formed two lines and beat him with rods as he ran the gauntlet. When he awoke, he determined that he would receive baptism and, in honor of the forty martyrs, would serve the church. Later, he became Bishop of Nyssa and a leader of the fight for theological orthodoxy.
The courage of the early Christian martyrs should inspire Christians of our day, just as it did those who first heard their stories. The overriding theme of this story about the forty martyrs of Sebaste is the value of Christian accountability. The forty soldiers exhorted each other toward faithfulness both to their Lord and to their community of faith. Only one poor soul failed to live up to the challenge, but the example of the remaining thirty-nine inspired the soldier looking on from the shore to place his faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, to join the Christians in their martyrdom, and to receive the fortieth crown of life.
Today, Christians need a community of believers, such as that found in the local church, for encouragement and discipleship. Also beneficial is the more intimate accountability available in a small group or one-on-one relationship. As we hold each other accountable, we spur each other on to grow in our faith, to live in purity and holiness, to encourage each other to godly deeds, and to experience spiritual victory. As we do so, we witness before a lost world to the power and glory of Jesus Christ in our lives and in the church.
Dr. Rex Butler is a professor of church history and patristics and currently occupies the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.