Among all the classifications of "saints," I suppose that the martyrs are the most difficult to emulate. This difficulty has to do not only with the pain of martyrdom, but also with the fact that martyrdoms themselves are a bit tough to … well, to arrange. Other Christian deeds are relatively easy by comparison. I mean, if I have in mind to follow the example of some famous Bible teacher, I simply take the steps necessary to become a Bible teacher. If my soul is deeply moved to imitate some saint in works of charity and outreach, I just go and work in a soup kitchen for the poor. This taxes neither my imagination nor my strength. If I would emulate a missionary, I find some way of getting myself sent to a mission field. These things can be difficult, of course, but they are not insuperable.

But how in the world can I emulate the martyrs? I suppose I can run off to some place where Christians are being persecuted and martyred, but that sort of venture seems seldom to have recommended itself to the Christian conscience. (A mid-third-century exception was the young Origen of Alexandria, whose mother hid the boy's clothes when she discovered that he intended to go out and get himself martyred!) Moreover, did not Jesus say something about fleeing from persecution (Matthew 10:23)?

Notwithstanding these difficulties, many Christians over the centuries have felt an urge to emulate the martyrs. In fact, among the most important literary sources for early Christian history are the various Acts of the martyrs—vivid and detailed accounts of their suffering and death, written to be read at liturgical services on the anniversaries of their passing. Much of the material comes from the testimony of eyewitnesses, and some of it is supported by actual court documents inscribed by notaries at the time of the martyrs' trials and preserved by careful Christian observers.

Studying these accounts throws light on what martyrdom itself is supposed to mean to ordinary Christians, even those who have no reasonable hope of dying in blood testimony to their faith.

Popular martyrs

The most popular and famous of these ancient martyrdom accounts were The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written in Greek at Smyrna in A.D. 156, and The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, written in Latin at Carthage in 202. Local Christians at Smyrna and Carthage observed the anniversaries of those martyrdoms annually, and popular admiration for the martyrs caused the stories of their sufferings to be in widespread demand all over the Christian world. The story of Bishop Polycarp's martyrdom was immediately shared with the Phrygian church at Philomelium, and in a short time it was being copied and read all around the Mediterranean basin and beyond. In fact, one of our most important manuscripts of this work comes from Moscow. Likewise, the story of Perpetua and Felicity, two young Carthaginian women, became so popular among Christians in general that two centuries later Augustine of Hippo felt obliged to caution his people against giving their Passion the same authority as Holy Scripture!

Both accounts record the days immediately preceding the martyrdoms, the arrest and incarceration of the saints, what they said to their friends and companions while in custody, their testimony (martyria) to the civil authorities at their trials, a graphic portrayal of their sufferings, and a transcription of their prayers at the hour of death. That is to say, each account follows pretty much the sequence that Luke established in his story of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles.

More than this, however, the dialogues contained in these two stories—as well as the final testimonies of the martyrs—indicates the spirit in which they went to their deaths and the convictions that compelled them. This, I believe, was the chief reason for the immediate and long-term popularity of these two Acts. It also suggests in what sense it is possible for ordinary Christians to endeavor to follow the examples of the martyrs.

God's work, not ours

Polycarp, Perpetua, and Felicity recognized that martyrdom was a task beyond their abilities. It was not the expression of unusual human bravery in a religious cause. It was not the sort of undertaking for which a man might steel his soul and body by extraordinary spiritual effort. On the contrary, they viewed martyrdom as the work of divine grace. As such, it followed the pattern of salvation itself.

The martyrs bore explicit witness to this truth. This is perhaps clearest in the case of Felicity, who was eight months pregnant when thrown into prison. Her martyrdom was officially delayed until her child was born. When the hour of childbirth finally arrived and Felicity felt the pangs, one of her jailers remarked, "If you suffer so much now, how will you feel when you are fed to the beasts?" Felicity calmly answered with the full conviction of her Christian faith: "Whatever I suffer now, it is I that suffer it. But then it will be Another in me, who will suffer it for me, because I go to suffer for Him." She confessed the inner source of her strength, the identity of the One who fortified her by the Holy Spirit. The African writer Tertullian, who some believed to be the author of The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, began his Letter to the Martyrs by telling them to "grieve not the Holy Spirit, who has entered the prison with you. If He had not gone there with you, you would not be there this day. Make it your business to keep Him, therefore, and so let Him lead you out to your Lord."

This emphasis dominated the ancient stories of the martyrs, whose testimony in blood was regarded as a special gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus we read that Perpetua was "deeply in the Spirit" as she went to her death. At the end of the Passion, the author commented that his account demonstrated "that one and the same Spirit is always operating even until now." Likewise Bishop Polycarp, as the flames enveloped his flesh on the pyre, spoke of "the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit."

In their emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the Acts of the martyrs followed the lead of Luke in his description of the death of Stephen. When Stephen spoke to his persecutors, "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke" (Acts 6:10). Luke twice describes Stephen as "full of the Holy Spirit" (6:3; 7:55), and Stephen himself testified that his martyrdom came from his persecutors' resistance to the Holy Spirit (7:51).

Testifying to grace

A martyr is a "witness"—a testimony to the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death. Martyrdom is thus of one cloth with salvation itself. That is to say, it is something that God accomplishes, not man. The death of the martyrs is simply the acting out, in the flesh, of the same proclamation that they make with their voices—namely, the Lordship of Christ the Savior. As we see in these two accounts of early martyrdoms, the martyrs relied entirely on the indwelling Holy Spirit. As they went on to their testimony in blood, they drew their inspiration from the same Source that prompted and informed their confession in words. They trusted entirely in the promise, "But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:11).

This is the chief practical lesson to be learned from the Christian martyrs, and the way in which it is possible for ordinary Christians to emulate their example, in life if not in death. Their martyrdoms were simply the extension of their lives in Christ—their feeding from the source of divine grace, the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. Bishop Polycarp bore witness to this truth when the Roman official demanded that he deny Christ. "For eighty-six years," answered the martyr, "I have been his servant, and He has never wronged me. How can I now blaspheme the King that saved me?"

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.