Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament? Part 7

In this section, I focus on the spiritual warfare the martyrs face up to and at their death.  Much of the scholarship is taken from Paul Middleton and St. Clement of Alexandria.  The martyrs faced not only the governmental authorities, but also the Rule of this World, Satan.

There is another dimension to the martyr’s suffering and joy, which is the spiritual side.  The martyrs not only fight against the world or against the government and worldly authorities, but also against whom the Christians believe is the Ruler of this world and the demonic authorities in this world.  The martyrs were fighting a spiritual battle; with their death they dealt great blows to Satan and his demons.  The battles martyrs faced were played out on the spiritual field more than in the arena.  St. Perpetua understood through one of her visions, “Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I that I would win the victory.”[1]  They had to contend not only with the physical pain but also had to resist the threats and temptations of the devil and demons.  They also had the angels and Christ himself standing at their side, encouraging them and comforting them with the promise of victory and eternal life.  The martyrs fought in two arenas: the physical one against the wild beasts, fire, or whatever means was used to persecute them and in the spiritual arena against Satan and his demons, who tried to convince them to reject Christ and continue living.

Satan plays a prominent role in the martyrdom accounts and writings on the subject, because he is their biggest enemy, but he can be defeated.   At the time of death, the martyr is dealing a blow to Satan and adding to what they thought might be the number of martyrs required to bring about the second coming of Christ, which would be the last victory.[2]  Thus, it seems that the goal of the martyrs was to give such a witness to the world that all in it would come to Christ so that he could return to the world in glory.  The martyrs’ enemies were not so much the wild beasts and governors, their enemy was Satan himself.  St. Clement of Alexandria wrote concerning those who rejected Christ and joined the devil, “Then he who has lied and shown himself unfaithful, and revolted to the devil’s army, in what evil do we think him to be? He belies, therefore, the Lord, or rather he is cheated of his own hope who believes not God; and he believes not who does not what he has commanded.”[3]  Middleton points out that Satan is not trying to kill the martyrs; if they die he loses.  He is instead trying to get them to deny Christ and live; in this way he would win.[4]  The Christians, in making testimony to Christ, fight against the demons and Satan; they become the foot soldiers of Christ.    St. Clement of Alexandria also writes about this conflict with the devil,

For the devil tempting us, knowing what we are, but not knowing if we will hold out, but wishing to dislodge us from the faith, attempts also to bring us into subjection to himself. Which is all that is allowed to him, partly from the necessity of saving us, who have taken occasion from the commandment, from ourselves; partly for the confusion of him who has tempted and failed; for the confirmation of the members of the Church, and the conscience of those who admire the constancy [displayed]. But if martyrdom be retribution by way of punishment, then also faith and doctrine, on account of which martyrdom comes, are co-operators in punishment — than which, what other absurdity could be greater?[5]

This passage speaks to the role the devil is allowed to play in the role of the martyr.  He is able to tempt the martyrs so that they might be saved.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp also shows the spiritual battle the martyrs underwent; of the martyrs killed before St. Polycarp was taken, the text says, “For many were the stratagems the Devil used against them.”[6]  About St. Polycarp and the devil the writer adds, “But the jealous and envious Evil One, who is the adversary of the race of the just, realizing the greatness of his testimony, his unblemished career from the beginning…prevented us even from taking up the poor body…”[7]  These show the afflictions the devil tried to cause the martyrs and all Christians.  Since he was not able to tempt St. Polycarp into giving up Christ, he tried to keep the body of Polycarp away from the other Christians.  If the martyrs give a good confession of Christ and reject the temptations of the devil, they show their commitment to Christ and are saved through their amazing faith and willingness.  The martyrs not only showed the fruits of martyrdom in the physical confrontation, by being patient and showing kindness and gentleness; but also showed their fruits in their spiritual battle, by dealing great blows to Satan.  The good confession of the martyrs shows the amazing fruits they have acquired from this sacrament.


[1] Of Perpetua and Felicitas, 10, 119.

[2] Middleton. 96-97.  The early church was pulling from Revelation 6:9 were the souls are told to wait only a little longer.  Early martyrs also stated they would be counted among the number of these martyrs.

[3] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Book 4, 158.

[4] Middleton, 80.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Book 4, 177.

[6] Of Polycarp, 3, 5.

[7] Ibid, 17, 15.

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About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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