Meteors Against the Night

Dirk Wellems 1569

 

Today is September 18, which turned out to be a day of impending doom in Early Christian History.

On September 18, 52 AD, a boy named Marcus Ulpius Trajan was born. Trajan would grow up to serve as Emperor of Rome from 98-117 AD. Following in the footsteps of former emperors Nero (54-68) and Domitian (81-96), Trajan would continue to heavily persecute the Early Church.[1]

We’ve been discussing many of the early martyrs in one of my seminary classes, and it is truly sobering to hear the horrific accounts of how early Christians and their families were tortured and brutally executed because they refused to recant their faith, clinging instead to their right to study and teach the truths of God’s Word.   But their stories are also inspiring. They remind me of the great cost of our religious freedoms today, and make me wonder if I would possess the same remarkable courage and faith if put in a similar situation.

Here are a few examples of the great men of faith who William Estep describes as those who “shone like so many meteors against the night”:[2]

 

Felix Manz, one of the first to teach that baptism was meant for those who believed and not for newborn infants, was captured and sentenced to death. As he was led to the banks of the Limmat River on January 5, 1527, his mother shouted above the angry crowd, encouraging him to remain true to his faith and to die well for Jesus’ sake. As his arms and legs were being bound, he sang loudly, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”). Moments later, he was tossed into the river to drown.

Michael Sattler, a Benedictine priest who left the priesthood in order to teach God’s Word more accurately, was sentenced to torture and death. On May 20, 1527, Sattler was taken to the public marketplace, where a piece was cut from his tongue and pieces of flesh were torn from his body with red-hot tongs. Throughout all of this, Sattler prayed for his executors. He was then burned at the stake, but as soon as the ropes on his wrists were burned, he raised the two forefingers of his hands, giving his brethren the promised signal that a martyr’s death was bearable. Then, even as he burned, he cried, “Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands!”

Dirk Willems  (pictured above) was an Anabaptist who was captured for his Christian beliefs in 1569. He managed to escape from the castle dungeon, however, and run across a frozen moat to safety. As the prison guard tried to pursue him, though, the ice broke and the guard began to drown. Moved with compassion, Willems returned to the moat to save the life of the prison guard, who immediately arrested him. Soon after this, the authorities burned Willems at the stake.

 

After reading stories such as this, it is easy to see why the Book of Hebrews says the world was not worthy of them in Hebrews 11:37-38: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”

And after hearing such remarkable testimonies, we must ask ourselves:

 

Do we have the faith and courage to shine like meteors against the night?

 

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[1] “Today in Christian History: September 18,” Study Light: http://www.studylight.org/history/today-in-christian-history/?d=0918

[2] Estep, William. The Anabaptist Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Photo Credit:  Etching from Martyr’s Mirror, by Thieleman J. van Braght, 1660.

 

 

 

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