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320 A.D. : The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

The Roman 12th Legion seemed to somehow become a tool for God somewhere down the line. In the 3 1/2 centuries following Jesus's crucifixion they were involved in notable deeds of God at least 4 times that I have learned of, and maybe there are more. But one of the most poignant occurred when 40 soldiers - who earned the name 'the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste' - decided to please Jesus instead of their commanders.

*****Sebaste is now called Sivas, and it is in east central Turkey on a modern map. Once this area was called Cappodocia.*******

When this incident occurred the Roman 12th had been stationed for over 100 years in the area called Lesser Armenia, in the vicinity of a town that's been called Miletene in today's Turkey. 

It was an area where Rome had clashed with the Parthian Empire plenty of times in days gone by, so troops were there for that reason among others. The Parthians, whose Empire essentially passed from existence in the 280 A.D. time frame, were the one Empire that was a pretty close to a match for the Romans, and they struggled against each other for many a decade before Rome prevailed.  I suspect that China or India would have proved equally dangerous to Rome, but geography and distance prevented it from ever being much of an issue. 

Christianity was on the rise in the Armenian region in 320 A.D., and so many of the soldiers in the 12th had also become Christian. Their families often lived near their posts, after all, and soldiers frequently marry girls local to where they are stationed.  

But at this time the Emperor Licinius announced a major persecution against the Christians. They were starting to Impact the Roman Empire pretty seriously by refusing to offer worship and sacrifice to the old gods before battles, and changing the morals of the Empire, and things like this. When the fortunes of Rome began to wane, Christians were often blamed for softening the fabric of the once militant Roman society, and causing Rome to lose the favor of the 'gods'.

So when the commanders of the 12th Legion received orders to suppress Christian activity in the area of Sebaste, 40 of the soldiers in the unit, who were Christian, refused to take part in hurting brother and sister Christians.  Nor would they take place in pre-battle sacrifice to what they knew to be false gods, prior to going out to persecute Christians.

Two men, Lysius (the Roman soldiers' commander), and Agricola (the Governor of that region), did their best to cajole and persuade the 40 soldiers to change their mind .....to think of their careers, their country, and their families. He even offered them financial inducements.  But instead they thought of their Lord Jesus, and did what they knew He would expect. If Jesus, the true Son of God, allows Himself to be dishonored, tortured, and killed to honor the Holy Father's will, you know that Jesus in turn expects no less of His servants.  We are not called to be Christians in times of safety and convenience only.

Eventually, Governor Agricola and General Lysius lost their patience at these 40 Christian soldier' stubborn refusal. He had them whipped, and tortured with small hooks stuck into their sides and pulled free to cause painful wounds. When this still did not work, he ordered them jailed.

After some days in jail, Lysias returned to Sebaste from Caesarea to question the soldiers again.  He hoped that they had changed their mind, but found that they all remained steadfast in their refusal. 

Both the General and the Governor had lost patience with them. The cold depths of the Armenian winter enveloped the region at this time, and there was a frozen pond very near to the buildings of the camp. So, he ordered the 40 Christian soldiers to strip and go stand in the middle of the frozen pond until they changed their mind or died.

The men did this willingly, encouraging each other that what they did was right, and that they would soon be with the Lord.

Their General, still hopeful, ordered that a bathtub filled with warm inviting water be placed nearby on the shore of the pond and that it be kept heated, in the men's sight: relief for anyone who came to their senses and changed their mind! And he placed some soldiers at the ponds edge to ensure that those 40 did not try to run away. The cold was bitter.

The 40 naked men huddled together in the center of the pond, praying and singing, shivering and turning blue in the freezing Armenian weather, but as hours went by, all 40 stayed. They prayed aloud that God would give them all faith and courage to endure their trial so that all 40 of them could be together in heaven.

It has been recorded that one of them prayed it aloud in this way:

"Lord, we are 40 who are engaged in this combat. Grant that we may be 40 crowned, and that none will be wanting in this sacred number."

They thought it meaningful that there were 40 of them, because 40 is a holy number of testing. Moses wandered for 40 years with the Israelites in the wilderness. Jesus fasted for 40 days. And there are more instances of similar type.

But as time passed, and people watched the men resolutely facing their hardship, shivering and beginning to have frozen limbs, one of the 40 did finally break free and said he could not continue. Though the others urged him to stay strong, he didn't, and ran to the warm bathtub, jumping in. But when he did, he died.  Whether it was shock, or God, we can only conjecture.

But standing gaurd near the bathtub was a gaurd who's heart had been slowly breaking within him as he watched. Perhaps he had considered Jesus before. Perhaps some of those men were close friends of his.  Then, while watching them, he saw a vision. His eyes suddenly saw what seemed to be heavenly helpers moving about among the freezing men. They appeared to be passing out bright white spiritual garments, as if from a pleased Lord watching in heaven.

This gaurd could take no more, and believing now in Jesus, he threw down his spear and sword belt, stripped out of his armor and clothes, and ran joyously out into the middle of the pond, crying out "40! There are still 40!" as the others received him into their number.

Slowly, painfully, and all through the dark of that night, the cold did it's work. Only one man is said to have retained a measure of life in the morning, though he could not really move. The General ordered that their bodies be removed, placed in a wagon, and taken off to be burned to ashes.

Some of the local people, Christian relatives of these men, were near, weeping with both joy and sorrow as their martyred loved ones were taken away.

As one certain mother watched, it is said her son showed a sign of life as he was being loaded onto the pile of dead men, so the soldiers piling the bodies left him laying there so he could have a chance to change his mind, if he was still able. But as the boy's mother came near to look down upon her cherished son, he smiled weakly at her, plainly accepting his end.

Being poor and a widow and a Christian, one who counted the next world to be of much greater worth than this one, she rebuked this soldier who was loading the naked men's frozen bodies, telling him to take her son with the others so that his end could be as he wished it, among those he suffered with.  She is said to have lifted him onto the wagon herself as she told them that it was a bad action on their part to try to cheat him out of his reward at this point. And so he was burned with his fellows.

And so goes the account of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, central Turkey, in 320 A.D., who are honored still in that area and some few others, though they are not much known or mentioned in most of the world today.  But their deed shouldn't be forgotten, I believe.  

It costs some their lives, but by standing firm for Jesus every time you can , people in the world will sort of quit having any other expectation of Christians. It will become a known thing that Christians just won't do things to offend their Lord. So, these sacrifices, on the part of some, can bring freedom to follow the Lord without as much opposition for others.  And all of Christian history has shown that the church never grows so fast as when it is greatly persecuted.

One official of the much later Inquisition period remarked that the smoke that rose from the pyres of the martyred came back to rest on the land like seed for new Christians.  The faster they were killed, the more quickly the church grew.

And consider the idea of herding cats. Whether you love or hate cats, you wouldn't bother trying to herd them. It's just not their nature to allow it. They'll never cooperate. It's just a waste of your time and effort. 

People came to feel a similar way about Christians by having to watch them die, time after time, because they chose that above offending their Lord. So, hopefully Jesus will give us all courage to face those instances in our lives when we ought to stand by what's right, though it costs us in some manner.

And it's always a praise to the Lord if we face adversity for Him as He so willingly and courageously did for ever-undeserving us. Worthy is our Lord!