I have recently been reading and enjoying the book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker. I found one story about a woman named Vibia Perpetua and her slave girl Felicitas compelling, faith-stirring, courageous and heart-breaking. The stage is set in the 3rd century in North Africa in the great Roman city of Carthage. Widespread persecution erupted under the rule of Emperor Septimus Severus. In 202 he issued an edict forbidding the worship of either Christianity or Judaism. As a worshiper of Serapis, the Egyptian god of the dead, Severus felt threatened particulary by Christianity, and his edict was primarily aimed at prospective new converts to quelch the spread of Christianity.
Saturus was a Christian living in Carthage at the time of this edict. He was a deacon who conducted catechism classes for new converts. Among those attending his class were Perpetua and Felicitas. Perpetua was a 22-year old mother of an infant son and her servant Felicitas was 8-months pregnant. There is very little historical record or documentation of Perpetua's husband, but historians have speculated he was either dead or had abandoned his young family because of her faith. Saturus, Perpetua, Felicitas, and three other men were arrested under the edict of Serapis and condemned to die.
While some scholars speculate that parts of Perpetua's story are more legendary than factual, the story is filled with such human emotion that historians believe most documentation is an historical account of the real events. When her father received word of her arrest and death sentence (she was his only daughter), he begged her to renounce her faith. As a nobleman her father endured much shame when she was arrested, but she was unmoved in her devotion to her new faith. Even when threatened with beating at the hands of her father she never waivered.
But what her father could not accomplish in breaking her solid demeanor, her infant son could. We are told that Perpetua was "racked with anxiety", almost to the breaking point, when two Christians brought her infant son to the prison. "I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child."
As the days drew near for her execution she began to experience more pressure from her family to recant. Her father again came and pleaded with her to put family considerations before her creed: "Do not cut us off entirely; for not one of us will ever hold up his head again if anything happens to you", begged her father. But Perpetua was unmoved, convinced that she was in this position in accordance with God's will.
The next day Perpetua's father learned that she was to be thrown to wild beasts, and in his love and compassion for his daughter he attempted to rescue her. Though heroic, her father was discovered and beaten by the authorities. Perpetua was overwhelmed with sorrow for what her father endured for her sake.
He continued to persist in persuading her to abandon her faith in Jesus. He took her infant son, placed him on her breasts and said, "Be merciful to us, daughter, and live with us!" Perpetua's response is incomprehensible to the spiritually dead. We are told that Perpetua, unwavering in her faith, "threw the child aside, and repulsed her parents, saying, 'Be gone from me, enemies of God, for I know you not!'"
It was finally too late Perpetua and her friends. The trial was over and their fate was sealed. But rather than be overcome with sorrow and fear for the impending suffering, the group became more and more concerned that they remain worthy to suffer for Jesus. Their loyalty to Jesus remained unflinching.
As they were brought to the arena they witnessed to the crowds who came to be entertained by their deaths. According to Roman custom the men were taken first to be tortured for the pleasure of the crowd. Saturus stopped at the gate for one last word of testimony to Pudens, the prison governor, who later turned to Christ and became a martyr himself. The men were then sent into the arena with a bear, a leopard and a wild boar. Their suffering was intense and their torture was brutal.
Perpetua and Felicitas, who had given birth while in prison, were stripped and sent into the arena to face a "mad heifer". The gory torture soon became too much for even the blood-thirsty crowd who began shouting "Enough!".
But these were just the preliminary stages of their deaths. All remained alive and were brought to the executioner. As Perpetua was brought to the gladiator charged with beheading her, she noticed some grieving Chrsitian friends and said, "Give out the Word to the brothers and sisters; stand fast in the faith, love one another, and don't let our suffering become a stumbling block to you." Horribly, the first blow to execute Perpetua failed. She cried out in pain, took the gladiator's trembling hand and directed the sword to her throat. It was finally over.
This is a moving account of true devotion to Jesus in the face of severe suffering, loss and agony. Most of us would give anything to preserve our families, and yet this woman lost everything - including her family and infant son - to gain the glory of Jesus. Perpetua's willingess to lose all things for the sake of Christ reminds us of Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:37-39).