A rare and gripping first-hand description of an early Christian’s final days before her martyrdom is found in the words of Vibia Perpetua, who was executed for her faith around the year 202 A.D. in the North African city of Carthage. As you would expect, most early martyrdom accounts are based on reports by outside observers. In this case, though, Perpetua wrote down her own story from prison, and her account leaves off just days before her public execution. In doing this, she left behind a sort of journal of her experiences and reflections during that final imprisonment, giving us a window into her thoughts and feelings as she prepared to face the wild animals in the city amphitheater.
The most moving part of Perpetua’s account is the very beginning, where she describes her father pleading with her to give up her faith, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her baby boy. You can imagine the intense inward conflict she must have felt as she was still nursing this child who was going to have to grow up without her if she did not give in. Her feelings come across as very real, not contrived or unrealistically serene. When she remembers being “taken into the dungeon,” she says, “I was very much afraid, because I had never felt such darkness.” She also says, “I was very unusually distressed by my anxiety for my infant.”
But listen to Perpetua’s response when her father tries to persuade her to deny Christ: “‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’ And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’ And I replied to him, ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.’”
If you read Perpetua’s account (and I hope you will), you will notice an unusual approach to spirituality, much of which is not biblical and I’m not encouraging you to emulate. She seems to have been part of a group of Christians influenced by a teaching called Montanism (the early church father Tertullian was also influenced by this group). Montanism emphasized having visions and ecstatic experiences, and that is reflected in the way you see Perpetua processing her final days of life. But that should not take away from our admiration and gratitude for her courage and example of faithfulness to the death under the intense pressure of her family’s pleading and her own love for her son.
Grace-Based Action Point
It’s easier to imagine standing up for Christ when the only harm would be to yourself. But what if being faithful to Christ means that your parents will suffer, or your children? Perpetua’s story reminds us of the great cost of loyalty to Christ, and it invites all of us to examine how seriously we are taking those hard words of Jesus about loving father, mother, son, or daughter more than we love him (Matthew 10:37-39). At the same time, though, Perpetua’s courage also beautifully illustrates what Jesus says next: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Yours in Christ,