Perpetua: “From Riches to Rags”


It’s easy to dismiss stories of modern-day persecution. It saddens us to hear about Christians whose property or family members are taken away or churches whose buildings are destroyed. But this sadness disappears too quickly to motivate us to pray or take action the way it should. Why?

Probably because we can’t relate to these types of stories. Such suffering feels distant and foreign to first-world Christians. Since we don’t experience it ourselves, it’s hard to relate to those who do. So we neglect the issue of persecution and treat it like something that only afflicts Christians in other countries.

But we must face this issue head-on. It does us no good to ignore persecution or presume immunity to it. Jesus might someday ask His first-world church to suffer for Him too. If He does, will we be ready?

We must steel ourselves for this possibility. Looking at the example of those who suffered before us can give us strength. One Christian, in particular, shows us how someone who enjoys every privilege can suffer for Jesus with dignity and perseverance. Her name is Perpetua.

From Privilege to Prison

Perpetua (A.D. 182-203) was a noblewoman from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. She came from a wealthy family and was married with a newborn child. She and four other catechumens were arrested for converting to Christianity. They were put in prison shortly after her baptism.

During their imprisonment, the governor Hilarian summoned them. He ordered them to renounce their faith by offering a sacrifice to the Roman gods on behalf of the emperor. Her father begged her to do so, for his sake as well as her infant son. She refused with the declaration: “I am a Christian.”

Hilarian condemned her and her fellow prisoners to death by wild beasts. They returned to prison cheerfully. The Lord gave her a series of encouraging dreams, and she was even allowed to nurse her son in jail. She was so joyful that she wrote in her diary, “The dungeon is to me a palace.”

Poise amidst Persecution

Perpetua and her fellow martyrs died on March 7, A.D. 203. They were jubilant as they entered the stadium. This offended the crowds, who asked for them to be flogged before the wild animals were released.

Perpetua was tossed by a bull yet felt no pain. Her gown ripped during the spectacle, exposing her thigh. She took a moment to cover herself for the sake of modesty. Her hair also fell down. She took another moment to refasten it, for loose hair was a sign of mourning. And when a gladiator hesitated to slit her throat, she helped by putting his sword against her neck.

Triumph from Tragedy

Perpetua died when she was 22 years old. That seems tragic to us. She had the rest of her life ahead of her!

But there’s more. One of her fellow prisoners was a slave named Felicity. Felicity was pregnant when she was arrested. Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant criminals. But rather than relieving her, it caused her much regret. Felicity wanted nothing more than to die with her brothers and sisters in the stadium.

In answer to her prayers, she gave birth three days before their martyrdom. She was killed alongside Perpetua and another Christian woman adopted her baby.

Stories like this break our hearts. But where we see tragedy, Perpetua saw triumph. To her, suffering for Jesus was better than enjoying the privileges of this world. She “considered everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord” (Philippians 3:12).

She stands as a pillar of unconquerable faith. May the Lord grant us her spirit when our time comes to suffer for Him!

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