On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History we’re going to go back in time again, and we’re also going to go to a far away place. Well, I guess far away if you’re in the United States. We’re going to go to a place that looks like it’s pronounced “Lion,” but this is in France and so we would call it “Lee-on.”
In Lyon there was a church that started early in the second century. And right from the beginning this church faced persecution. Now in those days it was not called Lyon, it was just part of Roman Gaul, and so were Rome and France; and it was under the control of the Roman Empire.
Now by this time, the Caesars had sort of pulled back from persecuting the church. But there was still plenty of persecution that was happening in the church. It tended to reflect the issues or the attitudes towards Christianity of the local officials. And in Lyon the local officials had it out for the Christians. In fact, from the very beginning they attacked the church that was there.
We have a nice record of this for us preserved by the early church historian Eusebius. He left us a wonderful book called, The History of the Church, and in this book he recounts the challenges and the persecutions that the church at Lyon faced. Eusebius writes, “First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populous—clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all the things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries." Now it mentions there that they were beaten, it mentions their robbings. When Christians would leave their home, likely when they would be gathered in worship, their neighbors would literally go into their houses and ransack their houses and rob them.
These were the things the Christians endured right from the beginning in Lyon. But right around 177, the officials decided it was time to sort of ramp it up, and so they gathered all the Christians together. They had them arrested and they brought them into the public colosseum. And there they confronted them and they asked them if they were Christians. As Eusebius says, “In the presence of the whole multitude," these Christians "confessed.” Now they confessed to no great crime against the Roman Emperor, or against the Roman Empire. They confessed to no great crime against their neighbors. They simply confessed that they were Christians, that they were followers of Christ. And so for this they were imprisoned and then eventually they were martyred. Eusebius tells us that there were 48 that were martyred altogether.
Now during this time of their imprisonment there was a young man who was a presbyter at the church at the time; his name was Irenaeus. Irenaeus goes on to be a significant figure in the early church, and he first came to Christ there in that fellowship at Lyon. And so he was sent with a message, a plea for help really, to take this to the bishop of Rome. The intention was that the bishop of Rome would then present this letter requesting some mercy for the Christians and the persecution there at Lyon. And so the bishop was to take this right to the Emperor himself, and at the time the emperor was the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
We don’t know if Irenaeus’ letter ever got to the Emperor, but what we do know is that when Irenaeus returned to Lyon, these 48, these members of the community that he worshipped along side of, they were all martyred. In fact, Eusebius tells us what happens to them. At one point he says that, “All the people raged like wild beasts,” this would be the people of the town, “. . . raged like wild beasts against us. So that even if they had before been moderate on account of friendship, they were now exceedingly furious and gnashed their teeth against us. And that which was spoken by our Lord was fulfilled: 'The time will come when whosoever kills you will think that he does service’” (John 16:2).
You see, even their neighbors that they were friends with, that they had known for years, they turned on them. Eusebius even tells the story of one particular martyr there at Lyon, her name was Blandina. You should look her up and you should read her story. He refers to her as a “noble athlete.” Remember Paul says that to us, doesn’t he? That as Christians we should look to the athlete who endures the race, and endures with perseverance. She stands before this crowd and she says, “I am a Christian.” And she goes on to be martyred.
So we should remember these Christians at Lyon in 177, and their martyrdom, and their witness to their faith in Christ.