Some of the most striking stories of the early church after the New Testament come from times of persecution by the Roman Empire. In North Africa, the church was strong, but suffered greatly.
In the early 3rd century in present day Tunisia, a noblewoman, Perpetua, who was a Christian, refused to take the oath of allegiance to the emperor. That oath implied not only allegiance to the emperor over any other loyalty, but also acknowledged him as a kind of god. Perpetua’s commitment to Jesus as Lord and God flew in the face of that oath, leading her to a radical decision, which came at the price of her life. She and her household servant, Felicitas, both of whom were committed followers of Jesus refused to take the oath. They ended up being thrown into prison and then cast in the gladiatorial ring with wild animals who quickly overcame them, tearing them to pieces. They chose that horrific fate rather than forsake their faith in Jesus Christ.
How could these women be so unafraid of death? When we largely seem motivated by avoidance of death and suffering, what was it that could set them free from the fear of death?
I don’t believe it was because death was less scary to them, or that they were so much more courageous than the average person. Instead, there was a greater reality, something that seemed even stronger in their eyes, which overpowered the all-consuming fear of death. That overpowering reality is Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So many of us live our lives afraid of pain and the finality that is death. Others of us scurry through life knowing we won’t get another chance, feeling the urgency of our days. We all live under a universal death-sentence where the question is not “if” we’re going to die, but “when” will we die. Death tries to keep us in its grip, apart from God’s best for us as human beings.
But it is not the end of the story.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us that the power of evil and the prison of sin have been overcome. Even more we are told that the sting of death has been destroyed by Jesus Christ at the Cross. Paul the Apostle, wrote about that in this way in a letter to an early church in the city of Corinth:
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
The empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection tell us there is hope in the midst of death. We do not have to live in fear of death because Jesus could not be held back by death. It is not His Master, but rather He is the Master of all things.
Death is not the end of Jesus’ story. And, by faith in Jesus, death does not have to be the end of our story.