The Shadow of Justin Martyr
Going from the recent past of 50 to 60 years, let’s move into the past of nearly 2,000 years. A name that surfaces prominently during this time is Justin Martyr. He was born around 100 CE, or about 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At the time of Justin’s birth, all of Jesus’ 12 disciples had passed away. They left behind a functioning, well established church.
The disciples had indeed obeyed Jesus’ command to them recorded in Matthew 28:16-20:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
On this background, when Justin was about 50, he wrote an “apology” in Rome to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. His purpose was to defend Christians from certain charges being leveled against them. Antoninus Pius ruled the Roman Empire from 138 – 161 CE. Remember that by 150 CE, the Christian church had spread over the then known Roman world.
By the time Justin wrote his First Apology (there were two) the church also had a fairly well developed approach to preaching and worshiping. So by about 100 years after Jesus returned to heaven, the church had also settled into a rhythm that we now call “sacraments” and Scripture to be used in preaching. We can see some of the seeds of this in Luke’s writing in Acts 2:37-42.
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Remember that Justin was making a defense on behalf of Christians to the Emperor so that he would restrain the persecution being directed at his fellow believers. The church was being accused of cannibalism (eating flesh and drinking blood) and that the Christian greeting of a “holy kiss” could lead to incest between brother and sister. Of course, these were outrageous charges. But as it turned out, Antoninus was one of the “good” Emperors. Among other issues, he limited the torture of slaves and ruled that an accused person could not be called guilty until after a trial.
Hundreds of years later, both Roman Catholics and Protestants picked up Justin’s first Apology to support the practice of sacraments in their time. Additionally, in his writing Justin had mentioned the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, quoted from Paul’s Epistles, I Peter and the Acts. Later, this helped support bringing together the New Testament canon. To see what Justin Martyr said, we will look at some of his writing to check how it differs from present-day church practice.
Justin Martyr on Baptism
A sacrament in Christian faith (in today’s church) is considered to be an outward sign of something going on inside or of an inward grace. In most liturgical churches, baptism is generally conducted for infants. Yes, there is adult baptism, but not adults who were baptized as infants. The rite is referred to by some as a covenant—a covenant between parents and the infant and between the congregation and the child. They are to bring up this newly born in the faith of the _____________ Church. You can fill in the blank.
Now let’s return to the writing of Justin Martyr—riding on the crest of the Christian church’s expansion across the Empire. This evangelistic thrust into the culture and society of a largely pagan world was the result of the faithful and sacrificial service of Jesus’ disciples and their followers. And, while the medieval and present churches continue a baptismal practice, it differs in its meaning and impact on the individual and the community of faith.
In Justin’s reporting, those being baptized were adults. Baptism was the sign they had repented of their sin and were being brought into the water to receive the inward life of the Triune God. You will notice Justin writes that while our physical birth is without our action or consent, baptism is an action we take thoughtfully by choice. It is not “being dedicated” by someone, but “we are dedicating ourselves” in this manner. We are not being joined with a denomination, we are being “born again” to new life with the God of three Persons.
Here described by Justin Martyr is the practice and manner in which baptism was affected in the church as practiced by Jesus and taught by the apostles.
Chapter LXI.—Christian baptism.
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, public domain).
Two comments from this passage: First, Justin was writing about a persecuted church that exploded across the Roman Empire. At this stage, they did not have buildings or official status. Second, of the practices that current and earlier denominations elected to follow, adult baptism was not one of them. In this sense, present day liturgical churches deprive adults of a critical step in a believer’s development of making a conscious, active choice and public declaration to join with the Creator God in redemption and a new creation.
Perhaps you will recall the story of Philip commenting on the Old Testament book of Isaiah with the Ethiopian official. Read part of his story from Acts 8:32-38:
This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized. Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
As you read the verses that precede this part of the story, you’ll see this Ethiopian official had been to Jerusalem to worship. He was returning home. He was a believer in the Old Testament prophecies, but he did not understand that Isaiah was pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God.
As the eunuch came to understanding and believing, he wanted to make an open commitment—to signify his choice and decision to become a disciple of Jesus. The rite of baptism gave him the chance, in front of Philip the Evangelist and the retinue of his servants, to publicly declare his allegiance to Jesus the King. That is an important step—public declaration of faith and obedience that can only be made by just the individual.
Justin Martyr on Guilt of Exposing Children
In Chapter 27 of Apology I, Justin has a brief statement on societal practices in nations that raise children for the purposes of prostitution. These practices, Justin claims, are exploited by the State (Government) for raising revenue. In other words, the State condoned something for its own benefit that should be “exterminated.” He says further, ”Indeed, the things which you do openly and with applause, as if the divine light were overturned and extinguished, these you lay to our charge; which, in truth, does no harm to us who shrink from doing any such things, but only to those who do them and bear false witness against us.”
Here, Justin underscores three important issues. First, he is saying that the Emperor is permitting “godless and infamous and impure intercourse” that can lead to incest. Second, Justin states that the church is being falsely accused of promoting this kind of behavior. Third, this is being done as if “the divine light were overturned and extinguished.”
Yet, there is a deeper underlying Biblical principle here that Justin partially uncovers. Tied into this is the question of whether God’s moral compass shifts with passing time. Does sin become “wholesome” with cultural massaging? We’ll come back to that when we address consequences of avoiding sections of Scripture from the preaching schedule in liturgical churches.
Justin Martyr on False Gods Abandoned by Christians
Just prior to this section, Justin had written about the “Causes of Persecution.” And they were certainly having more than their share. Much of that persecution was the result of abandoning the “gods” of their day and refusing to put them on the same level with the eternal God—i.e. they were false, devilish gods.
Chapter XXV.—False Gods abandoned by Christians.
And, secondly, because we—who, out of every race of men, used to worship Bacchus the son of Semele, and Apollo the son of Latona (who in their loves with men did such things as it is shameful even to mention), and Proserpine and Venus (who were maddened with love of Adonis, and whose mysteries also you celebrate), or Æsculapius, or some one or other of those who are called gods—have now, through Jesus Christ, learned to despise these, though we be threatened with death for it, and have dedicated ourselves to the unbegotten and impossible God; of whom we are persuaded that never was he goaded by lust of Antiope, or such other women, or of Ganymede, nor was rescued by that hundred-handed giant whose aid was obtained through Thetis, nor was anxious on this account that her son Achilles should destroy many of the Greeks because of his concubine Briseis. Those who believe these things we pity, and those who invented them we know to be devils. (The First Apology of Justin Martyr, public domain)
Christian Faith Invades the Culture
So what emerges from the writings of Justin Martyr is a picture of a healthy movement that was invading the culture and impacting what was going on at that time. The medieval and contemporary church, while approving part of Justin’s writing, seems to be missing the spirit of this post-apostolic Apology. After all, he was defending the Christians of that time who were being persecuted unjustly. He informs the Emperor that things they were being accused of are the very things they had abandoned. And he said that without apology.
Thus, some 100 years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension we have a powerful defense of Christian faith to the head of state, the Emperor of the Roman Empire.
What was it that precipitated such a dramatic turn after the events of Good Friday? You will remember that the night of Jesus’ arrest and the following day, his crucifixion, the core of Jesus’ followers evaporated. While women followers of Jesus seem to have remained loyal, the disciples acted like the dejected losers of a political power play.
The Three Events That Changed History
As Jesus was leaving the region of Galilee, making his way to Jerusalem, he disclosed to the 12 disciples what was awaiting him in Jerusalem: The religious leaders of their nation would kill him and on the third day, he would be raised from the dead. On this background he tells the twelve, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) Was this a daring prediction or the delusional raving of a religious fanatic?
What Jesus predicted would happen, did happen! In just a short time, he was crucified in a manner that chills the soul. Whatever air was in the balloon of the Jesus’ movement escaped. In a moment of terror, they all ran—even Peter. Just hours later, Peter told the other disciples, “I’m going fishing!” (John 21:3) You see, beside disappointment and disgrace, there was a sense of panic that the Roman soldiers having killed the leader would come after his close associates. And Peter, as a “career fisherman,” would not be suspect.
But Jesus not only rose from the tomb, he pursued and met and talked and taught his wavering followers. Jesus’ resurrection and his conversations with them for 40 days overcame the fear and dread that initially overtook his followers. However, just as they were getting comfortable again with having Jesus around as their leader, something dramatic took place.
That next event propelled Jesus’ disciples forward into a grand adventure: Jesus ascended into heaven, not to be seen again. Yes, the dreaded day the disciples feared had arrived. They were on their own—they would now be exposed to whatever came at them and after them. Jesus had prepared them for this event. What had he already revealed to them?
“All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.
“I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things.
“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:1-11)
Yes, Jesus says, you are going to be persecuted and thrown out of the “church” you have always known (the Synagogue). They will do this because they don’t know either the Father or me. They have rejected the invitation to relationship. And why, Jesus asked, am I telling you this? So you won’t be surprised when it takes place.
Additionally, Jesus said, I’m telling you now I’m leaving you so later you will understand: Unless I leave you (in my human body) the Advocate, the ever present One who will teach you, defend you, empower you, gift you, encourage you, represent me with you—he won’t come, You will be like orphans if I don’t leave and impart him to you.
Lastly it will be the Advocate who will continue the one-on-one teaching that I began with you: But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. John 14:26
And so, some 50 days after Jesus came out of the tomb, on the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ promise of the Advocate was realized. You can read all about it in chapter 2 of the book of Acts. To provide a flavor of what took place, here are Peter’s closing words on that day and how people in Jerusalem responded.
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:36-41
Had Jesus not risen from the dead and had he not returned to his Father in heaven, the Holy Spirit of God would not have been given as a gift to his followers. While Jesus, in a human body, could only be at one place at one time, the Holy Spirit can indwell every believer regardless of where they are—being the Advocate, Comforter, Teacher, and the other offices that define his work with believers.
These three events combined—Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, his ascension to heaven and leaving his disciples, and the imparting of the Holy Spirit to all believers—changed the way in which the distribution and reception of redemption would take place. Nonetheless, Jesus showed the way in the three years of his own preaching and teaching and guiding of his followers. He himself established a pattern that would be folly for us to ignore. This pattern is what his disciples followed and what Justin Martyr was still seeing and wrote about some 100 years after these events.