In 320, Constantine, the Roman emperor of the West, pressured
Licinius, the emperor of the East, to legalize Christianity in his
region — and Licinius conceded. Later, however, fearing treason
among the troops, Licinius broke his alliance and decided to eliminate
Christianity from his territory. He authorized Agricola, the commander
of his forces in the Armenian town of Sebaste (now Sivas, Turkey), to
carry out his evil intentions.
Agricola knew of forty soldiers who were devout Christians and
skilled in battle. In an attempt to force them to renounce their faith, he
announced to these men, “Either offer sacrifice to the gods and earn
great honors, or, in the event of your disobedience, be stripped of your
military rank and fall into disgrace.” Then Agricola had the soldiers
imprisoned to think about what he had told them. That night they
encouraged themselves by singing psalms and praying.
The next morning Agricola brought out the forty men and tried to
persuade them with flattery, praising them for their valor and good looks.
These Christian soldiers were determined, however, not to fall prey to
the commander’s empty words. So Agricola sent them back to prison to
await the arrival of an official. While the soldiers waited, they prepared
themselves for martyrdom.
When the official arrived, he again attempted to persuade the men.
Unsuccessful, he ordered the forty men to be taken to a frozen lake.
There, they were told to strip off their clothing and stand in the middle
of the frozen mass of ice. A guard watched over them while warm baths
were set up along the shore, along with fires, blankets, clothing, and hot
food and drink, in order to tempt them to turn their backs on Christ and
sacrifice to the pagan idols. One of the soldiers could no longer bear the cold and ran to the shore. Seeing this, the remaining soldiers cried out to
God to help them. Their prayer was answered as a light warmed the
shivering men. One of the guards was so moved by the resolve of the
Christian soldiers that he stripped off all his clothes and joined them.
One version of the story reports that all the men were frozen to death by
morning. Another account, however, says that in the morning the men,
still alive, were taken back to the prison and tortured to death. Then
their bones were crushed with sledgehammers.
Regardless of which version of the story is correct, the forty soldiers of
Sebaste courageously refused to deny Christ. May we remember their courage and stand strong against anything that might lure us away from Christ. May we, like them, show God’s grace even in the midst of great trials!
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.