Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 32: Martyrdom of Paul and Peter
The apostles Paul and Peter were for many years widely separated in their labors, it being the work of Paul to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, while Peter labored especially for the Jews. But in the providence of God, both were to bear witness for Christ in the world's metropolis, and upon its soil both were to shed their blood as the seed of a vast harvest of saints and martyrs.
About the time of Paul's second arrest, Peter also was apprehended and thrust into prison. He had made himself especially obnoxious to the authorities by his zeal and success in exposing the deceptions and defeating the plots of Simon Magus the sorcerer, who had followed him to Rome to oppose and hinder the work of the gospel. Nero was a believer in magic, and had patronized Simon. He was therefore greatly incensed against the apostle, and was thus prompted to order his arrest.
The emperor's malice against Paul was heightened by the fact that members of the imperial household, and also other persons of distinction, had been converted to Christianity during his first imprisonment. For this reason he made [p. 329] the second imprisonment much more severe than the first, granting him little opportunity to preach the gospel; and he determined to cut short his life as soon as a plausible pretext could be found for so doing. Nero's mind was so impressed with the force of the apostle's words at his last trial that he deferred the decision of the case, neither acquitting nor condemning him. But the sentence was only deferred. It was not long before the decision was pronounced which consigned Paul to a martyr's grave. Being a Roman citizen, he could not be subjected to torture, and was therefore sentenced to be beheaded.
Peter, as a Jew and a foreigner, was condemned to be scourged and crucified. In prospect of this fearful death, the apostle remembered his great sin in denying Jesus in the hour of trial, and his only thought was, that he was unworthy of so great an honor as to die in the same manner as did his Master. Peter had sincerely repented of that sin, and had been forgiven by Christ, as is shown by the high commission given him to feed the sheep and lambs of the flock. But he could never forgive himself. Not even the thought of the agonies of the last terrible scene could lessen the bitterness of his sorrow and repentance. As a last favor he entreated his executioners that he might be nailed to the cross with his head downward. The request was granted, and in this manner died the great apostle Peter.
Paul was led in a private manner to the place of execution. His persecutors, alarmed at the extent of his influence, feared that converts might be won to Christianity, even by the scenes of his death. Hence few spectators were [p. 330] allowed to be present. But the hardened soldiers appointed to attend him, listened to his words, and with amazement saw him cheerful and even joyous in prospect of such a death. His spirit of forgiveness toward his murderers, and his unwavering confidence in Christ to the very last, proved a savor of life unto life to some who witnessed his martyrdom. More than one erelong accepted the Saviour whom Paul preached, and fearlessly sealed their faith with their blood.
The life of Paul, to its very latest hour, testified to the truth of his words in the second Epistle to the Corinthians: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body." His sufficiency was not in himself, but in the presence and agency of the divine Spirit that filled his soul, and brought every thought into subjection to the will of Christ. The fact that his own life exemplified the truth he proclaimed, gave convincing power to both his preaching and his deportment. Says the prophet, "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee; because he trusteth in Thee." It was this Heaven-born peace, expressed upon the countenance, that won many a soul to the gospel.
The apostle was looking into the great beyond, [p. 331] not with uncertainty or in dread, but with joyful hope and longing expectation. As he stood at the place of martyrdom, he saw not the gleaming sword of the executioner, or the green earth so soon to receive his blood; he looked up through the calm blue heaven of that summer's day to the throne of the Eternal. His language was, O Lord, thou art my comfort and my portion. When shall I embrace thee? when shall I behold thee for myself, without a dimming vail between?
Paul carried with him through his life on earth the very atmosphere of Heaven. All who associated with him felt the influence of his connection with Christ and companionship with angels. Here lies the power of the truth. The unstudied, unconscious influence of a holy life is the most convincing sermon that can be given in favor of Christianity. Argument, even when unanswerable, may provoke only opposition; but a godly example has a power which it is impossible wholly to resist.
While the apostle lost sight of his own near sufferings, he felt a deep solicitude for the disciples whom he was about to leave to cope with prejudice, hatred, and persecution. He endeavored to strengthen and encourage the few Christians who accompanied him to the place of execution, by repeating the exceeding precious promises given for those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. He assures them that nothing shall fail of all that the Lord hath spoken concerning his tried and faithful ones. They shall arise and shine; for the light of the Lord shall arise upon them. They shall put on their beautiful garments when the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. For a little season they may be in [p. 332] heaviness through manifold temptations, they may be destitute of earthly comfort; but they must encourage their hearts by saying, I know in whom I have believed. He is able to keep that which I have committed to his trust. His rebuke will come to an end, and the glad morning of peace and perfect day will come.
Paul declared to his brethren, It did not appear to our fathers what great and good things should be given to those who believe in Jesus. They desired to see the things which we see, and to hear the things which we hear, but they died without the sight or the knowledge. The greater light which we have received is shed upon us by the gospel of Christ. Holy men of old were acknowledged and honored of God because they were faithful over a few things; and it is only those that improve with the same fidelity their greater trust, who will with them be counted profitable servants, and be crowned with glory, honor, and immortality.
This man of faith beholds the ladder presented in Jacob's vision,—the ladder which rested upon the earth and reached to the highest heavens, and upon which angels of God were ascending and descending. He knows that this ladder represents Christ, who has connected earth with Heaven, and finite man with the infinite God. He hears angels and archangels magnifying that glorious name. His faith is strengthened as he calls to mind that patriarchs and prophets relied upon the same Saviour who is his support and consolation, and for whom he is giving his life. Those holy men who from century to century sent down their testimony for the truth, and the apostles, who to preach the gospel of Christ went out to [p. 333] meet religious bigotry and heathen superstition, who counted not their lives dear unto themselves if they might bear aloft the light of the cross amid the dark mazes of infidelity,—all these he hears witnessing to Jesus as the Son of the Most High, the Saviour of the world. The martyr's shout of triumph, the fearless testimony for the faith, falls upon his ear from the rack, the stake, the dungeon, from the dens and caves of the earth, from steadfast souls who are destitute, afflicted, tormented, yet of whom the world is not worthy. With a continually strengthening assurance they declare, "I know whom I have believed." And as they yield up their lives as witnesses for the faith, they bear a solemn, condemning testimony to the world, declaring that He in whom they trusted has proved himself able to save to the uttermost.
The Captain of our salvation has prepared his servant for the last great conflict. Ransomed by the sacrifice of Christ, washed from sin in his blood, and clothed in his righteousness, Paul has the witness in himself that his soul is precious in the sight of his Redeemer. His life is hid with Christ in God, and he is persuaded that He who has conquered death is able to keep that which is committed to his trust. His mind grasps the Saviour's promise, "I will raise him up at the last day." His thoughts and hopes are centered in the second advent of his Lord. And as the sword of the executioner descends, and the shadows of death gather about the martyr's soul, his latest thought springs forward, as will his earliest thought in the great awakening, to meet the Lifegiver who shall welcome him to the joy of the blest. [p. 334]
Well-nigh a score of centuries have passed since Paul the aged poured out his blood as a witness for the word of God and for the testimony of Christ. No faithful hand recorded for the generations to come, the last scenes in the life of this holy man; but inspiration has preserved for us his dying testimony. Like a trumpet peal has his voice rung out through all the ages, nerving with his own courage thousands of witnesses for Christ, and wakening in thousands of sorrow-stricken hearts the echo of his own triumphant joy: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing."