“If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”
Justin lived and died in the second century, and was a hugely influential figure in the history of the church in Rome, just a generation or two after the teachings and imprisonment of Paul in the city.
Manuscripts that either describe Justin or record his writings have always given him the epithets ‘martyr’ or ‘philosopher’. This sums up what the man is best known for; as leader of a ‘school-church’ in Rome he was a philosopher, theologian and thinker, and in his death under the emperor Marcus Aurelius, we see the martyr.
Justin was born in AD 100, to a pagan family in the city of Flavia Neapolis. He was well educated, but describes in his own writings how he found the philosophies of the world to be hollow, unsatisfying, and inconclusive. He tells readers in his Dialogue that he tried first the Stoic school of philosophy, then the Peripatetic, the Pythagorean and finally the Platonic. Having settled on Platonic thought, he waited for the revelation of God that he was sure was to come.
“I supposed that I had become wise…I expected soon to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.”
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
Having chased down all these philosophers, Justin settled on the one that made the most sense, the one that gave him the best answers. And he waited for this school of thought to make everything add up.
While he waited, Justin came upon an old man, possibly a Christian from ancient Syria, who began to talk to him about God. Quite literally, this man shared the Gospel with Justin. He soon saw that the only philosophy or school of thought that contained any truth was the truth that pointed to Christ. Justin tells us that as he looked at the prophets and preachers of the Christian faith, he saw real life in their words.
“A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable.”
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
Justin had embraced Platonic thought in the hopes of finding the true divine, but through God’s mercy, this old man was used by God to open Justin’s eyes to the one true God. After travelling around telling people about this truth he had learnt, Justin came to Rome, where he settled in the city and began to teach on Christian doctrine. He continued a life of academic debate, philosophical conversation and scholarly discussion. And ultimately, it was this that got him killed. Having engaged in a dispute with the cynic philosopher Crescens, his opponent denounced him to the authorities and Justin, alongside six companions, faced the Roman courts. The Urban Prefect, a high ranking Roman official in the city, heard the case, and sentenced them to death.
It was in this trial, facing death, that Justin gave the answer quoted at the top of this post. As Justin faced his accusers and the charges were read out, he replied “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”
Justin knew the truth that Paul taught in Romans 8.
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
The ultimate calling of the Christian is to love and live for his Saviour, even through suffering and persecution. Justin knew this, and therefore his hope was in the joy of Philippians 1.
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed.”
Philippians 1:21, 23b.
Life with all its academic debate and philosophical musings were all well and good, but far better is to be with Christ. There is nothing that can be done to a Christian, good or bad, that can separate the Christian from the love of God, and from our promised eternity with Him.
Justin was beheaded in the 160s and although the exact date is unknown, what is sure is that his confidence was in Christ, his heart and mind won to the Gospel, and his life and death a testament to the saving work of Jesus Christ.
We can learn a lot from the life of Justin Martyr. He was a man who sacrificed his life for the Gospel. A man who gave up his background, his worldview, his sinful identity to assume the identity of Christ, and someone who shared that with those he met. Justin presents us with a challenge: to live a life of sharing the Gospel, whether that is in academic debate, or the chat in the pub, or the work break catch up. The Gospel is convincing, the Gospel is true, and the Gospel is there to be shared by the Christian. Even to the end.
But more than that, this story offers us an encouragement. Through the simple conversation with an unnamed old man, one of the first Christian apologists was converted. God used this conversation for His own glory, even though neither participant would have known the impact of their meeting. Scripture encourages us that God uses our broken and sinful lives to share the treasure of His Gospel message, so don’t give up in evangelism, even when you feel weak and ineffectual. We trust in a God sovereign over all creation.