We cannot understand martyrdom in Christianity, or estimate its sanctity, unless we know the motives that led those holy ones to their death as if it were an enjoyable journey. Early Christians believed in spiritual principles which changed their outlook on life. We may mention some of them in the following.
The Transitory Nature of this Life
This world is temporary compared with eternal life: There are many divine sayings encourage that feeling, such as the words of the Holy Apostle Paul:
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2Cor. 4:17, 18)
But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should he as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:29, 30)
And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 Jn 2:17).
They are strangers in the world: They were always remembering the inspired words of the Holy Apostles, “Conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear” (1 Pet 1:17) and “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (2 Pet. 2:11). The Holy Apostle Paul, after speaking about the heroes of faith in the Old Testament, wrote,
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Heb 11:13).
“So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” (2 Co 5:6–8).
This world lies under the sway of the wicked one and this life is full of suffering, pain and tribulations: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 Jn 5:19). “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy” (Jn 16:20). “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.” (Mt 7:13). “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
By comparison with the other life, it is said: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Re 21:4).
The Eternal Glory of Heaven
They believed that the end of the world’s tribulations lead to great glory in heaven: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25). “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (Jn 12:24).
“Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.” (Jn 16:20–22). “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him we shall also live with Him if we endure, we shall also reign with Him” “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us.” (2 Ti 2:11–12). “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Ro 8:18; see also Rev 7:9-17; 1 Cor. 2:9; and 1 Jn. 3:2). For all these reasons:
They abandoned worldly and material things: They followed the wisdom of Job as he said, “And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). It is the same meaning St. Paul confirmed in 1 Tim 6:7-8 and 2 Cor. 6:10.
They desired and longed for departure and being with Christ. This strong desire was supported by the Lord’s promises: “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:2–3); “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor” (Jn 12:25–26).
Therefore, all the martyrs shared Simeon’s song, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word” (Lk 2:29). In the same meaning and feeling St. Paul expressed, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Php 1:21–23).
They did that out of fervent love: Saints and martyrs loved the Lord Jesus Christ and kept the first and the greatest commandment from all their hearts, minds, souls and strength. They applied His words, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”