Experiencing the living God

Author: Mirosław Rucki

In 165 AD, a man named Justin said that no man in his right mind would renounce faith in true God for faith in false idols. Had he bowed before idols, he would have kept his life. Justin, however, believed godlessness, atheism and idolatry to be so nonsensical that he would rather die as a worshipper of true God.

A fateful meeting

Justin was born in Flavia Neapolis, in Israel occupied by the Romans ca. 100 AD. In antiquity the town was called Shechem; for some time, Abraham (Gen. 12:6) and Jacob (Gen. 33:18) lived there. Later, after the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites settled in their own country, Shechem was appointed the city of refuge for the slayer (Jos. 21:21). Inhabited chiefly by Samaritans in the 1st century AD, it was razed to the ground in the uprising against the Romans (66-70 AD). Only after several years was it rebuilt and populated again by pagans.

Justin’s parents must have been Roman aristocrats, possibly of Greek descent. His father’s name was Priscus and his grandfather bore the name of Bacchius. Justin considered himself a Samaritan. His parents gave him a good education – he could travel and study the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Epicurus, as well as stoicism. Once, while walking alone along the seacoast, Justin met a dignified old man. This meeting changed his life.

Until then he had believed that the reasoning by Plato and Pythagoras was absolutely reliable and truthful but after hearing the questions asked of him by the old man, he cried: “Should any one, then, employ a teacher? Or whence may anyone be helped, if not even in them there is truth?” In reply, the old man told Justin about the prophets proclaiming the words of God and explained: “Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things (…). Events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him (…). But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom” (Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon, 7).

A bold decision – either lightness or darkness

Justin took the advice of the strange old man, whom he never met again. He set out on the study of the Holy Scriptures, praying so that God would impart to him the understanding of His word. Comparing God’s wisdom following from the teaching of Christ with the wisdom of philosophers he knew, Justin wrote: “For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ (…) not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason” (2nd Apology, 10)

The experience of the fullness of Christ’s Divinity present in the Eucharist was related to the evidence contained in the Holy Scriptures by Justin.

Human teachings and wisdom seemed ridiculous to Justin when compared to the wisdom of God who had created “all things seen and unseen” and knows best how this world is arranged. Moreover, he discovered that demons did all they could to close people’s eyes and minds to God’s truth by frequently using slurs and falsely accusing Christians of vile acts. Justin had to decide and he chose honesty: “For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself and at popular opinion” (2nd Apology, 13).

Justin’s reasoning was very simple. God, who had created the world and man, for several millennia had foretold through the prophets the birth, suffering and death of Jesus Christ to be followed by His glorious resurrection, resulting in the conversion of pagan peoples. Holding in his hands still new (because recorded only several decades earlier) books of the New Testament, Justin could not possibly reject the witness they bore. What is more, Justin saw around himself on a daily basis the prophecy about the conversion of pagans come true. In the name of Christ people abandoned unfounded and superstitious beliefs in idols, turned away from sins and stayed pure and holy despite slurs and persecutions. The Church, in which these prophecies were coming true under Justin’s eyes, bore witness to a living, active and forgiving God.

Justin desired to experience God who infinitely loves man.

Experience of God in prayer, the Eucharist and Holy Scriptures

When at the age of 33 years Justin was baptized, his homeland witnessed a terrible calamity: the Jewish people, led by a false messiah, Bar-Kochba, revolted. The revolt, however, ended in utter defeat. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and on its site, Romans later built a pagan city from which Jews were banned. They could not even view from a distance their holy city, desecrated and trampled underfoot by pagans…

I wish to stress here that Justin tells us of his experience of God in a situation that was extremely dangerous for Christians too. Since the times of Nero (54-68 AD) Christians had been considered the archenemies of the Empire. Nero issued several gory edicts followed by similar anti-Christian edicts of Domitian (81-96 AD), which had not been revoked until Justin’s time.

Hence, when Justin bore witness to his faith in defence of several Christians sentenced to death purely for their professed faith in Jesus, he put himself at risk as well. The Christian tradition has it that more or less at the same time (ca. 137 AD), three girls aged 9 to 12 years were bludgeoned to death. Their only guilt was their mother’s refusal to make an offering to the goddess Diana. They were set on fire alive and beaten with clubs only to be finished off with a sword. Their mother died of despair. Today they are honoured in particular in Eastern Churches as saints – Faith, Hope and Love – together with their mother Sophia. However, regardless of the danger of being killed, out of love for Truth and Justice, Justin wrote a long letter to emperor Antoninus, known as his First Apology.

Invoking reason, Justin draws attention to the paradox of the Roman Empire: proclaiming the rule of law and freedom, it is capable of convicting people on nothing else but accepting baptism and repudiating all evil. By persecuting Christians, the Roman authorities are in fact suicidal, as they eliminate the best citizens who live honestly and work for the good of their country. Justin says: “For those who, on account of the laws and punishments you impose, endeavour to escape detection when they offend (and they offend, too, under the impression that it is quite possible to escape your detection, since you are but men), those persons, if they learned and were convinced that nothing, whether actually done or only intended, can escape the knowledge of God, would by all means live decently on account of the penalties threatened, as even you yourselves will admit. But you seem to fear lest all men become righteous, and you no longer have any to punish” (1st Apology, 12).

“For if you had understood what had been written by the prophets, you would not have denied that He was God, Son of the only, unbegotten, unutterable God”

Justin recounts his own experience of God and how the conviction about the necessity to lead a holy life was “instilled” in him. Speaking of his baptism, he calls it regeneration to a new life in Christ and dedication to God. Justin describes how catechumens are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and how they pray for the remission of their sins that are passed and vow to shun all sins in the future. The congregation asked God for the newly baptized “so that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation” (Ibid. 65).

The Eucharistic liturgy was fundamental for Justin, indispensible to live and function: “but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (Ibid, 66). Eucharistic services, described by Justin, were held on Sundays, because they commemorated the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and embodied His rule over the Church and the earth.

The experience of the fullness of Christ’s Divinity present in the Eucharist was related to the evidence contained in the Holy Scriptures by Justin. He said: “For if you had understood what had been written by the prophets, you would not have denied that He was God, Son of the only, unbegotten, unutterable God” (Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon, 126). The awareness of this was a source of incredible courage for Justin.

Evangelization

Justin must have been aware of the danger, yet he was not afraid to speak up for believers in Christ. Admonishing the emperor and the entire senate, he wrote: “do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies. For we forewarn you, that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God, if you continue in your injustice” (1st Apology, 68). This made an impression on the addressees for the emperor decreed to stop the persecutions of the Church.

Being resolute in his undertakings, having taken his own path from paganism and futile philosophy to a wellgrounded faith in Jesus Christ, Justin did not mince his words.

Bearing the imperial document, Justin went to Asia Minor where he supported persecuted Christians and boldly proclaimed the Gospels. His motivation was simple – he believed that everyone should evangelize at every opportunity. Hence, while at Ephesus, Justin preached to a casual acquaintance, rabbi Tryphon. This occurrence is described in detail in Justin’s work Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon.

What strikes the reader of the Dialogue is the deep respect Justin had for his interlocutor. He makes him a proposal: “But if you are willing to listen to an account of Him, how we have not been deceived, and shall not cease to confess Him—although men's reproaches be heaped upon us, although the most terrible tyrant compel us to deny Him—I shall prove to you (…) that we have not believed empty fables, or words without any foundation but words filled with the Spirit of God, and big with power, and flourishing with grace” (Dialogue … ,9). The Jews who accompanied Tryphon laughed and made noise, but the rabbi asked Justin for more explanations.

Of course, being resolute in his undertakings, having taken his own path from paganism and futile philosophy to a well-grounded faith in Jesus Christ, Justin did not mince his words nor did he abide by what we would call political correctness today. Being aware that without Christ salvation is not possible, he openly told the rabbi about this: “For thus, so far as you are concerned, I shall be found in all respects innocent, if I strive earnestly to persuade you by bringing forward demonstrations. But if you remain hard-hearted, or weak in [forming] a resolution, on account of death, which is the lot of the Christians, and are unwilling to assent to the truth, you shall appear as the authors of your own [evils]” (Ibid. 44). Explaining the questions of Christ’s Divinity, virgin birth, second coming and other tenets of Christianity, strange to a Jew, Justin won the admiration of the rabbi who said: “You seem to me to have come out of a great conflict with many persons about all the points we have been searching into, and therefore quite ready to return answers to all questions put to you” (Ibid. 50).

Even though rebuking the Jewish people for their unbelief, Justin behaves like a brother admonishing his brother; he refers in this context to the Holy Scriptures: “If, then, the teaching of the prophets and of Himself moves you, it is better for you to follow God than your imprudent and blind masters” (Ibid. 134). For Tryphon, who was open to dialogue, there was nothing in these words that he could take offence to. Therefore, when after some time, Justin had to leave Ephesus, the rabbi and his associates prayed that he would have a good journey. Justin, too, prayed for them by saying: “I can wish no better thing for you, sirs, than this, that, recognising in this way that intelligence is given to every man, you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God” (Ibid. 142).

Martyrdom

The last surviving work of Justin, the so-called Second Apology, sheds light on the reason of his death. In the beginning, he cites the example of a man named Ptolemæus condemned to death for his faith in Christ. When another Christian, Lucius, asked whether it was just to condemn a man without guilt but his faith, he was captured and condemned as well. Being led away for execution, he supposedly thanked God that he would not have to live any longer in a country ruled by such wicked rulers. One more Christian, who defended Ptolemæus and Lucius, was also condemned. Summarizing, Justin said: “I too, therefore, expect to be plotted against and fixed to the stake, by some of those I have named” (2nd Apology, 3). Indeed, having been accused of a ‘grave offence’ – faith in Jesus Christ – Justin was beheaded in 165 AD. He was a Roman citizen; therefore he ‘deserved’ a dignified death …

“I can wish no better thing for you, sirs, than this, that you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God”.

Justin, however, did not care much about death. He was convinced that God’s wrath, ignited by human wickedness and unjust rulers, was contained only by the prayers of the Church and continuous missionary work, winning new believers. He cared more about the conversion of his persecutors than about staying alive. The experience of living God, forgiving sins and sanctifying His Church, changed Justin’s view of the surrounding reality. Before his death, he said that no person in his right mind would renounce faith in a true God for faith in false idols.

Saint Justin Martyr is also called a Philosopher and, in the tradition of the Eastern Church, Ἰουστῖνος ὁ Μάρτυρ (or Justin Witness). His witness shows us that in hard times, when lawlessness is called law, when faith in Jesus may entail death, it is commendable to speak out in defence of the Truth and preach the Gospels to every man. Why, everyone needs salvation and God welcomes everyone to His Kingdom. Have confidence in Jesus, therefore, and boldly bear witness to His love and mercy.

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