40 soldiers who openly confessed themselves Christians were condemned freeze to death for refusing to deny Jesus Christ
Forty soldiers who had openly confessed themselves Christians were condemned by the prefect to be exposed naked upon a frozen pond near Sebaste on a bitterly cold night, that they might freeze to death. It was one of the strangest episodes in all of military and Christian history–an army killing its own best soldiers. The time: A.D. 320. The place: Sevaste, in present-day Turkey. The issue: Would Christian soldiers obey and bow to pagan gods? Governor Agricola spoke mildly but firmly.
He had good and strong warriors before him. He needed them. They must be brought into line. “I am told you refuse to offer the sacrifice ordered by Emperor Licinius.” Governor Agricola of Armenia was confronted with “mutiny.” Forty soldiers refused to offer the sacrifice ordered by emperor Licinius. The forty who stood before him that wintry fourth-century day in Sevaste were fine specimens of manhood who radiated an aura of courage.
He was determined to make them see reason. But the soldiers were adamant. They refused to sacrifice. To do so was to betray their faith in Christ. One of the soldiers answered on behalf of the rest. “We will not sacrifice. To do so is to betray our holy faith.” A note of exasperation crept into the governor’s voice.
“But what about your comrades?” asked Agricola. “Consider–you alone of all Caesar’s thousands of troops defy him! Think of the disgrace you bring upon your legion!” “Give up this stubborn folly.
You have no lord but Caesar! In his name, I promise promotion to the first of you who steps forward and does his duty.” He paused a moment, expecting his lure would break their ranks. None of them moved.
He switched tactics. “You persist in your rebellion? Then prepare for torture, prison, death! This is your last chance. Will you obey your emperor?” “To disgrace the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is more terrible still,” replied the men.
Exasperated, the governor threatened to flog and torture them.
The soldiers stood firm, although they knew he would carry out his threat. In the fourth century, there were few civil rights. Boldly the men answered, “Nothing you can offer us would replace what we would lose in the next world.
As for your threats– we despise our bodies when the welfare of our souls is at stake.” Pairs of guards seized each man and dragged them out into the cold where they were stripped and tied to posts.
Whips laid open their backs and iron hooks tore their sides. Still the forty refused to surrender. Agricola chained them in his dungeons. Finally, he commanded that they be stripped naked and driven onto the ice of a pond below Sevaste.
The “rebels” did not wait for the sentence to be imposed, but tearing off their own clothes, ran to the pond in the raw March air. “We are soldiers of the Lord and fear no hardship,” they said. “What is death for us but an entrance into eternal life?” On this day, March 9, 320, singing hymns, they stood shivering on the pond as the sun sank. Agricola squinted into the falling sun.
Surely the bitter cold of evening would change their minds…. Wait! There was something else he could do. “Heat baths of warm water,” he ordered the guards. “Place them around the pond. That ought to lure them out pretty quickly,” he smirked.
Surely the warm water would lure the men off the ice! But the crisp night air carried a prayer to all ears: “Lord, there are forty of us engaged in this battle; grant that forty may be crowned and not one be wanting from this sacred number.” Standing on the shore, the shivering guards shouted into the night. “Don’t be idiots. What’s the point? Come on out. Warm yourselves!”
“Look,” one of the guards suddenly exclaimed, pointing toward the sky. “What?” said his fellow guard, eyes probing the darkness. “Its too dark to see anything. By Jove, I wish this was over. I’m freezing out here.” “Don’t you see them? Spirits…hovering with golden crowns over those fellows heads, holding out rich robes for them!” “Are you out of your mind? It’s pitch black.
Hey! There’s someone coming! It’s one of them.” Babbling, one of the forty crawled toward them from the ice. The two ran forward, grasped his shuddering arms and helped him into a bath.
But the heat was too much of a shock to his frozen system. He went into convulsions and died. This was too much for the guard who had seen the vision of crowns, without delay, he shucked off his clothes and ran onto the ice and took the place of the man who had failed. The martyrs would be forty again! When the sun rose, Agricola was told that the forty were dead. “Well, get the bodies off the ice,” he commanded. “Burn them.
And dump the ashes in the river.” The Youngest Was Still Alive The guards backed a wagon as near the pond as they could and began stacking the stiff corpses onto it. Then a bizarre twist occurred. “Hey, we’ve got a live one here,” a guard shouted. “It’s Melito. Poor fellow. He’s just a kid.” “A local boy, too. That’s his mom up there.” The soldier beckoned to the woman and she came near. “Listen, Mother, take your boy home, save his life if you can. We’ll look the other way.” “What kind of talk is that?” scolded the woman. She seemed genuinely upset! The guards looked at each other in astonishment.
“Would you cheat him of his crown? I’ll never let that happen!” As the wagon began to roll away, she lifted her son with her peasant’s strength, hoisting him in with the others. “Go, Son,” she cried. “Go to the end of this happy journey with your comrades so that you won’t be the last to present yourself before God.” One of the guards tapped the side of his head and rolled his eyes upward.
“Christians!” he muttered. “I just don’t understand them.” The bodies of the Forty were burned and their ashes cast into a river. The current deposited fragments of bone at a bend in the stream.
Christians collected and preserved them as honored remains to be kept among local churches. Sevaste (now Sivas, Turkey) was in Armenia. It was a strategic location to station troops to meet threats from North and East.