There is power in story. Jesus told stories to illustrate timeless Scriptural truth. We still remember His story of the “Good Samaritan” or His story of the “Farmer Sowing the Seed”. These stories stay with us; they speak to us and instruct us. When I was in college I heard a story about Christian witness and commitment. The story may be true or it may merely be an illustration of a timeless Scriptural truth. It is the story of “40 Wrestlers”.
In the days of Nero, the Emperor of Rome, there was a band of elite soldiers known as the “The Emperor’s Wrestlers.” These men were the best athletes in the Roman Amphitheater, and the bravest soldiers in all of the Roman army. They wrestled for the Emperor against all who challenged them. Before each contest they would stand before the Emperor’s throne and cry out “We the wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Emperor, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
One year, in mid-winter, there was a rebellion waged in Gaul (modern-day France); the Emperor sent for his wrestlers and told them to go to Gaul to end the war that was raging on. This brave group of wrestlers left Rome under the command of Vespasian.
While in Gaul rumors spread to Rome that many of the Emperor’s Wrestlers had become Christians. When news of this reached Nero, the Emperor, he sent a message to Vespasian, and made this decree; “If there be any among your soldiers who cling to the faith of the Christian, they must die!”
It was in the dead of winter that Vespasian received the message while his soldiers were camped beside a frozen lake in Gaul. Vespasian assembled his troops and asked, “Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christians? If so, let him step forward.”
Forty soldiers instantly stepped forward two paces, saluted and stood at attention. Vespasian was stunned! He had not expected any to step forward. Vespasian said, “Until sundown I shall give you time to recant and to deny your faith.”
At sundown the soldiers were again assembled together and Vespasian asked: “Who still clings to the Christian faith, even if it means death?”
Again 40 soldiers stepped forward and stood at attention. Vespasian pleaded with them to deny their faith, but not one soldier would deny Christ.
Vespasian did not want these men he loved, respected, who fought side to side together, die at the hands of their fellow wrestlers, so he had them strip naked. Vespasian reluctantly said, “The decree of the Emperor must be obeyed, so you shall stand out on the frozen lake, exposed to the elements until you freeze to death. Should you recant and deny Christ, the fire will remain burning on shore, and by returning to the shelter of the fire, you will be denouncing Christ and you shall live.”
The forty soldiers stripped off their clothing, fell into four columns of ten each, and marched towards the center of the frozen lake to their death. But as they marched onto the ice, they chanted; “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
All night long Vespasian stood by his campfire and watched those forty brave wrestlers out on the ice as they slowly succumbed to the elements. As they grew weaker and weaker, their chanting grew fainter and fainter; “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee O Christ, to win of thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
As morning drew near, one wrestler, no longer able to stand the freezing cold, walked off the ice and came to the edge of the fire, renouncing Christ. Vespasian could hear faintly from the frozen lake; “Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for thee O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
Vespasian, standing by the fire all night, was thinking. As he stood there God touched his heart. Vespasian slowly removed his cloak, helmet and armor and calmly walked down upon the frozen lake to join his men, and as he walked, he chanted;
“Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”