St John and the other six youths were sons of illustrious citizens of Ephesus. The young men were friends from childhood, and all were in military service together.
When the emperor Decius (249-251) arrived in Ephesus, he commanded all the citizens to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. Torture and death awaited those who disobeyed. Denounced by those currying the emperor’s favor, the seven youths of Ephesus were summoned to reply to the charges. Appearing before the emperor, the saints confessed their faith in Christ.
Their military belts and insignia were quickly taken from them. Decius allowed them to go free, however, hoping that they would change their minds while he was off on a military campaign. The young men fled from the city and hid in a cave on Mount Ochlon, where they passed their time in prayer, preparing for martyrdom.
Hearing that the emperor had returned and sought them to bring them to trial, St Maximilian exhorted his companions to come out of the cave and present themselves for trial.
Learning where the young men were hidden, the emperor ordered that the entrance of the cave to be sealed with stones so that the saints would perish from hunger and thirst. Two of the dignitaries at the blocked entrance to the cave were secret Christians. Desiring to preserve the memory of the saints, they placed in the cave a sealed container containing two metal plaques. On them were inscribed the names of the seven youths and the details of their suffering and death.
The Lord placed the saints into a miraculous sleep lasting almost two centuries. In the meanwhile, the persecutions against Christians had ceased. During the reign of the holy emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450) there were heretics who denied the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some of them said, “How can there be a resurrection of the dead when there will be neither soul nor body, since they are disintegrated?” Others affirmed, “The souls alone will have a restoration, since it would be impossible for bodies to arise and live after a thousand years, when even their dust would not remain.” Therefore, the Lord revealed the mystery of the Resurrection of the Dead and of the future life through His seven saints.
The owner of the land on which Mount Ochlon was situated, discovered the stone construction, and his workers opened up the entrance to the cave. The Lord had kept the youths alive, and they awoke from their sleep, unaware that almost two hundred years had elapsed. Their bodies and clothing were completely undecayed.
Preparing to accept torture, the youths once again asked St Iamblicus to buy bread for them in the city. Going toward the city, he was astonished to see a cross on the gates. Hearing the name of Jesus Christ freely spoken, he began to doubt that he was approaching his own city.
When he paid for the bread, Iamblicus gave the merchant coins with the image of the emperor Decius on it. He was detained as someone who might be concealing a horde of old money. They took St Iamblicus to the city administrator, who also happened to be the Bishop of Ephesus. Hearing the bewildering answers of the youth, the bishop perceived that God was revealing some sort of mystery through him, and went with other people to the cave.
At the entrance to the cave the bishop took out the sealed container and opened it. He read upon the metal plaques the names of the seven youths and the details of the sealing of the cave on the orders of the emperor Decius. Going into the cave and seeing the youths alive, everyone rejoiced and perceived that the Lord, by waking them from their long sleep, was disclosing to the Church the mystery of the Resurrection of the Dead.
Soon the emperor himself arrived in Ephesus and spoke with the youths in the cave. Then the saints, in sight of everyone, lay their heads upon the ground and fell asleep again, this time until the General Resurrection. The emperor wanted to place each of the youths into a jeweled coffin, but appearing to him in a dream, the holy youths said that their bodies were to be left upon the ground in the cave. In the twelfth century the Russian pilgrim Igumen Daniel saw the holy relics of the seven youths in the cave.
There is a second commemoration of the seven youths on October 22. According to one tradition, which entered into the Russian Prologue (of Saints’ Lives), the youths fell asleep a second time on this day. The Greek MENAION of 1870 says that they fell asleep first on August 4, and woke up on October 22. The holy youths are mentioned also in the service of the Church New Year, September 1.