You and I can enjoy our life with Christ today because of the many very brave and noble brothers and sisters who have kept the faith, and passed it on, over the centuries. Preparing to teach on 2 Corinthians 4, I found myself looking at a couple of passages by Christians from the early centuries of the Church. They so inspired me that I have provided the texts in this article. You may not want to read everything, in which case, just scan down and look at the sections in bold text.
The early church went through the mill. Those first few centuries of astonishing expansion were also a time of frequent trouble. Our brothers and sisters were mocked, treated with suspicion, harasses unofficially, frequently underwent official persecution, and the religion was not legal until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, declared tolerance for Christianity in the Roman empire. Given the conditions, how did the Church grow as it did?
The simple answer is that the church grew because of the quality of the lives and the boldness of the witness of those brothers and sisters during those difficult days. They had come to recognise ‘God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6), so they were determined that ‘the life of Jesus’ would ‘be revealed in’ their ‘bodies’, i.e. how they lived, (2 Cor 4:10), and they had fixed ‘their eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ (2 Cor 4:18)
In order to obtain texts that are no longer subject to copyright I have used older translations, so the English is a little dated.
The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.
The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is an example of Christian apologetics, writings defending Christianity against the charges of its critics. Estimates of dating based on the language and other textual evidence have ranged from AD 130 (which would make it one of the earliest examples of apologetic literature), to the late 2nd century. The later date is more popular with the experts.
Mathetes is not a name but a title, meaning ‘disciple’, so we know nothing of the writer. Diognetus, on the other hand, is a name, and he is addressed as, “His Excellency.” Using these clues, some guess the recipient to be Claudius Diogenes, who was procurator of Alexandria at the turn of the second/third centuries. Others identify him as the tutor of the same name to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Whoever it was, they had requested an explanation of Christianity & Christians, and this epistle is the answer.
Chapter V. 1For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, or by speech, or by customs. 2For they do not dwell in cities of their own, or use a different language, or practise a peculiar life. 3This knowledge of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and effort of inquisitive men; they are not champions of a human doctrine, as some men are. 4But while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each man’s lot was cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly beyond all expectation. 5They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners; they share the life of citizens, they endure the lot of foreigners; every foreign land is to them a fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land. 6They marry like the rest of the world, they beget children, but they do not cast their offspring adrift [i.e. they do not kill unwanted babies]. 7They have a common table, but not a common bed. 8They exist in the flesh, but they live not after the flesh. 9They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they surpass the laws. 11They love all men, and are persecuted by all. 12They are unknown, and yet they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they give proof of new life. 13They are poor, and yet make many rich; they lack everything, and yet in everything they abound. 14They are dishonoured, and their dishonour becomes their glory; they are reviled, and yet are vindicated.
15They are abused, and they bless; they are insulted, and repay insult with honour. 16They do good, and are punished as evil-doers; and in their punishment they rejoice as finding new life therein. 17The Jews war against them as aliens; the Greeks persecute them; and yet they that hate them can state no ground for their enmity.
Chapter VI. 1In a word, what the soul is in the body Christians are in the world. 2The soul is spread through all the members of the body; so are Christians through all the cities of the world. 3The soul dwells in the body, and yet it is not of the body; so Christians dwell in the world, and yet they are not of the world. ….
(Translation From: The Epistle to Diognetus, Rev L. B. Redford, London, 1908. pp.61-66)
Wikipedia gives a little more comment on the Epistle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_Diognetus.
(For a contemporary English translation see: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-roberts.html. Chapter V & IV.)
Tertullian to Scapula, Chap 1-2.
Tertullian lived c. 155 – c. 240? AD. He was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He was the first to produce a significant amount of Latin Christian literature. Notable as an apologist and a defender of orthodox Christian teaching against heresy. ‘To Scapula’ is a letter from Tertullian addressed to Scapula, the proconsul of Africa, dated to 212 AD. Scapula was rumoured to be proposing a persecution of Christians, leading to threats and blackmail from Roman soldiers and private enemies of Christians. This treatise is an attempt to head off that persecution.
Turtullian’s opening assertion: ‘For us, the things that we suffer at the hands of ignorant men are not a source of great fear or dread’¹ is quite a warning to Scapula, pointing out, as he does in chapter 5, just how much blood he would have to be willing to shed were he to start down that line – there were a lot of Christians in Carthage! More positively, Turtullian asserts the admirable conduct and morality in daily life of the Christians and, notably, that it is not Christians who the state should be fearing – they are not the ones planning solution, and they are not the ones engaged in sacrilegious acts against the Roman temples.
Chapter I. We are not in any great perturbation or alarm about the persecutions we suffer from the ignorance of men; for we have attached ourselves to this sect, fully accepting the terms of its covenant, so that, as men whose very lives are not their own, we engage in these conflicts, our desire being to obtain God’s promised rewards, and our dread lest the woes with which He threatens an unchristian life should overtake us. Hence we shrink not from the grapple with your utmost rage [i.e. ‘When you fiercely turn on us we are ready to do battle], coming even forth of our own accord to the contest; and condemnation gives us more pleasure than acquittal. We have sent, therefore, this tract to you in no alarm about ourselves, but in much concern for you and for all our enemies, to say nothing of our friends. For our religion commands us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us, aiming at a perfection all its own, and seeking in its disciples something of a higher type than the commonplace goodness of the world. For all love those who love them; it is peculiar to Christians alone to love those that hate them. Therefore mourning over your ignorance, and compassionating [i.e. moved with pity about] human error, and looking on to that future of which every day shows threatening signs, necessity is laid on us to come forth in this way also, that we may set before you the truths you will not listen to openly.
Chapter II. We are worshippers of one God, of whose existence and character Nature teaches all men; at whose lightnings and thunders you tremble, whose benefits minister to your happiness. You think that others, too, are gods, whom we know to be devils. However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine. Accordingly the true God bestows His blessings alike on wicked men and on His own elect; upon which account He has appointed an eternal judgment, when both thankful and unthankful will have to stand before His bar. Yet you have never detected us—sacrilegious wretches though you reckon us to be—in any theft, far less in any sacrilege. But the robbers of your temples, all of them swear by your gods, and worship them; they are not Christians, and yet it is they who are found guilty of sacrilegious deeds. We have not time to unfold in how many other ways your gods are mocked and despised by their own votaries.
So, too, treason is falsely laid to our charge, though no one has ever been able to find followers of Albinus, or Niger, or Cassius, among Christians; while the very men who had sworn by the genii of the emperors, who had offered and vowed sacrifices for their safety, who had often pronounced condemnation on Christ’s disciples, are till this day found traitors to the imperial throne. A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honour; and whose well-being moreover, he must needs desire, with that of the empire over which he reigns so long as the world shall stand—for so long as that shall Rome continue. To the emperor, therefore, we render such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him; regarding him as the human being next to God who from God has received all his power, and is less than God alone. And this will be according to his own desires. For thus—as less only than the true God—he is greater than all besides. Thus he is greater than the very gods themselves, even they, too, being subject to him. We therefore sacrifice for the emperor’s safety, but to our God and his, and after the manner God has enjoined, in simple prayer. For God, Creator of the universe, has no need of odours or of blood. These things are the food of devils. But we not only reject those wicked spirits: we overcome them; we daily hold them up to contempt; we exorcise them from their victims, as multitudes can testify. So all the more we pray for the imperial well-being, as those who seek it at the hands of Him who is able to bestow it.
And one would think it must be abundantly clear to you that the religious system under whose rules we act is one inculcating a divine patience; since, though our numbers are so great—constituting all but the majority in every city—we conduct ourselves so quietly and modestly; I might perhaps say, known rather as individuals than as organized communities, and remarkable only for the reformation of our former vices. For far be it from us to take it ill that we have laid on us the very things we wish, or in any way plot the vengeance at our own hands, which we expect to come from God.
Translated by the Rev. S. Thelwall. from Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, 1869.
I trust you find these ancient brothers and sisters inspiring as we look to live lives worthy of Christ in our day and age.
Footnote ¹ : Documents in Early Christian Thoughts, Ed. Maurice Wiles & Mark Santer, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.226.Share this: