Cyprian, Plagues, And The Christian Hope

Church Father Friday is the ongoing curation of Patristic texts. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church. I pray these excerpts are a blessing to you.

 

Panic is winning the day.  With every update regarding Covid-19 things seem to get more perilous. This CFF isn’t about the response we see today to Covid-19. Honestly, it will take a long while to figure out what we did right and wrong. No, today, with a lot of help from Cyprian, we will examine the unshakeable hope the Church has in Christ.

When considering the recorded plagues of the last 2000-years, we see the Church involved and caring for those around them.  Around 250-262 AD there was a deadly plague in the Roman Empire.  People were dying at an alarming rate.  Some Christians stood firm in their convictions and loved their neighbors, knowing that while death was possible eternal life was guaranteed.  In the midst of severe death, pain, fear, anxiety, and with no knowledge of germ theory, the early church stepped up and cared for the sick.  However, during this plague, the faith of some Christians wavered and they lost hope.  Cyprian wrote Treatise 7 to encourage the people of God and remind them about the hope that is theirs in Christ Jesus.

The Plague of Cyprian

Before looking at Cyprian’s encouragement to the church and his pastoral genius, we need to see what he was dealing with. In this Treatise Cyprian recorded the horrifying nature of this plague:

This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened. — Cyprian Treatise 7.14

For people without medicine, this plague was almost a guaranteed death sentence.  The result of the sickness was violent and seen everywhere.  Cyprian didn’t have anti-viral medicine, he didn’t have a vaccine.  But he reminded his people of something better, eternal life in the presence of the Lord.  

Cyprian encourages his people by reminding them of three truths.  The first is that Christ promised that this world would be full of difficulties.  

With the exhortation of His fore-seeing word, instructing, and teaching, and preparing, and strengthening the people of His Church for all endurance of things to come, He predicted and said that wars, and famines, and earthquakes, and pestilences would arise in each place; and lest an unexpected and new dread of mischiefs should shake us, He previously warned us that adversity would increase more and more in the last times. Behold, the very things occur which were spoken; and since those occur which were foretold before, whatever things were promised will also follow; as the Lord Himself promises, saying, ‘But when you see all these things come to pass, know that the kingdom of God is at hand. — Cyprian Treatise 7.2

By reminding the people that Christ Himself promised that this world would be painful. Cyprian was encouraging them to look forward to the promises of Christ over and against the trials and allurements of this world. This also pointed out the poor motives of some who wavered in their faith, Cyprian wrote: “…it disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills” (7.8).  True faith isn’t about what Christ can give us here and now, rather it’s trusting in what he’s accomplished for us. How Christians handle difficult and dangerous situations matters because it reflects where our trust and hope truly lie.  

Cyprian’s second focal point is that true faith results in endurance in the face of any trial, especially physical ones.  He masterfully summarized the stories of Job and the Apostles in section 11 of this treatise. He wrote, “[they] maintained this discipline from the law of the Lord, not to murmur in adversity, but to accept bravely and patiently whatever things happen in the world” (7.11).  

For Cyprian, true faith results in endurance in trials because “Struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth” (7.12).  What we believe influences how we handle hardships and how we handle hardships is a powerful witness, for better or worse.  

And the final focal point of this treatise is that anxiety over the hardships in this life is related to hope.  He challenged the people on whether they had hope in Christ and the life to come, or if their only hope was in the “now”.  He gently reminds them of what death does to the Christian “That in the meantime we die, we are passing over to immortality by death; nor can eternal life follow, unless it should befall us to depart from this life. That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity. Who would not hasten to better things?” (7.22)

So What about the Coronavirus? 

There’s a huge difference between precautions and panic.  Cyprian wasn’t telling his people to live foolishly, he was telling them to live with hope.  Christ has triumphed over death and that includes Covid-19.  Be wise, be safe, and be a witness to the Lord during this outbreak.  The Christians who died of “The Plague of Cyprian” and those who died of old age entered into the same throne room.  And, as Cyprian exhorted his people, “May God behold this our eager desire; may the Lord Christ look upon this purpose of our mind and faith, He who will give the larger rewards of His glory to those whose desires in respect of Himself were greater!”

 

To read the full treatise check it out HERE

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