Cyprian  - Bishop of Carthage 250 AD

Another Gleaning from the “The Christians” Volume 3 started with the dilemma Cyprian had to deal with.  When I was reading his story it struck me how hard it was for him to follow the Lord.  He was born in 250 AD in Carthage.  

“Thascius Caecilanus Cyprianus seemed to have it all: wealth, health, status, intelligence and the prospect of even greater days ahead. What could stop him? He excelled in law, rhetoric and business. He was widely admired throughout third-century Carthage. He had a penetrating wit and a wide circle of friends, he lived in a ornate house, and he was by any worldly standard a rising star in one of the world’s most dynamic cities.

“...He sensed a deeper reality beyond the marble walls, painted eyes, and empty whirl of Carthaginian life.  He sensed a spark of eternity with himself, one desperately seeking communion with its source. And with the help of a Christian priest, he encountered that source; Christ Jesus, who had been raised from the dead two centuries before.  Now Cyprian finally knew his life’s true course:..”

“Cyprian’s conversion was total. His date of baptism is given as Easter 246.  But for Cyprian, this was no mere “lifestyle change”.  He sold most of his property and possessions to the benefit of his new faith and the poor.  He embraced a “perfect chastity” - a vow similar to that made by frontline Roman soldiers.  His life was made anew.  “I had wandered blindly in the darkness, tossed by the tempestuous sea,” Cyprian later recalled.  “I had floated at the mercy of the waves, ignorant of my life.” Yet, “after the strain of early years had been washed away with the help of the water of new birth, a light from above, serene and pure, had been poured into my forgiven heart.  After a second birth had remade me a new man by means of the Spirit breathed from heaven, then in a wonderful way what had been doubtful became sure, what had been hidden was revealed, what had been dark was illumined, what had seemed difficult before could now be attempted what had been thought impossible was now able to be done”

In three years the Bishop Donatus of Carthage died.  The people and the Holy Spirit chose Cyprian to be the new Bishop.

“...less than 3 years after his conversion, a large group of believers march to his residence.  The consensus, they said, was overwhelming.  Cyprian had the skills and vigor the church required.  Beside that there was something about him - a presence the other candidates could not hope to match.  Pontius, a deacon in the African church and later Cyprian’s biographer, described it well:

So much sanctity and grace beamed from his face that it confounded the minds of his beholders.  His countenance was grave and yet joyous…”

This was a man of God who got called upon to do something I would like us to examine, because I believe we all have similar struggles.  Shortly after he was made Bishop, the Romans embarked on another Christian killing spree.  They believed “the atheists” - that is the Christians - (They were called atheists because they did not believe in the Roman gods).  When things are going wrong in your corner of the world or in Rome’s case - the whole known world at that time; you believed the gods were upset with you because you were not giving them enough homage.  And the main guilty ones were the Christians because they would not sacrifice to the Roman gods - so when things were going wrong the Romans blamed the atheists (Christians) and put them to death.   

“...Since those who refused were threatening the health of the empire, the refusal would be taken as sedition, a capital offense.”

“By 250, all-out persecution was under way.  In some cities, including Alexandria, Christians were chased down by mobs and burned at the stake.  In Rome, Bishop Fabian was arrested and executed.  Later that year, the new proconsul  arrived in Carthage.  Cyprian knew he would be next.  So did his closest associates, “You must flee,” he was warned. Tertullus, whose devotion to prisoners and martyrs was unquestioned, quickly became adamant.  Cyprian must conceal himself for the church’s good.  Without constant government the the church would disintegrate under these pressures. Tertullus had heard the chants in the streets: “Cyprian to the lions!”

“Yet there were other considerations.  If Cyprian appeared to choose personal safety over staying with his flock, there certainly would be critics.  He could imagine the taunts.  What sort of leader goes into hiding while the faithful are slaughtered like sheep?  The church had long taught that martyrdom is the highest honour a Christian can achieve.  In martyrdom, then, it was seen that God revealed his full glory.  Why would Cyprian decline this golden crown?  Perhaps he did not truly believe these things.”

“His dilemma was brutally simple: He would be damned if he took flight , and killed if he didn’t.  And so the question became what did God want?....He would flee - not far, but to an undisclosed location near Carthage.  This “evil time” he wrote colleagues has “laid low our people in very great part.”   His mind was made up. He would avoid his enemies, but continue serving his flock.  So he fled.”

The above “italics” quotes are from “The Christians Volume 3” pages 35 to 43.

Now to look more closely at his dilemma.  Here the “normal” Christian would/should seek martyrdom.  To run from it shows a weak faith, cause if you truly believed, you would embrace it.  So the “normal” Christian action  - the “should” would be to accept martyrdom and many did.  But to be a leader in the church and to flee!!!  That sounds a lot like cowardice, and not the way of the Lord.

 Have you ever been faced with a decision that has a “should” - “everyone in Christianity knows what you should do in that situation”. It is obvious - eg. embracing the martyr's crown.  Now, one of the best parts of Christianity is “that it is not a religion, it is a relationship” (from a button from the 70’s).  A religion has a lot of “should’s”, because the leaders can not be there to help you decide the right course of action for each situation.  The “should’s” make it so we can know what to do in situations without having to phone up the church leaders to get their direction.

In a religion you need “shoulds” for each situation.  In Christianity, we have a Head who knows what we need to do in each situation. And because something is right for someone to do, does not make it right for someone else even though it is an obvious “should”.  The Head (Jesus) is able to direct us in each situation.

Psalm 37:23 (NKJV)

23  The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way.

Many times the Lord will present us with  two options - one to do the “should” and the other to do as the Head orders.  Many times the two ways are the same and there are times when they are different.  Our Lord is wanting to teach us to be led by His Spirit and in Cyprian’s dilemma we see a major choice of going against the “should”. When I read his story and try to fathom the turmoil in his soul as he wrestled with God over the right choice. I am amazed he decided to put of the welfare of the church over his own martyr’s crown.  How many Christians in his situation would have taken the easy way out and gone with the “should”.

Jesus gave us the example of getting the right “time”.  Jesus knew he would dying at the hands of the religious leaders, but when he was teaching in the temple and they came to capture Him; he removed himself.  It was not His time.  

 John 10:39 (KJV)

39  Therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand,

When it was time for Jesus to go to the cross, he did not resist.  When it was not time - he escaped.  Getting the right time is important.

 We know from history that Cyprian’s being alive after the persecution ended was VERY beneficial for the church.  The church was divided about what to do with those who had “lapsed” and wanted to come back to the church after the persecution was over.  The whole church was severely divided and he was an instrument in bringing unity instead of the schism that could have severely divided the church.

We also know that he was granted martyrdom in the next round of persecution in 258.  For me - for Cyprian to go against the flow and choose to flee  - is an heroic act.  How many times are we presented with decisions in our Christian walk that force us to follow the “should” - the way we all know most Christians are to go or to sometimes hear the Voice of the Lord as He tells us to go with Him another way.  I know He tests us to see if we will follow Him or follow our brethren - the other sheep.  You are never faulted by the other sheep for going the way that they are going.  But there are times the Lord wants to lead us.  We need to learn to hear His Voice and follow Him.

A little bit of a different topic, but it deserves mentioning here.  I have a hard enough time to Hear and Obey for myself that I find I do not have the time to figure out if another Christian is going on the right path.  Remember the right path for “Joe” is not necessarily the right path for you.  Just because everyone is doing it does not mean it is right for you.  I guess Jesus said it best .

Matthew 7:3-4 (NIV)

3  "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

4  How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?

I hold Cyprian up as a Christian Hero that we can all learn from.  I will leave this discourse with some more quotes from “The Christians” in regards to his actual martyrdom -

And so Cyprian’s final hours had arrived.  There seems little doubt that he had fully prepared himself. A passage from his “Exhortation to Martyrdom” is especially telling: “The brave and steadfast mind, founded upon religious meditation, stands firm and , against all the terrors of the devil and the threats of the world, the spirit persist unmoved, strengthened by a sure and solid faith in the what will be.  In persecutions, the earth is shut up but heaven is opened”

‘The next day September 14, 258, Cyprian was marched to the place of execution. He wore a simple homespun coat.  Witnesses say that the man himself was radiant, his demeanor providing for those who looked on an example of Christian courage.  His executioner, arriving late, appeared unwilling to carry out the order to kill this great man.  Cyprian, as was his habit, took mercy, ordering his followers to give the headsman twenty-five gold pieces.  He then knelt in the dirt and bound his own eyes.”

“...As the final deed was done, some present may have recalled another passage from Cyprian’s pen: “What an honour….to shut one’s eyes for a moment, with which men and the world are seen, and to open them once to see God and Christ.

“Cyprian’s basic insight - that the church must both maintain the high calling of Christ, “Be ye perfect” (Matt5:48), while also accommodating the penitent fallen - would remain for the centuries to come the paradoxical double task of Christians.  He left also the example of his own experience.  Don’t presume to know what God has in mind for you.  There may be major surprises.”