Cyprian of Carthage (c. 195 - 258): Holding Fast to Unseen Things
The Roman Emperor Valerian I launched a wave of persecution against Christians in A.D. 256. Among his demands was that professed followers of Jesus sacrifice to pagan deities or face dire consequences. Though the penalty was great, Cyprian, North Africa’s bishop of Carthage, resolved to take his stand with Christ. So when he refused to worship Roman gods, the authorities sentenced him to death. Upon pronouncement of the sentence, his only reply was to thank God for the honor of bearing His standard. Then, at the execution site, he blindfolded himself before encouraging the trembling executioner to do his duty and behead him.1 In a moment, he was transported to the presence of Christ.
Ironically, several years earlier some of his rivals had called Cyprian a coward when the Emperor Decius similarly persecuted Christians who would not worship the pagan deities. But rather than face the authorities on that occasion, Cyprian went into hiding and directed his flock through correspondence.2 Though some questioned his authority, his letters from that period provided a rich array of Christian instruction.
Yet perhaps his most striking letter was penned around 250 shortly after his conversion and election as bishop. Writing to Donatus, a pastor in his diocese, he counseled the Church concerning how to bear up amid the desperate circumstances of a world turned suddenly against Christians. Specifically, he exhorted pastors to lead their flocks in a firm commitment to the practice of spiritual discipline: “[T]he one peaceful and trustworthy tranquillity [sic], the one solid and firm and constant security, is this, for a man to withdraw from these eddies of a distracting world, and, anchored on the ground of the harbour of salvation, to lift his eyes from earth to heaven.”3 When a believer draws near to God, Cyprian said, human affairs become easier to manage and the world seems unappealing: “How stable, how free from all shocks is that safeguard; how heavenly the protection in its perennial blessings,—to be loosed from the snares of this entangling world, and to be purged from earthly dregs, and fitted for the light of immortality!”
As a means to turn one’s mind heavenward, he counseled consistency “in prayer as in reading; now speak with God, now let God speak with you, let Him instruct you in His precepts, let Him direct you.”4 Those who practiced such discipline would desire a dwelling with God in heaven more than “[c]eilings enriched with gold, and houses adorned with mosaics of costly marble.”5 Indeed, Cyprian heeded his own counsel, for when the hour arrived for his martyrdom, he rejoiced.
Pastors serve their congregations well in troubled times by teaching them to develop a clear and compelling vision of those invisible realities which are the anchor of their souls and which give guidance to the life of faith (Heb. 11:1). In tumultuous times, believers can preserve a peace that passes understanding and evidence a hope that elicits inquiries as to its source if they will persevere in the practice of spiritual disciplines. Hold fast to the unseen.
Pontius the Deacon, “The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr,” in Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, vol. 5 of Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 270-274.
Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1984), 88-89.
Cyprian, “Epistle 1,” in Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, 279.