Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3[Here is the opening of a letter “To Fabian, Bishop of Antioch” from Dionysius of Alexandria. Though undated, scholars locate it in the days of the Decian persecution. In 250, Roman Emperor Decius issued an edict that everyone in the Roman Empire offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor or face death. Havoc raged throughout the empire in 250-251. This correspondence gives us a glimpse of what followers of Christ endured in Alexandria.]
“The persecution did not begin amongst us with the Imperial edict; for it anticipated that by a whole year. And the prophet and poet of evil to this city, whoever he was, was beforehand in moving and exciting the heathen crowds against us, rekindling their zeal for the national superstitions. So they being aroused by him and availing themselves of all lawful authority for their unholy doings, conceived that the only piety, the proper worship of their gods was this — to thirst for our blood.
First, then, they carried off an old man, Metras, and bade him utter impious words, and when he refused they beat his body with sticks and stabbed his face and eyes with sharp bulrushes as they led him into the outskirts of the city and there stoned him. Then they led a believer named Quinta to the idol-house and tried to make her kneel down, and, when she turned away in disgust, they bound her by the feet and hauled her right through the city over the rough pavement, the big stones bruising her poor body, and at the same time beat her till they reached the same spot, and there stoned her.
Thereupon they all with one consent made a rush on the houses of the believers, and, falling each upon those whom they recognized as neighbours, plundered, harried and despoiled them, setting aside the more valuable of their possessions and casting out into the streets and burning the cheaper things and such as were made of wood, till they produced the appearance of a city devastated by the enemy. But the brethren gave way and submitted and accepted the plundering of their possessions with joy like unto those of whom Paul also testified. And I know not of any, save possibly a single one who fell into their hands, up till now has denied the Lord.”
Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) in “To Fabian, Bishop of Antioch” (c. 250) in St. Dionysius of Alexandria: Letters and Treatises, ed. by Charles Lett Feltoe (London: SPCK, 1918).
Today I have introduced the fifth key early church father from Alexandria (though not in order). Here they are in chronological order: Clement (150-215) came first, followed by Origen (185-254), then came his student, Dionysius (d. 264). Some time later God raised up Athanasius (296-373) and then Cyril (376-444). Of course there were other prominent Christians in this city but the memory of these doctors and theologians stands out based on their written contributions for the larger church and their surviving correspondence.
Again I have chosen the theme “Advent in Alexandria” as I will spend half of Advent there in service to God’s workers there. I am researching along these lines with the aim of learning how these fathers might help us from their writings to prepare us for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So far, I am struck by the fact that all of them endured many difficulties. Some battled against heresy that threatened to destroy the church from within. Others faced fierce persecution from outside. I believe God has led me to mine their writings to inspire us as we encounter varying difficulties. The message is clear: do not lose heart! Their generosity soars to unthinkable levels and stirs our hearts as we see them giving their lives in Christian service.
In the excerpt of the letter of Dionysius posted above, consider the torment that the old man Metras and the believing woman Quinta endured. With the “old man” label, we surmise that Metras was an elder and an influential guy. Likely the mob thought that if they could get him to renounce his faith others would follow. Are you Metras? Though up in years, might your greatest tests of trust in God be yet ahead of you?
And what about Quinta. She is clearly known for her faith, and remains true despite suffering horribly. Are you Quinta? Are you known for your faith and willing to stay true no matter the watching world throws at you?
Notice that their possessions were plundered too. We can only imagine the losses they endured though yet the gains that awaited them in the eternal kingdom are inestimable. What helped them to persevere and to not lose heart? Likely they remembered what that Dionysius (or Origen before him) had undoubtedly taught them about humble obedience and perseverance. Those who are persecuted have the hope of the kingdom as a reward from our generous God! As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Would you be able to endure? Do you count yourself blessed when you suffer? I am learning that suffering drives me to my knees in prayer and dependance on God. Then, over time, I discover that’s the posture for navigating every day and every challenge. So, wherever you are and whatever you face today, remember the hope that we have because of Jesus Christ our Lord, whose coming we await with great anticipation. Take heart in what we have learned this week: that we can give all we have and endure persecution and plunder because Jesus has promised us the kingdom. What gain!
Whenever I face a trial, my daughter Sophie sweetly reminds me, “You got this, Dad, because God’s got you.” I can think of no more generous gift that we can give those who are enduring hard times than to encourage them lovingly to not lose heart. Before the great cloud of witnesses, Metras and Quinta shined like lights for Christ and their legacy lives on to this day. What will you do when your moment comes? Come alongside anyone you know who is suffering. Give them the generous gift of love and encouragement, and remind them, “You got this because God’s got you.”Read more