Cyprian: Epistles XXIII-XXV
In Epistle XXIII, Cyprian provides an update on some of the minor offices of the church (reader and sub-deacon), which have recently been filled. Alas, no details are given as to how exactly this happened, other than Cyprian says that "I have made" them reader/sub-deacon, but "by the general advice." Are they elected or appointed Cyprian? Not that it matters all that much, but church polity today is of course still a difficult question...
Epistles XXIV and XXV are letters from Cyprian to Moyses and Maximus (XXIV) and from Moyses and Maximus to Cyprian (XXV). In his letter, Cyprian gives us two things that are worthy of close attention:
- An example of how one Christian ought to praise another.
- A description of how a Christian ought to think about persecution and suffering.
1. Cyprian shows us how a Christian ought to speak well of another Christian. This can actually be something of a challenge. We of course believe in the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of man, so in a sense everything good that happens is due to God and not to us. And yet, we wish to acknowledge when believes obey and grow and are faithful, but do so without planting the seeds of pride. Cyprian writes:
I had already known from rumor, most brave and blessed brethren, the glory of your faith and virtue, rejoicing greatly and abundantly congratulating you, that the highest condescension of our Lord Jesus Christ should have prepared you for the crown of confession of His name.
In other words, "I thank God for the work He has done in and through you" is the right way to acknowledge and praise the works of believers while attributing all final glory to God.
2. This is not, of course, to say that we ought to rush to embrace persecution or suffering. What does it mean to be a true "confessor"?
You prompt the keeping of these precepts [God's Word as found in Scripture]; you observe the divine and heavenly commands. This is to be a confessor of the Lord; this is to be a martyr of Christ-- to keep the firmness of one's profession inviolate among all evils, and secure. For to wish to become a martyr for the Lord, and to try to overthrow the Lord's precepts; to use against Him the condescension that He has granted you; to become, as it were, a rebel with arms that you have received from Him; this is to wish to confess Christ, and to deny Christ's Gospel. I rejoice, therefore, on your behalf, most brave and faithful brethren; and as much as I congratulate you for the crown of the Lord's discipline. The Lord has shed forth His condescension in manifold kinds of liberality.
Christians ought to obey, to confess the Gospel, and to use to the tools God has given us wisely--not rushing into punishment and persecution, but with discipline and thoughtfulness according to God's wisdom revealed in His Word.
Epistle XXV is the response from the confessors, where they thank Cyprian for the encouragement found in his letter to them. Which of course shows us how we ought to receive proper praise as believers--with gratitude to God for the work He does through His people. The tell Cyprian that their greatest joy is to hold to Christ in the midst of suffering, which of course can never be more than temporary. "For what more glorious, or what more blessed, can happen to any man from the divine condescension, than to confess the Lord God, in death itself, before his very executioners?"
These confessors demonstrate how they draw solace and strength from Scripture, and cling to the promises God has made to us therein. They ask for prayer that God will strengthen them to be strong in the face of suffering, and hold to the faith despite the worst the world can do.
The writers express their gratitude to the church, and encourage the lapsed to repent and return to God. They point out that the hope some of the lapsed have, that despite having betrayed Christ publicly God will still forgive them and welcome them in, is an empty hope so long as they maintain their public rejection of the faith. Those who do repent and wish to return to the membership of the church need to be patient, and realize that whatever their status in God's eyes, it will take time and care for the church to be convinced that they are sincere.