In the year 250 AD, something terrible happened. A previously unknown disease was unleashed on the Roman world. For the next sixteen years cities were decimated with up to 5,000 deaths a day at its worst. Wars were halted due to the crippling effects of the plague.
No samples of the disease remain, so we are left to guess what it was. It is possible that it was the original smallpox outbreak which hit an unprepared world with deadly force. Everywhere the disease went, death reigned. Commoners and royalty were both ravaged with even Roman Emperor Claudius II Goithicus dying from it.
We know of the plague because the Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, recorded his messages to his followers as they dealt with the death surrounding them. He described the plague like this:
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;—is profitable as a proof of faith.
Cyprian had the unenviable job of shepherding his people through one of the worst catastrophes to ever happen in the Western World. He counseled that Christians should live as though we have a hope. He felt that because Heaven awaits us, we can risk our lives to care for others. He describe the courage a Christian should have like this:
What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! What sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment
This is not the words of a man who is simply thinking out loud, he watched as people died all around of him of this terrible illness. Not very long after writing these words, he had to live them out. He was killed by the Roman authorities in the year 258 AD.
He faced his death with courage.
In light of Cyprian’s example, we too have a dangerous plague to face. I want to challenge you, Christian, to be willing to die. Not to be cavalier and stupid, but to be courageous and wise. Cyprian’s hope and ours is that the moment we die, we go home. We stand with Jesus forever, never to suffer again.
The legacy of Cyprian is closer to you than you realize. His work was instrumental in the spread of Christianity. The Christians were the ones who ran toward the sick and helped them when no one else would. The growth of Christianity after that can be traced ot their response to the Plague of Cyprian.
Let us, too, be the sorts of people who run to the need and risk our lives to do it. Let us “stand erect amid the desolation of the human race.” The only risk we take is that we might die and be with Jesus. The benefit is showing a world how precious Jesus is to us.