On September 14, A.D. 258, Cyprian (c. 195 – 258), bishop of Carthage, was executed for refusing to perform pagan religious rites. The Roman proconsul, Galerius Maximus, had commanded him to worship Roman gods or die. The faithful bishop did not submit, nor did he plead for his life; he simply responded, “I will not.” He then gave Maximus the following instruction: “Do as you have been ordered . . . In so just a matter there is no need for deliberation.”1
Cyprian’s execution epitomized the troubled times in which he lived. He was born in an affluent family in Carthage, North Africa, and was converted in 246. Two years later he hesitatingly accepted the post of bishop at Carthage.2 During the earliest years of his ministry, he hid from persecution by the Roman Emperor Decius, who tried to stamp out Christianity. Decius required all citizens to officially certify their worship of Roman gods. After numerous church members capitulated to Decius’ demands, Cyprian found himself at the center of a debate: should these Christians who “lapsed” be allowed back into the communion of the Church? In general, Cyprian took the middle road; he allowed idolaters to be restored but only after they sincerely repented. This Solomonic solution bolstered his growing reputation.
Cyprian was also respected as a pastor, because he was both heavenly minded and of earthly good. His preaching exhorted people to look beyond “the storms of this distracting world and to find a firm anchorage in the harbour of salvation.”3 His humanitarian efforts, however, helped his city to see that their pastor lived in the real world. When a plague struck Carthage in 252, he mobilized his church to help the victims.
Such godliness offended the civil authorities. When Maximus told Cyprian he would die by the sword, the bishop’s response was joyous: “Thanks be to God!”4 Escorted behind the proconsul’s home, he removed his own cloak and even attempted to tie a handkerchief over his eyes. In his last moment, Cyprian asked one of his deacons to give the executioner twenty-five pieces of gold. Why this generous act? Cyprian believed his executioner was doing him a favor by hastening his voyage to heaven. When it became clear his life was over, he was happy to go onto glory.
Cyprian refused to be intimidated by the world. He clearly knew the words of Christ: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). I pray that by God’s grace we would exhibit the same courageous faith.
1 “The Acts of St. Cyprian,” in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, trans. Herbert Musurillo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 173, 175.
2 Elgin S. Moyer, Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), 93.
3 Cyprian, “The World and Its Vanities,” in Fathers of the Church: A Selection from the Writings of the Latin Fathers, trans. F.A. Wright (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1928), 109.
4 Cyprian, Acts,173.