Plagues were fairly common in ancient times, and the microscopic germs that caused them could do more damage than an advancing army. In 260 AD, an outbreak of disease struck the Roman Empire with such severity that thousands were dying in the capital city each day!
The suffering was enormous and would reveal stark differences between Christians and non-believers.
When the plague struck, the pandemic quickly took hold of the populated cities. Sever vomiting, bloodshot eyes, and rotting flesh were the telltale signs of the onslaught. Historians from that era painted a grim picture: streets were littered with dead bodies, piles of human carcasses could be seen everywhere, and whole communities were left desolate. Masses of people began evacuating the cities, fleeing into the countryside in an attempt to escape the scourge.
But the pestilence was only responsible for part of the people’s suffering; their misery was further compounded by the way they treated one another. Most people were so afraid of contracting the plague, that at the first signs of disease, those who were infected were abandoned. Friends, and even family members, would forsake each other, leaving loved ones to die alone. In fact, hysteria was so rampant, that many were tossed into the streets before they even died!
But not everyone reacted so selfishly. There was one group, according to survivors, who did all they could to ease the pain and suffering of others…even if it cost them their own lives. They were Christians, and Dionysus, the Bishop of Alexandria, described their efforts this way:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The Best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.
The Christians of that day modeled the love and true community that Jesus intended. Their care for one another compelled them to risk everything, including their very lives. They were focused on doing what the Lord had commanded them in His Word, and would not be hindered, no matter the cost. They lived out 1 Peter 4:8-10 which reads:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.
Their love was literally “one for the history books” and because of it, they left a legacy that challenges us to this very day.
The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. Princeton University Press, 1996, Pages 73-82.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)