(This is a re-post of an entry from when I was using blogspot. It is now archived here.)
Have you read The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus? It is basically a letter like the Pauline Letters in the Bible (Galatians, Colossians, etc). We don’t know who wrote it; it’s not part of the Bible, but it is one of the earliest Christian works that apply the use of apologetics in writing to defend Christianity. Contents include the topics of manmade idols, the difference between the Jews and the Christians, and Jesus coming to the world. Here is a link to it if you want to take a look (It’s not that long, only 12 short chapters): http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/diognetus.html
Within this piece, there are two chapters that I want to focus on, and that is Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, which talks about the Christians during the time of the 1st-2nd Century. Take a look at how they are described:
Chapter V.: The Manners of the Christian
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
Chapter VI.: The Relation of Christians to the World
To sum up all in one word— what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.
As I read this part, it makes me wonder: Can we describe Christians today like how this piece described the Christians back during the early Church stages? The writer used these descriptions as support to show that Christians are not “advocates of any merely human doctrines.” Though this piece is used to defend Christianity, I think that it can also be one of the pieces that can be used for self reflecting on how we reveal ourselves to the world as Christ followers. Here are some of the examples that the writer listed:
- They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.
- They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.
- They love all men, and are persecuted by all.
- They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.
- They are poor, yet make many rich;
- they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour;
- they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
Now, obviously we understand through the context that Christians during this time were also strongly persecuted for their faith, but we also see that Christians who do reflect God through their lives were seen as blameless, respectful, and loving. Note that these Christians are ordinary people. They follow “the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct”; they “marry, as do all [others]; they beget children”; they “dwell in their own country”, etc. Christians are not defined “by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe.” They are defined by the Savior they follow and show Christ to other people through the way they are shown.
Yet at the same time, they are not the same to the world. We see descriptions where Christians are in this world to live in, but it is not their ultimate home:
“As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.”
“They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven”
An interesting analogy of the soul and body was also used to describe Christians in the world. It draws parallels to how Christians are in this world but are not of this world like how the soul is in the body but not of this body. “The flesh hates the soul” like how the world hates Christians from enjoying sinful pleasures. However, the soul loves the flesh that hates it like how the Christians loves the world that hates them. It is aligned with what Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) and also to what Jesus said about those who follow Him: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18)
So again, all of this was written as a defense for Christians around the 1st-2nd century, but one should really ask, can Christians now be described the same way as to how it was before? It’s a question that each Christian, including myself, should ask.
An Asian Believer,
Tagged: Christian, Diognetus, Epistle, Mathetes, Observation