Martyred in 258 AD, Cyprian was a North African Bishop who chose to follow Christ ahead of the temptations and trappings of an elite upbringing.
The ruins of Roman Carthage.
Little is known of Cyprian’s early life. But by all accounts he was a wealthy member of the Roman provincial elite. Born Thascius in the early third century, as a young man he would have had an excellent and diverse education. Thascius was taught oratory, rhetoric and grammar, and would have been well versed in the poetry and prose of the ancient world. His extant works betray a well read, well taught individual, whose command of oratory in particular shines through in his writing.
With such a privileged background, Thascius would have known the luxury and trappings of upper class provincial Roman life. Rich and varied food and drink, sexualised relationships and interactions with a variety of partners, and lavish dinner parties, drinking competitions and high society soirees. To tear oneself away from a life of indulgence and privilege is always a challenge (and is part of the reason Christ Himself taught that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25.) But through the ministry of a humble Christian teacher, Cyprian’s life displays the saving power of the Gospel to do just that.
The Life of Cyprian, by Pontius the Deacon, is our most contemporaneous source on Cyprian’s life. Pontius was a Carthaginian churchman who served as a Deacon under Cyprian’s leadership. His work is short, but it crucially describes just how one particular priest, Caecilius (from whom Thascius took his new name), was used by God to dramatically transform this member of the provincial Roman elite into a humble servant of the True and Living God.
He had a close association among us with a just man, and of praiseworthy memory, by name Caecilius, and in age as well as in honour a presbyter, who had converted him from his worldly errors to the acknowledgment of the true divinity. This man he loved with entire honour and all observance, regarding him with an obedient veneration, not only as the friend and comrade of his soul, but as the parent of his new life.
Pontius the Deacon, Life of Cyprian 4.
Pontius makes clear the affection Cyprian had for Caecilius. Indeed, there are echoes of how Paul describes his relationship with Timothy. Paul describes Timothy as his son several times – “…I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord,” “Timothy, my true son in the faith…” (1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2). There is a spiritual tenderness. Paul led Timothy to faith, Caecilius did likewise for Cyprian. There is tenderness because at the heart of the New Birth of the Christian is a right orientation of love. God loves us, and yet we willingly reject Him. Instead, we project our love on created things, and not our Creator. Cyprian had lived for around 35 years before his conversion, loving the vices and pleasures of the Roman elites. Satisfying himself in the gratifications of the sinful flesh. Yet when Caecilius introduced him to the Gospel, his eyes were opened. His love was reorientated, upon the Father who adopted Him, the Son who died for him, and the Spirit that works within him. And that love overflows to his new family: the church. Caecilius is part of that, and his role in teaching Cyprian the Gospel meant that affection was clear to see. Indeed, from the time of his conversion, Cyprian’s love for the people of God becomes evident in the way he begins to live.
The Gospel transformed Cyprian.
From ambitious and successful provincial elite, Cyprian became a willing and humble servant of the Lord. He gave away his wealth, supporting the poor and needy. His considerable wealth was rapidly disseminated around the family of believers, and those struggling in the city of Carthage. Within two years of his conversion, Cyprian was ordained, and his heart for pastoral leadership is evident in his writings. His extant letters betray a pastoral heart for stumbling saints, struggling sinners, and needy believers.
Cyprian was committed to encouraging his readers to keep on in their faith, to depend on God alone for their strength and salvation. One short quote, from a letter to Donatus, illustrates his practical, pastoral encouragement to depend on God alone.
“Be constantly committed to prayer and to reading [Scripture]. By praying, you speak to God, in reading, God speaks to you.”
Cyprian, To Donatus, 15.
Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage, the leader of the small Christian community there. Under his leadership the Carthaginian church endured two major persecutions. Both were costly to the Church, and to Cyprian, but it was the second which proved fatal for Cyprian himself.
Imprisoned under the orders of the proconsul of the region, Galerius Maximus, Cyprian was tried before the proconsul in open court. The death sentence was pronounced when Cyprian refused to recant. His faith superseded his allegiance to Rome, and he would not deny the sovereign lordship of Christ to save his own life. Execution by beheading was the judgement, and records indicate that on September 13th, 258, Cyprian was beheaded outside of the city.
Cyprian led the church in Carthage for only a decade or so, and his emphasis on pastoral leadership was clear and helpful. The transformation of the Gospel is evident in the story of Cyprian. His change from wealthy and lavish provincial elite, to servant hearted church leader is miraculous. The Gospel has the power to save sinners, and Cyprian’s story is of exactly that saving grace.
But Cyprian was not a perfect saint. His life was marred by the reactions and interactions to those who fell away during the intense periods of persecution. Labelled the lapsi – the fallen, these Christians faced ostracism from the community of believers. Genuine repentance was often rejected, and the affair became a dirty period in the history of the Carthaginian church. Cyprian found himself caught between groups that accepted these lapsed back into the fold, and those who could never accept them. He took a firm moderate position, at times helping the situation, at times inflaming it. Eventually, some fifty years after Cyprian’s death, this crisis escalated to a full blown eccesliastical schism. Those who could not accept the lapsed, then known as traditores (lit. those who handed over) for their handing over of the sacred texts and communion vessels of the church during the persecutions, broke away to form their own church. The two Christian groups periodically clashed, often violently, and even the then Emperor Constantine had to repeatedly step in to the conflict.
Cyprian was not the perfect church leader. By no means was he a complete role model, or morally virtuous exemplar. But he is a wonderful example of a redeemed sinner. A man whose life was so utterly transformed by the Gospel that he went from the hedonistic pleasures of Roman upper class youth, to the pastorally hearted and humble martyr for Christ. Through the gentle ministry of Caecilius, Cyprian was transformed by the powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers (13:8) that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Cyprian’s life is testament that 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that was most certainly true. Today, some 2000 years later, Christian men and women across the globe are testament to the enduring truth of this message.