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Cyprian Preferred Christ to His Own Head

Cyprian converted in middle age, served as a bishop, and died a martyr.

CYPRIAN WAS BORN into a wealthy home around 200. He studied rhetoric, showed a strong gift for debate, and opened a school to train students in public speaking. To demonstrate the best techniques, he sparred in front of his class with philosophers and Christians. 

When he was about forty-five, the arguments of a Christian elder convinced Cyprian to convert. “A second birth created me a new man by means of the Spirit breathed from heaven,” he wrote. He gave up his wealth, became celibate, and devoted himself to reading the Bible. At Easter in 246 he was baptized. 

Two years later, following the death of the bishop of Carthage, the people chose Cyprian to fill the vacancy despite his protests. Overnight, he became one of the most eminent leaders in North Africa. A contemporary described him as dignified, joyous, revered, and loved. However, his job would not be easy. 

Some clergymen envied Cyprian’s elevation as bishop. Others resented him because he disciplined them. Two years after his election, with the pagans shouting, “Cyprian to the lions!” he fled into hiding. He tried to hold the church together with letters, but those Christians who stayed behind and suffered torture looked down on him. In 251, the Decian persecution ended. Though Cyprian returned to his church, more difficulties faced him. 

Christians who had renounced their faith or who had purchased certificates of compliance with the Roman government’s rules were called “lapsed.” Some of the faithful said that no lapsed person should be readmitted to the church. They formed their own church and administered baptism. Later, when some of their converts wanted to unite with the catholic church, Cyprian said they must be baptized again by “legitimate” priests. Pope Stephen, the bishop of Rome, said any person baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was truly baptized, regardless of who had done the baptizing.

 Cyprian argued that no sacrament administered outside the church had validity. There was only one church, so breakaway groups cannot have the Holy Spirit. He wrote On the Unity of the Church to make his case. A series of councils in Carthage agreed with him, but Stephen threatened to excommunicate Cyprian, who gave in and said that no rebaptism was required. 

Plague ravaged Carthage from 252 through 254. While the pagans abandoned their sick in the streets, Cyprian led the Christians in caring for the dying. They did this even as they were persecuted as the cause of the disease. 

Soon persecution erupted again in North Africa. Proconsul Aspasius Paternus banished Cyprian to a town by the sea. When Aspasius died, Cyprian returned to Carthage but the new governor condemned him to death. On this day, 14 September 258, Cyprian said, “I am a Christian and cannot sacrifice to the gods. I heartily thank Almighty God who is pleased to set me free from the chains of this body.” He gave the executioner a piece of gold, knelt in prayer, and tied the bandage over his own eyes before his head was struck off. His courageous death impressed many of the eyewitnesses.

Dan Graves

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Lost Legacy Reclaimed Volume 2 covers Cyprian among other early African theologians

Lost Legacy Reclaimed Season 2 can also be streamed at RedeemTV

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