EBOLA: What we can learn from epidemics in Church history (part 2)

In the last post we looked at the remarkable response of 3rd Century Christians during a massive 15 year small-pox epidemic.

These heroic believers not only nursed their own sick but they took in as many of the non-Christians (pagans) as they possibly could as well.

They could have denied the faith, and dishonored Christ, by keeping away from the sick. This would have no doubt extended many of their own lives. (The bishop, Cyprian, who served during the plague, made it clear in his writings that devout Christians were dying along with the heathen. The disease was no respecter of persons.)

And just as courageous believers did not deny their faith in Christ when facing martyrdom in the Roman coliseum, so too they did not deny the faith by running from the plague.  It was not a triumphalistic hyper-faith doctrine that promised immunity to all disease that emboldened these early believers.  Rather it was the understanding of the death of death in the death of Jesus Christ that liberated them.  They believed that just as God had raised Jesus from the dead, so He would raise again all those who believed in and followed Jesus. Facing the menace of the plague without fear was a great proof of their deep faith in the core doctrine of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So instead of denying their faith and running from the plague they chose to serve the sick with no guarantee of surviving themselves. They were free from the fear of death and like their Savior were willing to die in ways that glorified God and saved thousands. It was this loving and sacrificial servanthood and boldness of faith in the face of the fearful epidemic that awakened the heart of the Roman Empire to the true superiority of the Christian faith.

Many of the sick that were nursed to health by these fearless Christians were non-Christians who had been abandoned by their own families because of the fear of the plague.  Through the love of these fearless Christians and their “conscientious” nursing, it is estimated that two-thirds of those afflicted recovered through “natural” means.  Upon recovery the vast majority had come to believe in the Jesus of these Christians!  They gladly accepted Jesus as their Savior and the church as their new family.  And they became an army of nurses and evangelists who were immune to the plague…because they had passed through it’s refining fires! They fearlessly and boldly took up the task of serving the suffering and dying masses!  And thus thousands came to Christ in the midst of the plague.

Don’t miss this point: although there were no doubt supernatural miracles of healing mixed in with the wide scale suffering, it was the willingness of these early Christians to die so that others might live that captured the attention of the world around them.  It was the faith of Christ’s followers, rooted in the certainty of eternal life in the age to come, that empowered them to face any problem and any disease without fear and with joy…not knowing whether they would live or die. There was something far more important than living at stake. Their dying demonstrated a faith stronger than the fear and reality of death. The Christians who served the sick and died as a result were considered equal with martyrs in the early church.

This is one of the biggest reasons that the Roman empire left it’s old religion of paganism and converted to Christianity.

It is my opinion that in a fairly short time there will be a vaccine for Ebola.  And let us all be in prayer for everyone facing this disease.  But don’t you doubt that there are already many faithful Christians and Christian converts who have already recovered (or will in the future) from Ebola who will be taking up the “nursing” mantle of Christ in West Africa – just like the saints of old in North Africa during Cyprian’s plague.

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