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Sixth Edition, 1915
By Dr. John Thomas (first edition written 1861)



Chapter 3


3. The Hour of Trial




But while they of the synagogue of the Satan were to be subjected to great calamity in all the Roman Habitable, the Star-Angel and ecclesia of Philadelphia, contemporary with the apostle John, together with all the ecclesias who "kept the word of the patient waiting for Christ," were to be preserved from it. The words of the Spirit to the ecclesias are, "Seeing that thou hast kept the word of the Patient waiting for me, I also will keep thee from the hour of the trial being about to come upon the whole habitable to make proof of them who dwell upon the earth." This "hour of trial" was not to arrive in the lifetime of that generation of saints. It was an hour "being about to come;" that is, in their future, or, as the event proved, in A.D. 248; about one hundred and fifty years after the apocalypse was revealed. This afforded time for the Satanists to fill up the measure of their iniquity, and for the faithful to depart to their graves in peace; for a long peace of thirty-seven years preceded the outbreak of the fiery trial under the emperor Decius. During this tranquility, historians testify that "a deep declension from Christian purity had taken place, not only in the East, where false philosophy aided its progress, but also in the West, where the operation of no peculiar cause can be traced beyond the common influence of prosperity on human depravity. This is completely evident from Cyprian's account; and it deserves to be remarked, that the first grand and general declensionafter the primary effusion of the Divine Spirit, should be fixed about the middle of the Third Century" (Milner Eccl. Hist., p. 165).

As we have said, a hundred and fifty years had elapsed from the writing of this epistle to the Philadelphians, to the beginning of this judgment upon the House of God, for the ecclesias in general, or collectively, were still "his habitation through the Spirit," inasmuch as he had not then as yet "spued" the delinquents "out of his mouth." During this period of a century and a half, the state of things exhibited in the New Testament grew worse and worse; and it may be generally remarked, that the same opposition to the Name of the Spirit, termed by historians "the Deity of Christ or his manhood," and the same insidious methods of depreciating or abusing "the word of the kingdom," or "the word of the patient waiting for Christ," continued in all this period, which had begun in the time of the apostles, with this difference, that they were now multiplied, varied, complicated, and refined by endless subtleties and fancies, in which the poverty of taste and genius, so common in a period when letters are declining, discovers itself no less than the christian doctrine. Nevertheless, in the midst of this widespread and general corruption of faith and practice, the faithful still kept themselves separate and distinct, and preserved their garments from defilement.

The elevation of Decius to supreme power was fatal to multitudes of professing christians, who were unable to stand the trial of their principles; and in their fall proved themselves to be of the synagogue of the Satan, and not Jews, but liars. The enmity of Decius to his predecessor Philip, (whom Eusebius styles a christian, although a murderer and profligate, who had not obeyed the truth,) conspired with his pagan prejudices to bring on the most dreadful persecution christianity had yet experienced. The Hour of the Trial had arrived, and it was evident to its contemporaries, that nothing less than the extermination of the christian name was intended. "The chronology," says Milner, "is here remarkably embarrassed." He therefore conjectures that the period extended to A.D. 260. The persecution raged with astonishing fury, beyond the examples of former persecutions, both in the East and West, or, in the words of the Spirit, !greek!upon the whole habitable. In a treatise by Cyprian concerning "The Lapsed," there is an affecting account of the declension from christianity, which had taken place before his conversion in A.D. 246, and which moved the Deity to chastise the body. "If the cause of our miseries," says he, "be investigated, the cure of the wound may be found. The Lord would have his family TRIED. And because long peace had corrupted the discipline divinely revealed to us, the heavenly chastisement hath raised up our faith, which had lain almost dormant; and when, by our sins, we had deserved to suffer still more, the merciful Lord so moderated all things, that the whole scene rather deserves the name of A TRIAL than a persecution" -- a peirasmos rather than a thlipsis, a distinction which obtains in Apoc. ii. 10 and iii. 10.

Cyprian then proceeds to narrate the manifest cause of this trial that was to try, or put the professions of the christians of previous peaceable and prosperous times to the proof. "Each," says he, "had been bent on improving his patrimony; and had forgotten what believers had done under the apostles, and what they ought always to do. They were brooding over the arts of amassing wealth. The pastors and their deacons each forgot their duty. Works of mercy were neglected, and discipline was at the lowest ebb. Luxury and effeminacy prevailed. Meretricious arts in dress were cultivated. Fraud and deceit were practised among brethren. Christians could unite themselves in matrimony with unbelievers; and could swear, not only without reverence, but even without veracity. With haughty asperity they despised their ecclesiastical superiors; they railed against each other with outrageous acrimony, and conducted quarrels with determined malice. Even many bishops, who ought to be guides and patterns to the rest, neglecting the peculiar duties of their stations, gave themselves up to secular pursuits. They deserted their places of residence and their flocks. They travelled through distant provinces in quest of pleasure and gain; gave no assistance to the needy brethren, but were insatiable in their thirst for money. They possessed estates by fraud, and multiplied usury. What have we not deserved to suffer for such conduct? The Divine Word hath foretold us what we might expect, saying, 'If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments, I will visit their offences with the rod, and their sin with scourges.' These things had been denounced and foretold, but in vain: our sins had brought our affairs to that pass, that because we had despised the Lord's directions, we were obliged to undergo a correction of our multiplied evils and a trial of our faith by severe remedies."

Even Origen, as worldly a professor of the faith as any of his day, intimates that the long peace which the body -- with only the short interruption of Maximin's persecution -- had enjoyed, was followed by a great degree of lukewarmness and even of much religious indecorum. "Several," says he, "come to church only on solemn festivals; and then not so much for instruction as diversion. Some go out again as soon as they have heard the lecture, without conferring or asking the pastors any questions; others stay not till the lecture is ended; and others hear not so much as a single word, but entertain themselves in a corner of the church." But, "like priest like people." These were what their leaders had made them; for it is "the leaders of the people that cause them to err." The ability faithfully to dispense the truth had become rare, as well as the taste for such employment; and Origen complains of the ambitious and haughty manners of pastors, and of the improper steps which some took to obtain preferment.

During the trial frequent communications passed between the christians in Rome and Carthage to which Cyprian belonged. The Roman brethren represent the conflict as very important, and one which God had now permitted for the trial of his servants. They said, it was the express purpose of God to manifest both to angels and men, that the conqueror shall be crowned, and the conquered, that is, the faithless apostate, be self-condemned. This was doubtless an allusion to the testimony in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia; in the former of which, it is written, "Be faithful until death, and I will give thee the coronal wreath of the life;" and in the latter, "Hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy coronal wreath," !greek! or "crown." In speaking of the effects of the trial, they say, "Behold, almost the whole world (or habitable) is laid waste; fragments of the fallen lie in every place. With one and the same counsel, with unanimous prayers and tears, let us, who seem hitherto to have escaped the ruins of this visitation, as well as those who have not stood entirely faithful during the persecution, entreat the Divine Majesty, and beg peace, in the name of the whole church."

"The management of this persecution," says Milner, "seems to have been the whole employment of the magistrates. Swords, wild beasts, pits, red hot chains, wheels for stretching human bodies, and talons of iron to tear them; these were at this time the instruments of pagan vengeance. Malice and covetousness in informing against christians were eagerly and powerfully set to work during this horrible reign: and the genius of men was never known to have had more of employment in aiding the savageness of the heart. Life was prolonged in torture, in order that impatience in suffering might effect at length, what surprise and terror could not." It was not a local or intermitting, but an universal and constant persecution. The lightning of the Decian rage refined and cleared the whole christian atmosphere. No doubt, the effects were salutary in preventing the extinction of the truth, which was rapidly expiring. The storm proved fatal to many who could not stand the trial, but apostatized; and christianity was in that way, cleared of many false friends; who, in the time of peace, said "they were Jews, but were not, and did lie; but were of the synagogue of the Satan."




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