One thing I like about Orthodoxy is that it hasn’t strayed from the teachings of the Church Fathers. To verify this, I dived into Early Christians Writings, a compendium of non-canonical epistles that aided the first few centuries of the Church. Most of the letters implore Christians to fervently follow Lord Jesus Christ while depending less on worldly matters. Below are my favorite passages from twelve different letters.
The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians
The resurrection is self-evident
Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this very moment. The day and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.
An atheist will often ask for “proof” of the existence of God. My instinct is just to wave my hand before our surroundings. To think that all this manifest order, especially within our own organismic being, came about accidentally and randomly, takes a greater level of faith than even I possess in God. All of this was created for us.
Co-working with God
For the great cannot exist without the small, nor the small without the great. Every organism is composed of various different elements; and this ensures its own good. Take the body as an instance; the head is nothing without the feet, nor are the feet anything without the head. Even the smallest of our physical members are necessary and valuable to the whole body; yet all of them work together and observe a common subordination, so that the body itself is maintained intact.
In Jesus Christ, then, let this corporate body of ours be likewise maintained intact, with each of us giving way to his neigbour in proportion to our spiritual gifts. The strong are not to ignore the weak, and the weak are to respect the strong. Rich men should provide for the poor and the poor should thank God for giving them somebody to supply their wants. If a man is wise, let him show his wisdom by good deeds, not by words; and if he is modest, let him leave others to speak of his modesty, instead of proclaiming it himself. Also, one who is physically chaste must not brag of it, knowing that the ability to control his desires has been given him by Another.
Such a passage confirms to me that we are not meant to save ourselves by living alone. My early idea to become a hermit in the Blue Ridge Mountains was—in hindsight—a temptation from the devil, because he knew he could easily deceive me while in an isolated state based on my rudimentary faith. It was in God’s providence that I was ejected from the mountain before serious damage could be done. Consider that even our triune God is never alone, and that should be sufficient evidence to show that He intends for us to always be in spatial communion with other Christians.
Letter to the Ephesians (Ignatius)
The end of all things is near. From now onwards, then, we must bear ourselves with humility, and tremble at God’s patience for fear it should turn into a judgement upon us. Let us either flee from His future wrath, or else embrace His present grace; no matter which, so long as we are found in Jesus Christ with our true life before us. Apart from him, nothing else should have any value in your eyes; but in Him, even these chains I wear are a collar of spiritual pearls to me, in which I hope to rise again through the help of your intercessions.
Do modern Christians live as if “nothing else should have any value in [their] eyes”? I have been called an “extremist” for my Orthodox acceptance of Christian teachings, and even a fellow Christian in my then Armenian Church scolded me for condemning pre-marital sex. People are entitled to their views, but I will trust the words of the Holy Fathers above that of a layman or online commentator.
Letter to the Magnesians (Ignatius)
Two different coinages
All things must come to an end, and there are two alternatives before us. They are life and death; and every one of us will have to go to his own particular place. There are two different coinages, so to speak, in circulation, God’s and the world’s, each with its own distinctive marking. Unbelievers carry the stamp of the world; while the faithful in love bear the stamp of God the Father, through Jesus Christ. Unless we are ready and willing to die in conformity with His Passion, His life is not in us.
Some Christians say that as long as they have “faith” in Christ, which in practical terms is a one-time declaration of an emotional belief, they have no worry about going to heaven, but Lord Jesus Christ does proclaim that in the Day of Judgement He will turn away from many who called upon his name.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” —Matthew 7:21
All Christians must continually examine how they live and ask themselves if they are faithfully carrying their Cross or instead dragging around bags of gold and silver as prized by the world.
Letter to the Trallians (Ignatius)
Cut off worldly fare
And so I entreat you (not I, though, but the love of Jesus Christ) not to nourish yourselves on anything but Christian fare, and have no truck with the alien herbs of heresy. There are men who in the very act of assuring you of their good faith will mingle poison with Jesus Christ; which is like offering a lethal drug in a cup of honeyed wine, so that the unwitting victim blissfully accepts his own destruction with a fatal relish.
I try to minimize how much modern entertainment I consume. The catchy beats of pop music may delight my ears but they implant secular messages into my soul. The fast-paced action and aggressive editing of a Hollywood action movie will stimulate my senses but suck me into matters of the world. I see no spiritual benefit in subjecting myself to creations of non-Christians when there is a lifetime’s worth of Christian-friendly content in the form of books, articles, podcasts, videos, hymns, and classical music that will not pull me away from God.
Letter to the Romans (Ignatius)
Surmount all barriers between you and Lord Jesus Christ
This is the first stage of my discipleship; and no power, visible or invisible, must grudge me my coming to Jesus Christ. Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body—let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ!
All the ends of the earth, all the kingdoms of the world would be of no profit to me; so far as I am concerned, to die in Jesus Christ is better than to be monarch of earth’s widest bounds. He who died for us is all that I seek; he who rose again for us is my whole desire. The pangs of birth are upon me; have patience with me, my brothers, and do not shut me out from life, do not wish me to be still born.
While Ignatius would embrace every torment, I cannot even bear being stuck behind a slow driver on the road. I get upset when a neighbor plays loud urban music and I can barely contain my irritation when my mother calls me when I’m in the middle of a work task. Satan knows my desire for transient peace and comfort and will use it against me unless I can learn to endure all slights and irritations, no matter the severity, in preparation for the days of direct persecution of my faith.
Letter to the Philadelphians (Ignatius)
Never listen to Jews
All the same, if anyone should make use of them to propound Judaism to you, do not listen to him. Better hear talk of Christianity from a man who is circumcised than of Judaism from one who is not—though in my judgment both of them alike, if they fail to preach Jesus Christ, are no more than tombstones and graves of the dead, which limit their inscriptions to the names of mere mortal men. Shun such knavish wiles and snares of the prince of this world, or else his arts will wear you down and weaken your life.
I suspect that, like myself, you will have no problem obeying this command.
Letter to Polycarp (Ignatius)
Endure to the end
So in all circumstances be wise as the serpent, though always harmless as the dove. The very reason you are given a body as well as a soul is to help you to gain the favour of this outward and visible world; though at the same time you must also pray for insight into the invisible world as well, so that you may come short of nothing and the whole treasury of the Sprit may be yours. Crucial times like these need you, as the barque needs a helmsman or the storm-tossed mariner a haven, if men are ever to find their way to God. So be strict with yourself, like a good athlete of God. The prize, as well you know, is immortality and eternal life.
You must not let yourself be upset by those who put forward their perverse teachings so plausibly. Stand your ground with firmness, like an anvil under the hammer. The mark of a true champion is to stand up to punishment and still come off victorious. It is our duty, particularly when it is in God’s cause, to accept trials of all kinds, if we ourselves are to be accepted by Him. So redouble your efforts, and watch out for every opportunity; but also keep your eyes on Him who has no need of opportunities, being outside all time.
It is likely to happen to you that the higher you spiritually climb, the more severe the attacks from Satan. Don’t be discouraged by these attacks, for if you were firmly on the path to hell, Satan would not interfere with your conduct. Simply remember that God is always with you, and pray fervently and hold onto your Cross when attacked by evil.
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
Do not love mammon
It moves me to warn you earnestly against any excessive fondness for money, and to insist upon your absolute probity and integrity. You must keep yourselves from the slightest taint of wrong. If a man has no control over himself in matters of this sort, how can he possibly preach it to anything else? If he fails to rise above the love of money, he will find himself corrupted by the worship of his idol, and be classed with the heathen who know nothing of the Divine judgement.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Dying for Christ
But indeed all the other martyrdoms that God willed to take place (we must be careful to ascribe all things to His governance) were blessed and noble. No one could fail to admire their high-hearted endurance, and the love they showed for their Master. Some of them were so cut to pieces by the scourges that their very vitals were plainly exposed to view, down to the inmost veins and arteries; and yet they still bore up, until even the bystanders were moved to tears of pity for them. Others displayed such heroism that not a cry or a groan escaped from any of them; which seemed a clear proof to us all that in that hour of anguish those martyr-heroes of Christ were not present in the body at all—or better still, that the Lord was standing at their side and holding them in talk. So it was that, with all their thoughts absorbed in the grace of Christ, they made light of the cruelties of this world, and at the cost of a single hour purchased for themselves life everlasting.
I previously thought that one had to train for martyrdom as if training at the gym. First I had to endure a little bit of persecution, perhaps first by refusing an X-ray body scan at the airport, and then withstand being yelled at inside the supermarket for not wearing a face mask, and then maybe I had to confront a government official when he levied an unjust tax upon me, and from that I could gradually increase my strength to resist until facing whatever final martyrdom God has selected for me, but I can now see the folly of this scheme: I’m attempting to call upon my own strength instead of God’s strength. I would be building myself up instead of building up my faith to receive through prayer and direct worship any necessary divine help when the final hour arrives.
There will be martyrs in our time who lived their life on this earth as harmless as doves, who did not “train” to be a fighter, and their courage will astound us because nothing outward about them would have suggested that they were capable of acting in such a holy way, but that’s how I believe it will proceed. My fleshly strength is puny compared to what God can grant me, so I will simply serve His will and await his command and the grace that He wants to bestow upon me.
Polycarp refused to renounce his Lord
The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go’, he told him. ‘Revile your Christ.’ Polycarp’s’ reply was, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?’
So they left out the nailing, and tied him instead. Bound like that, with his hands behind him he was like a noble ram taken out of some great flock for sacrifice: a goodly burnt-offering all ready for God. Then he cast his eyes up to heaven and said:
‘O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of thyself; Thou art the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all the generation of the righteous who live in thy sight. I bless thee for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered amongst the martyrs, to share the cup of thine Anointed and to rise again unto life everlasting, both in body and soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in thy presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as thou didst appoint and foreshow, and dost now being it to pass, for thou art the God of truth and in thee is no falsehood. For this, and for all else besides, I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee; through our eternal High Priest in Heaven, thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom be glory to thee and the Holy Ghost, now and for all ages to come. Amen.’.
The difference between us and the secular world is that we have something to die for. Their passions and desires are not worth dying for; they’re not even worth enduring a day of irritation or soreness, so they must flee from death whenever they glimpse the scythe. They must plead with the doctors and drug companies to take away disease and the effects of aging; they must get on their hands and knees and beg Satan to spend just one more day on an earth that will soon pass away, but as Christians we don’t flee from death but look forward to it, because like happened with our Savior, we know that death is not the end but the beginning, and what a joy it will be to pass the test of a life surrounded by corruption to live beside God as He intended when He created all.
Epistle to Diognetus
This world is not our home
The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationalist, or language, or customs. Christians do no live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life. The doctrine they profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some, adherents of this or that school of human thought. They pass their lives in whatever township—Greek or foreign—each man’s lot has determined; and comfort to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country. Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they don’t expose their infants. Any Christian is free to share his neighbour’s table, but never his marriage-bed. Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they don’t live after the flesh; their days are passed on the earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens. They obey the prescribes laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws. They show love to all men—and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. They are dishonoured, yet made glorious in their very dishonour; slandered, yet vindicated. They repay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers; and under the strokes they rejoice like men given new life. Jews assail them as heretics, and Greeks harass them with persecutions; and yet of all their ill-wishers there is not one who can produce good grounds for his hostility.
This excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus, written by an anonymous author, describes the type of Christian I aim to be.
God’s bounty for us
For God, though Lord and Architect of the whole world, who made and set in order each single thing that is, was something more than loving towards mankind, He was long-suffering as well. (So He has always been, and is still, and ever shall be: merciful, kind, slow to anger, and true; there is none so good as He.) He conceived a design, great and beyond all telling, and He imparted it to none but His Son alone. (And so long as He maintained this secrecy, and kept His own wise counsel, it seemed as though he had no care for us and had put us out of His mind; but as soon as He disclosed it, through His beloved Son, and revealed what had been planned since the beginning, then straightway He poured out all the fullness of His bounty upon us, permitting us to share His benefactions and to see and know such blessings as none of us could ever have looked for.)
God loves the race of men. It was for their sakes that He made the world; it was to them that He gave dominion over everything in it. On them He bestowed reason and understanding, and they alone received permission to lift up their eyes to Him. He formed them in His own image; He sent His only-begotten Son to them; He promised them the kingdom of heaven, and to those who have loved Him He will surely give it. Once you have grasped these truths, think how your joy will overflow, and what love you will feel for Him who loved you son. And if you love Him, you will become an imitator of His goodness. Do not be surprised that a man should be an imitator of God; he can, since God has willed it so.
It can be hard to understand God’s love, especially during times of tribulation and suffering, but it had to be this way and no other. Your mind, your feeble brain, thinks it knows a better method from which this world could have come unto itself, but just one microscopic alteration from what God created would have rendered this planet a hell.
In American politics, the Q meme implored citizens to “Trust the plan” as presented by an anonymous man who has inside knowledge within the government, but I say trust no man except the God-man Jesus Christ.
Epistle of Barnabas
Avoid that which is a detriment to your salvation
What we must do, then, is to survey the present situation in all its aspects, and see which of them offers assurance of salvation for us. Let us keep ourselves with the utmost strictness from any kind of wrongdoing; otherwise wrongdoing will get the better of us. Let there be hatred in us for the errors of this world, so that there may be love for us in the world to come. We must not give such rein to our natural instincts that we feel ourselves free to mix at will with rogues and sinners, or we shall only grow to resembles them ourselves.
I have been learning to avoid my natural instinct. It is almost always one of anger, judgment, and mockery. If you needle or test me, I will respond with the whip, not with love. If you disagree with me in front of others, I will spit venom back at you even if you may be right. How can I possibly reform this malformed instinct when it is so deep-rooted within me? By not using it. I have been training myself to stop and think during those times my instinct has already prepared to respond with sharp words and emotion, and to let that moment of silence fill with God’s urgings to respond in a way that He sees fit. I testify to you that it was easier to stop fornicating overnight, after a lifetime addiction to it, than it is to reign in my tongue in moments my ego is pierced.
The stubborn power of unbelief
…for Moses had hardly received [the covenant] when they [the Jews] forfeited it for ever. What Scripture tells us is, Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights fasting, and he received the covenant from the Lord: tables of stone, written upon by the finger of the Lord. But because they then turned aside after idols, they lost it. The Lord’s words were, Moses, Moses, make haste and get down, for the people you brought out of Egypt have broken my law. Moses understood, and threw down the two tables he was holding; and that Covenant of theirs was smashed to pieces, so that the seal of the Covenant of Jesus the Beloved might be stamped on our own hearts, together with the hope that accompanies faith in Him.
I can’t be the only one who feels that a word or two spoken of God merely bounces off a friend or relative like a basketball off concrete, and that perhaps it’s better not to mention any word at all, but the finger of God has been written directly onto our hearts, and we display his markings for all to see, hidden within a world of exciting jingles and flashing lights, but I insist that if just one soul is reached by our humble declarations, it is all worthwhile, for how much of a spiritual benefit it is for you to nudge one man or one woman onto the path of eternal life?
Give alms without expecting a return
Give to everyone that asks, without looking for any repayment, for it is the Father’s pleasure that we should share His gracious bounty with all men. A giver who gives freely, as the commandment directs, is blessed; no fault can be found with him. But woe to the taker; for though he cannot be blamed for taking if he was in need, yet if he was not, an account will be required of him as to why he took it, and for what purpose, and he will be taken into custody and examined about his action, and he will not get out of until he has paid the last penny. The old saying is in point here: ‘Let your alms grow damp with sweat in your hand, until you know who it is you are giving them to.’
Do not be like those who reach out to take, but draw back when the time comes for giving. If the labour of your hands has been productive, your giving will be a random for sins. Give without hesitating and without grumbling, and you will see Whose generosity will requite you. Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own. If you and he are joint participators in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?
I confess that I do not know how to give alms. Should I donate monthly to good causes? Should I volunteer at a homeless shelter or food pantry? Should I visit the elderly sick in hospices? I hope God reveals to me how I can better love my neighbor.
Daily guidance for all Christians
Keep away from every bad man, my son, and from all his kind. Never give way to anger, for anger leads to homicide. Likewise refrain from fanaticism, quarrelling, and hot-temperedness, for these two can breed homicide.
Beware of lust, my son, for lust leads to fornication. Likewise refrain from unclean talk and the roving eye, for these two can breed adultery.
Do not be always looking for omens, my son, for this leads to idolatry. Likewise have nothing to do with witchcraft, astrology, or magi; do not even consent to be a witness of such practices, for they too can all breed idolatry.
Tell no lies, my son, for lying leads to theft. Likewise do not be over-anxious to be rich or to be admired, for these too can breed thievishness.
Do not be a grumbler, my son, for this leads to blasphemy. Likewise do not be too opinionated, and do not harbour thoughts of wickedness, for these too can breed blasphemy.
Learn to be meek, for the meek are to inherit the earth. School yourself to forbearance, compassion, guilelessness, calmness, and goodness; and never forget to respect the teaching you have had.
Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with person of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.
Accept as good whatever experience comes your way, in the knowledge that nothing can happen without God.
This hits on all the most important points of what it means to be a Christian not of this world.
Beware of false prophets who need money
If any prophet, speaking in the spirit, says, ‘Give me money (or anything else)’, do not listen to him. On the other hand, if he bids you give it to someone else who is in need, nobody should criticize him.
I’m instantly reminded of Joel Osteen and my visit to his church in Houston. Via American Pilgrim:
After a series of songs, Joel came on the stage and delivered an impromptu prayer. I was so far from him that I had to watch on the Jumbotron screen. He asked God to bless everyone in the stadium and those watching from home. Then the pitch came. Joel had a problem: he needed more money. You see, his program was currently shown on 20 television markets, but now there was an opportunity to be on 40 markets, and they wouldn’t put him on in the dead of night like usual but right after the nightly news. He would go on during primetime! He had already paid $4 million to take advantage of this opportunity, but he needed $10 million more.
Surely the crowd would be turned off by him discussing money matters before the sermon, on the Lord’s Day no less, but they clapped loudly, cheering him on. Joel exclaimed that his opportunity was their own, because if he was able to expand his reach and save more people through television, God would bless the entire congregation with good health and financial stability. But those blessings could come only if they donated more by “stretching your faith,” as Joel put it, a euphemism for “stretching your wallet.” His wife and two other speakers came on to stress how they must take advantage of the television opportunity, because it was a way for everyone to get closer to God. The parishioners agreed. When dozens of large plastic buckets circulated throughout the stadium, they gave generously indeed.
While all Orthodox churches I’ve been to hand out collection plates, their pitches have been so muted that the capitalist in me instinctually wants to suggest ways for them to maximize their revenue. There are fundraisers in these churches, for sure, but the lack of urgency in soliciting donations compared to their Protestant counterparts who insist on a 10% tithe makes it clear to me that Orthodoxy is not mainly about monetization. Not once in the countless Orthodox sermons I’ve heard has a priest suggested to the flock that they would receive a benefit from donating to their church, and so I must conclude that the coinage of Caesar is used only as a fiduciary tool to spread the Gospel, not the final end.
This is not an easy book. Sometimes you have to slog through many pages before you encounter text that ignites your soul, but this is an absolutely essential read for all Christians because the authors were closer to the pure faith and therefore Christ than us woeful beings who have happened to be born in a technological era where Satan’s inverted system is on the verge of worldwide perfection. I consider it a minor miracle that these texts have even been preserved for us to read, but preserved they have and for such a trivial price, so while you won’t find it at the top of the “Christian bestsellers” list, and while the cover does nothing to arouse your eyes, I implore you to dive into this book and at least feel for a couple of hours the faith of those who followed Lord Jesus Christ both to the letter and to the spirit in anticipation of living the blessed life to come.
Learn More: Early Christian Writings on Amazon