In the time of the Early Church (pre 325 AD) the calling card to follow Christ was not decorated with vain and empty promises, tickling the ears of Christian converts. Men and women converted to the faith knowing full well that their decision to follow God would rouse persecution and could likely result in their martyrdom. Christianity was not for the faint of heart. Last month we discussed the Early Church’s unwavering desire to partake in the passion of Christ; a yearning they had to die to self and live for Christ (Galatians 2:20). They endured persecution and pursued the kingdom, at all cost (cf Matthew 11:12). The strength within their souls unmeasured to anything we see today; they relentlessly fought for God’s virtue to be formed within.
Firstly, let us explore what is the soul? The earliest Christians taught that the soul is the “deposit” God has given mankind, that is to be restored back into His image and likeness (1). They taught that when receiving the divine Word of God, our soul is imparted with His nature, and converted into His spirit (2). Furthermore, according to Brown-Driver-Briggs, the soul is our mind, will, emotions, desires, and passions; [ultimately] our inner being (3). It is our soul that needs regenerating, in order that we would be set free from all the vices of our flesh, the bondage of corruption (John 8:36; Romans 8:21; 1 Corinthians 15:53). We must not misinterpret the premise at hand; a strong soul is not simply a person who is strong-willed, or strong minded; this assumption would be irreverent. Early Church Father Origen, a prolific writer in the second-third century, stated “the soul, when formed again in virtues, will become spirit again.” (2). According to Scripture and the divine teachings of the Early Church Fathers, a soul is strong when it is virtuous, being transformed through a process of regeneration, into God’s spirit (His character and function).
The Early Church went through immense external persecution, including the martyrdom of many saints. However, they taught that the greatest battle we go through is the internal suffering within the soul, as it is tempted by “impious lusts, and diverse pleasures, and base hopes.” (4). Second-third century Church Father, Clement of Alexandria stated:
More grievous and painful is this persecution, which arises from within, which is ever with a man, and which the persecuted cannot escape; for he carries the enemy about everywhere in himself. Thus, also burning which attacks from without [externally] works trial, but that from within produces death. War also made on one is easily put an end to, but that which is in the soul continues till death. With such persecution, if you have worldly wealth, if you have brothers allied by blood and other pledges, abandon the whole wealth of these which leads to evil; procure peace for yourself, free yourself from protracted [prolonged] persecutions; turn from them to the Gospel; choose before all the Saviour and Advocate and Paraclete [holy spirit] of your soul, the Prince of life. “For the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2Cor 4:18) And in the present time are things evanescent [momentary] and insecure, but in that to come is eternal life. (4)
Clement explains that the persecution we cannot escape comes from within, as “the carnal mind is enmity [at war] against God.” (Romans 8:7). External battles eventually end, however the battles in the mind (our soul) remain. He exhorts us to turn from the things of this world, that are fleeting and unstable, to focus on that which is eternal and conducive to the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:9), namely the Gospel and our Savior.
In the same vein as Clement, the Apostle Paul explains to the Church in Rome that it is the carnal mind, our fleshly way of thinking, that produces death within the soul. He writes,
6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8:6-10, emphasis added)
The word ‘carnally’ in Greek is sarx and refers to the animal nature with cravings which incite to sin; the flesh, denotes mere human nature, the earthly nature of a man apart from divine influence, and therefore prone to sin and opposed to God (5). Here we see a glimpse of what the mark of the beast is- the carnal mind (Ecclesiastes 3:18); a topic we exhort you to explore further for yourself. Now we have a greater understanding that when the soul (our mind) remains carnal, it produces death. All that is opposed to the divinity of God weighs down the soul, because it was never meant to remain as it is (fleshly); it was given to us to have Christ’s nature formed in us (Philippians 2:5-6; 1 Corinthians 2:16). Paul articulates that if the Spirit of God (His character) dwells in us, we are spiritually minded, and thus our fleshly ways have ceased (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17).
The battle begins…
The Early Church taught that when the true Word of God comes to the ears of the believer, the battle in the mind begins. In his homily on Exodus Origen writes,
It is certain that before the word of God is heard, before the divine preaching is known, there is no trouble, there is no temptation, because war does not begin unless the trumpet sounds. But where the trumpet of preaching gives the signal for war, there affliction follows; there every troublesome fight arises. The people of God are afflicted from the moment that Moses and Aaron began to speak to Pharao (cf. Exodus 5:23). From the moment the word of God has been brought into your soul a struggle is necessarily stirred up within you between virtues and vices. Before the word which reproves comes, the vices within you continue in peaceful existence, but when the word of God begins to make a division between each, then a great disturbance arises and war without treaty is born. (6)
Origen explains that prior to the trumpeting of the divine Word, the spiritual understanding (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10-11), we do not battle with true temptation because there has been nothing to war against. When the truth of God’s Word is deposited into our soul, the battle between vice and virtue begins, as the light of the Word (God’s very nature) highlights the darkness within (John 8:12). He likens this to Moses and Aaron approaching Pharaoh- it was only when they brought truth to Pharaoh, that the people of Egypt were afflicted. Paul explains it in this way, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) It is the truth of God’s Word that divides our carnal (soulish) mind, from the spiritual mind of Christ, and Jesus clearly warns us that tribulation arises because of the Word’s sake (Matthew 13:21).
Our momentary affliction is light
The Early Church understood the importance of persecution, regarding it as the means to obtain our future glory (resurrection). In his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Origen writes,
But if, in the present life, it is in any way possible to gather up what one might call seeds of the future glory, those seeds, he says, are gathered from afflictions and sufferings, as the same Apostle also says elsewhere, “For our light and momentary affliction in the present is producing for us a weight of eternal glory vastly beyond all measure, for us who look not at what is seen but at what is not seen.” (2 Cor 4:17). For he is showing by this that the one who looks at what is not seen, and eternal regards every affliction, whatever it is that happens, though it may seem tortuous and unending, as momentary and light … And the more he sees the punishments of his afflictions being multiplied, so much the more will he understand the weight and magnitude of glory being accumulated for him. (7)
Origen highlights that the seeds we gather for our future glory, are done so through enduring afflictions and sufferings. The Early Church collectively understood that the battles we face are the preservation of our soul, in order that we overcome and be perfected God’s spirit (8). When we understand the purpose of the afflictions we endure, knowing that it is forming the glory of God in us, our burdens are considered momentary and light. Another early Church Father Ambrose stated, “In times of persecution the soul advances. Every day it adds something more to its experience of faith. Even the damage done to the body becomes conducive to immortality through the merit of the soul.” (9)
Importance of understanding affliction
United with Origen, John Chrysostom articulates the importance of understanding the reason behind persecution. He writes,
“Such, after all is the way with good people: when they endure something for his sake, far from attending to the appearance of what occurs, they understand the reason behind it and thus bear everything with equanimity [composure, calmness]. Likewise, Paul, the teacher of the Gentiles, identified imprisonment, arraignment, daily peril, all those many unbearable hardships as light burdens, not because they really were so by nature but because the reason behind their happening produced such an attitude in him that he would not turn back in the face of these oncoming threats. (10)
John explains that it is vital we seek to understand beyond the surface of the persecutions we endure. The battle in our soul contains such depth that careful examination of oneself is imperative to overcome the carnal mind. The Early Church was steadfast when it came to self-inspection. Understanding why we endure what we do, ensures we experience a change in attitude, and thus a change in character (from vice to virtue) and build strength of soul. This is no easy task as the battle in the mind is often painful, and can stem from wounds deep within. Hence why Clement stated, “the lover of truth, as I think, needs force of soul.” (11), and the wise Solomon exhorted to “trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6). The Physician of our souls always provides the remedy, when we seek to understand His ways.
As the light of God’s Word comes into our soul, and “through spiritual instruction and direction, he puts an end to those passions which are foreign to our thoughts and self-controlled deeds, and thus frees the soul from its bonds.” (2). If Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the calling card to Christ has always remained the same; to deny oneself, pick up our cross daily, and follow Him (Mathew 16:24, Luke 9:23), why don’t we see this same fervor in the Churches of today? God does not change, we have. It is time we return to our first love, the true strength of our soul.
- Origen, Leviticus Homily 4
- Origen, Spirit and Fire: Sliding Middle, pg. 46-50
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew definitions: ‘Soul’ (H5315) [emphasis added]
- Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man that shall be saved? Ch. XXV. [emphasis added]
- Thayer’s Greek definitions: ‘Sarx’ (G4561)
- Origen, Homily III on Exodus. [emphasis added]
- Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Bk. VII, Chap. IV. [emphasis added]
- Origen, Genesis Homily 1
- Ambrosiaster (meaning “Would be Ambrose”), Commentary on Paul’s epistles
- John Chrysostom, Homily on Genesis
- Clement, The stromata, or Miscellanies, Bk. VII, Chap. XVI
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.