Jeremy Sarber
Disciple of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Reformed Baptist, funeral home chaplain, and host of Sunday Tapes. All glory be to Christ.

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They Still Speak

Who was Athanasius, and what did he do?

Athanasius risked his life and spent years in exile for the sake of the truth—for the sake of a single letter, albeit one with absolutely vital theological significance.

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2)

Run with endurance

According to this passage, believers in Christ are running a race. It’s not your typical race, however, because it’s not the kind of race where you’re competing with other people. The goal is not to come in first. The goal is to finish, which may sound easy enough, but the author of Hebrews implies this is a long, grueling race. He says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before” (Heb 12:1). To finish this race, we must be patient because it can be long. We must persevere because it can be quite difficult.

How does the author suggest we endure to the end? First, he exhorts us to lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely (Heb 12:1). As Christian discovered in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the journey to the Celestial City is much easier when you don’t have a great burden strapped to your back.

Second, the author tells us to keep our eyes on the finish line, which isn’t so much a place as it is a person—namely, Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). We are essentially running away from sin toward Christ, and as we look to him, he provides us a perfect model of running this very race. He for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. He was able to patiently persevere through immense difficulty because he kept his eyes on the joy that was set before him. He stared at the finish line until his race was over.

So, we run away from our sin and never look back. Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). Instead, we keep our eyes fixed on Christ and the eternal joys ahead. What did Paul tell the Corinthians?

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

As one who ran cross-country in high school, I will testify that the easiest parts of any race are the beginning and end. At the start of a race, I had all the confidence in the world. I was full of adrenaline and believed I could run well over the three miles required of me. Near the end of the race, I could finally see the finish line. It was close enough that my entire body would get excited. I would find energy I didn’t think I had any longer. In fact, I remember getting lectured by the coach. He’d say, “Stop saving up all that energy for the end. Use it on the course.”

Those two miles in the middle of the race, however, were always a much different story. My pace would slow. My breathing would become labored. My form would fall apart. And most notably, my mind would get discouraged. I’d hear those whispers, “You can’t do it. You won’t make it. You might as well give up now.” I believe the same is often true for us as we run the race described here in Hebrews.

The newly converted Christian shoots out of the gate with fervent zeal. The mature elderly Christian is close enough to the finish line to find strength he didn’t know he had. But all of those believers somewhere in the middle of race may find themselves struggling to endure. How are those Christians to be helped? In short, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).

A cloud of witnesses

When I ran cross-country, every course was a little different. Most of them had a path that weaved all over the place. It may go up and around hills. It may go on other sides of buildings. It may wind through trees, which made watching the race challenging for spectators. As a runner, I would see spectators, such as my family, at only a few points of the race. I might see them at the one-mile mark, but I may not see them again for another half-mile or more.

When I finally did see spectators, especially if they were someone I knew, my running form would suddenly return. I’d begin breathing properly. My pace would quicken. There was something about being in their presence that motivated me to try harder. All of those discouraging thoughts I had, when left to myself, would disappear.

That’s not exactly what the author of Hebrews is referring to here, but it’s a similar idea. Perhaps a better analogy would be those moments when a fellow teammate is running alongside you. Enduring the race is somehow easier when you know you’re enduring it with someone else.

Glance back at Hebrews 10. That’s precisely the point the author makes in Hebrews 10:23-25. He says:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

The race we run as believers is made so much better because we run it together. We consider one another (Heb 10:24). We encourage one another (Heb 10:25). We frequently meet together for this purpose. And as the race continues, we don’t distance ourselves from our teammates. We’re told to be increasingly adamant about sticking together as we get closer and closer to the finish line—as we see the Day of Christ drawing near.

Even so, the author of Hebrews doesn’t primarily have fellow believers in mind when he refers to this cloud of witnesses, at least not living believers (Heb 12:1). Instead, he’s thinking about men and women of faith who have gone before us. He’s thinking about believers who lived and died centuries ago. How do I know that? Hebrews 11.

Hebrews 12 begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses—“ (Heb 12:1). Ignore the chapter break. The author didn’t put it there. This passage is a conclusion to the previous chapter, which provides us with several mini-biographies of people who were living testimonies of remarkable faith in God. From Abel to the prophets, we read several accounts of people who ran the race with endurance (Heb 11:4, 32; 12:1).

And all these,” the author says at the close of Hebrews 11, “though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb 11:39, 40). It would seem the race we run is a relay race. Those believers who went before have passed the baton, and we are called to take that baton and keep running. Meanwhile, those who previously carried the baton of faith continue to serve as an encouragement to us. Their part of the race is finished, but we’re not finished with them.

He still speaks

Notice what this book says about Abel in Hebrews 11:4. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.

Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb 11:4). And that is the basis for the study we begin today. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will examine the lives and ministries of inspiring heroes of the faith. All of these people died long ago, but through their enduring testimonies, they still speak to us. They still have the ability to encourage us as we finish our portion of the race. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).

Each week, we will consider one, possibly two, notable figures in church history. We’ll examine their lives. In some cases, we’ll talk about their conversions to Christ. Most importantly, we’ll study their faith and its impact. We’ll look to these saints of the past and, I pray, find encouragement in their stories. To be clear, I don’t intend for this series to be mere history lessons. I want us to be edified as we see eternal truths reflected in their lives, often in the face of severe adversity.

I’ll begin this series with a man by the name of Athanasius.

Constantine becomes a Christian

Athanasius was born just before the turn of the 4th century, and he spent his approximately 75 years on this earth earning for himself the nickname Athanasius contra mundum—that is, Athanasius against the world.

That’s quite a nickname, but it’s even more compelling once you realize Athanasius spent his entire life refusing to concede a theological debate over one letter in a single word. If that seems a little petty or trivial, I assure you it isn’t, and you’ll see what I mean in a moment.

I told you this wouldn’t be a mere history lesson, but some history is required. We need some background and context before we discuss the great theological fight of Athanasius’s life.

By the time Athanasius is born, historians estimate that possibly fifteen percent of people in the Roman Empire were Christians. In other words, Christianity, this largely misunderstood and often hated religion, was reaching critical mass. In some parts of the empire, it represented a majority of people. In other parts, it was a significant minority, including places such as Egypt and Northern Africa, which were some of the wealthiest places in the empire. I should also note that Christianity was gaining its strongest footholds not in rural areas, as we might expect, but in large cities.

Despite all the years of persecution against her, the church was growing in both size and influence. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that a Roman emperor would eventually take notice and, instead of trying to stop the movement, would attempt to befriend it. Emperor Constantine took it a step further by actually converting to Christianity.

If you’re familiar with church history, you probably know the name Constantine. At his father’s death, he became emperor of the Roman Empire in AD 306. Athanasius was approximately eight years old at the time. Seven years later, Constantine wins a major battle, and he later attributes his victory to God. He claims to have seen a cross in the sky, which he interpreted to be a sign of coming victory. In turn, he painted crosses on each of his army’s shields, and they won the battle. This, many historians say, compelled Constantine to become a Christian.

Was his conversion genuine? I don’t know, but when Constantine returned to Rome, he refused to offer a sacrifice to the pagan goddess of victory as every other emperor had done before him. More importantly, he declared Christianity to be a state-sanctioned, altogether legal religion in the empire. Suddenly, Christians became a protected, if not favored, class of people. To be clear, it wouldn’t remain that way forever, and not every Christian was always protected because of the volatile relationship between the state and church at the time. Constantine, for example, often inserted himself into church affairs and made binding judgments in theological disagreements, which meant dissenters would lose some of their protections.

It’s pretty interesting to think about life in those days. Christianity went from illegal and persecuted to legal in a very short span of time, and it wasn’t just legalized. The Emperor himself is now a Christian who has a keen interest in the church and her doctrines. Almost overnight, believers are able to step out of the shadows and practice their religion in the light of day. Suddenly, people all over the empire are discussing the Bible in public, which leads to the great controversy of Athanasius’s life.

Same or similar substance?

In Alexandria, Egypt—this will be easy to remember—a man by the name of Alexander was bishop. Tensions began rising between Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and a relatively popular, well-spoken deacon by the name of Arius. Before we talk about the source of that tension, you should know that Athanasius was a newly ordained deacon serving as an assistant to Alexander. While he’s not yet the main character in the story, he’s right there in the background. As we’ll discover, he’s actually quite involved.

The controversy began in AD 319. Arius wrote a letter to Alexander that called into question the orthodox understanding of the Son of God. Since Jesus is the Son and Scripture refers to him as begotten, Arius argued that God the Father must have created him. In other words, there must have been a time when the Son did not exist.

Keep in mind this is fairly early in church history. While orthodox, biblical views regarding the Trinity and the identity of Christ were established—they were established, in fact, 200 years earlier by the apostles—the church is still formulating the best ways to articulate these doctrines. How do you explain the Trinity? How do you define Jesus’s person as both God and the Son of God?

Perhaps inevitably, people came up with different ideas to explain these profound and mysterious realities. It isn’t easy for the finite human brain to comprehend an infinite God, but we try. And when we do, church history reveals we are prone to make heretical mistakes. In efforts to remove the mysteries of God, men tend to reduce him down to something he’s not. Arius was one of these men.

Arius’s theory about Christ called into question his very deity. If Jesus is a created being, he may be superior to all other created beings, but he can’t be God. He may be similar to God in the way any son is similar to his father, but he’s not the same. He’s not God.

In response, Alexander, with the help of Athanasius and others, came up with a word, or technical term, that would clearly define and simplify the real issue at hand. The word they used was homoousios—that is, same substance or essence.

While you won’t find that word in the Bible, like many other theological terms, it provided clarity. The debate was not whether the Son is the same person as the Father. As our Baptist Confession affirms, the Trinity “consists of three real persons, the Father, the Word or Son, and the Holy Spirit.” No, the debate was over substance.

Arius, or at least his supporters, responded with their own word—homoiousios, which means similar substance or essence. And with these two words, the debate was simplified, and the dividing line was drawn. One either believed Jesus possessed the same substance of the Father or a similar substance as the Father. Arius said they were of similar substance. Alexander, Athanasius, and Christian orthodoxy said they are of the same substance. In Greek, the debate came down to a single letter.

The Nicene Creed

Athanasius was not a quiet bystander even at the beginning of this controversy. He may not have been the bishop, but he was busy publishing apologetic books in defense of the biblical view of the Trinity and the full deity of Christ. He also wrote the official disposition of Arius in AD 321. The church in Alexandria excluded Arius for his heresy, and Athanasius was tasked with writing the official disposition.

Meanwhile, Arius was busy trying to garner support for his cause. As persuasive as he proved to be, he didn’t have much success in Alexandria, so he started writing letters to bishops all over the world, which did prove relatively successful. He was successful enough, in fact, that the dispute caught the attention of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine liked the idea of bringing uniformity to the church. He wanted the matter settled, and the debate ended, so he did something that had never been done before. He called for an ecumenical, or universal, council of the church to come together, discuss the issues, take a vote, and decide the matter once and for all. Unless you count the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 over circumcising Gentiles, a council of this nature had never been tried before.

In AD 325, three-hundred bishops were invited by Constantine to gather at his Imperial Palace in Nicea, which is a fascinating moment in history. Some of those very men had been beaten and imprisoned under Roman authority, and they were now welcomed into the Imperial Palace to be heard by the Emperor himself. In fact, Constantine, who presided over the council, addressed those men as his “most dear brothers.”

Alexander proceeded to write a relatively brief creed to both clarify his position and give it some measure of formality. This creed became known as the Nicene Creed, and here is the most relevant part of it.

It says:

We believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made—

Notice the phrase “one substance.” It is two words in English, but it’s a translation of a single word in Greek, homoousios, or same substance.

Needless to say, Arius and his supporters hated the wording of the Nicene Creed, but Constantine liked it. I don’t know whether he understood it or cared to understand it, but he liked it nonetheless and gave the council two options. They could either sign the creed or be exiled. You won’t be surprised to learn the vast majority signed, though they later found ways to argue that the wording actually supported their view.

You should also know that the majority of bishops who signed the Nicene Creed did not like calling people heretics. Regardless of what they believed about the deity of Christ, they wanted men like Alexander and Athanasius to stop fighting so hard for this cause.

Athanasius is exiled

Three years after the Nicene Creed, Alexander died, leaving Athanasius to become the bishop of Alexandria in his place. Athanasius, then, had jurisdiction over all the bishops in Egypt and Libya. Under his leadership, Arianism, as it become known, altogether disappeared from the region. Unfortunately, though, it continued to spread throughout the rest of the empire, and Arians continued to push for changes to the Nicene Creed.

Athanasius refused to back down. The more opposition he faced, the bolder he defended the truth of Christ’s deity. In response, his opponents began hurling all kinds of accusations against him. He was too young to be a bishop. He practiced forms of dark magic. He was a dangerous troublemaker. He levied illegal taxes. Eventually, even Emperor Constantine got a little tired of Athanasius. Maybe he was a troublemaker.

Though the evidence acquitted him, Athanasius’s critics continued to accuse him of various wrongdoings. In AD 336, Constantine finally banished him.

One year later, Constantine died, leaving his three sons to reign in his place. The empire was divided into three parts. One of his sons, Constantine II, restored Athanasius to his office. Only two later, however, another son by the name of Constantius took ecclesiastical power into his own hands and once again banished Athanasius. He left in AD 339 and did not return until AD 346—a total of seven years away.

For the sake of time, I’ll have to skip over quite a few details as we continue. I won’t have time to explain all of the politics involved.

Skipping ahead, Constantius decided to seize control of Alexandria. In AD 356, his army storms into the largest church in the city, where Athanasius is preparing the Lord’s Supper for the congregation. When the soldiers enter, Athanasius tells the deacons to lead the church in reciting Psalm 136. As the soldiers move closer and closer to the front, the congregation repeats, “For his steadfast love endures forever. For his steadfast love endures forever.” The other bishops are begging Athanasius to flee from the building, but he refuses to go. Finally, a few of the church’s leaders grab him and physically carry him out.

Athanasius would not return to Alexandria for another six years. He would live in isolation in the middle of the deserts, where he was fiercely guarded by some of his brothers in the faith.

Those years of exile were not wasted, though. He wrote some of his most important books during that time, including many that defended the full deity of Jesus Christ.

Athanasius returned to Alexandria in AD 363. Ironically enough, a pagan emperor, Julian, took power and lifted his ban, which lasted about eight months. Upon his return, Athanasius continued to preach, teach, defend, and spread the biblical view of Christ, and Julian didn’t like it. As a devout pagan, he didn’t like anyone taking Christianity as seriously as Athanasius, so Athanasius spent another fifteen months in exile.

Once again, Athanasius returned to Alexandria only to be exiled a fifth time by the next emperor. Emperor Valens attempted to hunt him down, but he escaped before he could be captured. Valens quickly changed his mind, however, once he realized how much the city of Alexandria loved Athanasius. He feared a revolt might take place, so he restored Athanasius after only a few months.

Athanasius spent the final seven years of his life pastoring the church, shepherding other pastors, and promoting the cause of orthodoxy throughout the empire. He died in AD 373.

Be courageous and rejoice always

Perhaps you now understand how Athanasius became known as Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the world. When influential church leaders from all over the empire opposed him, he stood his ground in defense of the truth. When murderous soldiers stormed into his church, he stood his ground. When emperors turned against him, he stood his ground. Through years and years of isolation and exile, he stood his ground. He believed the Bible and refused to believe anything contrary to it. As he once wrote, “Divine Scripture is sufficient above all things.”

In 1 John 5, the apostle John writes:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (1 John 5:1-4)

I love the word overcomes, which is sometimes translated conquered. It’s used repeatedly throughout the New Testament and implies that believers are not only running a race, we are not only running a long-distance race, we are not only running a long-distance relay race, but we are also running a long-distance relay, hurdle race. If we are supposed to conquer or overcome, there must be obstacles along the path. We must face things that make the race more difficult—things that try to prevent us from reaching the finish line.

I suspect we can all relate. Discouragements, setbacks, opposition, temptations, the flesh, the devil, the world— These are just a few of the hurdles we regularly face and strive to overcome.

Thankfully, we have a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us (Heb 12:1). Even though they are dead, they still speak through their faith (Heb 11:4). We can look behind us at men such as Athanasius and be encouraged by their courageous, faithful endurance as they conquered some of the highest hurdles. I can only imagine what it was like for Athanasius to risk his life and live out so much of his ministry in exile for the sake of the truth—for the sake of a single letter, albeit one with absolutely vital theological significance.

Furthermore, like Paul, Athanasius could say of his own circumstances, “We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed” (2Co 4:8, 9). How do I know he felt this way? Consider what he wrote.

Let us be courageous and rejoice always. … Let us consider and lay to heart that while the Lord is with us, our foes can do us no hurt. … If they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand … they are discomfited [or made to feel uneasy] and turned backwards.

Even in the face of persecution, Athanasius saw no reason to be discouraged. What can our foes really do to us? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Ro 8:31). No, don’t be discouraged by the inevitable challenges of our Christian race. Instead, heed Athanasius’s exhortation to contemplate “the bliss of the future.” Stare ahead at the joy set before (Heb 12:2). He said we should be “mindful of the Lord.” Hebrews 12 says, “Let us run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus” (Heb 12:1). Lastly, Athanasius reminds us of God’s sovereignty—“deeming all things in His hand.”

If we learn from Athanasius and follow his example when we find ourselves in similar situations, he says our enemies will be “discomfited and turned backwards.” They’ll be perplexed. They won’t know what to do. If their goal is to break us and discourage us to the point of quitting, they will be utterly confused when they see us still rejoicing in Lord despite their best efforts to crush us.

There’s plenty in this world already to discourage us, though I’d say the Lord has graciously provided when we compare our circumstances to those of Athanasius. Even so, we may find ourselves afflicted, perplexed, and struck down, but “let us be courageous and rejoice always” (2Co 4:8, 9).

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2)

Contend for the faith

In closing, I’ll mention one more notable lesson we can learn from Athanasius. The Lord’s brother, Jude, writes:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3, 4)

Even beyond the truth of Christ’s full deity, there are biblical doctrines worth defending at any cost. While there are hills we shouldn’t die on, there are hills we should no matter how great the personal cost to us.