How did the early Christians explain to their curious pagan neighbors what the Christian faith was all about? The Epistle of Mathetes To Diognetus answers that question. Written around 130 A.D., when “Mathetes” (we do not know who he really was) and other believers could still call Christianity “this new kind or practice [of piety]” that “has only now entered into the world, and not long ago,” the epistle represents an early apologetic attempt to explain the Christian faith to a Gentile named Diognetus. Mathetes tells us in chapter 11 that he was “a disciple of the Apostles,” which likely means he personally knew the apostles, but we cannot say for sure.
The high points of this epistle are chapters 5 and 6, where Mathetes explains what Christians are like:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
This is a beautiful articulation of Paul’s “ambassador” language. I am also reminded by this that Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon have recently evoked the “resident alien” image in order to call the church away from secularization. I would submit that Mathetes’ description of the believers could serve as a much-needed tonic for the Americanization of evangelicalism today.
One does not want to read later theological terminology back into the fathers, but there is nonetheless a strong substitionary picture in this epistle:
“He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!”
Finally, we see a simple and profound evangelistic appeal in Mathetes’ epistle: “If you also desire [to possess] this faith, you likewise shall receive first of all the knowledge of the Father.” And later, “And do not wonder that a man may become an imitator of God. He can, if he is willing.”
There is a refreshing simplicity in the Ante-Nice fathers. Mathetes’ epistle, I would argue, is overall more moving than Clement’s and exhibits a heart-felt and passionate intensity that moves the reader even to this day.