In Philippians 2:19-30, Paul speaks highly of two young men you served him in prison: Timothy and Epaphroditus. He commended them both for their unwavering commitment to Christ. Ultimately, their faithfulness to Christ exemplified their selflessness. They were following Christ’s example of humility for the sake of obedience (vv.5-11) and shining in a wicked generation because of it (vv.12-18).
Considering the Pauline favor of Timothy and Epaphroditus led me to explore other such cases of selflessness in church history. Below are five such examples. From stories such as these we are reminded that there is nothing more loyal (v.20) nor noble (v.29) than expending ourselves in obedience to Christ. There is a glory to selflessness which every Christian should rightly be captivated by – that soul-gripping conviction that “He must increase, I must decrease,” (John 3:30). Which is to say: a captivation with the glory of Christ.
Plague of Cyprian (3rd Century)
In 250 A.D. a horrible plague swept through the Roman Empire. 5,000 people died every day in the city of Rome. The Emperor blamed the plague on Christians and so a massive persecution of the church began. During the persecution, many people fled infected cities – even doctors refused to stay in sickly areas to tend to those dying. So Christians all across the empire chose to stay where they were in order to care for the dying pagans all around them. These 3rd Century Christians demonstrated the deepest kind of selflessness possible: an ambition to save others even when they are trying to kill you.
John Wycliffe (14th Century)
Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and spoke out boldly against the errors of the Roman Catholic church, preaching to the English people that salvation came by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Catholic church hated Wycliffe for this, and Wycliffe’s life was terrorized until the end by death threats, house arrest, and the weight of an entire continent being set against him. After Wycliffe died, the Catholic church dug-up his body, burned it, and cast the ashes into a river. Wycliffe was dishonored by his contemporaries but he is to receive great honor in Heaven for his selfless obedience to the work of Christ.
Calvin and the Black Plague (16th Century)
While John Calvin was pastoring in Geneva, Switzerland, the Black Plague swept through the city five times. From the first instance (1542), physicians warned Calvin to stay away from those affected – but Calvin did not listen. He led a team of pastors into the thousands of homes of those dying of the Plague, and many of these pastors died while ministering to the sick. The pastors of Geneva remained loyal ministers until the point of death, selflessly risking their lives to be Christ to dying sinners.
Adoniram and Ann Judson (19th Century)
The Judsons gave the last forty years of their life to live in Burma, so that the Burmese people could have the Bible in their own language. Ann died early on and Adoniram, rather than return home, pushed through grief and hardship to finish translating the bible and beginning churches among the Burmese people. Adoniram and Ann selflessly gave up a life of luxury to advance Christ’s work among the Burmese people.
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot (20th Century)
Jim was killed by the Quichua people while sharing the gospel with them, and immediately afterwards his wife Elisabeth went into the Quichua village. She spent two years serving the people who killed her husband, until a church was firmly established and she returned home to the U.S. Jim selflessly gave his life for the work of Christ and Elisabeth selflessly forgave the ones who killed her husband so that Christ’s work could be advanced.
Here are a handful of witnesses to the worth of giving all things for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. It is never a waste, never a loss, to lose ourselves in the cause of Christ.