The Catacombs

by Tom Wacaster

While in the process of looking up something I had filed away several years ago, I stumbled upon a little tidbit regarding the catacombs that lay beneath the city of Rome. The author noted that the “catacombs are of peculiar interest to us because this is where our brothers and sister from that age rest. The message they left behind serves as a haunting reminder of our responsibility to be ‘faithful unto death.’” That statement intrigued me, so much so that I found myself taking a slight detour from my intended study in order to learn more about these catacombs. Our English word “catacomb” comes from a combination of two Greek words: ‘kata’ meaning ‘down,’ and ‘kymbe’ meaning ‘hollow.” I gleaned the following from Wikipedia:

The first large-scale catacombs in the vicinity of Rome were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. They were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the walls of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits. The pagan custom was to incinerate corpses, while early Christians and Jews buried the dead. Since most Christians and Jews at that time belonged to the lower classes or were slaves, they usually lacked the resources to buy land for burial purposes. Instead, networks of tunnels were dug in the deep layers of tufo which occurred naturally on the outskirts of Rome. At first, these tunnels were probably not used for regular worship, but simply for burial and, extending pre-existing Roman customs, for memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs (Wikipedia, Catacombs of Rome).

Such catacombs have been discovered in various countries, but the catacombs of Rome are by far the most important. An early theory of the origin of these catacombs was that they were carved out by the Romans and then later appropriated by the Christians for burial, and even later for refuge. That theory has been disproved due to the archaeological work of Marchi and De Rossi. The catacombs were actually dug by the Christians themselves. Prior to the days of severe persecution, some wealthy Christian would start a small catacomb for the members of his family which would later be expanded to accommodate a larger multitude, particularly after the various waves of persecution came upon the church. Over a period of years a confusing maze of galleries running in all directions was excavated. In many cases these galleries were arranged in floors connected by staircases. The massive arteries leading from one area to the next became so vast that it was easy to become disoriented and lost in the maze of tunnels. Once the fierce persecution of the church arose, the Christians started taking refuge in the catacombs. Foster tells us that “burial places had the right of asylum by law, and, when the churches were closed in the city, the Christians met here underground” (Foster, Studies In The Life of Christ, 21). It would not be long, however, before the authorities started entering these tombs, and so the Christians destroyed the old entrances and dug new and secret entrances to the catacombs. It has been estimated that this vast maze of catacombs, if strung together, would stretch more than 600 miles, the full length of Italy. Estimates of the actual number of tombs ranges from 1,750,000 to more than 4 million. You can actually take a tour of some of those catacombs if you happen to visit Rome or Paris.

There are numerous epitaphs and drawings attached to the various tombs, telling an amazing story of the “fiery trial” (1 Pet. 4:13) those early Christians had to endure. Hundreds of thousands of our brethren were martyred for their faith in Christ and their bodies were laid to rest in those dark catacombs. The following is a sampling of what they endured: “The cruelties used in this persecution were such that many of the spectators shuddered with horror at the sight, and were astonished at the intrepidity of the sufferers. Some of the martyrs were obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, sharp shells, etc. upon their points, others were scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare, and after suffering the most excruciating tortures that could be devised, they were destroyed by the most terrible deaths” (Fox’s Book of Martyrs, page 8). I could fill this week’s article, and dozens of others, with such cases of the horrible treatment that our brothers and sisters in Christ received at the hands of their persecutors.

Now, here is the point that deserves careful consideration. If ever there was a people that might have been bitter toward their enemies, or have deep regret for having ever followed Jesus, those early Christians would fall into that category. They lost everything, for no other reason than the fact that they bore the name “Christian.” In many cases their property was confiscated, leaving them destitute. Families were separated, loved ones often being killed while their family members were forced to look upon the horrible atrocities committed against them. Hundreds of thousands suffered martyrdom at the hands of their enemies. How easy it would have been to avoid such persecution by simply taking the oath of loyalty, pinch the incense and declare “Caesar is Lord.” But they would not! Germanicus, a young man at the time of his death, was delivered to the wild beasts on account of his faith. Yet he behaved with such astonishing courage that several of his pagan persecutors became converts to the very faith that inspired such fortitude. The writings in those catacombs attest to the fact that those early Christians not only suffered horribly at the hands of their enemies, but they seem to have endured it with great patience and hope of eternal life. In spite to the ill treatment at the hands of those who were determined to exterminate Christianity, those early Christians maintained their faith in God. Carved on the tombs beneath the streets of Rome are some of the most amazing statements of that faith. I share with you some of those epitaphs gleaned from various sources: “Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.” Another bears the simple testimony, “Victorious in peace and in Christ.” Again, “Being called away, he went home.” “Peace to thy soul, Oxyxholis.” “Agape, thou salt live forever.” “Severa; mayest thou live in God.”  How could these early Christians bury their loved ones with such calm assurance? What is it that helped them maintain their faith while undergoing such unspeakable oppression? It was, without doubt, the full assurance that there would come a day when they, along with their loved ones, would be raised from the dead and be reunited in heaven.

The very existence of those catacombs, with their writings and ancient art work, attest to the reality of Jesus Christ and the devotion of our brothers and sisters in Christ who gave their lives to advance the Kingdom of our Lord. Perhaps more than anything, like Able, they, “being dead, yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4). And what a message they proclaim! It is a message of faith and hope. While faith looks backward, hope looks forward. While faith appropriates through obedience to God’s will, hope anticipates the fulfillment of the promises of God. Faith is root, hope is the fruit.

“Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free. How sweet would be their children’s fate, if they, like them, could die for thee!” (2nd stanza, Faith of Our Fathers). That, beloved, is the lesson to be learned from the catacombs!

"Whatever Became of Sin?"

 by Tom Wacaster

Karl Menninger published a book by the same title, which I have borrowed for this week’s article. Having focused his reader’s attention on the rather obvious decline in western civilization and the deplorable condition in which we now find ourselves, he opens the third chapter of that book with these pointed comments:

In all the laments and reproaches made by our seers and prophets, one misses any mention of “sin,” a word which used to be a veritable watchword of the prophets. It was a word once in everyone’s mind, but now rarely if ever heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles—sin with an “I” in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented and repaired or atoned for? Is it only that someone may be stupid or sick or criminal—or asleep? Wrong things are being done, we know; tares are being sown in the wheat field at night. But is no one responsible, no one answerable for these acts? Anxiety and depression we all acknowledge, and even vague guilt feelings; but has no one committed sins? Where, indeed, did sin go? What became of it? (Menninger, 13).

The problem with much of our sin-sick society is the fact that they just don’t give any thought to that three letter word S-I-N. If anyone tries to address sin in our society and define and describe it for what it is, he is quickly labeled judgmental and unloving. How long has it been since you heard any of our national leaders speak of the sin problem we have in our country? Did you know that in the early 50’s the Congress voted to require the President to proclaim one day a year to be recognized as a day of prayer? Truman began it in 1952, and the following year President Eisenhower borrowed some of the words from Abraham Lincoln for his first proclamation. Here is what Eisenhower said: “It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon” (emphasis mine, TW). Interestingly neither President Eisenhower, nor any President since that time, has ever used the same words or anything akin to them. According to an article in Theology Today (October 1972), such words were “not compatible with the Commander-In-Chief’s vision of a proud and confident people.” I guess that means as a nation we quit sinning more than a half century ago!?! Quite the contrary. Under the guise of social freedom we have extended our rights as a nation to embrace deviant behavior and the slaughter of innocent babes in the womb while ignoring any possibility that what we are doing is displeasing to the God of heaven. This is an age of license.  Morally, we are loosing the battle to the humanists.  Some schools and neighborhoods are already out of control.  Because we live in a “free land,” some have taken that to mean we are free to do whatever we desire - no limits, and no holds barred. But are we not reaping the harvest of seeds planted decades, if not centuries ago? God has provided the avenue to freedom in Christ. But rather than respect the limits of that freedom, we have taken it upon ourselves to worship and serve God as we see fit. Do you doubt that? Then ask someone, anyone, why they attend a particular religious sect, and listen carefully to the answer. “Well, I like the people.” “I like the preacher.” “The music is uplifting.” “The location is convenient.” Seldom (if ever) will you hear someone say, “I like that congregation because God has authorized all that is said and done among these people.” If you ask someone why they like all the rigmarole in church music,  with guitars, drums, and percussion instruments, more often than not you will hear these four  words: “Because I like it.” The restraints in worship set forth in God’s word have largely been  ignored, from Catholicism right up through and including Protestantism. Our liberty has  been redefined to mean we can do anything that God does not strictly forbid in His word. Were we to use the same sort of thinking in matters earthly, you could drive any speed you desired simply because there  is no sign posted that says, “thou shalt not drive 90 or 100.”  And once we took the liberties in matters pertaining to worship, it was, and is, an easy step to take the same kind of liberties regarding God’s moral laws. We have turned liberty into license. With the so-called legalization of homosexual marriages the bar has been lifted one more notch and exactly how far man will now go with this new found “right” is anybody’s guess.

I suppose every age has its advancements in technology, communication, transportation and science, but perhaps there has never been a generation that has witnessed as many changes as has ours (unless it be the industrial revolution). I can still remember when a computer was something you saw on television on some science fiction show, and a “window” was what mom had us clean every Spring so as to allow more summer sun into our homes.  A “ram” was the cousin of a goat, “meg” was the little girl who lived down the street, and an “application” was something you filled out when you applied for a new job. Some words have taken on entirely different meanings than they had when I was growing up. For example,  a “program” was a TV show, a “cursor” was someone who used profanity, and “memory” was something that you lost with age, not space on a computer. With the modern age has come at least two inventions that have dramatically impacted our communication capabilities. One of these is the television, the other the computer. The new “digital” television is becoming increasingly popular, with pictures so sharp it has been billed as the biggest change in viewing quality since we moved from black and white to color. The irony of it all is the undeniable truth that while we are making gigantic strides in accessing knowledge, we are loosing ground when it comes to the quality of material that we are able to access. As the late Paul Harvey once said, “TV turns the sky into a sewer.” A recent study has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the entertainment industry in general, and the television industry in specific is an “influence” rather than a “mirror” of society. According to that survey conducted by Public Opinion magazine, 65% of television's creative community admitted that TV was a major influence on social behavior. Of the “cream of the crop” among television’s “most experienced and respected members,” 93% said they seldom ever, or never, attended religious services. The devil got his claws into the television industry some four decades ago and has not let go yet, nor does it look like he will do so anytime in the near future.

And now comes our modern age of personal computers, and our unlimited and unrestricted access to the “super highway.” So far it is “no holds barred,” and while we argue with ourselves over what constitutes censorship, or how to define pornography, young and innocent minds are being overwhelmed by the evil side of that promising means of communication. Some years ago I had an occasion to visit with a sister in Christ who was then facing the sunset years of her life. Preceded in death by her husband of more than 60 years, Mary would soon depart this life to be with her Lord. As we visited and reflected upon the years of wisdom and experience now behind her, she commented, “Tom, you would not believe the changes I have seen in my lifetime, and most of them are not for the good.” Yes, sister Casey, I would believe the changes. I have seen enough in my lifetime to make me hang my head and blush at the sins of our beloved America. At times it almost seems to overwhelm me. It would be easy to become discouraged at it all. And then I think:  The only thing that has really changed is man’s capacity and not his propensity to sin. Modern technology simply provides the avenues by which sinful man can exercise his evil desires. There may be more opportunities for sin, but as Solomon reminded us, “there is nothing new under the sun.”


One Step At A Time

by Tom Wacaster

It has been observed that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu). I thought about those words of wisdom early Monday morning as I began the long drive home from Bristol, Virginia; total distance, 982 miles. I don’t recall having ever driven that distance by myself in a single day. Come to think of it, I can’t recall having driven that far even with someone else in the car. I had intended to break the trip up into two legs, and spend the night somewhere around Brinkley, Arkansas, but once I arrived at Brinkley it was early afternoon and I thought, “I can get further than this.” Sure enough, I could, and the further I drove the closer home appeared in my mental window. With each mile behind me there remained less ahead of me and the shortened distance to my destination motivated me to press on. I managed to miss the heavy traffic in Knoxville, Cookeville, and Memphis, but not so with Nashville. If you ever find yourself on a freeway in Tennessee it might be wise to follow the advice of a native Tennessean in order to calculate the proper speed limit on one of their freeways: “Subtract your age from 100. Double this number if your car has dual exhaust. Conversely, add your age to 100 if you are driving on I-40 or suffering from a midlife crisis.” The same person suggested that when driving through Knoxville, never use your turn signal, unless of course you are on the freeway with no intention of merging. I digress, however, so let me return to the subject at hand.

Abraham is said to have “looked for the city which hath the foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Like Abraham, those men and women of faith listed in Hebrews chapter eleven “all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Their faith motived them to endure great odds in order to reach a destination that cannot be found on a GPS or located in some Rand McNally Road Map. It is, however, as much a journey as was my trip from Bristol, Virginia to Fort Worth, Texas. This journey is not measured in miles, but it does demand maturity on the part of those who would successfully complete the trip. You and I are traveling the same road as our ancient predecessors. Here are some things to keep in mind.

First, don’t get distracted. It is unfortunate that the devil has successfully “blinded the eyes of the unbelieving” (2 Cor. 4:4), so much so that the masses are not even aware of the existence of the inevitable destination to which they are travelling. My journey from Virginia took me past the exit for highway 66 that would take the traveler to Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Smokey mountains. I could have visited Rock City, Lookout Mountain, or Ruby Falls, but those side trips, and hundreds and thousands like them, would have hindered me on my journey, perhaps even keeping me from my destination. I sometimes wonder how many precious souls are kept from reaching their spiritual destination for no other reason than the fact that they took a “side road” to enjoy some pleasure for the moment, allowing the devil to deter them from the truly important. The “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of life” (1 John 2:16) distracted them along the way and they ended up pursuing things temporal rather than things eternal.

Second, don’t get discouraged. The sheer distance, when carefully calculated and considered, would discourage any sane person from attempting to complete the journey in one day. Then there were the inevitable obstacles along the way: road construction, heavy traffic, pot holes, work zones with their “fees doubled when workers present.” This does not even take into account those rude and obnoxious drivers that one might encounter along the way. Quite often when I begin a journey someone says, “Drive carefully!” I appreciate that thoughtfulness, but is there some reason that I would not drive carefully? So I often respond, “I will; but so must everyone else with whom I come in close proximity along the way.” There are also obstacles along the road to our heavenly home that, if permitted, could discourage us in the journey. There are unforeseen circumstances that come along that would defeat us. We have to struggle with ourselves; that may very well be the greatest obstacle we encounter along the way. Then there are people who discourage us. I’m not suggesting they do it intentionally. An unkind word, a failure to uphold our hands in the work we are doing; these are things that often discourage us. When we do not see the fruits of our labors immediately, we tend to get discouraged in the work, often giving up in despair. If you find yourself discouraged along the journey, take your Bible and read again those words from the Holy Spirit penned by the hand of Paul: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).

Third, let us be determined. Thomas Jefferson is credited with having said, “When we see ourselves in a situation which must be endured and gone through, it is best to make up our minds to it, meet it with firmness and accommodate everything to it in the best way practicable. This lessens the evil, while fretting and fuming only serves to increase your own torments.” Some years ago I came across this interesting true life example of determination:

The year was 1983. In Australia, the long-distance foot race from Sydney to Melbourne was about to begin, covering 875 kilometers - more than 500 miles! About 150 world-class athletes had entered, for what was planned as a six-day event. So race officials were startled when a 61-year-old man approached and handed them his entry form. His name was Cliff Young, and his “racing attire” included overalls and galoshes over his work boots. At first, they refused to let him enter. So he explained that he’d grown up on a 2,000-acre farm, with thousands of sheep. His family could afford neither horses nor tractors so, when the storms came, his job was to round up the sheep. Sometimes, he said, it would take two or three days of running. Finally, they let Cliff enter, and the race began. The others quickly left him way behind, shuffling along in his galoshes. But he didn’t know the plan included stopping each night to rest, so he kept going. By the fifth day, he had caught them all, won the race, and became a national hero. He continued to compete in long-distance races until well up in his seventies. He was an inspiration to millions and a great encourager of younger runners. In his honor and memory, in 2004, the year after his death at age 81, the organizers of the race where he first gained fame permanently changed its name to the Cliff Young Australian Six Day Race. What was the key to Cliff Young’s success? It goes by various names: determination, perseverance, persistence, tenacity. It means keeping one’s eye fixed steadfastly on a goal, and not stopping, no matter the difficulties or the obstacles, until that goal is achieved.

Here, then, are three important keys to beginning, enduring, and completing our journey to heaven: Don’t get discouraged, don’t be distracted, and be determined. Take the journey one step at a time, and never lose your love for heaven. The history of mankind is marked by a long list of nameless men and women who began the journey, who faced calamity and hardship, only to give up. In the words of the Psalmist, “They turned back” (Psa. 78:9). Let me remind you that the benefits of determination and the reward for successfully completing the journey far outweigh the alternative.  Like I said when I began this article, and with but slight alternation in the words, let me remind all of us: “With each passing day behind me there remains one less day ahead of me, and the shortened distance to my destination motivates me to press on.”


Falling For Fads

By Tom Wacaster

Some of you are old enough to remember leisure suits. It has been almost 40 years since I bought my one (and only) leisure suit. I was living in Ada, Oklahoma, and there was a J.C. Penny store on main street. Of course the days of “Main Street” shopping seem to be going the way of the leisure suits. Leisure suits were worn with bright colorful, open collar shirts, usually coordinated to match the suit. The lapels on the suit coat were wide. For some odd reason I was attracted to the suit, and the price was not too bad when compared with the more traditional suits. After some assurance from the salesman that I really looked good in a leisure suit, I decided I’d purchase it. I was so proud of that suit that I actually wore it into the pulpit for my evening lesson. Following the worship service one of the dear sweet sisters came to me and said, rather bluntly, “Don’t ever wear that in the pulpit again; it is not becoming!” I felt sort of like the man who bougt a used car and a few months later went back to the salesman and said, “Tell me about this car again; I’m discouraged!” Well, I wore that suit on occasions until it went out of style, and then I think I sold it in a garage sale.

The late Adair Chapman once told the following story about a conversation between the elders and deacons of a certain congregation:  “What went wrong,” one of the men said, “is that the preacher came in with some ideas about how we are going to turn the community upside down. The ideas were very expensive. We wanted the church to grow, and we went along. We just didn’t stop to count the cost. The program did not work, the promoter is gone, and now we’re stuck with some long term indebtedness that has just about paralyzed our mission work. We were foolish to fall for a fad.”

Unfortunately the brotherhood has had its fair share of “fads” that have come and gone over the years. Some unscrupulous brethren have gone from congregation to congregation promoting a particular program, charging a lot of money for the counseling advice on how to make their particular fad work, and promising unrealistic results. In theory the fad may have really looked good; but practically speaking, what was good for one church was not necessarily good for another.

Church growth is a worthy goal, and any congregation satisfied with just keeping house is not pleasing in the sight of God. Jesus chastised the church of Ephesus for having left their first love (Rev. 2:4). They evidently had become satisfied with hard work that was not motivated by genuine love for the Lord. The church at Laodicea is a good example of a congregation that had become satisfied with keeping house, being neither hot nor cold. For that reason Jesus warned that He was about to “spew thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). Any attempt to sit on the side lines and warm ourselves next to the fires of mediocrity is not the answer to the downturn in numerical growth.

Latching on to the latest fad to somehow generate numbers is not an effective means of growth either. Fads come and go; the leisure suit craze is a good example of that. The days of the “bus ministry” ran its course in about ten years. Some congregations made good use of the “joy buses” they purchased, but as the newness wore off and it soon became apparent that it would take hard work and a lot of expense to maintain such a program, churches began to bail out. In some places the old “joy bus” was turned into a “Senior Citizen Shuttle,” but that, too, has run its course in many places.

It is not wrong to be open minded for programs that work; but programs do not work without hard work on the part of the people. Someone once observed, “New and old methods should be prayerfully evaluated from the standpoint of scripture and practicality. There are few shortcuts to effective and lasting evangelism.” That same sentiment has been expressed by good brethren who have demonstrated by their love for lost souls and a willingness to work and labor for the Master, knowing they were in it for the long haul.

It has been my observation over the years that a steady application of the word of God has done more to generate growth than some of the fads that have come and gone. Remember, the word of God is likened unto leaven that, when mixed into the lump, slowly—sometimes imperceptibly—produces growth. A consistent declaration of the word of God, without compromise, is the one technique that will never be out of date. Paul told us that the power is in the gospel. It is the faith and not some fad that will win the souls of men and produce consistent growth. Fads come and go, “but the word of the Lord abideth forever” (1 Peter 1:25).