In Colossians 3:12 Paul writes, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
It is a theme that is repeated time and again in Scripture as a mark of Jesus followers.
Right from the start this was a mark of the church. The early church was marked by sacrificial acts of kindness. They loved their enemies and forgave their persecutors. They cared for the poor and fed the hungry. In the brutality of life under Roman rule, they were the most stunningly different people anyone had ever seen.
This was so surprising that in the fourth-century, Emperor Julian (AD 331-363) feared that they might take over the empire. Referring to Christians as “atheists” because they denied the existence of pagan gods, and believing their religion to be a sickness, he penned this directive to his officials:
“We must pay special attention to this point, and by this means affect a cure [for the “sickness” of Christianity]. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of the deeds through the credit they win for such practices. For just as those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them two or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves… by the same method, I say, the Galileans also begin with their so-called love-feast, or hospitality, or service of tables—for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names—and the result is that they have led very many into atheism [i.e. Christianity].”
Michael Frost in Surprise the World observes, “Julian was concerned that the Christians’ acts of hospitality and philanthropy were winning too many of his subjects. He decided to launch an offensive against them by mobilizing his officials and the pagan priesthood to out-love the Christians.”
Now, what is fascinating is that ultimately the plan of Julian failed. What he did not realise is that the church did what it did because they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they were compelled by the love of God, they were motivated by grace.
The early church fed the poor, they welcomed all people irrespective of their social standing. They lived so counter culturally that it aroused the curiosity of the Roman world. That is the power of compassion.