I first had the delight of meeting the Cocione family in the winter of 2014, when I’d been invited to escape my frozen solid homeland in Oregon to crash the Palm Springs vacation of my friends Frank and Sherri Martin. Frank had contacted Iota (pronounced “Yoda”/aka Nicu”) to inquire about where the Christians were meeting, and we joined them for worship in the great room of their home. I’m not sure the count of pets this happy family was housing at the time, I only remember holding rabbits and taking closeup videos of their box turtle devouring some lettuce for lunch.
On my 57-day road trip in 2017, Stephanie Merrill and I popped in again while Iota was out of town, to enjoy some doubled-over, tear-producing laughter with Lisa and the kids over posing some of the Cocione Zoo critters (mice, large lizards, and such) among the Barbie accessories. Then, the next morning, as we were preparing to leave, we picked an entire cooler full of juicy, delicious oranges that I somehow, sadly, managed to leave behind.
When we popped in to worship with their congregation during our Nomad Quest, the congregation had grown enough that they were now meeting at a nice business park. When we walked in, we were surprised to see a family we had met at a Thanksgiving gathering a few years back in the home of our mutual friends, and a sister who had hosted the baby shower of my daughter some forty years ago. It was beautiful to see the warm attachments among this church family, and hear from Lisa the latest “Cocione Zoo News” that involved a story of a local feral cat they bent over backward financially and otherwise to help — a story that had me thinking to myself “I thought I loved cats, but compared to these big-hearted people, I guess I don’t really love cats that much after all.” I share this bit of detail because I want you to know this: These people do what they do and say what they say because they love big, be it the people or the animals they serve and save.
We were blessed at lunch to hear the inspiring story of Iota’s conversion in more detail, a story I believe will be an encouragement to those who can in some ways relate. You see, my brother Iota, who preaches for the Monterey Shore church of Christ would not be the spiritual warrior he is today in the Kingdom of God, if he had not, during the early years of his Christianity, put up the fight of his life.
He grew up in Romania during the Communist Regime, and not long after its collapse, Iota began to pursue a degree in medicine. Around this time, his mother was handed a tract by a Christian missionary there. As a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, her curiosity was so sparked that when she got home, she handed the tract to her son, Iota, to see what he could make of it. Since Iota was learning English, the tract also caught his attention. He thought that studying the Bible with an American would, at the very least, sharpen his English speaking skills, so he called the phone number on the tract to get some answers about the things contained within it. During the course of the Bible study that would follow, he was surprised at the clarity of what he was reading in the scriptures and was asked by the missionary what he believed and why he believed it. He wasn’t quite sure, so he took some of those same Bible questions he had been asked to his priest, but instead of answering his questions from the Scriptures, the priest simply advised Iota to no longer converse with the missionary.
At that moment, Iota realized the Orthodox Church had become much like the Communists who had ruled his country into the ground for so many years with their “Trust us”, “Don’t ask questions”, “Don’t think for yourself” mentality that is so very different from God’s promise that when we read what He has written for us, we most certainly can understand and have insight into the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3:4), including the structure, organization, worship, and teachings of His church so that we can compare the teachings and practices of various religious organizations with what is actually found in the New Testament.
Much to the grief of his Greek Orthodox mother, Iota continued to compare his belief system with the scriptures. He was so moved by the simplicity of the word of God with regard to what is expected by the Heavenly Father to enter into a relationship with Him. Despite knowing how upset his mother would be, he could no longer delay, and thus obeyed the command to “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
Both before his baptism into Christ and the seven years that followed Iota’s sins being washed away at his baptism (Acts 22:16), virtually every day he was pressured to deny what he was reading and to instead return to the Greek Orthodox church. Day in and day out he was told how foolish he was, and how duped he had been by walking away from the man-made religion of his childhood, until finally he was forced by his mother to choose between Jesus and her, Jesus and his family, and Jesus and his childhood home. The strain of this fiery persecution in the form of daily ridicule from one of the people he loves most never wore him down, but like a soldier, it instead knitted his loyalty tenaciously to Christ unto death. His confidence, rooted in the word of God, could not be shaken.
Jesus has pronounced a blessing upon such individuals when He said in Matthew 5:10-12 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It has been years since all that painful history, and the ordeal was certainly not the last time Iota would experience opposition for doing what he knew to be right. As he shared his story with us, he described the blessings in his life that have come from enduring this fiery trial and pointed out that if Christianity had come more easily, it would have also been easy for him to get too comfortable and to have settled for a more lukewarm spiritual life.
I appreciate very much Iota’s bold proclamation of the gospel in its entirety in a city not unlike Sodom, full of “arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease”… and known for committing abominations before the Lord (Ezekiel 16:49). With a warm, smiling face and that heart full of love, Iota unapologetically preaches the whole counsel of God, including the controversial topic we heard from him in Bible class the Sunday we visited entitled “The Certainty of the Day of the Lord.” In the sermon that followed Iota made the point that if God kept His promises in the past during the judgments on the angels who sinned (2 Peter 2:4), the Flood (2 Peter 2:5), Sodom & Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:6-8), Egypt (Ezekiel 32:7-8), Assyria (Nahum 1:1-5), Israel (Amos 8:1-2, 9), Jerusalem (Jeremiah 4:1-6), Babylon (Isaiah 13:10, 13), and Edom (Isaiah 34:4-6), then He will most certainly keep His promise to come when “... at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50). God says He will come…
Personally — Acts 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:16
Visibly — Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7
Audibly — 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52
With angels — 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9
With power & glory — 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10
To judge the world — Acts 17:30-33
To destroy the present world and establish a new heaven and new earth -
2 Peter 3:10-13
To glorify the saints — Colossians 3:4; Philippians 3:20-21
Many like to think that hell is merely symbolic, and yet reality has never existed according to our preferences. And Jesus (who ought to know) spoke of both heaven and hell as very real places for our eternal souls, and thus has earnestly encouraged us to "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
Why would anyone choose such a fate? God answers that very question when He says “Because they did not receive the love of the truth that they might be saved for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
Iota reminded us that Jesus Himself described hell as a furnace of fire (Matthew 13:41-42), a place of torment (Luke 16:23), an everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), a place of weeping (Matthew 8:12) and wailing (Matthew 13:42), and cries for mercy (Luke 16:24), and in Revelation 21:8, God warns that “The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars -they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Who else does God say is hellbound? Those who do not know God (2 Thessalonians 1:8; Romans 1:20), those who do not obey God (Matthew 7:21), and those who once obeyed, but then have fallen away (2 Peter 2:20-22; Matthew 13:49-50).
Most of all, know this: Hell is a completely avoidable place... absolutely no one has to go there, and it is because of God’s grace and the sacrifice of His only begotten Son that we get to decide if we will spend eternity in heaven or hell.
Here’s the main question for every soul who has ever lived: “...since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, in which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? (2 Peter 3:11-12)
The answer to that ultimate question is simple: The manner of persons we ought to be are persons who avoid hell by the very way the Lord says any soul can avoid hell:
Hearing the Gospel - Matthew 7:24-26
Obeying the Gospel - Hebrews 5:9
Repenting of Our Sins - Luke 13:3
Confessing Christ as the Son of God - Matthew 10:32-33
Being Baptized For The Remission of Sins - Mark 16:16
Resolving to daily walk with Him in faithfulness - Revelation 2:10
Our natural aversion to avoiding suffering or struggling coexists with the better part of us that deep down realizes the beautiful bonding agent in our hearts for what we’ve bartered our blood, sweat, and tears to acquire. We often value, above everything else, whatever we’ve struggled the most to attain. Iota struggled much to attain his salvation, as will all of us in one way or another. Everyone struggles, but for the believer, our struggle is the most worthwhile of all, for “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). May everyone reading this die one day in the state of valiantly facing the enemy, for through Christ we are, after all, more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).
Monterey Shore Church of Christ
73850 Dinah Shore Dr, Unit 108
Palm Desert, CA 92211
Phone: (760) 328-1759