Viewing The Past For Vision Today…
Reading Through “The Story Of Christianity” by Justo Gonzalez (1984).
I am mainly reading this book to look for connections between heresies (false beliefs that seem true) in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. and heresies in the 20th and 21st centuries. As we learn how the Holy Spirit guided the early Christians to respond to the subtleties of the devil, we will then learn how the Holy Spirit is helping us to respond to such destructive subtleties/half-truths today. There truly is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and the devil simply recycles his old tricks under different names and with different packaging.
As I read through this book, I am also learning that some of the challenges that the early Christian Church faced in the Roman culture are similar to what Christians have faced/are beginning to face today.
Pages 15—16: “Rome had a vested interest in having her subjects from different lands believe that, although their gods had different names, they were ultimately the same gods. To the Roman Pantheon (temple of ‘all gods’) were added numerous gods from different lands. The same roads and sea lanes that served Christian missionary expansion were traveled by people of all sorts of traditions and beliefs. These mingled in the plazas and markets of the cities, to the point that their original form was barely recognizable. Syncretism was the fashion of the time. In that atmosphere, Jews and Christians were seen as unbending fanatics who insisted on the sole worship of their One God—an alien cyst that must be removed for the good of society.”
This is wildly helpful for us today. It could easily be a description of the 21st century where so many people are saying that all religions are basically the same, with the same goals, with the same God but with different names and details. Similarly, those Christians who focus on Scripture more and more and seek to stand apart from the world culture, such Christians are also seen as fanatics, Pharisees, hypocrites, bigots, intolerant, etc.
Also, there are many within the Church who want us to syncretize with the culture in order to help more of them become Christians. Many encourage Christians to simply focus on the “big-picture” Truths of the Bible and not focus on the details of Scripture that offend people (Jesus is the only way to heaven, the existence of hell, homosexual behavior being sinful, etc.). They are seeking the same thing as the Romans—“peace” and goodwill through uniting with non-Christians over the things we can agree on—in the name of a king of love and tolerance. And yet the Bible repeatedly tells us not to change Scripture (Revelation 22:18-19), to know & submit to & be trained by all of it (not just parts of it–2 Timothy 3:16-17), the importance of obedience to Jesus (John 14:23-24), the importance of remaining in His Word & having His Word remain in us (John 15:1-8; Psalm 1), the importance of being set-apart (holiness) from the sinful man-made wisdom of the world (1 Thessalonians 4:7; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), etc.
Page 16: “But it was another element in Roman religion that eventually became the reason for persecution. This was the worship of the ruling emperor. Roman authorities saw this as a means of unity and a test of loyalty. To refuse to bur incense before the emperor’s image was a sign of treason or at least of disloyalty. When Christians refused to burn incense before the emperor’s image, they did so as a witness to their faith; but the authorities condemned them as disloyal and seditious people.”
Today, regarding the ways that the culture wants Christians to blend Bible beliefs with other beliefs, there is often a test: do “x” and then you can have the freedom (i.e. the culture’s approval) to have your other unique beliefs. Fail to do ”x” and the culture will treat you like an infection (intolerance!).
For example, “x” might be believing that Jesus is A way to heaven, but not THE way. For many Christians this seems like a pragmatic and simple concession to make in the name of “peace” and “love.” “Who am I to tell people their way is wrong, that they will go to hell for not believing what I believe?” (and yet we are not the ones deciding but God through the Bible is deciding) So we think it’s not that big of a deal to change our belief in this way. Since we have lost the Biblical emphasis on and importance of sticking to God’s Word—all of it—we think it’s not a big deal to cut a corner here or there.
But in the book of Daniel (chapters 1 and 3), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn’t think that way, they didn’t think, “Well, we can just bow down to the golden statue this one time and then we will have the freedom to worship God the rest of our lives! We’ll have freedom to tell others about the LORD! Why limit our ability to witness by “digging in” on this issue? Live and let live! God is merciful, He understands how difficult it is to be faithful to Him in this foreign culture; we’ll just ask His forgiveness after!”
No, they dug in and honored the LORD by refusing to cut any corners. They were willing to have their earthly lives ended in a painful way in order to honor the commands of God’s Word, to honor the character of the LORD Himself.
Thus, to continue to believe and live out the Truth that Jesus is the only way to heaven (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), this causes some or many in the culture to label us with a number of negative words. By believing this Truth of the Bible we are breaking one of the cardinal commandments of the culture: we are judging people and claiming their belief to be untrue.
Page 17: “Stoics were also critical of the religion of their time, which many saw [cultural religion] as a way to have the gods satisfy their desires rather than as a call to virtue.”
This sounds just like the way that many church-attenders use the Bible and Christianity primarily as a way for God to (financially) bless them, to give them the (earthly) desires of their hearts, to use the principles of Scripture as a way to make God into a cosmic-vending machine that exists solely to make us happy.
Rather, God calls us first to repent of our sins and receive His Son Jesus as our Savior for the forgiveness of our sins and for adoption into His family. Then God calls us to a life of holiness, self-sacrifice, and obedience not to earn God’s forgiveness but to thank Him for it, to glorify God first and then to transform us over time to look, think and act more and more like the Biblical Lord Jesus. This road of sanctification is difficult, painful, and involves much suffering—thus the Lord Jesus calls it “carrying a cross daily.” In the short run, in an earthly sense, this rarely has anything to do with our external happiness and earthly comfort.
Pages 34-35: The entire quote from Tacitus below gives us an important understanding of the ways that Roman society/culture viewed Christians in the 1st century (and a strikingly similar parallel to the ways that the 21st century modern culture is continuing to view Bible-believing Christians). The final line of his quote is particularly pertinent for us today:
“Stopped for a moment, this evil superstition [Christianity] reappeared, not only in Judea, where was the root of the evil, but also In Rome, where all things sordid and abominable from every corner of the world come together. Thus, first those who confessed [that they were Christians] were arrested, and on the basis of their testimony a great number were condemned, although not so much for the fire itself as for their hatred of humankind…[Gonzalez continues by writing that] Tacitus believes the rumors, and thinks that Christians hate humankind. This last charge makes sense if one remembers that with pagan worship that Christians often felt the need to abstain from them. Therefore, to the eyes of a Roman such as Tacitus, who loved his culture and society, Christians appeared as haters of humankind [by not doing what their non-Christian neighbors were doing].”
Just as Jesus said that He was hated because He testified that the people and their actions were sinful (John 7:7; John 15:18-25), just as Peter stated that the non-Christians think it strange that Christians won’t plunge into evil ways/practices with non-Christians (1 Peter 4:1-5), just as Hebrews says that by not living the way non-Christians live we are in fact condemning them and their behavior (as Noah did so many years before in his generation–Hebrews 11:7), for all these reasons and more the early Church was hated by Roman society. The same is continuing to be true today.
May the LORD help us to learn from the past as we live in the present, to have vision to look to the lessons taught yesterday by the Holy Spirit to our spiritual ancestors in the furnace of trials in a foreign culture. And may the LORD bless us to have spiritual sight today as we are salt and light in an equally foreign culture, as we turn the other cheek and forgive & bless but refuse to turn from the Truth of God’s Word, as we are in the world but not of the world, as we “fill this city with this teaching [the Gospel]” (Acts 5:28) and “keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).