“Things are more like they are right now than they’ve ever been.” That’s one of those phrases that makes sense when you first hear it – then you think about it. While that quote’s been attributed to President Eisenhower, it’s been around since the 1940’s probably spoken by some now unknown humorist. That phrase came to mind about a month ago when I heard Dr. Tony Celelli of the South Texas School of Christian Studies make the comment that the 21st century is more like the Greek culture of the 1st century than any time in history other than the 1st century. As we deal with being the church in an era when the church is competing against so many different ideologies, isms, and philosophies, the actions of the early church are a great guide.
Please note that none of the following should be applied to Dr. Celelli. While he got me thinking, I take full responsibility for the following words. As the church began, it was a subset of Judaism. Everyone who followed Jesus had also followed Judaism, so their belief systems and moral values were similar. There were a few Gentiles, like Cornelius, that had come to Christ, but they already had an appreciation for Jewish values. Then came Antioch. Antioch led a full-fledged Gentile explosion in the church. Gentiles from different walks of life were coming to Christ and they brought with them many different backgrounds. This precipitated the Jerusalem Conference. They met to deal with the question of whether or not Gentiles could become Christians without becoming Jews first. The ultimate decision was “yes” and they came with some standards for Christian behavior as noted in this letter to the Christians at Antioch. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. FAREWELL.” (Acts 15:28-29)
1st Century Greece was rife with all forms of religious belief. Mystery religions sprang up almost daily. Idols dotted the streets. Lots of homes had their own shrines. Temples to various gods became gathering points and meat from the temple butcheries usually came cheap. Sexual morality wasn’t even an afterthought as just about anything went. Today, different religions compete with Christianity in the common arena. Even some of the old, polytheistic religions are now in vogue. (Look up Asatru for a case in fact.) Need I comment on the way sexual morality is defined by society today? (see Isaiah 5:20) Gone are the days when the church could “enforce” moral behavior through the law, we are living in 1st century Greece where our beliefs must be lived out as an example of how God changes lives.
Since we no longer have the force of law, perhaps it’s good to remind ourselves that the words from the Jerusalem Conference were written to individual Christians. They remind us to recognize the sensibilities of other Christians, since eating of blood, or animals that hadn’t been bled properly, was offensive to Jewish Christians. No law can make us do that: the grace of God compels us. They remind us to stay true to God and not get mixed up with religious or spiritual practices that are contrary to God’s plan. Again, not by law, but by letting the grace of God change us. They remind us that God’s plan of chastity until marriage, and fidelity in marriage still makes for the best life. Again, this comes as a gift of grace, not the outcome of a law. It’s time to fight 1st century Greece in the 21st century by staying focused on God.
Oh Lord, it’s easy to get distracted when we see the evil in this world. Remind me that my first job is to be true to You. Let me live in such a way that people looking at my life are attracted to the gospel.