Living in the First Century World #11
With some understanding now of the cultural context in which the first Christians lived, perhaps we can appreciate more the challenges they navigated as they followed Jesus in a world that truly viewed them as “aliens and strangers”. Think about what living life in the first century meant for them:
- They faced an immoral culture that mostly misunderstood who they were and what their message meant; a culture based upon principles that usually clashed with the message of Christ, which frequently pushed back against them even to the point of harsh and deadly persecution.
- For the most part they possessed very little cultural influence; political might; social standing; or pocketbook power. They were the definition of the fringe.
- Yet they succeeded in demonstrating a new way—a new way to order life and value one another; a new identity totally outside of cultural constructs; forming a new community in which all were welcome; and establishing a new purpose around which to live life.
As we have noted—none of this was easy, convenient, or even natural, but they prevailed, walking by faith. Consider now some of these New Testament texts against the harsh realities of the Roman world:
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life. –Philippians 2:14-16
But do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy life.
–I Timothy 1:8-9
For you once were in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. –Galatians 6:9-10
I urge, then, first of all that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved.
–1 Timothy 2:1-4
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. –1 Peter 2:11-12.
Certainly, these texts reach beyond their immediate situation to speak to Christians across generations, but for those first century Christians, the call to live in such a manner was unprecedented in their world. The resulting impact turned out to be unstoppable and undeniable.
It Was All About Jesus
Gerald L. Sittser in Resilient Faith; How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World writes:
Jesus Christ reshaped identity. He promised to make people new creatures; he broke down dividing walls of hostility; he transformed how his followers saw themselves and treated “the other.” Primary identity in Christ changed all earthly—and secondary—identities. There was still marriage, to be sure, but it would be a different kind of marriage. There were still Jew and gentile, but the gospel made them one. Christians became a nation within a nation…that spanned the known world, crossing traditional cultural barriers. Their primary loyalty was to fellow believers, not to nation or race or tribe or party or class. Christians met mostly in house churches, too, which created a new kind of family. God was the true Father; they were all brothers and sisters. The Christian movement was therefore both radically global and local at the same time. Rome pitted rich against poor, citizen against barbarian, male against female, master against slave. Not so in the Christian movement. It had the effect of undermining and transforming the traditional social order. They lived differently in the world, too. Christians were known as the people who cared for the “least of these,” challenging Rome’s patronage system and culture of honor and shame. Jesus, the one who was rich became poor to make the poor rich. How could his followers do otherwise, considering what their master has done for them? They organized for action to meet practical need; they served the most vulnerable and despised in society.
First century Christians were not perfect—just reading the apostle’s letters to them reveals their struggles to mature in Christ; to understand what new creation meant and to live that out in the new community as one body; and to then shine the light of Jesus into the darkness that was the Roman Empire. But in spite of all the struggles and against all odds, they prevailed and changed that empire. They prevailed because of the power of Christ and faith that would not buckle under pressure. They prevailed because they loved their neighbor as themselves; The prevailed because all of the Roman might combined could not eradicate the hope they had in Jesus.
What might be our takeaways as we live in the 21st century? We live in a world that those in the first century probably could not even imagine—a world of freedom; personal rights; greater equality and prosperity; a world in which we can assemble in the name of Jesus with few repercussions. Yet, how do we compare to our first-century spiritual ancestors? Is Jesus primary as we self-identify? Do we prioritize his community? Are we unashamed to testify about him to our neighbors? Do we truly live as aliens and strangers? Are we shinning like stars?
It is my prayer that our brief journey into the first century Roman world has not only caused us to have a greater appreciation of the challenges Christians faced then, but also serve as an encouragement to us to not grow weary in well doing in our own time. It really is all about Jesus. He is the game-changer and difference-maker in any century, culture and heart.