In The Shadow Of The Empire
(Not a reader? Take a listen instead ⇓)
Christianity in the first century was a spiritual explosion, fueled by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Jewish community, who lived and worshipped largely by themselves, Christians were active evangelists, eager to share the good news about Jesus with all who would listen. They preached Jesus everywhere, not just as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but as Lord, Saviour, and King; over and above Caesar.
Initially planted in the soil of Jerusalem, the gospel message soon spread rapidly beyond Israel; throughout Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the Mediterranean world. In as little as just over 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity had already reached as far as Rome itself. As Jesus had promised, his disciples were to be his witnesses, even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8, Acts 2:41-47).
The area of Asia Minor was a huge melting pot of ethnicities and also one of the first areas to flourish with converts to the new religion of Christianity. It was also part of the expansive Roman Empire, at the height of its glory, and was therefore subject to Roman law and Roman customs.
Living in the shadow of the Empire would prove a difficult tension for Christians to navigate. No longer giving allegiance to Caesar as ‘Lord of the earth’ but instead confessing that this title belonged to Jesus Christ, how were they to behave as people in the world but not of it?
As citizens of heaven, did the laws of Rome no longer apply to them?
And, as people of the kingdom, how were they to live out the values of the kingdom in the society around them? Were they justified in using force to make the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of the Lord and Christ?
These are all important questions, not just for those in the first-century church but for every generation of Christians who have come after them.
How should Christians conduct themselves, living in the shadow of the Empire?
A Letter From Peter, An Apostle Of Jesus Christ
The importance of the way a Christian behaves so as to be a credible witness for the gospel is a significant principle emphasised throughout the New Testament. It’s a theme picked up by Peter the Apostle in his first letter to the early churches (1 Peter 1-5).
Discouraged by the persecution they were suffering because of their faith, Peter writes to the early churches throughout Asia Minor to encourage them and to provide wisdom and counsel in their response to the pressures around them and in their life of Christian witness.
Keep Your Conduct Honourable
Firstly, Peter urges them, keep your conduct honourable. They are holy people, called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light. Walking in the light means walking humbly alongside God, doing justly and loving kindness. Deceit, malice, hypocrisy, slander, drunkenness, sensual living; these are all fruitless deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5:11) and Peter encourages the church to choose differently, to live exemplary lives in their neighborhoods so that their actions will refute pagan prejudices (1 Peter 2:11-12).
They had been born again, by the living and imperishable Word of God, new creations guarded through faith for a salvation that would one day be revealed to all. Demonstrating lives that paralleled what they preached would witness to the truly supernatural power of the gospel and its ability to effect transformation.
Respect And Submit To Authority
For the Lord’s sake, Christians were to show respect to all people and, particularly, to those in authority. They were to be model citizens, subject to every human institution (1 Peter 2:13). As Jesus the master had made clear during his earthly ministry, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.
Their allegiance to Jesus wasn’t an excuse to engage in illegal behaviours, disrespect of their masters, or dishonour of the Emperor or his delegates. Pay your taxes, submit to the laws of the land, pray for those who have the rule over you.
They were to treat their service to the Emperor, their master (if they were a slave), and indeed each other as service rendered to the King himself.
The Christian life wouldn’t always bring blessing, and the persecution and suffering they were currently experiencing were proof of this reality. Yet Peter encourages them to look to the example of Jesus himself, who demonstrated that the kingdom of heaven advances not through power and might, but through missions of mercy, kindness, and humility and, ultimately, through suffering.
The greatest suffering of all brought about the greatest victory for all (1 Peter 4:13-14).
Love Earnestly And Do Good
They were to love each other earnestly. This was the defining mark of those who belonged to the King and it was how the world was to know they were his disciples.
Given to hospitality, they were to love with open hearts and generous lives. They were to live bright and unafraid: remembering that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. They were to entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while continuing to doing good to all and especially to those of the household of faith (1 Peter 1:22, Galatians 6:10). Love and do good to others just as Jesus has loved you. By this, all people will know you are his disciples.
Early Christianity found particular expression through philanthropy; care for the poor, widows, and orphans, for those brethren who had been imprisoned or condemned, and particularly for brethren, who due to poverty, could not afford an honourable burial. The early church would often provide services for such persons, believing care in death as well as life was an active expression of love. The early Christian insistence on caring for those made in the image of God transformed the ancient world.
In The World But Not Of It
“The Christian ideal is not freedom from work, but strength to do it; not freedom from temptation, but power to overcome it; not freedom from suffering, but joy in an abiding sense of the Father’s love; not absence from the world, but grace to make the world better for our presence; not holy lives driven from the world, and living apart from it, but holy lives spent in the world and leavening it.” – Ellicott’s Commentary For English Readers.
Like our early Christian brethren, we too continue to live in the shadow of the Empire. We too must wrestle with issues of allegiance, to show submission to those institutions and ordinances which have authority over us, yet not be conformed to this world in the process.
We may think this requires us to limit our interaction with the people around us or remove ourselves ‘from the world’, but this isn’t what scripture is concerned with. It’s the ruler of this world who is our enemy, not those who are enslaved to him; those who, like us, have also been made in the image of God. They, too, desperately need the presence of Jesus in their lives, whether they know it or not and our Christian witness in this current world is vitally important.
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was not that God would take them out of the world but that He would protect them from the evil one. We must not be conformed to the image of the ruler of this world, nor choose his way, a path that only leads back to darkness (John 12:31, 1 John 1:5-7). Jesus prayed for the protection of his followers, knowing we are left in this world for a specific purpose; to witness to the power of his saving name. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said, “you are the light of the world“.
Our commission is to live and work, to love and forgive, to mourn, trust, despair and hope alongside and together with our unbelieving neighbours and friends, all the while telling of the faithfulness of a good God and the hope found in the gospel message.
Our lives – our everyday, mundane, messy, uncomfortable, terrifying, joyful, and thoroughly human lives will be the greatest witness of all to the hope that lies within us.
How we conduct ourselves, as we live in the shadow of the Empire, is still just as relevant and important today as it was for our first-century brethren.
As Christians, we’re now citizens of a spiritual city whose builder and maker is God, people of a heavenly kingdom, living out the values and ideals of that kingdom in this earthly life.
Yet we’re also still literal citizens of the countries we live in. We still retain all the privileges that citizenship affords, together with the responsibilities it holds. Because we have given our primary allegiance to Jesus and, for the Lord’s sake, we’re to continue to submit to the laws and ordinances of the countries in which we live.
Christians have a greater not lesser responsibility to do good and model appropriate citizenship. We don’t get a leave pass to flout the regulations and laws passed by those in authority, just because we’re ‘not of this world.’ “It is God’s will that by doing good, you might cure the ignorance of the fools who think you’re a danger to society. Exercise your freedom by serving God, not by breaking the rules.” (1 Peter 2:13-17)
Yet, there must be a disclaimer at this point. We also have a responsibility – a greater responsibility, it can be argued – to model the values of the kingdom of heaven. This responsibility often highlights issues of injustice, prejudice or inequality which may exist both within the church and without, issues to which God is adamantly opposed and therefore we also should be opposed.
The Atlantic slave trade, which operated between the 15th and 19th centuries, might never have been abolished, had it not been for the public agitation of those who spoke vocally against a legally sanctioned practice and campaigned tirelessly for its elimination.
Two distinct laws passed in Nazi Germany provided the legal framework for the systematic persecution and resulting genocide of millions of Jews, demonstrating that sometimes doing what is lawful isn’t the same as doing what is right.
And in our own country of Australia between 1910 and 1970, at least 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed – stolen – from their parents and families as a result of various government policies, leaving a legacy of loss and trauma that persists today. The pain inflicted on an entire people through separation and forced assimilation was enabled by governmental law, regardless of the reality that it was morally repugnant to do so.
As Christians, the law cannot be our ultimate moral guide. Slavery was lawful. The holocaust was legal. Segregation and apartheid were legally sanctioned. Many of today’s laws are created to protect corporations rather than people. Simply put, the law does not dictate our ethics. God does. | Craig Greenfield
God’s values have the final word in our actions and this may mean, at some point, our choices or actions put us in conflict with the culture around us or the laws of the country in which we live. We submit, until, for conscience sake, we can no longer submit (Acts 5:29, Exodus 1:7).
The Covid-19 Pandemic
For Christians, times of trouble are opportunities to test and prove our own conviction; that there is One God who rules over all things and that we remain confident that He continues to do so, even through trouble and difficulty (Psalm 103:19, Daniel 2:21, Ephesians 4:6).
While the early Christians faced very different times of trouble than we do today, comparable only perhaps by how we choose to respond, our faithful response is no less necessary than theirs.
The ongoing crisis of Covid-19 is a troubling and anxious time. The most recent reports regarding the virus are particularly concerning, causing fear for many people, especially the elderly and vulnerable in our communities. Whilst we shouldn’t be ambivalent about what’s going on around the globe, we also need to be measured in our response and very careful not to be contributing to or escalating the level of panic that people may be experiencing.
It’s extremely disturbing that Christians would contribute to misinformation regarding both the virus and associated treatment options, particularly in the social domain. Many, in reality, are unlikely to be qualified to actually comment from a medical perspective, yet this doesn’t seem to prevent them from offering advice, suggestions, criticisms, or conjecture on the subject.
Verified medical information shared in responsible ways is helpful; unfactual, fear-inducing conspiracy theories are not. By all means, discuss the situation with those around you but choose to do so in responsible ways, with a view to banishing exaggerated fear.
Neither is it appropriate for Christians to participate in acts of disrespect or civil disobedience of those in authority, whilst current regulations don’t directly contradict God’s directives. We ought to instead continue to pray for wisdom and guidance in our own personal choices as well as for those in the difficult situation of accessing risks and making decisions on behalf of our nation.
Christians also have both a responsibility and a privilege to point the world’s attention to the One who is still in control of all. We can choose to positively redirect the conversation, to comfort people’s hearts and try to settle their fears, whilst still acknowledging the gravity of the current pandemic and assist in supporting practical measures to combat it.
There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Romans 13:1). We are to seek their welfare, to speak evil of no one, to respect the government and be law-abiding. If it is possible, as far as it depends on us, we’re to live at peace with everyone. (Titus 3:1-2, Jeremiah 29:7, Romans 12:18).
We need to continue to pray, worship and connect in all the ways that are possible to us right now. Most of all, we need to continue to point the people of the world to Jesus, who told his much-loved followers: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. Trust in God and trust in me also” (John 14:1).
Convictions + Conduct
Our convictions and conduct go hand in hand. What we say and what we do must show itself to be in agreement.
“We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.” | Dallas Willard
If we believe that God is King of all the earth and remains sovereign still, then we must act in such a way that confirms this truth to the watching world.
We are to be thankful for those in authority and especially at a time like this, those in healthcare, who risk their own lives to treat and save others (1 Timothy 2:2). We need to remember to pray for them and assist where we can.
We ought to show responsibility in following the direction of the government and officials, acknowledging measured concern for the situation we all find ourselves in and abiding by recommendations for the good of everyone (1 Peter 2:13). Now, more than ever, is the time to show consideration and restraint and to lead the world by example. It is not the time (or ever!) for Christians to display greed or selfishness but to consider those who are our neighbour and to love them, as ourselves (Romans 13:8-10).
We have opportunity right now, to remind the world of a good, good God, who is actively seeking to overthrow the effects of sin in the world and restore humanity to full relationship with Himself.
Even here, in times that seem very dark, God is still busy making all things new.