Do you ever have weeks when you wonder what God is attempting to communicate to you through your exceedingly thick skull? I’m in the midst of one of those weeks. The message is confronting me on multiple levels.
It started with our church’s focus on Easter. As we progressed through Passion Week, and as I meditated on the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross of calvary, the weightiness of my own sinfullness was heavy upon me.
Next, I listened to part two of a series of messages Brannon Howse (of WorldviewWeekend.com fame) is teaching on the topic of Shepherds vs. Hirelings. The context of this series is based in John 10:11ff in which Jesus compares Himself as the Good Shepherd vs. the hired hand who cares for the sheep only as long as it serves himself. Brannon used many video clips of celebrity pastors preaching to their congregation, rapping, ridiculing their congregations and more to draw a picture of what is being modeled as success within the American church today. In each case, these pastors lead churches of several thousand and are popular on the conference circuit, yet model a style of leadership that is the complete opposite of the shepherd-servant-leader extolled in the New Testament. Watching these videos left me sickened and fearful for the American Church.
At the same time, I have been reading and thinking on the topic of this week’s text–authenticity. Specifically, the kind of authenticity displayed by the Antioch Christians. As we will observe in this week’s Study Notes and Group Handout, Antioch was in many ways the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire. Like many significant cities in the Empire, it’s cultural center was a temple to a goddess, in this case Daphne. It was an important trading center and even one of the cities in which Olympic games were held every four years. Antioch was a place of prostitution, tourism, gambling, and paganism. Yet, in the midst of this, the Antioch Church exploded.
In thinking about the Antioch Christians and authenticity, I’ve mulled over in my head this simple question–what makes a Christian distinctive? There was a time in America when Christians were set apart. They didn’t do the things non-Christians did, like go to movies, play cards, listen to secular music, consume alcohol, smoke, or dress in sexually suggestive clothing. Yes, these Christians were sometimes viewed as a little weird, but there was no doubt that they were different from the culture around them.
In the last 30 years, the church has run as far as it can, as fast as it can from legalism and any appearance of legalism. To which I say good. The pharisees of the gospels are clear examples of legalism gone amok, and Jesus compared them to white washed tombs. I wonder, however, if this isn’t a case where in an effort to avoid the obvious hypocrisy of legalism we lost the very distinctiveness that is so critical to the true body of Christ in the world today. After all, doesn’t the word Church come from the Greek word Ecclesia, which means “called out ones?” How can a so-called “church” of called out ones, separated unto God model and mirror the culture around it?
It is impossible to read the Bible and not come away with the significance the Lord places on holiness and separation. One of the common themes throughout the Old Testament is the Lord’s admonishment to Israel to be a holy people and to separate themselves from the nations around them.
Again, as if the Lord was hammering a theme for me this week, I read through the book of Ezra. In an amazing scene towards the end of the book when Ezra compels the men of Israel to separate from their foreign wives. The Bible makes it clear that these men even had children with these foreign wives! Ezra 10 describes the scene as these men repent of their sin and separate from their foreign wives and the children born to them.
Well, you say, that’s Old Testament, it doesn’t apply to us. We are in the age of grace, this side of Calvary. Jesus put an end to the Old Testament law.
Yes and no. I believe you are being intellectually dishonest if you try to ascribe God’s desire for holiness to the Old Testament law. You see, we read a passage from Ezra in which the men are compelled to separate and leave their foreign wives and children, and we attribute that event to their adherence to the Old Testament law. What we miss is the eternal quality of God’s character, which is holiness.
For reasons that are above my pay grade, the Lord chose to reveal His holiness on earth through mankind. God has always desired for Himself a people separated from the world and separated to God. In the Old Testament, this was Israel, and today, this responsibility falls on the Church. When the ungodly, unrepentant world looks at a Christian, they should see Christ, not a mirror reflection of their own fallen, sinful existence.
It is often said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. What are we saying, then, when the Church is nothing more than reflection of the ungodly world and culture around it?
What is a Christian? At the root, a Christian is one who has been reborn by the Spirit of God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
How do we distinguish an authentic Christian from a non-Christian? The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:1-2–“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The Apostle Peter commands us, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”– 1 Peter 1:14–16.
What about you, Christian? Does holiness describe you? Are you separate and distinct from the world around you, or are you an imitator of the world around you? I know I have struggled with these questions this week. My prayer is that you, too, will struggle with them.