I love history. To me, it is fascinating how things like technology, country borders, and fashion change, but the basics of who we are as people, and the questions we face about life have changed so little. I was just reminded of that fact as I finished throwing up another post on my other blog called BibleDig about how the Jews in the years leading up to the time of Christ struggled to understand how to respond to the world around them and still keep their faith in tact. One of group of Jews, called the Essenes, decided the best plan of action was to remove themselves from all things pagan and basically wait for God to wipe out all the unrighteous people around them in monastery-like communities. (It’s a little nerdy, but if you want to check out was I’m talking about so this post makes sense, here it is.)
Even though they lived over 2,000 years ago, there are a number of striking parallels in the challenges the Jews in the time before Christ faced as they grappled with how to live inside a culture generally opposed to their beliefs and our own challenges as Christians living inside an unfriendly culture. We can learn from how they responded.
Like these Jews, remaining distinctive inside a go-with-the-flow society is critical to our identity and our mission as believers. Like these Jews, we must respond to the pressures of our culture in a way that is informed by our faith and our understanding of the Scripture. And, like these Jews, we are presented with the option of withdrawing from the mix of ideas and beliefs and building our own sub-culture as a coping mechanism.
While our places of worship may stand in close proximity to the culture at-large, in practice we create communities of our own far from the evil influences of pagan life where we can read, interact, speak, dine, watch, listen, and attend events – yes, even wear clothing – that indicate our disinterest in mingling with the world. Like the prophet Jonah, we seek a high and mighty vantage point from which we wait for the fire of God to fall.
It’s true that we are not to be “of the world.” However, we are expected to be “in the world.” Jesus’ prayers for his disciples and for those who would follow after them (Jesus prayed for me!) specifically requested that we not resort to isolation as a method of responding to the challenges of our times:
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. (John 17:15-18)
How did God send his son into the world? As a person. A real, live, flesh and blood person with emotions and with a body that was not immune to fatigue. Jesus “humbled himself” and “made himself low” without thought for himself. And he hung out with a rough crowd in a backwater, far-flung speck on the Roman map. And he stuck it out until the time came to lay his life down. And he laid it down. He “emptied himself.” That is how God sent Jesus. That is how Jesus sends us.
Jesus does not pray that we will construct elaborate alternatives to the evils of culture so that we can prevent all contact with the unwashed masses. Jesus does not pray for us to be safe from the world, but that we’ll be safe in it. Jesus does not pray that we will be isolated from the world, but that we will be insulated from the eroding influence of sin by the truth. The truth from God about our purpose for being alive and about the unhappy ruin caused by living our lives for the passing pleasures of sin with no thought of the eternity that awaits us just beyond our final breath.
On one hand, it would have been nice if Jesus would have prayed that God would do a little, “Beam me up, Scotty,” the moment I trusted Christ so I wouldn’t have to go through all the trouble of living in this body in this world. On the other hand, that kind of living — living with something more than satisfying our own thirst for entertainment, ease, and recognition in view — will, as Jesus prayed, “set us apart.” That’s so different, it’s other worldly.
How many people do you know that really live that kind of life, yet still manage to be friendly, interesting, compassionate, and engaged in the real world around them? Now that’s different! So different, dare I say, it might even be something like a city on a hill? That sounds a lot like Jesus.