Last week, we started our new sermon series in 1 Peter, Exiles. And what the title of the sermon series is pointing to is Peter’s emphasis throughout the book on the idea that Christians are not at home in the world, but distinct from it. In Paul’s language, we are citizens of Heaven who reside, for a while, on earth.
Living as exiles of course means living a life rooted in the Bible, but being that general doesn’t always help. It can be daunting to think about making a practical list of all the things to practice in order to live exilic lives. So, perhaps looking at how the early church was known in their ancient Roman culture as being distinct could be a good way of thinking through how we can witness to the culture around us about the character of the God we serve.
Pastor Timothy Keller (using the research of historian Larry Hurtado) defines five areas in which the early Christians were distinct from their culture, and widely known for it. The relevance of these distinctives to our own culture is fascinating:
- They forgave the people that were killing them.
The Roman world of the early Christians was fraught with violence. There were many coups against the government and personal vendettas that ended in cold-blooded murder. Pile on top of this the Christian persecution. But Christians, looking to the example of Jesus Christ, practiced non-retaliation against their enemies and offered forgiveness to them. This was unthinkable to the society around them.
- They held to no sex outside of marriage.
The culture of the ancients held loose sexual mores. Married men were expected to sleep around on their wives (with women, men, boys) and people had no problem with sex before marriage. This was normal conduct. The only taboo was sleeping with someone within your own social class. The Christians came along and spread a message that said heterosexual, monogamous marriages were the only boundaries in which sex was allowed. This vastly cut against the culture and made the early Christians look strange.
- They were extravagantly generous with their money.
This extravagance was directed towards the poor; not just the Christian poor, but everyone’s poor. This came to be noticed by even the Roman Emperor. Emperor Julian said (in a letter telling those in his pagan religion to step up their moral game) “For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own.”
- They were completely against abortion and infant exposure.
In those days, it was extremely dangerous to have an abortion (but it still happened). Usually, women would carry their children to term and then leave them out in the trash heap. They would either die there or someone would come along and sell them into slavery. The Christians adopted the forsaken children they found and became a loud voice witnessing against both the practices of abortion and exposure.
- They suffered well.
Stoicism had penetrated Roman culture and it carried with it the belief that suffering should be handled by simply just putting it away and moving on. No lament or grieving. But Christians lamented and grieved suffering, yet persevered through it. In fact, many praised God for being able to suffer for the Name of Christ. There are many testimonials in this time of people that respected the way Christians were brave in the midst of suffering and facing their deaths.
We in America certainly live under a different context, yet, I think we can all easily see the similarities. What if we were to follow the early Christians’ example as they followed the example of Christ? What if we were non-retaliatory and forgiving toward those hostile to Christianity? What if we once again began to value heterosexual, lifelong, monogamous marriage and truly lived by this value? What if we began to be not only generous towards the poor passively, but actively sought to know the poor and help them regain their footing? What if we begged pregnant women who were contemplating abortion to allow us to adopt their children, and were united against the practice in general? What if we stood before suffering boldly and were willing to gladly risk our lives for the sake of Jesus?
Yes, we’d be considered weird and old-fashioned. But the world would be hard pressed to speak against the God that we serve and profess to know. They may even grow curious about the hope that we have that would cause us to live that way. But this living witness is only effective if this is actually the way we live.
Are you living an exilic life that is culturally subversive? Does the conduct of your life witness truly to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:27)?
Does your life, although it is offensively different from the culture, manifest the peculiar glory of the God that lives inside of you?
Carry these questions with you as we continue along in our Exiles sermon series.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)