We live in very dark times. This website provides hundreds of examples of the gathering gloom which is overtaking much of the Western world. As the West seeks to jettison all traces of its Christian heritage, it is heading down a path of collective suicide.
Times were pretty dark in the first century as well. Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between life back then and what we are experiencing today. Yet as difficult as those times were two millennia ago, we know that a small but dedicated band of counter-culturalists radically impacted their world.
Indeed, we are informed that the early church “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, KJV). The NIV, more closely reflecting the original Greek, says the early disciples “caused trouble all over the world”. Both renderings describe the powerful impact the followers of Jesus in the first century had on their surrounding culture.
But I like the way the KJV describes this. And it goes without saying that followers of Jesus today should be having exactly the same powerful influence on our world. We too should be turning our world upside down. We should be just as sold out to Jesus, and just as committed to being a genuine force of radical change.
Indeed, to understand why the early Christians were regarded as such counter-culture revolutionaries, it is worth looking at the whole context to this passage. Acts 17:1-9 reads as follows:
“When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.”
What was it about the early believers that caused them to be regarded as such social radicals? Verse 7 provides the answer: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus”. That was the real problem. The first century believers proclaimed only one Lord, and that Lord was not Caesar.
Thus the Imperial Cult was being directly challenged by the early believers. They would worship no one but Jesus. Only Jesus had the right to claim exclusive loyalty, obedience and devotion. All other claimants to the throne were impostors and pretenders. Caesar demanded exclusive loyalty and attention, but he could never receive that from true followers of Jesus.
Rome was not the true deity. Neither was Herod, the Jewish King. By stating that his kingdom was not of this world, Jesus challenged all worldly kings and kingdoms. By defying the religious and political establishment of the day, Jesus was deemed to be a rebel and a traitor.
Twenty-first century followers of Jesus are likewise viewed with suspicion, hatred and contempt. We too claim to serve another King, and we too will not bow down to false messiahs, sham kingdoms or counterfeit lords. We will always be on the outer. They hated Jesus and they will hate us.
Yet as we noted, the early believers radically overturned their world. They lived such lives of dedication, commitment and zeal, that wherever they went, that had an obvious and powerful impact on those they met, the institutions they encountered, and the societies they ministered in.
Nothing was left untouched when the early believers, filled with the power of the Spirit, proclaimed a new kingdom and a new king. We must do the same today. So let me present this article as a counterweight to my many other articles which highlight the decadence, the corruption and the death of modern culture.
In the face of all the bad news we must not forget the good news which is Christ in us, the hope of glory. By ourselves we are no match for the corruption, evil and unbelief of the modern world. But with our Lord by our side, we can and will do mighty exploits in his name.
Recall some stirring words of recent great saints. Consider the words of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army: “God loves with a great love the man whose heart is bursting with a passion for the impossible.” If there ever was a time when we need men and women who have a heart bursting with a passion for the impossible, it is now.
Or consider the words of Henry Varley, as spoken to D.L. Moody: “The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully and wholly consecrated to him.” That is the heart of the matter. That is the bottom line.
The truth is, the dark times we live in are really nothing to God. He is not impressed by them, nor should we be. What God is impressed with are those who are sold out for him 100 per cent. But that is the problem. There are very few followers of Jesus who are.
Most of us are far too concerned about our own interests, our own pleasures, our own trivial pursuits. Very few of us have taken the words of Christ seriously: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
All the great followers of Jesus have taken these words to heart. The young martyred missionary, Jim Elliot, certainly took this view. He was speared to death at the age of 29 in the jungles of Ecuador. Prior to his death he had penned these words in his diary: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Jim and the four other young men who also died in January of 1956 left a wonderful legacy. Jim’s wife Elizabeth Elliot stayed behind to minister to her husband’s killers. Eventually the villagers who were responsible for their deaths came to know Jesus Christ as saviour, and revival broke out in the area.
Those missionaries faced tremendous obstacles and exceedingly dark times. So did the early disciples. And so do we today. But what matters is whether we are fully committed to Christ and his work. There is no obstacle too great, and there is no culture too dark, that a band of dedicated and Spirit-filled believers cannot overcome.
As Jesus told his frightened and wavering disciples, just as he was about to leave them and go to his death, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus has overcome indeed. The kingdoms of the world conspired against him. But he defeated them all, even death itself.
We face similar opposition. But with our God we shall do valiantly. So please, let us all commit ourselves to renewing our allegiance to Christ and redoubling our efforts for his kingdom. The battles are too great, the casualties are too high, and the consequences of defeat are too important. We must be involved, and give our all to Christ and his kingdom.