It seems like all the talk these days is about how the church is in decline and some say, dying, and if that is an overstatement then at the very least the church seems to be quickly losing its influence in our culture. Things are certainly changing at an alarming rate and though I won’t take the time and space required to flesh out this opinion, I want to say that I believe neither of these things are true. May I remind you that the church is the very body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) and by virtue of who he is, the resurrected, reigning King of Glory who has defeated death, his body can neither decline nor weaken. If this is true, and of course, I believe it is, then it begs the question, “Why does there seem to be such a vast gulf between the impact of the early church on its culture and the impact of the 21st century church on our post-Christian culture?” I will offer two possibilities but will develop and support only one of these suggestions.
The church seems to be on the receiving end of the world’s influence rather than being “salt and light” in our culture, and one of the reasons is because many churc
h members have no apparent relationship with Jesus Christ. Don’t get excited. I’m moving on from this one soon. Remember the “wheat and the tares” thing in Matthew 13:24-30. There you go. This may be one of the few examples in which the “walk like a duck, quack like a duck” principle doesn’t apply. Daily I encounter church members who cannot articulate the gospel even in the most basic form and who have no evidence of a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. On the authority of the Word of God, this person is not a follower of Christ, no matter how many gallons of water have been used to baptize him and no righteous fruit will ever hang from the limbs of this tree until it is engrafted into Christ, the true vine. Our society has been deceived into believing that gathering goats and making disciples are the same thing, but of course that’s not the case. The church has opted for worldly success rather than gospel advancement, and we employ whatever method that enables the church to effectively compete with other markets. What we end up with is a religious entertainment product that we disguise as church. Much more needs to be said about this but this is not the focus of this post..
The masquerading of unbelievers as children of God is nothing new, but there is a more significant reason why there is such a divergent quality between the contemporary church and its pioneer counterpart. We suffer from spiritual near-sightedness. The future is a blur to those who are truly born again, and because our vision of our glorious future is dim, it neither drives us nor shapes our present perspectives.
If you knew that by simply associating with a particular group of people you would risk the certain plunder and seizure of your homes and property, what would you do? What if that group of people were in prison and they depended on you for food and care, would you risk your livelihood and ability to care for your children to serve them? What if this group of people happened to be brothers and sisters in Christ who were imprisoned merely because of their faith in Jesus Christ? Would you go to them to care for them if you knew that to do so would mean deep loss and possibly greater suffering for you? The first recipients of this Hebrew sermon which is The Book of Hebrews faced such a quandary and they did not hesitate. The Bible says they “endured great conflict of sufferings” and “became sharers with those who were prisoners…” and “joyfully accepted the seizure of their property” because of their care for the imprisoned believers. Can you imagine having everything you’ve worked so hard for seized by the government just because you lived out your Christian faith in a radically public manner? What would cause a person to hold so loosely to the material possessions of this world and place such little value on the very things so many people treasure. The answer is very simple. Those who live this way possess something which they value more than the tangible things they hold in their hands. Listen closely to this. “You accepted joyfully the seizure of your property KNOWING that you have a BETTER POSSESSION and a LASTING one” (Heb.10:34). It appears that many people who fill our church buildings week after week are not convinced that there is a better possession and a greater reward than the one they seek to create on their own. And for those who claim to possess the same “better possession” as the Hebrew believers, I would challenge them to describe that possession and hope. How can my love, joy and passion be shaped by something that I know so little about?
The Bible explicitly shows us that the early followers of Christ and even the Old Testament patriarchs were driven by a reality that is foreign in our advanced society. Abraham was willing to live “as a alien in the land of promise dwelling in tents…for he was looking for a city (see Rev. 21:2) which has foundations (physical, not mythical city) whose architect and builder is God” (11:10). Also, Moses is said to have “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ GREATER RICHES than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward” (11:25-26). Hebrews 11 concludes with the pronouncement that many followers of Christ experienced mocking, scourging, chains, prison, stoning, some were sawn in two, etc. And we are left asking, “What would cause such radical, reckless abandonment of health, safety, family and possessions?” There can be only one explanation. They had laid up their treasures in heaven. Their hearts cherished the promise and reality of a renewed heaven and earth where death would be abolished and Christ our Savior would reign and rule over all creation and his glory would illumine the entire cosmos. This is our better possession.
In a culture that values size over substance, performance over power and technique over truth, the church must reorient its vision to the “living hope” of our inheritance which is “imperishable, and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4). Don’t misunderstand Peter and the other biblical authors. The reward is not heaven. The great reward is Christ Himself and the creation-wide redemption that He as secured by His own blood. When this becomes the target in our sights, our lives will be radically different and they must be different. The world does not salivate for what we have because what the church holds up as its great reward looks suspiciously like the American dream, and our Western culture has obtained that already. Where are the people transformed by the power of the gospel and who are daily being shaped by its truth who will live lives of sacrifice and humility, driven daily by a crystal clear vision of a redeemed world no longer ruled by the curse of sin?
With the Apostle Paul, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints…” (Ephesians 1:18).