One common human characteristic is to think that whatever you’re facing is new. One benefit of being an old codger like me is that 66 years is long enough to realize that that just ain’t so. Even within a single lifetime, history tends to run in cycles—I’ve written about that before—and Solomon has famously told us that there’s nothing new under the sun (Ec 1.9).
What the church is facing these days is not new or even unusual; in fact, it’s pretty tame by historical standards. The American church in particular has had an extraordinary run of good times, of perhaps unprecedented opportunity to “lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1Ti 2.2) for literally centuries. While anything could happen, even the most pessimistic and nightmarish predictions that I hear from the prophets of doom don’t come close to what the church experienced in its first two centuries, or during the Inquisition, or even under Communist rule in the last century.
In the first century, even before Emperor Nero went cuckoo for cocoa puffs and blamed the fire in Rome on the Christians, there was violent opposition to the practitioners of The Way. Preaching the resurrection of Messiah—or anything else about him—was ruled illegal within a few days of its occurrence (Ac 4.18). Within a year or so the first preacher was violently killed by a mob (Ac 7.54-60), with the approval of the local government (Ac 8.1; 26.10). A decade later the first apostle was executed by Judea’s puppet “king,” Herod Agrippa I (Ac 12.1-2). And a little more than a decade after that, Paul returns to Jerusalem only to be attacked by a mob—in the very Temple precincts!—under the demonstrably false charge that he had brought a Gentile into the Court of the Women (Ac 21.27ff). He is jailed for more than two years, even though the Roman arresting officer believes him innocent (Ac 23.29), just on the off chance that the governor can squeeze a bribe out of him (Ac 24.26). To thwart an assassination conspiracy, Paul appeals to Caesar, gaining safe passage to Rome, where he waits under house arrest for another two years (Ac 28.30).
Keep in mind that Paul has been commissioned by the risen and ascended Christ himself as the apostle (“sent one”) to the Gentiles, a task that requires a lot of traveling around and talking to people, as Acts 13-21 make abundantly clear. Spending four years in jail for something you didn’t do—indeed, for a charge that every official along the way has pronounced unfounded (e.g. Ac 25.13-20)—puts a pretty significant crimp in your life’s calling.
Toward the end of those two years renting a house in Rome, waiting for his appeal to be heard, Paul writes a letter to the first church he founded in Europe, the one at Philippi, over in Macedonia (northern Greece). He wants to thank them for a generous gift they’d sent him (Php 4.15ff) and explain what’s been happening with one of their members, Epaphroditus, who’s been with him in Rome for some time (Php 2.25).
In the letter he takes the opportunity to catch them up on events in Rome, and to encourage them to stay faithful to Christ even though times are tough.
As I’ve been studying this epistle lately, it has occurred to me that its major points form a pretty good list of how we should react to troubled times—how we should think, how we should respond, how we should proceed.
It’s also occurred to me that hardly any Christians I know—at least, the ones I know who are making the most noise—are putting the list to work. Maybe it would do us all good to run the list through our heads and do a little introspection and self-evaluation.
Can’t hurt, right?
We’ll get started in the next post.