This weekend we began an ambitious (but worthwhile!) summer preaching series through the book of Romans. The apostle Paul's magnum opus in twelve weeks? We'll have to view it from 30,000 feet as we fly over, but yeah. No amount of time is too great or too small in Romans.
Context, Context, Context
As with any book, it's important to get a little context before launching in. Paul gets right to sin and the need for a savior early in the first chapter, so it's helpful to be reminded what the world was like when the letter was written. Before you even turn the page once, Paul has named off the sins of covetousness, malice, envy, murder, gossip, homosexuality, lying, arrogance--even disobedience to parents! Oh, and not just committing these sins, but giving approval to those who do. In other words, a world no less evil than our own. Corrupt government? Not new. Abortion? The Greco-Roman world would go ahead and have the baby--then leave it lying out somewhere to die right after birth. Sexual sins? Compared to first century temple prostitution, our own Sexual Revolution a few decades ago was Amateur Hour. Remember what Solomon said?
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has been already in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1.9-10)
It's good to remember Paul wrote his letter to an evil world. It's better to remember the world has generally been no less evil in any generation since, though the evil may take different forms from one age to the next. (Romans 1-2 tells us why.) But as you keep reading, the good news comes. The good news that Christ has conquered the world, released us from the power of sin, and nothing can separate us from his love (chapters 5-8). The good news that--despite the evil-ness of the world around us--there is a way to live as Christians who stand out from the world (chapter 12), a way to honor the Lord by subjecting to our government (chapter 13), and a way to pursue peace, even while disagreeing or exercising liberty (chapter 14). And against the backdrop of their culture--and our own--that's very good news!
You're Wrong, Chicken Little
While Paul's letter to the Romans is a sort of microcosm of the entire Bible, it's not all we have. When the Christian backs away and considers the unity and consistent teaching of the rest of the Scriptures, the fulfilled prophecy, and the unfolding plan of God--he should well up with quiet confidence that God is indeed sovereign, that he rules over all history, and nothing happens directly or indirectly apart from his will. And the Christian doesn't only have the Bible (as if that weren't enough), but history teaches us over and over again that no, the sky is not falling. So the Christian worldview is a unique one. It won't allow us to panic when things get tough. When that acorn falls on your head, think back to the Crusades, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, Bloody Mary. The world--and even the church--have had some dark times. We've been in trouble before. Yet here we are.
That's the advantage of seeing things with a wide-angle lens--which is exactly what the Christian worldview requires. We believe God is sovereign over history. We believe God's providence governs everything, and nothing is random with him. We believe God is intentional and has a purpose for everything he allows. We really do believe everything happens for a reason.
Looking Down Our Collective Nose At The Past
Are things bad? Yes. Are things going to get worse? Yes. For our country at least, the edge of the cliff is coming in November, and our brakes are out. But is this the worst the world has ever been? Probably not. Did God stop caring or his providence somehow run out on us? Definitely not.
A healthy Christian worldview should protect us from "chronological snobbery"--or at least the modified form of it that drives our the-sky-is-falling-ism. C.S. Lewis coined the term and defined it as "the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited." (Surprised by Joy, Ch. 13) In other words, the current ethos is best, and anything not currently en vogue is automatically discredited precisely because it's no longer en vogue. While many Christians today may not be expressing that sentiment exactly and in regards to the intellectual climate, many do seem to apply the general principle to our cultural climate -- that somehow our current situation is unique, one in which the world has never been before, and that anything in the past is outdated and irrelevant. That in some backwards way, we're better (because we're worse off) than people before us because we're having to suffer something they never did.
When Opportunity Knocks
The exact circumstances of our situation may be unique to our age, but Christian marginalization isn't. Neither is Christian persecution, ridicule, or the church having to exist--even grow and thrive--in a culture, country, or empire that does not accommodate it. In fact, if we look back down the road far enough, we'll find maybe we're getting closer to the culture the church was actually born into! Which brings us back to the context of Paul's letter to the Romans. The world is bad, and it's not getting any better. People are sinners who need a savior. But instead of moaning about it, living in fear, or giving up on the world--let's seize the opportunities God is giving us.
These are gospel opportunities. These are opportunities to serve people, love people, and stand up for the truth. To stand up for The Truth.