We want more than an escape from 2020.
Earlier this year, I mentioned some things that would probably come to dominate the 2020 news cycle. I didn’t bring up the biggest one, because it wasn’t on the radar at the time. Still, Covid came to absolutely characterize the entire year with sickness, lost lives, and damaged businesses.
One further thing that concerns me, is how some believers, though they didn’t get sick or go bankrupt due to Covid, may never recover from 2020. We spent a great deal of time and energy reinforcing the message of ‘being safe,’ a practical necessity, no doubt. But something backward happens when a believer takes that message, and makes it central to his or her spiritual formation.
You see, eventually Covid will go away, and we’re already hearing about the possible next thing coming along behind it—a mutated strain of the virus. That will go away as well, but again, something will follow it, and then something else, all, in turn, somehow threatening, or forbidding, or discouraging Christian life and practice. How will we deal with these issues? Some of us will apply what we learned back in 2020—be safe!
I’m not saying we should be unsafe and throw ourselves under a bus, but eventually there will come a serious divergence of values. The world will be encouraging us one way, while Jesus will seek to lead us the other.
Over the years, our church has mounted a few overseas mission trips. Every individual sent out has to have some level of acceptance that they might never come back. Jesus, after all, is not sending us to the other side of the planet to be safe.
When risk has been completely eliminated from the Christian experience, when there’s no pressing need of faith, or prayer, or trust, and no awareness of life as a living sacrifice, you’ll know you’ve created a religious terrarium for yourself. “Behold,” Jesus said, “I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves” (Mt. 10:16). This is true, from church shootings, all the way down to liking the “wrong” gospel post on social media, and dealing with the comments of those who despise it.
The Bible constantly calls us forward, because we naturally want to cower, to settle. In the book of Hebrews, the writer (whom I think is Paul), tells his readers over and over in different ways, to draw near, to come forward. His readers were Jewish Christians who had weathered a lot of negativity from unbelieving neighbors and friends. The forward momentum of their faith was beginning to slow. They had experienced a great beginning, and had overcome a number of setbacks, but persecution had begun to take its toll.
How would Paul help people who were so tempted to settle into a non-threatening niche of Christian life? He begins to write in Hebrews 10:32,
“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings,”
First, he asked them to remember the time right after the point of their initial enlightenment. Paul didn’t ask them to think about the time after they finally found a church, or when they converted to Christian belief. Nor did he use language like “born again,” or “saved” here. Instead, he specifically mentions “enlightened.” The mark of every true believer is the internal, supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit. Yet following that experience, things got hard, and progressively more complicated. The Hebrews began to find that this world is not a friend of faith.
10:33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property…
They had been excoriated in front of others, and become partners of those jailed for their faith. And, far from sullen, they had joyfully accepted material loss. Only one thing can explain how human beings could enter such resilient faith:
“…since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
They knew they had something better than anything they might risk losing. In the context of the book of Hebrews, that better possession was none other than the superior Christ. In fact, Hebrews presents Christ as better than all the angels, than Moses, and Aaron, the high priest. His New covenant was better than the old, because it was sealed with His blood—not that of bulls and goats. When one drop of the blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross touches your heart through faith, it will sanctify you, past, present, and future.
Those Hebrew Christians knew that not only was this a better possession, but an abiding one as well. It couldn’t get lost, or stolen. Actually, it is the only real thing a believer owns, and the only thing he or she will take with them when they leave this world. The Hebrews knew this, and kept it at the forefront of their mind.
Paul charges them in verses 35-36, “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” They had passed all of their earlier tests, but the one at hand was still in doubt.
And as both an encouragement and a warning, Paul told them, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay” (v. 37). Their troubles were not going to last forever. Christ would return, delivering justice to those who were causing them trouble, and distributing rewards to all the faithful. But as for right now, in the thick of trials, they were to remember a quote from the book of Habakkuk: “My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (v. 38). No true believer could be indifferent toward the prospect of displeasing God. Then, as if to cast a vote of confidence their way, Paul added, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (v. 39).
A pandemic broke out in the Roman Empire from 249 A.D. to 262 A.D. For thirteen years it raged, with no vaccines, or even any understanding of how infectious diseases work. Historians to this day aren’t sure whether it was smallpox, or influenza. Eyewitnesses of the event, however, wrote about the bloody hemorrhaging of those who contracted the disease, causing modern experts to wonder if perhaps it might even have been an outbreak of Ebola. At any rate, some five thousand people a day in the city of Rome were dying, and they lay in piles along roadways.
Decius was the Roman Emperor at that time—an old pagan, who assumed the pandemic had come because the gods were not being properly honored. He mandated that every person should offer sacrifice to the gods, and obtain a certificate of proof that they had done it. Of course, the early Christians had a problem with this decision. When many of them refused the idolatrous command, persecution broke out in the city of Carthage.
This led to a lot of soul searching in the church, with four different courses of action appearing. First, there were those who flatly rejected the imperial decree, and were typically arrested. Many of these were killed, and became martyrs. Those who survived became known as confessors. A second course of action was to flee, and a third involved buying a fake certificate of sacrifice on the Roman black market. The last possibility was simple capitulation—offering sacrifices to Jupiter, chief of the Roman gods.
At that time in Carthage, a mature church leader named Cyprian, sought to shepherd the harried believers. According to modern expectations, we would expect him to have guided the flock into whatever decisions the members needed to make to stay safe. Instead, he wrote,
“What sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God, but rather to rejoice and to embrace the benefit of the occasion that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forth to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of his life and faith according to his own judgment.”
Cyprian wasn’t trying to make detailed decisions for the lives of others, but you can see the sentiments in his message about coming forward, and not shrinking back. He understood the Christian not as one holding onto a fair weathered faith, but who turned every upset into an opportunity to “embrace the benefit of the occasion,” and show forth Christ. Nor was this mere wordsmithing on Cyprian’s part. He himself was beheaded in 258 A.D. for not worshipping the gods.
Our generation is up to bat, beginning the very day we were saved, or you can say from the day we all covenanted together to be a church, and bear the corporate testimony of Jesus.
It’s our turn.
The Hebrew believers and their hardships are now sealed in history. So are the times of Cyprian. Whatever decisions were made then are now awaiting the great day when the Coming One will come, and call all these things into account. Our time, though, is not finished. We’re still writing our piece of history. Hopefully, 2021 will be a chapter full of bold steps forward, not of shrinking back.
The details will vary, of course, from person to person, and from church to church. After doing a lot of Sundays online, and occasionally renting facilities, our congregation hopes to lease a meeting place this new year. Coming forward for us will mean a fresh commitment to reassemble in person. It will also mean engaging with and bringing friends. In 2020, We were basically taught to fear our neighbors. Yet a lot of people out there are looking not only for God on an individual level, but for the physically gathered church as well. We will need to prepare ourselves, because such seekers will require discipleship, and a commitment from us to help them grow—root, shoot, and fruit.
We certainly don’t know how every detail will work out, or what will be the setbacks, or challenges, but this we believe: 2021 must be a year of gaining, not escaping, and for sure, not losing.