The Roman empire was a pagan place where Christian values were little known or honored, where corruption was pervasive in business, where morality was at a historic low, where divorce was common to the point that marriage was little known. It was a dirty and a filthy place riddled with disease and epidemics. Life expectancy was less than half of what it is in the United States today. There were few families who had both parents, and few parents ever saw all of their children grow to adulthood. Modern methods of birth control were virtually unknown. Abortion was frequent. Because medical procedures were primitive, germ theory had not yet been invented, no one knew about soap, infection was common, and many of those who underwent abortions ended up being infertile or dead. However a primary method of birth control was selective infanticide. They would determine the gender of the child at birth, keep the male babies and take the female babies either down to the seashore or out to the forest and leave them to die of exposure. It caused enormous social upheaval in the Empire because there was a huge disequilibrium between the number of males and females.
Epidemics swept through the cities to the point that up to half of the population of major cities would periodically be destroyed by measles or smallpox or bubonic plague. When the cities were depopulated, the policy of the government was to move tens of thousands of people from different parts of the empire and overnight repopulate those cities, resulting in communities where there were scores of different languages were spoken and people could barely communicate.
The Roman Empire was unusual for an ancient empire in its tolerance of diverse religions. Christianity came in under the umbrella of Judaism. However, there was a historic date when everything began to change. It was sort of a 1st century 9-11 when on July 19, A.D. 64 the city of Rome burned. It burned furiously for 72 hours, and then the flames began to abate. Just when everyone thought that the city was saved, they began again and burned for three more days, destroying the homes of tens of thousands of people. It was rumored that the soldiers of Nero had actually stopped the fire fighters from putting out the fires. Then it was rumored the soldiers had set the fires, until the political base of Nero was eroding in the Senate and among the people. Nero decided to blame all of this upon the Christians. After all, there were rumors about the Christians—rumors that they were cannibals who ate the body and drank the blood of their leader, rumors that they were against family values because they said love and loyalty to their leader was to be greater than to family members, rumors that they were sexually promiscuous because of the way they loved each other behind closed doors—and so Nero decided to take advantage of this by blaming the Christians.
Christians were gathered up, some of them crucified, some of them sown into the skins of animals and thrown to wild animals. Perhaps the most heinous of all, according to the historian Tacitus, they would take Christians, dip them in pitch, hold them up on poles, and then light them on fire to illuminate Nero's gardens through the night.
Godly living changed society.
It was three years after that fire that Peter wrote:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits. (1 Peter 2:9-12)
How were they to live in the midst of a pervasively corrupt society? Peter says they were to live holy lives. That holiness was not only a matter of their standing with heaven but also their behavior here on earth.
So what did they do? Christian husbands and wives were faithful to each other. They avoided divorce. Women were treated with dignity and respect. They didn't have abortions. They kept and loved girl babies. They would look for abandoned girls in the forest and along the seashore, and they would bring them into their homes and raise them as their own. In that culture, especially with the growing shortage of women, pagans married younger and younger. There were many girls that were never allowed out of their homes their entire lives because they'd be kidnapped. They would be raped. They would be taken as child brides. Some of them were married as young as 11 or 12-years-old. But the church was different. The church insisted that the women not marry until they were 18 to 20-years-old, and they were to be virgins at the time of their wedding.
An astonishing change came within the empire because increasingly it became evident that the church had cornered the market on females. That is, they had a disproportionate supply of marriageable women. As a result of that, single men in the Roman empire by the tens of thousands started coming to church. The churches insisted they could not marry their women unless they converted to become Christians themselves. Again, by the tens of thousands, young Roman men converted in order that they could have wives.
When the plagues hit the cities, the standard public health approach was to leave town, even if you left the disabled, your children, the elderly behind. The Christians, often at risk and loss of their own lives, would stay behind and take care of those that were abandoned. They would feed them; they would love them. What their family members discovered when they came back three or six months later after the plagued had subsided was that family members they abandoned had converted, because they had discovered a care and love among Christians they could not find in their own families. When the slaves and others were forced to repopulate the cities, it was the Christians who offered them places to stay and helped them find jobs. It was the Christians who taught them the language they needed to know for commerce. They lived constantly in a holy manner that was astonishingly transforming.
Through my education I was told that at the beginning of the 4th century the Roman Empire changed to become a majority Christian empire because of a vision the emperor had in which he saw the sign of the cross and the Latin words in hoc signo vinces—"in this sign conquer." So he took the first two letters of Kristos kyro, put it on his banners and went into battle. Constantine was victorious in that battle, and so in the year A.D. 313 he declared Christianity to be a religion of the empire. In so doing, Christianity became the official religion of the state, or so I was taught.
However, there are those now who have a different take on that. Rodney Starke, a professor at the University of Washington, writing for Princeton University Press in his book The Rise of Christianity takes a more diligent review of what actually happened. He establishes a baseline of A.D. 40 and estimates there were 1,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. We would say there were more because 3,000 were converted earlier than that at Pentecost. But grant him that in A.D. 40 there were 1,000 believers in the entire empire. That would be 17 one thousandth of one percent of the population, virtually no one. But by living consistent and godly lives their numbers increased.
If your money can grow at seven percent per year, in ten years you can double it. That's the law of compounding. The combination of the law of compounding and Christian holiness meant Christians multiplied enormously, until 160 years later in the year A.D. 200 there were 218,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. From 1,000 to 218,000 in 16 decades. Christians represented 36 one hundredths of one percent of the population of the empire.
But if you carry holy living and the law of compounding out far enough, you will discover that by the year A.D. 350 there were 33.9 million Christians in the Roman Empire, representing 56.5 percent of the population. Constantine had a Christian majority. He had no other political choice but to legalize Christianity. It was not he that changed the empire to become Christian. It was holy living over centuries that changed the empire, and it was Constantine who recognized what the Spirit of God had done through the church of Jesus Christ. How did they do it? They lived holy lives. As aliens and strangers in the world they abstained from sinful desires and lived such good lives among the pagans, that though they were accused of doing wrong, the pagans saw their good deeds and glorified God.
Christian influence is growing.
What about now? We often hear complaints, especially among American Christians about worldliness and unholiness.
I spoke at a convention in Philadelphia where after one of my sessions there was a question and answer time. A woman raised her hand and asked, "If the gospel and the church are supposed to be so effective, why is everything in America so bad?" What she was saying was the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn't work. It just doesn't work. And perhaps the reason she said that was because she heard that so often from our pulpits, from our broadcasts, from our books, from our publications, from our conversations. It might have worked somewhere else, it might have worked at another time, but we are repeatedly being told the message that the gospel doesn't work anymore. We have had ample opportunity in America for the gospel to have significant impact, and the message we are repeatedly hearing is that things are getting far worse under the influence of the gospel than without it.
How bad are things? Not one of us needs to look far to see the effects of sin. We have corporate corruption, pornography, abortions, divorces, anemic churches, five million couples in America who are living together who are not married, clergy immorality, and drug availability and more. But that isn't anything new. For when you trace back the history of America you find roots of deism and secularism that go back a ong period. I think of books I have recently read like Undaunted Courage, about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, or the biography of Theodore Roosevelt called Theodore Rex. In reading those books I was appalled at the immorality, appalled by the drug abuse, appalled by the business and political corruption that permeated generations 100 and 200 years ago. I was rereading recently articles published in the 1930s decrying the terrible state of American youth, the problems of drugs and sex and laziness. In fact, Tom Brokaw wrote a book about these people. He called it The Greatest Generation. Let's not get so focused on the bad that we ignore the success of the impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What kind of lives are Christians in America living today and what kind of influence have Christians had on our country? One hundred and fifty years ago slavery was legal in America until abolitionist Christians put their lives on the line for human freedom. One hundred years ago in America, Laudanum was so pervasive in its abuse it is estimated that as much as half of the population of America was stoned on Laudanum in any given day. In fact, 100 years ago the Sears & Roebuck catalogue sold heroine in syringes through the mail. Fifty years ago theological liberalism dominated the religious landscape of America and born again Christians were clearly on the margins of society.
Today those who publicly state they are born again Christians, include the President of the United States, the attorney general, the national security advisor, governors of states, including the state of Minnesota, members of Congress, senators, CEOs of our largest corporations, university professors, best-selling authors like John Grisham, U2's Bono, and on and on the list goes of those who will say they are born again Christians. New York City had a reputation a generation ago for being one of the dirtiest cities and one of the most unsafe cities in the world. Today it is listed among the safer cities of the world. Well over 90 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians. Churches where the Bible is taught and holiness is lived are multiplying and flourishing. You take the list of the largest and most effective churches in America and almost without exception those churches have a serious commitment to the truth of the Bible and the authority of Jesus Christ. There are fewer R-rated films now than there were 10 years ago. One of the most successful R-rated films is The Passion of the Christ. The bestselling books in America in recent years have been The Prayer of Jabez, Left Behind, and The Purpose Driven Life. San Francisco had a judge that ruled that "under God" was unconstitutional in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. There was such a broad public outcry that the same judge stayed his own order. I remember well when pornographic magazines were sold in 7/11 and other convenience stores. While I don't recommend you go and look for them, the fact is you will have difficulty finding those publications readily available in stores like that.
The New York Times editorialized that evangelical Christians in America are shaping U.S. foreign policy toward righteousness. If today is a typical day in the Peoples' Republic of China, there will be 32,000 new Christians; 20,000 new believers every day in Africa south of the Sahara Desert; and 10,000 new Christians on a daily basis in South America. There are some who are saying the next Christendom is beginning to arrive and that future generations will look back at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century as one of the greatest periods of Christian spiritual awakening in all of history.
Tragedy reveals deep faith.
As I began to put some of those pieces together, I observed that Christians are doing it again. Christians are living holy lives that are having enormous impact within our society. It is not to say the problems aren't real, because the problems are real. I'm fascinated, though, when I hear some Christian leaders who say that Christianity in America is 3,000 miles wide and one inch deep. As someone who travels a great deal in this country and interacts across the nation on a weekly basis with Christians, I simply say that's not my experience with Christians. But I think there's a way of testing that, and that is to take out the sharp knife of tragedy and cut deeper than an inch and see what's under an inch of American Christianity.
I was in Littleton, Colorado the day of the tragedy at Columbine High School. Charlene and I went over and walked the perimeter of the fence and saw the thousands upon thousands of notes and little shrines that were established. We spent hours reading them, almost all of them acknowledging a loyalty to God and a love for Jesus Christ.
I was commuting to a job in Washington DC when the sniper tragedies were taking lives at random around the metropolitan area. I watched carefully on television when people who were absolutely shaken by the tragic death of family members stated that their only hope and confidence was in Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ had given them a strength and stability and peace in the midst of their difficulties.
Like you I followed the reports after September 11, 2001, that produced more testimonies to Jesus Christ than anything I can remember in recent times.
On September 29 of last year there was a shooting in the Hennepin County courthouse here in the Twin cities. A man lay bleeding to death on the floor of the courthouse hallway. The Minneapolis Star Tribune in its front-page story told about the woman who knelt down in front of the man who had been shot. She took her navy blue suit jacket and pressed it hard against the wound on his neck until her arm shook. "Jesus, please save this man," she prayed aloud over and over. "Jesus, don't let this man die." It's front-page news.
We often hear cynical Christians condemn the impotency of American Christianity, but I would like you to listen to a real cynic. His name is Justin Webb. He is the BBC correspondent in Washington DC, and this is what he wrote last year of his assessment of what is going on in America:
My wife and I do not believe in God. In our first posting in Brussels among the nominal Catholic Belgiums' unbelief was not a problem. The Bush administration hums to the sound of prayer. Prayer meetings take place day and night. Before that in London it was not remotely an issue. With the sole exception of one friend who is an evangelical Christian, I don't recall a single conversation with anyone about religious matters in the years I lived and worked in the capital. Our house in London was right next to a church. We talked to the tiny congregation about the weather, about the need to prune the rosebushes and mend the fence, but we never talked about God. How different it is here on this side of the Atlantic. The early settlers came here in part to practice their faith as they saw fit. Since then the right to trumpet your religious affiliations loud and clear has been part of the warp and weft of American life. And I'm not talking about the Bible belt or about the loopy folk who live in log cabins in Idaho and Oregon and worry that the government is poisoning their water. I'm talking about Mr. and Mrs. Average in normal town USA.
Mr. and Mrs. Average share an uncomplicated faith with its roots in the Puritanism of the forbearers. According to that faith there is such a thing as heaven. Eighty-six percent of Americans, we are told by the pollsters, believe in heaven. But much more striking for me and much more pertinent in current world events is that 76 percent, or three out of four people you meet on any American street, believe in hell and the existence in Satan. They believe that the devil is out to get you, that evil is a force in the world, a force to be engaged in battle. Much of the battle takes place in the forms of prayer. Americans will talk of praying as if it were the most normal, rational thing to do. The jolly, plump woman who delivers our mail in the Washington suburbs has a son who is ill. "The doctors are doing their best," she says, "but she's praying hard," and that's what will do the trick.
During the last week a child who has been missing for nine months has been found safe and well. The event was described routinely on the news media as a miracle. One broadcast had a caption reading "the power of prayer. In fact, the child had been abducted and her abductor was recognized and captured. In rational, old Britain the media circus following the finding of the child would have focused on ways of preventing this from happening again, on police errors in the investigation. But here metaphorically, sometimes literally, they just sink to their knees.
I am impressed and awed by Christians in America, who in facing unexpected tragedies turn to God. They pray because they are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that they may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Jesus told a powerful parable that is recorded in Matthew 13. It is a fitting parable for those of us who live in the best of times and the worst of times.
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, the enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner's servants came to him and said, "Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?" "An enemy did this," he replied. The servants asked him, "Do you want us to go out and pull them up?" "No," he answered, "because while you are pulling the weeds you may pull up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters, 'First collect the weeds and tie them into bundles to be burned and then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"
Jesus' followers really didn't understand, so he had to explain that the one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the seed at the end of the age and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fire furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
Jesus is describing what is happening in our time and our place. Let there be no doubt. Wheat and weeds are growing side by side next to one another. In this parable he tells his followers not to so much worry about pulling up the weeds, that he will take care of that later. What he tells his followers they are to do is to go to grow the wheat. Grow the wheat.
As leaders of the 21st century church, we must choose whether the focus of our ministry and of our lives will be mostly about being a weed whacker or being a wheat grower. Which will we be? And as for me and for my house, we will seek to grow the wheat.
for Your Reflection
How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
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Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
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Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
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Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.