David Bercot observed, “Christians today frequently pride themselves on being different from the world, but in reality they are usually only different from a particular segment of the world” (Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 38). He noted that people in liberal mainline denominations often see themselves different from the world and yet the truth is that the attitudes of lifestyle of those in liberal denominations is little different from that of liberal non-Christians. In like manner he notes that people in conservative religious groups can think they are acting independently from the culture that surrounds them because they cling to conservative American values. Yet conservative American attitudes can be just as much a part of the world as liberal ones. He writes, “I still remember a conversation I had in 1969 with a disc jockey who was in his mid-thirties. We had a lively discussion about the issues that were prominent at the time—racial discrimination, police brutality, drugs, and the Vietnam War. From the nature of his radio program, I was rather taken aback by his staunchly conservative views, so I finally remarked, ‘You’re really a hard-line right-winger, aren’t you!’ He smiled and then replied, ‘No, I’m not even conservative. I’m actually middle-of-the-road’. He paused for a moment, studying my skeptical face. Then with a grin added, ‘It’s just that the road has moved’” (p. 39). It is difficult to live in a world where the moral and ethical road keeps moving, yet God has given us what we need to remain unspotted from the world (James 1:27) and discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).
The Pilgrim Attitude
“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God….All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:9-10, 13-16).
· “Looking for a city which has foundations”: That is, a city that is permanent and lasting. Resisting the temptations of this world, avoiding the trap of being conformed to this world is easier when one recognizes that everything in this world is temporary and fleeting. Nothing here is eternal, and none of this is going to be in heaven (2 Peter 3:10-11), not even the human praise or fame found in this world (Matthew 6:2).
· “Whose architect and builder is God”: That is, an environment that is in complete harmony with the will of God. Even most “livable” cities on this earth still operate by human wisdom and human standards of right and wrong. A city free from sin and human rebellion (Revelation 21:27).
· “Seen them and welcomed from a distance”: Abraham had his mind on heavenly realities and he dreamed about such things, and made them the object of his goals and aspirations. He welcomed the idea of leaving this earth and being with God. Centuries ago a writer encouraged a group of local Christians who were languishing in a Roman dungeon with the words, “The leg does not feel the chains when the mind is in heaven”.
“If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
There is a promise in the above verses. First, we can keep our minds on things above, that is, making God and heaven the object of our dreams, desires, and aspirations is something any Christian can do. Secondly, the mind can remain focused on such things, even when all sorts of distractions surround us. Third, such a focus is the key to overcoming temptation (Colossians 3:5), and overcoming the tendency to want to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), and of being consumed by the sorts of things that preoccupies the minds of unbelievers (Matthew 6:31-32). The Romans criticized the early Christians for being totally absorbed in the interests of a heavenly kingdom, while ignoring many of the things the secular world had to offer. I believe that it is easier to “welcome” God’s promises from a distance when we realize what God is wanting to give us (Romans 8:18), and when we truly see this world for what it is (1 John 2:15-17; 5:19).
· “Having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth”: What impresses me concerning Abraham at this point is that Abraham was not a poor man who simply had nothing here to leave behind, rather, Abraham was a wealthy man and a man to whom God had promised the entire land of Palestine—an entire country! One would think that he might want to stay around to enjoy it. Yet even the prosperous Abraham, who had many earthly friends and relationships, and who was involved in his community (Genesis 14), still felt like a stranger on this earth.
“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
Note the word “confessed” in the passage from Hebrews. Bercot bemoans that in his view far too many people who call themselves Christians live their lives no differently than do conservative non-Christians, with the exception of regularly attending church. He notes, “often, our being ‘not of this world’ exists in theory more than in practice” (p. 16). I believe that the term “confessed” is an important step away from theory towards an actual practice. Abraham mentally and verbally came to terms with the concept that this world was never going to be his home, that the values, goals, and dreams of this earth would never agree with his goals, that he could never really get comfortable here or permanently settle in and make this world his final home. If we can come to terms with these truths, then we will not be shocked or discouraged when we can’t go along with what the world might be doing.
In commenting upon the leisure time and entertainment of the Roman world, Bercot notes, “The Roman Theater was borrowed from the Greeks, and the favorite dramatic themes were crime, adultery, and immorality” (p. 31). This rightly disgusted the early Christians who argued, “How can it be right to look at the things that are wrong to do?” “How can those things which defile a man when they go out of his mouth not defile him when going in through his eyes and ears?” (Matthew 15:17-20). After reading this, Bercot says, “Are we willing to take such an uncompromising stand toward entertainment today? After reading such counsel, I stepped back and took a look at myself. I had to admit that I had been letting my culture dictate my standards for entertainment. Yes, I avoided movies that would be considered risqué by the conservative community. Nevertheless, I still ended up watching entertainment that was saturated with violence, crime, and immorality. I was willing to accept obscenity, profanity, and flashes of nudity—so long as the motion picture industry didn’t give the motive a rating worse than PG-13. So I had let the motion picture industry decide for me what was and wasn’t fit to see. My culture had determined my standards for entertainment” (p. 33).
11:14 “They are seeking a country of their own”: It is easier to resist the temptation of materialism or a love for the things of this world, when we realize that nothing here really belongs to us. The world is never going to bend to the will of God, this world will always stay in rebellion. In addition, who wants to invest all their hopes and dreams in a world and reality that is not even permanent? Christians realize that they do not want to spend eternity on a planet where they are often not even welcome, or where people routinely mock what they hold dear. Who wants to love a world or compromise our faith for a world that ridicules us? Jesus told His disciples, “In the world you have tribulation” (John 16:33). And Jacob soberly reflecting upon his life said,“The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9).
11:15 “If they had been thinking of that country”: What really occupies our thoughts? What do we dwell on? Where are our hopes and dreams centered?
11:16 “They desire a better country”: That’s faith! Obviously, God has the power to create an existence that is much better than this earthly life! Overcoming temptation and the snares of this world is as simple as asking yourself this question, “Do you want this earthly temptation, or, do you want a better country?” Life does get a lot better than life on this planet! No wonder Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). One ancient writer explained to the Romans, “Since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men put us to death. Death is a debt we must all pay anyway” (Justin, First Apology, chapter 11).
In surveying the history of the churches of Christ in the United States in the past century, David Edwin Harrell Jr. observed, “Historian Robert E. Hooper correctly points out that the churches of Christ were a classic American example of ‘religious outsiders’, regarding themselves as a ‘distinct people’….Richard Hughes captured the social isolation of the first half of the twentieth century: ‘For most of their history, Churches of Christ had been poor and socially marginal, standing over against denominations as well as the larger culture and typically viewing themselves as sojourners in a strange and foreign land’” (The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, pp. 71-72). He notes that World War II changed many Churches of Christ. The war changed the economic standing and self-image of many of the small congregations that had appeared in lower-middle-class neighborhoods and in the rural South. War-time prosperity boosted the social aspirations of many members of the church, and by 1945 many members were more ambitious to gain the respect of their friends and neighbors. He notes, “In the years just before and after World War II, a new generation of (college) Presidents appeared, all of them ambitious to build the prestige and influence of their institutions. By 1950, the colleges had trained a substantial percentage of the church’s preachers, and these college-trained preachers formed a self-conscious elite who, with a degree of open disdain, put distance between themselves and the rough-and-ready preachers of the previous generation” (p. 102). The lesson that we need to learn is that even in a time of plenty and prosperity, we must keep our focus: 1. We need to care more what God thinks about us than what the world thinks(John 12:42-43). The desire to impress our neighbors with big buildings and big programs is to fall into the same ditch as the Pharisees fell (Matthew 6:1-4). 2. The power to convert people has always been and will always be in the gospel (Romans 1:16). 3. Our most important wealth will always be spiritual wealth (Luke 12:20-21; Matthew 16:25-26).
Mark Dunagan/Beaverton Church of Christ/503-644-9017