How Christ Responded to a Changing Culture
Guest Author: Jonathan Jones II
The culture around us is rapidly changing. How should Christians respond? As followers of Christ, we should follow the example of Jesus in relating to our culture. Thankfully, we are not left to wonder how Jesus would respond. Similar to our current situation, the culture was rapidly changing when Jesus came into the world. In fact, responding to a rapidly changing culture is actually the background behind the entire story of the New Testament.
Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Alexander the Great conquered most of the ancient Greek world. To maintain control, the philosopher Aristotle advised Alexander to instill a love of the Greek way of life into the nations he had conquered. As a result, the Greek language and culture was spread throughout the Mediterranean world. This was a strategic plan of political correctness and popular culture designed to change the beliefs and feelings of the people and win allegiance to the state. The spread of this way of life (called Hellenism) came through the establishment of city-states equipped with walls, markets, temples, theaters and gymnasiums. All of this was designed to remove the cultural traditions and identity of the natives and eventually mold citizens into Romans with a Greek culture.
The native peoples reacted in one of two ways to this cultural indoctrination. Some adapted and accepted the Greek language and culture as better than their own. Others felt the culture shock and considered the changing culture a threat to their traditional way of life and values. When the wave of cultural change reached Israel, many Jews felt their religious beliefs and cultural identity were being attacked. The Jews resisted this cultural change, which lead to conflict between Palestinian Jews and Selucid Greeks (recorded in the books of Maccabees).
By the time of the New Testament, not all Jews had responded to the culture change the same. There were basically five reactions. The Pharisees dug in their heals religiously and made more laws to keep people away from culture. The Sadducees were willing to conform, adapt their lives and embrace culture. The Zealots were warriors who attacked the culture. The Essenes were isolationists who withdrew from culture like monks. The Herodians tried to bring about change through political influence and pressure.
Representatives from nearly all these groups were found in the crowds that Jesus taught. Many of them wanted Jesus on their side in the culture war. The Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus in his words and figure out what side he was on (Matt. 22:15-16). Some viewed Jesus as a political savior who could defeat this outside influence and restore the nation of Israel to being “one nation under God. ” So some came and tried to force Jesus to become a king (John 6:15). But Jesus’ policy was “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). When some of his followers tried to get him to attack the culture and call down fire from heaven, Jesus said, “You have the wrong spirit, I did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56). When we feel our way of life is under attack, we tend to want Jesus to bring judgment upon our enemies. Yet, Jesus said, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). In the midst of a changing culture, Jesus taught his followers, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:41). Rather than cursing the darkness, Jesus said, “Be light to the world” (Matt. 5:13-16). Rather than retreating from the culture, Jesus said, “Give light to those who are in the house. ” Rather than becoming foul in response to the culture, Jesus said, “be salt that influences and gives flavor. ” When others withdrew from interacting with the culture, Jesus sat down at the table and ate with sinners and said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Mark 2:17).
Many of Jesus’ followers miss the true mission of Jesus. His earliest followers did too. At his ascension, they said, “Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel? ” (Acts 1:6). Essentially they were saying: “Jesus, will you now restore our nation back to its founding? Will you now defeat the influence of current culture around us? Will you now rescue us from this political correctness and oppression? ” And Jesus ignores their question. It’s the wrong question.
Jesus has a higher purpose in mind that transcends any one nation. He is interested in forming a kingdom of heaven comprised of every nation. Rather than addressing their question, he sends them out on a mission greater than politics, nationality, or patriotism. Rather than attacking the culture, retreating into their own nation, or bemoaning the loss of what had been, Jesus charged his followers to stop focusing on nationality and embrace a greater mission.
And so they went. They left the traditions of their fathers. They left the richness of their past. They left their nation. They went to Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth, as Jesus directed (Acts 1:8). They went into the culture. They went into heavily influenced Greek cities—places like Ephesus, Corinth, and even Athens, Greece. And they talked to people. They interacted with people. They got to know people. They shared Jesus with people. They were salt. They were light.
They encountered sexually immoral people, thieves, drunkards and swindlers. And they loved them, influenced them, persuaded them and converted them. As Paul writes, “Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11).
By responding to the changing culture the way Jesus did, his followers turned the Greek world upside-down. Will we respond to our changing culture the way that Jesus and his followers responded to theirs?
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