Understanding the Times (Part 1)

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by Shane Scott

As the Book of First Chronicles describes the pledge of loyalty given to David by the various tribes, it offers this sketch of the men of Issachar: they were “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (times1 Chronicles 12:32). In other words, the men of Issachar were savvy. They discerned the shifting landscape in Israel and responded wisely. In this article I want to discuss where America is as a culture in an effort to “understand the times” and how to respond to them as the spiritual Israel of God.

Just over a month ago, a radicalized Muslim murdered 49 people in a nightspot in Orlando primarily patronized by homosexuals. In the past, I would have expected lots of outrage directed against Muslims, the unfair stereotyping of all adherents of Islam as terrorists. But I did not see much of that this time. Instead, almost immediately on my Facebook feed, I saw a torrent of scorn directed at Christians. One profanity-filled tirade I saw shared on the pages of countless friends made this accusation:

When you routinely demonize a group, accept responsibility when your rhetoric is taken to its logical conclusion. You are in large part responsible for fomenting a culture of hatred towards the LGBTQI community. P.S. The rhetoric espoused by radical Islam is not discernible from the same garbage spewed by fundamentalist Christians.

So there is no difference between the church of Christ at Valrico and ISIS. You might as well call me the “Ayatollah Shane!” Such accusations are absurd on their face. The “logical conclusion” of the rhetoric of the gospel is to embrace the eternal love of Jesus Christ and share it with others, not commit mass murder! Further, if there is any group of people on the planet who can sympathize with victims of Islamic radicalism, it is Christians, who are murdered by the thousands each year by these extremists. The British organization Open Doors, which tracks the persecution of professed Christians around the world, recently reported that last year, 4,028 Christians were killed by radical Islamists in Nigeria alone.

But even though the mass murderer in Orlando was a self-professed loyalist to ISIS, according to the New York Times, the real culprit is preachers like me. “His bullets and the blood he left behind that early morning were a reminder that in many corners of the country, gay and transgender people are still regarded as sinners and second-class citizens who should be scorned.”

So this brutal event was not a reminder that radical Islamic terrorists could strike at home. No, it was a reminder that those of us who actually believe what Christianity has taught for two thousand years – that some sexual relationships are sinful – are to blame. Not Al-Qaeda, not ISIS, not radicalized Muslims – you and me.

This malicious slander is part of a process that we can read about in the Bible. Throughout the New Testament we can see different responses to Christianity. I want to trace five reactions to the gospel, in hopes that – like the men of Issachar – we can understand the times and know how to respond.

The first response to the gospel we can read about in the Book of Acts is broad acceptance by society. Acts 2:47 concludes its description of the founding of the church by saying that the first Christians were “having favor with all the people.” The people of Jerusalem were impressed by the work of God they could see taking place. This widespread respect continued even after (or maybe especially because of) the episode involving Ananias and Sapphira. So impressive were the convictions of these early believers that Acts 5:13 says “the people held them in high esteem.”

But it wasn’t long until the church faced limited opposition by activists. This opposition was initially limited to one sect of the Jews, the Sadducees, who objected to the teaching of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 4:1-2). But because of the popularity among the populace at large that Christianity enjoyed, the Sadducees couldn’t do much to the Jerusalem disciples (Acts 4:21). Indeed, even when the Sanhedrin Council wanted to forcefully intervene, it was very careful not to anger the multitude at large for fear of violent reprisals (Acts 5:26).

But with the speech by Stephen, the tide of opinion started to turn, and the church faced broad opposition by activists. Adversaries arose from within the ranks of the Pharisees, from “those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia” (Acts 6:9). This eventually led to Stephen’s death and the full onslaught of the Jewish leadership against the church, forcing the disciples to scatter (Acts 8:1). This scenario repeated itself in other places the gospel traveled (see Acts 14:19; 18:12-13). But as fervent as this persecution was, it was primarily confined to Jewish agitators. In fact, Christians could appeal to the civil government to protect them, and in Acts it often did (see Acts 18:14-16).

There were times, though, when hostility against the gospel spilled out into the larger Gentile culture so that the church faced broad rejection by society. Pagans were also threatened by the subversive message of the gospel. And this was especially the case when the gospel intruded into personal affairs (Acts 16:19-21), or challenged the prevailing political (17:6-7) or religious (19:23-28) currents of society. Even in this dire circumstance, however, the venerable Roman tradition of the rule of law still prevailed, and Christians could appeal to the authorities for protection (Acts 16:37; 17:8-9; 19:35-41; 25:11).

But there came a time when the civil authorities decided to blame Christians for the woes of society, such as the great fire of Rome in AD 64, and so the church faced persecution by the government. John pictured this in Revelation 13 as he portrayed the imperial Rome as a beast from the sea serving as an underling of Satan (13:4). In the gravest of all situations, the government no longer restrains evil, but is complicit with it. And all that is left for Christians to do is to retreat, to suffer, and to die (13:10b).

So, as we try to understand the times, where are we as Christians here in America? And how should we respond to our times? Lord willing, I hope to explore these questions in my next article.