Two Opposing Views of Culture
For our purposes, we are speaking of culture in the context of the “American way of life.” We are defining culture as the secular world view that dominates our society. From public education, television and movie entertainment to business enterprise, we are surrounded largely by a nation that operates according to a non-Biblical world view. We are talking about a way of living that respectable people have endorsed. The elements of culture we are speaking of are the moral standards prevalent in our society. We tend to consider that aspect of our culture as outside the circle of religious activities. Is that true? That is a tough question to ask, but we will turn to the Scriptures to find out.
The Word to John the Apostle
The scene is a Roman prison on the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. The Apostle John is in this prison for his faith. While in this wretched situation, the risen Christ appears to him. We must remember that this is the same Jesus to whom John was so close (John 13:22-25). It is the same Person Who from the cross of crucifixion turned to John and asked him to take care of His mother, Mary (John 19:25-27). John knew Jesus probably better than any of the large number of followers that He had. Still, when Jesus appears to him in his prison cell, it literally knocked him off his feet (Revelation 1:12-18). As he reports,
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”
The purpose of Jesus’ post resurrection visit to the Apostle John was to bring a final revelation of His Kingdom and of the end times. As John records the Revelation, it is probably the final apostolic writing. Even the casual reader of the book will conclude that the Revelation is full of information and facts about doom and judgment. Yet, rising out of the smoke of successive judgments is a crescendo of great hope and anticipation, culminating in the final two chapters. For now, however, let’s return to the opening chapters of the book.
After reintroducing Himself, Jesus gives John some messages for seven churches (Revelation 2 and 3). All seven churches were in Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. The last of the seven messages is to the church of Laodicea. Without discussing the meaning of all the messages, we will focus on what Jesus said to this one church to see what it says about our view of reality.
The Church at Laodicea
Laodicea was a sister city of Colossae. The churches in these two cities had each received a letter from the Apostle Paul, another New Testament author (Colossians 4:16). Paul had asked each church to share its letter with the other. We don’t have the Laodicean letter but we know the city itself was prosperous as an economic and commercial center.
It was about 95 AD that John wrote the book of Revelation. Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians about thirty-five years earlier. That was probably the same time as his letter to the Laodicean church since he requested that they exchange his letters. In any event, here in the mid 90’s we have the Lord of the Church, the risen, glorified Christ dictating a message to His Apostle, John, for one of His churches.
Let’s read Jesus’ message:
“ ‘To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
“ ‘These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say,”I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.’
“ ‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.’ ” Revelation 3:14-20
Remember that Jesus was not addressing pagans or members of some liberal church of that time. These were His followers and members of His true Church. It was the Apostle Paul who had established this church. Nevertheless, notice the two contrasting opinions: The church members thought everything was just great. No problems. How different from Jesus’ opinion!
You see, Jesus was presenting a heavenly audit of the Laodicean evangelicals. “This is what you think of yourselves,” He says, “but here is the truth. One is illusion; the other is reality.”
The Two Differing Opinions
There is an obvious clash of two differing perspectives: One earthly from Laodicea, the second from heaven, eternally presented from the Head of the Church. Jesus explicitly warns that the condition of these evangelicals was not only incorrect. It was sinful. He calls this church to repentance. We also see strong indication that they were out of fellowship with Him. He appeals to them personally and individually. He is standing outside and wants to enter their lives to fellowship with them.
Observe that it’s the Laodicean church that Jesus calls to repentance—not the Laodicean culture. He is calling these believers to repent! They have fallen out of fellowship with the Savior because self-sufficiency has become the measure of their success. Jesus does not draw back in His characterization of their condition. He declares “. . . you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” In other words, these proud, elite evangelicals were destitute in every critical spiritual characteristic while thinking themselves to be perfect.
We are curious. How on earth could these church members, be correct doctrinally, yet so wrong relationally? The gulf between the two perceptions is too large just to be an innocent misunderstanding of interpretation. Just where did these evangelicals go wrong? If the members of the Laodicean church had really felt their condition was what Jesus said it was, what would they have done about it?
It’s almost like the “emperor’s robe” syndrome. Jesus says they are “wretched,” etc. Jesus’ assessment is accurate. Looking into their thoughts, He detects their controlling attitude: “I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” By what standard did they believe they had it all? Jesus said their condition was one of “wretchedness.” Yet, public opinion in their day would have been, “You’re looking great!” Their own estimate of themselves was the result of a decision they had made: They had entered adopted their worldly culture. It is apparent. They were comfortable in their present surroundings. They were convinced they were right. What supported their strong opinion? What made them feel so confident, so secure?
The Battle Between Two World Views
For a moment, let’s return to Paul’s letter to the Colossians which we believe was forwarded to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 2:1). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle writes:
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”(Emphasis added) Colossians 2:6-8.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Emphasis added) Colossians 3:1-3.
Some thirty five years before Jesus’ message in the Revelation to them, Paul had warned the church of Laodicea: Beware! This world, this secular culture with its materialistic philosophy, traditions and principles will lead you away from Christ. Unfortunately, the heavenly audit of Revelation 3 reveals the secular world view had been winning the battle. Somewhere during those thirty five years they had gradually abandoned their complete trust in God and His Word by adopting worldly standards.
What had they forgotten? When they came into the Kingdom of God, they were inducted into an eternal, heavenly world view. Through Jesus Christ, they had died to the old and were raised in the new. Nevertheless, they had returned to the world’s perspective which then began to control them. Now, just a few years later, Jesus couldn’t see the difference between them and others in the secular world! All shared the same characteristics. The heavenly audit notified them that they were about to be cast aside as God’s instrument. Remember that until this audit, they were convinced that everything was great!
Paul’s teaching thirty five years earlier had defined a true and eternal culture. It was received and fulfilled in Christ. Their orientation was in heaven, but they abandoned God’s instructions. They had entered into and became a part of their worldly culture—its standards and values. These items did not remain outside of them. As they immersed themselves in their materialistic culture, its values corrupted them. They became just like the world by participating with it, its methods and standards. “Earthly things” are at war with “heavenly things.”
When the Laodicean church became a part of their pagan culture of Laodicea, they could no longer see the sinfulness of it. They were no longer God’s messengers to that culture. They had joined it. By participating in self-centeredness and self-sufficiency, they were actually encouraging and influencing others outside the church to imitate their manner of life.
Something else had conditioned the Laodacean church to feel comfortable. They had forgotten what Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about. He came to deliver us from self-sufficiency. Independence doesn’t work in God’s Kingdom. Self-sufficiency is failure in God’s sight. It is sin. It is death. It represents everything God does not want us to be. Self-sufficiency cancels out the need for God. But they were comfortable being self-sufficient; their egos thrived.
By being self-sufficient, these evangelicals accomodated to their pagan culture. Rather than turn the world upside-down (Acts 16:20, 21), they were fitting right in with the world. The average citizen of Laodacea likewise felt no need for God—they were self-sufficient. The only agency around (the church) that could show them the right way had joined them. The church became like the secular culture—they, too, could do it alone. No need for God’s help—it’s under control—our control. This is not the agenda Jesus had revealed for His Church and He was about to judge them (Revelation 3:16).
Jesus Talks About Salt and Light
Early in His teaching Jesus told His followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” If the salt looses it ability to be “salty,” He said, there is no other group or agency that can restore the “saltiness” to the salt (Matthew 5:13). There is absolutely nothing in the world, in John’s time or ours, that can provide the means to accomplish God’s will. Once we start drawing water from the well of our secular culture to impact the world, we are spreading worldly contamination, not eliminating it.
Since Jesus declared He has made us “the salt of the earth,” how, then, can a the world possibly lead the way to clean up the results of depravity? About all this world’s culture can do is ease us into a deadly acceptance of things as they are. Scripture never identifies secular culture as the guiding light to holy living. On the contrary, it is just the reverse. Our worldly culture is always identified as that which can only lead us away from righteous living. Whether the Church in the Wilderness (Israel) or the Church of the New Testament, believers are cautioned about their relationship to this world.
“Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations.” Deuteronomy 29:18
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.” Romans 12:2
Let’s explain further.
The Sin That Seperates From God
The attitude which originally separated us from God was that we don’t need God’s help. In the Garden of Eden, Eve and Adam said, “We don’t want to follow God’s instructions. We like our own ideas better” (Genesis 3:1-12). We are O.K. as we are—we can work everything out by ourselves. It’s called self-sufficiency. Self-sufficienty led to temptation, sin, expulsion from the Garden and death. It severed them from relationship with God in every way because self replaced God on the throne of their hearts.
That self-sufficient attitude developed in the church at Laodicea. They could operate their church without God. They were independent, well connected and wealthy to boot. They fit in comfortably with their worldly culture because their culture played by the same rules. It was a far cry from Paul’s words to them just a few years earlier:
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:1, 2
In the case of the Laodicean evangelicals, they were living in concert with their worldly culture—not in contrast as they were instructed. They contributed to it with their own attitude. Their thinking was just as pagan as those who never participated in their worship. Jesus declared that this attitude and sin had dislocated their relationship with God.
Notice where Jesus says He is standing:
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” Revelation 3:20
Their action within their culture had left Jesus outside. He wants them to be open to Him, to join with Him, if you will, in displaying God’s power and purpose in Laodicea. That can only be done through intimate fellowship with Him.
When the Laodiceans adopted their secular culture’s standards for success, they bought into the sin of Adam. He determined to live outside the the presence and power of God (Genesis 3:1-9). It was independence—self-sufficiency—apart from God that drove Adam and Eve from the Garden. That sin also nailed Jesus to the cross. That’s not a triffling matter. The very attitude that defines a follower of Jesus—the very characteristic that distinguishes members of God’s Kingdom from Satan’s kingdom—is our complete dependance upon God and our inability to accomplish God’s will on our own. It was always God’s intention that humankind live in fellowship and dependence on Him. We were created that way. The sad fact is we fight being dependant on God.
Other New Testament Churches
In writing to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul reminds its members of the dependent nature of Christian faith:
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called (to be Kingdom members).
“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.” I Corinthians 1:26-29
The Corinthian church had to be reminded of their real culture. Paul testifies that what got us all into God’s Kingdom are not the things that the Corinthian society said were important. As a matter of fact, Paul states, it is just the opposite. The church had slipped back into the worldly patterns of their surroundings. Paul’s first letter to them was written to turn them around.
Things had gotten so bad in the church at Corinth that they were permitting and even boasting of a situation that is prohibited in the book of Leviticus. A man had married his father’s wife (Leviticus 18:8; I Corinthians 5:1). This was a violation of what was written in Scripture. The Apostle Paul did not mince words:
“When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved in the day of the Lord.” I Corinthians 5:4,5
This was just one of many abuses in this church where they felt they could violate the teaching of Scripture. Paul’s answer leaves no room for accomodation. Paul leaves no doubt as to his teaching.
To another church, Paul writes,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” Galatians 1:6, 7
The church at Galatia was also having trouble.
Should it surprise us to see the same attitude and sin in the church today? Confidence in human resources, human effort and human achievement and glory is at an all-time high in our American culture—and in the American church. Times may have changed but not the church’s shame! Like the people of Nineveh, Laodicea, Corinth and Galatia, we need to repent of our independence of God’s control over our lives.
Evaluating Our Culture
To review what we have stated, there are aspects of our culture that are secular, irreligious, anti-Christian and atheistic. As such, it represents a world view that is in open conflict with the world view and standards given to us in Scripture. As long as we stand firmly on Scripture, there are at least three things that we can do:
1. We can see the difference between our secular culture and ourselves (I Corinthians 1:26-29)
2. We can avoid contamination from the world (Colossians 2:6-8)
3. We are in a position to influence our surrounding culture, whatever it is (I Corinthians 1:20-25).
If I abandon my reliance on Scripture and begin to follow the secular culture, I am headed in the same direction as those Christians in Laodicea. That is the peril facing the Christian church today. The further we wade into the ocean of our secular and materialistic culture, the closer we are to going adrift in it. We think we are just touching the edge, but soon we aren’t even aware of the danger.
The Laodicean evangelicals had the characteristics of their worldly culture. They were wealthy and self-sufficient—they didn’t need God. God’s purpose in bringing us into His Kingdom is so we might be “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” (Romans 8:29).
The great threat from American culture is that it can only pull the church away from God’s purpose. Too soon and too easily we become “conformed to the likeness of our secular culture.” That can never bring us into conformity with His Son; it can only contaminate us with the very things opposed to God’s will.
God is the only one who can imprint our lives with the likeness of His Son. Accommodating to our secular culture to refine that image, to empower that image, to define that image only corrodes and defaces it. The world needs to be reconciled to God, not the reverse. In that equation, there is a difference of heaven versus hell. If such caution is required as we live in our world’s culture, how can the church do its work in the world?
In The World—Not of The World
We have now come to where we need to distinguish between living “in the world” as Jesus says in John 17:15, and being “of the world” as He warns us in the following verse. Jesus announces that the one, being in the world is unavoidable, but declares that being of the world must be avoided.
Jesus Himself showed us how that can be achieved. There was never anyone who was more in the world than Jesus. There was never anyone more not of the world than Jesus. When the Apostle John wrote that Jesus “was in the world” it was in fulfillment of His Father’s command (John 1:10). Jesus was the full incarnation of God, God in human form.
Yet, think for a moment of the Creator coming to the world He had made, to reveal with eternal finality God’s plan for humanity.
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Hebrews 1:1-3
Coming from “the radiance of God’s glory,” it grieved His soul as He saw what had happened to His creation (Matthew 23:37-39).
Beyond that, He came to this created world, and “though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10b). Then the writer adds,
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” John 1:11
In His humanity, Jesus was a 1st century Jew. In His divinity, He was the eternal Son. Jesus was clothed in human form to reach humanity (Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:14-18). Jesus did not come to be shrouded in a worldly culture. Remember, the people of His culture rejected Him and finally crucified Him.
Jesus unveiled a world view that was rejected by the religious leaders. In that sense, His mission was counter-cultural—the worldly culture of His time. He came to disclose God and reveal truth. In the process, He exposed error. That placed Jesus in frequent clashes with His culture’s values and standards (John 18:19-23).
What was Jesus to do? Change so that He would be more acceptable to the religious leaders? Modify His message so it would fit in with the worldly culture and reach them? Not at all! But,
“ . . . to all who received Him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God . . . The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of Grace and Truth. ” John 1:12, 14
That is the testimony about the One who was in the world, but not of the world. He was “full of grace and truth.”
Jesus did not want nor did He need the approval of His worldly culture. He came to redeem humanity—not revitalize the secular culture. He came to establish a new culture, the Kingdom of Heaven in the hearts of men and women, girls and boys. People needed the new birth. They required new life that could come only from Jesus. It was only through the cross that God’s purpose for humanity would be realized.
“He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ ” Luke 22:41, 42
Shortly thereafter, He went to the cross.
Culture and The Cross
The combination of the secular, political and religious worlds in the 1st centure provided the matrix from which the attacks upon Jesus and His followers were launched. That worldly culture was the fertile soil in which the seeds of demonic opposition would germinate, grow and bear fruit. The world did not want to submit to this heaven-sent Son. Their final cry before the Roman Governor, Pilate, was “Away with Him!” (John 19:15).
It should not come as a surprise, then, to those who would be His followers that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” In order to take up a cross, one has to abandon whatever else is in hand. In His parable of the Great Banquet, Jesus teaches that being His disciple has certain costs. There will be secular and cultural mandates that must be disregarded (Luke 14:16-24). In Jesus’ own words,
“. . . anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27
When the cross and the world differ, there is a violent collision. The cross means death to the world and its values. The world wants the cross destroyed. It is contra-cross.
“ . . . take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” Philippians 3:17-20
The Apostle Paul explained it simply to the Corinthian church:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I Corinthians 1:18
We see the clash between Jesus and the world. He would not accommodate to the values and standards of a worldly culture. In our day, God’s character and His holy nature has been run through the shredder of American culture. Scattered around here and there are bits and pieces of what God intended for His Church. Tragically, the church is forsaking the only reliable source of reality. It has pasted together a curious mosaic of contemporary patterns of worship, programs and techniques dredged up from the polluted cistern of our present secular culture. Even as we miss the mark of God’s will and way, we attempt to reassure ourselves by admiring ourselves in the shattered mirror of our secular culture. It is not a pretty sight.
Is what Jeremiah the Prophet wrote the true reflection of the church today?
“ ‘Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,’ declares the Lord.“ ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ ” Jeremiah 2:11-13
The world’s view is still out there attemting to lure us into following its ways and methods. Just what is the continuing enticement to those of us who are leaders? There are patterns outlined in Scripture that can provide some answers.