God’s People, part 253: Viral

Read Acts 13:1-3

“I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.”  (Romans 15:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 253: Viral. We westerners in the 21st century, and in previous centuries to be honest, love to look at the declension of the Christian church. What is declension? Simple, declension is the declining numbers of people who identify as Christian and/or, concerning local congregations, attend worship services regularly and are active in the life of the congregation.

In the U.S., Fewer and fewer people attend churches and, out of that number, there is a rise in people who claim none when asked their religious affiliation. For instance, in 2018-2019 Pew Research phone surveys, “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”[1]

In the suggested reading for this devotion, we see a different situation than what we see in the U.S. and other parts of Western Civilization. In Syrian Antioch, a new and young Christian teacher by the name of Saul, was commissioned by other Christian leaders to go out with another Christian leader, named Barnabas, as missionaries to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world.

According to Acts 13:1, “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were…Simeon (called “the black man”, Lucius (from Cyrene),” and “Manaen (the childhoold companion of King Herod Antipas”, as well as Barnabas and Saul. According to the account given by Luke, these Christians were in prayer when the Holy Spirit guided them to appoint Barnabas and Saul as missionaries.

As a result, Barnabas and Saul had hands laid on them and then they were sent out as missionaries. I will, of course, discuss their mission in another devotion; however, for the time being there is something important to point out about this short passage in Acts. In the church at Antioch of Syria, there was a black man, a Cyrenese man  (from Cyrene in modern day Lybia), a childhood friend of King Herod Antipas, a Jew from Jerusalem, and a Jewish Pharisee originally from what is now modern-day Turkey.

Such diversity was found in this Syrian church within the first 15-20 years following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How insane is that?!?!? We in the 21st century are familiar with the term viral, describing the nearly instanteous global viewership of news, memes, social media posts and videos. Of course, we have technology that connects us to the rest of the world in a matter of milliseconds.

The Church in the first half of the 1st century A.D. did not have such technology. So, let’s pause to think about and appreciate what has just been learned. Within 15-20 years, the News of Christ had been received by people from Syria, from what is now Turkey, from Lybia in North Africa, and it spread to differing social classes too. No doubt, Manaen, was of noble birth and wealthy. After all, he was a childhood friend of King Herod Antipas, who put Jesus on mock-trial in his court only 15-20 years earlier! All of this doesn even mention, let alone trace, the spread of Christianity Eastward into the Parthian Empire and Asia.

It can’t be clear how the Christian Witness reached people from those regions. For sure, early Christian missionaries travelled the Roman road system to different places; however, some of them may have learned of the good new while traveling to Syria, Jerusalem and other areas. It is pretty likely that both scenarios were the case; however, it must be said that the earliest Christian movement went viral in lightning speed despite the fact that the Internet did not exist.

How did this happen? The answer is rather simple and obvious. It spread through word of mouth. Christians were so convinced that Jesus was the not only the Messiah, but the embodiment of God who brought salvation into the world, that they could keep their mouths closed about it. They went into the Jewish Temple, into synagogues, marketplaces, public forums and even pagan temples to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.

One may be reading this and thinking, “Well, sure, but they didn’t have to deal with societal pressures that pull people away from God. They didn’t have to deal with sports on the Sabbath, an increased belief in the natural sciences, hostile atheists, indifferent agnostics, and an increasingly godless society.”  Yet, if one stops to think about it, that reasoning is does not hold up.

Societal pressures existed in far more extreme ways in the first century A.D. The pagan Roman society didn’t have a “Sabbath” day and the Jews were ridiculed for observing such a “a day of rest”. The natural and philisophical sciences were pursued as vigorously then as they are now. Some Greek philosophers were agnostics and many in that society were hostile to these Christians who came to them preaching of a resurrected “Son of God.” Others were indifferent to their message.

As Christians in the 21st century, we have no excuse to not be just as convicted and passionate about spreading the Good News to others. The only reason the church is in decline is because it has grown apathetic to the urgency and importance of the Good News. We’ve grown wishy-washy in our conviction and afraid to stand out for what we believe to be Ultimate Truth. Let this challenge you to reflect on where you are in your faith as Christians, and begin to examine how you can grow in evangelism…in spreading the Good News.

Do you believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ?, enough to passionately share that Good News with others?

Lord, help me to be a faithful, bold and passionate part of the Jesus Christ’s viral church! Amen.

[1] Pew Research Center. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace: An update on America’s changing religious landscape”. October 17, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/. (Accessed July 14, 2020).

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