The year 64 CE was a particularly disastrous year for the church. It was that year that the apostles Peter and Paul were both executed, Paul by decapitation (since he was a Roman Citizen) and Peter by crucifixion. The early years of the church were not easy and Paul writes his young curate Timothy with these words that epitomize the struggle of swimming upstream in a hostile culture.
“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Surely you have heard the old saying, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I hate to point out the serious error of this phrase, you see, viols, the precursors to modern violins and violas were not invented until the 16th century. But what is true is that Rome did burn. And Nero, who is alleged to have set the fire himself to raze the slum parts of the city, blamed the Christians for setting the fire.
The year of that fire, you guessed it– 64 CE.
So if Paul trusted in the Lord for his deliverance even though he knew his time of martyrdom was coming, so what does that deliverance look like.
#1 – Deliverance does not come from the state. We live in a country that is often called post-Christian. I really think that was a misnomer. Sure, more people were in church in the 1950s and early 60s, but that was because of cultural associations, not true faith. I think the number of true believers is probably pretty constant in communities like this, but when the benefits of association are no longer culturally supported, then the numbers dwindle.
Let me be clear. We are not a post-Christian society because we never were a truly Christian Society. In fact, a vague deism is the best way we can describe any spirituality America ever had. The “In God We Trust” slogan referred to a vague God, un-defined by doctrinal precepts, and constructed in such a way that orthodox Christian, Jew, Unitarian, and Muslim could rally around the idea.
Furthermore, while the first amendment’s freedom of religion clause allows the expression of Christianity, it does not support anything but its right to exist. In fact, if ever the tax-exempt, and tax-deductible status of churches were revoked, you can bet that the institutional model of Christianity would disappear altogether.
The Bible does not even support the idea that the state is reliable to defend the believer. God allows human governments, but he certainly is not blessing America any more than he blesses any other government. God alone is our true governor. When we read these words of Paul, we must note the context of his defense. Since he was a Roman citizen, he was allowed certain unalienable rights (sound familiar). This was the right to a fair trial, the right to face his accusers, and in the case of a capital crime, the right to a “humane execution” whatever that means or does not mean is the subject of another blog.
So Paul is correct in stating that God provides our deliverance. And even in his imprisonment, God was working. Since Paul had the right to have his capital crime judged by the emperor, this put the Praetorian Guard (the defenders of Caesar) as his jail keepers. It gave him a premise to share the gospel, and a great many of them became Christians due to Paul’s personal testimony.
#2 Deliverance is not from friends – When Paul is accused, his friends scatter, just as the apostles scattered in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.
We read on that only one friend is even still around: “for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” 2 Timothy 4:10-11a NRSV
Yet for all his associates in the ministry, deliverance is not coming in that way.
If we look Acts, chapter 8, we see that there is no evidence of the church coming to the aid of Stephen before he is stoned. In fact, Acts 8:1 tells us that the believers were scattered and “devout men” only buried Stephen. No one came to save Stephen – they ran!
3# We cannot expect deliverance from non-Christians (and some of these are from with n the church as well as from outside)
Paul, says that just as his friends are off in distant places, accusation came, not from friends, or the state, but from those who are intent on discrediting the church.
He writes: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” 2 Timothy 4:14-15 NRSV
Even for all the problems Alexander caused, he simply offers caution to Timothy, not a cause for revenge, or even avoidance. He is not saying discredit him on Facebook or dig up some dirt on him.
Today’s world is filled with angry vitriol about how people perceive the church. We are either irrelevant, or to some, we are an evil to be opposed.
The Post-modern Alexander the Coppersmith is still with us saying :
+ look at all the priests who sexually abused children, tell me the church is not corrupt, or,
+ look at how big Joel Osteen’s house is, tell me we shouldn’t tax the church, or
+ those who simply tell our children that the institutional church is just a con game.
We simply must remember that our citizenship is in Heaven. It is from there that we expect our supreme governor.
Heed the warning of the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in rulers nor in any child of earth for there is no help in them.” So if there is no help in Government for Paul, no help in friends, no help from outside the church how are we to proceed in this postmodern world.
Again the Psalmist provides wisdom: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where shall my help come? Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The Lord, who spoke our present created order into existence. Knows you, loves you, and cares for you in a way no other deliverer can muster or promise.
We are at the edge of an election. Lots of titles and praise, slander and bitterness is being thrown out. Facebook and Twitter are cause for angst. Families fight as if elections are salvation. People have forwarded things that easily could be considered slander – all for what? They really don’t convince anyone. And furthermore, if we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, that means even one who may be the candidate of the opposition.
The next time you post, or tweet or argue, I pray the words of Paul to Timothy would ring true. Our deliverance comes not from the state, or friends, or strangers, but from God. In the end of life, as Paul was facing, truth becomes clearer. Paul understood with the clarity of eternity and not the myopia of current events. I encourage you to see this time with the lenses of eternity.