“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16 NASB). Before we can discuss how we, as God’s children, are to serve as lights in a culture very similar to the one the Jews and early Christians found themselves in; it is very important to understand what was happening in the world when Jesus was born into it.
Jesus was born a subject of the Roman Empire, which had a far reaching impact on his work in the first century. The Roman rulers of the day levied heavy taxes (tribute) on their subjects in order to adopt and maintain an often decadent lifestyle, creating a large divide between the rich and the poor. Rome achieved compliance of their objectives by military force. The Israelites of the day were not only required to pay tribute to Rome, but also continued to pay the tithes and the sacrifices of their Jewish faith.
It is against this backdrop of occupation, decadence, and poverty that Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, taught and accomplished all that he did in his short life. It is against this backdrop that He called His disciples to shine as lights. In this brief writing it would be impossible to cover the entire breadth of the Roman Empire and it’s impact on a person’s daily life; but I think we can at least get an overview of this historical period.
As we discussed above, the subjects of Rome were taxed heavily, creating an expanded economy, a high standard of living and a new wealthy class at Rome. However, it also brought with it political corruption, a breakdown of society and rampant moral decay. Traditional moral Roman values, like respect for the family gave way to divorce, adultery, prostitution and homosexuality.
In addition, if you walked through a city that was under Roman occupation during this period, it would be quite common to see a statue of Octavian who was called Caesar “Augustus”. Augustus was not simply a name change for Octavian, the Roman Senate was saying in the change that he was “worthy of veneration/worship”. In fact, because his father Julius had been deified after his death, Octavian laid claim to the title “son of god.” Now, consider how this might cause an issue when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to a son and he will be called, “Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Octavian’s deification was quite unique to Rome as he was the first Caesar to ascend to this lofty stature prior to his death. Horace writes, “upon you Augustus…while still among us, we already bestow hours, set up altars to sweat by in your name, and confess that nothing like you will arise hereafter or has ever arisen before now”. Each successive Caesar made the same outlandish claim and led to a rather intense confrontation between the Jews and Rome when Caesar attempted to put his statue in the temple.
It is in this caustic religious, political, social and cultural environment that Jesus teaches His doctrine, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
It is in this caustic religious, political, social and cultural environment that the Apostles teach the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Many of these same apostles will die at the hands of Rome for teaching this doctrine. The Apostle Paul writes, “for I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
It is in this caustic religious, political, social and cultural environment that the writers of the New Testament pen their works. Where we read Paul’s words, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Yet, in all of this turmoil Paul writes his letter to the Christians in Rome that he can’t wait to get there. Why? Not only to impart spiritual gifts to them but also “that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles” (Romans 1:13 NIV). He knew what he was walking into. He knew these Romans had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:23 NIV). God had chosen him for this very purpose (Acts 9:15; 28:16) and Paul was more than up to the task.
The message for us seems clear to me; in an ever changing political, social and cultural world, where God is often traded like a commodity, we are called to have a true vision of Heaven and to possess the necessary faith to get there. A faith like Moses who chose, “to be mistreated with the people of God (rather) than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin…looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25 -26 ESV).
In 2019 let our gospel light of faith shine in this dark and broken world!