What Christians in America experience today bears little resemblance to what believers faced in New Testament times. Two thousand years ago Christians were a persecuted minority and paid a steep price—sometimes martyrdom and death—for following Jesus Christ. Under such severe conditions the Lord confirmed the preaching of the gospel with mighty miraculous signs, enabling the early disciples to reap significant harvests as recorded in Acts, perhaps thus fulfilling the Great Commission in those areas of the Middle East.
By contrast here in America until just a short while ago, there has been very little persecution. Christianization by which Judea-Christian principles become embedded in the culture made it relatively easy to follow Christ. There was essentially no persecution to suffer for becoming a Christian.
Under such conditions, our second priority after receiving eternal life is—very naturally—seeking God for his various blessings on our loved ones and on what we do for a living here on earth. Since it is assumed that our salvation in heaven is a completely settled issue once we say the sinner’s prayer, the second priority of God’s blessing in the here and now quite naturally becomes our first and primary focus. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the great miraculous signs we see in Acts as the gospel was preached to those who never heard are not seen in christianized America today.
One manifestation of this reversal of priorities is the advent of fast-growing churches led by articulate preachers who can fill their pews with Christians hungering for greener grass and so have strayed from traditional churches. These skilled ministers know how to make you laugh and feel good about yourself and the Lord. They can keep you awake during Sunday services, making Christianity fun and exciting. Some preachers will even promise to make you prosper in whatever you do here in America as a child of the King who owns everything.
The appearance of such successful, seemingly enviable ministers today and the strong appeal of their message is but a sign of what Christianity has become in America—something so very different from what we read in the New Testament. There the emphasis is not so much on what God can do for us in this life, but rather what we can do for God in obedience to His holy commands even through pain and suffering. The emphasis is clearly not on seeking and enjoying God’s abundant blessings in this life, but seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness—after which all these things will be provided for us as a side benefit if you wlll. The emphasis was on storing our treasure in heaven, not on earth. We see that Christianity today in America is quite different from what we see in the New Testament where believers were told to put all their hope on the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. But in view of what we are now seeing in America, perhaps this will not be the case for long.
According to Hebrews, believers are foreigners and strangers on earth. This has for the most part not been the case for Christians in America as it was for the followers of Christ two millennia ago. Will the scriptures from Hebrews below ever apply to Christians in America, or are the conditions they describe only meant to be temporary?
Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (9) By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. (10) For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
…(13) All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. (14) People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. (15) If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. (16) Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
…(24) By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. (25) He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. (26) He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.
…(35) Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. (36) Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. (37) They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– (38) the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. (39) These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, (40) since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, (2) fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (3) Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (4) In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Up until perhaps just a short while ago, however, believers in America did not feel like foreigners and strangers on earth. There was no risk for their blood to be shed for the sake of God—as there was for the Old Testament saints above. Rather we feel very much at home and want to enjoy our time here as much as possible. But if we take the Word of God seriously our comfortable life on earth as believers cannot, will not, and is not even meant to endure forever. Have we been living in a bubble called the American Dream? And so this year (2015) we are seeing government-sanctioned persecution against committed Christians beginning to take root in America—something we could not have imagined at the beginning of the century. Our situation is now beginning to revert to what Scripture teaches regarding the lives of believers on earth. We are indeed, gradually but inexorably, becoming foreigners and strangers in this life. Everyone will hate us because of the Lord Jesus, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Mark 13:13). Scripture must and will be fulfilled.
God’s will will not “be done on earth as it is in heaven” until the new heaven and earth appear along with the Holy City, the new Jerusalem. Could it be that believers were never meant to be comfortable or to feel at home on earth?
Let us therefore “long for a better country–the heavenly one. Then God will not be ashamed to be called our God, for he has prepared a city for us.” In that way we will be prepared for the persecution Scripture teaches will befall believers—the persecution suffered by believers down through history and today faced by believers in the Middle East. This is God’s will for His people during their earthly sojourn according to the Scriptures.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)