Christ and Culture 1 John 5:18-21

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1 John 5:18-21

The final paragraph of 1 John is a concluding summation and exhortation for the entire letter. The letter has been concerned with the proper grounds of Christian assurance. As John wrote in v. 13 of chapter 5, “I write these things…so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The conclusion of the letter, in vv. 18-21, is statement of Christian certainties, a reminder of the basic articles of the Christian faith; the things Christians know about themselves. Three times in these few verses John writes, “We know…” and these three affirmations neatly sum up the argument of the letter.

The new birth has an abiding result; it results in new behavior, a new kind of life. To say that the Christian “does not continue to sin” in the context does not mean that the Christian never sins, but that his life is not characterized by sin. “Sin and the child of God are incompatible. They meet; they cannot live together in harmony.” [Stott, 192] The reason that the Christian cannot fall back into a life dominated by sin is because Christ keeps him safe and preserves him from the power of the Devil.
The world may be in thrall to the Devil, but Christians belong to a different family, a different kingdom, a different world. By world, John means the organized pagan society in which he and his readers were living. John is putting the contrast starkly and uncompromisingly: everyone belongs either to Christ or to the world; to God or to the Devil.
The third and last affirmation is the most crucial of the three and the central theme of the argument of the letter. Truth is found in the incarnate Son of God who has come to save his people from their sin. Those who deny that God has come in the flesh are cut off from the truth and from the source of eternal life. The point is not unlike that in the Gospel of John: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through him. True knowledge of everything important comes not, as the false teachers were saying, from some secret and mystical intelligence, nor from natural knowledge, learning, or research, but from faith in Christ.
The final exhortation is itself a summing up both of the entire letter and of the final summary. The letter as a whole was written against a heretical view of Christ and of the Christian life and message. John finishes by reminding them to keep themselves from all untrue views of reality – notice how he described the Father and the Son as the true or real God in v. 20 -, from all false conceptions of God and Christ, to guard themselves against the illusory and to hold on to what is real. An idol is anything to which we give ourselves in love and loyalty but which is contrary to the real, to the true. Guard against the falsehood all around you; especially as it seeks to insinuate itself into your life and into the church.

Here at Faith most of the preaching follows the pattern established by the church fathers and continued by the Reformers, viz. the consecutive exposition of texts of Holy Scripture. We finished the Gospel of Matthew last Lord’s Day morning after more than two years of making our way through it, paragraph by paragraph, Sunday morning after Sunday morning. That is my method. I depart from it for very little. For example, I went right on with my series on the Letters to the Seven Churches, in Rev. 2-3, when Mt. St. Helens blew, May 18, 1980. But in a few instances I have diverged from this practice to respond to events. As I remember, the first time I did this was in response to the flurry of publicity leading up to the showing of a TV movie, The Day After, about nuclear war. It was shown on Sunday evening, Nov. 20, 1983 – it was what we now would call a media event – watched by half of the adult population of the United States, and I preached a sermon about it the following Lord’s Day. The movie was a typically unbelieving take on its subject. It looked at nuclear war entirely from the perspective of the present, the temporal. It left God and the eternal out of account and so was fantasy, not the reality it purported to describe. Even the so-called Christians in the movie knew nothing either of the divine wrath or the imminent prospect of eternal life. Since then I have preached sermons related to the Gulf War and to 9/11. This responding to events is also in the best tradition of Christian preaching, from Chrysostom in the 4th century – who often responded to political events in his sermons -, to the Reformers in the 16th – there were a great many sermons preached concerning the St. Bartholomew Day’s massacre of Protestants in France in August of 1572 – to the Puritans in the 17th – there were a great many sermons preached in response to the Great Fire that destroyed 2/3 of the old city of London in September of 1666 – and on into the modern era of Christian preaching.

So, having finished Matthew in any case, I have chosen this morning to preach in response to an event: viz. the Super Bowl. It is certainly an event of immense proportion in our culture, a media event of the first magnitude. It has preoccupied the media for the past week – filled our newspapers and television newscasts – and generated unending interest and conversation even among folk who are not otherwise rabid football fans. Store clerks ask you about it, friends comment on it. And, of course, what is true everywhere in the country is especially true in the Northwest because our football team is in the big game for the first time. The Seahawks in the Super Bowl: it has never happened before and how often will it happen again?

Even in the secular press there has been an interest in how the Christian church would respond to an event of such magnitude when even the most casual observer might well think that the Super Bowl represented cultural developments the Christian church would neither welcome nor approve. After all, the great event is placed on the Christian Sunday where it will compete for the attention that people might otherwise pay to church and worship. Certainly the Super Bowl, on any reckoning, is a slap in the face of historic Christianity’s understanding of the Sabbath Day. The sport trades in violence and sex, is a microcosm of our culture’s worship of money and success, and its spectacle is nothing if not a modern exhibition of the triumph of the trivial over the important. Surely we might expect the Christian pulpit to rise up in protest. But if anyone really expected a chorus of criticism to come from Christian pulpits, he was sadly disappointed. We know what Chrysostom would have said about it, or Calvin, or Knox, or Spurgeon, but the modern preacher seems to be concerned only lest some other minister appear more enthusiastic about the game than he is. Churches are sponsoring Super Bowl parties – supposedly as a method of reaching the unsaved – are displaying their loyalties on their signs and message boards, and pastors are sprinkling their morning messages with references to the game.

In a very important book published in 1951, Christ and Culture, the theologian Richard Niebuhr described the different ways in which the Christian church has related to the culture in which it found itself. He described the various positions taken as “Christ Against Culture,” “The Christ of Culture,” “Christ Above Culture,” “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” Niebuhr’s description is too detailed for our consideration this morning, but even his titles give you the drift of both the issue — how should and how was the Christian church related to the world in which she found herself — and the importance of it.

And surely we hear different notes sounded in Holy Scripture. There are many ways, for example, in which Christ has been the transformer of culture. Christ and his church have made use of cultural forms and institutions and have sanctified them for a holy use. These Lord’s Day evenings we have been considering the Tabernacle and its furnishings as described in the book of Exodus. We have pointed out that much of this sacred architecture and much of the furniture built for the practice of worship in that sanctuary was taken over from the sanctuaries and the worship practices of the ancient Near East. Solomon’s temple was quite like other ANE temples. It had the same basic architectural plan; it was placed on the same axis; it had much of the same type of furniture. The incense altar in the sanctuary was built like those that have been dug up by archaeologists in the ruins of pagan temples from the time. We could go on to point out that the musical instruments employed in Israel’s worship were those of the culture. But there are differences and the worship that was offered in the Tabernacle and the Temple was based on a wholly different theological principle and represented an entirely different understanding of God and of salvation.

And what is true of the Tabernacle and Temple was true as well of literary forms employed in the writing of Holy Scripture. The wisdom literature of the Bible has very precise similarities with other ANE wisdom literature. For example, some of the biblical proverbs are the same as can be found in Egyptian wisdom literature. The Song of Songs, we now know, is very like other ANE love poems in language and in structure. Even the law of Moses has close affinities with other law codes of the ANE. We know how the literary forms used in ANE diplomatic treaties were employed in the revelation of God’s covenant. But, the theology and ethics in all of this biblical material is unique and very unlike that found in other ANE literature. Christ has transformed the culture. He has made use of it but he has sanctified it.

In a similar way Christ himself looked like other men. He dressed like other men. He ate the same food, worked at the same jobs, spoke the same language as the men of his time and his place. He was in that respect a product of his culture. But, of course, at the same time, he preached a radical message of judgment against his culture and provided the basis for the formation of a very different way of life. Similarly Paul was a man of his time, conversant with the literature and thought of his day – he wields contemporary philosophy to excellent effect in his encounter with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17 and cites pagan poetry in others of his letters -; he uses the conventions of letter writing in the world of his time, he exploits provisions of the Roman legal system, he travels around that world in conventional ways – in all of these ways he is a man of his culture. He even takes illustrations from the sporting world of his day. But he also rejects outright much of the ways of that pagan culture, warns Christians who are in the world not to be of the world, and sows the seeds that would replace that Greco-Roman culture with another.

So we have Christ transforming culture, to be sure, but we have, at the same time, Christ triumphing over culture. It may be that the Tabernacle and Temple incorporated cultural forms and it may be that Exodus and Deuteronomy reflect the literary devices of ANE treaties, but that material, transformed for use in the Bible has come down through the centuries only in its Christian forms. The Tabernacle and the Temple still today live in Christian worship and preaching; the covenant documents of the Old Testament still form the basis for Christian faith and life long after pagan temples were buried in the sands of the Middle East, long after anyone still worshipped Marduk or Baal or Aton, and long after anyone could remember how treaties were written by the Hittites in the second millennium B.C. Those forms were taken up into a distinctly biblical culture and it is as the forms of that cultural that they have lived on and will live forever. Christ conquered Baal and the Hittites and the Egyptians. He used their forms but made them into something far better for his own use.

While the Christian transformation of culture is certainly a theme in the Bible, however, so is the antithesis between Christ and culture, between the ways of the Christian church and the ways of the world. That antithesis is what John describes in the closing verses of his first letter. There were many ways in which Israel’s culture was distinctly and fundamentally different than the cultures round about. We have pointed out, for example, in considering the liturgical regulations given by the Lord to Moses, the emphasis placed on the priest’s modesty. There was to be none of the immodesty so characteristic of the pagan worship of that time and place. The understanding of God, of worship, of righteousness was profoundly different and led to unending differences of life and custom. Many features of ANE culture could not be used by the Israelites. The pagan approach to guidance, for example, at both the individual and the political level – i.e. the practice of divination; a very important part of ANE private and public life – was absolutely forbidden to Israel. The place of the Word of God was utterly unique to Israel among the nations of the world in that time.

And, later, when Gentiles became Christians in the time of the apostles their life underwent a radical reconstruction. It was not only that their loyalties were altered root and branch, not only that their behavior changed as they sought to live by the commandments of God, but many of the common features and practices of their former life inevitably withered and fell away. They became, to a very great degree, no longer Romans or Greeks, but Christians. That is how they saw themselves and that is how others saw them. They were referred to as “the third race,” neither Jews nor Gentiles. There was much, of course, that remained the same: they ate the same food, they wore the same clothes – perhaps not as ostentatious as before – they, in many cases worked the same jobs – but it was clear that they were aliens within their own culture. They went to worship on the Christian Lord’s Day, a practice utterly unlike anything that occurred in Greco-Roman culture of that time – they stopped going to parties held at pagan temples because of the various associations of such places. They raised their children differently, they buried their dead differently. And, eventually, they built their own buildings, wrote their own literature, produced their own art, in other words they created their own culture.

This antithesis between Christ and culture, this fundamental opposition, is crucial to the Bible’s worldview as well, because it was precisely by the church’s accommodation to the culture around her, to her becoming part of that culture, her fitting in to that culture, that she repeatedly lost her way and betrayed the Lord. She made peace with a world that was hostile to God and became herself hostile to God. No wonder the prophets should harp as they do on this theme and the authors of the New Testament as well. James puts fidelity to Christ in precisely these terms:

“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” [4:4]

Joel Belz, the publisher of World magazine, told me that he was present at Francis Schaeffer’s last public appearance before his death in 1984, a meeting of the Christian Press Association in Minneapolis. He delivered a warning concerning what he saw as the American evangelical church’s accommodation with western culture. His final words: “Accommodation, accommodation, accommodation.” Then he left the platform. Well, that is nothing but the warning issued in Scripture times without number. There is a great danger that the Christian church will not transform the culture or triumph over the culture but will, in fact, be swallowed up by the culture.

Now what does all this mean? How shall we apply what we have said so far to the matter of the Super Bowl? It is not the first time that the church has found herself in a sports-mad culture or has addressed herself to the terrific enthusiasm for sport in the culture in which she found herself. Listen to one historian describe the passion of the Romans for “the big game.”

“The impatient crowd rushed at the dawn of day to secure their places, and there were many who passed a sleepless and anxious night in the adjacent porticoes. [Apparently they had neither Ticketmaster nor eBay in those days!] From the morning to the evening, careless of the sun or of the rain, the spectators, who sometimes amounted to the number of four hundred thousand, remained in eager attention; their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear for the success of the colors which they espoused; and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race.” [Gibbon, in Schaff, ii, 339-340]

Athletes including gladiators came to be celebrities, household names. Later in the imperial period there came to be women gladiators. [Meier, Caesar: A Biography, 116-117] The government pandered to the population by building arenas at great public expense (Washington State’s government is preparing to do the same as we speak and this after a billion dollars has already been spent on two stadiums in Seattle.) The arena or amphitheater was usually the most imposing building in a city as you can still see today in the ruins of Pompeii, Nimes, and other cities. How much like our world was the world of imperial Rome.

The church came to take a sternly negative position toward all of this. It is sometimes thought that this was because of Roman religious superstitions that were woven into the events, but, in fact, most of the Christian writers who address the issue condemn the world of Roman sports primarily because they produced emotions and preoccupations that are unworthy of a Christian. Even some Roman intellectuals condemned the games for the same reasons: the effect they had on the spectators. [Colin Wells, The Roman Empire, 274] “They excite,” Tertullian wrote, “all sorts of wild and impure passions, anger, fury, and lust; while the spirit of Christianity is a spirit of meekness, peace, and purity.” There were Christians in those days that pled the silence of the Scriptures or Paul’s comparison of the Christian life to athletic contests, but they were a tiny minority.

Augustine in his Confessions tells of his friend Alypius who was pressed by his unbelieving friends to go with them to the games. He finally gave way, promising himself that he would go, but keep his eyes closed the entire time. But with the first great cheer his eyes popped open and he was soon yelling and screaming like everyone else. Every Christian sports fan knows very well what he thinks and how he feels watching such games and how often his spirit is not Christ’s spirit. That was Augustine’s proof. Whether the opposing team or the referee, the Savior’s admonition that we treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves slips entirely out of our minds. And the fan thinks and feels as if this were the most important thing in the world.

In our day, these issues are far less likely to be raised. There are some Christians who will still plead the holiness of the Lord’s Day, but they are a tiny minority among evangelical Christians in our land. I shudder to think how few Christians there are in our country who will not watch the Super Bowl because the NFL had the temerity to schedule it on the Lord’s holy day. In some ways it matters not what view one takes of Sabbath sanctification in the Christian era; no serious Christian can doubt that it was the Devil’s work to make Sunday a day for sport in our land and, in that way, to raise a powerful competition for the interest of the souls of men on the Lord’s Day. It is, after all, immaterial whether men never go to church because they follow football or whether they go to church and have the effect of it entirely wiped from the heart and mind by the afternoon’s game. Sunday sports are an enemy of faith and godliness because they are enemy of the Lord’s Day.

So where do we stand on the Super Bowl? Is this part of the culture that the church can absorb and transform? Or is this part of the culture that the church should oppose and stand against? Well, think of what the Super Bowl is as an artifact of modern, Western culture, and consider it then from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. Surely we can say, should say, at least this, and make these things the basis of our practice.

  1. First, Christians cannot care about such things as the world does. It is unseemly to be caught up in something so trivial while we live in a world that stands threatened by the eternal wrath of God. We cannot drink into the spirit that attributes such importance to something of such minor consequence. What we are seeing before our eyes this past week and today is the boredom of modern life; Boredom, with a capital “B.” By boredom I mean the discontentedness, the lack of fulfillment so characteristic of modern Western societies. Man is made for so much more than material things and when he is estranged from God, for relationship with whom and for fulfillment in whom he was created, he must look for and seek fulfillment in something else. The investment of human hearts in something as utterly inconsequential as the Super Bowl is a perfect picture of the human condition alienated from God and without Christ. He must fill the void, the God-shaped but empty hole in his heart. But nothing can fill the void God has left except God. Everything else is, at last, trivial and inconsequential. The emptiness remains. The world and the Devil pump up the volume to hide that terrible fact. Christians cannot drink into that empty spirit or behave as if a football game means very much to them.
  2. Second, Christians cannot allow any part of life, and all the more a part of life that the unbelieving world makes so much of, to be immune from the effects of our loyalty to Christ. It is not the case that a godly man can think or feel ill toward an opposing player or a referee. Whatever we do, in word or in deed, we are to do to the glory of God. The world certainly does not do the Super Bowl to the glory of God. If a Christian can’t do the Super Bowl to the glory of God, then he can’t do the Super Bowl.
  3. Third, there is an element of the vicarious in modern sports that is dangerous to the soul. The sex and violence, the thrills satisfy a deep human need for the transcendent, the need to be taken out of and above our ordinary lives, but in a way that is profoundly worldly and not Christian. We were made for ecstasy; we were made for a sense of brotherhood with a great host of other people; we were made for battle and victory; but the world has only the most trivial and superficial imitations of these things to offer. There is a way to meet that need that is right and good and that ennobles and adorns a life and that is the way of Christ. There is a worldly substitute that the Devil has made profoundly enticing. We must take care here or in ways we scarcely recognize we will find that our delights, the true pleasures of our lives, those things that seem to fulfill us and make us most happy, are found somewhere else than in Christ, in the fellowship of the saints, and in the cause of Christ. It is the Devil’s work to make substitutes seem thrilling. It is the work of faith to see through the thrill to the falsehood that lies behind and beneath.
  4. Fourth, there is a worship here in American sports that must also be an issue for Christians. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, human beings were not created to be free but to adore and obey. And because they were made for worship – made in the image of God as they were – even in sin they will be creatures of worship, homo adorans. They will find something else to give their hearts to when they will not give them to God, and the Devil will help them find idols that seem to repay their worship. A thoughtful Christian will certainly ask himself: Why this outpouring of interest and excitement? What we have experienced in the past week has been a paroxysm of worship, of adoration – but not of God. Christians must, of course, take very great care when entering the temple of a false god. Human hearts, Calvin said, are idol factories. So we ought not to give our hearts any help in finding the wrong things to worship. There will be some Christians in the stadium, some on the field perhaps, and there will be many Christians watching on television. Of that I have no doubt. But it is worth remembering that a Christian in that stadium or watching from a distance who seems to be doing what everyone else is doing and seems to be caring about what everyone else is caring about is in the midst of great crowds of people who are worshipping their gods.

These considerations are all ways of reminding us of what Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I cannot say that a Christian cannot care at all about the Super Bowl or be interested in who wins or loses, or that a Christian cannot take any pleasure from sports, any more than I can say that a Christian ought not to be involved with any number of features of the culture in which he lives. But such an interest cannot amount to such a friendship with the world that amounts to hatred toward God or to the love of this world which is tantamount to hatred toward God. No Christian can either have an unbeliever’s mind about the Super Bowl or refuse to care what the unbeliever’s mind is about the Super Bowl. This great event, this cultural icon or idol, is a part of our world’s religion, and so it is test of our faith and of our loyalty, just as every other popular practice or idea in a pagan culture will be for the Christians that live within it. The Christian must be alert and aware, he must know what he is doing, and his conscience must rest assured that he is loving and honoring Christ, all the more in respect to something that is a great public performance of a culture that does not love or honor the Lord Jesus.

In the cathedral of Lûbeck there is this old inscription. We may well wish it were written above every entrance to Ford Field in Detroit. It would be the truest and most important thing that those thousands of people would see or hear today.

You call me Maker, and obey me not.
You call me Light, and see me not.
You call me Way, and take me not.
You call me Life, and desire me not.
You call me Wise, and follow me not.
You call me Fair, and love me not.
You call me Rich, and ask me not.
You call me Eternal, and seek me not.
You call me Gracious, and trust me not.
You call me Noble, and serve me not.
You call me Mighty, and honor me not.
If I condemn you, blame me not.

The one thing a Christian cannot do is fail to take the Super Bowl and the issues it raises seriously, in deadly earnest. Something the world makes so much of, Christians must have their own thoughts about, their own decidedly Christian thoughts. They must seek what is real, what is true beneath the façade of paganism, in the temple of paganism which is the modern football stadium, and among the pagans who go there to worship their gods.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”