Christianity from the beginning existed on the margins. It didn’t start out the state religion of Rome or the favored spirituality of the Greco-Roman cultural elite.
Since then, it’s true that there have been long stretches in which Christianity has enjoyed favored status in various civilizations.
However, a good metaphor for Christianity in Western culture today is “exile.”
What does it mean to be in exile? Well, an exiled person is someone who has been expelled or barred from his or her native country.
Sounds a bit bizarre to talk about “Christianity in exile,” doesn’t it? Well, it shouldn’t. As you read through the Bible, you discover that the people of God have often lived in seasons of exile.
So how do we learn to live faithfully to God while we find ourselves exiled in a place that doesn’t honor God? The answer is this: we look to our mentors who went before us and whose faith thrived in exile.
So, let’s take a look at some examples of people in the Scriptures who lived faithfully to God while exiled.
Take, for example, the prophet Jeremiah. He prophesied leading up to the Babylonian captivity, after which many Jewish people were uprooted and exiled in Babylon. Jeremiah writes beautifully and persuasively about the role of discernment for those experiencing exile. He advises them to make a fruitful life—to plant trees, build homes, marry, and have children (Jeremiah 29:5-6). After all, Jeremiah explained, they were going to be in exile for a while.
Jeremiah also told his fellow Israelites to bless those around them in every way possible (Jeremiah 29:7). That’s quite a directive: they were to bless the Babylonians who had exiled them.
One Hebrew who followed Jeremiah’s roadmap for faithfulness in exile was Daniel, who we find in Daniel 9:2 reading Jeremiah’s prophecies. When you read through the book of Daniel, you find numerous occasions in which Daniel’s faithfulness to God and supernatural insight blessed the Babylonian kingdom into which he was exiled.
Another mentor in exile is Queen Esther, a Jewish exile in Persia.
Esther’s unexpected rise to becoming queen in Persia gave her the opportunity to save her people from being wiped out. The king’s righthand man had concocted a massive plan to wipe out the Jews. And, even though Esther felt depressed and fatalistic about the odds of her and her people’s survival, she successfully used her influence, charm, and wisdom to turn the king against his righthand man and to save the Jewish people.
All the while, Esther was being mentored by her elder cousin Mordecai. In an impressive display of cultural discernment, Mordecai told a self-doubting Esther,
“Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
Another mentor in exile is the Apostle Peter. Peter writes to his fellow believers that he wants them to consider themselves sojourners in a foreign society. He reminds Jesus’ followers that they have a long history of exile and what it means to stay holy in the midst of that exile.
Peter’s letters reminds us that we Christians ought to think of ourselves as an exilic community.
In America, we have not tended to think of ourselves that way for a long time because Christianity has long been supported by popular culture. That is rapidly shifting. We’ve got to start thinking of our faith differently.
We’ve got to start understanding our faith in the context of what it looks like to live faithfully in a culture which is not friendly toward what we believe.
Another mentor in exile is the Apostle John. John was exiled on the isle of Patmos where he wrote down the revelation from Jesus which has become the final book in our New Testament.
In Revelation, John writes to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), reminding them to exercise discernment as a community of faithful believers in an unfriendly culture.
In Revelation, there are seven letters from Jesus to each of the churches to whom the book is written. You’ll notice that most of the rebukes which Jesus has for them had to do with how they were conforming to the culture around them.
In exile, we are going to need wisdom. Hence, Jesus’ refrain throughout the letters (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22):
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
(For more from Jon, visit jonsherwood.com.)